Category Archives: The Wilds

Woods in Spring Time

Beeches, great wonderful trees in lovely woods still carpeted with fall(en) leaves and still only the lightest shading of a new year’s green:

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Oaks:

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Wild garlic:

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And bluebells

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a mist of them through the trees

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Somehow they are never as beautiful in pictures as they are when you stand before them and your heart rises. The wild cherry trees are rather more photogenic.

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And this, my favourite picture of them all I think.

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These are all from the Chilterns, we were staying in Nettlebed for a wedding in Bix stealing the thunder from my birthday. Perhaps my favourite cousin was worth it. I love the chalky hills full of flint, the villages of old brick and flint in patterned beauty. I was hoping to find old chalk cottages but we never managed to get there. Instead we found mansion after mansion, fence after residential fence scattered through hills, and more than one of these new kinds of meadow:

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The people were absolutely the least endearing feature of this countryside. Though I will also never forget the cows.

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We made it back for wine however.

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Sonoran Desert Easter

Easter was one of my favourite days, a day to celebrate Spring and Handel on KCET and Easter baskets full of candy. I didn’t even mind church, it would smell like wax and masses of Easter lilies and the sermon would be about love and joyfulness and life and the hymns would be some of my favourites. Then home and an ever more challenging hunt for Easter Eggs and later a feast of a dinner…

But early Easter morning was mine and clear and bright and full of promise and I would wander out in my shabby old robe to pick flowers for the table and Spring in the Sonoran Desert is extraordinary though I think many people never see it. I love England’s banks of daffodils and masses of bulbs, but miss the more secret, delicate beauty of flowers that bloom amongst the rocks and gravel.

Penstemons:

Penstemons

And Phacelias, these do often grow in banks of glorious blue:

Phacelia

The queen of desert flowers because they are more rare and the colour of cobalt, larkspur:

Larkspur

Globemallows, these grow everywhere, especially in old lots throughout the city, thriving where nothing else seems to grow:

globemallows

Fiddleneck — but those little hairs along the stems hurt your hands, so I often left them out:

butterfly and fiddleneck

Desert Sage:

sage

sage

California poppies:

poppies

There were other poppies, tall and pale yellow and also rare. Desert honeysuckle:

trumpet flowers

Eriatrum Difussum or miniature woolystar — these carpeted the hill behind my house along with monoptilon bellioides:

Eriastrum Diffusum or Miniature Woolystar

monoptilon bellioides or Mojave Desertstar

Erigeron divergens:

Erigeron Divergens or Spreading Fleabane

Wild onion:

wild onion

Desert lupins (but is that what we called them or what they really are?)

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Fairydusters:

fairyduster

Not all of these went into the bouquets of course, clutched in my little hands and lovingly arranged. And there are a number that are missing from those recovered in this March expedition, like desert chicory. I took all of these pictures in the Spring of 2009, I can’t remember why I was in Tucson but it was the last Spring spent with my dad.

Funny that I was born on Easter Sunday, so I remember we used to treat it as more of a birthday than the day I was actually born, though I think that stopped when I was quite little. My dad died on Easter Sunday the year after I took these. I can’t decide now if it is a day too overburdened by significance, or good that life and death should all be wrapped up like this. It is not my decision anyway.

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I am often sad, however, that I am not still running around the desert in my sandals and faded blue dress.

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Apaches, Trails, Flats and Dam(n)s

From Apache Junction we headed east, out to Tortilla Flat. An old camp ground for prospectors, stagecoach stop, camp for the workers carving out the road and long-time tourist destination. Population 6.

Tortilla Flat

Tortilla Flat

Tortilla Flat

Tortilla Flat

Tortilla Flat

Canyon Lake:

Canyon Lake, AZ

The makers of the road, from the Tortilla Flat Museum:

Construction of the road began in 1903. Crews worked at both ends building towards each other. Nearly 400 Pima and Apache men worked on the road and later the dam.

Severe thunderstorms washed out sections of the road from time to time causing setbacks. However the crews prevailed, surmounting some of the most difficult construction challenges known up to that time.

