Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Curing Green Olives with Lye





Ingredients and utensils for curing olives with lye:
·         A few pounds of fresh-picked green olives.
·         A small bottle of 100% pure lye (sodium hydroxide).
·         A quart of white vinegar.
·         Two containers of plain non-iodized salt.
·         Herbs and spices. (optional)
·         A couple of 2-gallon-sized plastic food containers with lids.
·         A plastic gallon-sized pitcher for measuring water.
·         Plastic measuring spoons and plastic stirring utensil.  (Never use metal containers or spoons when dealing with lye. Lye reacts to metal, especially aluminum, and is dangerous and potentially poisonous!)
·         A few small squares (12”) of clean cloth.

     For years I have lived in the vicinity of olive trees and yet have never cured olives. It seemed to be a complex, time-consuming affair and I didn’t personally know anyone who cured them. But this year, in early November, I noticed that here at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, our olive trees were loaded with fruit. Some cultivars had small olives, some had large. Most were green, although some were black. Why let them go to waste?  I started calling around for recipes and scanning the Internet for further information. Native food-expert Jean Groen even came out to Boyce Thompson Arboretum to give me a few tips.

     Unlike most fruit which you can easily make into jam or jelly, the fruit from the olive tree is incredibly bitter and must have unpalatable compounds, such as oleuropein, removed. (I can’t help but be curious as to what the evolutionary advantage is in having such a profusion of extremely bitter fruit. Are there any animals that eat these straight off the tree?)To remove these compounds you can use the tried and true way of soaking or covering the olives for weeks in salt or you can be fairly quick about it and use lye. (Dark olives are usually cured with salt and I’ll get into that in the next feature.)


Sometimes ya gotta take risks.
     
 The word “lye” should strike a note of concern among the literate, especially if one considers that there is a lye-based product called “Draino”, which should never be considered a kitchen condiment. Yet, 100% pure lye (sodium hydroxide) is precisely what is used in curing olives. My search for 100% lye took me away from the comfort of a grocery store, which had no lye (no lie!), to the well-lit aisles of an Ace Hardware store, which had what I needed.  There is something disconcerting about finding a substance you are going to use in food preparation in the plumbing section of a hardware store. And what made it all the more worrisome is that the small bottle of granulated lye had a bold warning of “poison!” emblazoned with skull and crossbones. I made sure that the ingredients said only “sodium hydroxide”. The skull seemed to be smiling at me. Should I smile back? Yes, yes I should.
          


      At the Arboretum, I carted a ladder out to the olive trees and started picking. I kept three olive varieties separated in three different baskets – large green, small green, and small black. After about an hour or so, I had easily collected around 3 or 4 pounds of large green olives, and a couple pounds each of the small green and black olives. I did not collect any olives that seemed too soft, wrinkled, or damaged in any way. You will note that in the photographs, the small green olives have just a little darkening…a blush if you will…while some of the small black olives have a little green on them. (Except with lye, I’m not much of a purist.)
The large green olives.
      So the segregated small and large green olives were rinsed. I had two large (two-gallon size) clean plastic storage containers (with lids!) and a one gallon pitcher to measure the water. Also, nearby I had a cup of white vinegar just in case I splashed myself with some of the concentrated lye solution. Apparently the vinegar helps render the lye less caustic. I will point out here that various publications suggest you wear some safety glasses and a long-sleeved shirt while preparing the lye.  Do keep a sample raw olive of each kind OUT of the lye bath as you will want to compare the color of a treated olive with that of a raw one. 

     The recipe called for one gallon of cold water (not warm!) in a plastic container. Never use metal pots to hold the lye water, especially aluminum, which would basically poison you. So, use food grade plastic which means any plastic container you can store food in. Use a measuring spoon, again PLASTIC not metal, and measure out 3 tablespoons of lye granules to the water. This is the potentially most dangerous part of the operation so don’t be splashing the water when you add the lye. When the lye has been added to the water, use a plastic or wooden spoon to slowly and carefully stir the lye until it’s completely dissolved in the water. The lye will warm up the water a bit, so wait a few minutes before putting the olives in. Once the lye has been thoroughly mixed, the solution is not nearly as deadly because the lye has been diluted. You still shouldn’t splash the water on yourself, but you should also not freak out if it gets on your hands. Simply pour a little of that vinegar on your hands and rinse it off. 

