Saturday, January 30, 2010

Souvenir of the Wonders of Arizona Part 3 - Human Presence

Our third installment on the Curt Teich & Co. postcard book "Souvenir of the Wonders of Arizona" will focus on the human presence included in the set. Human influence and presence appear throughout the depictions the landmarks. As discussed in the last post, Native Americans are included to add an element of something exotic to the state. The unfortunate diminishing of the Native Americans and the Mexican family to attractions are only two examples of how the human presence pervades the postcards. Engineering and architectural accomplishments appear alongside natural marvels. The Roosevelt Dam and Lake Roosevelt (pictured in yesterday's post), completed in 1911, were immediate engineering accomplishments around the time that the postcards were printed. Their inclusion in the book reflect national pride in these accomplishments.
Point of Rocks, Granite Dells, Prescott, Arizona
From the 19th to the early 20th century, train travel moved tourists from the East out West.  Railroad companies were instrumental in promoting the natural marvels of the West and the creation of the National Parks system. Including the train in this postcard of Point of Rocks in Prescott is a tacit reminder of how to visit and how tourism was situated in the development of the character of the Southwest.
El Tovar, Grand Canyon, Arizona
The El Tovar hotel, finished in 1905, is yet another reminder of the role of tourism in the development of the West. While one of the postcards depicting the Grand Canyon without a human presence, the second depiction of the canyon highlights El Tovar. The hotel is a magnificent example what is colloquially referred to as "Parkitecture."
A Typical Copper Mining Camp
The Roosevelt Dam, the lake, the railroad, all reveal human influence on the Arizonan environment. The postcard of the mining camp reminds us the exploitation of the land. Mining is a huge industry in Arizona. Towns such as Bisbee and Jerome began as mining towns. Unfortunately, much of the mining is open pit mining, which is incredibly destructive and produces huge amounts of waste. It's a classic battle of what we need vs how we're willing to sacrifice our environment. One example of the debate that is currently going on revolves around the continued threat of an open pit copper mine on or near the Santa Rita Mountains. The Santa Ritas are part of Coronado National Forest and a popular hiking/camping destination. Learn more here at Save the Scenic Santa Ritas.

The presence of people throughout the postcard set reveals the value of using the land. What's displayed is that the land is an object and a space that is meant to be used by people and that it draws its value not from natural beauty or inherent grandeur, but rather from our interaction with it. As you can probably assume from yesterdays post, when I say "our" in relation to the postcard book and its historical moment, I'm referring to white Americans. There is, of course, a political element to everything, even old postcard books.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Souvenir of the Wonders of Arizona Part 2 - The Collector's Dilemma

Typical Mexican Family
In my second installment on the Curt Teich & Co. postcard book, "Souvenir of the Wonders of Arizona" I want to address a topic that is sometimes troubling for collectors of old things. When we buy old things, we give an object a new chapter in its history - as a collectible or artifact - but that object remains an expression of its creator and has inscribed upon it that creator's values and beliefs, not the current owner's. They express values that were socially acceptable (or, if not acceptable, widespread) at the time they were created.Oftentimes, these objects present racism, sexism, or environmental exploitation. For example, the postcard above displays the caption "Typical Mexican Peon Home and Family." Obviously, using the term "peon" to describe a rural farming family is inappropriate and offensive. The fact that the family displayed is Mexican, makes race/ethnicity/nationality an issue as well. It seems unlikely that they would be featured as a some sort of anthropological tourist attraction if they were American, and they certainly wouldn't have been referred to as "peons." Are rural Mexican farmers really a "Wonder of Arizona?"
Indian Squaw Making Baskets
"Wonders of Arizona" also presents Native Americans as tourist attractions and, in my opinion, reduces their humanity by contextualizing them among natural wonders (Grand Canyon and Thumb Butte) and architectural wonders (San Xavier and the State Capital). One might argue that Native American culture and history is an important aspect of Arizona that visitors benefit from exploring, but it's not THAT the Native Americans are displayed here that should make it offensive to our contemporary sentiments, but HOW. It's not the richness of their heritage or art that's foregrounded; rather, what visitors to Arizona can see is the castrated and contained natives, such as this "Indian Squaw" weaving.
Apache Indians, Roosevelt Lake
"Wonders of Arizona" celebrates Native American provincialism. The message is "come see something harmless; strange people who aren't us and aren't modern." They're colored very darkly, so darkly that their features become obscured. The irony above is that this Apache family is seated next to the newly constructed Roosevelt Lake. Their old way is set against the backdrop of a modern marvel.
Petrified Giant, Petrified Forest
As with the Apache by Roosevelt Lake, this Native American woman appears in the postcard of petrified forest to add an element of exoticism to the scene. She, like the petrified tree she stands by, are relics of past times. Both are on display to the visitor of Arizona.
Navajo Blanket Weaver
Out of all the postcards, only this depiction of "Elle of Ganado" (there's a real authentic Navajo name for you) presents an individual with her humanity intact. Her features are visible, she sits on something other than the ground, and, most importantly, she is named. Her context remains troublesome, though admiration is clearly expressed for her craft.
Hopi Indian Pueblo
So I suppose the concluding question is, "If your collectible evokes such strong negative feelings, why collect it? Why not sell it or destroy it?" Here's my answer and I doubt it will be entirely satisfactory. The object and the message inscribed in it can be recontextualized. The collected antique or relic necessarily changes from it's original purpose. I don't own the "Wonders of Arizona" postcard book for the same reason it Carl Teich & Co. created it. I didn't buy it and send it, like L.T. Brookman did to Myrtle Harnett, as a representation of the wonders of Arizona.  As the owner of this postcard book, I can redefine the messages contained within. I can do something as drastic as post this discussion, or I could do something as subtle as inform my future daughter or son (if s/he ever comes along) that "This is one hundred years old. We don't call Native American women squaws anymore. It's disrespectful." The power lies in the collector, not the collectible. In fact, I think it's responsible when modern collectors save troublesome objects precisely because it keeps the past in the present and allows for discussion of changing values and past mistakes.