Apaches were to do the roughest work on the road to the dam. And article read: ‘Where water is 4 miles distant and white men won’t labor, Indians will work for cheaper wages and will walk for the water.’

Tortilla Flat

War had raged through this basin between 1871 and 1875 as General Crook fought to force the Apaches into the reservations.

After short, brutal wars with the government a Military Reserve of 900 square miles was established in 1871 to accommodate both groups. However, this Reserve was rescinded by Presidential Order in 1875 and all of the people, Yavapai and Apache alike, numbering around 1,700, were forcibly marched to the San Carlos agency east of Phoenix. By the late 1890′s the reservation system was breaking down and beginning in 1900 the survivors of the removal began drifting back to their home country in small family groups. In 1909 a postage stamp reservation was established in Camp Verde, followed by additional parcels in Middle Verde, Clarkdale and Rimrock. Today the descendants of these stalwart Yavapai and Apache people live in communities totaling about 600 acres.
Intertribal Council of Arizona, Inc.

This explains the shift from warriors to exploited workers, part of the economics of oppression and broken treaties.

After Tortilla Flat, State Route 88 shortly turns to dirt (a surprise, that, I didn’t do my homework and didn’t realise any state routes were still dirt). It is well graded, but very narrow in places as it winds through a spectacular canyon wilderness. I was pretty glad to get to the bottom, I think my passenger was even happier. I honored the men who built it. Definitely drive it from Apache Junction to Roosevelt Dam so you get to the hug the inside of those hairpin curves and watch the views opening out beneath you.

Apache Trail

Apache Trail

Apache Trail

Apache Trail

Apache Trail

Apache Trail

Apache Trail

Apache Trail

Apache Trail

Apache Lake:

Apache Trail

Apache Trail

You can get a better sense of the road looking back at it winding over the hills:

Apache Trail

Apache Trail

Roosevelt Dam:

Made entirely of mortared blocks of stone and brick, Roosevelt Dam created what was in 1911 the world’s largest artificial lake – Roosevelt Lake with a million-acre-foot capacity, a depth of up to 190 feet and 89 miles of shoreline. Wrestling the 344,000 cubic yards of masonry into place in the remote, flood-prone canyon proved unexpectedly dangerous. During construction, which relied on an innovative 1,200-foot-long cable line with iron scoops that could hold 10 tons of rock and mortar, 42 men died.
Arizona Scenic Roads

Roosevelt Dam

Roosevelt Dam

Roosevelt Dam

Roosevelt Dam

The spectacular Route 188 bridge:

I love bridges.

State Route 188 bridge

State Route 188 bridge

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Ironwood Forest National Monument

Round and about Ragged Top:

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Kartchner Caverns

It is full of shadows, depths, spaces with a presence and a texture. Against these, between these, through these spaces the formations stand clumped or alone, strange and wonderful and misshapen. The skill of the lighting picks out the speleothems: tiny and delicate twigs and antlers, the fragile and luminous curtains, the massive and awe-inspiring flows. Above them all arches the roof, itself a thing of wonder, a broken and shifting mass of banded limestone that hides mystery in its fractures and faultlines.

It is much about the spaces of darkness as the wondrous formations of calcite dropped and bubbled and crystallised and soda-strawed by water laden with minerals and pigments that has worked its tortuous ways through the limestone to create. It is still creating.

I just wanted to sit there and stare. Drink in. Feel. Something shifts inside of you in places like this.

I still remember the excitement when the knowledge of these caves was made public — 1988, and I was just a kid. We’d only ever seen the fake (but very impressive) caves at the Desert Museum, and trying to imagine something magnitudes bigger, more wonderful, more beautiful…I stretched high and wide to do it.

I failed, but not for lack of trying.

