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.
Like many others interested in food, I have been following with interest the political conflict over whether food manufacturers should be required to label their products if they include genetically engineered ingredients. The outpost position is that perhaps manufacturers should be required to label their products if genetically modified organisms have been used at any stage of processing, including if the product contains meat from animals that were fed genetically modified corn, even if the end products themselves contain no trace of altered DNA. At the other end of the spectrum are the folks who think we should continue today’s voluntary practice of labeling products as GMO free. And of course, there are the folks who say this is all a tempest in a teapot.
In the mix, there are people who have contributed thoughtful comments to the discussion from their various points of view. You can read here what I have written for Gourmet News about Gary Hirshberg’s opinion that a possible link between glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, and cancer coupled with scientific data that shows that glyphosate has been found in water and soil samples in regions where it has been sprayed heavily ought to be enough to convince us that it’s time to require GMO labeling. Hirshberg is the former president and current chairman of Stonyfield Organic and the founder and chairman of the advocacy organization Just Label It!
To those who fear that the use of genetically engineered crops presents a danger to the safety of our nation’s food supply, Dr. Gregory Jaffe, Director of the Project on Biotechnology for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, had good news. You can read more about that here.
I’ve had the amazing experience this summer of spending a great deal of time learning about cheese and the people who make it, starting with a visit to northern California to learn how they were coping through the historic drought that has significantly affected the entire state’s water supply over the past few years. Unlike most other natural disasters, drought is a slow motion catastrophe: it’s not one dry winter or summer that’s necessarily disastrous — it’s the cumulative effects of too little water falling down onto a thirsty land. This year, California was a very thirsty land, but I found farmers there dealing with it with courage, conscientiousness and a deep sense of responsibility to their community. The story of that trip is documented in the fall edition of The Cheese Guide from Gourmet News, and you can see it here.
In addition, I had the pleasure of renewing my acquaintance with some of the folks I met in California at this year’s annual meeting of the American Cheese Society — an event that the organization calls Cheese Camp, which is just about as good a two-word description of the mood of the three-day event as you’re ever going to get. In addition to celebrating the best of this year’s American artisanal cheeses, the very best of which turned out to be a Canadian cheese called Celtic Blue Reserve from Glengarry Fine Cheese in Ontario, Canada, the event is an education in the art and craft of both contemporary American Originals cheeses and traditional Old World varieties, an update on regulatory issues affecting cheesemakers and a chance to meet some very special cheesemakers and cheesemongers.
And there was cheese everywhere, whole roomfuls of it. Cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner and after dinner. Cheeses I already knew and cheeses that were entirely new to me. Cheeses made by people I knew and cheeses made by people I still look forward to meeting. I loved every minute of it!
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