Saturday, October 29, 2011

Wild cucumber

This tuberous root of wild cucumber, Marah gilensis, was uncovered accidentally while digging a hole for another plant at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.  Dense and pithy, it’s a powerhouse of stored starch that resides just below the soil surface.  Quick-growing vines emerge from it each spring and clamber drunkenly through nearby jojobas and hackberries. It’s a botanical oddity that is rarely seen, but never under appreciated. At 50 pounds, this specimen is a granddaddy: a certified, subterranean lunker.  

Saturday, September 24, 2011


The autumnal equinox passed without incident. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Review of Kim Hosey Photographic exhibit in Visitor Center Gallery

During the months of July and August, blogger and photographer, Kim Hosey, features candid images of 50 insects, spiders, and birds -- all objects of her affection.  Her photographs allow the unique personality of each subject to emerge, caught by her camera lens in the moment of expression.  An elegant, iridescent dragonfly strikes a ballet pose, a Great Blue Heron tiptoes through ankle-deep water, a Jerusalem cricket seems literate-for-a-day as it strolls across the page of an open book.

Many of her photographs are really portraits, lending themselves to a deeper character study of each subject. Insects appear to be aware of her camera and regard it with sidelong glances, birds fly in choreographed symmetry above her head, and a black widow strikes a film noir pose atop a perfectly contrasting white surface.

This collection of images brings up the inevitable proclivity towards personification, forcing one to think, Am I really seeing their emotions, or my own? And then: Is this the way they are, or the way I want them to be?

But over analysis will miss much of the impact because, even at face value, Kim’s images are stunningly beautiful. More importantly, they honor the amazing complexity and diversity of the non-humans that are forever buzzing, swooping, crawling, and capturing our attention. Her photographs impart an intimate side to their lives that we, as casual observers, rarely notice. With close-up, macro photography, her subjects are caught in the act of being themselves, and therefore display a surprising range of emotions that we can't help but relate to: sometimes quirky, or ironic, or a bit scary, but always honest.

Had Gary Larson born a love child, it might have been Kim Hosey -- she, however, has brought her critters to life without a single line of dialogue.  
(Reviewed by Kim Stone)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Need for Seed

The initial challenge at the start of our recent camping and seed-collecting trip was setting up our tents in a sustained 40 mph wind.  We arrived late, close to 5pm, and had just a few hours of daylight remaining. Without a decent windbreak for miles in any direction, erecting the tents was like unfurling a ship’s sail, and it took all five of us deckhands to wrestle each one into position. We staked the corners and then moved onto the complex arrangements of poles.The assembly is different for every tent, and even without the wind, it’s more of an intellectual exercise than a practical one. I’m sure tent engineers laugh until strawberry daiquiris shoot out their nostrils at the annual Christmas party when they watch hidden videos of people like us trying to figure them out. 

Once they were in place, we wanted to keep them that way, so we attached rope from the tent corners to eyebolts in the wood frames that surrounded each tent space, as extra insurance against the wind. We based this extra security on the advice of Ken, the ranger at the Visitor Center, who earlier remarked, “We often watch tents rolling end-over-end off into the desert.”

The goal of our expedition was to find one or more of the 188 native Arizona legume taxa that are not yet represented in the seed bank of the Desert Legume Program. Our original plan was to target   five of these taxa that likely had seed this time of year in the mixed conifer forests between Nutrioso and Hannagan Meadow in the White Mountains.   But that all changed when the 500,000 acre Wallow Fire burned through the area a week before our trip and forced us 100 miles further west to Winslow and nearby Homolovi State Park.  Except for a few struggling honey locusts that the park planted at each campsite, we went from 8000 feet in tall timber to nary a plant more than hip-high here at 4800 feet elevation on the southern edge of the Great Basin Desert.

Mark, Matt, and I were experienced campers; Jeff, less so. Lorrie hadn’t been camping in twenty-five years – which meant never. She wanted to be prepared, so she bought a pair of hiking boots, and borrowed a sleeping bag and foam mattress. I helped her with a list of what not to bring: suitcases, furniture, curtains, framed artwork, and no more toiletry or beauty items than a TSA agent would allow through an airport scanner. She insisted on having her own tent, which was reasonable, as long as she didn’t furnish it with any of the aforementioned items.

We laid out sleeping bags and pads, unpacked food and drinks, and readied our flashlights to avoid the rattlesnakes that we were told might cross our paths between the nearby shower house and our tents after dark. Campfires weren’t permitted, which meant that my camping experience was already diminished by half.  Reeking pit toilets, mosquitoes, and the threat of bears usually fill in the other 50%, but we had none of those either. Instead, we had hot and cold running water, showers, and flush toilets in the building next to us, so it was shaping up to be more like an three day picnic with sleep-over privileges. There was even a bright, first quarter moon that faintly lit our picnic table and later served as a bedroom nightlight for those inevitable 3 a.m. trips to the bathroom.

Early Thursday morning, before our instant oatmeal, Mark poured us some potent espresso made from his French press. This wicked little device makes coffee backwards: coffee is added to hot water and allowed to steep, like tea; then, a porous plunger is forced down through the mixture. The plunger separates the water from the grounds and allows a potent, black brew to filter up above it. It works like an espresso machine turned inside out. “Drink enough of this,” he said, as he filled my metal camping cup, “and hair will stand up you didn’t even know you had.”

Coffee made like this is an acquired taste, and as I sipped, it reminded me of a trip I made to Australia in the mid nineties.  Matt was along for this trip, too, and we traveled for three weeks through the Australian outback looking at plants and plant communities. We stopped the car often to explore, and more often than not, aggressive bush flies came out of nowhere and tried to force their way into our mouths. No matter how quickly we wiped then away, they rushed back to our lips with the speed of cockroaches. 

