Tag Archives: desert

It’s nothing. Really.

Three generations take a hike at Brown’s Ranch, in Scottsdale. Nothing important happens.

Nothing worth recording.

Except for everything.

My mother, my daughter, me. Sixty years separate those two. My daughter is thirty-one.

I’m somewhere in the middle. In the middle of age and work, love and life.

It’s not a long hike, really a stroll, a saunter. This half a mile is a long enough hike when it’s almost one hundred degrees. We get ourselves ready to go.

We examine plants.

Mother: Looks like something you would find in a window on Madison Avenue. Some fancy florist arrangement.

Daughter: That’s the quintessential saguaro.

Mother: That one’s pretty healthy, isn’t it.

Velvet mesquite.

Do I dwell too much on insignificance? I have always liked the unimportant things.

A bird flits away.

Mother: Was it a female cardinal?

Me (know it all): You know what a female cardinal looks like? They’re green.

Mother: No, they’re brown.

Me: Okay, green-brown.

Nothing of consequence is discussed. There’s an agave. Nothing special.

Me: (the know it all): You see, you don’t have to get far off the beaten track to see everything nice.

Daughter: A saguaro skeleton.

Mother: I’ve seen that before.

We see other specimens we recognize from previous walks here. Old friends. Meaningless probably to anyone else.

We know saguaro have buds that will later flower.

Daughter: How much do they grow per year?

Me (Having no idea): Two inches.

There are phenomena we didn’t know existed. We had seen plenty of saguaros but never seen the honeyed droplets at the end of one’s arm.

Mother:  I’ve never seen that before.

Daughter: That’s definitely the buds coming out.

Always something new in the ancient desert.

We see a plant with with little pale bubbles.

Mother: Don’t touch. It could be poisonous, because it’s white.

Yucca has white blossoms too. We identify them.

We see an information placard saying that coyotes use the wash as a highway.

Daughter: It’s a fun way of thinking about it.

Someone has seen fit to tag one fishhook cactus.

Me: Wonder why?

No one knows. It just is what it is.

Mother: That’s mallow.

Mother: I wish they’d provide some shade here.

There is no shade in the desert, it’s only sun, sun sun.

Me: Let’s sit down for a few minutes.

The view is ravishing, of course, but it is also nothing, an ordinary view for these parts.

Save the tough stuff for some other time. There’s so much to talk about. Not now.

Daughter: If you see human trash don’t pick it up because pack rats will use it for their den.

Mother: That’s a hedgehog cactus.

Daughter: Nice.

We see delicate purple flowers and crush them between our fingers.

Daughter: I think it’s lavender.

Me: Maybe.

Mother: Desert lavender is a thing.

We’re not sure. I like it when you admire things and you don’t know their names.

Daughter: The things you see when everything looks dead.

The nearly mundane. The unflamboyant.

Flame orange tubes, barely visible.

Daughter: Little hot dogs.

Mother: I like way they grow out of the rock like that.

Only the small things matter. The barely seen. The almost missed.

Half a dozen lizards scamper ahead with their tails held high. A rabbit bounds away.

A nothing flower. A plant without a name.

Me: I don’t know what that is, do you?

Mother: No.

Daughter: No.

A butterfly appears, you can barely see it in shrubbery.

Mother: I think I know the name of that one.

Another bird.

Mother: A hummingbird. See the sharp beak?

Me: Really?

Daughter: Yes, definitely.

Mother: Solid as granite, isn’t that an expression?

Daughter: Are these the same ones we saw before?

Me (definitively): Yes, definitely.

Mother: I don’t know.

A beneficence of the mundane. Just wondering. Not sure. Trying to figure things out, but not working at it too hard.

Restroom at the end of the trail.

Mother: They know quite a bit about snakes, don’t they? Someone must have seen them in the restroom.

Snakes. They must. But it’s no big deal. Nothing to make a fuss over. Hardly worth mentioning.

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Too soon? Too late? Or just on time.

It would seem to be just about the right time to visit Fairy Duster Trail at Spur Cross Ranch in Cave Creek. We see a perfect fairy duster.

Even though it is April, the supposed height of the wildflower season, it seems as though all of the blooms are somehow not enough. But maybe we are just greedy. After all, the slopes here are flooded with yellow.

Some saguaros are in bud – you can see the nubs on their tips. Too soon to see any actual blooms.

The jumping cholla has jumped off its parent but will not take root for a long, long time.

Prickly bear barely obliges.

Well, some do oblige, if you’re paying attention. Note the bug that crept in, barely visible.

Some plants seem to have already gone to seed, like this lady, possibly some kind of clematis.

Way beyond too late for this gentleman skeleton.

