Friends of Artisans Beyond Borders

Last Summer, I answered the call in this article: Migrant Women fleeing violence find Beauty and Healing in Embroidery

Over the next few months, that call flowered into Artisans Beyond Borders, a primary driver for creativity and grace, dignity, and economic empowerment for vulnerable asylum seekers in Nogales, Mexico.

The Friends of Artisans Beyond Borders offer presentations and the artisans work in the U.S.  It is a joyful initiative operating in a grim arena on the border, a rare project that works. Let’s do everything we can to keep it going. Join us. Become one of a growing number of Friends of Artisans Beyond Borders. 

“Draw What You Love” Dibuja lo Que Amas

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“Draw What you Love, Dibuja lo que Amas,” with refugee youth at the Casa Alitas monastery shelter, a philosophy that embraces hope and healing is foundational to our Arts and Activities program. We promote well-being and foster resiliency in the short term with activities that engage our guests and lend a bit of calm in the chaos of family displacement.

“Hope & Healing: The Art of Asylum at the Monastery”

“Hope & Healing: The Art of Asylum at the Monastery” is an exhibit of Artwork created by young Asylum seekers from Central and South America since 2014 at the Casa Alitas short-term shelter in Tucson. In 2019, the Casa Alitas shelter expanded into Tucson’s historic Benedictine Monastery re-purposed to accommodate larger groups of guests.

A former sewing room in the monastery once used by the Benedictine Sisters to cut cloth for their habits was converted into an Art & Activities classroom, a rare blessing, unavailable to most bare-bones shelters at the U.S. border. The Activities room is a clean, orderly, light-filled space for children and adults, a pocket of peace to experience temporary respite, make art, and study essential English.

Since opening in 2014, Casa Alitas observed that refugee guests would use whatever was available, scraps of paper, pencils, and crayons to draw. All the walls at the small shelter became covered with spontaneous art, drawings that expressed gratitude and hope for a safe and secure future in their new country.

Instinctively, we human beings express ourselves through shape and color, line and form when language is not sufficient to explain or describe our experiences. Within the refugee community, where many guests speak indigenous dialects only and verbal communication can be challenging, the universal language of Art is a saving grace.

In the monastery, guests draw while they wait on line for an intake interview, for something to eat, or for a ride to the bus station and the children draw all the time. Like the branches of the great tree of life, Artwork by guests has leafed out to cover the walls of all the common areas of the monastery.

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Draw What You Love

Young guests draw what’s in their hearts. They draw prayers to God for having spared them and multiple thanks to volunteers. They paint homes, loved ones, and pets left behind. Drawings rich in symbols – paintings of birds in flight, volcanoes erupting, roads and rivers, vehicles and barriers – testify to the trauma of migration and family displacement. Yet, through it all, we see the color of hope: bright flowers and rainbows and smiling faces: hope for family reunification in a new country, free of fear.

The deceptively simple prompt to “Draw what you Love, “arose from seeing and listening to what is most important and most healing to our guests. The children draw and paint quietly, reverently with singular focus and intention. They are intent on conveying what cannot be said in words. Their feelings rise up and through their art regardless and their visual testimonies are honest, authentic, and inarguable.

The very act of art making, trusting in spontaneity and mastering materials empowers youth who feel powerless in the face of migration and family separation. In turn, the language of line and the poetry of painting helps us imagine the lived experience of Mexican, Central, and South American refugees, the trauma and loss they’ve experienced, and the mystery and wonder of their faith against all odds.

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In this exhibit, viewers can also witness the beauty of feminine forbearance in the face of adversity through the handwork of our guests. Casa Alitas Art & Activities creates space for Home craft: contemplative needlework and cultural crafts that honor indigenous and familial skills, and support camaraderie among women.

A good example of this familial camaraderie is the Arizona Esperanza quilters who have made lap quilts for our guests since 2018. In 2019 they collaborated with Monastery Arts volunteers to gather the children’s art and thread their individual drawings into unified quilts of care and protection. The quilts displayed here are but a few of their offerings.

Perhaps the most profound power of the art in this exhibit lies in the frontier between the artist and the viewer. Deep in the borderlands of shared imagination, if we can get past our own filters and open ourselves up to the mystery of grace, through the art of our new neighbors and the fresh eyes of youth, we are able to transcend language, time, and geography.

