New Camera and Cat Photos

November 21, 2008

My camera is wearing out – I guess eight years old is ancient for a digital point-and-shoot – so we recently upgraded to a digital SLR.  We’ve been taking photos of landscapes and cats while eagerly awaiting the new macro lens for closeup pictures.  The color is amazingly accurate.  For this pendant that I finished yesterday, all the metals show up true to color, and none is too dark or light:

This photo of a Mexican blue oak (Quercus oblongifolia) among rhyolite outcrops in the Atascosa Mountains made me very happy:

The new camera also takes wonderful kitty photos, and I now have a Flickr page for my cat pictures and a few other things.

Click on the “My Cats” set on the right side of the page to see all the cat photos.


All Souls Procession Costume

November 11, 2008

We walked in the Tucson All Souls Procession on Sunday night.  We put our items in the urn but did not stay for the finale, which is almost impossible to see unless you’re on the front row of the crowd, and there is at least an hour’s wait for it after the procession while the crowd mills around in the dark, bombarded by soulless ambient electronic music.  Unfortunately the main organizers of the finale are better at performance than ritual.  But the procession itself remains compelling and truly powerful, because it relies on participation from everyone.  It’s timless, yet a bit different each year.  Here’s what I wore:

Third in an occasional series of natural history book reviews.  Books reviewed here can be purchased through by following the links from my Southern Arizona Desert Botany homepage.

A few weeks ago, a Texas naturalist named Roy Morey sent me a fern photo for ID confirmation.  Out of the blue, I received this gift – a picture of rare Notholaena greggii, a Mexican xerophytic fern that enters the U.S. only in the Big Bend region.  It makes a lovely addition to my online guide to desert ferns:

The agave-like leaves in the photo are Hechtia texensis, which looks like a lechugilla but is actually a bromeliad – and a sure indicator that you’re looking at a plant from Big Bend, not Arizona!  I was delighted.  In addition to its spectacular scenery, Big Bend National Park is famous among botanists for its plant diversity.  I have never been there, but for years we have been hoping to take a vacation there to look for some of the rare endemic ferns, small cacti, and shrubs.  A few days after he sent the photo, Mr. Morey sent me a copy of his book, LITTLE BIG BEND, which is reviewed below. 

Little Big Bend:  Common, Uncommon, and Rare Plants of Big Bend National Park.  Roy Morey, 2008.  Published by Texas Tech University Press, 329 p.

There are several regional field guides available for plants of the Big Bend region.  This one is a bit different from others.  It’s a sturdy, glossy, 7.5″x10″ paperback, too large to fit in a backpack but just right to keep at camp, in the car, or to study at home.  This format showcases the beautifully crisp photos, printed much larger than in most guides, so the tiny details are easy to see and admire.  Each plant is given a page for one or more photos and a detailed description which is non-technical and very readable.  The book includes annual and perennial wildflowers (many of which are either rare or have rarely been photographed), a few trees and shrubs, and even two ferns (Pellaea ternifolia and P. intermedia, both of which are also found in Arizona).  This is not a comprehensive regional guide, but an introduction to some of the plants that are less common, inconspicuous, or just overlooked.  Some are endemics whose range is limited to the park itself, some are found throughout the Trans-Pecos region, and a few have wider distribution in the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, and even Mojave deserts.  For me it was especially interesting to compare Texas species of genera that have similar representatives in the Arizona deserts.  My only complaint about this book is that the color in many photos is slightly oversaturated, and in bluish or purple flowers it is shifted too far towards the red end of the spectrum.  This appears to be a problem with the printing process rather than the original photos.  But the photos are spectactular, and the lighting and contrast are especially well done.

The book also includes a brief illustrated overview of Big Bend National Park and its natural history, specific locations and conservation status for selected plants, a checklist, glossary, and list of references, photography details, and other interesting information.  Technical data (authors of species, classification problems, etc.) is kept to a minimum, so the species discussions are informative but not cluttered.  The result is an impressive book that carries on the 19th century “gentleman naturalist” tradition of scholarship, enthusiasm, beauty, and meticulous accuracy in illustration.

Spirit Canoe is the fourth Spirit Boat that have made.  The other three have all been given to friends who recently lost someone close to them.  The boats resemble coralbean pods and represent the soul’s final journey across the Oldest River (also called the Narrow Sea and many other names).  This one (photographed unfinished and still covered in firescale) is less regular and more “natural” looking than the others.  It was forged from a flat strip of steel, 1/8″ thick, an inch wide, and about seven inches long.   Eventually it will be polished, blackened, and decorated.


For many years I welcomed Halloween as a time for solitary spiritual work.  I would dress however I felt was appropriate and go out into the woods, usually where there was flowing water, and make a ritual River crossing and shaman’s journey.  Over the years this annual “trip” became more powerful and elaborate, and I scouted for likely places ahead of time, incorporated whistles and rattles for calling the spirits, occasionally included other people as helpers, and sometimes set up a formal “gate” of sticks, complete with dog skull “Cerberus” and various offerings.  All of this was before I had any friends who had passed to the Other Side, and was mostly a way to talk to nature spirits.  After a few years, enough of my friends had crossed over that my former ritual seemed contrived, childish, and inappropriate.  Instead, I built a modest altar in my studio and left it at that.  For the past two years I have walked in the Tucson All Souls Procession, which I found to be surprisingly similar to my original River journey in some ways, except that the huge crowd is not crossing the river – it IS the River for a short time, and opens the way for spirits to move in all directions.

This year I wanted to return to the quiet innocence and power of the original forest or desert ritual, and we found several wooded washes and other likely places.  But as we walked and explored, I realized that the reason I had “outgrown” the original one is not because I no longer need to do it, but because I do it all the time, and don’t need to set aside a special time and place unless there is a specific reason.  I have always known this, but this Halloween was a time for rediscovery and rededication.  I have been a Creekwalker all my life, from very earliest childhood, when I explored the northern Virginia creeks near my house.  The winding, half-hidden water track that drew me upstream to some mysterious source (and somehow, downstream to the Ocean at the same time) became my spiritual “path” long ago, in places like these:

I took the pictures more than 25 years ago and the place in the top photo has been gone for almost that long.  The one in the bottom photo was an area that I visited nearly every day for a decade.  Today I walked in a rocky desert wash that looks very different, but holds its own wonders, including this giant canyon hackberry tree, the oldest I have ever seen.  An appropriate gift from the River on this day.