Saturday, August 25, 2007

I Stood There Silent in the Night

I stood there silent in the night
And watched the lightening dance
On distant peaks with silent bolts
It flashed their silhouettes to me.
I heard an owl’s haunting cry
I heard coyotes howl "why"?
The desert fragrance filled the air,
the eaves still dripping slow and soft,
Beneath my feet the pavement cool
And firm
held me,
Where I stood silent in the night
And watched the lightening dance.

~Kathie (August 25, 2007)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Ugh! Bugs!

One of the more unpleasant sides of living in Arizona is the increase in bugs down here. I was concerned this would be the case as everyone I know of who has lived anywhere in the south always complains about the bugs. We have termites here I'm told, though I have yet to see one. Still, termite protection was a must when we bought our house. The butterflies are beautiful, of course, but I could do without the rest of these critters!

Right now with the humidity I am getting unpleasantly acquainted with some tiny little insect that likes to hover around your body when it's damp with sweat. They are like tiny flying dust specks that land on your skin and crawl around or bite. You can barely see them but I find myself slapping away at them. Annoying.

Then, there are the beetles. Some of the biggest beetles I have ever seen! One dog-sized insect tried to crawl into our garage late one night but, being in a merciful mood and afraid of the damage it would do, I scooped it up with a bowl and tossed it with a thud to the side of the house! Then, there are these iridescent black/purple/blue beetles that fly around and land on trees or in my backyard. They are a bit bigger than the June bugs I remember from Connecticut but the same body type, and while they are pretty, I hate it when they fly at my hair, and they do! I've taken to always wearing a hat when I go outside for a walk because they seem particularly attracted to my hair, and, unlike eastern June bugs, these are diurnal. Still, I haven't the heart to kill a creature that has done me no harm, so when I found one flailing upside down on my patio I took a plastic saucer and flicked it onto the dirt where it was able to get enough purchase to right itself. (There was no way I was going to touch it!)

Along with the beetles, we have the moths. Earlier in the summer there were these coin sized brown moths that hung around the front door. Every time we opened the door a few would fly into the house. Then, my cats, Breezy and Bonnie would spend the rest of the day hunting them down. One night after midnight I was awakened by the sounds of shattering glass. I could hear the terrified scrambling of little paws as I leaped from my bed. I flipped on the kitchen light to discover that Breezy had stalked a moth all the way to the tops of my cupboard where I had artfully arranged some candlesticks, china, photos, and my bride and groom champagne glasses from 30 years ago. The bride's glass now lay in a million fragments all over the tile kitchen floor. It took me an hour to clean it all up. In spite of all my best efforts, I was still finding glass shards days after.

The other moths we have here aren't nearly as bad. In fact, they are almost pretty. Day or evening we see them as we take Blossom for her daily constitutional along our tree lined streets. Some of the trees are desert willows with fragrant trumpet-shaped blossoms in shades from pale pink to garnet. These moths hover like humming birds getting drunk on the nectar of the desert. Sometimes they fly out, startled by our presence, but they quickly return to the object of their obsession.

However, the most insidious insects I have encountered so far are the crickets. Having grown up in New England I am used to the black crickets who sing their nightly songs. It is a cheerful sound of summer, soothing in its patterns and rhythms. While I have seen a few of those black crickets here, the more numerous kind is this skeletal brown insect with long antennae that shriek all night long. There's is not a melodic sound, but rather more like the constant whine of a washing machine as it spins the cloths dry. You want to shut it off, but you cannot find the source. And then, to my further horror, I went out to the garage the other day to get something out of a box that was stored out there. When I approached I noticed these black specks all over the place. I lifted a box and brown crickets were scurrying every where. They looked at me with beady eyes and monster jaws. I am assuming the black specks are their excrement getting all over my books! I now know that not only do I not have a basement to store things in, I will also have to store everything in plastic containers or it will all be ruined by crickets!

Ugh! Bugs!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Fruit of the Land

To eat the fruit of the land is to partake of the earth on which you live. In Idaho I ate potatoes gleaned from the farmers fields. In Connecticut I ate apples we picked from the orchards in autumn. Maine yielded wild strawberries and blueberries. Here in Arizona we gathered prickly pears and turned them into jelly.

