About Walt Anderson

Walt Anderson: author, artist, photographer, expedition guide, naturalist, and college professor of environmental studies.

Heroes: Reflections on the Granite Mountain Hotshots

As the nation and especially the citizens of Prescott mourn the loss of 19 brave firefighters in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, we learn that this is the greatest loss of first responders since the tragedy of 9/11, when firefighters and rescue personnel, at great risk to themselves, rushed into the mayhem of the burning towers in efforts to save fellow human beings.  To lose such brave men and women is a personal loss for most of us, even if we were nowhere near the scene of catastrophe.  They would have done it for us, if we had been there.

For us—strangers.  Continue reading

Yarnell Fire

Monsoon rains hit Prescott hard today, and I thought I should check on the Dosie Fire to see if erosion were occurring.  While there witnessing heavy rain on the ash-blackened landscape, I saw a huge conflagration grow quickly to the south, and alarm bells went off in my head.  I guessed Yarnell was in trouble, so I shot south through Skull Valley.  As I approached Peeple’s Valley, the fire storm was shockingly large.  I suspected the road ahead would be closed by safety personnel, so I took the Ruger Ranch Road and walked through dense chaparral on a ridge to get a viewpoint across Peeple’s Valley.  Sure enough, the road was blocked off a half mile ahead.

Yarnell Hill Fire visible while approaching Peeple's Valley

Yarnell Hill Fire visible from north of Peeple’s Valley

I spent the next hour or two watching this massive fire morph and change like the Balrog in the depths of the mountain in Lord of the Rings.  One minute the wind would be blowing west, then suddenly it would shift south and east.  A north wind nearly blew me off the ridge. Continue reading

Drought and Dry Humor

A weather forecast of “fair” or “dry and sunny” can get away with a lot.  Rain or snow quickly call attention to themselves, but “another sunny day” can hide the cumulative stresses of drought to those of us whose technology provides us with the water and other resources we need.  The recent fires remind us how stressed the plants are—ready to burst into flame when provoked.

No one can deny the magic of water.  After months of prolonged drought, the plants are so dry that you hesitate to touch them for fear they will disintegrate in your hand.  Rub your hand over a patch of moss, and it flakes off like dust.  Lizards look parched, desiccated, skeletal.  Frogs are nothing but a vague memory.  Leaves have dropped from some of the oaks, a necessary sacrifice if they are to make it through the period of stress.

Drought is worse than it generally cracked up to be.

Drought is worse than it is generally cracked up to be.

When drought persists for months, you stop expecting rain.  Your skin cracks, your nostrils crust with blood, and there is a constant taste of salt on your lips.   The sun moves across the sky each day, and the shadows echo its passing.  Your own shadow appears less substantial, as if life everywhere has backed off, been reduced to its minimum.  Your cracked lips can barely smile at dry humor. Continue reading

Granite Mountain Ablaze

June 18, 2013.  The anniversary of my father’s birth.  A Red Flag day, according to KNAU, with hot temperatures, fierce winds, ridiculously low humidity.  Fire weather, just needing a source of ignition.

At noon I noticed a plume of smoke to the west and knew this was no “controlled burn.”  Grabbing cameras and a hat, I jumped in the Subaru and headed for Iron Springs Road, only to be turned back as soon as I got out of town.  The fire had started at Dosie Pit Road and had jumped the highway, heading for Granite Mountain.  OK, my vantage point would have to be over near Williamson Valley Road.  I could get up high on a ridge above a housing development to the west of Granite Mountain, and the view should be good there.

View west toward Granite Mt.

View west toward Granite Mt.

Sure enough, Little Granite Mountain was smoking as if she were a volcano, and a towering column of smoke curved over Granite Mountain, casting a strange orange light on its rocks.  A helicopter arrived, hovering over Granite Basin Lake as it dipped buckets of water to drop on the fiery leviathan.  Like spitting into a roaring bonfire, I thought. Continue reading

Burning Desires and Incendiary Thoughts

Horseshoe Two Fire, Chiricahuas

Hot winds batter the landscape, sucking whatever moisture they can coax from desiccated plants.  Record-breaking temperatures challenge the survival skills of wildlife, as they and we wait for the merciful monsoonal rains, should they come in a month.  We wait and watch, knowing that the first plume of smoke to rise skyward could create a blazing inferno defying our feeble but expensive efforts to limit the damage.

