Crested Saguaro Pilgrimage

December 26, 2011

Dan found this wonderful crested saguaro cactus a few days ago, so we visited it today for more photos.  Crested cacti are rare but some areas tend to have more than others.  We have found crested cacti of several species, including saguaros, Arizona barrels, chainfruit chollas, and several of the small cacti.  There are a few well-known crested saguaros along public hiking trails, roadsides, and in botanical gardens or private yards, but of course there are many more that grow in remote parts of the desert and are rarely seen or photographed.  This is one of them, accessible only by 4WD and a hike (or a really long hike from the main road).

A Crested Saguaro

A Crested Saguaro

It has small arms growing from the crested portion of the main trunk.  This is unusual but not unheard of.  The three large arms are also partly crested at the tips (most obvious on the arm on the left).  The tiny knob poking up where the left arm joins the trunk is a tiny prickly pear plant.  This is not a parasite.  The seeds often sprout in water-gathering hollows on old saguaros, but they never grow very big since there is no soil for their developing roots.

Crested Saguaro Top

Crested Saguaro Top

Here’s a closer view of the crest in the late afternoon winter light.  The center of the crest looks brown and dead; this may be damage from last winter’s big freeze.  As is typical for old saguaros, this one is full of holes made by gila woodpeckers.  Other species of opportunistic birds and insects make use of these holes; in the area where this plant is growing, the most common tenants (though only in summer) are colonies of purple martins.  At the far left in the photo you can see that one hole has attracted other inhabitants:  it’s a beehive, and the transparent yellowish thing that fills the hole is a honeycomb:

Honeycomb in a Saguaro

Honeycomb in a Saguaro

We didn’t see any bees, but it might have been too cold for them to fly much.  The comb looks like it was made this year and doesn’t show any signs of weathering or decay, so I assume it’s an active hive.  Anyway, it was an extra treat to see this on such a special plant.

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Winter Solstice

December 21, 2011

The Winter Solstice is the quietest time of year in the desert.  A deep hush rests on the cool earth, and the pale gold sun warms the air for only a short time at noon.  In lucky years such as this one, this also the time of winter rain.  Of snow on the highest mountains, of water flowing in desert washes and ice rimming secret stone pockets in wooded canyons.  Not everything is dormant at this time, and the rain makes many plants more wakeful.  Young agaves grow larger and tougher, though they will not show new leaves for several months.  Yuccas, desert hackberries, and the evergreen oaks are strengthening their deepest roots.  Cacti swell and store water for April’s flush of new spines.  As befits the time of year, the most mysterious, magical, and spectacular event is completely hidden.  Wrapped in earth’s protective darkness, the seeds of annual wildflowers are  soaking up the water, the tough seedcoats disintegrating and new embryos swelling….and waiting for the new sun.

We stay quiet, too.  We have our own small maze-and-candle rituals, but we are mostly hermits at this time.  Anything else is inappropriate and inauspicious.  When the sun returns and the earth begins to stir a little more, it will be different.  But now we rest, and grateful cats gather around us.

For this week’s Third Quarter Moon, I made this drawing.  It is one of eight pictures in a Stick Oracle that I started a few years ago.  I finished it and decided that two of the pictures didn’t work and needed to be replaced, so I put it aside for awhile.  This drawing of my new oak walking stick is one of the replacements.   Finishing it, and looking at the entire set again, has provided enough inspiration for the other replacement image that I’ve started work on that, too.

Here, two sticks – a saguaro rib topped with a bundle of thorns, and an oak root topped with tangled woody grapevine tendrils – stand in a rocky canyon and mark the place where two tiny streams converge as they sink into the sand.

Stick Oracle - Third Quarter Moon

Stick Oracle - Third Quarter Moon

This antler drawing that I finished several months ago is also appropriate for the Third Quarter Moon before the Winter Solstice.  The left side shows the Carbon Antler Fungus, Xylaria hypoxylon, growing on knotty wood.  The right side shows stylized whitetail deer antlers and the top of the deer’s skull, including sutures.  Uniting the two images are the intricately interlocked branches of Pseudevernia consocians, an antler-like lichen that grows on tree branches.  The circle at the top shows the fungus and antler in reverse colors, drawn extremely stylized to resemble hands.  The rim on the left shows the fungus mycelium (network of threads that fills the rotting wood on which it grows) and the rim on the right shows the porous bony pattern of an antler in cross-section.  (Both drawings are on 6″ scratchboard.)

