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Archive for the ‘Western Photography’ Category

Walking from the parking lot to the terminal, the usual roar of the jets captures the senses. But entering the modestly sized Tucson airport terminal building, the mood changes. The architecture—clean lines, iodized metal surfaces, cylindrical in theme and minimalist in appearance—announces an airport small enough to find one’s bearings, and appealing to the the harried air traveler on a hot desert day. The simplicity of locating check in, boarding gates, the whole sense of a reasonably human-scaled enterprise contrasts so nicely with those massive, impersonal and rather terrifying places like Phoenix Sky Harbor to say nothing of LAX or O’Hare.

We were there to send our daughter and baby grandson off to the challenges of LAX, sitting in a sort of waiting alcove near Southwest Airlines ticketing, while I strolled about and happened to look up. In fact I was the only one there who happened to look up, catching from the corner of my eye glimpses of what? Aladdin? Ali Baba? Scherazade? Wait—flying carpets? Yes, flying carpets, curling with the breezes, magically translucent colors of many colors, many shapes, going this way and that, up and down, across and back. Ah, is this airport art subliminally suggesting to my primal brain the freedom of magic carpet conveyance? If so, it worked. As I say, no one else there seemed to notice the floating world above, even when I was moving tables and chairs, kneeling and and pointing my camera ceiling-ward.

It’s possible I imagined it all. But no. No amount of photoshopping could create the scene. And I don’t use Photoshop anyhow.

I don’t know the name of the artist who created this public art, but I do know these translucent pieces of magic carpet art cast a spell. Maybe, just maybe, in a thousand and one desert nights anything can happen. SRE (all photos © S R Euston)IMG_2451 - Version 2

 

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Wide Ruins. Memories from a Navajo Trading Post by Sallie Wagner. University of New Mexico Press. Albuquerque, N.M. 1997. 150 pp.

 

41vO5l7mxnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Wide Ruins is the story of a Navajo Trading Post from the late 1930s until 1950—a time of irrevocable change both on the reservation and the country at large—and of its owners, Bill and Sallie Wagner. As Wagner described it, as newlyweds they arrived for a temporary ranger position at Canyon de Chelly in northeast Arizona. A local friend who, like them, was an “outsider” had purchased a trading post himself and suggested the Wagners do the same. Which they decided to do shortly after, in 1938. As Sallie opens the book: “We slipped sideways into the Navajo Indian trading post business.” After a crash course from their pal Cozy, they took over the post and for the next three years managed it, as well as another they purchased on the reservation. This book describes what life was like for white traders located in an extremely isolated location between the Arizona Defiance plateau and the Painted Desert.

 

The closest post office was at Chambers AZ, a tiny, overwhelmingly Navajo settlement, eighteen miles south. The nearest “big city” was Holbrook, about 40 miles southeast. Emergency medical services were available at the hospital at Ganado, about 100 miles north along a dirt road. For the three years that closed out the Depression, the Wagners ran the post, learning much about the Navajo culture, rituals and clans as well as how trading happens. In the process they became a trusted institution for trading locally crafted jewelry, wool and blankets. Sallie Chambers introduced new weaving techniques (especially borderless blankets and rugs) as well as the use of vegetable-based dyes. These newer approaches led to the creation of what are now highly prized “Wide Ruins” blankets. The post also served as a kind of “bank”, storing valuables (which had been pawned for cash) in the store safe, where they remained until the owner returned to repay the loan.

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Wide Ruins Rug, 1930s-1940s

 

Early in 1941, Bill was called up from the Naval Reserve and he and Sallie sold the post and moved to the West Coast. Later, as the war ended, the Wagners returned to the post, re-possessing it after the buyer defaulted on his payments. The Navajos were happy to see them return and business was soon brisk again. In 1950, they sold the post which finally burned down in the 1980s.

 

This is an engaging story, told with humility, kindness and humor. It is not as insightful as Edward T. Hall’s West of the Thirties set on the Najavo reservation at about the same time (Hall wrote this book’s glowing introduction). But then, these folks were businesspeople not anthropologists and they seemed willing and able to fit themselves into a tricky financial role as trading post owners in the community—a difficult feat in which few outsiders proved successful.

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Beauty is not a word one associates with contemporary art and literature. In fact, beauty is something of a pariah in esthetics generally. The ugly the grotesque the brutal the bizarre have cache. If art follows life, it does seem quaint to talk about beauty in this age of political upheaval, cultural relativism, raging consumerism, rampant technology, environmental tragedy.

But—democratically speaking—is not beauty in the eye of the beholder? The great nineteenth century lyric poet John Keats gave beauty its most ethereal meaning, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”.

Finally, art is said to mirror nature. Nature can certainly be brutal, cruel, ugly, in human terms. But in the eyes of many, nature is also full of beauty, plain and simple beauty. In fact the kind of beauty that also attracts insects and birds, no strings attached. A beauty that is beyond ecology, beyond human construct. Well, maybe within a human construct that opens our minds to an infinity of mental mirrors reflecting our long evolutionary inheritance, emerging as we did as a species when the only truth was nature.