Arizona has endured droughts and heat waves before, but there are strong signs that human activities are exacerbating the challenges faced by the more-than-human world.   The summer of 2011 saw huge tracts of forest burn up in the Southwest.  I witnessed the dramatic Horseshoe Two Fire in the Chiricahuas, but in a summer of exceptional fires in both Arizona and New Mexico, that one was just the tip of the melting iceberg.  That was the summer of the Wallow Fire in Arizona (largest in history), the Conchos Fire in New Mexico (also the largest recorded there), the Monument Fire in the Huachucas (which consumed the home and irreplaceable insect collections of one of my friends), and many fires in northern Mexico, where suppression was not even attempted.  More than 2.1 million acres burned, over twice the previous record set in 2006 for these two states.  Megafires.  Unprecedented.  Shocking. Continue reading

Granite Dells Partnership

An aerial perspective of Granite Dells in Prescott, Arizona, reveals a wonderland of rocks, an upthrust flowering of granite domes, ridges, and canyons, that amazes and inspires.  For years I have worked with others to help protect and educate about this special place–first through the Open Space Acquisition Committee for the city, then as one of the founders of the Granite Dells Preservation Foundation, and now as one of the principals representing members of the Granite Dells Partnership.

Granite Dells & Watson Lake

We care about this landscape Continue reading

When Verde Means Gold

Autumn on Upper Verde River

Just as a migratory bird feels an irresistible inner urge teach fall, so do I experience a powerful restlessness satisfied only by ignoring my in-box, pushing aside the endless piles of papers begging to be shuffled, and taking off to some quiet corner of nature when I can embrace the changing of the seasons with full attention.

Autumn hasn’t been waiting for me—the aspens have scattered their yellow coins already up at Mt. Francis, and the maples have displayed their crimson badges at Mingus Mountain without my approval.  I am not teaching my Interpreting Nature class this fall, which usually provides me a legitimate excuse to get out there.   Thus, if I am not to miss the whole gaudy show of carotenoids, anthocyanins, and other pigments, I have to seize the moment, and yesterday afternoon I did just that. Continue reading

In Defense of Tumbleweeds

Dried tumbleweed

Tumbling Tumbleweed

Drifting along, like a tumbling tumbleweed.  That catchy tune warbled by the Sons of the Pioneers somehow epitomizes nostalgia for the Old West.  Never mind that the tumbleweed is a carpetbagger, an interloper, an émigré otherwise known as Russian thistle.  I’ve heard tell that the Russkies sent it here as a kind of biological weapon, a plague on our plains, a prickly infestation designed to lay waste to our grasslands, to overwhelm us with its ability to take any of our attacks against it and come back stronger than ever.  Where is the real truth here?  Continue reading

Granite Dells & the Lakes

Granite Dells and the Lakes—Central to Arizona

In Arizona, a state noted for natural wonders, Yavapai County stands out.  Prescott’s physical environment—pine forests, chaparral, pinyon-juniper woodlands, grasslands, dramatic rock formations, and wetlands—is one of the reasons it is called “Everybody’s Hometown.”  Watson and Willow Lakes in the Granite Dells dominate this landscape.

For the entire month of June, the Prescott Public Library Viewerie will display more than thirty large (some up to six feet in length) photographs in professional gallery mounts of Granite Dells and the Lakes (Watson & Willow) that stand as the centerpiece of the Tri-city area of Prescott, Prescott Valley, and Chino Valley in Yavapai County, Arizona.  They represent the work of Walt Anderson, acclaimed nature photographer, and Joe Phillips, master printer.  A reception open to the public is set for Wednesday, June 6, from 5:30-7:30 pm at the library.

This site presents an expanded tour of the content and images, with bonus photos and text added, but it cannot replace the impact of seeing the images in live time.  Please try to visit the exhibition.  Images are for sale from the photographer (geolobo@cableone.net or 928-445-7470), and other images and sizes, individually and lovingly printed by Joe, can be created for your needs.  Here is the price list with images.

This exhibit celebrates our natural heritage and urges all citizens, including decision-makers, to prioritize protection and wise stewardship of our great natural assets.  Right here, right now, in the heart of this watershed, we must act to keep what we love. Continue reading

Where do Toe-biters go when it Rains?

Where Do Toe-biters Go When It Rains?

Floodbug

Curiosity is a well-known field mark of a naturalist, and I have learned to indulge my curiosity when an opportunity arises.  Some years ago, I stayed with friends in the Chiricahua Mountains of SE Arizona, one of the dramatic “sky islands” of the Southwest.  Back in the cooler, wetter Pleistocene, the forests marched across the valleys, allowing free commerce for animals and plants among the ranges.  As conditions warmed and dried, the forests retreated to higher elevations, trapping survivors on habitat islands.  Continue reading