Valarie Lee James, Volunteer, Casa Alitas Arts & Activities Coordinator Summer 2019, Tucson

 

From the Eyes of Babes: The Art of Asylum

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Give kids paper and crayons and they will give you their hearts. At Tucson’s Casa Alitas, a Catholic Community Services short-term shelter for immigrant families released from detention, kid’s artwork covers the largest wall in the house. Guileless and profound, art by immigrant children puts the border rhetoric of adults to shame.

Many of the immigrant children at Casa Alitas are refugees fleeing the unimaginable. Multiple drawings depicting houses and pets left behind, long roads traveled, and mountains and rivers crossed, testify to the trauma of wholesale familial displacement. As an Alitas volunteer and former art therapist, when I see images of fiery volcanos erupting and great tears filling a sky, I can’t help but remember other drawings I have seen by young burn patients who use whatever body part was left unburned, even if that meant their toes to grasp a paint brushes and crayons.

Read more…

The Path of the Migrant: Raw Reality through the Arts

This winter’s exhibit at Tucson’s YWCA has now closed but the powerful imagery displayed at “The Path of the Migrant: Raw Reality through the Arts,” continues to haunt. Never has the old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words,” been so true as it is in this collection of graphics by artists around the world.

I am posting a few of the photos I took of the artwork to keep them in the public gaze. Current rhetoric around the issue of migration is too often reductive and soul-deadening. These images give the viewer the opportunity to drop into a place of depth behind the words, and through the eyes of these artists, quietly reflect on what migration and displacement looks like.

“Each artist has represented in a graphic way their personal conception of the migratory phenomenon, either by their own experience, by that experienced by a close relative, a friend, an acquaintance or by having learned through the media. Where the transit from the simple to the complex, from the playful to the harsh, from light to dark, is perceived. From what is proper to what is foreign, from action to contemplation and very likely from the present to the future.” …From the exhibit press release.

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“El Otra Lado de la Tortilla,” Maria José Balvenera, Mexico
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“Cuanto Falta?, How Much Left?” Manuel Yañez, MX

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“Buscando la Salida, Looking for the Exit,” Sergio Solis, Mexico

The acclaimed international poster art collection “LA MIGRACIÓN: una mirada a través del cartel”  originally featured in the 14th International Poster Biennial of Mexico in 2016, and promoted by the National Commission of Human Rights in Mexico, was curated from over 900 personal entries.

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Recovering the Mojo: When Secret Sky Island Springs Flourish

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Rare Slough Amberwing Damselfly photographed at Secret Sky Islands Spring, V. L. James 2018

“It’s a snout storm!” Vicki, a member of our group joked as we hiked into the fabled Sky Island mountains that transect the U.S. -Mexico border. It was the tail end of the monsoon season and the air was thick with butterflies, most notably the migratory American Snout.

Smaller than a monarch, the mottled grey, orange, and white butterfly is a phenomenon of nature. In 1921, a flock estimated at more than 6 billion “darkened the sky” over the Rio Grande. The migration lasted 18 days.   Here in Arizona, back in the 1940’s, locals say the lights had to be turned on in Tucson in the middle of the day to see amongst the Snouts.

I remember another outrageous display of migratory butterflies I witnessed one summer flying over my former property near the border: pale yellows up from Mexico, a sensual drift that filled the sky like lazy pollen fall, the epitome of natural magic.

“Must be because of all the rain we’ve had this season,” said Birdie, another member of our group. Along with a parade of wildflowers, the hillsides are rich with newly greened thornless acacia shrubs and hackberry bushes

“Hackberry bushes are the American snout’s host plants,” said Vicki.

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American Snout Butterflies on a Desert Hackberry Host Plant, photographed at a Sky Islands Spring, V. L. James 2018

It’s a pleasure to share company with naturalists who are keen to identify plants, bird calls, and insects.  Birdie is a former biology teacher and local resident; Vicki with her husband Gerry continue to volunteer with the Southeast Arizona Butterfly Association after long careers in the National Park Service.