According to our Aussie host, Peter, bush flies helped shape the way Australians speak in the outback.  “We keep the flies out by using short sentences and not flappin’ our gums too much,” he told us, his mouth as still as a ventriloquist’s. So good morning or good afternoon was reduced to “g’day” and oh, it’s really no problem at all became simply “no worries.” Lacking the ability to speak in Australian sound bites, we communicated with hand gestures and short grunts, before the flies wore us down and sent us running back to the car.

With bush flies and the three most venomous snakes in the world to deal with, we were pleasantly surprised to see a conscious effort made to create a less hazardous environment inside. Restaurants, in particular, have an attention to detail that is missing in all but the higher dollar restaurants in the U.S. Maybe they are rebelling against a hick image, if such a term even applies, but food quality, presentation, and service were generally very good, even in the far flung outposts.

There is no tipping at restaurants in Australia, so, from our point of view, stiffing the waiter took some getting used to. As one of the few math skills that some Americans have, calculating a 15% tip is hardwired into our national consciousness.  It’s automatic. Even after eating in a half dozen restaurants, I still expected to hear the agitated voice of our waiter assail us each time we made our way to the door.

“Hey mates, did you forget something?”

We hadn’t, of course, and my confidence quickly grew to adapt to this and other cultural anomalies, particularly the ones that were in my favor. Matt, however, was harder to break. A week into our journey, and he still wanted to leave a tip: just a little something to show his appreciation for this grand, welcoming country.  At a restaurant in Broken Hill, I laid on the guilt and reminded him of the guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets that every Star Trek fan knows by heart. “But Matt,” I reminded him, “aren’t you are about to violate the Prime Directive?”

As a fellow Trekkie, Matt knew it well. The Prime Directive states: “When interacting with an alien civilization, (or, in our case, Australia), there can be no interference with its internal development.” By leaving just one tip, Matt was about to plant the seed that could lead to food server disenchantment, unionization, and violent government protests:  just the instability that subversive, sleeper cells were waiting for to propagate their heinous agenda across the continent. A continent that we had only come to observe.

He looked up at me and then back at the $2 Australian coin that he balanced on the table with the tip of his finger. He handled it like he would a tentative chess move while he weighed changing the course of history against providing a tip to someone who neither needed nor expected it. We got up to pay the bill and I circled back to our table to see if the coin was there.  Had it been, I would have scooped it up in full view of our waiter, my eyes telling him that I’m doing this for your own good. He would understand perfectly and return my look with a nod and ironic smile that said, Thank you, oh wise American. Balance has been restored. And then he’d turn and attend to his other tables.

We ate mahi mahi, calamari, Caesar salads, and steak sandwiches in sit-down restaurants, and our share of fish and chips, meat pies, spaghetti on toast, and buttered lettuce sandwiches in less formal, take-away establishments.  Our most surprising find was that every restaurant or café that we visited, no matter how small or isolated, had a commercial, barista-style coffee machine installed. There was the familiar hopper of black, oily-looking beans on top, and below it, an industrial strength machine that steamed, frothed, hissed, groaned and turned ground coffee into espresso and espresso-based drinks just like the ones on every big city street corner. Finding this in the outback was like discovering a bottle of wine and fruit basket waiting in your room at a Motel 6 – appreciated, but completely unexpected.  They were so ubiquitous that at any random café in the boonies of New South Wales, I could order a skinny vanilla, non-fat latte sprinkled with shade-grown nutmeg, and the barista behind the counter would only say, “What size?”

As it turns out, Australia and New Zealand have their own unique espresso specialties. My favorite is called a long black, made from a double shot of espresso added to hot water; it is like an Americano, but made so the espresso crema still floats on the surface. A variation is called a flat white which is served in a tea cup with steamed milk added on top, often swirled with artistic designs created at the whim of the resident barista. A simple, low-tech cup of drip coffee -- that is, boiling water poured over ground coffee beans -- was virtually impossible to find, and I didn’t have my first cup until I found it in Hungry Jacks (the Australian version of Burger King) at the Sydney Airport on the day we flew back to the U.S.

After finishing breakfast at the campsite, we consulted a map and began our search. Our method was a work in progress that became more refined as we became more successful. Not much rain had a fallen during the winter or spring, so, in general, so we had the best luck along the sides of roads where rainwater ran off and concentrated.

“Woo-hoo!” Lorrie shouted, after finding her first legume along the edge of the service road near our campground. Matt, our camp botanist-in-residence, identified it as one of the more than 85 species of Astragalus (pronounced like asparagus) that grow in Arizona. It was a struggling little tuft of gray-green leaves and no bigger than a fried egg. “I’ve got another one here,” Jeff called out from 50 feet ahead.

“And here are two more,” Lorrie said, not five minutes later.  “No, wait! There are two others right next to them.  Woo-hoo!” With five plants to her credit, she had raised the bar for the rest of us, so a friendly little competition developed. We kept our noses down and spread out, all vying to be the next to add to our total. I had yet to find my first, but I was willing to finish dead last if Lorrie would agree not to shout out that Homer Simpson woo-hoo every time she found a new one.

We used short rows of pebbles on the road to mark each plant that we found and then went back to collect a small percentage of mature pods, leaving enough for natural reproduction of the population. We placed the pods in small, manila-colored envelopes and labeled each collection with a unique identifying number, a GPS location, and the elevation. All together, we found 15 --


Make that 16 Astragalus plants, about half of which had pods. We also collected herbarium specimens of several representative plants to take back to the lab for positive identification.

On Friday, we received a tip about the possibility of more Astragalus possibilities in an open desert area close to the front entrance.  For these we used a search method usually employed by law enforcement professionals. We spaced out evenly in a straight line, and walked forward slowly, step by step, leaving no square foot of ground un-scrutinized. Mark attended to policing the formation.

“Kim, you’re walking too fast,” he said, waving me back into position. “And Jeff, where are you going? Move over more towards Matt.”

This might be the best method to find a shallow grave, a murder weapon, or what Lorena Bobbit pitched out her car window, but it takes away from the spontaneity and the thrill of stumbling upon a really cool plant completely by accident. In other words, it isn’t any fun. When we began to complain, Mark relented. “Okay, but I am teaching you a valuable technique here.”