On Thursday my friend Liz and I donned hats, grabbed paper bags and headed across the street to gather fruit. Though it was still early morning the day was hot and sultry. Our wide brimmed hats shielded our faces as we took our tongs and long handled forks to the fruit. We scouted out cacti bursting with pears and speared them into our bags. To pierce the fruit caused it to bleed a liquid the color and consistency of a nice Merlot. Picking the fruit involved twisting it off the green spine covered pad and hoping it would land in your bag. Liz used the tongs, which we discovered were the easiest method of picking, while I fumbled with the forks. One fork had two wide spaced tines that could slip beneath the fruit and pop it off, but then it would roll to the ground. The other fork had tines that were closer together and I used it in concert with the other to spear the fruit and hold it while the other fork popped the fruit loose.

We had no idea how much fruit we would need as this was my first time making prickly pear jelly. Liz has done it before, but not for a few years. The sweat poured down my face and burned my eyes with its saltiness, and still we kept on picking. We filled both bags three quarters full, then headed back to the house.

We washed the fruit in the sink, then loaded it into pots to boil, just barely covering the fruit with water. It boiled for 30 minutes, at which time we crushed it with a potato masher, then boiled it once again. When this process was done we strained the pulp through a colander to extract the juice, then we strained the juice through cheese cloth to extract any seeds or remaining spines. The result was a beautiful opaque raspberry colored liquid that turned clear like a gem when boiled with sugar to make jelly. The aroma of prickly pear soon filled the house as we processed pot after pot of prickly pears. It soon became evident that we had way over picked and we had more juice than we could ever process.

While Liz and I had both bought jelly jars, we had not bought enough sugar or pectin to process all the juice. I stayed with the boiling pots while Liz took a trip to the store to get more sugar and pectin. We filled every pot in the house with prickly pear juice. At one time we had three 6-quart pots with fruit and juice as well as two half gallon pots, 2 half gallon pitchers, and a 2-quart bowl with juice! We processed some of the juice into 28 jars of jelly, plus 6 jars of prickly pear syrup and we each kept 2 quarts of juice for later use!

The jelly jars look like gems lined up on the counter. The feeling of satisfaction is immeasurable. I don't quite know how to describe the prickly pear, for it really doesn't compare to any other fruit I have eaten. It's size and shape are somewhat like a Kiwi, it's texture is much the same also. The exterior of the fruit is cover in tiny hair-like spines; inside the flesh is deep violet-red. Here the seeds are arranged in vertical rows. The seeds are hard as stones and you would crack your teeth if you tried to eat them. The fruit itself is not very sweet, but its not bitter or sour either. It just needs a little sugar to sweeten it.

We ate fresh jeweled jelly on toast that very day. On the weekend I poured prickly pear syrup like blood over homemade pancakes. I have eaten the fruit of this new land and have incorporated its essence into my being. Perhaps my cells are made of Connecticut McIntosh apples, Idaho potatoes, Maine blueberries, and prickly pear fruit. Perhaps with these fruits as part of my being the memories of these places will linger until my brain is dead. Forever and always I will be a part of Sycamore Canyon, and it will be part of me, just like the other places I have lived in.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Tinkling bells

I am always amazed at the size of a bird's voice in comparison to its actual body mass. A small house wren has a large voice. When it scolds it sounds like a large jay. When it sings it sounds like a flute. A scolding cactus wren sounds as if a large sea gull were squawking, when it lifts its voice in song, you expect to see a much larger bird.

In the desert this morning I was greeted by the sounds of tinkling bells. The silver sound was all around me, the desert sounding like a small bell choir. I have heard this sound before but have not seen which bird makes it. As I stroll along looking for the source, I spy the silhouette of a small bird on a bare mesquite branch. Raising my binoculars I focus in on a black-throated sparrow. His white breast is toward me, his head raised in song, his black throat fluttering with the liquid notes. The air is filled with the sound of a small silver bell, a soft tinkling sound, yet loud enough to carry across the cactus-covered hillside. A blazing sun warms the earth around us but he just keeps on singing to the morning and to me.