Together, we are trekking to the natural spring my partner Steph and I adopted through Sky Island Alliance’s Adopt-a-Spring Program. This is our final visit monitoring the spring’s on-going health; it’s water quality and flow, flora and fauna. We will pass on what we’ve learned to Sky Island volunteers Birdie, Vicki, and Gerry, the new stewards of the spring.  Through each season of the next year or more, they will play a crucial role in maintaining this vital wildlife corridor in the borderlands.

Joining us is Rich Bailowitz, an Entomologist and co-author of the book “A Field Guide to the Damselflies and Dragonflies of Arizona and Sonora.”  He is always on the look-out for new species and he will not be disappointed today.

“I was a butterfly freak first,” Rich said. But when U.S Fish and Wildlife Service asked me to do another order of insects besides butterflies I chose aquatic insects rather than terrestrial and ended up writing the book.”

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Rich Bailowitz, Co-Author of “A Field Guide to the Damselflies and DragonFlies of Arizona and Sonora” identifying a tiny Damselfly, Sky Islands Spring, Photograph V.L. James 2018

On the way up the hillside, Rich pointed out an orange and black butterfly with white spots – an Empress Leilia – hugging a hackberry. We also spotted a Mexican yellow alighting on one of the thornless acacia shrubs.

Gerry stopped in front of me, cocked his head, and listened intently. “Do you hear that? he asked smiling. “I think it’s a Cassin’s sparrow.”

The rainy season plus the sparrow’s irresistible need to breed could have brought out this secretive resident of the Southwest grasslands. We could also hear mighty cicadas, the ubiquitous “Saints of Summer” in the Sonoran Desert, washing over us in waves, building to a thundering crescendo, then subsiding abruptly.

Large Sonoran grasshoppers that we thought would die back over the summer flit back and forth in front of us, revitalized with the monsoon rains. They were everywhere in the ground cover, like fibers in the wall-to-wall carpet of common purslane and grama grasses covering the desert floor.

On top of the hill, we looked down into the cool cleft of the spring hidden in a grove packed with sycamore trees, cottonwoods, willows, and walnut. Vicki noticed a large nest camouflaged in the canopy of the tallest cottonwood. I wondered if the nest belonged to the grey hawk we spotted here last time, but the nest is too high to identify.

“It’s good for the hawk that the nest remains hidden,” Vicki said.  “It needs to remain a mystery,”

Later, we heard it, the scolding screech of the hawk, maybe aggrieved at the encroach of humans upon its private domain.

The spring was as monsoon green as expected. Tall cattails shot up from one of the pools and plump grasses grew from another. At the first pool, wild grape vines circled around flowering Desert Cotton, a host plant for desert moths.  In the spring there is no denying the primal relationships between every living thing. All life in the spring is hosted, or it will not exist.

Dragonflies and Damselflies

Right away, Rich noticed a damselfly in the Ciénaga surrounding the spring; a stunning springwater dancer. The entomologist Odonata-spotting vision is as alert and practiced as the hawk. Odonata, the ancient order of carnivorous insects that dragonflies and damselflies belong to, have been found in fossils dating back to 325 million years, around the time dinosaurs began to appear. The word Odonata, derived from “odonto,” the Greek word for tooth, refers to the strong teeth found on the mandibles of most adult Odonata.

I learned to tell other-worldly dragonfly and damselflies apart. Dragonflies are mostly shorter with thicker bodies and huge eyes (think The Fly) that practically wrap around the whole face. Damselflies have ethereal, twig-like bodies. Their eyes are large too but distinctly separated. The difference in wing size and position is the key to a clear identification. The dragonflies’ wings are larger and perpendicular like an airplane at rest while damselflies’ narrower wings come together above the body.

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A Great Spreadwing Damselfly, Sky Islands Spring, Photograph by V.L.James 2018

While the others in our group measured the length, width, and depth of the ever-changing water level of the spring’s top pool, Rich trekked to the bottom pool of the vertical seep, his large white butterfly net outstretched. Each will be quickly identified and then released. With practice, he’s developed the sensitive dexterity needed to grasp and safely immobilize tiny insects in the hand before letting them go.

One of the first found was a black and white damselfly, an extremely uncommon species found only in the Arizona borderlands, the only place it’s ever been recorded.

