Friday, September 25, 2009


Recently I was at Peetair's enjoying homemade pizza baked in his outdoor oven. We were sitting around a wrought-iron table on his patio. Grey clouds floated overhead but they seemed empty of rain.

The pizzas baked quickly as they were pushed against a bed of mesquite coals. All of the veggies used on the pizzas were from Peetair's garden.

"I'm really going to miss this food when the United States crashes and burns," I said, squeezing a slice of lime into a bottle of Corona. "I'll have to get used to eating human flesh."

"I think I'll still be able to scavenge firewood for the oven so it should be okay," he said reassuringly. "It's true that I may have to steal flour from my elderly neighbors."

"Stealing from old people isn't really bad since so many of them oppose health care reform," I told him. "However, you might want to ask them which side they are on before you take their flour."

"This is Prescott," Peetair responded. "Almost everyone in this town is a raging right-wing a-hole."

"So true," I agreed with a note of sadness in my voice. "We might as well be living in Utah."

The acorn woodpeckers were hopping from tree to tree, keeping a careful eye on what we were doing. Peetair's wife, Amelia, came out to join us on the patio. She had heard what we were saying and wanted to change the subject.

"So what are you reading these days?" Amelia asked me.

"Well, I was reading Eduardo Galeano's Genesis which is about how the natives in North and South America were murdered by the settlers. Then I read Gore Vidal's Dreaming War, about America's proclivity for war. But now I'm into George Simpson's Attending Marvels which is about a paleontologist in Patagonia in the early 1930s."

"Those sound good," she said, "But the one about murdering natives sounds depressing. Doesn't that kind of book make you feel disgusted with humanity?"

"Well, I listen to NPR just to lull me into a false sense of serenity," I told her. "Whenever I want to forget the pain, NPR is the answer."

"Why don't you like NPR?" she asked. Peetair busied himself with pulling a pizza out of the oven.

"I didn't say I disliked NPR. It's humorous in its complacency."

"It's better than watching the news on television," Amelia responded.

"Yes, it undoubtedly is. NPR is more nuanced with its pablum than television," I said. "When the revolution comes, NPR will be there yapping it to death."

Amelia rolled her eyes. I offered her a lime for her beer.

"It's a beautiful evening," she said to change the subject again.

"Somebody is suffering somewhere," I replied with a smile. We said "cheers" and tapped our beer bottles together.

The woodpeckers disappeared into the darkening trees.

(I will get back to more regular nature writing soon. But, in the meantime, check out the videos I've been posting on Youtube this summer. Especially the "Sonoran Mosaic" series and the "Arcosanti Days 1993" series. All you have to do it go to the Youtube site. Then type in the word "misterusufruct" and hit search. That name will pull up all of the videos I have put on Youtube...19 so far. Good luck and I'll see ya back here in a couple of weeks.)

Saturday, August 22, 2009


Just south of Tucson is a landscape made up of soft hills, oak, and grass. It looks a lot like the landscape of Santa Barbara, California, only without the ocean. The small towns in this Arizona grassland include Patagonia and Sonoita. Border Patrol trucks cruise up and down the winding roads in a never-ending search for informal visitors from Mexico. If BP officers ever stop you and ask if you are an American citizen, it's always commendable to answer with "Que?"

Yesterday I was in these hills at Canelo Marsh with Marta and Lo, having been invited to help tag monarch butterflies for a research project. As you are undoubtedly aware, monarch butterflies migrate from the United States to Mexico and there are those scientists who want to know more about the actual migration patterns. So there were the three of us, each with a butterfly net and tags, wandering through the thistles and milkweed patches and carefully netting the monarchs. (The tags are tiny blue stickers with numbers that adhere to the insect's hind wing. Need further info? Go to: After three hours we had captured, tagged, and released about twenty individuals.