     Carefully add the olives without splashing too much. Remember that you want to keep the olives segregated by size. You don’t mix little olives with big olives because they cure at slightly different rates. In my case, the small olives went into one container, the big olives into another. The olives will tend to float at first so take a scrap of clean cloth and place it on top of the water. It will keep the olives submerged. Once the olives and covering cloth are in the lye bath, put the lid on the container and ignore it for a few hours. After, say, 5 hours, take a plastic (not metal!) mixing spoon and slide it under the cloth to stir the olives a little. You just want to be sure that all sides of all the olives are well-exposed to the lye bath. After this, cover the olives again. Let them soak in the lye bath for a total of 12 hours or so. After twelve hours you will want to remove an olive and slice a wedge out of it to see if the lye has penetrated down to the pit. Compare it to a wedge you cut out of the “sample” raw olive that you left out of the bath. It’s a bit difficult to tell because, no matter what, the olive “meat” next to the pit is always a bit lighter in color than the outer flesh. But you can see that all of the inner flesh is not white/green in color like a raw olive. Don’t stress too much about exact coloration next to the pit. The main thing is that you want to see some color differentiation compared to a raw olive. The idea here is to give the lye bath time to work its way down to the pit.

     Okay, in the case of my olives, 12 hours just didn’t seem quite long enough. The inner olive that I sampled out of the batch still looked too light.  That meant I had to create a whole new lye bath for both batches. And that meant I had to first mix another gallon of cold water with 3 tablespoons of lye. Once that was mixed, I drained the old lye bath off of the olives and quickly covered them with the new. One thing you don’t want to do is leave the olives uncovered by liquid for any length of time. By exposing the olives to air, they begin to turn dark. I don’t know if this affects the taste of the olives, but they tend to look bruised. So, allow very little exposure to air while you prepare a new lye bath.
The olives in the first lye bath.
     Once the olives have been covered with the new lye bath, check them once every 4 hours. Again, by “checking on them”, I mean you remove a sample olive and slice a wedge out it to check on the inner flesh. Then toss that sliced olive in the garbage. Oh, and don’t even think about tasting it straight out of the lye bath! With my olives, I waited another 8 hours (for a total of 20 hours) before emptying the lye bath of the small olives and then covering them with plain cold tap water for soaking. The larger green olives stayed in the lye bath for a total of 24 hours. After I was satisfied that the olives had been lye-cured through and through, I poured the lye down the sink drain and covered the olives with cold tap water. Then, three or four times a day for the next 5 days, I poured off the “old” tap water and replaced it with fresh tap water. The water draws off the lye. You will see that for the first couple of days, the water will quickly grow cloudy and brown. But by the fourth or fifth day, the water will remain clear. You want to keep changing the water until it no longer gets cloudy and stays clear. Am I clear about that? 

You can see the inner flesh will always be lighter.
     After approximately 5 days, when the water stays clear, prepare a gallon of brine. This is where the salt comes in. Combine one gallon of cold water with ¾ cup of non-iodized salt. Mix it thoroughly and then pour it over the freshly strained olives. Again, you might want to put a clean cloth scrap on top of the water to hold down any floating olives. Let the olives soak in that salt solution for one full week.

     There are a couple of things to note here. First of all, allow the olives to soak in this brine solution somewhere cool and out of direct sunlight. Second of all, after two or three days, open the lid and peer in. Do you see any mold? If you see a little mold, spoon it off the surface. If you start seeing a lot of mold, the batch of olives may be contaminated and you will have to discard it. In my olives, there was no mold whatsoever.

     After a week of the first brine solution, prepare a new gallon of brine, but this time you are using a full cup of non-iodized salt. Mix it well. You can even throw in some dry herbs or pepper or mustard seeds. When this new heavier brine is made, pour off the old brine and pour in the new. You can also go ahead and taste your first beautifully cured olive. Deeelish! With the new salt bath, let the olives soak for one more week. Do keep your eye out for any weird moldy growth. If you’ve been clean in your preparations and have not exposed the olives to too much air, you shouldn’t have much of a problem with mold. Like I said, I had no problem at all and you probably won’t.

     After that second week of brining the olives, they are ready to keep refrigerated in smaller jars of brine for a couple of months. They are perishable now and should be eaten over the next few weeks. Give any excess amount to friends who will, undoubtedly remember you in their wills. 

     Finally, if the olives are too salty for your taste straight out of the brine, you can soak a few for an hour to remove much of the salt. But if you do that, those olives need to be eaten within a couple of days. Without the salt, they won’t stay preserved for any length of time. What I do is soak the olives in water for an hour, drain the water, and then stir in a little olive oil and Balsamic vinegar. Tasty!



