Fourth 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.

LICHENS OF NORTH AMERICA, by Irwin M. Brodo, Sylvia Duran Sharnoff, and Stephen Sharnoff.  2001, Yale University Press, 828 pages, hardbound.

This is certainly one of the most beautiful and ambitious natural history books ever published.  Printed on smooth, sturdy paper and lavishly illustrated with hundreds of stunning photos, the “Big Book” is an important addition to any naturalist’s library.   It contains keys, descriptions, and spectacular photos for about a third of U.S. lichen species.  The introductory material stands alone as a significant up-to-date work on lichen natural history, and includes detailed background information on lichen biology, chemistry, ecology, and a fascinating and useful section on geographic distribution.  The text is carefully prepared, well organized, and very readable.  It is designed to reach the broadest possible audience, from professional  scientists to beginning naturalists, and succeeds very well.  This is a wonderful browsing book for the armchair naturalist, a useful and informative guide for lichen enthusiasts of all levels, and an inspiration for nature photographers. 

The book is dedicated to the late Mason E. Hale, the American lichenologist who wrote How to Know the Lichens, which was the first detailed guide to American lichens that was written for the general public.  Dr. Hale bought and autographed a copy for me in 1984, when I worked for a summer as his intern at the Smithsonian Institution’s Botany Department.  It’s a spiralbound paperback, filled with meticulously detailed keys and descriptions, and illustrated with very high quality black and white photos and line drawings.  Despite the huge difference in size, Lichens of North America borrows several design elements from its predecessor, including the square page format, the colors used for the cover art, and the font style  used for the title – a respectful yet whimsical touch.  For comparison, both books are shown in the photo.

Lichen Books

Lichen Books

A photo gallery and other information is available at the book’s website:


Healing Impy

December 26, 2008

Impy, our seven year old “Black Cat #1” , got very sick a couple of weeks ago.  He has already used up several of his nine lives – he was a rescued stray who had lived outside for several months before we trapped him in 2003.  He arrived with an abscessed bite wound on his shoulder that needed surgery, and was partially blind due to taurine deficiency from malnutrition.  A year later he survived a near-fatal bout of pancreatitis.  His recent illness was just as frightening, since he quit eating and showed signs of dementia, worsening blindness,  and depression.  He tested positive for toxoplasmosis.  After a few days of antibiotic treatment, he is much better, and we have our happy, active, loving, mischievous kitty back!



In Memoriam:  2004 TSUNAMI


Texas Desert Fern Photos

December 24, 2008

I recently reviewed Roy Morey’s book, Little Big Bend.  Mr.  Morey has sent me some of his beautiful Texas fern photographs and given me permission to use them to create a new online guide to Trans-Pecos Xerophytic FernsThis page is very similar to my online guide to Arizona Xerophytic Ferns.  Although incomplete, this expansion will make the project more interesting and useful, and I think the new photos are lovely even if you aren’t a fernhunter!

Notholaena copelandii

Notholaena copelandii

GARDEN OF DIVERSITY:  Arizona and Texas each have 37 species of true xerophytic “resurrection ferns”.  27 of these grow in both states.  California has about 20 species that do not occur outside the state, and shares half a dozen others with Arizona.  These numbers do NOT include genera that are not (or not quite) xerophytes but sometimes grow in company with xerophytes in the rare damp, shady nooks in desert canyons (Asplenium, Adiantum, Polypodium, Woodsia, Cystopteris etc.)  It also doesn’t include humid-climate ferns with a more northern and/or eastern distribution that grow at high elevations in the evergreen forests of the Southwestern mountains.

We had frost last night but this afternoon was warm and sunny, so we hiked in a rocky, sand-filled wash in the Empire Mountains.  One shady north-facing outcrop, sheltered by now-leafless young soapberries and canyon hackberry trees, was covered in lichens and the gray-green fuzzy fronds of Cheilanthes eatonii, one of the more common desert ferns.  It made a wintry but colorful Solstice picture:

Winter Solstice - desert fern

Winter Solstice - desert fern

We found a big velvet ash tree hosting several clusters of mistletoe (Phoradendron flavescens) which usually grows on oaks but is also found on ash and hackberry. 
Phoradendron flavescens on Velvet Asn