The milkweed flowers were swarming with a variety of butterflies and other insects. Butterflies we saw included queens (which somewhat resemble monarchs), skippers (pictured above on milkweed flowers), pipevine swallowtails, painted ladies, checkerspots, and fritillaries. Most notable among the non-butterfly insects were the numerous tarantula hawk wasps that can be two inches long. I also saw a large black (with red abdomen) robber fly that looked as though it might prey on the tarantula hawks. There were a couple of other beautiful creatures worth mentioning - one is the metallic green weevil I found clinging to a stalk of grass (pictured above). There were also jumping spiders galore. I saw an orange-bodied species, but mostly the jumpers were black with spots of red on the tops of their abdomens and emerald green chelicerae. Sexy.

The naturalist in me needs to point out a few more things: In the area we hiked I saw no cacti. None. Ziltch. Zero. It was so grassy and boggy that cacti couldn't grow there. Of course, there were cacti on the surrounding hills, but not in the marsh.
In the marsh were large cottonwood trees, cattails, cockleburs, some kind of horsetail grass, prickly poppies, mats of pink-flowering smartweed, purple chicory, New Mexican checkermallows (pictured above with two Acmaeodera beetles), more mint than you could shake a stick at, and an impossibly huge thicket of the yerba mansa plant. The purple thistles were over six feet tall. There were plenty of plants I could not readily name (such as the yellow ones pictured above).


Marta drove us back to Tucson. Lo chattered with her in the front seat while I laid in the back seat, quietly watching the brown hilltops roll by in a blur. We are all marked, I thought, just like those butterflies. We are repeatedly caught and released by experiences in our lives. We follow cultural migration patterns without really knowing why. The sky only seems to be endless.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Aravaipa Afternoon

From Superior, one can drive for less than an hour and a half and be at the trailhead of Aravaipa Canyon. That's what I did only a few days ago. It was again over 100 degrees and I needed to traipse around in water.

When hiking in Aravaipa, the trekker has no choice but to wade through the perennially-running creek. I pretty much just stayed in the calf-deep water most of the time. Because no one was around that afternoon, I also availed myself of a swimming hole. Naturally, nudity ensued.

Aravaipa Creek is lined with cottonwood trees and willows and there were thickets of cattails. Dragonflies, butterflies, and damselflies glided over the rippling water. Minnows darted between my feet as I splashed upstream.

In a side canyon, a rare surprise greeted me. Two black-tailed rattlesnakes were getting jiggy with it under a tree. I had never seen snakes copulating before so, of course, I had to watch. The snakes weren't enthused with my voyeurism.

Now, the way snake sex works is this: the male inflates an anal protuberance (called a "hemipenis" which you can see on Wikipedia) that he then inserts into the anal opening of the female. This male anal/penile semen-secreting gland, I have read, is equipped with hooks of a sort that fasten tight to the female. You can see in the third photo how the tails of the two snakes appear to be almost welded together.

"Good thing I don't have to inflate my anus when I have sex," I thought.

The snakes, growing shy over my proximity, soon moved (one of them dragging the other by the genitals) to the safety of a rock shelter.

Shadows of saguaro cacti fell across the creek as I continued wading along. Cardinal flowers bloomed bright red. Watercress formed green mats along the bank. A blue heron languidly flapped above the trees.

As I sit here at the computer typing away, there is still a part of me back there in the timelessness of that verdant desert canyon.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mount Lemmon

In Tucson it was over 100 miserable degrees and the sun was troublesome. My friend Lo insisted on driving me up into the Catalina Mountains just north of town. I had never been up in the Catalinas, so I said "sure".

"We'll go up to Mt. Lemmon and Summerhaven," she said.

"Fine by me," I agreed. And off we went. The car stereo was playing Dylan's The Basement Tapes, then Miles Davis' In a Silent Way.

In one hour we went from an elevation of 2300' to 9000'. From a temperature of 100° to about 75°. From blinding sun to dark rain clouds. From baked brown Sonoran bajadas to lush forests thick with ponderosa pines and firs. In short, I couldn't believe the incredibly rapid change.

On the mountain we rolled the car windows down. Light rain splashed in on our arms. We laughed with glee at being underdressed for the cool weather we encountered. When we got to Summerhaven, Lo led us up a narrow road to a trailhead.

