I love that we can see mountains from our backyard. Most days anyway, on this rainy day in December I had to take it mostly on faith they were still there.
Last year after getting some confidence identifying the more common birds and mammals and reptiles of the Sonoran Desert, I decided to start learning the desert plants. I spent an evening reading up on the trees (there aren’t a bunch, this shouldn’t have been hard) but the next morning I couldn’t remember anything I had read the night before. I was a little frustrated with myself but heard a pleading voice that there had been too much that was new and to focus on the things I had to learn, not the things I wanted to learn.
As a creature of habit I knew Arizona would provide beneficial opportunities to experience something different but also that there was so much different both at work and at home that it might be overwhelming (the pandemic hasn’t helped). So I heeded that voice and put aside the guide books and stuck to familiar nearby parks rather than venturing further afield, trying out trails new to me when I felt up to a little challenge.
This summer has brought a mild awakening in being willing to learn new things, spurred on partially by the giant cactus out front that exploded in blooms after the summer monsoons and brought in a host of small creatures to feed on its bounty, and the butterflies that similarly burst into view at the same time either in our yard or on my beloved trails.
Insects have been tricky to learn but I believe this little lovely is a leaf-footed bug of the species Narnia femorata but take that with a grain of salt, I’m not a biologist much less an entomologist, and this is all new to me besides. While they apparently prefer prickly pear (the neighbors have a glorious patch) a group of them have been hanging out on this big cactus in our front yard, feeding either on the buds and blossoms like here on a rainy summer evening, or on the fruit that grew after the pollinators got to work.
I was photographing two of my favorite subjects last weekend, saguaros and the rain, when my macro lens breathed its last (or so I thought), the manual focus ring barely turning. This is my favorite set of saguaro spines, I wanted to capture water droplets pooling on them while I had the chance as no lightning accompanied the rain. The soft white cushion from which the spine cluster emerges is known as the areole, a distinguishing feature of a cactus (compare these to the thorns of the the ocotillo in the previous post which grow directly out of the stem). A few larger spines shoot out from the center while smaller spines radiate out in all directions. Bit of a shame that English botanist Adrian Hardy Haworth’s proposed term in 1830 for the areole, spinarium, never caught on.
As I held the lens in the following days, thinking back to how many things I had photographed with it over the years, there was some comfort in knowing it died doing what it loved, or more precisely what I love. After it sat idle on my coffee table for a few days I picked it up again, idly turning the focus ring and was surprised to see the lens focus in response. I don’t know if some rain had inadvertently gotten in and caused a mechanical glitch or if a cat hair had worked its way past the lens casing but in any case, the situation resolved itself and the lens has sprung back to life.
Thursday night a monsoon storm brought thunder and lightning and buckets of rain in a short period of time, while I prefer the Oregon rains that spread out a year’s worth of rainfall over hundreds of days rather than a few hours, I can’t complain as the desert desperately needs the water. Less intense thunderstorms arrived on Friday, since I was off work I was able to grab my macro lens to photograph a scene I had envisioned for a while but hadn’t been able to capture, large water drops collecting on the leaves of an ocotillo. The thunderstorms diminished as the weekend progressed but showers continued on and off through Sunday, giving me several days of joy out in the rain photographing plants around the yard.
The fun ended Sunday evening when the focusing unit of my Canon macro lens at long last gave up the ghost, I hoped it was a momentary glitch but sadly that does not appear to be the case. It was a few months shy of 22 years old as I bought it in November 1999 for $580, what fun we’ve had over the years! I have no idea what I’ll do for a replacement, modern lenses have a number of features I’d like that my old lens didn’t, but it’s the cameras that give me pause. Sony doesn’t have focus bracketing in their cameras but it would be so useful for the things I shoot I might add another system just to get it, but we’ll see.
While on a visit to Ridgefield on a rainy Christmas in 2011, I accidentally took a short nap while in a pullout beside Rest Lake (I mean, given the name of the lake, hardly my fault) which meant I was lucky enough to be in the right position when driving past the meadow that I got to spend quite a while watching a coyote hunting voles in the rain. It’s what I loved about the auto tour, getting to watch animals behave naturally at relatively close distances without disturbing them.
These pictures are a bit bittersweet as while I got to watch the family at length multiple times that winter, my pictures from a couple of months later would be my last photos of coyotes at the refuge as they were shot to create a safer haven for the threatened Columbian white-tailed deer that were about to be transplanted. Thankfully the deer seemed to be establishing themselves by the time I had to say goodbye to the refuge so hopefully coyotes have been allowed back since.
I’m not sure the many Townsend’s voles in the meadows around the refuge missed the coyotes, although perhaps they didn’t notice given the wide variety of predators that ate them. It was always a little hard to watch through the big lens as one little life was snuffed out, even knowing it allowed another life to continue. I always hoped to photograph a vole on its own but I only ever managed to catch them when something else caught them first.
Another horizontal saguaro arm in the rain but this one is thriving, it just grew out rather than up. At the tip you can see where new spines will very, very slowly emerge, protected at the base by soft white material (which is what this cactus wren was gleefully ripping out for its nest).
On a rainy Christmas morning I smiled as water pooled between the pleats of a saguaro, mimicking on the outside how I imagined as a child the water was stored on the inside. But it was a sad occasion too as the normally vertical arm was now horizontal, the old giant having fallen over and died, the green and the chlorophyll fading. They may grow slowly but they fall just as quickly as everything else, a gentle reminder that in this life even the mightiest are eventually humbled. On a brighter note it did make me laugh as I was shooting with a new lens and it always seems I test out new gear in the rain. Not a deliberate choice, rather that I love the rain and used to live in a place with an abundance of it. In this case it was a combination of me taking advantage of holiday sales to purchase a newly announced lens that instantly became a workhorse, timed up with some time off and some winter rains.