Summer Solstice

June 21, 2009

We celebrated the Summer Solstice with a day in the Catalinas, the big mountain range just north of Tucson.  I wanted to look for Golden-flowered Agaves, whose blazing flower spikes are the very essence of Midsummer.  Unfortunately, the 2003 Aspen Fire decimated the agave population (and a lot of other things) but we did see a few.  This photo (taken from across the canyon) has a flower spike on the far right.  The big tree is an oak that has dropped most of its leaves and is waiting for rain before putting out new ones.

Oak and Agave

Oak and Agave

Molino Basin, one of the lower scenic stops on the Mount Lemmon Highway, is one of the first places I visited in southern Arizona.  I saw it within a day or two of my first visit to Tucson, in summer 1991.  I still think it’s one of the best places to see some of the desert’s most spectacular and distinctive plants, including saguaros, several oak species, coralbean, Arizona rosewood, pineneedle milkweed, riparian-zone trees (ash, walnut, sycamore, willows, cottonwood), ferns, and many other things.  A few miles up the road, Arizona cypresses and other evergreen trees appear, and shortly afterward the desert plants give way to pine forest and ultimately spruce and fir at the top of the mountain.  But the zone where the saguaros mingle with desert oaks is my favorite.

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Last night I got a phone call from a Tucson art gallery that used to carry my work.  I sold gourd rattles and copper jewelry there in 1992-94, and when we moved back to Arizona in 2000, I put several of my bells in the shop. A year or so after that, the gallery came under new management, the inventory changed drastically, and my remaining bells were nowhere to be found when I asked for them.  So I forgot them.  In dealing with art galleries (even those that are very well known), it’s been my experience that having work stolen/lost/damaged is common, and it’s unusual for the gallery to consistently pay the artist the promised 50% of retail.  This gallery was a rare exception for awhile – they sold a lot of things, paid the artists each month, and held a nice artisan fair twice a year.  But times change, and by 2000 Tucson’s art “scene” had long since become corporate and conservative, with many galleries closing or substituting inexpensive mass-produced imported items for high-quality work by local artists.  The market simply isn’t here anymore, which is why I offer my work for sale only on website.

Anyway, the phone call was to inform me that the gallery still had some of my bells, and they wanted me to pick them up.  When I got them this morning, I had no idea what would be in the box.  There were five clapper bells:  one in my usual triangular “wild ginger flower” shape, two in a similar triangular design but with the edges curled under and three additional domes on the corners (a lot of work and I never made more than those two), and two unique designs made from flattened discs.  All were forged while I lived in Cheyenne in 1999.  All need better clappers, minor refinishing (none meet the higher finishing standards that I have now), and additional links and ornaments, since they were just strung very simply on leather cords.  The old clappers will be re-forged and finished as pendants.  It is good to have these old friends back after ten years, and it will be fun refitting and improving them!

Five Clapper Bells

Five Clapper Bells

More Light

June 9, 2009

Over the weekend, my husband installed two windows in my shop.  Although my forge and anvil are outside, I spend at least as much time (maybe more) in this tiny room, which is set up for grinding, polishing, silver work, etc.  For the first time, the light of the High Summer sun and the Full Moon were allowed to enter.  The wind swirled in, transforming it from a dark, stuffy, cramped shed into an airy, inviting workspace.  

shop window

shop window

Working in there yesterday, I discovered that I no longer need the overhead light for most of the day.  The sunlight is enough.  I finished this amulet of two pods, iron and hot-forged copper, in celebration of my bright new retreat.  It’s just under four inches long.

Copper Shrine Amulet

Copper Shrine Amulet

Desert Incense

June 2, 2009

The desert is a fragrant place, since many of its shrubs contain aromatic oils.  Some of these plants have medicinal properties and are usable for incense.  Here are a couple of my favorites:

BRITTLEBUSH or INCIENSO – Encelia farinosa

Brittlebush

Brittlebush

A very common small shrub among the saguaros, with triangular leaves that are covered in dense white fuzz.  The pale stems are woody but very fragile.  They exude beads of sticky golden resin that are a bit tedious to collect, but the wonderful incense is light, airy, and well suited to indoor use.  Good for daytime purification work, and even the cats like it.  It invokes the clean, arid brightness of the desert morning.