Yes, there is plenty of brittlebush. There is always plenty of brittlebush.

And some nice strawberry hedgehog.

But why can’t they all be blooming for us, all at once? Thank you, chamomile. You are right on time.

We sit for a while under a shelter to cool off.

In another month or two we won’t be out on this trail at all. It’s already too hot to go far.

Contemplate the cowboy on the old rusted fence.

Wondering if we’ll see a rattlesnake.

Envying the horseback riders coming through. Hydrate! A couple of the girls shout to us.

Is it a lupin or purple sage? Nubilous (look that one up). Anyway it won’t stay still to pose.

It all seems to make sense suddenly, in the presence of a wispy palo verde, but perhaps that is only a case of pareidolia (look that one up too).

Buddhist nun Pema Chodron relates a story about a woman running away from tigers, coming to a cliff and hanging from it with one tiger above, one below. A mouse is gnawing at the vine to which she is clinging. Suddenly she sees a little bunch of strawberries growing near to her on the rock. She looks at them, looks at the mouse, looks up and down at the tigers. Then she plucks a berry and puts it in her mouth.

In the distance, the creek line shows green.

Each moment is just what it is, Chodron writes. It might be the only moment of our life, it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.

Focus on what is in right in front of you.

Even the dullest cheatgrass is splendid.

Everything is perfectly what it is. The tiniest euphorbia.

The most spectacular ocotillo embracing a young saguaro in a love grip.

Not too soon. Not too late. Just on time.


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Rock steady baby

sang the Queen of Soul, back in the day.

Why am I so attracted to the desert’s blasted, the desiccated, the half dead?

The mistletoe hanging on for dear life to the tree no longer alive.

Zombie cacti.

The juicy rind left behind.

Mysterious fissures.

Perhaps because in the tiniest organisms you see the pulse of life.

The exquisite crucifiction thorn. I’m taking some prickers home with me in my thigh.

Chuparosa just barely emerging.

The rare lush places where a javelina might bed down.

New growth out of blight.

A glint of a tag. Someone bothered to tell what this is.

Brown’s Ranch Trailhead was once Brown’s Ranch, you know. Brown’s Mountain a blunt force in the distance.

Stories so old they’re almost forgotten.

Saguaro skeletons litter the landscape.

Sloughed off skin. The ribs, once strong enough to hold up thousands of pounds of flesh.

Now forlorn.

Tough, ancient, tenacious seed pods.

And then, of course, the scatter of granite. Rock steady.

Volcanic outcroppings everywhere you look.

Solemn. Dull. Glittering, gorgeous.

Above it all a tiny, nameless twittering.

What are you? I don’t know. I can’t remember.

Just a stone.

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Can a saguaro be famous?

If so, the Michelin Man is.

For a famous thing, a desert icon, the Michelin Man isn’t easy to find. Cave Creek Regional Park is barely on the map, and the guy at the nature center has to give a lot of hints about how to get to it. Turn off the main trail at a certain memorial bench.

When you get there, the guy does have a lot of character.

On the other hand, who wants to be famous when you can be anonymous? So much of the desert’s beauty lies in its sameness. One teddy bear cholla looks pretty much like the next.

Except when you see its tiny offspring rooting themselves nearby. That’s a little different.

A field of anonymous chollas, all pretty much the same, can be magnificent. Did dinosaurs range here?

So prehistoric looking. Do we really need to see another saguaro? They’re all the same.

Well. Yes. We do. Ocotillo in winter, bare and alone. There will be raucous red bracts later, but not now.

Another cholla, vicious.

A rock. Just an ordinary rock in the sun. Nothing special.

A scrap of grass stands out only because it’s rained some here recently and that’s unusual.

Sometimes you get a sense of nurture. Almost. Nestling.

Sometimes one specimen sticks out – kinda funny, somehow.

But that of course is anthropomorphizing. The landscape that stretches on either side of Slate is barren. Only the most intrepid seek it out.

A good place to hike or ride that is un-famous, in the middle of nowhere.

Silly humans traffic the road nearby.

But not here. It’s beautiful desolation. Green trees in washes.

One solemn vista after the other.

The quiet and peace of the nameless.


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Alligator junipers don’t bite.

Stout, ancient ones mob this trail to the back of Boynton Canyon, Sedona’s most magical spot.

Some are mammoth, four hundred years old or more, their rough hides entwining with the silvery smooth underclothes.

I want to live!

Juniperus deppeana has a tendency to splay into multiple trunks, the fusion making it hard for dendrologists to accurately gauge the rings that would  show a specimen’s age.

A savage mysticism holds sway here, the home of indigenous peoples for thousands of years. Wayfinders at the trail’s start.