The end result after three weeks.


written by T. Stone


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Ah, crap.




A bird let loose on the windshield of my almost new car. It was a direct hit, falling vertically but then spreading along my sloping windshield and driver’s side door. The cappuccino-colored slop that hit the asphalt next to the car was dispersed into about five perfectly round drops. But because of my car’s sloped surfaces, the other half a cup created smears five times as long as wide, forming patches shaped like a child’s projectile vomit that fell short of the john. It smelled like it, too, but had it been fresh and moist, rather than the consistency of dried mud, it would have been both disgusting and insulting. Yes, insulted is how I felt. With at least six other cars in this particular row, why mine? What I had I done? Who, or what, had I wronged?

Add to all this, the irony. This was the day of the Bye-bye Buzzards festival, and the most likely defecator(s) had flown off for the day’s hunt several hours earlier. The volume of excrement pointed to a larger bird, and the Turkey Vultures are the largest of them all. Maybe one of them was giving a symbolic sendoff, stating, in no uncertain terms, “See you next year, sucker.” That was my working hypothesis, until Tammy mentioned that, in the past, she’s seen a disproportionately large load come out of a perched White-winged Dove. With its dainty round head—far disproportionate in size to its much larger, sleek gray body—a dove doesn’t look smart enough to poop on the best looking car in the parking lot, but still, I couldn’t rule it out.

I feared that the uric acid might damage my paint, so I grabbed a few paper towels and a quart mason jar full of hot water, and wiped away most of the now-crusty excrement. I don’t know what made me look up, but directly over my head, flying casually, was a single Turkey Vulture. He could have been mocking me, but his facial expression was indistinct against the clouds. Like most criminals, I assumed that he had returned to the scene of the crime. I grasped the soiled paper towel in my fist and shook it in the air, cursing the accuracy of his aim, and the efficiency of his GI tract. I caught myself wishing that the celebratory buzzard cake that was served to visitors several hours earlier had been made from real buzzards. 

But this evil thought brought me full circle. The evidence was circumstantial, at best. Even if I brought every one of the thirty that comprised our roosting flock in for questioning, they’d probably invoke “the cathartic code” and conspire to come up with thirty solid alibies. So, I let it go and climbed into my car for the ride home, happy that I had a roof over my head. 

~kws

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

An Appreciation of McKusick Tiles


A few of the many tiles displayed at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.
The McKusicks in their studio, 1950s.

