I’ve not seen a house sparrow in the local desert but they are neighborhood residents, judging by the leaves and fur in this male’s beak I imagine he’s building a nest nearby. We may not be contributing to nesting materials here but I like to think a great many birds in our Irvington neighborhood in Portland grew up in the luxury of a fur-lined nest courtesy of a black lab who seemed to shed her weight in fur each week.
We left blue jays behind when we moved to Oregon but gained scrub jays and the occasional Steller’s jay. The large gregarious birds were a favorite of our cat Emma who would chirp to me from her perch in my office to let me know who was visiting our backyard, crows and flickers also being favorites. In Arizona we have another noisy neighbor I think she would have loved, here sitting in a flowering ocotillo on a warm spring morning. I saw a number of curve-billed thrashers on my walk last weekend in addition to this one, one pair was already feeding hungry babies in a nest in the arms of a saguaro.
I’ve been in the mood for environmental portraits so I was delighted to take one of two of my favorite desert inhabitants, the saguaro and the common side-blotched lizard, one of the largest residents and one of the smallest (at least one of the smallest on four legs). As much grief as I give my pattern-matching self for spotting marmots in the rocky hills when he knows there are no marmots here (he’s mostly stopped with the occasional relapse) and for spotting lizards that turn out to be protuberances in the rocks, he nailed this one from afar. The little fellow was a ways off and wasn’t worried about me so I had time to find a spot on the trail both where I could see the saguaro behind him and place him in a gap between the giant arms so he’d be easy to see against the blue sky.
I quietly wondered if he’d be willing to stick around for an hour-and-a-half for the last light of day but I knew he wouldn’t stay that long and neither would I, I wanted to get some hiking in and I had only just begun. In any event I finished the day further east, taking environmental portraits of another favorite resident, but no spoilers …
Amongst the many holes on this old saguaro I see a face that reminds me of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. This is not the work of a maniacal woodpecker, perhaps the cactus has an infection of some sort. Behind it are dark clouds that I refer to as rain clouds though here in the desert they only sometimes bring rain (thankfully on this day in January they did).
From last spring in the early morning light, a canyon towhee finds a soft perch atop a saguaro courtesy of its large flower buds. A pleasant reminder that spring is coming and a not-so-pleasant reminder that the already cruel sunrises will only get earlier. I’ve managed zero sunrise hikes so far this year so I’m not off to a promising start.
In January I headed up to Cave Creek to a trail that was new to me, the Overton Trail. I didn’t know it went through an area that had burned so I wasn’t prepared for the emotional punch of seeing such magnificent creatures that grew so slowly in God’s hands and died so quickly in ours. At first I hiked straight through the burned area but then I forced myself back up the hill to sit with the devastation for a while. Eventually I brought the camera out when patterns started to emerge, such as the cracked skin drained of life-giving chlorophyll that now looked almost human, replete with veins and pores.
I spent the most time with the three saguaros below, they reminded me of a father and mother and child, each damaged to varying degrees by the fire and the heat. From what I’ve read the damage of the fires is double, both in destroying so much native life and making way for faster growing invasives that provide more fuel for the fire when the next disaster strikes.
When we first moved to Arizona and I started taking pictures in sunlight I struggled with what to do about my shadow. At first I’d try to compose the picture so my shadow didn’t fall in the image, and sometimes still do, but sometimes now I lean into it and deliberately put my shadow into the frame as a reminder that I’m documenting my life in the desert. On this occasion though as I photographed the damage in the saguaro on the left, as the sun sank low a giant behind me threw its shadow all the way up the hill, allowing me to sidle down the trail and hide within it. That’s not just me throwing up my arms pretending to be a saguaro, though I can’t say the thought has never crossed my mind.
When I first saw the pattern of damage in this saguaro I was reminded of the Shroud of Turin, only when I later looked at images of the real shroud I realized my remembrance of it was mistaken, it was far more detailed in actuality than memory. This section of damage reminded me of a head, a torso with crossed arms, and legs below, here shown in the seconds before the sun dipped below the mountains behind me. Perhaps the skin of the saguaro split after it ate too many donuts and it sealed the damage with resin to prevent water loss, but I’m not a biologist.
On Monday my wife texted me a picture of our snow-covered backyard. I was supporting a couple of urgent tasks at work and by the time I got home the snow was rapidly melting. I needed to log on to work so didn’t have time to run out for pictures, which was a shame as the mountains looked so lovely dusted in snow. I grabbed a few pictures from the front yard, up top is one of our saguaros and below a barrel cactus. The melt was so rapid that even in the few minutes I was taking pictures our short steep driveway went from a slick surface I had to walk slowly on to one I could descend without worry. I’m so thankful I got to see it before it melted, even if not in its full glory, snow is not exactly a common sight in the desert.