There is a word for two conjoined trees, trees that somehow find and make a life together.

Inosculation denotes when trunks, branches or roots of two trees grow together in a manner biologically similar to the artificial process of grafting. It comes from the Latin meaning “to kiss into/inward/against” or “to make a small mouth inward/into/against.” Wonderful, hmn? Trees that do this are referred to in forestry as gemels, again Latin, meaning “a pair”. Usually same species, not always.

What happens is this: the branches first grow separately in proximity to each other until they touch. At this point, the bark on the shared surfaces is gradually abraded away as the trees move .Finally the two connect, what is called braiding or pleaching. I aways look for this phenomenon in the woods, and there are more instances in this southwestern forest than anyplace else I’ve seen. Maybe the trees here simply like each other more than they do in other places. They’re sometimes known as husband-and-wife trees.

Only connect! E.M. Forster wrote that.

Padding along alone you see things you might otherwise miss. A hawk scree-screeing overhead, a quick rabbit, lizards skittering, hummingbirds drinking from thistles.

Underfoot, ants carry their groceries home. Gambel oak.

Someone has been here before me, probing, a sixth sense to find insects.

I’ve always liked the desert balance of dead and living.

Manzanita has that in spades, red twisted with grey. Chewing its leaves can ease a headache.

They call it the pygmy forest, where manzanita spreads out for acres all around.

After a few miles the manzanita and alligator juniper make room for the ponderosas.

I lean close, inhale the butterscotch scent.

S’cuse me while I kiss the sky.

Shagged, panting, I find a boulder, rest. Hikers whiz by. I listen to birdsong. Think of all the ways I’ve gone wrong, all the things I’ll do better.

Get up and get going. The end of the canyon, I am told by some European tourists coming back the other way, is magnificent. Well, they don’t say magnificent. They just sigh, wide eyed. Keep going. You won’t be sorry.

After the final scramble, triumph. The countenance of a hiker at the trail’s end says it all.

You can see forever here.

Sure, I love the view. It is magnificent. But I find I like what is on the ground as much.

I like  being grounded. Going to ground. Contemplating what will come next and readying myself for… whatever. Remembering the tough hide of the alligator juniper, which thrives in difficult soil and manages to find whatever water exists below ground, sustenance only the tree can see.

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On the cusp of spring

the Arizona desert moves itself to sprout.

The ocatillo puts forth its first miniature green leaves.

Fairy Duster joins the party.

Pima Dynamite trails may be full of mountain bikes and power lines, but they go on and on despite humankind’s interference.

This preserve was saved from development by a champion named Arthur W. Decabooter. A successful doctor, he opened doors to which “cactus huggers” had previously been denied and served as chair of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve starting in 1994.

In our party of six, photographers go clicking, trying to capture everything that is beautiful beyond measure. Shrubby Deervetch looks eager.

The saguaro braces itself against the sky, eternally photogenic.

The ones with peepholes fascinate me.

The cause of the decay is bacterial necrosis. The amazing thing is it goes on and up, at least for some time, as beefy and strong as its hole-less neighbors.

The bark of the Palo Verde pops, grasshopper-chartreuse in the sharp sunlight.

Teddy-bear chollas swell, show off, display themselves, muscular arms on blackened stalks.

Fishhooks have retained their fruit but are so ready to bud out.

Quartz sparkles, scattered like treasure on either side of the trail.

Another first flower – does anyone know its name? No. Does it matter? The desert is so far beyond names. Let’s call this one purple-bloom and be done with it.

Close up, cacti are so severe.  The thorns are actually modified leaves, and help the reduce water evaporation. It is also  a fierce sort of armor, so different from the more gentle deciduous trees back east.

All saguaros are the same, yet different.

Kind of like those who hike the trails, appreciating the grandeur of the desert, and Dr. Arthur W. Decabooter, who dedicated himself to saving it. Thank you, Dr. Decabooter.

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The zig zag trail leads…where?

First you have to see it. Can you see it?

Maybe you can’t go all the way. Maybe the rocks underfoot prove too much for you, even if the saguaro forest at Spur Cross Ranch tempts you.

Beefy, odd, some more masculine than others.

A well placed bench welcomes us. Behind is a mature mesquite, shaggy and fissured.

A plaque on the back of the seat has a few words from

Walking in Beauty, the closing prayer from the Navajo Way blessing ceremony:
In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk
It has become beauty again

The lines are supposed to bring peace and calm, and I’m beginning to feel iit, surrounded by an intense aroma that floats on the hot air, herbal and intoxicating, combined with the smell of horse. So many ride these Cave Creek trails.