Phoradendron flavescens on Velvet Ash

All mistletoe species are parasites but this one rarely kills desert trees as long as the trees have plenty of water.  This species is found on oaks in the Eastern U.S. and looks very similar to Viscum album, the Old World mistletoe of European mythology.  Both species have large rounded leaves and berries that are white when ripe.   Both plants are dark green in summer but fade to chartreuse or golden yellow in winter, which is why the Roman poet Vergil called mistletoe the “Golden Bough”.  Today, as I stand underneath the bare ash tree in the wash, the lacy, ball-shaped clusters of mistletoe have an Otherworldly glow on the Winter Solstice as they catch the last of the Old Sun’s light in late afternoon.
The most common desert mistletoe is Phoradendron californicum, which grows on legumes such as mesquite, ironwood, palo verde, and acacia.  Its stems are dark green all year, its leaves are reduced to tiny scales, and its berries are white, pink, or red when ripe.  It often kills palo verde trees, which are fast-growing, short-lived, and have very soft wood.  But the ironwood (Olneya tesota), famous for its slow growth and dense, heavy wood, can withstand thick infestations of mistletoe for many years.  This mistletoe grows in dense hanging clumps, creating ideal nesting sites for the phainopepla, which feeds on the sticky berries and disperses the seeds.  The plant I photographed today was growing on acacia, and the flaming berries held the last warmth of the desert sun:
Phoradendron californicum on Acacia

Phoradendron californicum on Acacia


Natural Gold Nugget

“I guess I need to start using some of my good material.”

A quote from the late Whittaker Freegard, master gem carver and one of my closest artist friends until his death in 2006.  He created some of his most ambitious and beautiful stone flutes after he survived a massive heart attack that left him in fragile health but still able to work.  I have adopted his phrase as a mantra against hoarding.  My best stones, metal, and other treasures can sit hidden in secret drawers for years, while I work with lesser materials for “practice” in the vain hope that one day I’ll be good enough to work with them.  But the Earth is overflowing with abundance, and there will always be more beautiful raw materials than any artist can use, so once you have developed enough skill, knowledge, and discernment to appreciate the best of what your medium offers, life is too short not to use it, even if the result is imperfect.

“It is beyond value, which means it is worthless.”

 – Gene Wolfe, The Sword of the Lictor

A few years ago, I traded mineral specimens with a Tucson gem show dealer and ended up with a Yukon gold nugget.  Softly gleaming and strangely heavy, it stirs my metalworker’s imagination, just as similar golden pebbles did for unknown craftsmen thousands of years ago, awakening a combination of avarice, curiosity, fear of failure, and hope. 

I haven’t ever worked with pure gold – I’ve only melted scrap jewelry and dental gold, mixed it with melted silver and copper, and made red gold for for a few pieces of jewelry.  But red gold is composed of three metals and has a unique “personality” that is quite different from pure gold.  I’ve heard some craftsmen say that working with gold “changes your soul”.  But that is true of any material.  If it was not, artists would not develop such strong attachments to their materials and the process of creating with them. 

So what to do with the gold nugget?  At last year’s gem show, the dealers who sell natural gold were discussing whether the nuggets were more valuable as mineral specimens, as precious metal, or as raw material for jewelers and craftsmen.   For my little stone it doesn’t matter, since it wasn’t bought and won’t be sold, and therefore has no value to anyone except me.  After the Winter Solstice, when the gold of the sun is reborn, I could drill it like a bead and use it as is, to adorn a necklace or the chain on a knife, since the rough gold pebble glows all the more brightly when combined with sleek black iron.  If I hammer it, the metal would end up crumbly and pitted, since a peek under the microscope reveals that there is quite a bit of quartz in this specimen.  So if I have the nerve to put it under the torch, I  could melt it in a crucible to yield a clean gold button to hammer thin and shape into a little bell…Yes, a tiny round pellet bell in the ancient style, to make the metal speak as well as shine...

Tarot Bag Pattern

December 14, 2008

Lined, reversible, with double drawstrings.


LEFT:  Padded, flannel-lined embroidered bag for “All Souls Procession Bell”

CENTER:  Flannel inside and outside, for jewelry.

RIGHT:  Half-size bag for Pod Knife:   Hemp/cotton hand-dyed with pomegranate husks, with hemp cords and silk tassels.

This pattern is sized to fit most Tarot decks, but I use it far more often to make bags for my bells and jewelry.   If it is not embellished with embroidery or ornaments, it is completely reversible.  Suitable fabrics include calico, flannel, muslin, and other quilter’s cottons, as well as lightweight denim, hemp/cotton, and corduroy. Construction can be a challenge with lightweight or unstable material (silk, satin, handkerchief linen, etc.) unless you are sewing by hand or have experience with these fabrics.  View a larger version of the pattern here:


Cut four pieces, two for the outer bag, and two from another fabric for the lining.  The pattern is 8.5″ x 5.5″ but can easily be resized.

1. To be sure the pieces are the same size and the notches line up exactly, stack the four cut rectangles on top of each other, and cut all the notches at once. 

