Drought Victim

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I’m continually beguiled by the contorted and very sculptural shapes of the long-dead chunks of mesquite and acacia which I gather this time of year, as the nights and mornings become chill and the moderate Southeast Arizona winter sets in.

These weathered and twisted pieces of wood are legacies of a prolonged drought. They are mere schemata, all but the fibrous cellulose soul having been eroded to dust by years of much sun and little rain.

Yesterday I picked up a three-foot-long stick of mesquite. It was too long for the wood-stove so I sawed it in half. I examined the cut end of one of the halves. The newly-revealed growth rings I saw on the orange-brown surface were very narrow and closely space, mute testimony of slow growth in a harsh and rocky environment. The stick was two inches in diameter and I counted fifty growth rings. I roughly estimate that the branch had been dead for at least twenty years. Let’s say that the mesquite branch died in 1996. That branch might have shot out from a bud just after World War Two, several years before I was born.

Of course the numbers I came up with are conjectural, mere guesswork, but plus or minus five years they are probably close to the truth. 1996, the year I’m guessing the parent mesquite clump died, was near the middle of the prolonged drought which afflicted this county during the last two decades of the 20th century and which continued for a few years into this millennium. Judging by the sheer quantity of dead wood which litters the stony ground in my neighborhood, there must have been a mass die-off of scrubby trees as a result of that drought. This area must have looked quite desolate twenty years ago. Some would say that it still looks that way!

A tortoise, and peanuts too!

Living alone as I do most of the year, I have few dependents. Just an orange Desert Dog and a couple of Van-pattern cats. I needed one more genus of creature to fill out my life here, so I ordered a Sulcatus hatchling tortoise from a reptile breeder in Sacramento. The little reptile should be shipped to the ranch within a day or two. The species is the third-largest tortoise still existing in this world, and could eventually grow to three feet in length.

This morning I met a neighbor and friend out on my road. Michael wanted some silty sand, and there’s a big pile along my road, left there by another neighbor when I had my road refurbished earlier this year. While Michael shoveled sand into his truck, we talked. Michael said:

“Ya know what, Larry? You guys at Echoing Hope Ranch oughta be growing some peanuts.”

I was intrigued, and this afternoon I ordered a quarter pound of peanut seed from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Maybe next year we’ll be making and selling peanut butter!

Larry

Up On Juniper Flats Again

This morning I was parked in the Old Divide parking lot, waiting for some fellow hikers to show up. I had planned an excursion to some favorite localities way up top, where the piñon pines and Toumey Oaks grow.

The first hiker to show up was Willow, a Bisbee woman I’ve known casually for a few years. Willow has been caretaking Matt the stonemason’s house on West Boulevard, right below the Old Divide. Then Jamie showed up in his old white Toyota, probably tired from working the night shift at a residential care facility.

We waited a while for three more people who had said they would come, then gave up on them. Jamie drove his truck, and Willow and two dogs ascended the rough switchbacked road in my truck.

Our first stop was a rocky ledge overlooking Rt. 80. The cars down below looked miniscule, like matchbox cars. Jamie immediately noticed a remarkable amount of developing cones on the Border Piñon trees. I’ve never seen so many on those trees, which eke out a living growing right from crevices in the granite.

This photo shows Willow and Jamie looking at the piñon cones:

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Jamie and Willow

The next two photos show the piñon cones and a tree bearing male flowers.

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Developing piñon cones

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piñon male flowers

This last photo is a view looking over the Mule Mountains into the San Pedro Valley, where I work most days. The Huachuca Mountains,which border the San Pedro Valley on the west, can be seen, blued by haze.

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San Pedro Valley

The heat was beginning to build and the dogs were panting, so we headed back to the trucks. On the way down the trail we had passed a couple of women out hiking, one of them being strikingly beautiful. Jamie later told Willow and I that the pretty woman was his ex-wife. He said “I hope she doesn’t vandalize my truck!”

When we got back to the trucks we discovered that someone, most likely the ex-wife, had shattered Jamie’s rear truck window with a rock, which was still there in the truck bed. What a mean and spiteful thing to do! It had to have been Jamie’s ex.

Our next hike will likely be in the northern Mules, where Deb and Dennis Moroney have a ranch.

Larry

Afternoon Moth Visitor

A couple of days ago I was drinking a cup of coffee while I waited for my breakfast porridge to attain its perfect state of being. There have been a lot of moths around lately, and one of them had evidently decided to commit suicide in my coffee cup. Moths can be subject to existential anxiety and depression just like the rest of us! This little moth was washed halfway down my gullet in a miniature river of coffee and lodged there, still fluttering. I tried to hack it up, I tried to swallow it down, but only patience and more coffee conveyed the doomed creature to its final resting place in my gut.

