Friday, December 24, 2010

Rain inches its way towards the holidays

There is no better sight to behold during a morning drive to work than to see Gift Shop Clerk and bicycle commuter Chris Evans dodging water puddles on his daily ride to the Arboretum. More puddles mean more rain, so the more Chris suffers, the happier we are. We don't really know exactly how much we receive until we check our official rain gauge, but more often than not, the numbers disappoint. "Only a third of an inch?" we ask. “By the way Chris was weaving around those puddles, I’d have guessed twice that much.” This is why like I to use anecdotes rather than inches to describe rainfall events – they’re just more interesting.

Driving down to the picnic area through the sliding gate is one of the better barometers of rain fall intensity. Light rains will cause a thin veneer of red, decomposed granite from the overflow parking lot to rush down the hill towards the picnic area. A heavy rain will do the same thing but it will also leave two inch deep rills of the stuff along with the fist size rocks that it picks up along the way. I get goose bumps of anticipation when I feel these lumpy rocks under my tires, because I know that I'm getting closer to the collection nursery, where the real proof in the pudding will lie. 

   Wheelbarrows and plastic buckets are the informal tools of rain measurement in the collection nursery and we use both as an informal gauge. We can also see how much pooling and runoff has occurred by the locations of tiny, floating bits of mulch that have been dispersed over the area. The real piece de resistance is a ground-level drain near the corner of the Smith Building that, when completely plugged during wildly heavy downpours, has been known to direct water beneath the Lab door, down the middle of the hall, out through the Interpretive Center, and onward towards Queen Creek. When the muddy imprint of the high water line in the Smith Building hallway is higher than the wheels of an industrial-size mop bucket, an official reading from the weather station becomes, well, academic.

   Last night, we received .92" of rain (measured officially at the weather station). In a near repeat performance of last year, we all anticipate that this will be the "germinating" rain for this season's annual wildflowers.

   Even though it started a little late, rain is always a gift -- and its timing couldn't be better, both for this holiday season, and for the year to come. Best wishes to all.

Kim Stone

Friday, December 10, 2010

The peak of fall foliage. Are you worthy?

    For anyone prone to spontaneous outpourings of raw emotion, this year's fall foliage show might just leave you weeping, with tears falling like the gentle stream of Chinese pistachio leaves gathering at your feet. Every year is different, but this season, every leaf seems hell bent on perfectly complimenting the next. Not just on the same branch, or even the same tree, but inter-specifically, with trees and shrubs of different species singing in perfect harmony. It's not a Coca Cola commercial, it's more like a diorama-in-reverse, as if life is imitating art, and doing a really good job of it. "No, this can't be real," you tell yourself. "It's just too perfect, it must be a movie set."  But it is real. There are no painted backdrops and the lingering smell of turpentine, only a fully-developed, three-dimensional wonderland. It's what Alice might have found had her rabbit hole been horizontal. The Main Trail leads you directly through pecans, pomegranates and pistachios with leaves in every stage of transition,  vegetatively describing just about every color on the upper half of a rainbow.

   For photographers that shamelessly use software like Photoshop to enhance the world around them - I include myself in this group  -- this year's color show has created an ironic problem because un-retouched photographs are so saturated with color that they look fake.  It's as if Dorothy stepped out of her house just after it touched down in Oz, took one look and said, "No way." This has forced photographers to make the scene more believable by making it less real,  requiring the "saturation slider" to be moved towards the minus side rather than the positive,  posing a unique ergonomic challenge. The various hues of orange have been particularly intense, especially at the Faul Suspension Bridge, where no less than four Chinese pistachios came into full fall plumage simultaneously.

