Posts Tagged ‘Sonoran Desert’

Part of the year we live in a small Sonoran Desert age-restricted (55+) community. There are no boom boxes masquerading as cars, no outdoor rock concerts, no jake-brake-using diesel trucks. Little happens after dark. Everybody goes home and goes to bed. Contrary to popular myth, older people don’t blast their TVs, stereos or electric organs. When the power went out last week it took us a while to notice what was missing…sounds like the refrigerator running and the a.c. blowing. It was lovely, in an eerie sort of way.

Still, even here, the world in all its naked noisiness, all too frequently jars the quiet.

A10s from the Davis/Monthan website

A10s from the Davis/Monthan website

We live within miles of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Their mission? “Deploy, employ, support, and sustain attack airpower in support of Combatant Commanders anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. Train the finest attack pilots for the Combat Air Forces. Provide every member of Team D-M with responsive, tailored, mission-focused base support.” (http://www.dm.af.mil/index.asp). That translates into a lot of overhead noise (sometimes exceptionally loud) as mysterious unseeable objects hurdle by overhead. I guess I’m supposed to feel safe.

152nd Fighter Squadron  Air National Guard Tucson

152nd Fighter Squadron
Air National Guard Tucson

Adjoining D-M is the 162d Fighter Wing (162 FW) of the Arizona Air National Guard, stationed at Tucson Air National Guard Base, Arizona. They’re a premier training facility where air force pilots from around the world have come to train including from mid-eastern countries like Israel, Jordan, the United Arab Emigrates and Turkey as well as Thailand, Denmark, Sweden, Chile, Italy, Taiwan, Portugal and others. And yes, when they practice It’s Loud.

Then there are assorted helicopters at all hours of the day and night. Tucson Metro Police as well as Pima County Sheriffs are out there scanning for drug smugglers, runaway convicts and other assorted other n’r-do-wells. Oh and to keep up on accidents and traffic we’ve got the local TV stations. OK so we live less than thirty miles south of Tucson, and only forty miles north of Nogales and Mexico. So I know I have to accept big city and border issues noise.

sound levels  courtesy of Wikipdian

sound levels
courtesy of Wikipdian

Still, it’s those blasted leaf blowers and lawn mowers that can truly lay me low. We live in a very well kept, greenly landscaped community which requires a veritable battalion of gardeners to keep it pristine. While I appreciate the almost compulsive striving for neatness, when they start blowing at my back door at 6:30 am, count me out. I’m not alone: “The World Health Organization recommends general daytime outdoor noise levels of 55 dBA* or less, but 45 dBA to meet sleep criteria (3). Thus, even a 65-decibel leaf blower would be 100 times too loud** to allow healthful sleep (which often takes place during daytime hours for night workers and others). Noise can impair sleep even when the sleeper is not awakened. Acoustics experts say blower noise is especially irritating because of its particular pitch, the changing amplitude, and the lack of control by the hearer. (my emphasis added). (http://www.nonoise.org/quietnet/cqs/leafblow.htm

Hear, Hear. I hope.

The Scream  courtesy of the Edvard Munch Gallery

The Scream
courtesy of the Edvard Munch Gallery

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It’s been a dry 2014 here in the Sonoran Desert, about 0.6 inches of rain. Annual amounts for January through May average about 3.3 inches. So less than 20% of the average rainfall for the first five months of the year. We’ve had one true rain since we arrived in late December.

It’s been hot as blazes the last few days as well, over 100° yesterday. Forecast today was 104° with a front moving through. It was 80° at 5:00 am. But even though the humidity just before dawn was less than 20%, clouds filled the sky and the weather forecasters, ever optimistic in the desert, gave it a 20% chance of rain.

By mid-morning we smelled it—the unique clean dry(?) smell of wettening creosote. Yes! It was raining somewhere within our aromascape. We waited expectantly. I felt a few drops as I ran to close the car windows. Then…nothing.

The desert is a harsh mistress. But nothing caps that amazing smell of desert rain. No matter where it might have fallen.

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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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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.

IMG_2361 - Version 2

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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From the Patio © AME

At dusk last Monday a strange thing happened. It began to snow. For about an hour big stuck-together flakes languidly fell from the darkening desert sky.

Surely not noteworthy in blizzard-battered places like Chicago and Boston.

But for us here in Green Valley this was a very unusual event…so rare in fact that the last measured and recorded snow (according to the Western Regional Weather Center wrcc@dri.edu) was March, 1999 when one inch fell. Prior to that 0.1 inches fell in March,1992. Over the 25 years of records available, these are the only two snow events recorded for our little town. For this Monday’s “Sonoran Desert Blizzard”, NOAA’s official record was one inch.IMG_1818

In our town the population is divided into two types—the year-rounds and the snow birds. At this time of year in the Safeway parking lot you can spot, in almost equal numbers to Arizona’s, license plates from the mid-west— Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, North and South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin—as well as Canada (British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan mostly), Washington, and our own home state of Oregon. We’ve even got a guy in our neighborhood whose motorcycle sports New Brunswick plates.

Out Our Back Door © AME

Out Our Back Door © AME

So you can imagine the mix of groans, exclamations of “oh no!” and jokes around town as night fell. The next morning tee-times and tennis dates were cancelled as fairways and courts remained covered with that white stuff snowbirds had hoped to leave behind. Pools were closed with warnings about ice on their cement aprons. “Drifts” covered chaise lounge pads.

As for me, the snow was just fine. Nothing to shovel, nothing to slide on (although there were reports of accidents on the highway), nothing to detract from the sheer delightfully beautiful crystal frosting on saguaro and palm, mesquite and prickly pear in the gloaming.

