Posts Tagged ‘Tumacacori National Historic Site’

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.

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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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The Spaniards had begun exploring the area north of mid-Mexico in the 1500s. Rather than looking for the fabled Northwest Passage and mapping unknown territory and its natural history as Lewis and Clark had been commissioned, Spanish/Mexican expeditions were undertaken not by explorers but by the military and Catholic missionaries. Their goals can be boiled down to three: hunting for gold and silver; protecting far-flung Spanish claims of northern empire from English and Russian exploration and colonization; and, of course, saving souls.

Along the de Anza Trail ©AME

Along the de Anza Trail ©AME

There are many historians who think at least one such expedition can compete with Lewis and Clark for sheer magnitude and results. That’s the two trips Juan Bautista de Anza the Younger, a Basque military man and head of the Presidio at Tubac (then in Sonora Mexico, now in deep southeastern Arizona) took from 1774—1776. Earlier this spring, we followed a small portion of their journey, a four mile trail which connects the Mission at Tumacacori to the  Presidio at Tubac.

Along the Trail at Tumacacori © SR Euston

The Santa Cruz River Aong the Trail at Tumacacori © SR Euston

Like Lewis and Clark, de Anza was looking for a land-based trade route, in this case across deserts and up the coast from northern Sonora (now Arizona) to Alta California. But there was also another goal: to found a Presidio and mission at San Francisco. This colony of Spanish settlers, military personnel and missionaries would establish an “on-the-ground” beachhead of Spaniards to protect its claims in Northern California. After successfully scouting Indian trading and mission travel routes in 1774, de Anza returned to Mexico where he organized a large group of colonists (30 families totaling about 240 men, women and children) and military escorts to travel the 1200 miles to the Presidio of San Francisco.

They must have looked like a traveling town as they set out: families, military, cowboys, mule packers, Indian guides and 1000 head of live stock. The group was accompanied by Franciscan priest Pedro Font. He and de Anza kept journals detailing the journey. Setting out on October 2, 1775 from San Miguel de Horcasitas (north of Hermosillo in Sonora), they headed north through Tubac (where de Anza recruited Basque friends and fellow military men), Mission San Xavier del Bac, and Casa Grande, then headed west to Yuma Crossing where Quechan (Yuma) Indians provided them aid in crossing the Colorado as well as feeding them beans, squash, corn and wheat and, according to de Anza, more than 3000 watermelons. They labored across the Mojave Desert, across the San Gabriel mountains and on to Mission San Gabriel Arcangel. From there they headed up the coast to Mission San Luis Obispo, arriving at Monterey five months later on March 28, 1776. Along the way eight children were born. Only one person died, a woman probably in childbirth. In June, 1776 the colonists, led by de Anza’s second in command, Jose Joaquin Moraga, established the Presidio and Mission at San Francisco.

de Anza Expedition Map  Courtesy of webdeAnza at uoregon.org

de Anza Expedition Map
Courtesy of webdeAnza at uoregon.org

(Then What? to be continued)

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In the last week we’ve birded at two of the most renowned birding areas in the US—in Patagonia along Sonoita Creek (a rare riparian habitat with year-round water on the east side of the mountains) and near our Southern Arizona home on the mountains’ western flanks up Madera Canyon where Madera Creek is currently flowing.

Broadbilled hummingbirdfrom Wikipedia Commons

Broadbilled hummingbird
from Wikipedia Commons

Patagonia was pretty much a bust (although Stan just might have spotted a rare grey hawk) but Madera Canyon more than made up for it. On the paved handicapped accessible trail our big sighting was a Lucy’s warbler, a rare though nondescript little grey bird (thank heavens there was a more seasoned birder around to point it out). It was also great to see a person birding from her motorized wheelchair.


Hepatic Tanager
from Wikipedia Commons

But up the road at the Santa Rita Lodge, we hit the jackpot. It doesn’t hurt that the Lodge provides public covered seating and about 15 feeders, including multiple hummingbird feeders. Birding doesn’t get much easier and the results were spectacular: Wilson’s warblers; acorn, Arizona (Strickland’s) and Gila woodpeckers; black-chinned, Anna’s, rufous and (that unbelievably beautiful iridescent blue/green with an orange bill) broad-billed hummingbirds; Mexican jays; lesser goldfinches; a Scott’s oriole and a hepatic tanager.

Vermillion flycatcherfrom Wikipedia Commons

Vermillion flycatcher
from Wikipedia Commons

We completed this trifecta of birding destinations (truly people come from around the world to bird here) with a trip to Tumacacori (a Spanish mission on the Santa Cruz River at the base of the mountains), where, perched on an adjacent picnic table, we spotted a pair of vermillion flycatchers!. We also added the silky flycatcher and pyrrhuloxia to our life lists.

All that’s missing is that pinnacle of southern Arizona birding the elegant trogon, a supposedly common bird in spring and summer at both Patagonia and Madera Canyon. Maybe next time.

Here are some photos of the riparian habitats these beautiful birds live in:

Sonoita Creek © SR Euston

Sonoita Creek © SR Euston

Madera Creek © SR Euston

Madera Creek © SR Euston

Santa Cruz River at Tucmacacori© SR Euston

Santa Cruz River at Tucmacacori
© SR Euston

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The structure, the form is the thing. The genius of the arch? I’m still in awe how engineering of the soaring arcs, meeting at the keystone, holds up the mass of Roman aqueducts, Gothic cathedrals, or even more humbly, rough hewn, adobe brick Spanish mission porticos. Even more remarkable, this elemental architectural and engineering form, going back to Roman times and before, has a symmetry of restful gracefulness, yet in cases—like in bridges—also power and boldness.

The architectural arch has been copied and recopied, oftentimes as a decoration, aka fake. It flourished especially in the California mission style of the first half the last century, only to remerge in subdivision McMansions, east and west, in an odd pastiche of styles. But if one is not a purist, even modern decorative arches I think can present  photographic possibilities of formal power.

Below are photo interpretations of mostly developer-designed modern mission style architectural arches from southern Arizona, some used for structural support, some as mere decoration. Also included are two bridges of very different design from coastal Oregon, and arch forms from historic, much photographed Mission San Xavier de Bac, south of Tucson, and crumbling arch ruins from Tumacacori Mission near Nogales. Here is authentic architecture straight from the Spanish-Mexican period.

I though about, but buried immediately, the idea of including a shot of the golden arches at the nearest McDonalds.The sacred and the profane so to speak. It could have been open to a lot of pseudo-philosophical interpretations, maybe even landing in a museum exhibit.  SRE

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