Antler Fungus

Antler Fungus

Smithsonite Necklace

December 14, 2011

I finally finished a necklace to hold the smithsonite beads that I carved back in August.  My Pink Bead Necklace is so comfortable that I made this one in a similar style.  Forged from high-carbon steel and black steel wire, with bronze spacer beads cut from a broken Tibetan singing bowl.  The copper beads were cut from scrap tubing, then hammered flat and polished.  The bead at the back was carved from a piece of ore that I picked up at an abandoned copper mine.

I usually like to put reverse twists on this type of forgework.  But that doesn’t work with this thin high-carbon steel stock, since it can’t be quenched in water or it will shatter.  So I just tapered, rounded, and curled the ends.  Although it’s not apparent from the photo, the iron pieces have a “vertical” curve as well as a horizontal one, so the necklace doesn’t lay flat on the ground but it drapes nicely when worn.  The bronze and copper beads will eventually tarnish and will be subtle accents for the “screaming” turquoise color of the beads.

I have one small piece of smithsonite left.  It will probably become an earring.  Sometime this winter I’m hoping to go back to the mine where I collected it.  I’d like to find more of this unusual material, since it makes such beautiful beads.

Smithsonite and Forged Iron Necklace

Smithsonite and Forged Iron Necklace

Walking Sticks

December 12, 2011

I’ve been carrying a Trekpod (camera tripod/hiking stick)  for about a year now when hiking off-trail or on rough trails and washes.  I recently decided that my everyday walks – partly on pavement and partly on dirt roads – would sometimes be easier if I had a stick.  In my neighborhood, many people carry one anyway, mostly for protection against unfriendly dogs.  A neighbor gave me a dried agave stalk that had tangled in a tree as it grew, so it had some interesting curves.  Like their cousins Sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri) and Yucca, agave stalks are light in weight, strong, and (usually) very long and straight.  They have sharp leaf scales and thin, papery bark that must be filed off, but the soft, long-fibered “wood” underneath can be sanded very smooth and takes a soft polish.  My stick is topped with a small deer antler that I picked up in the Empire Mountains and a hammered copper ferrule made from a piece of tubing.  The antler and stick were also drilled and fitted with a piece of steel rod to hold them together, so the handle is stronger than it looks.  I added an iron bell and antique African glass beads to decorate the forged iron loop on the antler.  Most of these things are “recycled” from other projects.  Below the ferrule was a hole that I drilled to hold a bell (this is the stick that I carried in the All Souls Procession, but it didn’t have a handle at that time).  I lined the hole with a piece of copper tubing to protect the wood, and now it can be used to hold all kinds of temporary decorations.

Agave Walking Stick

Agave Walking Stick

Here’s the agave stick with two other sticks that are a bit big for daily walks and are better suited for ritual use.

Oak, Agave, and Saguaro Sticks

Oak, Agave, and Saguaro Sticks

The straight one on the right is a saguaro rib that I’ve had since 1994.  It was a gift from a fellow Tucson artist.  The plant must have been a 200-year-old giant because this “cactus bone” is one of the biggest I’ve ever seen.  It was cut from the lowest part of the trunk, just above the roots (it’s upside-down in the photo).  Although heavier and more substantial than an agave stalk, it’s still quite light in weight and easy to carry even though it’s more than six feet long.  It has a substantial presence and I have never  been sure of how to use it or had the nerve to add anything to it.  That’s about to change, since I finally found a worthy stick to balance it:

The curved stick on the left is a root of Arizona black oak (Quercus emoryi) that I recently picked up on a hike in a rocky canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains.  The root had grown along the edge of the wash and had been repeatedly exposed by scouring floods and re-buried under gravel until all the bark was polished off.  The tree itself (about 50 years old) was still alive when it fell during a summer storm and shattered among boulders in the wash.  The root was torn out of the bank and lay bare and clean on the rocks.  It’s very heavy and twisted, with alternating cupped, flattened, and ridged sections that have weathered to show the coarse “braided” fibrous texture that seems to be unique to this species of desert oak.  This stick definitely calls for some kind of ornament at the top to hide the raw cut where I sawed off the broken end.

Now I have the two sides of a Gate to walk through, or simply two signposts that help define the way:  Earth and Water opposite Air and Fire; twisted oak root from a shaded mountain canyon opposite a straight cactus rib from a sunny desert ridge.