“And we’re sorry that we are unable to appreciate it,” we said.

We broke rank and struck out on our own, hoping to show Mark that haphazard wandering would prove more successful than military precision. But, of course, it didn’t, so we moved on to easier quarry: a legume called camel thorn, an exotic invasive from Eurasia that grows by the thousands in the park. It is a naturalized, out-of-control population that not only near grew in great quantities near the road, but also through the road, forcing its way through four inches of asphalt like a photosynthetic drill bit. Charming, it isn’t, but it is yet to be represented in the Desert Legume Program’s seed bank, so we collected seeds and made herbarium specimens from the few that were flowering.

Matt plans to key-out (identify) the Astragalus that we collected – a grueling taxonomic task because of the sheer number of look-a-like plants in this genus. With any luck, he’ll be done in time to verify the identity of Astragalus nutriosensis, aka Nutrioso milkvetch, a rare , species of concern whose seed we plan to target in the next adventure that is planned for late July. 

Kim Stone

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Picket Fire at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Part 2

Sunday, May 8, 4:00 pm. The Picket Fire is 200 acres in size and growing fast.  

Arboretum staff members on site were now reduced to a core half dozen, paired off into three groups for safety. Mark Siegwarth was quarterbacking staff efforts and interfacing with Morgan, the Incident Commander (IC). Lynnea Spencer was in the Gift Shop monitoring the base station radio and handling telephone calls. Chris Spencer, now donning a bright yellow, official “Nomex” fire shirt, teamed up with Steve Smith to interface directly with fire fighters on the grounds.  Steve Carter and Jeff Payne double-checked that the dozens of widely dispersed irrigation valves around the grounds were shut off so that fire fighters would have maximum water availability to re-fill their trucks and fully charge their hoses.

While most fires are managed to protect fire fighter and public safety and to minimize damage to property and structures, the U.S. Forest Service was also aware of the uniqueness and importance of the Arboretum’s trees and other plants. Forest Service briefings for fire fighters included specific instructions to protect the Arboretum’s plant collections as an integral third leg of the top most important priorities.  “Buildings can be rebuilt,” Mark Siegwarth explained to one of the television news crews that descended upon the Arboretum on Sunday, “but all of the plants we planted in 1926, 1928, 1930 -- we can’t replace those.”

The anxiety shared by Mark and Lynnea was growing as they watched the distant flames above the High Trail appear to surge closer the south side of Queen Creek. “I can see the fire through the trees!” Lynnea exclaimed, looking through the Gift Shop window. What she couldn't see was that a twenty-foot embankment and a paltry thirty feet of rocky creek bottom was all that separated the approaching fire from a dozen of the oldest and largest trees in the Arboretum. Fire Management Officer Quentin Johnson would later say that there was a 95% chance of ignition if one of the thousands of floating embers made its way into the bone dry mixture of tamarisk and beefwood needles on the “collection side” of the creek.  

With things looking increasingly grim, Mark and Lynnea ran the short distance to the Smith Building and yanked cords, wires, and connectors from the two computers that contained our plant records database and the electronic versions of our historical images and documents. Should the worst case scenario occur – and it was looking like that might happen -- it would be a double tragedy to lose both our plant collection and the historical documentation and data that backs it up. As long as they moved quickly, Mark felt confident that they could make at least one trip safely. Between them, they grabbed the two computers, accession books, computer disks and whatever else their cumulative adrenalin and strength would allow them to carry. In less than ten minutes, they had lugged everything back to the Visitor Center on foot and loaded it all into a vehicle in the main parking lot. Computers in the administration office were also removed, ready to be driven off site. 

Morgan was keenly watching the potentially explosive scene develop above the High Trail from his command post in the overflow parking lot. Behind him, more engines and crews were still coming in the front gate. The larger body of the fire was spreading out and moving up the north-faces of Pancho Plateau and Picket Post Mountain, but his immediate attention was fixed on the fully engulfed vegetation burning at the doorstep of the Arboretum’s plant collections, just 200 yards away from where he was standing.  

It was nearly 6:00 pm now and another air tanker that Morgan had wisely ordered earlier was just minutes away. He also requested that two more be on standby, each ready to be loaded with fire retardant slurry and airborne within minutes of receiving the order. At full capacity, each of these planes can carry nearly ten tons of the thick pink liquid in their bellies.

Thick gray and black smoke continued to belch in irregular pulses as the fire  consumed one creosote bush and then another on the slope above the High Trail. Rounded plumes of smoke were pushed upstream by the wind, making the fire appear to be racing up the canyon. Morgan’s view from the parking lot was partially cut-off by the tall trees in the Demonstration Garden, so the high volume of smoke rising above the trees was all he had to go on in deciding his next move. “It was so hot and rolling,” Chris told me later, “that it must have looked to him like all of Queen Creek was on fire.”  

That was, in fact, the scenario that was now running through Morgan’s mind.  He ran the short distance to the Visitor Center and told Mark to radio Chris and Steve immediately. “Get them out now,” he told him. “It’s running again and we can’t vouch for their safety.” Mark quickly relayed the message to Chris and Steve who jumped into their golf cart, thinking, like the rest of us, that the fire had already made the transition into the crowns of our cultivated trees.

“Ember wash” is the term used by wild land firefighters to describe the burning embers that are the byproducts of an approaching fire, often preceding the fire’s leading edge by a wide margin.  They are either propelled by the prevailing wind, by convection from the fire itself, or a combination of both. These floating castoffs of incomplete combustion were launching from the west end of the high trail like the resultant splatter of water dropped into a pan of hot oil. Each ember was a lit match, floating dumbly but maliciously towards new fuels to colonize.

Morgan was able to confirm from the air that the fire had not spread as far up the canyon as he had feared, so he asked Chris to drive Johnny, one of the team leaders, onto the grounds with the golf cart to familiarize him  with trails, roads, water sources, and access points for fire vehicles. Once they had passed Mr. Big, they saw through the thinner patches of smoke that the fire had indeed moved up the canyon, but had paused for the moment, smoldering at the base of thirty-foot-tall rock face near the top of the ridge.