For a perhaps more troublesome and moving discussion on this topic, visit Without Sanctuary, a website run my James Allen, a collector of lynching postcards.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Souvenir of the Wonders of Arizona Part 1

I purchased this postcard book a while back and I've put off writing on it until now. If you read this blog consistently, you may have noticed that I get a lot of mileage out of a single postcard. Well, this postcard book contains many, so I had to think of some way into a discussion of the book without just posting individual pictures and writing about them.
State Capital, Phoenix Ariz
What I thought I'd do is thematically post on the various conversations that can arise from such an apparently simple object as this postcard book. I'll begin today with a historical exploration of the book. As a student of print culture and material culture, I frequently approach texts from a viewpoint that seeks to reclaim historical information, but also to explain how the text fit into its particular historical moment; I study 18th century American crime and punishment, so I'm used to older texts with less to go on. Am I getting too abstract here? Sorry...I'll regroup and get to the history. 
Cactus Flower of the Desert
O.K. While the postmark is a bit hard to read,  it appears to read Aug. 1, 1912. Though there is no date of printing on the postcard book, I would place it before 1918 for several reasons. 1. None of the postcards depict structures built after 1912 (for example the Roosevelt Dam and El Tovar Hotel) and 2. additions were added to the west side of the State Capital in 1918 that are not pictured in the postcard of the Capital.  The photo of a car and the dress of the men appear early 20th century as well. The description from the inside flap states that Arizona had 204,354 in the 1910 census. The 1920 census found 350,000 residents in Arizona. Finally, one of the cards has a C on it. The booklet was printed by Curt Teich & Co. Teich and Co put letters and codes on their postcards to indicate when they were printed. The C series was between 1905 and 1926, though dates for cards marked with C were not as well recorded as some other series.
Cactus and Sage Brush
The postcard book was sent from "L. Brookman c/o N.Y. Life Ins. Co, Phoenix, Ariz." to "Mrs. Myrtle Harnett 1007 McCullough St., Lansing Michigan." I couldn't find out much about these folks except that it looks like Mrs. Harnett passed away in 1975.
Fish Creek Hill Apache Trail
As mentioned above, the postcard book was printed by Curt Teich & Co. of Chicago, Illinois. Curt Teich is most famous for the "Greetings from..." postcard series that feature the name of a city or state in big, bold letters. Each letter usually contains a picture of a landmark of the city or state.

So there are the facts about the object. Tomorrow I'll get into further discussions of the content.
Wonders of Arizona Description

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Lost Dutchman Claims Another Fortune Hunter

The caption on the reverse reads: "Where fortune hunters still seek the famous "Lost Dutchman Mine" with its multi-million dollar horde of pure gold. As seen along highways 60-70-80 & 89 in Arizona."

Some of these fortune hunters aren't so fortunate. Last week AZCentral ran a story about a man from Colorado named Jesse Capen who recently disappeared in the Superstitions while searching for the Lost Dutchman Mine. You can read that story here. Rescue workers have found his Jeep and camping supplies and he's been gone over a month. For some reason the story felt the need to quote his mother's concern that he was bitten by a rattlesnake or injured/eaten by a bear. The sad truth is that he probably became lost and dehydrated, but they haven't found him yet so I suppose it's ok to keep our fingers crossed. Here's another warning against venturing into the wilderness unprepared.

The Lost Dutchman Gold Mine is a fantastic legend. The story evolved into various versions, but the core of the tale focuses on a German immigrant named Jacob Waltz. In 1891, Waltz delivered a deathbed confession to his nurse, Julia Thomas, claiming that he had discovered a mine and revealing the location. Searches turned up nothing.