“If anyone wants to see this Damselfly,” Rich said, “they have to come to southeastern Arizona.”

“Plus, this one only comes out in the morning when there is dim light or when a storm is coming,” he said as he looked up at the darkening sky overhead.

In no short order, Rich found a red Neon Skimmer Dragonfly, a Great Spreadwing, the largest damselfly in the region, a Lavender Dancer and a bright blue Spine-Tipped Dancer. He then spots the rarest find of the day: a diminutive Slough Amberwing Damselfly. Altogether, Rich identified eleven species of Dragonflies and Damselflies that day, two of them new.  After all his years of field research, Rich still shakes his head in wonder

As Steph showed the new stewards how to find and chart water flow in the Spring’s bottom pool, Rich pulled out a field journal and noted his findings before they could be forgotten.

Preserving the Mystery

Our work at the spring finished, we follow Birdie to the end of the seep where we will all hike out. At a fork in the arroyo, I decided to veer down a path less taken. There, in the bottomland, I found a mound of deer bones, a recent kill, a reminder that we are walking in lion country. With countless caves pocketing the cliffs and ribbons of hidden springs, the Sky Island mountains of southeast Arizona host cougar and bobcat, ocelot and jaguar. Besides aquatic and terrestrial insects, there is much more here than meets the eye. What remains hidden and left alone stands a good chance of surviving.

“The last time I saw this spring, at least a decade ago, it was beaten down by cattle,” Birdie said. “Now that the cattle are no longer here, the spring has reverted back to its natural state and it’s recovering beautifully.”

The danger, of course, is that humans will not protect a paradise we don’t know exists. Taking great care not to disturb, volunteer naturalists gain rare access into our hidden world and they are reporting back. Regional guides like the “A Field Guide to the Damselflies and Dragonflies of Arizona and Sonora” help us identify and understand what we see there.

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Gerry, Sky Island Volunteer and Entomologist Rich Bailowitz, Butterfly net in hand, Sky Islands Spring, Photo by V.L.James 2018

Steph and I miss the spring already, but we know we are leaving it in good hands. As we learned more about its native flora and fauna over the last year, we experienced profound connection, healing a primal wound of separation we human beings are often unaware we carry. The spring gave us much more than we were ever able to give her.

Climbing up and out of the arroyo, up hillsides of blue wildflowers and pink velvet pod mimosas, we heard a sudden rush of wind in the canyon behind us. Seconds later it began to pour.

“Rain in the desert is a blessing,” said Gerry. To be rained upon in the desert is to be twice blessed.”

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Sky Island Volunteers hike to hidden Natural Springs in Southeast Arizona,  Photo V.L.James 2018

To volunteer go to Adopt-a-Spring Monitoring at Sky Island Alliance: https://www.skyislandalliance.org/volunteer-get-involved/volunteer-position-descriptions/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blessed are the Makers: Devotional Art on the Border

In this time of shocking family separation and violence against the most vulnerable among us, we are often paralyzed by sorrow and a loss of faith. Creativity and the Acts of Devotion offer us a path to healing the rift, individually and collectively.

Published by Kosmos International, picked up by OpenDemocracy.org., then licensed under Creative Commons: The Migrant quilt is the story of how women on the U.S./MX border are taking the matter into their own hands…

https://www.kosmosjournal.org/kj_article/the-migrant-quilt/

Sourcing Devotion: The Art of Nature

 

“Nature is the Art of God,” Dante

Had we missed the last spring wildflowers this year? Super blooms in the desert grasslands: Southern Arizona’s dazzling Art of Nature: wide swatches of color and scent, the sensuality of life unbridled.

Giving an out-of-state presentation on Devotional Art from the Border had kept me from our original devotional art here at home in the Sky Islands, the verdant mountainous border of Arizona and Mexico.

A couple of weeks earlier, driving to the border town of Ajo, a full palette of wildflowers ribboned through the Tohono O’odham reservation. Buttery Desert Marigolds and Mexican Gold poppies, stalks of magenta Penstemon and cobalt blue Lupine… a fiesta of wild beauty that unifies the bi-national landscape of cactus and creosote.