Even then mum had impressed upon us the wonderful gift that Kartchener Caverns were, how important it was that they get it right, that they protect such a thing of wonder and age still living and growing. The story of how they had been discovered and that secret kept hidden, protected for fourteen years as the cavers Tenen and Tufts and the Kartchners tried to figure out how they could be protected — well that story always wrapped those caves around like a blanket, and gave their fabled wonder even more strength. Even that young we knew that people ruin things like that if you do not protect them. When the waiting list stretched to years for entry once it finally opened to the public, I think I nodded, unsurprised. It was expensive. Not for folks like us. I was still glad they were protecting it though.

Fifteen more years of exploring all over Southern Arizona and I still had never been.

We went today, and they were more beautiful than I had imagined. Bigger and stranger and more wonderful.

Even now, the theme of stewardship, of these caves as something that belongs to the people and need to be cared for by us so that they can still be there for our children and grandchildren is what is emphasised most. It made me happy, I wish we had more talk like this.

We were in the Big Room. Words fail, as do pictures, to give you any sense of what it is like to stand there

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Courtesy of AZ State Parks
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Courtesy of AZ State Parks

Pictures flatten it out somehow, remove that echoing sense of vast enclosed space. Remove some of the awe. Remove the warmth and the humidity and the smell of rock breathing. Still, it was torture not to be able to take pictures or just sit there and stare, try and drink all of it in. Other people deserve a turn here though, and the tours are always full.

What surprised me most were the formations, these wonderful rippled sheets I had never seen before:

Kartchner-Caverns
Courtesy of Kartchner Caverns State Park

Helictites, ‘eccentric’ stalactites that have defied gravity, twisted and turned and curled upon themselves. Fried egg formations, formed of crystal so that light shines through them. 1-centimeter crenellations ridging and rippling up and down certain formations as they do in caves all around the world, and no one knows why (how much do I love the unknown, the undiscovered, the still-waiting and still-inexplicable). Lips and ledges and wonders of all kinds.

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Courtesy of Michael Chow/The Arizona Republic
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Courtesy of AZ State Parks

From April to October this room is a nursery for myotis bats and we yield it to them for the summer — that was perhaps one of my favourite facts. We will be back to see the Throne Room and Rotunda, but I wouldn’t mind making this a yearly pilgrimage.

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Seven Falls

Seven Falls, oasis in the desert.

IMG_0088You can see a person in the picture for scale if you look hard enough. There were a lot of people on the trail sadly, probably walking off immense dinners like us.

We escaped to Sabino Canyon all the time when I was little, a long drive and then a short enough walk you could (well, my mum and dad could) carry an ice chest, we’d bring food to barbecue and swim in the stream. We knew all the deepest holes, the best places to slide down rocks. I don’t think we made it up Bear Canyon until I was older, high school maybe. Plenty of hiking to do around our own house, though no waterfalls.

Still, it’s one of those places I have layers of memories for. Some aren’t even mine, like my brother’s friend getting airlifted out after casually reaching for a football they’d been throwing around in one of the pools and getting caught in the undertow and sucked over one of the falls.

My own fiercest memory is of hiking it after getting bitten on the thigh by something I never saw (never be lazy and leave your jeans on the floor, never, I know this). I hiked up here about three days after, when my leg was aching and the bruised area around the bite still expanding. With my flesh turning black and liquifying, it was definitely a spider. Not as bad as many I’ve seen, so I was lucky.  Still, I have memories of that ache, remembered a stretch or two where I had been sure I wouldn’t make it. I made it. I was a lot prouder and stupider in those days.

My favourite memory is walking along the banks beneath the mesquites, the air full of the smell of sage, my mum and dad hand in hand somewhere behind me.

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This last trip was just beautiful, though so cold — snow on the Rincons, and ice on the puddles. The water was higher than I ever remember it, and I forgot just how many times the trail crosses it (seven), balanced precariously on stones. There was a bit of jumping. I loved it, loved seeing the desert so lush and knowing the wildflowers will be probably be absolutely gorgeous this spring, though I won’t be there to see them.

My partner had a hard time calling this desert.