My father would always find a bench. I don’t like to walk, he always said. I never understood. You’d find him seated, whether on the side of a trail, say, or on a bench at one end of a museum exhibit even when the greatest Jackson Pollack canvas in the world could be found at the other end. He wouldn’t move.

This trail has ancient rocks that have never moved, hot to the touch.

My mother says it’s strange because when my father hit the tennis court he was a demon, with a killer serve.

I think now he was just at home in his skin. He didn’t need art, or a view from a hiking trail.

Sometimes you find a tableau in the desert. Frozen, totally stationary, looking as if were posed by a mighty hand. My mother found one today.

Sometimes you see a saguaro that took protection as it grew under a larger plant, one quite different from itself.

My father never blinked when I said I wanted to go to grad school for an MFA in poetry. What a useless endeavor! He bankrolled the whole thing, and launched me as a writer.

Am I growing up yet? Like the saguaro, I’m taking a long time to be in my skin. I’m trying to be patient. “Patience is also a form of action,” said Auguste Rodin.

There might be birds here, sometime, if you wait patiently.

Two century plants side by side, one quite dead, one obviously alive.

Sometimes the llve and the dead grasses grow together.

In one of his most acute descriptions, Walt Whitman praised “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”

Today, down a hill, Cave Creek.

Little more than a trickle now. In another season the rains will come and the creek will rise.

All we can do is observe and be patient.

Wendell Berry writes:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do 
we have come our real work, 

and that when we no longer know which way to go 
we have come to our real journey. 

The mind that is not baffled is not employed. 

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Not a long trail today, but one just the right length.

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I’m not much for views.

I’d rather look up to the peaks than down to the valleys. So I’m fortunate that any number of stupendous trails wind around the base of the mountains at Brown’s Ranch in Phoenix.

Desert vistas abound at this former cattle ranch, which dates back to 1917.

But first you must pay attention. A warning.

I find I like the living desert, with features like this fishhook cactus.

But I equally like everything that is dead or dying.

It’s like the memento mori of the Renaissance, artwork that has ancient roots. Latin for “remember that you will have to die.” Or as I would put it, embrace death and you will live. In some accounts of ye olde Rome, a companion or public slave would stand behind some triumphant general during a procession to remind him from time to time of his own mortality or prompt him to “look behind”.

Especially meaningful to me as I watch my father wend his way toward the end. And I would like to see a death-whisperer behind some of our more insensitive politicians today.

The saguaros here are ginormous, as they say. I think the largest ones I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.

Carnegiea gigantean counts itself a member of the cactus family, not a tree (but you knew that) and takes up to 75 years to develop a side arm. It only grows about one inch per year. This one’s a small fry.

The arms are grown to increase the plant’s reproductive capacity, bearing more flowers and fruit.

Near Scottsdale, one known as the Grand One is 46 feet tall, measured by a representative of the National Register of Big Trees in 2005 (though, note, not a tree!), burned in the Cave Creek Complex fire and might not have  survived if not for treatment of bacterial infections and the creation of waddles, small structures made of straw that help channel streams of water towards the thirsty saguaro. I think some of the specimens I’ve seen today could reach grand status one day.

Their skeletons are amazing.

We were standing underneath a palo verde, a tree whose name translates to “green stick”, remarking upon its stature and probable age, when we heard bird noises and looked up to see a pair of Harris’s hawks tearing apart a mouse. They noticed us and fled the nest, of course, and we saw the unmistakable white color at the base of their tails.

Harris’s hawks are only one of two hawk species that hunt in pairs, like wolves. I was glad not to be descended upon!

A morning in the desert is like any morning in the desert and no other morning, all at once. It’ll weary your legs as it restores your spirit, hawks or no hawks. But they were pretty superb.


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A few corny sentiments

are in order when you’re sprung from your Covid cell, told you’ve tested negative and are free to storm the world again.

I walked in the miraculous Arizona desert landscape, among plants that are ancient yet fresh, survivors on only a few drops of rainfall a year.

The oft-quoted lines from a Mary Oliver poem seemed relevant, as sentimental as they sometimes seem: “what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life?” Well, I thought about it as I walked.

What in fact do I want to do?

Pacing the perimeter of my parents’ development, I thought I might want to take some inspiration.

To kiss and to hug. That’s something that you think of first when you’ve been told not to come up close to anybody, even wearing a mask.

To hydrate.

The city of  Scottsdale actually goes out and dribbles water on individual plants. That’s responsible.

Allow my book to germinate.

Toughen my hide.


Stretch out.


Pay attention to what’s above.

Be thornier.

Burst forth.

If I can do any of these things with a microcosmic bit of the spirit of the sage inhabitants of the desert, it will be awesome.


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