As I continue farther down the trail the sparrow flies away. The once dirt path is now covered in a soft green down of grass, the result of the recent rains. A large barrel cactus is bloated into a spine-covered ball beside the path, the top of which sports a crown of orange buds. One of the buds is alreadying opening. Soon the rest will follow in a fiery display. Some of the cholla cacti are blossoming again also. Their blooms are a soft lavender color offset by the pale green of the plant. Though it is still early morning, the heat is quickly building. We shall reach 100 degrees or more again today. Gone are last week's gray skies and humidity, but the evidence of the rains are all around me. The Monsoon has brought life to the desert once again. Perhaps that is what the black-throated sparrow is singing about with its silvery voice in the desert sun.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Pickly Pear Fruit and the Bully Bird

After days of rain and humidity the sun has returned again and so has the dry air. Outside the birds are flocking to my feeders. Over the weekend a lark sparrow was hanging around the feeders on the north side of the house. I had never seen one before except in a book, but instantly recognized it's pied face. The next day a pair of Gambel's quail showed up. The female was atop the quail block I had put out, while the male bird stayed on the other side of the view fence. When a young man rode by on his skateboard the two birds took off, walking at first, then running, and finally flying across the street to the desert beyond. I saw them again on Tuesday, but I haven't seen them since. Today a pair of lesser goldfinches came to my backyard feeder. While I had seen them in the canyon before, none had come into my yard. The larger house finches monopolized the feeder, but they managed to get at the portals sometimes.

In the desert the prickly pear are bursting with wine-colored fruit. The shape of the fruit is like that of a wineglass and each green pad seems to balance a row of goblets along its perimeter. The house finches are stained a raspberry color from eating the fruit. The crowns of their heads, their necks and throats all washed in it. On a walk in the desert I found a half-eaten fruit on the ground, most of the seeds gone from the interior. In a nearby mesquite tree a young verdin chirped, it's throat stained the same reddish-purple. Apparently the prickly pear cacti feed more than just javelinas.

This afternoon I watched a white-winged dove take over the feeders in my back yard. I was sitting out back writing when I heard this strange sound. It was a mixture of a squawk and the sound of a hand saw going through wood. I looked up to see what was making such a sound and noticed a white-winged dove on the ground under the feeder. It was all puffed up, his head was low, and he was charging the other birds with an extended beak. Like a medieval jouster, he used his beak like a lance. The other doves flew off, leaving the patch of earth beneath to the bully, but that was not enough for him. The little house finches were feeding from the thistle seed and peanut feeders above. This bully bird flew up to those feeders and chased them away also. Though he could not perch on the small metal projections or grasp the wire of the peanut feeder, he still charged at the tube and wire cages chasing them all away. After surveying his domain from atop the feeder, he flew to the ground again, patrolling the spot beneath. Like all bullies, he guarded his territory viciously.

The desert offers up its beauty and bounty, but at a price. The lush green growth hides thorns beneath; the cute birds in my yard are dominated by bullies; the jewel colored prickly pear fruit leaves a stain behind. Life in the desert isn't much different than life in the world. There is beauty and danger all around us and we must notice both, and if we are stained by life, then it only shows that we are partaking of it.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Gentle Side of the Monsoon

The storms have come fairly regularly this week. With all the water the green is creeping up the mountainside. Around me the desert looks lush as the ocatillo have put on their coats of green leaves once again. These desert cacti look like a spiny, inverted, jellyfish with rigor mortis . The "branches" are quite long with thick thorns. In spring when I first arrived the branches were covered in tiny green leaves, the ends blossoming with fiery orange flowers that looked like candles. I learned that when water is scarce the plants drop their leaves in order to survive in this dry climate. Once the rain returns, so do the leaves. Sure enough, by June the ocatillo were no more than brown and gray sticks in the desert. However, now that the rains have returned so has their foliage. Once again the desert looks lush with the green ocatillo branches. The individual branches look deceptively fuzzy, but to grab one would convince you to never do that again!

In just this past week the pale green bushes called Texas Ranger have exploded with purple and lavender blooms. Many people let them grow in their natural state, a low spiky bush that fans out like a star, but I have seen many in town or on people's lawns that are clipped and cropped into unnatural balls or squares. I prefer the natural shape myself.

On Tuesday a storm rolled through with crashes of thunder and flashes of lightening. It rained hard for a few minutes, but then tapered off to a gentle rain. The temperature dropped nicely, leaving the air fresh with a gentle breeze blowing in from the desert. I threw the windows wide and curled up on my chaise to read a book. The gentle patter of rain filled the rest of my afternoon. It didn't stop until evening.

The next night the rain held off almost until sunset. In the east a sheet of rain fell over Vail as the setting sun's light was refracted into a rainbow. Clouds in the foreground changed from gray to smokey pink and back to gray again. Along the eastern horizon beyond the storm the sky was a particular shade of grayish blue that's hard to describe but very beautiful. Across the wash a buff stucco house stood out in stark contrast to the sky.

We fell asleep last night to the gentle sounds of rain. We left the air conditioning off so we could leave the windows open to the sound with the cool fresh air wafting in. I was awakened after midnight by the heat and humidity. The rain had stopped; the storms had passed. I shut the windows, returning the house to its air conditioned state.

This morning the finches are bathing in the puddles from last night's storms. Outside the fences are covered with their raspberry colored droppings, evidence of the prickly pear fruit they have devoured. When the rain comes it washes the fences clean, but it doesn't take long for them to get covered again.

The Farmer's Market and the Dead Bird

On Saturday we finally went to the Rincon Valley Farmer's Market. Overhead the sky threatened a storm, but for the moment the day was still dry. We drove to Old Spanish Trail and came on the old barn where the farmer's market is held around a corner. A canvas tarp was strung over the outdoor vendors, protecting them from sun and rain. We walked among the tables with fruits and vegetables displayed in bins and boxes. At the first table we came to a man was selling homemade jams and apple butter. One particular flavor caught our eye: Hot Habanero Apple Butter. It was a combination we couldn't resist. For $5 the 18 ounce jar was ours! We soon added Sizzling Sun Relish to our cache, while we sampled numerous kinds of salsa, including some served on fried plantains!

A stroll inside the barn revealed stalls that had been converted to miniature stores where artists, crafters and vendors displayed their wares. At the entrance a local musician accompanied himself on a folk guitar. His voice wafted gently over the people who wandered in and out of the stalls.

Our first stop was at Charlie and Paul's where they had their respective art displayed. Charlie makes 3 dimensional wall art depicting adobe houses and churches. He incorporates found desert wood into his pieces, along with styrofoam covered in stucco and miniature ladders that are seen on many pueblo dwellings. Paul's creations are "metal landscaping" which means wind chimes, kinetic art and metal sculptures, like suns and lizards to hang on your house or patio. These guys were very friendly talking about their art and giving us the lowdown on the farmers market, as this was our first time ever visiting one. We wandered further down the center hall and passed out the other side where more vendors had their wares displayed on tables. We saw everything from jewelry and dog food to cloth dolls and cement benches for sale. There was still a half hour before closing but many people started packing up to leave early when a thunder storm rolled in. We jumped in our vehicle and headed to town to do errands as the rain started to fall.

We had some violent and heavy thunderstorms while we were out and about, all part of the Summer Monsoon. On the way home we had to drive over partially flooded roads, but nothing too bad. When we got home I went to fill my bird feeders. To my shock and horror I found a little house finch dead in my bird feeder! From what I observed the best I could tell was that 2 birds must have tried to put their heads into the opening to get seed at the same time. One bird got his head squeezed so tightly against the side that it snapped his little neck, for the bird's head was inside the feeder and wrapped around the edge. Since it had rained so hard, the poor bird's body was soaking wet outside the feeder but its dead little head was dry as a bone.

I had to fish the dead body out through the exterior cage that keeps the bigger birds and squirrels from getting to the seed. The wet feathers parted revealing translucent pink skin with gray organs beneath. I sent the corpse flying into the wash to be reclaimed by the earth. Then, when I took off the top to refill the feeder, I dumped the little bit of remaining seed on the ground, since wet sunflower chips can mold. A clump of seed fell to the ground that looked like it had blood pooled with it. Yuck! The only other scenario I can imagine is that the storm came on so fast and hard that the winds blew the bird sideways and broke his neck. I know that this is just life and part of nature also, but I couldn't help feel sad for the poor thing. After refilling my feeder I turned to leave and there was another dead finch on the ground next to the house. He soon joined his brother in the wash. That must have been quite a storm, and we are not through with them yet.