An artist, writer, spiritual activist, and naturalist on the AZ/MX border. My goal as an artist and writer is relational. I'm interested in the connective tissue in our common stories, the beauty and the broken bits, the "genuis loci" spirit of place here, the divinity expressed amongst human beings, animals, the earth and the grace we share.
“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
“We are People not Papers,” Erendida Mancilla, 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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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…
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Within the recesses of the forest, even when in the midst of it (the deafening noise of the insects), a universal stillness appears to reign,” Darwin, Brazil, 1830’s.
In Fall of 2017 and in Winter 2018, our adopted relationship with a Sky Island Spring deepens as we tap into the exquisite silence of hidden waters. There, we hear the prima vox, the “voice primordial,” of a desert Oasis, its’ plants, invertebrates, and mammals, sustained by life-giving water.
Fall 2017 Visit to the Spring
People seeing the Sonoran Desert for the first time often miss subtle signs of autumn. Higher in elevation, tucked into riparian areas, where seeps and natural springs are found, Cottonwood trees, Arizona Sycamore, Willow, and Arizona Ash, flame with outrageous color.
This day, we will witness leaves on the trees silently morphing from smooth yellow to mottled red to papery ochre, pressing together in an annual return to the wet earth, caking into a baklava of rich humus, imprinting the soil in a cycle of endless regeneration.
In her essay, Why Leaves turn color in the Fall, Naturalist Diane Ackerman observes that the leaves echo our own hope upon death:
“Not to vanish, just to sublime from one beautiful state to another.”
“Though the leaves lose their green life, they bloom with urgent colors, as the woods grow mummified day by day, and Nature becomes more carnal, mute, and radiant,” Ackerman writes.
As we hike to the Spring, the temperature cool, smelling of winter rains, and the sky gray with curtains of virga on the horizon, whole flocks of birds fly overhead, no doubt on a migratory route.
Steph points out a hidden canyon high in the cliff face, a classic v formation in the rock with a clot of dark green growth at its apex. We wonder if there is a hidden spring there or a seep, water percolating through the rocks in the cliffs and bubbling up like the spring we are descending into. The hydrology of the mountain range can by its nature be unpredictable, but we know water is there; the lifeblood of the dense tribes of trees we see.
Through binoculars, we examine dark vertical streaks on the cliffs, “desert varnish,” a mysterious glassy patina that generations of scientists, including Darwin, puzzled over.
High up, near the desert varnish: another V-shaped canyon. We wonder how many undocumented springs remain hidden in Arizona.
We are deeply humbled by our naïveté. There is so much we do not know.
Indigenous, first nations people could well know. Craig Childs, the author of The Secret Knowledge of Water, cites the belief of native people of the Southwest:
…that natural springs were “points where creation came to the surface and spilled out, where a hand could actually reach forward to feel the emergence.”
Other dark crevasses in the rock near the ridgeline draw our gaze. Could a mountain lion be drinking right now at a high spring?… Or ocelots – rumored to be in this mountain range – or even a jaguar, cats that do not fear water. Most natural springs remain hidden, a good thing. Would wild animals survive in the desert without them?
We slip down the shale-covered hillside, the “ecotone,” grassland border surrounding the spring until we find the trail. I am grateful for my walking sticks. We are learning to hike slowly and mindfully. It’s a long walk to enlightenment. Smart to follow deer paths.
Stands of dried grass tamp down the trail, like old hay on gray ground. We spot pumice-like lava rocks, up to a million years old blasted from vents in volcanic fields in Mexico. The rock’s shapes and surfaces resemble living coral from the Sea of Cortez, a few hours south of the border
Other large smooth stones are aproned with circular blooms of lichen, evidence of life persisting in the most unlikely of places, even on sun-blasted faces of stones.
The variety of scat on the path – deer, rabbit, coyote – also clues us into species roaming the ecotone. We pass shallow hollows in the dirt where smaller animals, rabbit or fox, may have bedded down.
Suddenly, in the distance: rat-tat-tat of semi-automatic gunfire. Sounds like a firing range. The gunshots originate from the back side of the ridge but still, I jump, my startle reflex working overtime. Each shot raises the hair on the back of my neck.
We wonder how animals handle the sound of gunfire bouncing off the cliffs. Do deer tremble? Coyotes shake? Rabbits run? I know how it makes me feel.
The closer we come to the spring, the more bird calls. In between calls, to our distress, more gunfire, louder, on the other side of the ridge. Blast, bird call… Blast, our Human song.
A flash of red, high in the trees flanking the Spring: a bright Northern Cardinal. Later, we see a Gila Woodpecker in the spring. A Cactus Wren scolds and a dove mourns.
We duck slowly and carefully under immense branches, dropping our voices, conscious we are entering hallowed ground. Others may be lingering at the waters. I have longed for the contemplative balm of the spring and I am not disappointed. The world is silent, timeless here. The birds are quiet, and the semi-automatic gunfire has thankfully, stopped. All sound goes subtle, muted like a seashell to the ear.
A slight breeze picks up, rustling the remains of the canopy. Leaves flutter to the ground and the ambient air temp drops a good 10 degrees, a portent of winter to come.