As spring turns to summer in the desert, we – my partner Steph and I –  volunteers with the Sky Island Alliance Adopt-a-Spring Program, are checking the health of our hidden natural spring’s water quality and flow, changes in flora and fauna, tracks and scat.

Hiking to the spring, chunks of calcite and quartz at our feet glittering like stars in daytime, we crested a hill and I saw them, the wildflowers, albeit smaller in stature and not as showy. Tiny bluets and white zinnias and a fade of pink fairy dusters embroidered the full apron of land surrounding the spring.

Ocotillo

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Up high, ocotillo flowers highjacked our eyes. A forest of the awkwardly elegant shrubs overwhelmed us with their size and numbers. The complex composition of many together instead of one prompts a different way of thinking about plant life. Instead of individual “loners” in competition for nutrients, new scientific evidence reveals that plants and trees cooperate instead, forming communal alliances and even communicating through a collective intelligence we are just beginning to understand.

Breath-takingly alien in appearance, like slow-moving stick bugs, the up to 20 ft. Ocotillos loomed over us with command and presence. In the breeze, their cane-like stems tipped every which way, like the cutting-edge choreography we witnessed at the UA dance theatre the night before.

Ocotillos are so outrageous in appearance, many never forget the moment they first saw one. I remember being rooted to the spot and asking a traveling companion “What is THAT?” I had never seen anything like it in my life.

“Supreme sculpture of the desert environment…” Steph mused, leaning against her walking stick.

“It’s like the first time you see a Giacometti sculpted figure… the linear nature of them… but Ocotillos are orders of magnitude more magnificent than anything created by humans,” she added.

Indigenous people of the Sonoran Desert – the Papago, the Hohokam, the Tohono O’odham and others, turned Ocotillo’s unique branches into artful architecture, arching shelters, and living fences. In the studio, art colleagues and I have dipped Ocotillo’s dried branches into paint and wax and then woven them through fiber pieces. Ocotillo’s long sharp thorns will draw blood unless approached with serious respect.

I wanted to know more about this dramatic shrub I thought I knew. As much as I appreciate the INaturalist APP – a digital whizz of Bio-identification – one of the things I love best about our relationship with Sky Island’s flora and fauna, happens later at home when we do the research… poring over old books, unearthing the word roots of what we saw and experienced, discovering the integral part the natural world plays in art and culture, biology and history and the mysterious mythologies surrounding what we see in the field.

The thrill of discovery, the art of it all, enriches my understanding, so much so that when I think about it, I can taste the clarifying air of knowledge in my mouth, tangy like Ocotillo nectar… a favorite for hummingbirds and our indigenous ancestors.

I learned that Ocotillo is also known by the names Coachwhip and Slimwood, and my favorite moniker because there’s a story in it, Jacob’s Sword. Jewish Sages say Jacob’s Sword & Bow refer to prayers and supplications before God. Looking up to see the Ocotillo’s carmine trumpet flowers beseeching the sky, I can see that too.  As we left, a breeze picked up and the legion of Jacob’s Swords seemed to wave us goodbye.

The Gray Hawk

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Descending the hill, Steph looks up and stops. Binoculars to her eyes, she cites the finding of the day: a Gray Hawk, perched in the highest canopy of the Spring’s giant Sycamores.

We passed the binoculars back and forth in slow motion, barely breathing, hoping what we were seeing was for real and praying we could keep the bird in sight as we made our way down to the spring.

The Gray Hawk, according to the Cornell Ornithology Lab is a tropical species that barely crosses the border into Arizona and Texas. The raptor follows a narrow riparian corridor; cottonwood and mesquite forests along a few streams.

The hawk’s pale form seemed to appear and disappear, camouflaged by the glaring mid-day sun. Its peacock-like call pierced the air and a moment or two later, pierced it again.  Did the Gray Hawk have a partner or was it alone? Apparently, there are fewer than 50 nesting pairs in the U.S. After breeding, the Gray Hawk, also known as a Mexican Goshawk, migrates back to Mexico. Long considered a threatened species, human development, and associated groundwater depletion make increasingly fragile its world. Was there a nest in one of the spring’s big cottonwoods?

Male and female Gray Hawks build their nest together. The male builds the foundation out of living twigs and the female artfully shapes the nest, an awesome collaboration.