In 1931, treasure hunter Adolph Ruth was shot and killed searching for the mine. He disappeared and his remains were later discovered with two bullet holes in his head. Ruth's demise ignited the subsequent frenzy of interest in the Lost Dutchman Mine. Many treasure hunters have entered the Superstitions looking for the mine; they've produced no gold, just stories.

Most likely, there is no Lost Dutchman Gold Mine in the Superstition Mountains. Jesse Capen chased foxfire from a folktale. In doing so, he may become part of that tale, immortalized in the Lost Dutchman Legend along with Waltz, Ruth, and others. It's an unhappy way to write your chapter, but apparently there are no happy chapters in the Lost Dutchman Legend.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West

In Chapter Sixteen of Cormac McCarthy's harrowing tale of Apache hunters, the Judge and his band follow the Santa Cruz river through southern Arizona to Tucson. I thought it would be fun to show their path with some quotes from the novel.
"The following day they passed the old mission of San José de Tumacacori and the judge rode off to look at the church which stood about a mile off the track....The old church was in ruins and the door stood open to the high walled enclosure. When Glanton and his men rode through the crumbling portal four horses stood riderless in the empty compound among the dead fruit trees and grapevines."

They leave Tumacacori and pass through the abandoned presidio of Tubac. (Unfortunately, Tubac Presidio, an Arizona State Park, is about to be abandoned again due to the state's inability to manage money...). They continue on to San Xavier Mission.
"They rode that night through the mission of San Xavier del Bac, the church solemn and stark it the twilight. Not a dog barked. The clusters of Papago huts seemed without tenant. The air was cold and clear and the country there and beyond lay in a darkness unclaimed by so much as an owl. A pale green meteor came up the valley floor behind them and passed overhead and vanished silently in the void."

After passing through San Xavier, they encounter a band of Chiricahua and  arrive the presidio of Tucson.  There Glanton and the Judge look for recruits. In the process, Jackson blows the head off of a cantina owner.
Holgaroid Alley BW 66/365
"At dawn on the outskirts of the presidio of Tucson they  passed the ruins of several haciendas and they passed more roadside markers where people had been murdered. Out on the plain stood a small estancia where the buildings were still smoking and along the segments of a fence constructed from the bones of cactus sat vultures shoulder to shoulder facing east to the promised sun, lifting one foot and then the other and holding out their wings like cloaks."

In Blood Meridian, Tucson is primarily a military outpost. McCarthy's juxtaposes a well-researched, realistic portrayal of mid-nineteenth century Arizona against the terrifying, murderous, almost post-apocalyptic descriptions of the violence of the Apache Wars and the other-worldly Judge. If you've never read this book, be forewarned that it's super-violent and not for everyone. That being said, in my opinion, it's McCarthy's strongest work by far.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Dook'o'oosliid (San Francisco Peaks, Arizona)

The San Francisco Peaks surround the city of Flagstaff, Arizona. It's about two hours drive north of Phoenix, but it feels like a completely different world from the Sonoran Desert. Here's what the postcard has to say about the mountains: "Snow-capped the greater part of the year these majestic peaks rise to 12,600 feet, dominating the horizon for well over a hundred miles. Humphrey's Peak in the San Francisco Range is the highest point in Arizona."

The hike up Mt. Humphrey is fairly difficult, but not so arduous as to discourage one from climbing up and having a look around. The day I went, the clouds were rolling in quite ominously and we had to make a decision about a mile or so before the summit whether or not to continue. Obviously, we continued. The view wasn't what it could have been, on account of the clouds, but impressive nonetheless. On a clear day, you can see the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert from on top.

The San Francisco Peaks figure prominently in to Diné (Navajo) Kieje Hatal or Night Chant. The dramatic acts or dramatic rituals of the Night Way were first translated by Washington Matthews and published in English in 1902 as "The Night Chant." Mt. Humphrey's (and the San Francisco Peaks') Diné name is  Dook'o'oosliid and is one of four holy mountains. It represents the west in the Kieje Hatal. The ritual takes nine nights to perform and begins with the beautiful opening "Biké hatáli hakú" or "Come on the trail of song." An opening stanza is repeated four times, referencing the four mountain markers of east, south, west, and north. Dook'o'oosliid is referenced third:

In a holy place with a god I walk, 
In a holy place with a god I walk,
On Dokoslíd with a god I walk,
On a chief of mountains with a god I walk,
In old age wandering with a god I walk,
On a trail of beauty with a god I walk.

In recent years the Diné have protested how Mt. Humphrey has been used for a ski resort. The resort, called the Arizona Snowbowl, want to use reclaimed sewer water to make snow. For the Navajo Nation, as well as the Apache, Hopi, and others who also consider the San Francisco Peaks a holy site, spraying them with sewer water is desecration. The Native Americans have failed in other attempts to stop the practice, but they're still fighting. Read their resolution here. Even with the little I know of U.S. relations with southwestern Native American tribes, this seems like adding insult to injury to me. Who cares if people need to wait for real snow to ski; skiing isn't nearly as important as respecting the traditions of a sovereign group of people who we disenfranchised in the first place.