By 10:00 am Tuesday morning all the snow had melted away.

Palo Verde in Snow © AME

Palo Verde in Snow © AME

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One of the most exciting denizens of the Sonoran Desert is the Saguaro—spiny, grey green sentinels towering above the palo verde, mesquite and cholla desert. Last week we took a stroll up the Bajada Wash Trail in Saguaro National Park’s Tucson Mountain West District, just north of the Red Hills Visitor Center.

Picturesque, statuesque, these saguaro are among the “old ones” of the desert forest. Up to 150 years old and weighing in at 16,000 pounds or more (that’s 8 tons!), they rise 50 feet above the dirt and broken rock. Here’s a slide show of some of the grandest:


© SR Euston

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Javalinas at the Entrance© AME

Javelinas at the Entrance © AME

This week we visited one of Tucson’s premier attractions, the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Over the West Mountains, the Desert Museum is pressed up against the foothills between Pima County’s Tucson Mountain Park and the western unit of Saguaro National Park.

Looking South from Patio © AME

Looking South from Patio

In the midst of this sweeping Sonoran desert landscape overlooking the Avra Valley, the Museum is home to 1200 plant types as well as 166 birds, 100 mammals, 276 amphibians, 531 reptiles, 11,000 fishes (their latest accomplishment is a brand new aquarium(!) spotlighting the Sonoran desert’s Colorado River and its terminus, the Sea of Cortez), and 620 invertebrates.

Harris Hawk© AME

Harris Hawk

Besides the new aquarium, along the two plus miles of paths there’s an earth sciences center, 22 gardens, a small animal room, a hummingbird pavilion, and natural habitat displays of native beavers, cats, javelinas, coyotes, bears, deer, wolves, parrots, prairie dogs, big horn sheep, tortoises, coatimundis, snakes, and raptors.

We were treated to a free flight raptor show featuring barn owls, falcons and hawks. Where we stopped to watch the show we soon discovered the nearby woman with the headset and leather glove was one of the handlers, who, with a tasty morsel, lured a Harris hawk to land on her hand.

Nest Sitting© AME

Nest Sitting

We also spent a long time in the hummingbird pavilion where the local species are nesting right now. Because the hummers aren’t in the wild, they’re provided with dog hair and other bits which, combined with cobwebs, are used to construct the tiny nests.

A highly trained army of docents patrols the grounds, providing information on everything from the plant and animal life to water fountain locations.

The Museum celebrated its 60th anniversary Labor Day 2012. From its humble (and dusty) beginnings, it has grown into a premier interpretative, educational and research facility, with a mission “to inspire people to live in harmony with the natural world by fostering love, appreciation, and understanding of the Sonoran Desert.”

It’s exactly that emotional bond—love, appreciation and understanding—a visitor feels viewing the animals held in “gentle captivity” as well as the carefully tended desert grounds. It’s the perfect introduction to this magnificent Sonoran desert.

Bobcats Nap© AME

Bobcats Nap

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Out of Monahans, West Texas we dipped due south, across the Pecos River and up the Stockton Plateau. Past the Glass Mountains, the Wood Hollows, and, beyond Marathon, we followed the old Great Comanche Trail toward the “big bend”, that portion of the Texas/Mexico border where the Rio Grande’s flow abruptly changes direction from southwest to northeast.

The landscape began to improve. Twenty six hundred forty seven miles into the trip we crossed the Santiago Mountains’ Persimmon Gap and

Octotillo ©SR Euston

entered Big Bend National Park. Spreading out to the horizon were 800,000 acres of protected Chihuahuan desert (an area larger than Rhode Island): a sea of grass, mesquite, scarlet-tipped ocotillo, prickly pear. We could see in the distance, jutting up between us and the Rio Grande, the silhouette of the High Chisos Complex, a broken jumble of desert mountains.

I guess big desert spaces scare some people, especially those used to seeing no farther than across the street. As for me, it was love at first sight.

We checked in with the volunteer ranger at the entry station. But our “Official Big Bend Greeter” turned out to be a bobcat, who, although typically a nocturnal creature, stood out in the open by the roadside in mid-afternoon, giving us a long leisurely stare before sauntering off into the mesquite. Less than a mile down the road we stopped to view a rattlesnake, sunning on the macadam. When we looked up there was a tarantula! By the time we broke camp at Rio Grande Village a week later, we’d seen such an array of roadrunners, raccoons, bats, rabbits, owls, squirrels, skunks, ringtails, insects and lizards, the coyote’s daily lunchtime stroll around the campground had come to seem pretty ho-hum.

Today as I look back, 30 years older, I mark that bobcat “howdy” as the moment my internal tectonics shifted. I knew. I had come home to the West.

Prickly Pear ©SR Euston

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Photographer’s Note:  Their range stretches from the Canadian plains to Argentina. But they are indigenous only to the New World. The great saguaro is the icon  of the southwest deserts, but it occurs in numbers only in Arizona. The real cactus workhorses of the southwest are the cholla and the far-ranging prickly pear. Most of the time they look near death. But in Spring, the red or green or magenta  flowers of these tough ones are a bit like jewels among the thorns. Be careful—don’t lean over too far when checking out one of these winsome, beautiful flowers.  A failure of balance could be almost fatal. Tough and spiny and sunbeaten, the cactus flowers of the desert Spring are something else. Much else. Here’s a cactus sampler.



Fearsome Pad


Orange Cholla


Green Cholla


Magenta Flower—Beavertail Cactus


Bright Faces—Mammalaria Cactus


Faint Pink—Horticultural Cactus


Four Magenta Suns

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