   In the Demonstration Garden, the signature pistachio in the Wildflower Meadow is at its reliable best. And the nearby Combretums have colored-up early and more intensely than is typical, with leaves the color of pickled beets in the sunniest exposures. The cottonwoods, ashes, and willows in Queen Creek canyon are mostly at peak, with sumptuous views from the Main Trail at Picket Post House. There is even an extra pistachio, large and full and  the color of a roasted bell pepper, that seemed to have come out of nowhere; an over-achieving sapling that broke all the rules and grew from six feet to thirty in one year just to provide a focal point for what would otherwise be a sea of cottonwood yellow.

   Fall isn't over yet and there is still a lot to see. The weather has been warm, clear, and sunny with very little wind. As groundskeeper Becky Noth said to me the other day, "If this weather holds, we might have good fall color until Christmas." I hope she's right.

Kim Stone

Sara Roberts, a visiting student from Washington, finds a comfortable bench beneath the intense autumn color of our most often photographed Chinese pistachio, located near the Wildflower Meadow in the Demonstration Garden.  Photo by Paul Wolterbeek.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Widow wins big

I was walking towards the Gift Shop just before noon on a Sunday last August when I found the entrance completely blocked by a commotion of a dozen people clustered in front of the glass entry doors.  The groups' collective gaze was directed towards something - or someone - on the ground in a corner that was hidden from my view. I thought at first that someone was injured, but the group seemed to be generally smiling, chatty, and upbeat, implying that they were watching something more engaging than a twisted ankle or an arm full of cactus spines. I shouldered my way into the pack and when I looked over one of the shorter heads, there was indeed a person there. His body laid stretched out, stomach-side down, completely blocking the entrance. But he was moving. He was propped up on his elbows and was using them to slowly drag his prone body towards a dimly lit, hollow crevice near the bottom of the hinge of the right hand entry door. From where I stood, the shadowy space looked like it contained a tangled shoelace that was suspended in mid-air, encircled with odd, alternating black, white and red bands, like something a clown would wear. When I asked the person next to me what all of the hubbub was about, she said, "It's either a snake eating a spider, or a spider eating a snake. I'm not sure which." 
As it turns out, it was a six inch coral snake that had become entangled in the sticky web of a black widow spider, and the black widow was wasting no time in sucking the life out of the unfortunate coral snake.  The horizontal man had now rolled over on his side and was aiming his digital SLR camera for close-ups of the carnage. He was later introduced to me as  Larry Jones, herpetologist and author of the book The Lizards of the Southwest. The majority of the onlookers were just returning from a Learn Your Lizards walk led by AZ Game and Fish biologist Abbi King, and the real-world, life-and-death scene that was unfolding before them was an added bonus that thrilled everyone right down to Abbi, who was now lying next to Larry with her camera, stifling any hope of anyone getting in or out of the Gift Shop.
Over the next half hour, most of the onlookers that had cameras, including me, took their respective turns rolling around on the warm concrete outside the Gift Shop doors, inhibiting commerce, but also photographing a unique scene that Larry Jones later said was a "first" for him.  When I quizzed him for his expert opinion about which one of these venomous creatures he would rather be bitten by, he gave me the only scientifically valid response: "Neither." Then he added, "Well, it depends on where you're bitten. Coral snakes have a nasty venom, but then so do black widows." I thought about this as I stepped between several pairs of legs on my way to get another look, and decided that my envenomator of choice would probably be the coral snake. With its tiny mouth, there are a limited number of body parts that would present themselves on a fully clothed individual, whereas the black widow could more easily slip itself in or under, exposing a plethora of meaty targets.   
BEMUSED BIOLOGISTS BARRICADE BOOKSTORE  might have been the headline in the morning paper had the scene not diffused itself as quickly as it started. By early afternoon, life was back to normal for everyone but the coral snake.  What had started as a five-alarm biological event --a rare clash of the titans --was now barely a side show. With no crowds to draw attention to it, most visitors came and went, buying tee shirts, or books, or Gatorade, without ever noticing the black widow hanging smugly from her fresh kill in a shadowy, nearby corner.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Falling for fall finery