The fiercest, most threatening part of the fire was quickly consuming dense fuels on the hilltop just above the High Trial.  When Chris and Johnny arrived,  intense, creosote-fed flames generated volumes of expanding smoke and spit out embers that drifted into the higher branches of the red gum eucalyptus trees, ready to ignite one of the resinous leaves above their heads or free fall into the tinder dry leaf litter at their feet. Even worse, actual flame tips appeared to be licking the arching branches of the red gums that extended over Queen Creek, but it was impossible to tell for sure through the smoke. Johnny radioed Morgan and requested an immediate water drop.

A helicopter quickly responded with a full Bambi bucket freshly dipped from Ayer Lake. The pilot hovered over the hotspot, made a few brief adjustments to his position as he took aim, and then let loose with a perfectly placed water drop that knocked down the flames as if an airtight lid had been thrown over the fire. “It couldn’t have done it any better,” Chris said. The force of the water instantaneously transformed leaping flames in a harmless, pewter-colored mixture of steam and suspended ash that floated upstream with the wind. 

This direct hit on the most worrisome part of the fire proved to be as much of a psychological victory as it was a show of firefighting prowess. After seeing the flames snuffed out directly in front of them, Chris leaned over to Johnny and said, “We have a chance now.” Several successive water drops followed as the fire briefly flared, but the clear and present danger was over. In a conversation a few days later, both Chris and Morgan concurred that the suppression of this hot spot was a major turning point in the fight to save the Arboretum.

With clouds of smoky steam still roiling from the dowsed hotspot, the third slurry bomber that Morgan had ordered rumbled directly over Chris and Johnny’s heads as it made its first reconnaissance pass over Silver King Wash. Not wanting to be prettied in pink, they returned to the safety of the upper parking lot; Morgan verified that all the other firefighters and BTA staff were clear of the slurry’s intended path. At 6:18, the twin engine bomber came in low from the east, barely above the trees, and dropped its load from the Desert Legume Garden to the Outback Bridge and everything in between. With the Eucalyptus trees along the creek thoroughly covered in retardant, firefighters could now use Silver King Wash as a wide, safe corridor for a direct attack from the grounds if needed.

The southward encroachment of the fire had been slowed, and the Arboretum was much safer than it was thirty minutes ago, but the bulk of the fire to the south and west was still far from contained. The fire had come this far and this fast by using the spring season’s left-over and thoroughly-dry red brome grass as a fuse to bridge the gaps from plant to plant. With the strong south and southwest winds, fire quickly incinerated brittlebush and then moved on to ignite the woodier and hotter burning sub-shrubs like flat-top buckwheat, turpentine brush, snakeweed, and fairy duster, leaving nothing but dinner-plate size circles of white ash surrounded by a larger donut of charred black. The somewhat less flammable but more vulnerable pincushion cacti and, to a lesser extent, hedgehogs, were overwhelmed, victims of collateral damage.

As evening approached, the wind had diminished and flames were starting to lie down. The two helicopters continued dowsing hot spots until darkness grounded them. Firefighters worked through the night in Queen and Arnette canyons, but because of the treacherously steep south-facing slope of Picket Post Mountain, they allowed the fire to burn itself out when it ran into the base of the vertical rock bluffs that extend down from the summit. The fire burned up most of the western half of the north face of Pancho Plateau but never ran over the top.

The fire took a heavy toll on native vegetation. The boney, exposed frames of chollas were burned severely but the more densely growing prickly pears suffered less so, many showing signs of green life near the base.  Most barrel cacti were roasted a leathery-tan color but with a hopeful amount of insulated green tissue buried deep within the clefts of many of the ribs. Palo verdes look dead; mesquites and catclaws, because of their thicker bark, may have fared better. The only reliably fire-adapted plant in the Sonoran Desert is the jojoba; it was burned to various degrees of completeness but will re-sprout vigorously and reliably from the base in the coming year. Though the wind “fanned the flames” in the most literal sense, it also kept the fire moving so that it rarely lingered too long in any one area, hopefully sparing most of the larger saguaros.

By Monday morning at 8:00 am, the fire was considered 40% contained. The Arboretum remained closed until Tuesday as firefighters continued to establish and maintain control lines, deal with flare-ups, and begin the process of mopping-up. The fire was declared 100% contained early Tuesday with a total burned acreage of 1336 acres, 160 acres of which are Arboretum property.

While firefighters suppressed the last stages of the fire on Monday and Tuesday, Arboretum began using high pressure hoses and stiff brooms to scrub the surfaces that were unlucky enough to be rained down upon by thick globs of pink retardant from the three slurry drops. The iron oxide infused fire retardant was completely indiscriminant in where it landed: unprotected camera lenses, clothing, vehicles, asphalt, concrete, wood, hair, and bare skin were as splattered as the trees and plants for which it was intended. Without prompt removal, the residual pink droplets have the tenacity of those from a can of latex paint of the same color, often remaining visible for years. As a helpful side-effect, slurry is formulated as a fertilizer with added plant nutrients such as phosphorous, so that none of the “scrubbings” that washed away were wasted.

The fire was human caused, though the exact manner in which it began has yet to be determined.  The ignition point was several miles west of the Arboretum near a small, open area used for target shooting just off of Forest Road 231 near the Reymert Mine. It is littered with broken clay pigeons, shot gun shells, and other shell casings and is popular with shooting enthusiasts both locally and from the Phoenix area.  An investigation is ongoing.

A compliment of 90 firefighters in all capacities participated in battling the fire, and we thank each and every one of them with all of our hearts. 