Yesterday I had recently gotten home from work for a brief respite before driving back to Bisbee to play music and hopefully make some tip money. I noticed a moth perched on a five dollar bill next to my laptop, part of the contents of my pants pocket. The moth cooperated by staying there while I got my camera out and shot a few photos. I’ve seen the species before and ID-ed it, but I’ll have to consult my moth books and web-sites in order to remember its name. I think its the same species of moth that I digested the other day!

Desert Moth

Desert Moth

Vegetative Construction Project

A re-post from Facebook:

Look carefully at this photo. It looks like a jumble of colors and lines, but camouflaged within are a couple of recent Peniocereus greggii shoots, AKA La Reina de la Noche, AKA Night-Blooming Cereus.

This particular plant is the first one I ever saw, over a year ago, so I was distressed when hungry jackrabbits without a shred of aesthetic sensibility ate the plant to the ground last winter.

About two weeks ago the plant mustered energy stored within a large tuberous root and, even though we haven’t had rain in over two months, managed to send up two roughly-designed shoots.

I can picture the scene in the plant’s construction headquarters. The foreman tries to rally the workers:

“Hey, guys, gals, and all of you asexual enzymes and proteins, we gotta get some sort of photosynthetic structure up there into the light, or we’ll all die. You wanna keep this job? Well, fuck symmetry — we need something quick and dirty. This chlorophyll won’t keep too much longer!”

Pardon the profanity, but cell-division crews are even coarser than drywallers and roofers! You ought to see what they do after hours!

Brand-new Shoots

Brand-new Shoots

Roadrunner Story

Here’s an interesting anecdote from John Forrey, a great photographer here who lives here in Cochise County.

A preamble: John was commenting on a photo by Charles Morton, another skilled photographer who lives just up the road from me. Here’s Charles’s photo followed by John’s comment:

05/26/16 Roadrunner carries his prize catch around! McNeal, Az

05/26/16 Roadrunner carries his prize catch around! McNeal, Az

“I saw one perched on a rock with a big lizard in his beak. I wondered why he wasn’t munching it down. After a few minutes another roadrunner came running and got on the rock with him. They immediately started to mate and the instant they finished she grabbed the prize from him and took off! Wish I had my camera with me. So that’s why the male walks around with a lizard in his beak.”

Larry

An Ocotillo, a Spider, and Doomed Ants

Yesterday afternoon I was out walking with my dog. The sky was overcast and the air was blessedly cool and humid. I squatted down to observe the new growth of an Ocotillo which I had planted some months ago. An odd sight caught my eye, little winged insects were seemingly suspended in a vertical plane to the left of the thorny Ocotillo trunk. Looking closely I could see that the insects were winged ants, probably part of a monsoon-induced nuptial swarm. They were caught in a barely-visible spider’s web, one side of which was anchored to the Ocotillo and the other end — I suppose anchored to the rocky soil?

Doomed Suspended Ants

Doomed Suspended Ants

Ocotillo and Spiderweb

Ocotillo and Spiderweb

This scene told a story to me, a tale of a lone spider seeking an anchor point for its web and ants hoping to mate but having their flight rudely interrupted. I saw the tiny spider lurking among the Ocotillo’s thorns, probably waiting for me to leave so that it could harvest its net’s yield.

Addendum: the following morning I revisited the Ocotillo and found the web almost emptied of prey. The spider was perched near the top of the stalk:

Dinner Time!

Dinner Time!

Larry

The Lizard King

A re-post from Facebook, where the post and accompanying photos drew quite a bit of attention:

This afternoon as the sun was beginning to cast long shadows I encountered a Long-nosed Leopard Lizard sunning itself in a sandy wash. Luckily for me, one of this lizard’s defenses is freezing. I shot one of these photos standing right in front of the creature, then I assumed Photographer’s Yoga Position Number Three (the Snake Position), which involves stretching out prone while peering through the viewfinder.

This is the biggest lizard species I have encountered around here; its body was about eight inches long and the tail about a foot. After a while the lizard, wearied of my attentions, abruptly turned around and sped away, running on its hind legs with forelimbs off the ground. My dog Dingo chased it briefly, but soon gave up.

Leopard-1

Leopard-2

Larry

Reina de la Noche in Cochise County

The landscape here in Southeast Arizona can appear a bit bleak late in the winter. As spring approached I naturally was eager to see which plants would green up first. There had been some nice rains during the winter which boded well for our local plant populations.