I'd like to see how many Catholics would like to use treated sewer water for holy water.

Mount Humphrey 1
Mount Humphrey 4

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Polar Caves and Local Adventuring

From the reverse: "Polar Caves, one of America's most beautiful natural attractions, are located on scenic Route 25, five miles west of interstate Route 93 and the lovely college town of Plymouth, N.H."

Perhaps its a bit of hyperbole to call Polar Caves "one of America's most beautiful attractions." I mean, there's some stiff competition out there - the Grand Canyon, White Sands, Yellowstone, Yosemite... maybe a more realistic comment might have been "one of New Hampshire's most beautiful natural attractions." I'm kidding, of course, because Polar Caves is a very cool place and I have fond memories of visiting as a kid. That strange miner/elf dude on the sign has been replaced with a couple of polar bears.

My family weren't much for long trips, but they were consummate local adventurers. For example, we visited probably every roadside attraction in New Hampshire: Clark's Trading Post, Santa's Village, the Flume, Six Gun City, and the list goes on. As a teenager, I was real envious of folks who went on international trips and to cool places around the country, but I've come to appreciate what a real skill it is to get the most out of where you live. Now I go on international trips, road trips, and cool places around the country. I find that a lot of other folks travel big too, but they aren't good local adventurers. I've learned not to talk to Arizonans about places in Arizona in a way that implies they've been there, because, chances are, they've never been.  In two and a half years we've been to amazing places here that my friends and students who have lived here their whole lives have never heard of. Am I bragging? I don't think so. I'm not just clever; rather, I learned from my family that you don't need to go far or spend a lot to find amazing things and it's a lesson I've grown to really value and appreciate. My wife and I are now second generation local adventurers. I'd like to think that comes across in this blog...

So if you're looking for something to do in New England or Arizona, I'll be more than happy to provide suggestions. And if you know of something rad in Arizona that you think I'll appreciate, please send it my way!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

New Old Postcards!

From the reverse: "The abounding southwestern desert Cacti and flora are one of this areas most significant and beautiful attractions."

I just got a batch of new old postcards. I'm very excited. This one is an anachronistic depiction of desert plants. Organ pipe cactus and joshua trees grow together, right? The sizes are certainly not to scale either. And why does that Palo Verde look like a Christmas tree?  If you want reliable info, read my interview with Peter Breslin.

This post isn't really going anywhere, so I'll just go ahead and send it downhill. Here's an old cowboy joke about cacti that I don't really get:

A cowboy was riding through the desert when he thought he heard someone calling for help. The sound was low and far off, but he turned his horse in that direction to see what it was. After a while, he came to a enormous patch of cactus. There was some of every kind of spiny plant that ever grew in that patch. There was also a set of clothes neatly folded on the ground nearby.

"Help!" came the voice again, and the cowboy saw a hat moving in the middle of the cactus patch.

"Hang on!" the cowboy replied, and threw the loop of his lariat around the hat. The man under the hat grabbed the rope, and the cowboy took a dally around his saddle horn, then pulled the poor fellow out of the cactus patch. He was some surprised to see that the man was not wearing anything except the hat.

"How on earth did you get into such a mess?" the cowboy asked.

"Well, I came riding by here a while ago, and I took off all my clothes except my hat, and dove in." the man said.

"Why would you do something like that?" the cowboy asked.

"Well," the man replied, "it seemed like a good idea at the time."

Friday, January 22, 2010

10 Works - List # 3 - Nature, Animals, and Survival in Young Adult Literature

Here's my third list in my recurring 10 Works theme. The first two lists were Nature Writing before 1900 and  American Greats on the Great Outdoors. The idea is to post 10 novels, short stories, books of poetry, or works of nonfiction that exemplify a genre or category within a genre. This installment, Nature and Young Adult Literature, revisits books that may have inspired us not only to read, but also to appreciate and explore nature.

1. Farley Mowat - Owls in the Family - It's no surprise that the list kicks off with Canadian writer and naturalist Farley Mowat and his memoir of raising two owls in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Why no surprise? Well, the title of this blog is a reference to this book! The book, published in 1961, is a creative nonfiction work about two owls Mowat rescued as a child and kept as pets. The owls, Wol and Weeps, were great horned owls.

2. Jean Craighead George - My Side of the Mountain - Some of you may remember the 1969 Paramount movie better than the 1959 book, but George's book is a great read and the winner of a Newbury Honor Award. In the book a kid name Sam Gribley, like an adolescent Thoreau, leaves civilization and survives in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.  George is quite accurate in her descriptions of flora and fauna, even if Gribley's hollow tree home and peregrine falcon pet feel a bit far-fetched.