We walk with long strides slo-mo, cross-country skiing through a dense carpet of cushy leaves and deadfall. Yellow Cottonwood and orange and red sycamore leaves shush beneath out feet. I wince, not wanting to surprise any inhabitants.
The autumnal leaf matter has so seriously altered the topography of the area since our last visit, we can barely make out the first pool covered with plant debris. On the way there, I trip over deadfall but go down softly, cushioned by the leaves.
As citizen Science volunteers with The Sky Island Alliance Adopt-a-Spring Program, we gauge the health of the Spring, measuring length, width, and depth of the water source. As we quietly work together, I sense small eyes watching us, curious and aware of our presence. I don’t sense any fear. I imagine this must be because we too are quiet and reverent.
Just a few months ago, during the Monsoons, we were overwhelmed by the chaos of color. Now, all of the monsoon’s (second summer) wildflowers are gone as are the hummingbirds and the butterflies in constant movement. Missing also are the abundance of grasshoppers but we do see ants, flies, and spiders moving through the ground leaves, and one dragonfly on the water.
And bees. Clustering at the very place the spring emerges, its’ inception, the incarnation of the water, translucent wings catch the light. With more water than they could ever wish for in the spring’s pools, they lust for the very origin of the wet, drawn inexorably to it.
Circular masses of large deer grass lend a kind of animal softness to the bank of the spring’s pools. Massive mother patches line the bank on one side of the water and smaller patches on the other.
A discarded Mexican blanket on the bank, made from wool, breaks down naturally in the elements, changing with every season. I’d love to harvest some of the still colorful woven fiber and weave the essence of this place into some new art, but it’s not wise to remove anything from the area. Every aspect of this place, every stray thread, belongs here in the House of the Spring, destined to become building materials for nests or burrows, beds for small beating hearts.
I think about the necessity of pause for all living things, how these pools, teeming with life a few months ago, have gone into a kind of abeyance. I think about the powerful elemental draw to the interior that marks this season of the year, the long wait for the light of new life to return.
A shimmer of blue undulates in the dark waters of the spring and I look up to see a blue-sky hole in the cloud cover, startling in its’ rarity.
“Go ahead, touch it, I dare my partner Steph, and she does.
“Wha?!” She gasps, drawing her hand back.
“That’s the softest thing I have ever felt in my life.” She says, mouth gaping in shock.
I nod. I have felt other soft-leaved sensuals in the field: Woolley lamb’s ears… Mullein…… Hairy Desert Sunflowers, but nothing like this.
Steph shakes her head in utter incomprehension. Her long artistic fingers are so sensitive they practically have eyes at the tips and right now their tiny pupils are dilated. An alarm is sounding in her body. A seasoned scientist with no frame of reference, she thinks this cannot exist.
“It feels like an animal,” she says. “What if it’s the only thing of its kind anywhere?”
The exotic plant, all leaves, no flowers, stands by its lonesome in an easy to miss section of the spring. Maybe it is the only one or maybe it’s just never been seen before, by non- indigenous humans that is. Does it have a purpose? Is it a medicine or food? Could it simply exist as an expression of beauty? Beauty never seen?
Anything is possible in this singular stand-alone spring with its unique and provocative ecosystem. We imagine the next time we visit the plant will be gone. Every time we come we find a wholly different spring. We marvel that we can still be surprised by such natural mystery, stumped by the unknown, bemused by our own innocence.
Ecology as a Contemplative Practice
“Darwin’s manner of deep watchfulness allowed the ordinary ground of life to become sanctified, to be brought into Sensus plenoir – a fuller sense – through the offering of simple attention.” Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Author, and Naturalist.
Charles Darwin, like many scientists in general, is not commonly associated with being “spiritual,” yet profoundly spiritual he was as his observations matured into a kind of contemplative practice, muses Theologian Douglas E. Christie in The Blue Sapphire of the Mind; Notes for a Contemplative Ecology.
Mindfulness, meditation, and centering prayer originating in the world’s religions, now part of our kid’s school programming and present-centered cognitive science, are practices that quiet us into relationship with the essence of life found in nature, with Dylan Thomas’s “force that drives the water through the rocks.” And our basic senses – sight, hearing touch, taste, and smell – allow us fresh wonder, and the gift of empathy, a felt sense relationship with the natural world.
“…what would it mean for contemplative practice to be considered an integral part of a deepening ecological awareness? Christie asks.
Winter 2018 Visit
The sun is shining but the wind blows bitter, chapping the skin on contact. Waves of wind curl the bleached grass, pressing it against the hillside.
On the way to the spring, we pass stands of fallen cactus: saguaro and prickly pear in a state of decay, crumbling under our feet to dust, reminding us of the importance of the season, death, and resurrection. We pass tall grey ocotillo, skinny standing bones, thorned, sentinels of winter in the desert.
Deer trails etch deeper into the hillside, revealing how fragile the surface of the desert really is. Trails created even once carve into the topsoil like scars on the skin. The only thing that soothes and sometimes removes the mark-making are the rains, scanty this year.
