A Love Letter

A male phainopepla perches high in a crucifixion thorn in front of the Four Peaks mountains and near an old saguaro on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 5, 2021. Original: _RAC1895.ARW

Many years ago in Oregon I was reading about someone who visited one of the American deserts and so fell in love they moved there and never left, and I thought “How do you fall in love with sand?” I wonder how much of my photography in the desert is a love letter to that past self, gently poking fun at his complete and utter ignorance of the desert but also deeply thankful that when it became apparent he was going to have to leave the place he never wanted to leave, he kept an open mind and found not just a new home but a new love.

This trail is in not just my favorite part of the preserve but one of my favorite places anywhere. In December 2021 I was taking environmental portraits of phainopepla and as sometimes happens, took my favorite late in the day while hiking out. I saw the male atop a crucifixion thorn in front of the Four Peaks, the late light starting to cloak them in their purple mountains majesty, near an old saguaro replete with woodpecker holes, and couldn’t resist a quick shot before continuing towards my exit.

Transfixed

A saguaro with exposed damage that resembles Medusa in George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scotttsdale, Arizona on October 16, 2022. Originals: _ZFC2899.NEF to _ZFC2919.NEF

While watching woodpeckers I noticed the saguaro beside the trail had exposed damage resembling Medusa’s head, covered in swirling snakes. That saguaros have a thin gorgon layer between their green skin and the spongy material beneath would explain why I sometimes stand transfixed before them, unable to avert my gaze.

A Simple Portrait

A cactus wren perches on an ocotillo branch on the Latigo Trail at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 30, 2022. Original: _CAM6223.ARW

I’ve been in the mood for environmental portraits the past couple of years but I still love a simple portrait, in this case a cactus wren perched on an old ocotillo. The ocotillo is sometimes mistaken for a cactus as the spiraling arms are often covered in spines, but unlike a cactus they grow out of the stem rather than an areole. The cactus wren is our state bird and I was going to say our noisiest bird but the Gila woodpeckers might have a word or two to say about that …

The Lion King

The base of a saguaro is caked in mud, likely from termites, in a pattern that reminds me of the face of a male lion on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on September 25, 2022. Originals: _ZFC0614.NEF to _ZFC0619.NEF

In September I went out specifically to photograph this pattern at the base of a saguaro, the ring of mud reminding me of a lion’s mane. But then I discovered a lizard hiding behind the spines a foot above this spot and spent so much time photographing her that I had to rush these shots before fleeing the park. Last weekend I went back to photograph the lion again, to compose when I was more composed, but my mind was wondering and wandering and I walked right past it. Realizing my mistake much later than I should have, I doubled back and easily located my target.

Except the lion was gone. The saguaro was there thankfully but the pattern was not. I had a little laugh as I remembered the heavy rains from earlier in the week while I was at work, which had probably washed away the work of the little artists who painted this canvas. Termites I suspect, there are a type here that eat the rough bark-like material at the base of old saguaros, which might explain the tan section in the middle.

There Is Too Much Death In The World

A snake carcass hangs from a dead saguaro at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 23, 2022. Original: _CAM6035.ARW

We are beautiful forms but for such a short time. I rounded the bend to see a desiccated snake carcass hanging from what used to be my favorite saguaro in the park, perhaps an abandoned catch of a bird of prey. The desert recyclers had already changed the flesh of each into new forms, the scales and skeletons will take longer, the saguaro bones still a favored perch for a Gila woodpecker couple nesting nearby. The light was dying too, the sun dipping below the mountains, handing over the desert to the night watch before its rebirth in the morning.

Perfectly Poised

A female common side-blotched lizard hides behind the spines in the gap between two saguaro trunks on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsale, Arizona on September 25, 2022. Originals: _ZFC0561.NEF to _ZFC0577.NEF

On a September evening I headed to my favorite trail to take pictures of patterns in two saguaros. I never made it past the first as when I stopped a common side-blotched lizard scampered up into the World’s Best Hiding Spot, protected behind large spines in a gap between two trunks. The little lizards are a favorite so I could hardly believe I’d get to add one to my series of animals on saguaros, and so perfectly posed!