3. Wilson Rawls - Where the Red Fern Grows - This is a really sad book on several levels. First, two of the protagonists die. Secondly, the book follows a poor Ozark boy named Billy who uses his dogs to hunt and massacre countless helpless raccoons. Finally, mountain lions are portrayed as ferocious villains, when in truth they are shy animals who've had their habitat destroyed by people. Still, WRFG is a classic and descriptions of a boy and his dogs roving about the woods at night must spark some primal feelings in all middle school boys who read it. Well, maybe not ALL and maybe some middle school girls too....

4. Bill Peet - Capyboppy - Bill Peet is primarily an author for younger children, but Peet's Capyboppy (1966) is a memoir about the author and his capybara. Capybara are native to the American tropics and are the worlds largest rodents - they can weigh up to 140 lbs! It recounts not only the fun and exciting parts of owning an exotic pet, but reinforces the message that wild animals really don't make good pets. Nature and man's exploitation of nature are common themes in Peet's children literature.

5. Gary Paulsen - Hatchet - Published in 1987, Hatchet tells the story of a boy named Brian who survives a plane crash and must survive alone in the Canadian wilderness. Classic boy vs wild tale.

6. Walt Morey - Gentle Ben - Morey's book tells of a relationship between a Mark and Ben the brown bear. The book became a popular television series. Of course, like most books of this genre, it's sad. On a somewhat-but-not-really-related note, Gentle Ben's is also a damn fine brew pub in Tucson.

7. Jack London - The Call of the Wild - This is the first book to appear in two lists. Here's what wrote last time: "For some reason middle school teachers like to torture their students with this book; it's not for sensitive animal lovers. Though a dog is the protagonist, we're left to question if, like Buck, we could revert to something more primitive. I think we'd like to think so."

8. Farley Mowat - Lost in the Barrens - If it seems like Canadians and Canada are overrepresented in this list, remember that Mowat appears twice. Much like Paulsen's Hatchet, this is a survival book set in the Canadian wilderness. Awasin and Jamie loose their canoe and must survive. Realistically, I could have compiled this list with just Mowat, Paulsen, and George, each of whom is prolific in young adult/nature genre. However, it's important to note that Farley Mowat does not write primarily for children or young adults. If you've never read People of the Deer or Never Cry Wolf, I suggest you get on that.

9. Scott O'Dell - Island of the Blue Dolphins - Wonapalei (or Karana), a Native American women, becomes stranded on an island after a battle between her people and the Aleuts - another tribe brought to the island by the Russians. Karana survives on the island alone for 18 years before being rescued and brought back to California.

10. Mark Twain - Roughing It - Twain's memoir about his time in the West working for his brother Orion is probably neither nature writing nor young adult literature. However, I think this is a matter of perspective. It could be taught as both or read as either, though I would probably only teach selections to younger readers. And it's really funny.

As usual, I'm sure I missed some great works. Let me know what else belongs here.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Macho B Capture Intentional

Until I moved to Arizona, I had no idea that jaguars lived in the United States. There are very few, but a limited population moves across the U.S./Mexico border. The most famous of these jaguars was named Macho B. I don't want to get into the entire story of Macho B, but here's the synopsis. The AZ Department of Game and Fish captured the jaguar on February 18, 2009 in a nasty leg snare trap (pictured above). They claimed they were trying to capture bears or mountain lions, which, in my opinion, is still terribly inhumane. They collared and released the cat, but then noticed that it wasn't moving much. Game and Fish then tracked down poor Macho B and brought him to the Phoenix Zoo where it was determined that the cat was sick and he was euthanized. Then the state only ordered a cosmetic necropsy. They claim that the person responsible for this decision chose cosmetic because he didn't know the difference, but word is that the decision was really made to preserve the cat's pelt.

All this is a whole lot of bullshit and apparently the ensuing federal investigation agrees. The Arizona Daily Star reports that federal investigators have determined that Macho B's capture was intentional and that the decision for the cosmetic necropsy was wrongly ordered and casts doubt on the reasons for the cat's death. This should spell trouble for the Game and Fish Department, but I fear it will only be a slap on the wrist. A lot people in the Tucson area are furious over this. Effigies of the jaguar, signs, and candles for him filled the Tucson Dia de los Muertos parade this year.

It's all heartbreaking, really. I watch a lot of nature shows and documentaries on conservation and there's always moments where someone in the past did something atrocious. Wolves exterminated, habitat destroyed, eagles poisoned...the list goes on. As a modern viewer, my reaction is often "How could they?" and I apply a teleological view to conservation that condemns bad decisions as past events sprouted from ignorance. Well, apparently that ignorance is alive and well. Macho B is proof that American mismanagement of wildlife and the catastrophic effects aren't just our grandparents' mistakes, but present concerns for us as well.

