Mountain Sky Feathers

Here in the Mule Mountains of Southeast Arizona I’ve noticed that cloud formations seem to be affected by the mountains. Often the clouds seem to hover right above the mountain ridges. Last winter I would see lenticular clouds hovering for hours above ridges, compact lens-shaped formations appearing late in the afternoon.

Now that the monsoon season is a fading memory cirrus clouds have been appearing daily above the mountains. The delicate feathery strands of vapor often are oriented at right angles to the trend of the ridge, sometimes seeming to radiate in spoke-like arrangements.

Yesterday I was sitting out on the back porch reading a book. I looked up and saw this:

This scene reminded me of enormous ethereal jellyfish trolling the sky’s depths for stray birds:

This morning there was a continuation of yesterday’s display. In this shot an agave is busily ripening its seeds in the foreground:

The air is so dry these days! It’s as if there just isn’t enough moisture to generate cumulus clouds. The water vapor in one of these fringes of cirrus, if condensed into liquid, probably wouldn’t fill a teacup:



Here in Southeast Arizona the vultures are congregating in vast wheeling kettles, presumably before migrating en masse to the warmer climes of Mexico and points farther south. At night they seek out favored trees, preferably lofty spreading trees such as cottonwoods.

Last week, near the house on Wood Canyon Road where I was staying temporarily, one of these vulture roost trees was nearby, and I often walked under it. Nearly always a stray vulture pinion or flight feather could be found, evidence of the jostling for position in the higher branches.

There is a descriptive nomenclature used by biologists to describe the various components of a feather. The main shaft terminating in the quill is known as the rachis, a word derived from an Ancient Greek word (ῥάχις) meaning “spine or ridge”. That same term is also used to refer to the main shaft of a compound leaf or a fern, a verbal expression of what could be called biological rhymes.

The smaller branches emanating from the rachis are known as barbs, and from the barbs radiate the familiar interlocking structures known as barbules. The latter two terms come from Latin words meaning “beard” and “little beard”, respectively.

Feathers are among the most complex integumentary structures in the animal world, but their wondrous details are most easily seen under magnification… or if somehow you could become smaller.

Here’s a thought and visualization experiment to try, just for fun:

Imagine that your body is shrinking and your weight has diminished to the point that you can soar effortlessly, like a mammalian insect. You drift down slowly over a vulture flight feather, buoyed hither and yon by tiny vagrant air currents:

You kick out your legs and find that you can direct your flight to some degree. As you glide over a landscape of geometrically-arranged barbules you marvel at their symmetry:

An undulating tree-like growth of down feathers near the quill-end of the rachis threatens to entangle you, and with a deft wriggle you narrowly avoid becoming ensnarled:

Suddenly, as you soar away from the feather, you notice a cat approaching stealthily. Time to assume your normal dimensions, wouldn’t you say?


Canyon Oasis

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been caretaking a house in Wood Canyon, a pleasant job which involves watching after a dog named Frank. Frank is a friendly dog and he likes nothing more than walking, a proclivity which he and I share.

The geography of Bisbee’s streets and neighborhoods is topographically constrained. The town follows the winding course of Tombstone Canyon, while side-streets mostly follow tributary canyons, most of them feeding into the northeast side of Tombstone Canyon. The highest of the Mule Mountains lie on the opposite (southwest) side, and most of that steep land belongs to mining interests.

Wood Canyon Street is out of the way, up on the north side of town about a mile and a half from the busy and touristy downtown. The street’s cross-section is shaped like a very shallow V. During wet years (now a distant memory) water flows down from canyon slopes and forms a stream in the middle of the street.

A quiet street; I rarely see anyone walking down it. I suspect many of the residents are retired and don’t get out much.

If you walk up the street, as I have been doing every day, it turns into a driveway or lane. After that is the original rocky stream-bed. I wave to the rare resident upon whose property I’m trespassing in order to get beyond civilization. I think they know Frank as a resident dog, and if I’m with him I must be okay.

An aside: since I left Knox County, Missouri, I’ve spent uncounted hours trespassing upon other people’s property. Not once have I been ordered off or threatened in any way. I attribute this seeming luck to several factors. I’m not furtive, and if I see someone out (really, a rare circumstance) I approach the person and try to initiate a conversation. You can’t go wrong with “Nice place you have here!” as an opener.

Back to the walk — once the paved street had disappeared the first thing I encountered was the first of many check-dams constructed in these canyons during the 1930s. The WPA employed people to build these dams in order to slow the tumultuous and potentially disastrous flow of monsoon rain-water. Just think of it: an inch or more of rain cascading down from many canyons into the center of town! People got tired of the frequent floods and the word must have percolated up to the WPA administrators.

Dragon Rock, a spine of stone which juts from the canyon slope, was visible up above towards the left. I’d never noticed how crooked that formation is!

This dam is about the third one I encountered. It was originally a natural dam, but the WPA workers added a couple of feet to its height. As I approached it I could hear a pervasive buzzing sound. Insects of dozens of species were flocking to the gravel beds at the base of the dam, but why?

None of these insects, many of which were wicked-looking wasps and bees, seemed to notice my presence. Frank sighed and found a shady spot, doubtless thinking something like, “So much for this walk! Next he’ll be getting that damned camera out!”