Brittlebush Gum

Brittlebush Gum

Along with creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and seepwillow (several Baccharis species), brittlebush is one of the characteristic unforgettable scents of the Sonoran Desert after a rain.  The yellow daisylike flowers bloom in spring, giving way to fuzzy seedheads in high summer.  The plants drop their leaves during the dry months and may freeze to the ground in winter, but they sprout new leaves and branches very quickly after a rain.  Brittlebush is easy to grow and is popular for xeriscapes.  Individual plants usually live for fewer than ten years, but the seeds sprout easily, and a single plant can populate an entire hillside with tidy, rounded gray shrubs within five years.  When the dried leafy branches are burned, they give off a creeping smoke that is an excellent mosquito repellent.  Tea made from the leaves is good for colds – it is a mild analgesic and decongestant, gently calming but not a sedative. 

COPAL, TOROTE, or ELEPHANT TREE – Bursera microphylla

Bursera microphylla

Bursera microphylla

Bursera is a genus of aromatic Mexican trees that are the source for copal resin, which is sold for incense, perfume, and medicine.  There are several species, but all Bursera trees have unusually thick, pale, gnarled trunks, which is why they have been nicknamed “elephant trees”.  B. microphylla is the only species that is cold-tolerant enough to grow wild in the U.S., where it is restricted to south-facing slopes in a few widely scattered and remote desert mountain ranges in southern Arizona and California.  The U.S. plants like the one in the photo are typically large, multi-trunked shrubs, and rarely reach tree size.  Young twigs are dark red, older branches have a red and gray netlike pattern, and the stout trunks have pale, papery outer bark that peels or shreds away to reveal the smooth green inner bark.  Bright green feathery leaves appear with the summer rains.  The entire tree emits an exotic tropical fragrance, and the beads of resing are collected from wounds in the bark.  Its scent is strong and complex, but not irritating.  Bursera gum is an astringent with many medicinal uses.

 When using incense for purification or healing, I employ a primitive form of “smoke divination” during the work.  I burn the incense in a tiny forged iron bowl and carefully watch the smoke color and quantity, the direction it moves, any flames that are present, and how easily the incense burns.

Shaman Antlers

June 1, 2009

It’s not really the right time of year to use these, but I am finishing some projects that are cluttering the shop and making me feel unproductive.  These are naturally shed antlers with decorations based on my personal symbolism for “black” and “white” shamans.   The “white” antler is from a Western Kentucky swamp.  It has a lined hemp/silk drawstring bag with a hydrated snakeskin agate pebble from the Chalk Bluffs (NE Colorado and SE Wyoming) and a jingle shell (not visible in photo) from Cape Hatteras.  The handwoven undyed Guatemalan cotton sash is spangled on both sides with aluminum shisha mirrors and silver beads.  The ends are decorated with Chinese knots, shell buttons, and silk fringe.  The sash represents the shaman’s rope or ladder for climbing into the sky.  Four bone cores of deer toes are tied on with hemp cord.  The “black” antler is from the Empire Mountains here in Arizona.  It was broken, so I cut off the ragged splintered end and replaced it with a tapered, curved, and reverse-twisted forged iron wand set in a hand-hammered copper ferrule.  A forged iron loop is set into the base and hung with deer toe rattles.  The deer toes on both antlers were collected from a winter-killed deer, deep in a wooded hollow near the Kentucky River.

Shaman Antlers

Shaman Antlers

I’ve also re-done the Pilgrim’s Companion bell to make it more compact and easier to hang, carry, or tie onto a walking stick.  The new version is only 5.5″ long and has a hook that can be threaded with a cord.

Pilgrim's Bell

Pilgrim's Bell