The rain had stopped but thunder continued to intermittently roll off the peaks. The sun managed to break through the clouds for a short time but was filtered by the dense canopy of trees.

"It's like Colorado!" I stammered.

"Indeed!" she said.

And it was like Colorado with the undergrowth of fern, grass, and raspberry bushes. Bright yellow columbine flowers grew waist high all along the path.

We picked some of the ripe raspberries to eat. We contemplated the word "raspberry" because almost no one says raspberry. They say "razzberry". So we would say "rasp" so distinctly that we laughed.

On the path we found a freshly dead red-faced warbler. Lo moved it into the brush where it could decompose in peace.

We did manage to bring a blanket, on which we lounged for an hour on a grassy hill above a creek, eating nori rolls, looking up into the tall trees, and reading aloud from Kipling's The Jungle Books.

Soon enough the lightning and thunder drove us back to the car. We momentarily parked on a bald peak where we watched the heavy clouds cloak the lower hills. The lightning grew closer.

In another hour we were back in Tucson where the heat awaited. But we were still smiling. We knew that, for most of the afternoon, we had cheated summer.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

June Beetle in July

Fuck, says I. Will the United States EVER live up to its self-vaunted moral superiority? Why do we ever use a meaningless word like "freedom"? And why does NPR inadvertently remind me that the middle-class IS the enemy class?

These are the kinds of thoughts that fill my sputtering brain as I work in 100+ degree weather. But, really, I can't blame the heat because I always think these kinds of thoughts. It's part of my charm.

You know me. I vote Democratic because I so despise Republicanism (and, may I ad, libertarianism). But just because I vote for Democrats doesn't mean I like them much better. I can never truly support any pro-capitalists.

My dear friend Lane, who calls me almost everyday from his mountain retreat in Colorado, asked me recently what I thought about Obama.

"He's young and he's black," Lane said helpfully.

"Yeah, but he's also a yuppie and a lawyer. In this country, class trumps race," I responded. "If he were Angela Davis, I would be happier."

"If he were Angela Davis he would then be, ipso facto, transgendered," Lane said.

"Still more of a woman than Sarah Palin," I retorted.

Our conversations often sound much like this. That's why we talk almost daily.

See, there has never been a time in our history when both capitalism and conservatism stand so naked and idiotic as they do now. There has never been such an opportunity for the American people to change their vile habits of over-consumption, superstition, and anti-intellectualism. This is it. Now is the time. But NOOOO! There will be no revolutionary change because:

a) most Americans seem kinda dopey.
b) most Americans forget what happened yesterday.
c) most Americans still believe that they exercise their "choices" at the ballot box.

I mean, you've gotta laugh.

Here we live in a nation that has more (and builds more) weapons than any country in the world. We create more pollution than any country in the world. We consume more natural resources than any country in the world. We have more armies occupying more countries than any country in the world. And we have more of our citizens in prison that any country in the world. And we say we are free. It cracks me up.

We're certainly free to vote for which ever corporate-bought politician we want. That's true.
And we're free to worship whichever superstition we were indoctrinated with as children. (I, however, favor Ganesh because he's got tusks.)
And we are free to buy whatever fat-laden processed crap we find in the supermarket. Thirty different kinds of potato chips is truly something to be proud of.

We, as a nation, don't think twice about giving our taxes to the rich in the form of subsidies to agribusiness, petroleum companies, and, now, the friggin' jerkoffs on Wall Street. We don't think twice that the military industrial complex gets the largest share of our taxes so we can further militarize the world. Nope, those things seem perfectly fine.

But just mention helping the poor or "socializing" medicine, and middle-class dullards complain that "too much of our hard earned money is going to help bums and illegal aliens". Last time I looked, less than 1% of the GNP went to helping the poor.

