Category Archives: Special Places

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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.

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Saguaro National Park

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.

DSC04903“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.

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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.DSC04932

 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.

 

 

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Cardinals

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.

 

 

 

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San Francisco

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.