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.

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