The Spring

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As we duck under the canopy of trees over the spring, we stop to take it all in. The area is the greenest we’ve ever seen it. Shades of shy mint color and virgin lime expand into fields of emerald.

The ambient temperature under the tree canopy is in the 60’s. Bird calls fill the air. The last time we were here it was winter. The great cottonwoods and sycamores were lace-like, stripped of leaves and there were no bird calls, only silence.

Our first steps leave footprints on the saturated ground. The distinctive smell of rich loamy soil hangs in the air. I take in big draughts of air through my nose and down into my lungs, a respite from dusty wind on the hillsides. My skin feels instantly smooth to the touch, soothed by the moist languid air.

At the mouth of the seep where we measure water quality and flow we see a familiar phenomenon – bees clustering at a dry tiny recess, the very inception of the spring. Pools of spring water lie within their reach and yet for some reason the bees prefer the promise of water, fresh water that they somehow smell or sense under the surface of rock and soil. It’s as if they know where the good stuff is, and they’re going for gold.

The cluster buzz, the sound of bees signaling virgin water mimics – or is it the other way around –  the constant chant of monks: a vibratory hum, the sound of the earth itself.  Lining both sides of the spring: a huge family of fountain grass. Grassy heads crowd together in serious communication like a backup choir to the cluster buzz.

I spot an odd shape on the ground, a squarish chunk of dark honeycomb, waxy to the touch.  The Hexagon “tiling,” of the comb, individual housing for bees or ants are a model of divine symmetry and proportion in the wild. Pattern and repetition, the formal balance of the honeycomb’s natural design generates a feeling of order and wholeness deep within the body.

“Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better,” Albert Einstein said simply.

It’s written that we are born with an innate sense of design because of our connection to the natural order. I would take that a step further. Harmony – the belonging of one thing to another and a foundational principle of design – begets unity. Like tadpoles, we instinctively swim toward an inner harmony but unity, the sum of all parts, the “All Shall be Well” of mystic Julian Norwich’s time, only occurs if we care for harmony in nature together as one.

While Steph monitors the health of the upper spring I follow a large Black Swallowtail Butterfly down to the bottom pool.  The butterfly is soon joined by another and they circle endlessly together over my head.

Hunkering down in the bushes at the water’s edge, I sit and wait, hoping to get a photograph. Many minutes pass but the butterflies refuse to alight anywhere. They’re busy. It’s spring. They may never stop. I finally set my camera down, content to sit and listen to the birds in the canopy. Some of the calls I can readily identify: The white-winged doves – Who cooks for you? –  and cactus wrens and Gila Woodpeckers at opposite ends of the spring. Other species, Northern Cardinals, Scott’s Orioles, and finches we track later through binoculars.

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Devotion

At the water’s edge, time feels long and languorous. My breath slows, and my eyelids grow heavy. Suddenly: a rush of feathers in my face, in my ears. A Magnificent Hummingbird – nearly twice the size of other hummingbirds – lands on a seep willow branch an arm’s length away. And then another. It is the closest I have ever been to hummingbirds in the wild. They somehow do not see me or if they do see me, they do not care. And they do not linger long. Spring: the first hunger of life, the whole world in movement. Dragonflies, Damselflies and diminutive butterflies everywhere on the wing. All are paired.

Wildflowers here are few but striking. I see mostly single-stalked wildflowers, large and leggy. The blooms we saw earlier in the year made way for sturdy almost athletic specimens. At the spring, mysterious variants are the order of the day.

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A blue-green patina of algae and wisps of pollen on the surface of the pools draw my gaze. My eyes read the small details, the minute life forms. I sit and breathe in the spaciousness between bird calls high in the canopy, and I listen to the invitation that is already there.

I am so grateful for extended observation like this in Nature, the opportunity to deepen the practice of sacred seeing (Visio Divina), devotion to the source while at the same time volunteering for Sky Island Alliance. I want everyone especially children to have the same opportunities. I want them to know what it is to love the natural world and feel loved back.

When it’s time to go I shuffle my feet. I don’t want to leave. I am as devoted to the Sky Islands of Southeastern Arizona and Mexico as I am devoted to my faith. They are one and the same.

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