One fine morning towards the end of March I was just a hundred feet or so from our cabin examining a newly leafed out shrub growing in a clump of mesquite. I later found out from a friend that it was a Four-winged Saltbush. I noticed an oddly-colored vertical shoot back in the shadows of the clump; it was about an inch in diameter, prominently ribbed with short spines along the ribs, and dully colored a sort of purplish green-brown. Some sort of cactus, perhaps?

I walked back to the cabin and described the plant to Bev. I was reaching for a little illustrated guidebook to Arizona cacti, but Bev was quicker and got to the book before I did. She riffled through the book and before long exclaimed “Looks like it might be a Night-blooming Cereus cactus!”

I must say that I was a bit annoyed with her, as after all I was the one who had found the plant! A transitory feeling…

That day both Bev and I made forays out into the desert scrub looking for other examples of the species. Each of us found a couple. They aren’t easy to see, as from a distance greater than three feet they look just like a dead mesquite branch.

In early April I began to see signs of new growth on the half-dozen or so Peniocereus greggii plants we had located.

A note on the various names of the species: the Latin binomial botanical name is Peniocereus greggii and one of the English common names is Night-blooming Cereus. As is often the case, the Spanish name has more poetry than the English or Latin names: La Reina de la Noche, or Queen of the Night.

Here’s a shot of some new growth; whether a shoot or a flower bud it was hard to determine:

Peniocereus_bud

After a week or so the shoots had elongated:

Peniocereus--7_Apr_15

Towards the middle of April the flower-buds could be distinguished from the vegetative shoots:

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Peniocereus_Buds--2

At that time I was guessing that the first blooms would open sometime in May.

On the 27th of April I was scouting around for one of these cacti which I remembered finding a month or so previously. I found it and was pleased to see some buds on the plant beginning to burst, the first one in the area to my knowledge. This may have been because the scrubby mesquites which had sheltered and shaded the plant in its youth had mostly died, doubtless victims of the multi-year drought in the area. The cactus was getting more sun and this caused the blooming time to be in advance of the nearby sheltered specimens, I surmised. A shot of this cactus:

Peniocereus--4-28-15-2

Over the next couple of days the first two flowers opened up, releasing a heavy spicy-floral odor:

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This shot was taken at dusk, just after sunset:

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And here’s how it looked as the sun peeked over the Swisshelm Mountains the next morning:

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Several books I had consulted made the claim that in a given locality all of the Night-blooming Cereus cacti would bloom on the same night. I think this is one of erroneous statements which are copied from one book to another. At least in this locality it seems that the blossoms will open over a period of two weeks or so.

Oddly enough, in my daily rambles through the washes and gravelly flats around here I’ve never encountered this species of cactus outside of a radius of 1/4 mile from our cabin. Perhaps they grow in local clusters or communities and we just happened to have bought a piece of land within one of these communities!

Larry

Agave Stalk Mystery

Last spring I felt the need of a walking stick. I thought a third leg would be helpful while negotiating steep canyon-sides and rocky washes. Luckily Southeast Arizona is well-supplied with several plants which have flower-stalks eminently suitable for use as walking sticks: the Agaves, the Yuccas, and the Sotols. My favorite is the stalk of a recently-deceased Agave palmeri. The stalks are light, easily cut, and last for at least a season of walking.

When I moved out to our unfinished cabin in the Sulphur Springs Valley I brought with me an agave stalk I had cut up on Juniper Flats. After a couple of hot and wind-swept months I retreated to the relative comfort of an apartment in Bisbee, complete with such amenities as a kitchen, internet, a shower, and a toilet, where I recovered my digestive equanimity and played a lot of music.

Meanwhile my agave stalk was shut up in the cabin through the months of July through October. Early this month I examined the stalk before setting out on a walk. Oddly enough, the stalk was studded with filmy tubes which spiraled up the shaft, delicate one-quarter-inch-long structures with thread-like filaments radiating from their ends:

Agave_Stalk-1

A closer view:

Agave_Stalk-2

What creature could have left these husks behind? Perhaps moth larvae which spent their summer happily feeding upon the pith which fills agave stalks?

There were several areas on the stalk which had the husks arranged in a spiral, as if the mother who had laid the eggs had wound her way around the stalk, methodically depositing eggs as she went:

Agave_Stalk-3

I’ll have to ask questions of some naturalist friends, as this phenomenon puzzles me. Google certainly was not much help!

Larry