(This article is based on a recent visit with the McKusicks at their home.)
      At Boyce Thompson Arboretum, when a visitor walks to Ayer Lake, he or she will notice displays of decorative tiles inside the two gazebos. On closer inspection, one recognizes that the tiles illustrate an array of animal life, mostly birds, which can be seen in the park. What isn’t apparent is the special history and combined talent that created these unique tiles.
     Bob and Charmion McKusick live in a small home up a side canyon near Globe, Arizona. They have lived and worked out of this home since 1954. The house is filled with sixty years of research and production. Ceramic art, stained-glass, mosaics, quilted tapestries, and paintings decorate every room, along with books, photographs, and other evidence of the creative life. Now octogenarians, the McKusicks have slowed down, but they haven’t stopped. They continue to be curious with and engaged in the world around them.
     Bob McKusick was born in California but raised around the Miami/Globe area. In 1945, when he was fifteen, he lost his left hand in an accident. This disability could have harmed his future prospects for a career, but a year later an uncle introduced him to a life in ceramics.  He ended up at the University of Arizona in Tucson studying chemical engineering and fine arts.
     Charmion was raised in Illinois, spending much of her time with an Austrian farm family who served as caregivers during her school days. As a young adult she wanted to study anthropology which was, like many occupations at the time, not usually taught to women. But one school would teach her and that was the University of Arizona. She eventually became an ethno-zoologist specializing in avian studies and has written many papers on, primarily, bird bones found at southwest archeological digs. As for meeting Bob she says that in 1949, “I got off the train from Illinois at 7 in the morning and met Bob at 7 in the evening on the same day at a freshman mixer. He walked right up to me and asked me to dance.” That was the beginning of a relationship that has lasted 64 years.
     From 1952-54, while living in Tucson, Bob and Charmion started a business called Gila Pottery where they made various ceramic products such as ashtrays and tiles. The McKusicks sold their work at the Desert House of Crafts on N. Campbell Avenue.  They became friends with Ted DeGrazia and helped him build his studio in north Tucson.  In fact, they lived at the DeGrazia studio for over a year. “DeGrazia was a partner in crime,” Charmion said with a smile.
     It was at this time that Tucson’s housing market boomed. The desert was put under the bulldozer’s blade and burnt-adobe houses were quickly being built. With population growth came a demand for regional decorative art. Even though their ceramics business grew, the McKusicks were gravely concerned with what was happening to the desert and its wildlife.  Charmion: “We thought that the environment was disappearing before our eyes.” That was the impetus for the animal tiles that the McKusicks are best known for. “We wanted to make a permanent record of what they (the vanishing wildlife) looked like,” said Bob.
     In 1954, Bob and Charm moved to Globe and started the McKusick Mosaic and Tile Company.  Not only did they make small tiles with animal designs, but with the help of Native American artists, made tile designs of Indian dancers and symbols. They also made 12” floor tiles. As Desert Magazine wrote in its April 1967 edition, “Many homes in the exclusive Paradise Valley area are paved with McKusick floor tile.” And it is here where I want to point out a most salient aspect of what the McKusicks were doing. The ceramic products they produced were made entirely from the raw clay that they dug out of the Pinal Mountain foothills. The grog they used as an additive to make the clay less prone to warpage in the kiln firing was made from the milled schist found around their home. In other words, these artists manufactured all of their ceramics from scratch. This is an amazingly rare and laborious way to make ceramics and was done solely for economic reasons. “It was cheaper for me to make the clay than it was for me to have it shipped to Globe,” was how Bob rationalized it. Because he knew no one else making their own clay, he had no guidelines. “We sort of ad-libbed,” he said.
     In general, Charmion’s job was to draw out the designs, etch the molds for the tiles, and apply the glazes. Bob would make the clay, press the tiles, develop and mix the glazes, and fire the kiln.
    The McKusick studio attracted plenty of visitors. Even “futuristic” architect Paolo Soleri showed up in the mid-50s inquiring about the clay. Since that visit, the ceramic bell production of both Cosanti and Arcosanti still depends exclusively on the same clay deposits that the McKusicks used.

   The life of art and craft, for most of those who practice it, is not nearly as romantic and carefree as one might imagine. It is hard work, seasonally unreliable, and, at times, horribly frustrating. Even with a steadily growing business, the McKusicks took on temporary jobs, such as teaching, to augment their incomes. As Bob pointed out, “Well, you don’t get rich making tiles.”  Besides maintaining their business and home, the McKusicks also had children to raise.
 And goats. Ah, the goats. At one time they owned twenty goats for milk and meat.

“The goats are what kept us alive!” Charmion exclaimed. “I grew our vegetables and (the goats) provided our milk and cheese. Bob would bring a bag of flour and baking powder and bacon. And that was about it. This business of subsistence farming is a lot of work and you have to be young to do it.”
     Even as they struggled at times to get by with tile manufacturing, they also managed to complete many public art projects. They were commissioned by the Navajo Nation to make two 12’ square wall panels representing sand paintings.  They made a mural and mosaic tables for the Paradise Valley Country Club in Scottsdale. There is work they did at the Globe courthouse. And, over the years, they have done mosaic panels, a mosaic ceiling, and sculpture for the St. John’s Episcopal Church in Globe.  “St. John’s is our crowning glory,” Charmion told me as she showed me the church’s colorful interior and exterior decorations. And off Highway 60, west of Miami, at the Mountain Breeze Memorial Gardens, one can go to the back of the cemetery and find an 8’ tall concrete and mosaic panel (erected in 1964) of “Our Lady of Guadalupe” slowly weathering away. It is an astounding piece of folk art.
     But it is the wildlife tiles that I think are the lasting legacy of the McKusicks’ creative output. Over a forty year period (1954-1996) Bob and Charmion (and later with help from their daughter Kathy) produced around 300 different designs replicated on tens of thousands of individual tiles. (“Eighty thousand?” I asked Charmion. “That would be a conservative number,” she responded.) Wrens, swallows, frogs, deer, orioles, crayfish, dragonflies, black bears, and dozens upon dozens of other animals found clear illustration on these durable handmade tiles.  Visitors to Arizona purchased these pieces as reminders of the desert that they had vacationed in. It was a little bit of the wilderness that they could feel comfortable bringing home with them.
     But now the tiles are no longer made. They haven’t been made for almost twenty years and there aren’t many places besides Boyce Thompson Arboretum where you can still see them. If you go to the Sabino Canyon Visitor’s Center in Tucson, the tiles are featured in nature displays there. If you are driving through Miami, Arizona, you can stop by the Bullion Plaza Cultural Center to see the largest display of work from the McKusick Studio, containing around a hundred tiles. And you might see a few pieces for sale on eBay. That’s about it.
“What were the popular tiles?” I asked. Almost in unison the McKusicks responded “Roadrunners and quails. They were the first ones we did.” As an aside, Bob said “We called them our streetwalker birds.”
“I don’t know how many different quails and roadrunners we made over the years,” Charmion commented. “Ravens don’t sell. People don’t want bugs, they don’t want frogs, they don’t want lizards.”
Bob added “People don’t buy rattlesnakes.”
Charmion raised an eyebrow, saying “Anything I liked, didn’t sell.”
“But what are your favorite tiles?” I asked.
“The tortoise, the burrowing owl, and the raven,” said Charmion.
“The cardinal and the raven,” said Bob.
“I would’ve gone for the rattlesnake and the raven,” said I, “but not the quail.”
We nodded together knowingly; certain animals, like regional art, aren’t always fully appreciated.