And somehow after a million years of inhabiting earth we humans can still find beauty in nature, even desert beauty in a parched land of thorns and spines, heat and dust. And some of us we will even agree with John Keats—beauty is after all truth. SRE (All photos © SR Euston)

 

 

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Arizona is dry. After parched Nevada, the second driest state. But it has a great river.

That river begins with freshets in the Colorado Rockies, is infused by New Mexico rivers, carves  great canyons in Utah, reluctantly accepts Glen Canyon Dam, then revived,  goes about its  great geological task, uncovering the incandescent  sandstone glories of the Grand Canyon.

Then there is the Santa Cruz. A puny sort of non-river in southeastern Arizona looking mostly like a road in the sand.

It wasn’t always so. Spanish missionaries, Mexican settlers, the Mormon Battalion, Anglo developers—they found a river flowing, small but life giving with cottonwoods,  riparian pools, grassy wilds, from its headwaters near Patagonia, dipping into Mexico, flowing free, meeting the Gila River as it  rolled on to join the Colorado at Yuma. The river flowed through early Tucson, watered the lands at Mission San Xavier, provided for irrigation.

The Colorado still glistens below the Grand Canyon. The Gila River still has some wild upstream stretches. But the little Santa Cruz is nearing extinction. Ground water pumping continues, the water table drops, the drought plagued watershed is filled with mines and houses and cattle. To use a watery analogy, the glass by now is far less than half full. But for optimists there’s a hopeful exception—a cottonwood shaded flowing stretch below Nogales that is replenished with clean effluent  from an international  waste treatment plant—technology for once in service of the environment.

The exceptions always give one hope. Here is a mesquite-cottonwood riparian refuge, an exceptional birding environment offering walks, photography and a semblance of the old Santa Cruz. One easy access point to all this is at Tumacacori National Historic Park.

Recently southern Arizona got its first rains since mid-December. After the rain, a good inch and a half, the Santa Cruz River bed at Green Valley was braided with silver meandering streams, under the eye of the rain drenched, snow touched sky Island peaks of the Santa Rita Mountains. For a moment, this river was flowing.The photography offered a few fleeting chances.  Maybe even an environmental pessimist can find hope.

The following photographs move back and forth between cottonwoods and placid river in the upper, semi-restored,  stretch at Tumacacori, and the evanescent apperance after early March rains of  a shinning but rushing and muddy stream near the Continental Road Bridge in Green Valley, taken mostly in black and white.   SRE

 

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It seems like we’d taken every road available to cross southern California—all four interstates (yes we’ve even gone through Vegas on I-15) as well as backroads like State Route 62 through Twenty Nine Palms which we got to by driving through Joshua Tree National Park. While they’ve added distance as well as time to the journeys, the detours have provided ways to see backcountry SoCal that many people never experience.

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The Salton Sea © SR Euston

This trip we chose to return from LA via I-10 through Palm Springs and then head south at Indio. Looking for lunch we ended up at Mecca, a crossing of the roads where we continued south around the eastern side of the Salton Sea on State Route 111.

I’m not sure what I expected but it definitely wasn’t this: a beautifully glistening enormous lake, 228 feet below sea level, the largest in California with a 380 square mile surface compared to Lake Tahoe’s 193. This particular iteration of this inland sea, a sink which has been alternating between flooded and dry for thousands of years, was created by Colorado River overflow flooding which began in 1905 and was finally blocked off in1907.  Since being closed off from the river, the sea now receives water only from a few small rivers; its major source is runoff from the adjacent farmland in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys.  Consequently, salinity rises each year and is now 25% higher than the Pacific Ocean. In 1930 a National Wildlife Refuge was established; in 1955 a state park.

The ecosystem is a study in contrasts and conflicts. On the one hand, the fish, introduced tilapia especially, continue to thrive and the Salton Sea is considered by some to be the most productive fishery in the world. On the other hand, it’s so productive that periodically there are massive die offs, probably the result of overpopulation leading to oxygen depletion. The blazing summer temperatures don’t help either. Evaporation increases the Sea’s salinity and reduces the ability of the water to hold oxygen.

On the third hand, the Salton Sea with its mix of marine, freshwater, desert, wetland and agricultural lands, is considered California’s “Crown Jewel of Avian Biodiversity”, with over 400 species sighted, second only to the Texas Gulf Coast. Several million birds migrate through annually relying on its ready supply of food. On the other (fourth?) hand, major bird die offs have happened periodically, particularly in the 1990s when 170,000 eared grebes, as well as 1000 endangered brown pelicans and 15 to 20% of the white pelican’s western population died, probably from an deadly mix of avian viruses and bacteria.

From the crusty shoreline (which looks a little like Yellowstone’s mineral hot springs) we easily spot white pelicans and black necked stilts. Rather than sand, the beach is made up of millions of fan shaped translucent fish scales and a lot of dead fish.

