Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Natural History’ Category

A few days ago, we noticed our Halloween pumpkin had disappeared from our back step. Hummm…

We live in a densely packed over-55 community and it’s been weeks since Halloween. What the heck could some retired person want with our pumpkin? It was big, heavy, not carved. Barely moveable.

Original Pumpkin: A Simulation

BEFORE: Original Pumpkin:
A Simulation

The rhetoric quickly heated up:

“If somebody needed a punkin that bad they could have asked!”

“Can you imagine some old geezer walking away with that thing, quietly no less?”

“I mean really, what’s going to happen next? Is anywhere safe anymore?”

An immediate scan of the area yielded nary a clue. Maybe the pumpkin-napper had taken it away in an SUV? We were stumped.

Then yesterday Stan happened to notice something semi-round and orange laying on its side beneath a nearby Arizona rosewood tree.

AFTER: Our Pumpkin!!

AFTER: Our Pumpkin!!

Our Pumpkin! Now a mere shadow of its former self, cleaned out through a hole chomped through its side.

I wonder: What will the neighborhood javelinas eat next?

All That's Left is a Few Seeds

All That’s Left is a Few Seeds

I guess our pumpkin wasn't singled out

At least our pumpkin wasn’t singled out

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

 

My Antonia. Willa Cather. originally published in 1918. This review is based on the Sentry Edition published in 1954 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston. With First Edition Illustrations by W.T. Bends. 372 pp.

The third of the Prairie Trilogy, My Antonia, was published in 1918. Willa Cather has been quoted as considering this as her best book. For me, it’s so hard, too hard to choose one among her so many exceptional novels.my-antonia

This is another pioneer story. This time the focus is on a Bohemian immigrant family making their way pioneering on the Great Plains, as told to an “I” character (unnamed) by Jim Burden, mutual friend to “I” and Antonia Shimerda, the oldest girl in the large family, favorite of her sensitive musician father, and Jim’s best friend on the Nebraska prairie.

Original illustration "the Shimerdas" by W.T. Bends

Original illustration
“the Shimerdas”
by W.T. Bends

In the course of the book we meet the rest of the Shimeras, Jim’s grandparents Burden, to whom he has come to live from Virginia after his parents’ deaths, their hired hands Otto and Jake, and other neighbors who live around their homestead outside Black Hawk, the closest “big” town. As time passes, youth grow to maturity, the pioneers go from sod cave houses to two story farmsteads and the land changes from tall red grass prairies to tamed and ploughed fields of corn and wheat.

Time is measured by the seasons and the land and most of the families settle into and come to love their new homelands. But not all. There are hard times, particularly for the Bohemian Shimerdas, but also for others as they learn new ways.

Christmas by W.T. Bends

Christmas
by W.T. Bends

We follow Jim on to University in Lincoln where he loses touch with Antonia—an innocent childhood romance perhaps realized in retrospect as love?—but reconnects with other hometown immigrant friends including Lena Lingard, who twenty years later insists he re-connect with Antonia who has married and has a flock of kids. His story concludes with that visit and the anticipation of more to come, as he returns to New York where he has become a thriving lawyer.

My Antonia is mostly a quiet story and Cather introduces us subtly and gracefully to the many facets of the human character. The writing is crystalline and spare. An immediately engrossing tale pulls the reader in without any of the silly modern “grabber” gimmicks of murder, mayhem or mysterious prologues that elude to the future or the past. But Cather never needs clever devices to immediately capture readers, carrying them along on a seemingly effortless trajectory from beginning to end. Nothing is superfluous, no character unnecessary. Cather’s novel is a magical creation. She provides one of those rare aha! reading experiences that remind us what great writing really is.

“There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but material out of which countries are made….Between that earth and that sky I felt erased. blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: Here, I felt, what would be would be.”

Read Full Post »

The Oregon Trail. Francis Parkman Jr. originally released in 1849 as The California and Oregon Trail. The book reviewed is from Oxford University, Oxford World’s Classics edition. Oxford and New York. 1996, reissued in 2008. 346 pp.

Parkman’s original report of his 1846 spring through autumn trip along the Oregon Trail was originally serialized in the Knickerbocker Magazine in 1847. Compiled and released in book length form in 1849, it found no less of a reviewer than Herman Melville whose blurb “The book, in brief, is excellent and has the true wild game flavor” appears on the back of this edition.81OeKsQxvCL

Melville raised some concerns about the book in his review which I share. First, Parkman really covered less than half of the Oregon Trail, making it only as far as eastern Wyoming, thus missing the most arduous portions of the Trail, across driest deserts and through the mountains. And so Melville questions the title. I’m OK with the title; it just seems Parkman only got started toward other difficulties the pioneers faced which I might have expected to read about based on the title. Still, he wasn’t intending to move to the west, he was only out on a youthful devil-may-care adventure, so the stakes (except of course for the potential of dying) weren’t as high.