In the deciduous woods of the northeastern U.S. and Canada, the progression of fall color typically follows lines of latitude. To catch all of fall, itinerant color chasers with too much time on their hands often start somewhere in Quebec in late September and then put in some serious road miles and six weeks of bed and breakfasts until they see the last leaves fall in New York and Pennsylvania sometime in early November. For fall color enthusiasts in the low deserts of Arizona, we have it decidedly easier. What color we miss in our own back yards, we can find in hours - if not minutes - with some relatively painless trips to the higher elevations that surround us. Subtract the obvious high-country opportunities like the Mogollon Rim and the White Mountains, and we're still blessed with half a dozen "sky islands," mountain ranges that rise nearly a mile, sometimes more, above local population centers like Tucson, Safford, Sierra Vista, and Globe.

What we lack in quaint covered bridges and idyllic scenes of white-steepled churches, we make up for in precipitous, windy roads that often lack guard rails but are sometimes paved, like those in the Pinaleno Mountains near Safford or the Catalinas north of Tucson, and dusty, rutted tracks that snake up to stands of aspen, gambel oak, and maples like Forest Service Road 651 in the Pinal Mountains south of Globe. This kind of vertical accessibility means that you can roll out of bed at 8am in Tucson and be sipping coffee and crunching through fresh layers of fallen leaves at nearly 9200 feet on Mt. Lemmon in the time that it takes a visitor to New Hampshire to correctly pronounce Lake Winnipesaukee. And you can do it again and again throughout the fall autumn season without burning vacation time, crossing any international borders, or stumbling over multi-syllabic words.

Fall in the higher elevations was late by a week or two this year which gave those of us with poor planning skills more of a grace period to see what we would have missed in previous years had the nights cooled down earlier and closer to schedule. Though late, the colors have been consistent and homogeneous with aspens and maples coloring up evenly and en masse, creating surreal environments of yellow on brown and yellow on white, like a colorized sepia photograph. A full description of the mechanics of why leaves change color is the lead story in the October Member newsletter that you should have received in the mail about a week ago.

Back at the Arboretum... the most vibrant trees that exhibit the anthocyanin pigments (the glorious oranges and scarlets of our Chinese pistachios), usually reach their peak in late November or early December. It's a logical and predictable progression that begins with the now-changing leaves of honey locusts, jububes, and soapberries, all with their characteristic hues of yellow carotenoid pigments. In fact, all of the Arboretum's deciduous trees lose their leaves by November or December, and most take on some sort of yellow-ish coloration first that ranges from the cornbread yellow of canyon hackberry to the lemon-sorbet leaves of our native cottonwood, the last hold-out to finally drop its leaves.

The fall season is much like following wildflowers in the spring but in reverse: the leaves are dying rather than springing to life - and summer is seven months away rather than two. It's not a re-birth, it's a cool-down. It's the victory lap that celebrates the wrap-up of another desert summer and the out-pouring of sweat and air-conditioned tonnage that kept us cool enough to appreciate all of the color that we'll see for the next few weeks. Think of autumn as a seasonal attitude adjustment. Chill.


Friday, October 1, 2010

Strange lights seen at Boyce Thompson Arboretum

At one of the night time member events at Boyce Thompson Arboretum this summer, I discovered that Turkey Vultures are as sensitive to the light beam from a common, handheld laser pointer as are those touchy airline pilots and officials at the FAA. Just one stray millimeter-wide beam from a red or green laser (often carried legitimately by star gazers to point out distant skyward constellations) can cause a group of thirty buzzards to scatter from their nighttime roosts like each one had been goosed simultaneously by an invisible human finger. It’s a raucous explosion of 60 panicked, tangled wings that propels the vultures into the air, followed immediately by complete silence again as the outstretched wings carry each buzzard noiselessly into the darkness. It’s a clear case of overreaction to a harmless laser pointer that is, at worst, a really annoying part of most Powerpoint presentations, but try convincing them of that.