Though the grasslands are winter-dried and tamped down, tiny pokies with feral intelligence find their way into my socks and I need to stop, drop, and remove my shoes.
Dotting the trail like bread crumbs in a fairy tale: chunks of Chalcedony milky quartz. Some resemble circular geodes broken open. Some are vulva-like and are shaped like roses. I always think of them as Desert Roses though this term is actually associated with rocks created from gypsum. Common in the Sonoran Desert grasslands, Chalcedony Quartz pieces are a child’s ‘jewels’ of the desert.
I pick up a palm-size Chalcedony Desert Rose and think about Tucson’s beloved “Pink Rose of the Desert,” the Benedictine monastery shuttered this year after 75 plus years gracing our region. The monastery was lived in and loved by the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, a contemplative order well-versed in the traditional Benedictine practice of Lectio among other charisms. Lectio (Latin for Divine reading), devotional listening with the ear of the heart, continues to inform my growing contemplative take on the natural world.
Maple-like Arizona Sycamore leaves litter the hillside having blown up the slope from the spring. I pick one up and cup it in my hand. Fragile to the touch and dry as the desert air, it miraculously retained its shape, curled up like a starfish. From A Botanist’s Vocabulary, by Pell and Angell, I learn that in winter the leaf’s “acuminate” tapered points draw in toward the center, towards the “petiole,” where it connects to its stem. The pull to turn inward and draw down, to contract in the process of dying, untethers the now concave leaf, freeing it to chart a new course: a paper boat on the wind.
The first thing that jumps out as we approach the spring, almost assaulting the eye: bright white branches of the huge Arizona Sycamores. Called ‘ghost trees” in winter, with their leaves stripped bare, they display an austere beauty, a natural authority over all other elements in the Spring. Next to them, the cottonwoods look shabby-chic like old heirloom lace.
Entering the spring, there is a sense of coming home. We hear naught but one single solitary bird: the dove mourning. The spirit of winter has officially abducted the spring. It is now an otherworldly destination, commanding solitude, silence, and peace.
In the center of playgrounds of leaf litter strewn all over the grounds – plugging even the Badger’s holes – we are astounded to see patches of lime green grass, asparagus-like shoots, dotting the grounds like candles on a cake.
There’s more water here than we’ve ever seen!” Steph exclaims. Black soil gushes under our feet with each step. Showers in the mountains above, rain unseen, must have fed the underground waters.
Higher than the known top of the seep, giant round balls of deer grass can only mean one thing: A new water source. We watch with awe as water flows down the entire valley of the spring, sparkling in narrow shafts of sunlight beaming through the canopy.
Last summer, our first time at the spring, Steph and I, along with Sami Hammer, Conservation Biologist at Sky Island Alliance, our guide that day, nicknamed the largest Sycamore, Tarzan’s Tree.
Sycamore tree trunks grow wider than any other hardwood in North America) and this tree is no exception, measuring a good 4 ½ feet in diameter. The tree must weigh in the thousands of pounds. Tarzan’s tree cantilevers over the middle pool of the spring, it’s huge exposed roots gripping the bank like the tentacles of an octopus squeezing its prey. We sit on the ground, our backs tucked up against the roots, and marvel at the improbability of its on-going horizontal survival: Is the tree growing toward the water or the light?
We estimate the Sycamore to be upwards of 200 years old. Water-loving Sycamores are some of the oldest trees on earth and noted for their longevity (500 – 600 years in some cases). After 200 years, the tree rots inside and hollows out, but lives on, ensuring nest sites for Elegant Trogons, owls, and many other birds. The spring’s ecological zone is packed with the stately elders.
Sycamores figure prominently in History from Hippocrates to the Ancient Egyptians and in literature e.g. the poetry of William Carlos Williams’ Young Sycamore and in the Bible:
“I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I took care of Sycamore-fig trees.” Amos 7:14
Here in the Sonoran Desert, we must be the shepherds, the stewards of all the plants and pollinators and natural springs critical to wildlife corridors on both sides of the International border.
Douglas Christie finds parallels between naturalists (in the tradition of John Muir and Thoreau), and Scientists: “…the way they have trained themselves to gaze at the world and the language they use to describe their experience of the natural world… One can find “a deeply contemplative sensibility that reveals a reverence and even a love for a world not often accounted for by the limited vocabulary of science.”
The reverence gained in my own winter of years does not escape me. It is here in the spring, that I feel most congruent with the cycle of seasons, with life and death, the fecund dark, and life-giving light. After Fall, in the great pause of winter, the animals, the land, our bodies, and our souls, are granted the balm of contemplative rest.
The sun begins to slip behind the mountains and the temperature drops fast. It’s in the low 40’s now. We are expecting a freeze tonight and we still have to measure the spring’s all-important water flow: an entire liter of fresh clear water in 5.25 seconds! My fingers, wet and starting to freeze tell me it’s time to go.
As for our mystery: the softest plant ever, we found its’ young shoots again and photographed them. Later research leads us to believe they are saplings of Velvet Ash, native to Arizona. The Velvet Ash tree can grow up to 40 feet tall in riparian habitats, its’ leaves velvety only while young.