Sunday, December 28, 2014

Channeling Thomas Kinkade

In days gone by, cutting the family Christmas tree was an annual affair. Dad and the kids went into the woods with an axe, the dog, and picked out the perfect tree.  It was a picture post card moment full of snow laden branches and Pendleton shirts. The dog bounded through drifts, the kids pummeled each other with powdery snowballs, and faintly, off in the distance, tiny bells jingled. Dad pulled the tree back to the log cabin on a sled while mom readied steaming hot mugs of cocoa for everyone. You could almost feel Norman Rockwell’s brush against the canvas.

Our family wanted to harken back to these good ole days. We wanted the relive the age before rows of overpriced conifers would appear each December in rutted and muddy empty lots, starkly illuminated under sagging strings of 60-watt bulbs. Or, even worse, before we were tempted to buy one from some dismal corner in a Walmart Garden Center.  We wanted to reach back to a time before commercial tree farms spent seven to ten years growing and methodically shearing a tree that would later command a $75 price tag.

So I purchased a Christmas tree permit from the Tonto National Forest for a reasonable $15 and we left for the cutting area the very next day. According to the instructions that came with the permit, any species of tree was on the chopping block, as long as it was under ten feet tall and was cut by midnight on Christmas eve.  

We updated the red plaid shirts and wooden sled with Thinsulate, fleece, and a sport utility vehicle, and drove towards the town of Young, north of Roosevelt Lake. We passed pinyon pines on the way up, and if we had gone higher, we’d have seen Douglas firs, but we stopped on a fairly level spot next to an understory of perfectly-sized white fir trees. There were small patches of snow, but it was still and quiet with terrain that suited the hiking skills of a six-year- old and her very pregnant mom.

“Hey, there’s one!” my son shouted from the road, and we all scrambled up a brief slope, only to find ourselves surrounded by dozens of other candidates. We split up, and our voices echoed across the canyon as we shouted the location of another, and then another, that might be the perfect tree. Within an hour, we settled on a nine-footer and with a few strokes, felled it with a hand saw, leaving it with less than a six-inch stump as the instructions required.

We carried it back to the car, bound it tightly with spiral wraps of twine, and strapped it to the luggage rack on the roof, but not before the obligatory photo op with father and daughter kneeling proudly alongside their fresh kill.

We stopped at a campground on the way back to eat tepidly warm bean burros from a cold steel picnic table and wondered: Should we feel guilty about our modern attempt at a Hallmark moment?  Wouldn’t it be more ethical to purchase a tree that was shipped from a commercial tree farm somewhere in Oregon?

As it turns out, the Forest Service thins nearly as many small trees from one forest acre to lessen the catastrophic effects of wildfire as there are Christmas tree permits sold each year in the entire Tonto National Forest. So our single tree, now fully decorated and perfuming our living room as only a freshly cut tree can do, is just a drop in the pine pitch bucket, something to feel far more good about than bad.

We’re already planning next year’s trip, and if there is more snow, we’ll probably throw in that sled. And the hot chocolate.  

Kim Stone

Monday, December 15, 2014


     It rained and the desert seems softer now. The warm temperatures and moisture have caused some of the plants - like brittlebush - to bloom early.

     This morning I decided to hike around the “back forty” of the Arboretum. Up the steep slope that empties itself against Arnett Canyon, I waded through damp beaten grass and marveled over the brilliant green spikemoss (Selaginella arizonica) growing low against volcanic tuff. Few animals were around; only my shadow and small twittering birds flitted amongst the shrubs. Along the crest of the ridge I stared directly across to Picketpost Mountain and down into the Arnett drainage where autumn still hung on the yellowing leaves of cottonwoods. No breeze, no passing jets. I imagined that there was some tone – some deep humming accumulation of life and geology – that I couldn’t quite hear.  
     I prefer the small near things to the large distant vistas and I can’t sufficiently explain why. Perhaps I find comfort in what I can touch. The smallest things are their own cosmologies. A spider’s web bejeweled in dew drops compares favorably to the crystalline rocks that litter this hillside. Both web and rock reflect the sun’s light, encapsulating it in round or faceted frames, glittering and thus becoming small stars cast to earth. I wonder how a spider perceives a web full of shining beads of light?

     On one side of the ridge is wilderness; on the other side is the Arboretum with its parking lot and trails and nearby highway. There are no trails where I am on the hill, no simple geometry suggesting which direction I’ll go. I meander. Saguaros and ocotillos twisting up to the sky are my only guideposts. Does it matter where they lead me? 