More information available here from Tucson Weekly and here at Demarcated Landscapes.

The Great Horned Owls of Casa Grande

We recently visited Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in Coolidge Arizona. Casa Grande ruins of multiple Hohokam buildings and walls. The Tohono O'odham, who are descended from the residents of Casa Grande, call the place "Siwan Wa'a Ki." The main building and namesake of Casa Grande was abandoned by the Hohokam nearly 700 years ago. It's made of caliche, which is made from calcium carbonate, and works like a type of cement. In 1932 the parks service constructed the massive roof to protect the abused and suffering building from the elements.
Casa Grande
Interestingly, though the building has been abandoned for generation, others now occupy the roof structure and call it home. Who are these new residents of Casa Grande?
Casa Grande Owls
Casa Grande is the home of a nesting pair of great horned owls! We noticed them before our tour guide even pointed them out. I guess I just have that extra sense for seeing owls.
Casa Grande Owls
I sent a quick email to the staff at Casa Grande and asked for some more history or information about the owls.  Ashley McCabe, who's a biological science technician, was kind enough to respond. Here's what she wrote about the owls:
"The two current Great Horned Owl occupants of the "Great House" at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument are a nesting pair. One of the pair was first recorded here in 2004 and the other has been here since 2006. The owl that has been here since 2004 had a previous mate that was hit by a car in October 2006. The second mate came in November 2006, apparently to take the place of the one that died. In January 2009, our resource management staff relocated a Great Horned Owl nestling from the west wall of the Great House to a nesting box on the southwest corning of the ruins shelter in order to avoid continuing damage to the prehistoric structure. The nestling successfully fledged from the nesting box. We expected the nestling to leave around August 2009, but the bird did not leave until December. Because of the curiosity the nestling displayed, it was the most interesting of the three owls to monument staff and visitors. The bird was often heard screeching during the day."
 If you ever visit Casa Grande, don't forget to look up! 

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Weird Dream

I had the weirdest dream last night. If I was superstitious I would swear it was a bad omen.

In my dream, Erin and I owned a golden retriever and a grizzly bear named Murry. I don't know what the dog's name was, but I recall calling the bear "Furry Murry" at least once.

So that's strange, but it gets stranger. A friend of ours starting hanging out with us and she had a bear, too. It wasn't anyone we know in waking life, but her bear was blonder than Murry.

Both bears and the dog were outside in the yard. The house was our house in Tucson, but outside was an amalgamation of New England and Calcutta; the flora was New England, the architecture was Calcutta. We decided to feed Murry, the dog, and the other bear, so I opened the front door and the dog and Murry scurried in. Our friend's bear was nowhere to be seen.

I went out into the yard. It's nighttime by this point. I can't spot the blond bear, but I'm not upset. Apparently, I trust Murry but not our friend's bear. Anyways, as I'm standing in front of the door, a huge gray wolf stalks across the yard. Here's where the bad omen part comes in - the wolf turns around and GIVES ME THE EVIL EYE! Holy crap. I start lobbing rocks at the wolf, but I can't hit it and it just keeps on giving the worst look. It's snarling, but the snarl looks like a smile and it can somehow make it's right eye bigger than it's left.

Then I just woke up. Creepy, right?

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Nature Library - Birds by Neltje Blanchon

I bought this great copy of Birds by Neltje Blanchan a few years ago at used bookstore in Massachusetts. Blanchan was a historian and naturalist, publishing many books in her lifetime. She was also the wife of Doubleday Publishing Group founder, Frank Nelson Doubleday. This edition was printed in 1927, but the copyright is 1916. The illustrations are by R.E. Todhunter.
This copy of Birds combines several of Blanchan other books on birds, including Bird Neighbors, which is available on Project Gutenberg.

 title page
screech owls
sample page
This really cool banner is at the foot of every page. What a nice touch.
sparrow hawk
The Todhunter prints, though not quite Audubon, are impressive. Much like I hit a dead end researching Walter Ferro and his woodcuts when I posted on Loren Eiseley's book, I can't find anything on Todhunter except people posting or selling his prints. It's really unfortunate that terrific illustrators seem to present us with their art and then move into obscurity. Here are a couple other prints from the book.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Blitzen Trapper - Furr

This is about my favorite song right now. It's terrific. Michael Robinson has a really great discussion of the song, wolves, and the changing image of the werewolf in popular culture over at Time to Eat the Dogs. If you're not reading that website yet, you're missing out.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Q&A with Cactus Guru, Peter Breslin

Peter Breslin is a musician, an educator, and a cactus expert. When I see Peter,
we're generally in an environment where it would be rude, inappropriate or
impossible (such as poetry readings) to sit around shoot the breeze about cacti,
so I thought I'd satisfy my curiosity and share the benefits of Peter's cacti
knowledge at the same time.

