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.

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.

Embroidered Patchwork Vest

November 25, 2011

I recently finished this vest which had been an intermittent evening project for several months.  I love vests but it is difficult to find one that fits properly, since I have such a short back.  It took me three paper drafts and two muslin ones to get this pattern just right, but it was worth the trouble and I still finished the pattern in one evening.  It looks like a short bolero but the hem sits precisely on my waist and the whole thing is a perfect fit.  The front is wider than the back (not the other way around, like a man’s vest) and the shoulders are wide enough to fit without slipping, even over my usual drop-shouldered dresses.

The vest is brown 100% linen, lined with teadye cotton muslin and bound with black/indigo batik quilter’s cotton.  The binding is entirely handstitched.  The shoulders and side seams are reinforced with commercial black bias tape, embroidered with french knots.  Bias tape (overlain with woven running stitch in several shades of blue) was also used to bind the white/indigo  calico that I used for the center stripes.  The linen fabric is not a very tight weave so it’s rather unstable and needs the tape for a good fit.  Most of the applique patches are from the “blue tiger” and “cat skull” fabrics that I had printed at Spoonflower, so they are my own designs.  The indigo wave and charcoal bird fabrics are Japanese dobby cloth.  There are a couple of flannel scraps and some vintage 1970s trim (peach/brown/white on black).  On the back is half of a crocheted disk that is positioned to look like the moon rising over the waves.  I picked up a bag of these round crocheted pieces (somebody’s abandoned unfinished table runner or something) at a thrift shop about 20 years ago.  I made the front clasps from 14-gauge copper wire; they will look much nicer once they’ve tarnished.  I thought they might be a bit heavy but they work fine.  Each side is designed to be stitched down at four points for stability.  They are slightly oversized for durability and ease of use.

Umber and indigo – used together, often with black and/or deep grayish-purple, are my personal “shaman’s colors”.  Indigo is paired with dark brown in several traditional and/or ceremonial textiles around the world, such as Japanese clothing, Batak ikat weavings from Sumatra, and old Zuni mantas from New Mexico.  It would be easy to say that this is just because these two colors are common in naturally-dyed fabrics everywhere, but there seems to be a bit more to it than that, since the same pattern (brown with a blue border, or vice versa) seems to turn up over and over in “special” garments that have been lavished with extra work, even though they aren’t brightly colored.  The blue/brown combination also occurs in nature in several creatures that are both common and conspicuous, such as Steller’s jay (western U.S.), the blue tiger butterfly (Asia), and the pipevine swallowtail (U.S.).

Embroidered Patchwork Vest, Front

Embroidered Patchwork Vest, Front

 

Embroidered Patchwork Vest, Back

Embroidered Patchwork Vest, Back

 

Copper Clasp

Copper Clasp

Last night was Tucson’s annual Day of the Dead celebration.  Some of our photos (and many others) can be viewed on Flickr’s ASP group page:

http://www.flickr.com/groups/tucson_all_souls_procession/

As usual, we walked in the procession but skipped the finale.  This year’s finale was held at a new location, so the procession route was longer (2 miles one way).  We left it at Stone Ave., after it had made the high-energy traverse through the 4th Avenue underpass and had begun to unravel a bit.  This year’s crowd (walkers and spectators) was a bit more somber and most costumes and props were very traditional.  The Urn and its Guardians and other attendants are draped in different “theme” colors and costumes each year.  This year’s colors were especially beautiful appropriate – deep purple, lavender, and white.  The attendants wore angel-winged masks on top of their heads.
The Urn group is usually spectacular, with drummers, stilt-walkers, and dancers; Guardians circulate through the crowd with tiny Urns, gathering photos, notes, prayers, and other small items that will be transferred to the big Urn and burned.  This year they dispensed with most of that, leaving only the big Urn, the traditional beast-masked man who pulls it, and a small contingent of dancers riding behind it.  This left no doubt that the group who organizes the procession has decided to devote most of their attention and energy to the Finale (a performance, not a participatory event), and let the Procession take care of itsef for the most part…which it may indeed be ready to do, since creative costumes, carettas, and decorations from “ordinary people” were abundant and beautiful this year.  The ASP is an evolving event, and is so completely contrary to Tucson’s increasingly conservative, xenophobic, and confrontational culture that it’s a miracle that it happens at all.

We chose a relatively quiet place to walk, next to the big red AIDS  banner.  Curved in the shape of a memorial ribbon, it’s attached to poles and takes a large and well-coordinated group of people to carry it.  The center is an island of quiet open space, which people occasionally enter to take pictures or exchange greetings.

Since the night was chilly (an unusual early cold front brought rain the day before), I wore a heavy hemp/cotton dress and a rebozo.  The photo shows last-minute additions to the iron black cat mask:  “fangs” made from a deer antler tine and a large catfish bone; tiny pawprint milagros made from copper foil on metallic-painted stampbord, and the spangled fabric pennants that I made two years ago for the copper jaguar mask.  I carried a copper flute (a homemade hybrid instrument based on a Bb tin whistle but with two extra holes so it is tuned like a recorder) and a short walking stick made from an agave stalk, to which I attached one of my iron bells.

All Souls Procession 2011 Costume

All Souls Procession 2011 Costume

Halloween 2011

November 2, 2011

We spent Halloween in the backyard, lighting candles in memory of our two cats that died this year (and entertaining the ones who are still with us, since they were watching through the screen porch).