Another kind of light that is now as commonly available as a Bic Flick is a portable, battery-operated, fluorescent LED flashlight. “Black light” technology has come a long way since Spencer Gifts pioneered the overuse of it in every shopping mall from Los Angeles to Cherry Hill, New Jersey in the 60’s and 70’s. Now you can pick one up for about $10 in the decidedly less psychedelic confines of Walgreens and Home Depot. Not only do black lights make the Led Zeppelin posters glow on your dorm room wall, they also cause scorpions to involuntarily glow a subtle green color at night and have now become the method of choice for scorpion locating.

Scorpiontologist and Mesa Community College professor Andy Baldwin led a recent nighttime excursion at the Arboretum and picked up dozens of glowing scorpions by their tails with his quick, bare fingers, holding each stinger tightly like one might hold the untied end of an inflated balloon. He identified six or seven different species and showed us the all important sexual differences between males and females, both of which sting with equal enthusiasm. His personal record of being stung is 17 times in one night. Personally, I consider one sting to be a singular event, but after nine or ten, who’s counting?

Red lights generally convince advancing motorists to stop, or, in red light districts, invite them to stop “in”. At the Arboretum, they’re used to help people negotiate the night at our frequent Star Night events with the East Valley Astronomy Club. Our eyes use the retina’s rod cells for night vision and these cells are conveniently blind to red light, so astronomers carry red light flashlights, wear red, backlit wristwatches, and use red-on-black computer screens to function in the inky blackness. They even mount red lights on the legs of their telescope tripods to keep klutzes like me from tripping over them. With soft red lights reflecting off faces, clothing, and star-viewing equipment, all under a few billion stars and assorted galaxies, the scene can be other worldly -- not unlike Spencer Gifts, but without the sandalwood incense.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A few limericks of summer

If eggs really fry on the street
When summer makes roads overheat,
How can ants pillage
And cleanup the spillage
With blisters all over their feet?

I’m proud of the sweat that I make,
But somehow my smell’s hard to take?
The same goes for you,
You stink like me too.
We both need to jump in Ayer Lake.

Where boats had once floated last Autumn,
There's a vastly reduced water column.
No waves and no wake
In Tempe Town Lake
Topside is now on the bottom.

There once was a man from Tacoma
Who pined for sweet desert aroma.
This fair-haired palooka
From Straight Juan de Fuca,
Was treated for skin car-ci-no-ma.

"You eat prickly pear fruit, Mr. Young?"
The knave, in his hand, it still clung.
"There are glochids," said he.
"Yes, I know, ninety-three.
They're embedded all over my tongue."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Morning-after ant-ics

After 3/4" of bruising, hard rain last night, I was excited to get up early and see what the first major rainfall of the monsoon had done to wake and shake things up. I knew that ants can grow wings and take flight in the time it takes to roast a 12 pound turkey, but I wasn't prepared for the shear volumes that I found. In just a quarter mile walk along the Toll Road trail in the Pinal Mountains south of Globe, I plowed my way through dozens of individual cyclones of flying ants. Each little mini-tornado was about two feet across and twenty feet tall with thousands of furiously busy ants flying in a clockwise motion in tight formation, as if they were caught inside a clear glass tube. I had to cover my mouth and nose to breath ant-free air as I walked through the swarms.

There were many harmless collisions as they slammed against my arms and body, and the temporary stillness of the briefly stunned individuals allowed me to see the expected black ant head, thorax, and abdomen. What seemed totally out of place to me were the wings. They were perfect little translucent wings that were beautiful and clearly functional, but creepy, too. How do they manufacture them so quickly? Do they duck into an alley after a good rain and unzip a compartment on their exoskeleton to reveal the secret of flight that they've kept from everyone their whole lives? And if so, how do they learn to fly in these tightly wound swarms so quickly? It's just unnatural.

A small calf had recently died and I spooked a lone Turkey Vulture that was feeding on it in a small ravine just off the road. My dog was with me and though I kept her from stealing a bit of the meat herself, I have no doubt that she inhaled an ant or two or three as she ran in front of me up the road.