Melville’s other concern was Parkman’s blanket takedown of Indians, not only the Ogallala Sioux with whom he stayed for a number of weeks but basically every Indian he encountered, whom he described in general with condescension: “…a civilized white man can discover but very few points of sympathy between his own nature and that of an Indian…[and] having breathed the air of the region, he begins to look upon them as a troublesome and dangerous species of wild beast, and if expedient, he could shoot them with little compunction. ” As he repeatedly re-issued his book until 1896, he re-wrote and edited out some of the more obnoxious of his reflections, which are generally referred as “not politically correct.” Such an understatement. While I might have cut him some slack as a product of his times, Melville, his contemporary, set me straight. He too was offended by Parkman’s narrow, stereotypically racist views.

Parkman’s disregard for the buffalo was also problematic from my twenty-first century viewpoint. While killing male buffalo merely for the sport of it (the trophy was the animal’s tail!) may have reflected the 1846 environmental worldview, it is interesting to note that Parkman presciently predicted the collapse of the great buffalo herds with the Indian cultures that relied on the animals quickly following.

But for all the negatives, The Oregon Trail is a rip-roaring adventure story, told by a 23 year old Boston Brahmin on the trip of a lifetime. Between thirst, dirt, rain and ongoing dysentery Parkman retains his wonder at the prairie in all its guises. As an early description of the west, it was a great booster for others to follow, for a unique experience and perhaps a new home. For all its quirks, it remains one of the great personal histories of the frontier.

And it definitely has a “true wild game flavor.”

Want to read Melville’s original review? Go to: http://melvilliana.blogspot.com/2012/03/mr-parkmans-tour-text-of-melvilles-1849.html

Read Full Post »

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey. Rinker Buck. Simon and Schuster, New York. 2015. 450 pp.

In the summer of 2007 Rinker Buck, a journalist researching a story in the Black Hills, made a serendipitous detour to visit the Hollenberg Ranch and Pony Express station, a way stop on Oregon Trail, now restored and maintained by the Kansas State Historical Society. It was there, reading a 1850 journal entry describing this Ranch by Margaret Frink, pioneer traveller on the Trail, that Buck caught the bug; like Frink, he too decided to travel west on the Oregon Trail. From April to October, 2008 Buck lives his dream, traveling two thousand miles from St. Joe, MO to Baker City OR, in a covered wagon, pulled by a team of three mules.

the-oregon-trail-9781451659160_lgThis book describes that momentous journey, the first of its kind in over one hundred years. Buck spends that winter voraciously reading, purchases a restored wagon and a team of three Amish mules, designs and has a “trail pup” (a two wheeled covered cart which tagged along carrying supplies) constructed. At some point his brother Nicholas (to whom the book is dedicated) invites himself along accompanied by his Jack Russell terrier Olive Oyl. This turns out to be a lucky turn of events; Nick is an expert mule team driver, (true!) who also can swear a blue streak and does, in almost every sentence he utters. He also seems capable of repairing anything, which turns out to be a necessity as along the way axles and wheels break as well as many other parts of their rig. A third “companion”, the ghost of their father who had taken them on another covered wagon expedition as children through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, “joins” them at various locations as the journey unspools.

This book chronicles the Bucks’ adventures and the (mostly) helpful people they meet along the way. It talks about breakdowns, the weather, where they camped, eating at roadside truck stops as well as at town parks, the fine art of mule handling and the daily push to make 25 miles between sunup and sundown. In the dreamy hours spent on the wagon seat, Buck reflects on the beauty of the remaining original Trail, and figures out how to get around places where the Trail has been paved into interstate, Buck also grapples with the role in his psyche his larger-than-life father continues to play.

The Oregon Trail is also an illuminating account of the Trail’s history through the personal histories of some of the people who travelled its length. He considers a kaleidoscope of stories the Trail holds: the Mormons, the broke farmers, the women and children, the wayside ranches, the Indians, even the shysters at the Missouri jumping off points, who are there selling second grade wheels and untrained mules as well as all sorts of goods the pioneers are often forced to abandon along the way.

Part memoir, part rousing history, part how-to drive a covered wagon and mule team, Buck offers a panorama of a part of history which seems to have been mislaid in the telling of the American story. And this may be the most important insight of them all:

“The exodus across the plains in the fifteen years before the Civil War, when more than 400.000 pioneers made the trek between the frontier at the Missouri River and the Pacific coast, is still regarded by scholars as the largest single land migration in history. It virtually defined the American character—our plucky determination in the face of physical adversity, the joining of two coasts into one powerful country, our impetuous cycle of financial bubbles and busts, the endless, fractious clash of ethnic populations competing for the same jobs and space. Post Oregon Trail—with a big assist from the Civil War—America was a continental dynamo connected by railroads and the telegraph from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

“Seeing the elephant” was the phrase often used by pioneers to describe their Trail journeys. Buck’s trip, 127 years later, shows us what that elephant looks like today.

Read Full Post »

Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West. Bryce Andrews. Atria Books, A Division of Simon and Schuster. New York. 2014. 238 pp.

