For weeks, we have waited, hoping that the early July pattern of monsoon rain arrival would be repeated. It did not look promising. June was brutally hot and dry, clouds rare, winds fierce. The scrub oaks and manzanitas have shed most of their leaves; time will tell if they will all survive this challenge. Grasses were dry as tinder, nutritionless. Sprouting daturas withered and died except where we gave them water. We are the recipients of past pluvial generosity, siphoning water from underground stores without little thought of where that water has come from. But for now, sharing a little of that water with the other creatures that share our space seems like the right thing to do, since we have taken so much from the wild already.
Water set out for the local birds and mammals was eagerly sought by both. Our house became the oasis to which dozens of species flocked. Quail seemed to have had a good reproduction year, as at least a half dozen broods came in daily, but what would have happened without our water subsidy?
Quail brood at water dish
Rufous –crowned Sparrows, Crissal Thrashers, finches, towhees, and even woodpeckers—they all drank from our little pools in apparent harmony. Continue reading →
Nine months after the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013, the event continues to touch many of us with a rawness only slightly softened by time. My memories remain vivid. With thunderstorm activity developing in the Prescott area that afternoon, I grabbed my camera and headed out to the Doce Fire area south of Granite Mountain. Fierce little rain squalls gave me subjects to explore visually. The powdered ash deposits post-fire are very vulnerable to erosion, a step in the ecologic process I wanted to capture.
June 20, 2013 rain on burned chaparral
Then as a squall shifted south, I could see in the distance a column of smoke that caused my hair to rise—it appeared to me that the small town of Yarnell was on fire. Without hesitation, I leaped into the car and shot toward Skull Valley, having to slow down once in the midst of an intense downpour. The closer I got to Peeple’s Valley, the more my concern intensified, and I made a decision that gave me a perfect vantage point on a ridge north of the fire. If I had continued any farther down the highway, I would have been stopped by emergency vehicles and stuck in a line of other cars prohibited from moving farther.
I remember as keenly as if it were still happening how, as I began to photograph the towering cloud of smoke, winds shifted, chilling me briefly with horizontal pellets of rain. A small herd of horses ran north to below my position. I continued to watch and document as the fire split into two fiery tongues—one right at Yarnell and another in rugged canyons in the Weavers to the west of the valley. Planes and helicopters appeared as tiny insects buzzing around the periphery of the towering giant. I watched until sunset, an eerie yellowish light bathing the entire scene, and I sensed that this would be a moment of tragic history. Continue reading →
29 June 2013. Prescott, Arizona. At Granite Mountain, eleven days after the eruption of the big Doce Fire, the smoke has cleared—mostly. There are still hot pockets (inedible ones) with potential for flames to rise from the ashes and run amok again. Mother Nature teases us with clouds trailing virga—and even a few drops of liquid that reach the ground—but the hot winds accompanying the clouds continue their mischief, and dry lightning ignites new blazes around the county. A microburst (sorry, not an artisan brew) takes down trees in town and starts a fire. The firefighters are still out there at the mountain, and aircraft drone overhead on their missions of attempted control. But for most of us, the adrenalin has subsided; our fears have receded.
30 June 2013. One of those fires started two days ago happened to be in Yarnell, and today it erupted into the disastrous fire that took the lives of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the same folks who fought the Doce Fire and, in the process, saved the sacred ancient juniper that may have watched the comings and goings of wildfire for millennia. I was photographing the aftermath of the Doce Fire when I saw the terrible black cloud rising to the south, so I raced down there and watched from a safe distance as the flames engaged in the chaotic dance of pyrotechnics triggered by an advancing monsoonal cell. I heard and saw the screaming influx of ambulances and feared for the worst—but it was even worse than my greatest fears.
Two major local disasters by fire in Yavapai County within two weeks. Sorrow and grieving for beloved Granite Mountain (clearly personified in the emotions of many) and the brave firefighters dominate discussion.
28 July 2013. Now a month later, our wounds healing with time, we can look at the context of these fires with a bit more rationality—or at least we should. “Don’t mess with Mother Nature” is a common phrase, and it exemplifies our tacit willingness to shift responsibility to a perceived natural deity rather than accepting an obligation to live our lives as informed citizens of Planet Earth. Continue reading →
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 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 →
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 →
Monsoon season in Arizona is a time of waiting and watching. Waiting for rain is like playing the lottery. Your odds improve after the 4th of July, but it’s still a roller coaster of optimism and disappointment.
This morning dawns with haze and humidity, and by 8 am, the sun’s direct rays drill into my shoulders like a laser beam. Decisions—do I water the outside plants or not? For days, the thunderheads have played with us, marching toward Granite Dells like an invading army, rumbling ominously and trailing sheets of rain, only to dissipate upon arrival. They act as if it was all bluster, threat, intimidation, then shrug a rounded shoulder, “Just kidding!” . . . It’s hard not to take it personally. Continue reading →