I took a camera with me on a drive down along US 93, which has been designated as a scenic route. The highway overlooks a landscape of rolling grassland that’s very different from the Sonoran desert habitat around it. Agriculture is practiced in the area, and there are several vineyards and wineries. I stopped at the Fairbank historic townsite to take pictures, but although there are some interesting structures there and the remains of the town’s cemetery, I was more taken with the clouds of grasshoppers that whirred up around my feet with every step through the grasses and the variety of other insects that made their home in the lush vegetation of the riparian area.
Cholla and prickly pear cacti are closely related inhabitants of the Sonoran Desert, although there is scientific discussion about exactly how closely related they are. Both are segmented cacti that form new joints with each growing season instead of just extending their existing forms as barrel cacti and saguaros do. Both reproduce through vegetative means, by rooting segments that fall to the ground around them. Some cholla reproduce exclusively this way; although their fruits do produce seeds, as do those of prickly pear cacti, their seeds rarely or never germinate, and new plants merely spring up from the segments that have fallen to their feet. It’s possible to find large stands of cholla that are all clones from one original plant.
Arizonans have a love-hate relationship with cholla. On the one hand, they’re natives that are worthy of respect because they survive in landscapes that are too dry even for prickly pear. On the other hand, anyone who unwarily steps too close to a jumping cholla will discover very quickly how the myths arose that gave them their common name. Joints between the segments are so fragile that even the slightest brush against one of them will detach it, and its barbed spines will lodge themselves firmly into fabric or flesh for transportation to a new place to take root.
As I left my office last night, I caught sight of this lizard on the sidewalk outside. According to A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, the orange head indicates that this is a female in the breeding season. She watched as the people around me left for the day and stayed in place while I fumbled my camera from my purse, waited while I shot a few frames and then skittered away into a drain below the sidewalk.
This morning I visited the Rincon Mountain Unit of Saguaro National Park. I’d driven past its entrance a few times in the past few years, and I can’t say that it made any sense at all to pick July as the time for a first visit. I checked in at the ranger station at around 8 a.m., behind a flock of bicyclists, with a ranger who asked me if I had plenty of water along and then assured me that if I kept my eyes open, I’d probably see some animals.
I was only a few hundred yards inside the park when my attention was captured by a female cardinal that flew across the Cactus Loop Road in front of me and perched on a tree by the roadside for only long enough to turn her head so I could see her crest silhouetted against the sun. Before I could stop the car and take my camera from its case, she’d disappeared into the brush. A few minutes later, I saw the bright scarlet flash of a male high in a tree on the other side of the road.
And thus it was throughout my visit — I caught sight of several birds and heard the calls of many more. I saw several rabbits as they raced across the hiking trail in front of me, and I saw lizards as they skittered from beneath one shrub to the next. Not one of them did me the honor of posing for a photo.
This is one of the many reasons I love to photograph wildflowers and trees — they’re so much less determined to escape from my lens. Every plant I shot today simply remained in place and patiently allowed me to shoot from as many angles as I liked.
I hadn’t expected to see any flowers today. Most of our desert plants flowered and set seed months ago, giving the seeds time to germinate and the plants to get a little jump on the summer’s heat, so it was a surprise to see yellow flowers blooming away just at the edge of the road. After my drive through the park, I stopped in at the visitor center and asked a young ranger what those yellow flowers are that are blooming right now. “We have a lot of yellow flowers,” she said as she reached for a binder. “Maybe we can find them in here.”
“I have pictures,” I said and showed her the camera.
“If you have pictures, that’s really going to help,” she said. I scrolled through the photos until I got back to a shot of the plant that showed leaves as well as flowers. She looked dubiously at it. “I don’t think we’re going to find that one in here,” she said, and she closed the notebook.
Another ranger came up and leaned over me to look at my camera screen. “That’s desert senna,” he said casually and then continued on his way.
The ranger with the notebook brightened and went across the room to the display of books for sale, pulled out a guidebook and brought it over for me to look at the entry for Desert senna. And there it was.
Desert senna, Senna covesii, is a legume, related to the pea, It’s a short shrubby perennial that can be as much as two feet high. Flowers are bright yellow with five separate and prominently veined petals that form a corolla around orange anthers. The plant has a long flowering season, particularly when there is abundant moisture from summer rains.