Kim Stone

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Flight of Fruitarians

It takes a patient, thoughtful observer like Arboretum volunteer and birder Jack Bartley to point out the mid-summer bounty of fruit-eating opportunities for wildlife at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. It’s not only about the ripening of red, ripe saguaro fruits-which is huge-but also about the fruiting potential of hundreds of other plants, like desert hackberries and condalias, that are growing in the Arboretum’s plant collections and dare to fruit in the middle of the summer. Jack is keenly aware that knowing what birds eat is the best way to find them, so when he and I met at the bottom of the switchbacks on Sunday, he reminded me of a half dozen fruiting shrubs that he had seen earlier in the day.

Nothing short of a real bird-brain is needed to keep up with such things and I’m sure that Jack would admit to having one, because he quickly rattled off the six fruiting shrubs with the staccato beat of a woodpecker drilling a pine snag. All of them were plants that I considered to be old friends, but I hadn’t noticed that a single one had ripe fruit ready for a bird to pluck. Its human indifference, I guess, brought on by being spoiled and overly domesticated with the luxury to ignore easy food sources in favor of the ones we have to pay for. Sure, those desert hackberry fruits look yummy (and they are), but I have far too many other less healthy, store-bought options to satisfy my hunger than to spend the day picking enough of these tiny orange fruits for a meal. And just think of all those seeds.

I visited each one of the plants that he mentioned and they were indeed loaded with fruit. The funny thing was, there weren’t many birds particularly interested in the fruit salad that presented itself. There were copious amounts of the small, black fruits of elderberry, crucifixion thorn, and Condalia globosa, the orange desert hackberries and the pinkish-orange Berberis, and the leathery-colored, perfect globes of Geoffroea decorticans, but according to Jack, the birds that might be attracted to these plants, like Phainopeplas, Black-Headed Grosbeaks, Hooded Orioles, and others, were all but absent.

Perhaps it’s the heat, in which case the expected 115 degree high on Thursday will be an appetite buster for bird and man alike.

Kim Stone

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A mid-summer bicycle ride

Customarily, I ride the Arboretum’s mountain bike around the main trail every day between 3pm and 5pm. It’s not only because the Arboretum is closed for the day and I have the place to myself, but because if I didn’t, I would probably have nodded off at my desk. My mind considers the 3 o’clock hour to be a time of rest, and even though it’s the hottest part of the day, if I don’t get up and do something physical and aerobic, I will likely wake up 30 minutes later with a teaspoon of drool saturating my keyboard.

A much better time to ride is in the morning and I did that today about 8:30am. The trail was dimpled from a wisp of rain that we received the night before. Prominent golf cart tire tracks flattened the dimples on some of the trails and showed that the rain had come before 6am and the first cart traffic. When I called up to Lynnea in the Gift Shop to ask whether we received any measurable rainfall, she paused to check and then responded, “No, nothing in the rain gauge. Not even a trace. Sorry.” It seemed strange to hear her apologize for something she has no control over, but even though she is only the messenger, she can sense the plaintive tone of our voices when we pose the "r" question. What we are really asking this time of year is: “Please, oh please, tell me that we received more than a trace. Lie to us if you have to. Even a tenth. We’ll take a tenth.” It’s only July 11, though, and too early to become alarmed or overly disappointed by the lack of rain. We’ll reserve those sentiments for mid-August during which no rain will be a legitimate reason to panic.

Every saguaro is full of split open, red lipstick-colored fruits. They’ve been fruiting now for several weeks with succulent red flesh and dark black seeds exposed to the elements and to every living creature that can reach them up high or collect them from the ground. This morning, I found several small caliber piles of animal scat that were comprised of 100% saguaro seeds. This is a sure sign that the fruits are ripe for the picking. One pile across from Picket Post House looked like it was from a fox or skunk, and the other larger, more consolidated pile in Queen Creek was probably from a javelina. The seeds, when tightly packed and unmixed with other seeds, closely resemble blackberries as they glisten in the low morning sun. The rule of thumb is that there are about 2000 tiny seeds per fruit and by the looks of the “blackberries,” there were three to six whole fruits digested, depending on the size of the pile. Because the Arboretum provides so many varying food sources from trees and shrubs all over the arid world, it’s comforting to know that our own Sonoran Desert can hold its own as a life giving food source without any horticultural intervention.