I sat down on a rock and watched the insects’ activity. They seemed to be finding moisture, but the surface of the stream-bed was barely damp to the touch. There must be a seep, I thought. These tiny butterflies, one of the many species known as Blues, were present in the hundreds:

This tattered specimen of Arizona Sister was as avid for water as any of them. Surely its reproductive duties were done, and it would die soon, but I suppose the splendid weather affects insects as well as humans:

I’ve always been fond of the various butterfly species known as Painted Ladies. That afternoon the American Painted Ladies (Vanessa virginiensis) were out in full force. Such exquisite patterns on their wings! Note the twin eyespots on the ventral surfaces:

This beetle had eye-spots, too, and seemed just as thirsty as the others. The striped abdomen made me wonder if the species was imitating a bee or wasp as a camouflage defense:

I was rather surprised at how little attention the wasps and bees paid to me. I suppose that as long as you don’t approach their nests they don’t see people as a threat:

Finally I had my fill of sitting in the October sun photographing this congregation of disparate species. I stood up and Frank looked at me pleadingly, as if to say, “Enough, Larry! Let’s walk!”


Waves Of The Danube

Several years ago I happened across a tune, one of those melodies which crossed the Atlantic Ocean sometime during the 20th century. I can’t remember where I first heard it — probably the internet was involved.

I first knew the tune as “The Anniversary Song”. This tune was played as a fiddle duet by Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson, and I learned that the tune came from a song by Al Jolson.

Later I learned that the tune was written by the Romanian composer Iosif Ivanovici, and the original title is “The Waves Of The Danube”.

Here’s a sappy movie scene with that song:


I learned the tune on the fiddle and guitar, but then I was faced with the task of introducing the tune to the session musicians in Hannibal. The chord sequence is a bit more complex than the simple sequences in the fiddle tunes we normally played.

The tune became a favorite tune in the local sessions. I still enjoy playing it!


Chinaberry Appreciation

In general, I tend to favor native trees and plants, fellow organisms which evolved nearby. I hasten to add that my ancestors didn’t evolve anywhere near here; I assume that my DNA originated on another continent, but I enjoy the company of true natives wherever I might be.

When I’m living in a town I like to see the native plants which have managed to endure human occupation, but I also like to see the alien plants and trees which have managed to gain a foothold (roothold?). These are opportunistic plants which have found niches in the human-centered landscape, nooks and crannies where they thrive.

Here in the high desert environment of Bisbee, Arizona, a tree or plant has to be able to handle months without rain. Scattered throughout the town can be found various native trees which are accustomed to such environmental duress. The Desert Willow, a native hackberry, and the Arizona Cypress thrive here without irrigation. There are a few Arizona Sycamores downtown, but they need a bit of watering, as their native habitat is along the few Arizona rivers.

Most of the trees in Bisbee are aliens. The stinky and vigorous Ailanthus trees are common along lanes and alleys, as they are in most towns in this country. Bisbee residents call them Cancer Trees.

Another common alien tree comes from Asia; its native range is broad, all the way from India to China. The Chinaberry tree (Melia azedarach) is a member of the Mahogany Family. Most members of that family favor wet tropical environments, but the Chinaberry thrives here. This summer I’ve seen examples of the species every day, and I’ve watered a young Chinaberry in the yard:

The leaves are large and compound, and they have a glossy sheen which is rare in this desert environment. I’ve grown to appreciate those leaves, a welcome addition to the typical small gray-green leaves of the native trees and shrubs:

The Chinaberry tree bears small berries which are poisonous to humans but not to birds:

So here we have an alien tree which reproduces on its own in this harsh region, but doesn’t become a pest like the Ailanthus. The tree feeds the birds and contributes another texture to the built-up town landscape.


A Corroded Spike

This summer I’ve been involved in an informal deal — in exchange for a house to inhabit I agreed to do a few tasks. One of these tasks involved pouring concrete, a type of work I’ve more-or-less successfully avoided in recent years.

Part of this work involved digging in the scanty and rocky soil which partially cloaks this Southeast Arizona canyon. I’ve encountered several cast-off human artifacts during this project, mostly items which didn’t interest me, like old bottle-caps and pull-tabs. Yesterday I happened upon something a bit different, a chunk of eroded iron which I picked up and examined. I stuck the chunk into a back jeans pocket and photographed it later.

The piece of iron looks like the younger brother of a railroad spike. It’s just four inches long:

After I shot a few photos of the spike it occurred to me that this miniature spike is most likely a relic of the old shaft-mining days here in Bisbee, a spike which held down the narrow-gauge rails along which ore-carts traveled to and fro, carrying copper ore to the surface from the Stygian depths. This was during the early twentieth century, before open-pit mining became prevalent.

In the above photo the shadow cast by the late-afternoon sun caught my interest. I was reminded of a Hokusai print, one of the series “36 Views of Mount Fuji”.

This wood-block print is called “Great Wave Off Kanagawa”. Fishing boats in trouble can be seen in the foreground, while Mt. Fuji broods in the background. I must confess that graphic artists such as Hokusai, Escher, and botanical illustrators interest me; life is too short to pay much attention to urban artists feted by the insular “fine” arts people. Here are a couple of fine waterfall prints by Hokusai, who was a major influence upon early 20th-century illustrators such as Arthur Rackham and Sidney Sime.