Shoreline, Salton Sea © AME

Shoreline, Salton Sea © AME

An eerie feeling of abandonment hangs in the air.  Forlorn, almost abandoned.

What’s happening to the Salton Sea?

Next: Salton Sea past, Salton Sea future

For general park information see: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=639 and http://seaanddesert.org/facts.html.

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Gila Bend isn’t a particular hotspot for travelers on Interstate 8 through Southwest Arizona. We stayed there in the late 80s in a typical roadside motel. Like many always hard-up desert towns, Gila Bend seemed in a chronic state of poor economic health. Besides boarded up buildings along the main drag, all that was memorable about that stay was that at 10:00 pm it was 109°. When we went out through the motel’s automatic glass doors, the heat was startling, like stepping into the stove to check something broiling.

At Painted Rock

At Painted Rock © SR Euston

So this month when we exited I-8 just west of Gila Bend to visit the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Petroglyph Painted Rock Site and Campground we didn’t know what we were about to stumble on.

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Petroglyphs © SR Euston

The petroglyph site itself is an easily accessible jumble of rocks covered with over 800 symbols and pictures chipped out of the black basalt which overlays a granite outcrop. A short trail takes visitors around the mound and allows for up close viewing of the rock art. There is an adjacent dry campground with pit toilets, and for folks seeking desert isolation, a half-full campground and clear night skies this is just the ticket. It may not be as extensive as New Mexico’s Petroglyph National Monument or Three Rivers BLM site or Utah’s Newspaper Rock, but it is a remarkable agglomeration of mazes, natural symbols like lightning and the sun, animals, and stylized people that make it a fascinating concentration of southwest petroglyph art.

Petroglyphs © SR Euston

Petroglyphs © SR Euston

This used to be one part of a Petroglyph Painted Rock State Park which included a “Lake Unit” with camping and fishing about four miles north on Painted Rock Reservoir, formed by a late ‘50s Army Corps of Engineers dam. Now completely closed, the “Reservoir” is only an intermittent lake—in flood it has been (briefly) the second largest lake in Arizona, but with seepage and evaporation, the lake always dries it up. And due to large scale 1950s and ‘60s DDT use on surrounding cotton fields (one of the mainstays of Gila Bend’s shaky economy), this stretch of the Gila River which feeds the reservoir has the dubious honor of being one of the most polluted stretches of waterway in the nation. The only water we saw was one puddle of marshy standing water on Painted Rock Road’s shoulder.

Painted Rock Outcrop © SR Euston

Painted Rock Outcrop © SR Euston

For more info on the site see: http://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/recreation/camping/dev_camps/painted_rock.html

To get to the site from the highway from I-8 involved taking Painted Rock Dam Road north about 10 miles. It’s on this road where the “new” Gila Bend takes shape.

Next: Sustainable Gila Bend

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Arizona has the most national parks and monuments of any state in the Union. This is one of the most delightful attractions of our other “home state”. At 21 total, Arizona beats out the second place California (eighteen) by three.

Of course California has ten National Parks to Arizona’s three, but those three are doozies: the Grand Canyon, Saguaro, and Petrified Forest. Among the National Park Service (NPS) managed National Monuments are: a Heritage Area (Yuma); a Historic Park (Tumacacori); two National Recreation Areas (Lake Mead and Glen Canyon); two National Historic Trails (the Old Spanish and the Juan Batista de Anza); a National Memorial (Coronado); two National Monuments which are also National Historic Sites (Hubbell Trading Post and Ft. Bowie); and one on the Gila River Indian Reservation (Hohokum Pima) which isn’t even open to the public. There are National Monuments which protect ancient cultural ruins, unique vegetation and habitat and a volcanic cinder cone. There’s one jointly managed by NPS and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Parashant Grand Canyon.

SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK WEST © SR Euston

There are also four BLM-managed Monuments created by Bill Clinton’s Presidential Proclamations in 2000 and 2001. With the addition of these units, virtually all of desert Arizona south of I-8 is protected in some way be it military, reservation, national wildlife refuge, NPS or BLM.

While this is good, as a visitor looks around many of these desert preserves, it appears there is little money and/or people power to protect them. Two threats are tantamount: illegal off-road vehicle use and illegal immigration and drug smuggling. For example, large segments of dirt road access in the northern section of Sonoran Desert National Monument have been closed due to damage caused by off-road vehicles leaving even these off-road routes where tracks or dust got too deep.

And although illegal immigration numbers have dropped in recent years, the realities of borderland living (which also must now embrace widespread drug smuggling) remain. Some of the worst effects are in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which abuts the US/Mexico border. Not only are many of the backroads now closed for safety reasons, Quitobaquito, an oasis of fresh water in the desert which we were lucky enough to visit in the 1980s, is no longer open because of water quality and trashing problems. The border fence has created its own problems in washes and arroyos. Sadly, visitation and back country permits at Organ Pipe have dropped since the 1990s.

SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK EAST © SR Euston

Still, for all its problems, I love this borderland place. And all its public lands inviting us to visit.

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