Category Archives: Nature


Montana Moose

The National Bison Association was kind enough to invite me to Montana for the International Bison Association Conference that happens only once every five years. I have learned a whole lot about bison and the people who are raising it for the American meat market, and I’ll be writing about that for Gourmet News. But for myself, I took some time in a break between sessions to take a little hike up the Moose Tracks Trail behind the Big Sky Resort, which was the venue for the conference. Along the way, i learned how the trail got its name. I’d never, ever seen a moose before, so this was spectacular, especially since she seemed happy just to pose for long enough to let me get several pictures. I was just moving along the trail again when she decided to move along also, and it was at that moment that a calf popped up from where it had been lying behind a bush to follow its mother!DSC_5155


It caught up to its mother, walked in under her belly, and started butting her udder. She put up with the calf’s increasingly frustrated attempts to get some milk and then decided that enough was enough and wandered along on her way, her calf following behind. DSC_5176

Waking up in My Own Bed

I woke up just at first light, lay awake for a little while beginning to turn the idea for this essay over in my head and then drifted back to sleep again. The mattress on my bed here at home is well past its “use by” date, and it’s begun to develop a few little lumps here and there, but the springs are still tight. It’s not uncomfortable by almost any reasonable measure, but that’s the best you can say for it if you’re being objective, which, of course, anyone engaged in such intimacy as sleeping with it never is. But after a few days of being away, anywhere away, it’s wonderful to come home to, luxurious and welcoming.

Waking up at Grand Canyon over the last few days was surreal. With my foam pad under me, I was deliciously comfortable, and I awakened each morning to rapturous birdsong, the robins chirruping overhead in the Ponderosa pines, the woodpeckers knocking away as they hammered for bugs, ravens calling to each other as they spied over the campground below them, collaborating or contesting over which of them would be robbing any food left out in the open or scattering any aluminum foil crumpled into a fire ring. The exuberance of morning in the national park was delightful, and of course, part of that delight was simply that it wasn’t home.

But after that few days away, it’s so good to come home and be greeted by the chirps of my house finches, the whit-wheat of the curve-billed thrashers, the chatter of the cactus wrens and the distant cooing of mourning doves. It’s cloudy here and looks like we might get some monsoon rains today, which would be a blessing if it helps to break the heat. It was 111 degrees yesterday when I arrived home, and so the camping equipment that can stand the heat is still mostly packed in the car for me to unload before it gets too hot today.

I still have most of the other unpacking and reorganizing chores to do, so I’m glad that I left myself a day at home in which to do them. The plan for the day is to get that done in the morning, the tent unpacked and repacked properly, since at the campsite I stowed it away in its bag and then turned around and saw its fly still draped across a lawn chair like Mae West on a Victorian parlor sofa; the camp kitchen to be stowed inn its proper place in my garden shed after I have extracted the cast iron pans that I also use at home; places to find for the two new tarps I acquired at Grand Canyon after someone else had discarded them next to the trash container.

Then I’ll ease myself back into my real life – the one in which I’m not a casual camper who doesn’t really like going to bed smelling of smoke – I understand the allure of the campfire for others, but I’ll always bless whoever thought up both the charcoal briquet and the fuel-burning stove as better alternatives for actual cooking. By easing myself back into my real life, what I really mean is easing myself back into my working life. I am going off to Montana in a couple of weeks for a conference on bison, a topic about which I know next to nothing, and I need to study up. We’ll be talking about bioregenerative agriculture, and what I know about that so far is merely that it’s supposed to be good for the land if the soil is turfed up by the hooves of nomadic herds of large ungulates, and that modern bison ranching involves intensive management to simulate what those animals would have done in the prehistoric wild. I know that it’s being thought that, if it’s managed this way, the prairies sequester carbon, which is a help in the fight against climate change. But that’s all I know, and it’s not enough.

The chance to take a day and do some research is why I left the Grand Canyon and the relative coolness of northern Arizona a day earlier than I really had to. My plan now is simply to find the research materials I need on the Internet, print them out, and take them with me when I leave for New York on Friday so that I can read it all on the plane on the way there.

Thus I manage my life as an urban dweller who’s interested in rural life, the agriculture that provides the food resources that make the cities I love and my life in them possible. I am a spiritual descendant of Thomas Jefferson in that way, although I hope without the moral deficit that allowed him simply to overlook the gross inhumanity of slavery and all that implied. I’m referring simply to his deep interest in agriculture and the natural world folded into a life of urban sophistication. Mercifully, the moral ambiguities there are not a problem that I have to deal with today. Today is for tidying away the camping gear and using the Internet to learn about bison.

Import/Export Imbalance for Organic Food Signals a Problem

While sales of organic foods are booming in this country, the number of acres actually devoted to producing that food is going down. What’s happening is that the American demand for organic food is driving us to import more, and we haven’t made it worthwhile for enough American farmers to turn to organic production. On the other hand, American farmers are exporting organic apples, lettuce, grapes, spinach and strawberries — just not enough to balance out all of the organic food we’re now importing. You can read more about this in an article I wrote for Gourmet News that you can find here.

This is very serious, and although it applies only to organic agricultural production, it’s an important symptom of what’s really happening to our American food system. In the United States, we’re used to thinking of ourselves as the nation that feeds the world, but we’re rapidly losing farms and farmers along with the wealth of agricultural knowledge that’s inside their heads. The average age of the American farmer is climbing towards 60, and as these farmers age out of farming, many of them have no succession plans for their land and operations. If this doesn’t change, it’s going to threaten our food supply and it’s going to result in the abandonment of this land or its redevelopment for other uses that will rob us of the important wildlife habitat that our farms provide as well as the other benefits that come from healthy land.

Autumn Sage

Autumn Sage

I have several autumn sage, Salvi greggii, bushes in my back yard. I love them for their bright scarlet flowers that attract hummingbirds and hummingbird moths and because they’re very drought-tolerant. When they do get water, they bloom profusely a few days later throughout the late spring, summer and fall.

They have scratchy stems that leave long bleeding claw marks along my forearms whenever I weed under them, but the aromatic scent that the foliage leaves on my skin is more than worth any pain from the scratches.

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There are many species of tarantulas across the desert southwest, and I made the acquaintance of this one on the Rim Trail at Grand Canyon. This one’s probably a male and, since they’re usually nocturnal predators, it may have been venturing away from its burrow in search of a female. Male tarantulas mature when they’re 10 or 12 years old and usually don’t survive long after they mate. Sometimes they get eaten by the females; sometimes they’re killed by other predators; sometimes they just die of exposure. DSC_1186 (2)



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.

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Spiny Lizard

DSCN0151As 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.