A short, powerful memoir, Badluck Way chronicles a year in the life of a Seattle-born lover of Montana who follows his heart to a huge conservation-oriented cattle ranch in the state’s Madison Valley.617XgEfo2oL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

With an unflinching eye, Andrews recounts his own struggles to harmonize his environmental ethic with the raw demands of protecting huge herds of heifers and steers as they grow on the ranch’s range. Especially difficult is trying to deal with the predations of a resident wolf pack. One the one hand Andrews is awed and humbled when confronted with the wolves’ unabashed wildness in situ while on the other hand, he finds himself growing ever more antagonistic as the wolves begin pick off his charges with apparent impunity.
The explosive crisis which he describes in all its conflicting emotions and necessities becomes a nerve-wracking. soul-searching window into all humanity’s muddied waters of pure vs. situational ethics and what that means for all of us environmentalists as we try to place ourselves in the all too real non-human world.

His descriptions of the Sun Ranch’s lonesome and brutal landscape are often achingly moving. I’m not so sure about his use of the occasional chapter written ostensibly from the wolf’s point-of-view. I see what he wants to do and probably even why: It does a great job of dialing back the emotional level while providing helpful information. But even as he makes the point that wolves don’t see the world as we do, he raises the question “how does he know?” and illustrates some of the pitfalls of trying ever to get into another’s head, and complicated by the fact that it’s a non-human’s psychology he’s exploring.

Overall the book is thought-provoking and extremely well written. And I can only admire his candor about his own conundrums and the impossibility of bringing his conflicting values together into a philosophical whole. Rarely are authors so honest with themselves or their readers.

Read Full Post »

And not a moment too soon. This winter has been too long, especially in the east. Even though Southern Arizona’s temperatures are running 7 to 10° above average, (see: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/03/21/1372266/-Cartoon-Animal-Nuz-243-Climate-Hope-Edition) I’m glad to have moved my sweaters to a less accessible place in our little casita.

The heat has also brought spring in an early rush. The fig trees have burst open leaves. Our patio poppies (volunteers from last year) are lush with golden orange flowers. The ocotillo are wrapped in their green cellophane-like leaves and their red bud tips are already providing food for verdants and goldfinches.

Our ocotillo provided cover for a clay pot in which ground doves built a nest. The fledgings (2?3?) left yesterday. All that remains is an untidy mix of twigs, feathers and bird droppings.

Yesterday’s Spring Equinox was a triple treat. Besides the arrival of spring parts of the globe were treated to a full solar eclipse as well as super big moons as it comes closest to the earth for the year.

So, if you’re still digging out or beginning to dig in the garden, here’s a glimpse of the Sonoran Desert’s spring. (All photos © SR Euston)

Read Full Post »

We often visit Tucmacacori on warm spring days.IMG_1963 - Version 2

Last week when we visited the monument was quiet. No school groups or elder hostel outings were happening. The lovely woman who demonstrates tortilla making served with beans and salsa in a central courtyard wasn’t on hand. Too bad, I’d been looking forward to her hot sauce.

Still, this gave us a better opportunity to study the church itself. In the dark quiet of the sanctuary there is a sense of sacredness still and although ravaged by time, exposure to the elements (it lacked a roof for over 60 years) and bounty hunters, the church still shows some of its original glory. Faded walls and ceiling retain painted decorative motifs, especially in the sanctuary and around the altar beneath its domed apse. Originally founded by Jesuits in the 1690s, it was Franciscans who ultimately built this large church, completed in the 1820s, except for the bell tower whose dome was never finished. It became a part of the National Park System in 1916.IMG_4798 - Version 2

It’s fascinating to compare some of New Mexico’s mission churches with those here in Arizona. Franciscans founded New Mexico’s missions in the early 1600s. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 finished off what was left at Salinas National Monument, while Pecos continued, at first thriving but then declining until its abandonment in 1838. These churches are built on a massive scale (especially Pecos) and show the standard pueblo-style architecture of adobes with unadorned brown stucco coverings, and buttresses to support the giant walls.

IMG_1966 - Version 2Nearby Arizona missions, in contrast, were, it appears, blinding white as San Xavier de Bac remains. The front of the Tumacacori church is said to have been painted in colorful red, yellow and black. The front columns appear to be Egyptian-inspired and, in fact, they were, influenced by the Moors who imported them when they arrived in Spain. Both were situated next to a then flowing river: the Santa Cruz.

And both these missions must have been in plain sight for miles, situated as they are in the Santa Cruz river valley. In contrast, New Mexico’s missions (especially at Salinas) seem to have been more hidden, perhaps in light of the marauding plains Indians just to their east.

Park brochures always invite the visitor to “imagine what it was like” when the missions were vibrant with life. Honestly, for me, it’s almost impossible. A life lived cramped in tiny rooms with no ventilation, being introduced (and pretty much forced to accept) alien religions from people who displayed little knowledge of the landscape, who brought guns and unknown diseases to tiny cities of people with too little food and no sanitation. With the luxury we live in, this is a scene just too difficult for me to place myself. I leave that to those with more imagination, or at least romantic visions.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »