Agave parvifloraAgave parviflora seedpods

An echo from yesterday’s post – the triple-segmented seedpods of Agave parviflora, the smallest of all the agaves.  In the U.S., this variety is found only in the oak grasslands of the Atascosa/Pajarito mountains.  We explored a dirt road to the border today and saw several of them.  The miniature seedpods are the size of peas.

All life is dry and hushed, waiting for the rain.  These are the hottest days, with temperatures well over 100 during the day and very little relief at night, since the rocks and soil now hold weeks worth of heat.   I have called this the Rising Moth Moon, because when I lived in the east I associated the full moon closest to the Summer Solstice with the silvery eyes of the luna moth shimmering among the sparks of lightning bugs.  Here in the desert, we have many eyed silk moths, but the only moths of that green color are the tiny Nemoria oak moths.  They too have four “eyes” on their wings, though they are just tiny dots.  The moths flutter in the dust and smoke, attracted to the moonlight, waiting for lightning to split the white sphere apart and release the rain, before the empty husk cracks open on its own.


Two Bells

June 28, 2007

Two Rivers Iron BellPilgrim's Companion Iron Bells

In the past couple of days I finished these bells and put them on my website.  Both have a nice sound from a tiny, sweet-ringing bell and a large, darker one.  These are very time-consuming to make, but I love them and each one is different.  They are balanced for hanging or for carrying in a ritual or procession.  The bells start out as flat, industrial-looking steel triangles.  I cut them from strips of 1/8″ steel that we found dumped on a dirt road a few years ago.  As I hammer over the tool hole in the anvil, they begin to seem more alive as the domes and curves take shape, until they really do look and feel like the wild ginger flowers that inspired them.  I started making them in 1995, when we lived in Kentucky, and I went for a walk along a railroad track and found some triangular scraps of steel plate.  By the time the first bell was done, I knew that this was one of those peculiar little things that I felt “called” to make, like the curly cones and pods.   Most blacksmiths seem to have some odd item that they forge over and over – an early challenge becomes a trade item or signature piece, and finally a comforting form of meditation.

A Line Between Worlds

June 24, 2007

Yesterday we went for a drive along the U.S. – Mexico border south of the Huachuca Mountains – a journey through oak grassland that glows like a bowl of light, ending at cliffs and a spring where we hunted for ferns and watched butterflies.

Here, the border is a steel wire no thicker than the black line on a map.  It is not an ecological or geographical boundary.  Streams and ridges cross it, as these photos show.  Black bears cross it and venture south a few miles, passing jaguars that are headed north on their own explorations.  Some people think of it and imagine a locked gate.  Others see an open door.  In some places, you can look at both sides and see a mirror:

creek and border fence

In others, you can follow one of the earth’s exposed ribs and feel its connection to mountain ranges north and south:

border road crossing a ridge

On this day, we were there to greet an old friend, the honored guest whose annual visit traditionally begins on San Juan’s Day, June 24:  MONSOON!  As the hours passed, we saw the haze soften the sunlight, felt the humidity rise, and watched thunderheads gather over the Mexican mountains.  (Somewhere down south, in the thorn forest where coralbeans are tall trees,  it is already raining…)  But north of the Huachucas the clouds disappeared, and in Tucson it will stay hot and clear for at least another week or so, as the moon waxes hard-edged and glittering in the dry air.  And we feel blessed to be able to watch these ancient patterns unfold from so many beloved places. 

Summer Solstice

June 22, 2007


Midsummer, 105 degrees!  The coralbeans shown above are blooming now – I took the photos on Sunday.  The toxic seeds are typically bright red but sometimes they fade, like the ones in the photo.  In the Mexican thorn forest, Erythrina flabelliformis is a tree, with wood that is strong enough to use for tool handles.  Here it is a “natural bonsai”, a tangle of spiny shoots growing from a “root” (actually the trunk, only a couple of feet long) that is usually hidden deep in the rocks.  The plants never get more than a few feet tall because they freeze back in cold winters.  The bright green heart-shaped leaves appear after the flowers wither and the fat pods begin to ripen.

The solar oven got a workout today, including key lime “sun pie” with a crust made from homemade graham crackers.

There is a myth found all across northern Europe, from England to Russia, that ferns “bloom” on Midsummer night, and whoever finds the flower will gain the power to find treasure under foxfire (phosphorescent glows from swamp gas or the wood-rotting Honey Mushroom, Armillaria mellea).   “Fern seed” confers invisibility.  Where did this myth come from?  Obviously ferns don’t have flowers or seeds.  Is the story just another joking tale of biologically impossible “nonsense magic”, or does it conceal something else…an older yet very real power associated with ferns, to be revealed only to those who understand what to look for?  Perhaps the “flower” is a mysterious light or a secret spirit, and the seed is its gift.  Perhaps the “flower” is merely the fire that appears on the hearth when ancient tree-ferns are burned in the form of coal.  What “fern flower” do you seek on this night?  What seed will you carry with you into the autumn twilight and the winter dark, what secret treasure that only you can see?

Here is probably the most common and drought-resistant of our desert ferns.  Astrolepis cochisensis is abundant on marble or limestone ridges, in company with cacti, ocotillo, and agave.  Like all ferns, it is born in water.  Its presence in such a place is earth-magic enough for anyone, yes?   Its leaves, like all members of its genus, are dusted with glistening white star-shaped scales.

desert fern on marble

Tarot Update

June 19, 2007

dried pomegranates

An odd painting for this time of year, but this pomegranate painting shows an ending and the seeds of a new beginning.  I sold the last numbered Ironwing Tarot deck today.  I have a handful of full 78-card decks that are signed but not numbered, which are available for the same price but not advertised on the website.  I also have quite a few 22-card Majors-only decks which are available on my website or through Tarotgarden.  Card XVII – The Star will appear this fall in the We’Moon 2008 Datebook (an annual publication of womyn’s art and writing – I had pieces in the 2002 and 2004 editions).

The seeds are those of a new oracle deck.  More about that later.  For now, like the Tarot High Priestess, I will just show the pomegranate.

Crescent Moons

June 18, 2007

desert tortoise egg

Last night’s crescent moon was a thin silver wire or a fishbone needle.  Tonight it is a cat fang.  Tomorrow it will be the curved, sturdy claw of a bird of prey, a cat, or a mud turtle.  I have collected these crescent symbols for a long time, but today I expanded the list and played around with the words as if they were runes or a pebble oracle…still a young idea, like the moon itself. 

Yesterday morning I walked along a gravel wash and surprised a barn owl that was roosting in a canyon hackberry tree.  I watched it circle the wash and fly to a grove of desert oaks.  Its white moon-face glowed in the sunlight, and its soft, puffy wing feathers were paler than the sand.  I have walked under the oak trees that it sought (I could feel its brown eyes seeking the deep shade under their evergreen leaves) and its flight was a reminder that I want to see them again on another day.  In the desert, barn owls live in old mine shafts and eroded holes in the earth.  They are more strictly nocturnal than the other owls, and previously the only glimpses I’d had were of the one that occasionally flies over my front yard at night, a glimmer of white and a chilling hiss that is gone in a moment.

Today we hiked among thousands of agaves, sotol, yucca, and ocotillos that crowd the dry limestone hills on the east side of the Empire Mountains.  In the hot dust, among limestone boulders, I found the egg pictured above – it is the same size and shape as a great horned owl’s egg, but it belongs to a desert tortoise.  It is hardened and ready to hatch.

Two round, white gifts from the earth, reminding me to look to what I am incubating, what light I am reflecting during this Moon, what unexpected journeys will be possible.

 Nostoc cyanobacteria colonymantle minerals under the microscope

Tonight the scrying pool of the Dark Moon is more than a black mirror.  Now the Sun is strong enough to illuminate its shadowy green depths, since this moon will reflect the Summer Solstice light.  At the edge of the pool are tiny bubblelike jelly spheres of Nostoc, the same cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) that color the water.  They are some of the Old Ones, the first life on earth, who still live as though they are floating in the sea, for they brought Ocean with them when they first colonized rock faces, barren pools, and dry dust.  How?  Because the cell colonies, which look like strings of beads, are surrounded by a protective layer of clear jelly that traps water and binds soil and rock.  The Old Ones even make rocks of their own, and it as stromatolite fossils that we know their ancestors as the familiar string of spheres under the microscope.  The spherical shape and the alignment together spell LIFE in the most ancient fossils and in the modern nannobacteria that create rust and desert varnish.  The string of beads is Life’s earliest signature. 

Nostoc forms spherical jelly colonies in the desert soil. Each colony is only a millimeter in diameter, but together they form a black surface crust that fixes nitrogen, absorbs water, and keeps the soil from blowing away.  Their transparent blackish green (from magnesium in chlorophyll) is the same color as the iron-magnesium silicate minerals of the earth’s mantle.  These minerals – olivine, pyroxenes, spinel, and others – usually look black except when the microscope reveals their green radiance.  The first time I saw this, I felt that a window had opened into the deep earth, and the dark mantle-derived stones – peridotite, diamond-bearing kimberlite, serpentine, jade, and many more obscure rock types – have always been my favorites.  They have no connection with Life except color, and they are rare in the earth’s crust, so we forget that they make up most of the planet.  Below them, deep beyond the magnesium and silica, is the swirling magnetic iron of the earth’s metal core.  Like the earth, my heart holds iron, but it is locked in hemoglobin – a molecule very similar to chlorophyll, except that iron takes the place of magnesium – and the oxidized iron gives blood the same color as red ochre, which forms when the dark green mantle minerals oxidize or “rust” at the earth’s surface…often with the help of tiny bacteria.  To smelt iron, the red, brown, and yellow “rust” rocks go into the furnace, where they burn to yield a “bloom” of metal within a mantle of dark green glass, or silica slag.  When the liquid slag pours on the ground, it shatters as it cools into a rain of translucent blackish-green beads.  

The painting of a single Nostoc colony was done entirely with “biogenic” mineral pigments:  glauconite, the green clay that forms from marine worm castings in shallow water mud; charred bone black; blue vivianite that forms when these iron oxides meet phosphatic bone or shell.

The thin-section (transparent slice of rock made for viewing under a petrographic microscope) is a metamorphic rock with several mantle-derived Fe-Mg minerals, including bright green spinel and light green amphibole.

Hurray for Scratchboard!

June 13, 2007

ferns on scratchboard

Here are various leaves and scales from six desert ferns, finished yesterday, drawn on a 5″x7″ piece of scratchboard (the same size that I used for the Ironwing Tarot originals).  They’ll be used separately but I cram as many as possible onto one board.  Scratchboard is a wonderful alternative to pen and ink on paper, since it allows for a wider range of techniques, greater detail – and you can fix mistakes!  I use Ampersand Claybord Smooth, a kaolin clay coated hardboard that comes in several sizes.  I use permanent technical markers (and even a plain old Sharpie) for drawing, and an x-acto knife blade for scratching white lines on black ink.

Is it art? Scientific illustration? An eccentric spiritual practice for natural history nerds?  Most people wouldn’t define it as art, and some cannot “see” it at all.  Scratchboard is rarely used for botanical illustration, so it strays from tradition there, too.  But I have taken “nature drawing” very seriously since I began to experiment with pen and ink when I was ten years old.  It was probably my first regular, conscious spiritual practice, and remains a precious way to stay connected with the earth.  When you draw something faithfully, trying to capture the truth of it on paper, you truly SEE it and learn about it on a deep level, and it becomes yours.  This is why drawing is a traditional tool for teaching natural history.  I still love drawing twigs, lichens, stones, and other bits and pieces of the “real world”.  I used to fantasize about leading a spiritual retreat (in some beautiful place, of course) for people who wanted to do this…except that those people are rare enough that there are only a few in each generation, and they learn to work in isolation.  The art that I’ve done of this type inspires strong negative reactions in many people who are not comfortable with realistic depictions of obscure aspects of nature (as opposed to greeting cards or “wildlife art”).  But whether people see it as boring or beautiful, “evil” or spiritually inspiring, it’s the underpinning of ALL of my other art.  Although the drawing above is intended to be technically correct, not artistically exciting, I’m sharing it here because it’s worth paragraphs of explanation of who I am.  And there’s a sense of adventure here too – for many of the ferns I’m working with, there are no published drawings of any kind, anywhere – just brief descriptions and perhaps a photo or two.  Maybe it’s because I’m walking near the edge of all the maps:  (Shown below:  U.S.-Mexico border in the San Rafael Valley, AZ.)

The High Summer Furnace

June 10, 2007

gila monster and forged iron torc

This year I’ve seen two gila monsters, the ashes-and-embers dragons who shake the ground when they walk.  I found the one shown above while hiking in a gravel wash.  They are most active in the early morning and at dusk.  Their colors are the essence of high summer, the living fire in the earth.  In the morning I work at the forge, and at noon the white desert air holds that same purifying blast of arid heat.  It is also Fire Season, and a primitive part of my mind believes that if I work with the fire – walk in the desert and work at the forge when the temperature is over 100 – that it will be enough, and none of my favorite places will burn this year, and I will store up enough of the sun’s strength to get through next winter.  This idea inspired a project – a series of sixteen spikes forged from cut nails, all different, to be used in protection rituals.  The spikes (wands, pins, transformed nails) represent Fire, as they do in my tarot deck, and draw energy from the agave stalks that are rising and blooming now.  They are some of the first things that I learned to forge, so they are comforting and familiar to make. 

iron spikes and torc

A double-ended spike curled into a circle becomes a torc, an ancient kind of necklace.  It feels cold when I first put it on, but quickly absorbs body heat and begins to feel alive, like a small snake.  The photo shows a nearly-finished torc (still needs a bit of tweaking, and still covered in gray firescale), some finished spikes that are being polished, and two finished, blackened spikes. 

Hello world!

June 8, 2007

Bronze & Glass Pomegranate

Welcome to the Mineralarts blog, where I’ll post occasional flashes of creative inspiration, updates on various projects, and nature notes from the desert.

Here’s a small painting that I finished yesterday – a bronze and glass pomegranate done in iron oxides, green clays, and malachite in egg tempera.  More pomegranates to come!  They are inspired by the tree in my yard, which is now full of half-grown green fruit.

I spent most of the day at the microscope drawing ferns for my newest Big Project.  Frustrated by the lack of books or online information on the subject, I decided to find, photograph, and draw all 35 species of southern Arizona xerophytic ferns.  Eventually I’ll work them into a website and a book.  Anyway it is a perfect excuse to explore some hidden mountain and desert canyons, though most of the work will have to wait until the monsoons, since at this time of year – when the temperature is over 100, the cicadas sing, and the sky turns white with the noon heat – the ferns all curl up and turn brown, and are practically invisible until the summer rains.  For now, I will use the calm focus of the Last Quarter moon to make the first detailed ink/scratchboard illustrations.