Well, that explains why it was blooming all over the place today. Our summer monsoon season has started, and southeastern Tucson got an inch of rain about a week ago. Desert plants don’t waste time after a shower like that — they’ll bloom in astonishing profusion when Nature has given the signal that the soil may hold enough moisture to allow seeds for the next generation to germinate.
After I’d photographed the flowers, I drove a little further up the road and stopped at a trailhead for a short hike, still hoping that I’d see animals that would hold still and pose for me. No luck, so I settled for saguaros, which always amaze me for the lessons they teach about making the best of the environment in which you find yourself. Saguaros grow under the shade of nursery plants on well-drained slopes, so quite often you’ll see them nestled in next to a tree or another cactus that they may have outgrown over time.
The odds against their survival are high while they’re young, but once they get past their first youth, they can live a long time. Cactus wrens take up residence in holes drilled into them, and they seal off the nest holes and grow on. They don’t sprout arms until they’re around 50 years old, so they’re a good reminder that in the great scheme of things, 50 is just not that old.
Very old saguaros are also very fragile, though. They store water in their trunks, so as they grow taller, they get very top-heavy, and they can be blown down in the winds that accompany our summer storms. If you look at the base of the young cacti in the photo above this one, you’ll see the skeletons of a previous generation lying at their feet.
Once in a while you’ll see one growing in a cristate form that scientists aren’t sure how to explain. Something happens to cause the top of the cactus to grow in many directions at once, fanning out from the trunk in a crest shape. There’s speculation that it’s caused by freeze damage or maybe a lightning strike, but nobody really knows. Cristate saguaros are rare, but Saguaro National Park is home to many. I didn’t see one today, though, so there’s much to look forward to for future visits.
Northern cardinals, Cardinalis cardinalis, are year-round residents of brushy desert habitat. They gather in pairs or small groups and feed on seeds, fruit and insect larvae. This fellow showed up in my back yard on a day when I’d put the expensive bird seed, the kind with the dried berries and sunflower and safflower seeds, out in the feeder. I cannot imagine how the birds know when the best seed is in the feeder, but it never fails that the goldfinches, pyrrhuloxia, and even woodpeckers show up within a couple of days after I’ve filled the feeders with the songbird seed and disappear again as soon as that bag is emptied and I’ve refilled the feeders with the less expensive seed.
Flowers of the Engelmann prickly pear bloom in May and last for just a day. Flowers of some plants age to orange the afternoon. They’ll be replaced on the plant by juicy fruits that ripen to varying shades of purple and red, depending on the particular plant.
Prickly pear cacti are closely related to the cholla, which both belong to the Opuntia genus. Both prickly pear and cholla cacti are very common in the Sonoran Desert
Once or twice a year a roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus, pops over my backyard fence for a look around, a drink from the birdbath, or simply a chance to pose for pictures. The bird will hang around, hopping from place to place along the fence and fluttering down to race across the yard, for a few hours and then vanish back over the fence, not to be seen again for a good long time.
Roadrunners are native to the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, and Mohave Deserts, and their diet consists of other animals — snakes, lizards, insects, rodents, and even other birds. They’re quick enough to kill and eat a rattlesnake or a hummingbird, so I suspect that it may be my flower beds as much as my bird bath that draws them in.
At the request of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who is married to Mark Kelly, the astronaut who commanded the space shuttle Endeavour on its final mission, NASA flew the Endeavour over Tucson, the congresswoman’s home, on its final flight from Houston to its new home at the California Space Center, where it is now on display.
San Francisco is such a beautiful city that it’s almost easy to forgive it for being a place where writers mostly starve. When I go there, I like to visit 608 Bush Street. It’s now a barber shop, but in 1979, it was a lodging house operated by Mary Carson, Robert Louis Stevenson lodged there for several weeks while he was trying to persuade Fanny Osbourne to divorce her husband and marry him instead. He’d met her in France, where she was studying painting, and fallen in love with her. She left him there and returned to California to rejoin her husband, possibly because her husband refused to continue to support her unless she returned home and brought her children with her.
Stevenson followed her across the ocean, without telling his parents that he was pursuing a woman who was older than he, married, and already a mother. He caught up with her in Monterey, where her husband Sam had taken the family for a long vacation in an attempt to repair a marriage that was very clearly on the rocks. Fanny wrote later about his arrival in Monterey: “I remember him walking into the room and the outcry of delight that greeted him, the incoherence of laughter, the tears, the heart-swelling joy of reunion.”