There was a sliver of silver moon above us the whole afternoon, and my camera mostly loved the contrasts between light and shadow. But for the falls themselves it made the pictures less than what I was hoping for…
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Extraordinary (if frightening) trilobite


I know it’s impossible to believe that anything as extraordinary as the trilobite above should be mine (all mine and absolutely no one else’s ever…one of my few ridiculous materialisms) but so it is. Happiness.

Trilobite – Order Lichida
Superfamily Odontopleuroidea – Family Odontopleuridae
Lower Devonian
Fossil Site: Hamar Laghdad Formation, Zerg, Morocco

Jellyfish and other wonders

Cnidarians. Schyphozoa. Hydromedusae. Science is full of these amazing Latin words that evoke the world’s riches, and the words are no more beautiful than the creatures they name.

You can watch them, well…I could watch them for hours. A graceful inhaling-exhaling dance through the water, a ripple of translucent flesh that catches the light as they pulse effortlessly through the world’s oceans. They are a wonder of gelatinous color and texture.

Though many of them are almost invisible in the ocean. They have no internal systems, breathing through the diffusion of oxygen through their skin, absorbing nutrients through the lining of their gastrovascular cavity. They do not have a nervous system but a nerve net.

The large groups of them found in the oceans are called blooms.

There are males and females, but they don’t really mate. That would have been another wonder to behold. Instead they release eggs and sperm (in a multitude of different ways), which combine and form tiny polyps. Attached to a surface, these polyps grow, and they reproduce asexually…releasing tiny jellies or medusas into the great watery world. It’s extraordinary. What happens to the polyps after this? Do they ever long for freedom?

Medusa of the water, I love that image…another kind of mermaid. One with snakes. One that flowers, stings, kills, eats its own. Moves through the oceans, sometimes with a will, sometimes without.

And some of them are fixed…the upside-down jellyfish:

They have traded their freedom for a symbiotic relationship with the things that live in their tentacles, generating nutrients…

I’ve had a nature documentary sort of weekend really, we went to the California Academy of Sciences, the amazing new(ish) museum in Golden Gate Park, we waited ages to get in but it was entirely worth it. They have nautili. And peacock shrimp. And sculpins and lumpfish. And giant sea bass and these sea horses with amazing leaves to camouflage them and an albino alligator and a lion fish and a COELOCANTH! Holy shite, the prehistoric fish that they thought had been extinct for millions of years before one popped up suddenly in the 30’s some time. Or was it the 20’s? Amazing either way. The Coelocanth is sitting in formaldehyde of course. And a lungfish, the fish that can breath in air and water, a key for how evolution could have happened and the emergence of life from water to land. And a giant salamandar. Several feet long, one of the more amazing things I’ve ever seen.

And then the Aquarium on the Bay, which I also loved…I’m going to learn to scuba dive. It’s decided. And there have been other adventures, but more soon.

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Chortling Chinchillas and Jabberwocks

So I was having a conversation with a friend about the word chortle, I really love this word… I would like to chortle, I think I might from time to time, but generally speaking it always seemed to me something that plump people do, a deep belly chuckle that involves a lot of happy stomach jiggling. Or babies who are always round and, well, rather fat, and do a good bit of chortling when not drooling or crying. Being tall and thin, it seemed rather beyond my abilities…though I swear I never giggle.

I was happy to find that apart from people with large bellies, chortling is also a technical term used to describe some of the communication between chinchillas. Just look at this:

I don’t know the genius who is responsible for this sign, nor quite how to explain the presence of chinchillas at San Francisco’s aquarium on the bay, but was very happy about both.

Still, the word chortle seemed to require a bit more investigation. So investigate I did. And was astounded and amazed to find that the word was actually invented by Lewis Carroll in the immortal poem Jabberwocky (at least, that’s what wiktionary says).

Now I have been in love with this poem ever since I first read it at a very tender age, it is perhaps my favourite poem of all time, though my love for it is slightly different then my love for the poetry of Akhmatova, Neruda, Heaney, and even Poe. And it’s a bit…well no, I am immensely excited and happy and well nigh overjoyed in the amazement to find it was first coined there in 1871

‘O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ He chortled in his joy.