Kim Stone

Image links:

Director's Epilogue
I hope from Kim Stone's retelling of the events you get a sense of what a harrowing ordeal the Picket Fire was for all of us at the Arboretum.  Although the firefighters had a plan to defend the Arboretum at the 20 yard line, it really did turn into a goal line stand and I cannot say enough about their professionalism and commitment to save the collection.  I also want to commend my staff, who not only performed heroically that day, but also over the last year. They cleared brush and debris from around the Arboretum and cut back the red brome that surely would have carried the fire into the Eucalyptus Forest if it had remained.

Kim's tale is how the small actions of many came together to great result.  In the next week or so, you will be receiving an appeal letter asking for your help.  Once again, the small actions of many can have a great effect for the Arboretum.  Although we have survived the worst freeze in memory in February and the Picket Fire consumed over a third of the Arboretum in May, (but not our collection), the Arboretum is now faced with a lack of water for its irrigation system.  To repair the water line may take over a month.  Until then, we are looking at other options to save the collection.  Although an early monsoon would help, it brings the added danger of lightning strikes and fire.  There is much to do and we could use your help. 

Of the lessons learned from the Picket Fire, three stand out.  First of all, our plant collection is the foundation of the Arboretum, irreplaceable and truly a treasure.  Secondly, being prepared is often the key to success, and finally, if we pull together, we can accomplish great things. 

Thank you for all your thoughts, concerns and support over the last year.

Mark Siegwarth
Executive Director   

Friday, June 3, 2011

Picket Fire at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Part 1

Sunday, May 8 was Mother’s Day, and over 500 visitors were either touring the Picket Post Mansion during the final day of the Open House, or just enjoying late spring in all its glory at the Arboretum. When the fire was first spotted, it was small -- as all fires are at the beginning-- and an unthreatening two miles west of the Arboretum. A visitor driving eastbound on Highway 60 reported the fire to Lynnea Spencer at the Gift Shop and Lynnea immediately called 911. Chris Spencer, who was running a van shuttle to transport visitors to and from Picket Post House, dropped off his passengers and drove westward on Highway 60 towards the fire to get a closer look and report back to Mark Siegwarth on the fire’s progression.  Soon after turning south onto Forest Road 231 (the road that links Highway 60 to Picket Post Trailhead), Forest Service engines and their attendant crews began to arrive, quickly catching and then passing Chris on the narrow dirt road.

When the engines pulled up to the scene, it was 12:30pm. The fire had been burning for about an hour and was four acres in size. The structural fire departments of Superior and Queen Valley were already at the site. The Forest Service had planned to fight the fire directly by anchoring and flanking it with water and hand tools, but, because of strong winds, the head of the fire was moving too quickly. They wanted to keep it south of FS 231 and the Picket Post Trailhead junction, but it was a “red flag day” with winds steady at 10mph, gusting to 30mph. These strong southwest winds caused the fire to “come flying across the road,” as Fire Management Officer Quentin Johnson from the Globe Ranger District put it, forcing the firefighters to pull back from their ridge.

This wild-land conflagration was now officially christened the “Picket Fire” by the U. S. Forest Service. Tom Morgan, from the Globe Ranger District, was appointed the Incident Commander (IC) to direct the tactical and logistical efforts in fighting the fire. Preferring to be called simply “Morgan,” we had no idea how much we would be relying on his skills and those of all of the other firefighters in the coming seven hours.

Several miles to the east, Mark Siegwarth was keeping tabs on the developing situation with a clear view of the fire from the promontory of Picket Post Mansion, as he and other staff and volunteers hosted the Open House.  Chris had just returned and reported that firefighters were on the scene and working the fire, and there did not appear to be any immediate danger to the Arboretum.  However, about a half hour later, Chris made another reconnaissance to the fire area and saw for himself what firefighters were now dealing with: The fire had increased to about 10 acres, more than doubling its size in 30 minutes, and was moving very close to Highway 60. Even more troubling, an eastward push of wind appeared to be driving the fire simultaneously towards the Arboretum. Chris raced back to the Arboretum to inform Mark and told him, “I think we have to do something. It’s coming our way.” At nearly the same instant, Superior police drove through the gate and gave Mark the same appraisal of the fire’s aggressive run towards our direction. With these two corroborating reports, Mark made the decision to evacuate the Arboretum. It was 1:30pm.

Staff reacted quickly by notifying all visitors throughout the grounds to immediately start walking towards their vehicles. The sense of urgency for everyone was palpable, reinforced by the increasingly visible smoke plume growing in the western sky. Picket Post Open House visitors either walked back to the parking lots via the Main Trail or were transported in our shuttle van. All of our trails and exhibits were systematically patrolled by BTA staff on foot or by golf carts and bicycles. Each staff member reported back to Mark Siegwarth by radio. The responses came in quickly. 

“Chihuahuan trail. Clear.”

“High Trail. Clear.”

“Picket Post House. Clear.”

“Main Trail. Clear.”

In a remarkable 35 minutes, all visitors were evacuated, leaving the main parking lot clear by 2:05pm and ready to receive the emergency and fire vehicles that were on their way as the fire spread eastward.

To many of the firefighters that began to arrive in the next half hour, the Arboretum was already a familiar place. In May of 2010, personnel from the Globe Ranger District spent two days assessing our fire readiness and helping us to develop a defensive, pre-attack fire plan. Together, we reduced fuel sources such as red brome grass on both sides of Queen Creek, and pruned trees along the creek that could carry fire across their canopies. We identified and improved fire barriers such as roads and trails, and created new barriers where they were needed.  Firefighters became familiar with our water sources, vehicle access points, trail systems, and our staff.  All this was done so that fire crews “could hit the ground running” if the unthinkable might ever come to pass. Now, just one year later, the Picket Fire was about to put the plan to the test.  

The fire had reached 15 acres by 1:30 and hit Highway 60 hard, crossing two wide asphalt lanes into the median. Firefighters had hoped to “burnout” areas in front of the fire to deny it fuel, but the gusty, erratic winds were moving the fire so quickly that they were forced into a more defensive posture of protecting motorists and structures along the highway, and people, collection plants and structures at the Arboretum. As firefighters began to pull back, Morgan, the IC, made the call to evacuate the Arboretum, not knowing that Mark had already given the order minutes earlier. Because of fire, smoke, poor visibility and to ensure firefighter and motorist safety, DPS and ADOT began the process of closing Highway 60. The road wouldn’t reopen again until five hours later.