In addition to the picture Peter was kind enough to supply, here's a link to his
photo site with many, many more cacti pictures. Of course, Peter owns the copyright
to those photos, as well as the photos in this article.

Q&A with Cactus Guru, Peter Breslin

1. How did you get started studying cacti? What sort of things do you do?

I've been interested in cactus plants since I was about 10 years old
and my grandmother bought me one. I then got a classic popular cactus
book called The Encyclopedia of Cacti in Colour by Edgar and Brian
Lamb. The Lambs were UK eccentrics and internationally recognized
amateur cactus experts who grew thousands of cacti and succulents in
their greenhouses in Worthing on Sussex, England. I joined their
cactus club and received their newsletter called "The Exotic Collection"with
color photos and descriptions of visits to Mexico and so on. It really was
exotic stuff for a Pennsylvania boy.

I research by reading books and journal articles (there are several
cactus journals published periodically every year). I also communicate
with a lot of the recognized experts. I do a lot of amateur field
work, basically just looking for and photographing plants. In the
field, I tend to target the rarest plants and get quite a thrill when
I find populations of them, usually in some pretty wildly remote
locations, but sometimes right along an interstate highway.

2. You grow cactus as well, yes?

Yes. I currently have a couple hundred plants and dozens of seedlings.
I sold about 300 seedlings to a nursery a few months ago. The past few
years, we've lived in the same suburban house with a yard. Whenever I
settle for any length of time I start accumulating cacti. It's
especially dangerous here in Tempe because many cacti can be grown
outside year round. I basically have too much room and I completely
lack self discipline. I'm a member of a cactus forum on the web,
www.cactiguide.com, and those people are just as crazy as I am, so
that's been encouraging. I've also been a customer at Mesa Garden,
www.mesagarden.com, for many years and their seed and plant list is so
thoroughly extensive, it's like a Noah's Ark of cacti. If I owned a
home and had a greenhouse, I'd probably eventually be growing
thousands of plants or even have a small business.

Top: Eight-month-old Seedlings
Bottom: Some of Peter's Cacti

3. What are some issues in cactus ecology? Who's looking out for cacti
in the Southwest?

The biggest issues are illegal collecting of rare or specimen plants
by hobbyists, landscapers and nurseries and habitat destruction due to
development. The southwest has been growing so incredibly quickly the
past few decades. Every residential, agricultural, ranching and
mining/drilling project spells catastrophe for the fragile desert
ecosystem. When you combine these pressures with cactus poachers
digging up the less common plants, usually plants that are narrowly
adapted or have dwindling populations already, the picture looks
pretty bleak. Locally, the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society
(www.tucsoncactus.org) and the Central Arizona Cactus and Succulent
Society (http://www.centralarizonacactus.org) conduct rescues of
cactus plants from development or highway construction sites.
Tucson's club in particular has been instrumental in rescuing some
very rare plants, including a plant called Echinocactus
horizonthalonius ssp. nicholii, from the Silver Bell mine area.
Tucson's club is also involved in removing as much invasive grass as
possible to prevent fires in areas where cacti are not adapted to
periodic fire.

Echinocactus horizonthalonius var. nicholii near the Silver Bell mine, Avra Valley AZ.

I'm sure there are other organizations looking out for desert habitat
in general, including state and federal agencies. I've been involved
on a volunteer level doing a population study of a very rare cactus
called Echinomastus erectocentrus var. acunensis, a candidate for
listing as endangered by US Fish and Wildlife. There's only a few
known populations of this plant, any one or all of which could be
wiped out in an afternoon by a poacher or an uninformed landowner.

Echinomastus erectocentrus var. acunensis

I think desert conservation is a difficult area in general. Many
people think of the desert as basically a barren wasteland. Many
desert areas in the US are connected to a philosophy of private
property rights and a general resentment toward environmentalists and
state and federal regulations on land use. Areas like Phoenix attract
people from greener environments who then start planting grass, trees
and shrubs and watering like crazy. In developing regions of the
world, desert areas are often targeted for huge hydroelectric,
agricultural and ranching initiatives. Desert habitat is being wiped
out or seriously degraded at alarming rates.

If you combine this with how narrowly adapted many species of cacti
are, you get a picture of how threatened the entire group of plants
is. Some cacti simply can't be transplanted successfully. Some grow in
very particular soils or geological formations. Some have very
particular micro-climate requirements within larger habitats. Slight
alterations in conditions can lead to the very rapid disappearance of
entire populations.

4. What's something we should know about cacti but probably don't?

Cacti are great flowering plants if one learns just a little bit about
how to grow them correctly. The flowers are awe inspiring. I do grow a
lot of cacti just for their incredible spines or geometric patterns,
but I'm equally interested in their flowers. Cacti are not at all
difficult to grow, generally, even far outside their natural habitats.
They are fun to grow from seed and one can inexpensively amass a
fairly large collection in a small space.