I never knew. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says it can also mean to sing or chant exultantly, but I think they’re utterly wrong, and obviously not as in tune with the great Carrollian mind as I am…how could they say such a thing after writing that the etymology of the word is “probably a blend of chuckle and snort?”

But I think this much discussion calls for the complete poem

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

And I am newly reminded about the importance of using frabjous much more regularly. Of whiffling and burbling and the sound of snicker-snack. I do often use galumph, having once had a cat who used that as his regular mode of transport. And I know this is an out and out nonsense poem that has since had reams of very learned sillyness written about it, but ’twas magical the world it created for me as a kid. And the doors it opened in language. And the frumious bandersnatch remains one of my favourite creatures ever…I’m still hoping to meet one, though not in a dark alley.

And it only adds to the happiness of chortling chinchillas.

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Carrizo Plain

I woke up Sunday morning, fell back asleep, had a brilliant dream, woke up again, made coffee. It was a bit of a late night at Allegra’s house party the night before, reggaeton and some dancing, beer and a contact high. So I treated myself, and lay in bed reading The Urban Question by Manuel Castells and maybe dozed a bit more through that, it’s heavy going. Though good for a chuckle when he starts to rumble with Lefebvre if you’re an urban planning nerd like me…

And then Bev called to say they were heading north after all, so I threw on some clothes. Jeans and a T-shirt here in the LA sunshine, but by the time we arrived in Gorman on the I-5 it was snowing.

Snowing! I love the inconsistencies of snow in Southern California a short drive from home, and the brightly capped peaks that lie to the left of the 5.

I have no proof, I took shots of the wet flakes in vain, and nothing was sticking. But Gorman is coloured beautiful with flowers,

even though the poppies and trumpet flowers were closed up tight against the weather. Wish I had that ability as well, I took this shot through my tears, they were rolling down my cheeks from the cold of the wind. Needless to say I was not prepared for snow, though I did have a sweater. We drove the 5 and then down along the 166, past row upon row of grapes, peaches, citrus trees. Past oil derricks and the weathered wood of abandoned buildings and bridges with their twisted rusted metal. And up into the hills and down again onto Carrizo Plain.

It was a day of wide expanses, a world of sun and shadow. And salt flats. And flowers.

The great San Andrea’s fault runs down through the basin, plain to the view, and if California ever cleaves in two with half of it falling into the ocean? It will crack along this line, this understated source of seismic unrest and quaking earth. It’s quite extraordinary to think you could walk along this slight cleft in the ground and never know the power that lies beneath you.

The flowers, our reason for driving, were incredible carpets of yellow. Poppies were all hiding their heads and we only saw a few clumps of lupins, but the various sunflowers?

Dancing in the wind…exuberant, short lived, glorious. As we walked up this mountainside, crickets sprang from underfoot, hundreds of them, and they sang low and sweet and from all directions. And all of this is almost side by side with Soda lake. It is filled entirely by run off from its large basin, and sometimes dries almost completely. The water leaves an eerie beauty in its wake, mud encrusted with brilliantly white alkaline salts.

Death and life once again, I find them everywhere!

The drive back homeward was full of afternoon light and storm clouds, and great expanses of rolling hills that are one of the landscapes I love best.

And one of the best shots of the year below. The Pogues were playing, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die, black hell! Hell’s ditch.” And I don’t know I disagree, which gives an enormous sense of pleasure and transgression to be out in this beautiful world and joyful, a day stolen from the world’s ravages

The sun was setting as we drove through McKittrick, and then Buttonwillow, and I caught this shot of grower owner an operated gin, cotton gin I imagine! I remember reading about them in school though I’ve really no idea what a cotton gin does…still, cooperatives make me happy, especially when the sky is rosy and their surroundings beautiful.

We stopped to eat, and then drove back down over the grapevine, the dark sky carpeted with millions of stars the way it should be. And so while I could possibly name a couple of things that could make me happier with their presence, being happy is quite enough.

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