A couple of weeks ago we salvaged 11 sets of iron security bars from the windows of an old house in Tucson.  Since they were still on the house and we had to remove them ourselves, they were very cheap.  We bolted them on both sides of the wall around the backyard to use as trellises for various types of potted vines.  We had already done this with some of the bars from our own windows and liked the look.  So now the garden walls are pretty much covered in various styles of decorative bars.  Most of the new ones are painted white, and the ones from our windows are black.

The citrus/hummingbird garden is becoming a “cat garden” as well.  It’s walled on three sides and parallels the cat porch, with a concrete patio separating the garden from the porch.  The cats can watch the hummingbirds, butterflies, and lizards, and we can look at the colorful plants.  For Halloween, we set tealight candles on the bars to illuminate the whole garden.   The candle on the bottom right in the photo below is sitting at the center of a small labyrinth that I drew on the concrete with chalk.

Halloween Garden, west wall

Halloween Garden, west wall

Photo below shows one of the new sets of bars, temporarily hung with cat masks.  Two candles sit on decorative boulders for Midnight Louie and Lin who are buried there.  My medicinal yerba mansa patch is in the corner, below a large steel plant pot that I converted to a bell and suspended from the wall.  Obviously it’s all much more colorful in daylight, although the flowers are mostly gone and the garden has a wintry look.

Halloween Garden, east and south wall

Halloween Garden, east and south wall

 

Iron Bars with Candle

Iron Bars with Candle

Forged Iron Cat Mask

October 19, 2011

This is the forged iron black cat mask that I made for this year’s Tucson All Souls Procession.  I won’t post a photo of me wearing it until after the procession, since I’m still deciding on the rest of my costume.  The mask is hot-forged from heavy steel sheet, and has a riveted nose and whisker spots.  The “snakeskin” pennants were stitched from an undyed Guatemalan cotton sash, ornamented with mica cutouts, copper spirals, vintage pearl buttons, snake vertebrae, and handmade yarn tassels.  This mask is sturdier than the copper masks I’ve made, but not really any heavier.  It’s six inches wide.

Forged Iron Black Cat Mask

Forged Iron Black Cat Mask

Iron Cat Mask Detail

Iron Cat Mask Detail

I also made this embroidered cotton fabric Mountain Lion Mask.  It’s quite wearable but for this event it will be pinned to my costume.  It has a black cotton backing and is stiffened with thin cotton batting (a single layer for the eye and ear portion, and several layers for the muzzle and nose).  The patterned flannel ties, the embroidered stars, and the French knots around the eyes are intended to suggest the Leonid meteor shower that occurs at the end of November.

Mountain Lion Fabric Mask

Mountain Lion Fabric Mask

These Cat Eye and Claw earrings seem appropriate for the Autumn Equinox, with their balance of brown and blue, transparency and opacity, receding earth and rising water.  I carved the “claws” some time ago and only recently made the “cat eye” cabochons to go with them.  Settings are sterling silver with fine silver bezels and frosted aquamarine beads, 2.5 inches long, not including the earwires.

LEFT:  Rose gold bead (made in my shop from recycled metals), Oregon picture jasper cabochon, Guatemalan “Olmec Blue” jade carving (jadeite; carved the same on both sides).

RIGHT:  Bronze bead (cut from a broken Tibetan singing bowl), Namibian blue tigereye cabochon (the metallic line down the center is hematite), Siberian fossil mammoth ivory (the rare blue color is from vivianite, an iron phosphate mineral).

Cat Eye and Claw Earrings

Cat Eye and Claw Earrings

We’re Back

September 15, 2011

OK, we’re back, and the computer has a new graphics card.  Meanwhile I’ve been working in the shop, drawing, staring at a “to-finish” list of too many projects, and setting priorities.  I re-did the Pink Necklace to include some forgework and more stone beads, which frees up the iron beads to use for something else.  It’s also more comfortable (and flashy!) to wear.  Hot-forged sterling silver and high-carbon steel, with the beads strung on black steel wire.  I carved two dark purple beads from fine-grained volcanic pebbles that I collected several years ago and have been using to decorate my yard.  The rock is extensively altered (mostly to hematite and clays) so it’s not as hard as the original minerals would have been, and takes a soft polish rather than a high shine.  The bright pink bead at the back of the necklace is Peruvian opal.  I carved this from some high-grade rough that a friend gave me several years ago.  This material is mostly an opaque pink chalcedony that forms in thin layers with swirling stringers of translucent pink, white, or colorless opal.  The color is a bit too bright for the front of the necklace (where I want the pink chalcedony to be the focus) but it is a nice accent for the back.

Pink Necklace II

Pink Necklace II

Now it needs some matching earrings.  I am working on a forged silver/iron set with small pink opal beads, but they will take some time.  Meanwhile, these simple wire ones will do:

Pink Earrings

Pink Earrings

I also made a forged pair of Moonlight Curly Cones, inspired by the Ironwing Tarot Ten of Bells card.  These are hot-forged sterling silver and high-carbon steel, like the necklace.  They are for sale on my website, since they ought to match anything black and white!  I have enough silver wire left for a couple more pairs of earwires (probably for me), but with silver at $44 an ounce, I won’t be buying any more for awhile.  I’m almost out of black steel wire, and once I’ve finished the necklace that is sitting nearly completed on my desk, I have chosen not to get any more, in order to focus on expanding my forgework.

Moonlight Curly Cones

Moonlight Curly Cones

The new computer has spawned a host of compatibility issues that mean that some things that used to be easy are now either impossible or too time-consuming to be worth the trouble.  So I am spending more time at the drawing table and less on the computer, and am not tackling any printing/publishing/drawing reproduction projects for awhile.