(written by T.Stone)

Some of the tiles on display at the Bullion Plaza Cultural Center in Miami, Az.
Charmion and Bob at home.










Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Pinal Peak - August 3rd, 2013




        It is that time of the summer when the “fungi hunter” in me needs to be freed. Arizona, being the arid place it mostly is, has relatively few places to hunt for mushrooms - namely the tallest mountains - and you have to wait for the right temperatures and rainfall to trigger mushroom availability.
     I live in Superior which isn’t very close to any tree-lined mountain. I have to drive over an hour to be atop the Pinals or the Sierra Anchas. There are no weather reports that I’m aware of that will let me know if rain has fallen on those specific mountains. It can be raining in or around Globe and still, by some twisted poor luck, the Pinals will be dry as a bone. You probably don’t suffer from mycophilia, but those of us who do will take a chance on a dry mountain just to see if anything fungal is sprouting. We will go against logic. We will laugh off our doubts. We are willing to take a chance for just a slight possibility that we may find some interesting specimen of mushroom pushing up through a forest’s leaf litter. Mock us if you will, but we don’t care. We’re a proud people.
     Anyway, I was on one of those illogical forays to check on mushrooms as I drove toward the Pinal Mountains. “They might have gotten some rain somewhere up there,” I muttered to myself.  “What if…what if I found morels in the burn area?” You may not know it, but that was truly wishful thinking on my part. I would have about the same chance for finding a unicorn or a sasquatch as finding a morel in August. “A sasquatch would be pretty nifty,” I thought.
     I began the twelve mile drive up FR 651 towards Pinal Peak. This narrow winding dirt road is in pretty good condition. Not too many wash-boarded sections. Not too many huge rocks to tear at your vehicle’s undercarriage. It’s dusty, to be sure, but mostly quiet, with little traffic. I felt as though I had the entire mountain to myself.
     The Pinal Mountains are interesting in their ruggedness and in the fact that they have been well-abused by ranchers, off-roaders, and even the United States government for decades. In the mid-1960s, our government used a portion of the Pinal foothills to test Agent Orange in preparation for its wide-spread use in Vietnam.  The cancer-causing aftereffects worked their way down Kellner Canyon and into the lives of the people who lived in the foothills and depended on water from the area. I’m not overly concerned about being poisoned there, but you won’t see me eating any of the manzanita fruit that grows along those foothills. Nor do I feel comfortable breathing the dust…oh…the dust that my vehicle generated as I bumped up the mountain on an oh-so-dry day.
     For the first three or four miles, the mountain doesn’t look promising. Dust-covered manzanita bushes and agave are what you see. But soon the shrub country gives way to a forest of pines, junipers, sycamores, canyon grape vines, and dappled sunlight. I turned off the iPod and, with window rolled down, enjoyed the passing bird song.
     I decided I would drive all the way to Pinal Peak, which I had never done before. Along the way I stopped a couple of times to make quick examinations of the woods. Not a single mushroom did I see. Along the guardrail-less road on the southwest side of the mountain, where a chasm awaits the distracted driver, I noticed that the agaves were just now displaying their large yellow inflorescences.  Winding back into the forest, I saw tall aspens. Goldenrod and wild geraniums bloomed by the road. There were also scarlet Arizona thistles and mullein growing in thick profusion. There was an unmistakable coolness to the mountain air. I drove on to Pinal Peak, elevation 7800’.
     You can’t say that the peak is much to write home about, not with the huge towers and attendant buildings that crowd the top, reminding us all about the power of electronic communication. I looked at my iPhone and was happy to see that my reception near the towers was fantastic. “Wow! I can check Facebook if I want!” I said. But that I most certainly did not do. I almost didn’t even get out of my van. However, I was there and there was a view so why not take a quick look amid the tangle of guy wires?