Although I took a quick shot with the telephoto lens I had time to switch to my macro setup and shoot a sequence of images for a focus stack, as I wanted everything in the scene to be sharp. Unfortunately the more excited I am, the less likely I am to setup the camera properly, and the exposure was set for the scenes I originally intended to photograph. With the sun getting low and the hill in shade, each picture took 2 seconds, the sequence 34, and it was only later I realized my mistake. When I finally worked up the courage to look at the pictures weeks later, she had stayed still and all the photos were sharp. Perfectly posed and poised!

No matter how long our sojourn in the desert lasts, this will be a favorite moment.

Burn Victim

A close-up view of burn damage to a young saguaro on the Go John Trail in Cave Creek Regional Park in Cave Creek, Arizona on February 19, 2022. Originals: _ZFC9308.NEF to _ZFC9320.NEF

A fire had burned through the area, stopping at the trail which must have acted like a firebreak. This young saguaro looked fairly normal as I came down the trail but as I looked back I could see it was badly burned on the other side, and I suspect completely burned on the side I couldn’t see. It’s hard to hike through a burned area, partly because saguaros feel almost human, so I try to take a picture that pays tribute or offers hope. The split on the far right reminded of a wound that had been stitched closed, the burned areoles of gas masks, the green in the pleats of nearly dry riverbeds, the brown of a barren and broken earth. But despite the heavy damage it lived.

This was in February but I’ll go back up to check on it sometime soon now that the weather is cooling, there’s some elevation change in this hike and I’m not willing to risk it in the heat. Here’s hoping this one survived. And that I can find it again, this was my second visit to it and it took me a while to find it as it was further down the trail than I remembered.

Christmas and Easter Combined

A house finch perches on the fruit of a compass barrel cactus on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 7, 2022. Original: _CAM5207.ARW

Though house finches have been backyard birds for me everywhere I’ve lived, I love seeing them out in the desert proper as it boggles my mind that they thrive here. I’ve only been out for a few hikes since the early spring and before that was mostly doing macro shots, so my bird photography has gotten rather rusty and I didn’t set up the camera properly so I was delighted some of the pictures came out.

It’s perched on a compass barrel cactus, surrounded by fruit, though because it isn’t juicy and pulpy it doesn’t invite the feeding frenzy that saguaros do. We have a couple of barrels in our yard and I’ve noticed birds like woodpeckers and thrashers poking holes in the fruit to get at the seeds inside. I wondered if some of the other birds would like a crack at them so I took some of the ripened fruit and broke it open by hand and laid it in the backyard.

The next morning a huge family of quail came in and it was like Christmas and Easter combined, a little group would find one of the fruits and they’d dance around and fervently gobble up the seeds, then they’d walk around the yard and find another until within minutes all of the seeds had been consumed. I repeated the experiment last night and by this morning all of the seeds were gone.

Fear of Flying

A close-up of the jumbled arms of an old saguaro on the Metate Trail in Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek, Arizona on February 27, 2022. Originals: _ZFC1441.NEF to _ZFC1450.NEF

I’ll do just about anything to avoid getting on a plane but it’s not because I’m afraid of the plane crashing. Rather this jumble of saguaro arms is a visual representation of how I feel when packed into a crowded boarding area or jammed into the ever-shrinking plane seats. Thankfully I rarely have to fly as let’s just say I’m not a fan.

While I was thinking of that when I took this image early in the year, it’s also how I came to feel about much of this year, which got me thinking about bringing my retirement date in as early as we can, to live a quieter and simpler life.

Taken with the Nikon Z fc and 105 mm macro lens, this is a focus stack of 10 images so I could keep even the background arms in focus, to better emphasize the jumbled nature of this gorgeous cactus up in Spur Cross.