Butterflies are everywhere, especially in areas where irrigation has run onto the trails and created little moist sumps for butterflies to alight and collect moisture. Half a dozen Harris’ ground squirrels were criss-crossing the trail above the lake, their three inch furry tales standing ramrod straight and vertical in the air as they run. Many lesser earless lizards were seen, too.

Kim Stone

Thursday, July 8, 2010

49 bye byes, Part 2

Years ago, maybe ten or so, the rodent population in the Smith Building and Visitor Center was of a similar density as it was before we launched our newest offensive on June 15th. Their numbers have ebbed and flowed over the years, and we have dealt with the population fluctuations on a “catch as catch can” kind of basis. To the mice, it’s been more of a “catch me if you can” scenario, with the mice inevitably holding the upper hand for a time, then losing ground to our lukewarm eradication efforts, then going into a high speed reproductive mode when they sensed that we were losing our resolve.

Wholesale rodent eradication requires a killer instinct. But because our staff is in the plant business, our murderous tendencies are usually reserved for those biological entities, typically insects, that chew and suck on our plants, rather than those that tear into salted peanuts and Snickers bars in the Visitor Center Gift Shop or set up nesting facilities in the endless piles of newspapers in Paul’s office in the Smith Building. The mice were aware that we were “plant people” and therefore knew that we were inherently pacifists. We could be counted on to fence-out rather than shoot skunks, rabbits and javelinas, and to favor live traps that would inevitably give every mouse, rat, or other animal a second chance. One of the staff might finally flip out—like me on several occasions—and attempt to kill as many mice in as many creative and cruel ways as possible. Baited snap traps, sling shots, torture, loud and unapologetic yelling were all fair game. Inevitably, though, blood, guts, decaying flesh, and the thought of little mouse families torn apart by the tragedy of my doing would take its toll and I would return to my pitiful “shoo mouse shoo” control methods. They had my number, all of our numbers, and so, about ten years ago, the professionals were called in.

Men arrived in their crisp uniforms, armed not with sophisticated traps, sonic deterrents, or small caliber side arms, but with little packets full of poison. Within each packet were a few tablespoons of toxic blue crystals, the same color as the nutrients delivered to a hospital patient in your garden variety feeding tube. To the rat or mouse, the crunchy contents of these packets were designed to be irresistible and eaten with relish. The pest control people knew best and in their wisdom they spread dozens of these packets throughout the Visitor Center and the Smith Building, particularly in the crawl spaces above the ceilings. The exact locations of the packets were unbeknownst to us and quickly forgotten by the applicators, but we were told that they were put just about everywhere. “Your mouse and rat problems will soon be over,” they told us as they packed up their sophisticated step ladders and powerful flashlights. “Guaranteed,” they said. Over time, the poisonous bait did its job, but it was a move that we would regret for many, many years to come.

Continued in Part 3…

Kim Stone

Friday, July 2, 2010

49 bye byes, Part 1

It’s the first of July and the beginning of a new fiscal year with a new budget and a fresh cycle of money and time to help make the world a better place. This, in and of itself, would be reason to celebrate, but it is dwarfed by an accomplishment of near incalculable value: since June 15, nearly 50 mice have been removed from the confines of the Smith Building. There was no overt violence thrust upon them. We didn’t whip them with ocotillo branches or lunge at them, snapping with pruning shears. In fact, every benefit of the doubt was given to them to leave willingly and peacefully at any time, the very same opportunities granted our staff at the close of each day. Our tolerance has been noble in its scope and for six months or more, we have coexisted in a laudable natural harmony, each of us, mouse and man, acting out our lives in our own separate ways. “I’m OK. You’re OK,” is what we have voicelessly said to each other.