     Being in nature, I am aware of mortality. My eyes see the immediate environment but my mind dwells on the past and future – the Alpha and Omega. I say: nothing before and nothing after. It should be a comfort to be temporary. It should be a comfort thinking that I won't always be thinking. In this place my shadow is hardly less substantive than the body that casts it. Who am I when I’m alone in an indifferent landscape? “One day”, I tell myself, “I’m going to keep walking 'til the horizon runs out.” 

 - T. Stone

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Hedgehog Cactus Salvage

When I was invited to be the official photographer for the third Arizona hedgehog salvage project that the Arboretum has taken on in the past six years, I jumped at the chance to have all the fun without any of the real work. After all, this project was expected to take two days and required hauling heavy, multi-headed hedgehogs in terrain that had more ups than downs, and the downs were too numerous to count. The elevation was about 4000 feet, which meant that coarse, often impenetrable, chaparral vegetation was jutting out of every location that wasn’t already occupied by looming, bus-sized boulders. It’s the kind of terrain where cattle rustlers hide, and mountain lions contemplate their good fortune when visitors come a calling.    

It was a job for thirty somethings, yet most of the Arboretum crew had already matriculated past that age over a decade ago. For me, it was a couple of decades, but all I had to do was snap a few photos and watch the rest of the crew work. I joined everyone in wearing long pants, hiking boots, gloves, a hard hat, and a bright orange vest, but that was where the similarities ended.  The others divided up the real tools-of-the-trade, including shovels, steel pry bars, rock hammers, climbing ropes, canvas slings, tape measures, maps, gps units, and clipboards. Three of the crew also carried specialized pack frames, the use of which I will explain later.

This project had been planned for months, beginning with a signed agreement with the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) in September of 2014 to “supply definitive information on methods of salvage, transplantation, and modes of reproduction of growth” of the Arizona hedgehog cactus over a five-year period. A new passing lane was soon to be built along US Highway 60 and thirty of these endangered cacti were in the direct line of fire.

Because of the aforementioned steep, nearly inaccessible terrain, a helicopter was briefly considered to fly out these thirty valuable specimens. But in the end, the capable staff members chosen for this project were either experience hunters, hikers, or both. So, on a cold Monday morning on November 3rd, at 7 a.m., seven hardy souls gathered on a mountain top along Highway 60 to begin. When I arrived at 8 a.m. (late, as usual), they were already hiking towards me with specimen #1, a five-header that rested comfortably in the bottom of a large plastic storage container. 
The crew brought three of these containers, plus a sturdy backpack frame for each. These frames were specifically designed to accept and securely hold the roomy containers that would ultimately be filled with bare-rooted hedgehogs. Though a helicopter would have made life much easier (next time!), these backpacked containers proved invaluable for allowing hands-free boulder hopping, cliff scaling, and bushwhacking through the hedgehogs’ preferred habitat. Before the plants could be carried, though, they had to be found. 

Several months earlier, in April, Cathy, Gonzalo, and two people from Logan Simpson Design, an ADOT sub-contractor, did a 100% survey of the Arizona Hedgehog plants in the project area. Each plant was assigned a GPS coordinate, labeled, and notes such as number of stems, condition, and fruiting/flower status were recorded. From this, detailed maps and lists were created, and these documents were carried with us as we tried to relocate each individual plant. It took some searching, but all thirty plants were eventually found.

The word “digging” is the word often used when transplanting a typical plan, but because these thorny hedgehogs were mostly imbedded between tightly-packed boulders, more colorful verbs were more often used, like: prying, chiseling, hammering, levering, and cursing. Before removal, the south side of each plant was marked with a dot from a Sharpy marker or a dab of White-out, and the plant was photographed in situ. Field data such as slope aspect, number of arms, size and height of plant, percent shade or sun, and associated plants were recorded. We used canvas slings to carefully move the plants into clearings where they could be staged for further transport. 

Getting the plants back to the trucks, especially on the first day, involved scaling an insanely steep talus slope of sharp, broken rocks. The bearers of the backpacks with the strapped-on containers full of hedgehogs had the roughest time, often pulled back by gravity, unable to lean forward far enough to maintain stability. Everyone made it back safely, though, and the salvaged and labeled plants were transported back to the Arboretum where they were placed on several shaded nursery tables to heel over.

Three weeks later, most of the plants were potted up into nursery containers with a mix of cactus soil and pumice.  Some of the large mature plants broke apart during transport and had to be potted into two or three separate pots, while a few of the very largest (that held together) were planted directly in the ground because of their size. The horticultural plan calls for the plants to be kept in the nursery for at least two to three years. 

Kim Stone