Most people don't know that within the professional botanist community
in the cactus world, a fierce debate over taxonomy has been raging for
about 25 years. Sometimes this is described as a war between the
"lumpers" (botanists who combine many forms under as few names as
possible) and the "splitters" (those who maintain many more names).
Meanwhile, cacti have been the subjects of extensive DNA sequencing
research to try to determine evolutionary lineages and relationships.
The emerging field of cladistics in botany has derived much of its
methodology and technology from the study of cactus taxonomy.
Cladistics is the attempt to classify organisms based on natural
evolutionary relationships.

Also, cacti are not just desert plants. Their natural range is almost
the entire "New World" from Patagonia to Saskatchewan. There are many
cold weather cacti, including some species that are under snow cover
for 9-10 months every year. There are tropical semi-arid rainforest
cacti. The diversity in the cactus family is incredible.

5. What cactus should we be really, really excited to see on desert
excursions? How will we know it when we see it?

In the Sonoran Uplands and various transitional and adjacent deserts
around this area of Arizona, there isn't the sort of species diversity
one finds in other desert regions. It seems there are a relatively few
extremely well adapted species in this part of the Sonoran Desert.
It's not uncommon to hike for hours and see perhaps 7 species of
cactus. (Using some common names: A couple different chollas, a
species of barrel cactus, a hook-spined pincushion, a hedgehog, the
saguaro and a prickly pear or two).

On the other hand, there are a few rare, unusual or very well
camouflaged plants in highly specific niches and locations.
Peniocereus greggii var. transmontanus, known as the "desert night
blooming Cereus," is a cool find. The thin gray stems grow under Palo
Verde and other trees and look precisely like dead branches. The plant
grows from massive underground tubers and sports huge, fragrant
flowers in late spring. Another rare or at least hard to find group of
plants in Arizona are in the genus Echinomastus. The federally
protected Echinomastus erectocentrus in a few locations near Tucson,
Echinomastus erectocentrus var. acunensis in more arid locales and
Echinomastus johnsonii in the Joshua Tree transition area to the
Mojave Desert up north of Wickenburg. A fairly diverse habitat exists
up around Fish Creek in the Superstitions, with some unusual plants
including Mammillaria viridiflora, Echinocereus apachensis and Dudleya
saxicola (a chalky blue rosette succulent). Up around Holbrook through
House Rock Valley and near Fredonia are some of the rarest of all
cacti, a few different forms of Pediocactus, all of which are
federally protected. There are a very few rather unusual plants,
encountering any of which is a major event.

Peniocereus greggii var. transmontanus a.k.a. "Desert Night Blooming Cereus"

"dozens of dead Echinomastus erectocentrus near Benson Arizona by a
road building project, a failed attempt to transplant."

Echinomastus johnsonii 'lutescens' from near Wickenburg AZ
Mammillaria viridiflora   

Another cool plant to look for is the crested saguaro. These are
saguaros where the growing tip splits for some reason into two or more
rows of cells, producing incredible fan shapes and other wild
patterns. It is estimated that approximately 1 out of 1,000 saguaros
will mutate like this. The cause is not known.
A young saguaro just beginning to crest.

6.Do you have (a) personal favorite(s) cacti? Places to see cacti?

I have been visiting a particular habitat near Florence, AZ regularly
for the past few years. It's beautiful out there, once you get past
the prisons. I love the areas in southern Arizona on the Tohono
O'odham reservation. I also frequently visit the area near Sonoita, AZ
and explore the grasslands there. Then there's the entirely different
habitats up around the Grand Canyon and Peach Springs, and on up
toward Meadview, pretty much a cactus paradise. I've been out in many
different habitats in New Mexico and Texas also, all of them
extraordinary. It's impossible to pick even a few favorites, really.
Not to mention the mind blowing habitats I've been lucky to visit in
Baja California and Baja California Sur, as well as the state of

7. Have any exciting adventures resulted from studying cacti that
you'd like to share?

I drive a 1991 Honda Civic with 207000 miles on it. I also tend to
become very interested in habitats that are rather remote and many
miles down unpaved roads. It sometimes seems these adventures could be
Honda commercials. The roads this car has successfully traveled in
many different weather conditions have sometimes been barely even
recommended for 4 Wheel high clearance vehicles. For example, a couple
of years ago in Baja California near Bahia de Los Angeles, we drove
the several miles on the washed out, rocky, bone jarring road to San
Borja, entirely to see a relatively rare species of cactus that grows
there, Cochemiea setispina. It was totally worth it! But I did gain a
new nickname from my long-suffering significant other as a result of
that excursion: Captain Loco.

Cochemiea setispina near San Borja, Baja California.
The Honda after many muddy offroad miles near El Rosario, Baja California.