With all visitors safely evacuated, Arboretum staff turned its efforts towards the five volunteers and staff members who lived in the residences on the west side of the Arboretum grounds and were directly in the path of the western flank of the approaching fire.  Propane and electric lines were disconnected from two recreational vehicles, one of which was safely towed into nearby Superior. The owners of the other motor home were away and couldn’t be reached. Their ignition keys couldn’t be found either, so Lacey Pacheco and volunteer Kate Griffith had no choice but to scoop up the dog and cat they found inside and take them home for the night. 

By 2:40, the fire had doubled in size again, reaching 30 acres as it continued to burn its way rapidly towards us.

Firefighters and equipment had begun to arrive in earnest after 3:00 and crews started to  burnout the fuels on the hillside that led from the shop and maintenance area up to the road that goes up and over water tank hill.  Steve Carter and his wife Ruth, along with their vehicles and pets, had now evacuated their residence (the house nearest the highway).  Arboretum and private vehicles were moved into the safety of the asphalt main parking lot, adding to the growing collection of emergency vehicles. The leading edge of the smoke plume could now be seen moving around the north side of water tank hill, aiming for a direct hit on Steve’s house and the front gate.

Fire crews had now completed their pullback  from the west and were maintaining a defensive position at the Arboretum. Morgan had a radio in one ear and cell phone in the other, barking orders to ground crews and maintaining radio contact with the approaching slurry bomber and helicopters he had ordered earlier. Chris Spencer, along with Steve Smith, acted as primary staff liaisons to the firefighters. They provided maps, and helped them to find water hydrants and negotiate the grounds with their vehicles and equipment. Chris and Steve used heavy equipment to cut a new fire break, at Morgan’s request, from the maintenance shop down to Queen Creek as an added fire barrier.

It was 3:25 and smoke was beginning to blow more heavily across the parking lot. “This,” Mark later described adroitly, “is when things began to get kind of hairy.”

The fire had already jumped Highway 60 to the north in numerous places, consuming a quarter mile of wooden guard rail posts as it moved precariously closer to us. Flames ignited the six inch plastic water line that carries irrigation water from our West well to the Ayer Lake, causing most of it to collapse, melt, and slowly burn for the next several days, leaving only a black “skid mark” on the ground to remind anyone that it ever existed.

Nearly horizontal flames shot across the back side of water tank hill and reached the west side of Steve’s house, briefly igniting old pine needles and eucalyptus leaves that had accumulated on the corrugated metal roof of his garage. That fire was quickly extinguished, as were the flames rising from plastic nursery containers, scraps of wood, and other combustibles that briefly caught fire around his house. 

From here, the wind-driven fire quickly sliced across the remaining 100 feet of distance to the west side of the main gate. It ran up the trunks of 20 feet tall date palms and ignited the fronds above. Equally valuable Mediterranean fan palms, large yuccas, agaves, and aloes, along with several shoestring acacias, beefwood trees, and other collection plants were severely blackened before the fire leaped across the highway to the north. With  collection plants still visibly on fire, a slurry bomber made its initial reconnaissance pass and then, about 3:35, dropped 2000 gallons of pink-red fire retardant (slurry) across the main parking lot, highway, and the south-facing slope to the north. With the consistency and color of Pepto Bismol, it hit its targeted plants, but also spattered asphalt, vehicles, and anything or anyone else along its path.  Because of this timely and accurate slurry drop, and quick work by firefighters, the plants at the front gate were the only accessioned collection plants that were lost or damaged during the fire. 

During this time, two helicopters were also actively flying the Picket Fire. They dipped their suspended  “Bambi” water buckets into Ayer Lake, and spent most of the afternoon crisscrossing the Arboretum, dousing hot spots with precise hits of 125 gallons of water. With the close proximity of Ayer Lake, roundtrips from water source to fire and back took pilots as little as five minutes. Guided by Morgan and other crew members on the ground, the quick turnaround time allowed the helicopters to hammer the fire hard with each release of their 1000-pound payloads of water.

Morgan called in another aerial tanker that dropped a second load of slurry further north to protect private residences that were located a quarter mile to the east. By 5:30, there were still hotspots, but the fire had slowed on the north side of the highway and the structures were no longer threatened. 

The more worrisome fire was now to the southwest, moving across the slopes of the Queen and Arnett Creek drainages. One particularly aggressive prong of the fire was racing unchecked up the hillside behind the far western portion of the High Trail. It topped out and ignited a thick stand of creosote bush, generating tall, crackling flames and high volumes of smoke.  Mark and Lynnea could see these flames from the Visitor Center, but they couldn’t accurately gauge the distance because of the many trees that partially blocked their view. Neither of them could rule out the possibility that the fire may have already jumped Queen Creek -- and moved into the Eucalyptus forest.

Kim Stone

Friday, March 18, 2011

March Madness

By mid-March, the annual spring awakening at the Arboretum is usually in full swing, and this year is no exception. Lengthening and warming days of spring stimulate an unstoppable force of expanding buds, emerging leaves, and opening flowers that once started, is difficult to keep up with. This is not the season of patience. Spring, especially early spring, is fast and it's furious -- and then it's gone. If you're a gardener, a horticulturist, a landscaper, a bird migration follower, or a wildflower enthusiast, spring starts out of the blocks at full speed and sprints to the finish like a runaway steamroller.  

If we rewind back to early February, spring just couldn't come fast enough. The toll that the frost took on many of our tender plants seemed to look a little worse every day for the first few weeks. Leaves that we thought might have survived soon turned  brown with a Saltine cracker crunch, and many of our most sensitive aloes had the look and consistency of a boxful of month-old bananas. Finally, in the first week of March, both dormant and damage plants began the welcome spring emergence from their winter funk. By mid-March, a large mass of Tazetta Narcissus bulbs were flowering in the Demonstration Garden, and there was no doubt that the game was on. March's march had begun.   