You've probably heard this before but if you haven't, please tattoo it on you forehead so you don't forget it: Capitalists only believe in capitalism when they are making profits. They become socialists whenever they are faced with losses. "Privatize profit, socialize losses". That's what this entire capitalist melt-down has been about. Are we going to learn anything by it? Not as long as those self-same capitalists still feed us the news that we read and hear. Two questions you almost never hear seriously asked and given time to: "Where is the evidence for a god?" and "Is capitalism inherently wasteful and corrupt?"

But none of this has anything to do with the June beetle that landed in my yard in July.

"Hey, man, you're out of season," I said to the beetle. He clambered up my arm and flew off my thumb. He didn't care what I thought.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Idyll Wild

Yeah, it's been fiercely hot here for a week now. This part of Arizona has been experiencing daily temperatures of over 110° which, as you can imagine, is almost debilitating. One can tolerate 100° pretty easily with ample water and a good attitude, but once the air temperature exceeds 105°, the heat can no longer be kept from creeping into your body. I have no idea how the natives such as the Pima Indians (Sonoran Desert dwellers) managed to survive these summers.

And, I like to point out, that the air might be 110°, but the ground temperature can be over 130°. This time of year, one must proceed thoughtfully.

With a friend, I spent one of these blistering days hiking in a semi-wooded canyon. The creek, mostly dry, had pockets of algae-filled water where minnows huddled together. We saw a horse-hair worm that was approximately 6" long, swimming languidly through one of the pools. Ah, parasites, they haven't a care in the world!

We also saw a beautiful fishing spider (Dolomedes sp.) floating on a piece of bark in a pool, gnoshing on some insect. (Pictured above. Be sure to click on it to enjoy the full spectacle.) These spiders live around creeks and lakes and have the ability to dive under water where they can capture small fish and insects. You will notice in the photograph that while the spider was busy eating, a water strider strode by within dangerous proximity. Normally, that spider would eat that strider.

Beneath the trees there were many birds, including a summer tanager who perched nearby. Above the trees, zone-tailed hawks (possibly black hawks) swept over and made their shrieking calls. Net-wing beetles, honey bees, dragonflies, and butterflies all decorated the sweltering day.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Who says humans are the most special organisms in the world? Oh, that's right, we do. We claim to have souls. If that isn't an ego-centric conceit, then what is?


Up on the Mogollon Rim, I stood in a field staring at the elegant inflorescence of a Parry's agave. No-see-ums were biting my bare legs and there was nothing much I could do about it.

Agaves are sometimes referred to as "century plants", although no self-respecting naturalist would use that term. Agaves never live for one hundred years. At most they live for approximately thirty years. But I guess calling them "quarter-century plants" is too much of a mouthful for the tourists.

So, for a couple of decades or more, agaves are just rounded clusters of stiff spiked leaves that rise out of the grass like daggers. Most of the agaves in the United States are small to mid-sized, rarely getting over three feet high. But in Mexico, agaves can be taller than a human. This plant produces flowers only once and then it dies. In the last year of its life it grows a huge stalk that can be over twenty feet tall. The stalk is covered in clusters of flowers that attract bees and hummingbirds. This plant puts so much of its energy into producing this tall stalk that the plant body itself begins to wither. The photographs above show the blossoming stalk (over 12' high) and the dying leaf base. The color in these spent leaves was gorgeous. Next year this particular plant will be only a dry tilting husk, but there are young agave "pups" pushing their way up through the soil to replace it.

Tequila is made from one species of agave. Mescal is the libation made from the other agaves. Also, sisal rope that you can buy at any hardware store is also made from this plant. And, if you go to the local health-food store, you can find agave nectar for sale in the honey section. It's a superior sweetener to honey or sugar, in this writer's humble opinion. (I won't even go into how pit-roasted agave was a staple food for the local native people.)


And I was thinking about how we really don't have much control over our lives. And how we are desperate, but not desperate enough. And how those no-see-ums are incredibly aggressive. I counted over 30 welts on my legs, but somehow I didn't care.

We are lucky, I suppose, if we can manage even one glorious bloom in our fleeting lives.

From the field, I crossed an empty highway to get back to the car. I momentarily crouched down in the road and watched the yellow stripes pinch off in the distance. I'm going there one day.