Because I work the late shift, often working until 9pm or later, I have always been more privy to the secret lives of our resident rodents than the rest of the staff. At roughly 5pm, after most of the humans have left for the day, I generally spot the first mouse coming through the door of the hort office, its fat little grey body hugging the edge of the wall. Depending on the day and the mouse, it either climbs to the second shelf of the metal bookcase on the left and then leaps across twelve inches of open air to the nearby countertop where our seeds are stored, or it turns the other direction after entering through the door and disappears through the crack in the sliding door of the wooden bookshelf on the other side of the room. My desk is in a centralized location, bordered on one side by a felt-covered cubicle divider supported by hollow, square metal tubes, and I have a clear view of their comings and goings. Because of the “live and let live” philosophy, I generally ignore them once they’re in the room even though I’m conscious of their presence.

Over the past month, however, a certain brazenness has come over them. And even though I haven't changed, their attitude has assumed a palpable cockiness that has begun to wear on my utopian attitude. For one, they began to reproduce inside my office, actually using one of my desk drawers to suckle a budding little family unit of three mouselets. This, after shredding the tabs off of the manila folders H through K that were hanging in the drawer in order to provide the fodder for their cozy nest. When I opened the drawer, the mother ran off, dragging one of the baby mice still hanging onto a teat, leaving me no choice but to take the two remaining hairless pinkies and drown them outside in a bucket of water.

When they weren’t breast feeding, the female mice joined the males in uninhibited romps across my desk. They made playful runs up and down the hollow tubes of my cubicle, poking their heads out of the top and quickly retreating if I made aggressive moves towards them. And if I left the room for more than ten minutes, I could guarantee that a dime size hole would be eaten from the bottom of my bag of almonds, or one or two fresh, glistening black mouse turds would be deposited on top of my lunchtime soup spoon. They pealed the labels off of the stashed soup cans and ate through hard plastic jars of Planters peanuts in my other drawers. They chewed the cuffs off my canvas work gloves, and pooped or left dollops of pasty pee on everything else. I occasionally brought in my vacuum to suck up the droppings but within three or four days, the deposits would be back to their former glory, leaving no doubt as to their preferred routes of travel.

I started to sour when some of the really obnoxious mice would waddle out into the open and just stand there, barely holding up their distended, well-fed bellies, knowing that the most they could expect from me was the kind of backhanded swat usually reserved to shoo flies from a bowl of potato salad. I had clearly lost their respect. To them, I was a patsy. They had me pegged as either a card-carrying PETA member or a pacifist who’d rented The Green Mile too many times. They had built themselves a smug little dynasty in the Smith Building, courtesy of the benefits of the welfare state that we had created to meet the demands of their lifestyle. Like most living things, if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile, and until recently, both parties appeared to be content with this arrangement. But since June 15th, their cushy world of obesity, excess, and public defecation has been turned upside down with the passing of each fateful day.

Continued in Part 2...

Kim Stone

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Diving for droplets

More than once, I have offered to throw myself off of Apache Leap or Magma Ridge if this fatal and final act would have any positive outcome on the bringing of summer rain to the Arboretum. It would be a symbolic offering to be sure, but if it brought the rains, I felt that the sacrifice of one human being -- me in this case -- would be worth it. I considered doing a swan dive or perhaps a full gainer, something graceful yet profound. It would be worth watching and would leave no doubt as to the earnestness of my desire for the sky to deliver its stubborn and recalcitrant payload of moisture.

Generally speaking, my thoughts of making the ultimate sacrifice don’t start until we’re well into the monsoon flow, usually around early to mid August. By this time, all those that use evaporative coolers are experiencing true, human suffering, and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the correct conditions for dramatic thunderstorms are upon us. The rock-bottom, single-digit humidities of June are a thing of the past and the sweat that was efficiently disappearing from our skin at just about the same rate as it was being created, now just piles up like oil on the morning tide.