Now, near the beginning of the third week in March, the jig is up, and the springtime flood of new growth and rapid-fire flowering is upon us whether we're ready for it or not. Dormant plants are budding, bulbs and wildflowers are blooming, and many damaged plants are surprising us with their resilience. The plants have received their official wake-up call, which means that we have to follow suit. A visit to the Arboretum from now through April will yield just about as much springtime bounty as you can handle. But don't take my word for it.

Kim Stone

Friday, March 4, 2011

A poem inspired by the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

The Deep Frozen Desert

Beneath the ice light of the northern sky
in a mountain six hundred miles
from the nearest tree,
where frost runs deep into stone
and the only star is a signal
from a disappeared world

the seeds of a desert go along
the blue tunnel for storage
in a vault where they wait
for springtime to flower
from snowdrift and memory.
Here is mesquite and a crystal
of cold to preserve it; here

are prickly pear and sage
held in trust for the day
when the sun reappears; here
are agave and ironwood labeled
with ink that glows in the dark
like each golden segment
in the scorpion’s tail

and the hourglass of fire
on the spider who crawls
between the stacks
of silver packages bearing
the indestructible seal
of night-blooming hope.

                                    David Chorlton, Phoenix, Arizona
                                    February 2011

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Biosphere 3

"The Biosphere,” as most of us call it, is a highly-oxidized, gray Dodge Aspen, proudly manufactured by the Chrysler Corporation in 1977, and driven by Arboretum Lead Groundskeeper Becky Noth.

Becky isn’t proud of it, but neither is she ashamed. It is what it is and that’s what makes it special. Its condition is the direct result of balancing her love for plants with the reality of working two jobs and taking care of an ill spouse. Combined, they leave her little time to rein in the inevitable chaos that results. It’s a good thing, then, that nature is a big fan of chaos. Diversity, complexity, and a tangled web of intermingling components are at play here, all piled high on the red vinyl upholstery of The Biosphere. This vehicle stands proudly as a monument to what we should all be promoting, or at least thinking about.

The car isn’t really a complete biosphere; it’s more of a desert biome, lacking only the life-giving water that brings all deserts to life. Rusted but sturdy metal, closed windows, and bags of every kind stuffed to capacity keep thousands of seeds and seed pods warm, dry, and secure inside. Each accumulated stem, leaf, pod, branch, flower, and root in the Biosphere is bone dry and bleached to the color of standing corn in December. And because no water is ever added, the contents have the potential to remain that way, perhaps for decades, within the confines of what would otherwise be a decent greenhouse environment.

The Biosphere has not evolved over the years to be just a sedan full of dormant, desert ecology, it also serves to fuel the hopes and aspirations of an individual who has surrounded herself with a botanical world that she has every intention of eventually processing, planting, or transforming into something beautiful. Nothing in the Biosphere is arranged; rather, it’s pre-arranged, like a future marriage, but without all the monogamy and long-term commitment. “Someday, I’ll get to it,” she says.

Naysayers have unfairly judged this vehicle by its outward appearance and its contents, sometimes citing its poor resale value, or worse, labeling it as abandoned or a candidate for spontaneous combustion. What they don’t realize is that by bringing nature’s handiwork and its products with her wherever she goes, Becky has created a mobile metaphor for the rest us. Sure, there are some issues with finding room for human passengers, but any car can carry people.

My feelings for this car are like the ones I have for my parents who live a few thousand miles away -- I don’t see them that often, but it’s still comforting to know that they’re there. When Becky told me that she was considering cleaning out the Biosphere, I felt a nostalgic lump form in my throat that nearly brought me to tears. “You can’t,” I said. “Not now. Not ever.” Its familiar presence has always had a steadying influence on me. The Biosphere is an iconoclast on wheels. A reservoir of good intentions. While most of us export the natural and unnatural world from our cars, the Biosphere is a net importer, and Becky is content to allow it to be the vacuum that nature abhors.

As with any historic event, my professional reaction to the dismantling of the Biosphere was to grab my camera and document everything in its original, undefiled state. On the sun-split, red vinyl dashboard, there were Aloe and Iris pods for a future dried plant arrangement, an empty apple sauce container filled with basil seeds, several Brachychiton pods, a small bundle of dried plantain flowers, and a Tupperware container half full of day-old orange peels.

The passenger and rear seats were piled high with black plastic plant trays, pots, paper bags full of seeds, thorny branches, dried Penstemon flower stalks with seed pods still attached, feathers, red chili pods, amaranth flowers wrapped in newspaper, a foam minnow bucket, drift wood, and a dried ocotillo branch that she never got around to rooting, “Whatever is on top is the newest,” she explains. With a shovel and ten minutes of work, there was nothing on the passenger seat and floor that couldn’t be shifted to allow a non-discriminating passenger a few square feet to squeeze in. I would be proud to sit there.

An automobile isn’t just about alloy wheels, leather, and German engineering – though these things help – and it isn’t only about getting from point A to point B as quickly, or as efficiently, as possible. There are higher ideals at work in the Biosphere, like love, hard work, and respect, powered by the raw materials of optimism and hope. If it becomes just another car with comfortable seating for five, the Arboretum will have lost far more than a fire hazard. It will have lost part of its soul.

Kim Stone

Friday, January 28, 2011

Arboretum boot camp

Two days before he was to ship out to Army boot camp, my son walked the Main Trail at the Arboretum. It wasn’t a “nostalgia tour,” though there is a long history of Arboretum visits while he was growing up. It was more about doing something on his last weekend of civilian life that was less prone to catastrophic injury than riding his motorcycle or snowboarding, which were his first two choices.