     Getting out of the vehicle and walking to the edge of the gravel parking area, I immediately noticed an orange glow to the surrounding foliage. On closer inspection I was overjoyed to find that this peak was being used as the meeting place for hundreds of thousands of convergent lady beetles. Or were there millions? How could I make a reasonable estimate of such a huge number of small creatures?
     To save a syllable, you may be tempted to say “ladybugs” but they are not “bugs”. Bugs belong to the order Hemiptera.  These insects are clearly in the order Coleoptera which is, indeed, the beetle group. Not the group, The Beatles, however. I just want to make that clear.
     The fact that they are named “lady beetles” instead of, say, “murder beetles” probably goes a long way in endearing them to most normal English-speaking human beings. If they were named “little baby kitten beetles” then they might be even more popular.
     Not just any species of lady beetle accumulates en masse; only the convergent lady beetle (Hippodamia convergens) makes such an impressive showing. And, yes, these are the same species of lady beetle that you might purchase at a nursery to release in your garden to control aphids. (Unfortunately, within hours upon their release in your garden, most of them fly away, never to be seen by you again. FYI: Putting a box full of live lady beetles in your garden doesn’t work. Try lacewings, instead.) 
      Every summer, when the valleys grow hot, these small beetles take wing and allow the air currents to guide them to some of the highest mountains in the west. I first saw this phenomenon near Crown King in the Bradshaw Mountains. I saw it again atop Granite Mountain near Prescott. The lady beetles fly in and converge to chillax and mate.  “Chillax”, I believe, is a scientific term. When the mountains begin to cool in late summer, these insects break up the party and fly back down to the valleys. 
     This was an amazing gathering to witness. The beetles seemed to be on every square inch of every plant, often piled up in clusters of hundreds, one on top of the other. They seemed passive except for those who were copulating on the backs of the others.  “Not very lady-like,” I thought.
     Many of them were also crawling on the ground and, soon, I felt them inside my pants. They were on my arms, on my head, on my shirt. If they had been ticks or leeches, I would have felt differently about it, but the lady beetles did not make me apprehensive in any way.  I slowly passed my hand through the plants that harbored the beetles. Dozens of them climbed over my fingers, trying to reach a high point so they could fly away
     I noticed that some beetles had the familiar black spots on their backs while others had no spots at all. Variation and mutation are what makes this evolutionary world go around. I wondered if there might be specialized predators of lady beetles. With so many docile creatures in one place you would think that predators or something parasitic might be obvious, but I saw nothing unusual. One explanation as to why birds weren’t up there having a feast lies in the coloration of these insects. We humans might enjoy lady beetles because they are so brightly red and black. But in the rest of the natural world, red and black are aposematic - warning colors - and suggests that eating these beetles might be a bitter or poisonous endeavor.  
     I marveled over this insect gathering and spent an hour or so poking and prodding the bushes to get a better look at the fumbling masses. I was grateful to them for being there. A few white clouds drifted across the blue sky. Below the peak, the world undulated out to the horizon. A slight breeze ruffled the aspen and locust leaves.
     With a smile on my face, I drove slowly back down the mountain, stopping to get a better look at the Arizona thistle. On nearby goldenrod, I saw a mating pair of Podalonia wasps, the female sipping nectar while the male rode along, clipped to the back of her neck with his jaws. What is the reason for such an odd position?
     Nearby, on a rocky hillside, I saw something that made me jump. There were four mushrooms, a few days old, standing next to the road. Amanita muscaria! Nice! This is perhaps the most iconic of all the mushrooms in the world.  I picked one to better study the gills; they were creamy white. But why were there only four of them growing in this particular spot?
      My trip to the mountains was now complete.  I got back in the van and continued driving toward the valley. Down in the foothills, the dioxin-tainted dust roiling around me, I had one thought as I drove in Globe’s direction: “Should I get a burrito somewhere?”
It was the easiest question of the day.
(TStone)