2. Fold the top (notched) corners over twice onto the wrong side of the fabric, and stitch flat.  The folded triangles will not be stitched together, because they will form the open ends of the cord channel.  Complete any embroidery, applique, etc. for the outside of the bag now.

3. With right sides together, sew the two pieces of the lining (inner bag) together along the sides and bottom (NOT the top of the bag above the side notches).  Use a 1/4″ seam allowance.  Repeat with the the outer bag.  Clip seam allowances to 1/8″.

4.  Turn the outer bag right side out and press so seams and corners are straight.  Leave the lining as is, with the wrong side facing out.   Put the lining inside the outer bag, fold and press 1/2″ of the the tops over towards the wrong sides so they face each other to make the seam, and pin the two bags together at the top.  You should now have one bag with a lining.

5. Tack with a few stitches to firmly anchor the four top corners and the bottoms of the two”V” openings that form the cord channel, matching the pieces carefully. This step reinforces stress points and and helps keep the outer bag and the lining from slipping when you are stitching the top edges of the bag.

6. Stitch the two bags together at the top, about 1/8″ from the edge.   This can be done by hand or on the machine.  If the two pieces are different colors, match the top thread to the outer bag and the bobbin thread to the lining, since this stitching will be visible on both sides.

7. Use a ruler and a fabric-marking pencil, draw a straight line parallel to the top of the bag to connect the bottoms of the two “V” openings (note that the two pairs of folded triangles are facing each other).  On the pattern, this line connects the side notches to indicate the bottom of the cord channel.

8. If  you want the bag to be fully reversible, topstitch this line on the machine.  Since it is prominently visible on the bag, you may wish to handstitch it with embroidery thread instead, to give a more elegant look, especially if you are embellishing the outside of the bag and/or you don’t need it to be reversible.  I use herringbone stitch because it is quick, easy, attractive, and durable. 

9. The bag is done! If you are using commercial cord or ribbon, choose carefully and do not use cord that is too slippery or too small, or the bag won’t close properly. This pattern is really designed for 1/2″ or even wider ribbons, or for flat 1/4″-1/2″ drawstrings made from cotton fabric scraps.  Fabrics can be chosen to complement the colors of the bag, and the result is an attractive, long-wearing cord that is washable and closes very securely.  Photo shows the top of a completed bag with herringbone topstitching. 


Choose a solid color or small print, keeping in mind that the finished cord is only 1/2″ wide. Fabrics should be the same weight as the bag fabrics or a bit lighter. Since you will be stitching through four layers, avoid heavy fabrics. Cut a piece 1 1/2″ wide and about 30″ long.  Fold the piece in half lengthwise and press. Fold the sides into the center, then fold in half lengthwise along the first fold.  You will have a strip that is four layers thick and 1/3 the original width.  Press and pin shut. Topstitch within 1/8″ of the edge.
Now you have a cord.  Cut it in half.  Attach a safety pin to one end of the cord, close it, and use it to help you thread the cord through the two channels.  Repeat with the other cord.  Pull cords until ends are even.  If they are too long, cut to desired length.  Ends can simply be knotted, like any other cord, but the raw edges will show.  You can finish the ends in various ways:  Fold them over and stitch them, add shapes in contrasting fabrics, felt, leather etc., make tassels or stitch the end into a loop for beads or bells, wrap them with wire, or crimp them with pieces of metal tubing.

I made Rainbow Lion back in March but was never happy with his blanket. I also realized that the iron didn’t suit him, even though it was perfect for the other two lions. So I took off the iron bells and made a flannel blanket with sparkly aluminum shisha mirrors decorated with variegated embroidery thread, and added the iridescent glass beads and copper spirals from the original blanket.  I really don’t know where this guy came from – he’s definitely not the type of work I prefer to do – too much “white light” – and I’m often uncomfortable with such bright colors.  But I hope he’ll be perfect for someone.  Larger photos are here:


Pod Knife with Silver Cone

December 4, 2008

My newest fish pod knife is all steel, with a single hot-forged silver cone and an antique African iron bead on the black steel wire chain.  Total length (including the chain and cone) is 8 inches.  The knife itself has 1.5 inches of usable blade.  One side of the blade is decorated with tiny dots or pits, carved with a round metal bur.  The other side is plain, with the slightly rough as-forged texture.  It didn’t occur to me until I put the knife together that in order to see the decorated side when the knife is in use, it would have to be held in the left hand.  I’m right-handed so I’m not sure why I ended up making it this way, but there it is.

Pod Knife with Silver Cone

Pod Knife with Silver Cone