While most visitors consider Arboretum staff members to have the coolest job ever, my adolescent son has contrary opinions. This means that the memories of his visits are restricted to the first dozen years of his life when he was less judgmental and still willing to accompany me to work. Even then, he was never particularly enthused.  Growing up in a working class town, dads were supposed to drive lifted, four-wheel-drive trucks, drink Bud Light, hunt, work in the mines, and spit a lot. I don’t do any of these things and so he has always considered me and my job as a horticulturist to be lame. “Face it,” he says. “You are so gay.”

Having actively participated in a two decade, heterosexual relationship that has produced two children -- one of whom is my accuser -- I considered his comment to be a little naïve. But, of course, he didn’t mean it that way. He would hardly recognize the word “gay” if it were used in its classic sense, as in the line “gay happy meetings” from the song It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.  And he also wasn’t referring to the common and widely accepted use that defines gay by contrasting it with its functional opposite, straight.  His intended meaning is what the Urban Dictionary defines as someone who is “stupid or unfortunate.”  In other words, I rated as the worst source of embarrassment: a father who is a wine sipping, fuel efficient, plant-lovin’ non-spitter.

It was a spur-of-the-moment trip, the kind of diversion that doesn’t grant enough time for pre-conceived notions or attitudes to gain a head of steam. He was relaxed and memories just sort of popped into his head as we walked.

“I think I saw that kid’s name carved in the tree back there,” he said to me, grinning.

He was referring to a graffiti incident that happened during a tour that I was leading for my daughter’s class about ten years ago when she was in junior high. One of the kids snuck around the back of a large diameter red gum near Mr. Big and used the stiff quill of a Turkey Vulture feather – remarkably similar to the one that I had just demonstrated seconds earlier -- to carve J-U-S-T-I-N into the soft white bark.  When I discovered it later that day, I was livid and you couldn’t shut me up about it.  Even though the tree shed the bark that was carved, the incident still needles me. And he knows it.

He remembered the collection of 100 crayfish that we had trapped from Ayer Lake and laid out in five neat rows on a concrete slab for a group photo in 2002. We were in the midst of a crayfish eradication program at the time, and we thought that if we framed the resultant photograph and hung it over the lake, the remaining 95,000 would take the hint and surrender voluntarily. Needless to say they didn’t, and we ended up trapping over 25,000 the hard way before we finally gave up.

He noticed the missing boojum tree that died in 2004 and wondered what happened to it. He couldn't remember its name and so, like I've done a hundred times before, I seized on a learning opportunity. I told him that Mexicans call it a “cirio” (candle), botanists call it Fouquieria columnaris, but most Americans know it as a boojum tree because of Godfrey Sykes, a researcher from the Desert Laboratory in Tucson who named it on a trip to Mexico in 1922. "Thanks for that," he responded. "But what happened to it?"

"It died."

We watched the coots paddling in the shallows of Ayer Lake and he asked if we still had the Gila top minnows and Sonoran pup fish. We used the Faul Suspension bridge as a wooden trampoline and leaned over the Benson Outback bridge to look at the 25 feet tall Eucalyptus trees along Silver King Wash that I planted when he was only eight years old.

And no Arboretum visit would be complete without a ride in one of the golf carts. These after-hours jaunts are some of his most vivid memories and definitely rank near the top of the non-gay perks of being the son of an Arboretum staff member.

Connor’s plane landed in Atlanta on January 26, Australia Day, and the first text I received from him was “They have those African statues from the Arboretum at the airport.” He was referring to the Chapungu Exhibit that we hosted from 2002-2003. He was only 11 years old at the time, but there were 66 statues installed throughout the grounds, and at least one of them must have made an impression. I still have his message on my cell phone, and I plan to keep it for a while longer. It has become the last “official” memory that we will share for some time to come.

Kim Stone

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Awesome revisited

Mark Zuckerberg, founder, CEO, and president of Facebook – and now Time magazine’s Man of the Year – summed up the movie The Social Network by saying that, when it came to portraying his life,  Hollywood fundamentally missed the point. He didn’t use money, girls, and access to parties and clubs as the drivers to develop Facebook, nor does he consider such things to be the spoils of its continuing success. Instead, as he puts it in Time, the real motivator is the fact that he thinks “it’s an awesome thing to do.”

Subtract a few billion dollars, and the parallels of his successful personal philosophy and those of the staff at Boyce Thompson Arboretum are closely bound. In fact, career plant professionals in general are notorious for their single-minded commitment to plants, often to the exclusion of what others would consider to be a more typical family enterprise.  Not only is power, money, and attending all the right parties not important, neither are the normal imperatives to be fruitful and multiply. It’s amazing how many “plant people” I have known through the years who have chosen to remain single, or are divorced, or, if still married, then voluntarily childless.

At first, I thought that it was an anomaly; that my circle of acquaintances was small and I needed to get out more. But the more widely I travel, the more I am convinced that there is something about plants that, in certain individuals, turns on either a monastic or an addictive gene. For them plants graduate from simple objects of affection – a geranium in a clay pot on the front porch, a 20 year old pothos draped over an end table in the living room – to hundreds or thousands of life-consuming tenants that require daily care and maintenance, leaving little room for a normal life.

For these people, plant-a-holism often affects them at an early age, but others are struck down in the prime of life. Broken lunch dates are the first signs, then emails go unanswered, and finally, brief cell phone conversations become one-sided Latin rants about some endangered subspecies of pincushion cactus found only on a lonely, south-facing hillside in Texas. The terminal stage usually involves the purchase of a distant tract of land and a double-wide trailer, the drilling of a well, and the establishment of a plant nursery. The plants grown are generally unusual plants, either in species or size, and reflect the particular grower’s affliction. It’s a maddening scenario for those of us who want to buy these plants, because the only affordable land is usually a half day’s drive – one way – from just about anywhere.

In all fairness, only a few of the staff at Boyce Thompson Arboretum can be considered to be pathologically plant-centric. What we all share, though, is the willingness to spend our working lives nurturing the thousands of plants that we grow – not because of the vast material gains that we know we’ll never receive -- but because it’s an awesome thing to do.

Kim Stone