This early in the year, though, my attitude is usually fairly positive. My thoughts are still focused on giving nature a fairly long leash and allowing it to produce rain without me trying to force the issue by performing some dramatic, acrobatic ritual. As I stand outside in back of the Smith Building and look towards the northeast, I can smell the rain and I can hear the rumblings, and I know that eventually, it will rain. If not today, definitely tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, it will surely rain next week. If half of our rain falls during the summer monsoon, then we should be expecting some fraction of eight inches to fall at any minute. And so, for now, I wait.

Kim Stone

Sunday, January 3, 2010

First week January 2010

I’d like to call this blog posting the New Year’s resolution that wasn’t.

Even though today is just three days into the new year, I’m writing this blog entry more from the guilt of six months of neglect than I am from the traditional opportunity of a fresh start based on an arbitrary date on the calendar. This blog never crossed my mind as I watched the ball drop and raised my glass in a champagne toast at the stroke of midnight three days ago.

The main reason for the shameful lack of attention since June of last year is that I have forgotten the true meaning of the manufactured word “blog.” A blog is a combination of the words “web” and “log” and by definition it’s not meant to be an overly polished or an interminably thought out essay; it’s supposed to be timely and spontaneous and dynamic. So, in the spirit of the new year-- and the new decade-- I’m going to let the fingers fly, and make every attempt to capture the moment (on a more regular basis) at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

I usually ride around the Main Trail Loop everyday on my bicycle. It’s just about the only motive force besides walking that presents a thin enough profile to navigate the entire loop. It’s also the fastest and it allows me to do a quick daily reconnaissance of the constantly changing moods of the gardens and natural areas with some extra blood cell oxygenation in the process. The pinch point is the catwalk along Queen Creek, an area that we have always known as “the Narrows.” The water in the creek was unusually clear this morning with layers of recently fallen cottonwood and willow leaves perfectly layered on the bottom, all covered with a thin layer of fine mud, perfectly visible under a lens of 12 inches of water.

A man with a pronounced limp was emerging from the west side of the catwalk, moving slowly and leaning heavily on a cane. His wife was behind him carrying the basket and seat of an electric wheelchair. “I’ve been here many times,” the man told me. “But this is the first time that I’ve made it all the way around.” I helped the woman carry the remaining three pieces of the wheel chair through the catwalk and it struck me that despite this gentleman’s frequent visits to the Arboretum, he had never experienced this riparian area before. He had never been this close to Queen Creek in flood or heard the cicadas singing in the cottonwoods along the creek in June when the only sign that water had ever flowed was a dried, unbroken coating of thick green algae covering every rock and boulder.

Seeing any water in the creek at all is a comforting experience and at this time of year, it's probably the result of about 1.5 inches of total rain in December and the fact that many of the riparian trees have lost their leaves and are no longer transpiring much water. Though most of the intense fall color is behind us, this was one of the most beautiful autumn seasons that I can remember. There was a unique combination of deeply saturated colors—almost artificial looking--and a range of trees with concurrent color that were spread out over a longer-than-usual time period, barely ending at the turn of this new decade.

With temperatures today in the high 60’s, little wind, and clear blue skies, it feels like spring is in the air, though we historically still have the lowest temperatures of the winter to look forward to in January. There is evidence of germinating ephemerals throughout the Arboretum grounds and in the open desert, so it’s still possible that we might still salvage a decent spring wildflower season.

The electric wheel chair that I had helped carry was reassembled without struggle or fanfare, and the vistors were on their way, puttering along slowly but with a great deal of satisfaction, headed in the direction the Herb Garden. For me, I did my usual aerobic climb up to the Picket Post House at the top of the switchbacks, and then let gravity carry me back to my computer chair.

Kim Stone
Membership, Media, I.T.