Her daughter Belle remembered it another way: “Louis’ conduct was not that of a romantic lover who had followed a sweetheart halfway round the world. Although he was gay and full of banter, he was almost coldly casual towards my mother and she to him,” she wrote later.
He couldn’t have been a prepossessing sight. Thin as a rail at the best of times, he’d just come across the ocean on an emigrant ship and then headed cross-country on a train in which the sleeping accommodations were minimal. Having spent the ocean crossing socializing with fellow passengers, exploring around the ship, and writing at the small table in his cabin, he spent the train trip babysitting the bratty children of an overburdened mother, itching from a rash that covered his hands, and sleeping on narrow boards that turned the train’s bench seats into sleeping accommodations. In 1888, he wrote, “I myself dread, worse than almost any other imaginable peril, that miraculous and really insane invention, the American railroad car. Heaven help the man — may I add the woman — that sets foot in one. Ah, if it were only an ocean to cross, it would be a matter of small thought to me — and great pleasure. But the railroad car — every man has his weak point; and I fear the railroad car as abjectly as I do an earwig, and, on the whole, on better grounds.”
By the time he arrived in Monterey, he was on the verge of physical collapse. In a letter to his friend Edmund Gosse, he said, “When I came here I had a week’s misery and a fortnight’s illness, and since then I have been more or less busy in being content…. I was pretty nearly slain; my spirit lay down and kicked for three days…”
While Fanny waffled about whether or not she wanted to leave Sam to marry a penniless writer who had made the supremely romantic gesture of following her across the ocean while planning to get a book out of the experience, Louis took off on a camping trip in the hills above Monterey. He collapsed there and was found on the verge of death by a pair of shepherds who owned an Angora goat ranch. They carried him back to their house and nursed him back to health. “I was up at an Angora goat-ranche in the Santa Lucia Mountains, nursed by an old frontiers-man, a mighty hunter of bears and I scarcely slept or ate, or thought for four days. Two nights I lay out under a tree in a sort of stupor, doing nothing but fetch water for myself and horse, light a fire and make coffee, and all night awake hearing the goat-bells ringing and the tree-frogs singing when each new noise was enough to set me mad. Then the bear-hunter came round, pronounced me ‘real sick,’ and ordered me up to the ranche,” as Stevenson told it in his letter to Edmund Gosse.
When he was well enough, he returned to Monterey, but Fanny still hadn’t made up her mind. He left her there and went to San Francisco, where he moved into the lodging house on Bush Street, where he lived on a starvation budget, took walks through the city and wrote her letters. A year later, he described San Francisco in an article he wrote for Fraser’s Magazine in an article that includes a prescient hint of the fire that would destroy the city following the earthquake of 1906: “Hill after hill is crowded with the palaces of San Francisco; its long streets lie in regular bars of darkness, east and west, across the sparkling picture; a forest of masts bristles like bulrushes about its feet… What enchantment of the Arabian Nights can equal the evocation of a roaring city, in a few years of a man’s life, from the marshes and the blowing sand… Such swiftness of increase, as with an overgrown youth, suggests a corresponding swiftness of destruction….”
In the end, it probably wasn’t so much the romance of it all as the collision between Stevenson’s weak lungs and San Francisco’s fogs that persuaded Fanny to show him some mercy. She moved him out of his room on Bush Street to a hotel in Oakland that was close enough to where she was living that she could nurse him. But when he started spitting up blood and both she and he were convinced that he was dying, she defied her qualms about her reputation and moved him into her cottage in Oakland, where he recovered enough to persuade her to take the chance of marrying him. The two of them left California along with Fanny’s children after she wrote a letter to his parents letting them know that their Louis was broke and sick and they sent him the money to buy passage back to Scotland for his new family.
There are at least 205 species of owls in the world. The common barn owl, Tyto alba, is resident in temperate regions around the world – anywhere that doesn’t have long periods during the year when the ground is snow-covered. Barn owls generally live in open countryside with scattered trees, and they’ll occupy empty buildings on occasion. The feathers of the facial disk direct sound toward the owl’s ears, and biologists have determined that barn owls are capable of hunting by sound alone. They typically eat small mammals but will also consume smaller birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects.