Eastertide: Out of the Church and Into the Trees

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A family of Lesser Goldfinches Nesting in the Arizona Ash Tree overhead

I could not wait, anticipation climbing with each step up and into the Catalina mountains in the Coronado National Forest near Tucson. Like a growing number of naturalist Christians, I am tracking God in nature these days, not in church, even on Easter.

My hunger for the great outdoors has become acute and commanding. The place I am most reliably replenished waits for me around the next bend. I come away from my encounters with the natural world feeling as if a thirst I didn’t know I possessed has been utterly quenched.

Nature is no substitution for church you could claim and I may agree. I am a Benedictine Oblate accustomed to solo devotions yet church holds the promise of communion and sanctuary.

But oh, wandering the firmament! Pitch-perfect bird song surrounds me on this day, rivaling the best church choir. Spring breezes rustle through an amen of cottonwood trees shading the banks of the arroyo and the air is as sweet and redolent as I feel the Holy Spirit to be. I stride like a resident bobcat, smooth and instinctual, reveling in the God-given power of my able body.

Walking the trail along an arroyo is like walking down the aisle at a wedding with giant bouquets of bright wildflowers as tall as church pews on each side. I am mad for wildflowers, simply overcome by the diversity of shape and runaway migrant color.

Sonoran Desert wildflowers straddle the Arizona-Mexico border. This year, I think of them as Guadalupe’s Wildflowers in honor of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, a mother from Phoenix, deported this year to Mexico. The wildflower’s ephemeral flowers mirror Guadalupe’s fragile beauty, the night I.C.E. took her away.

Wildflowers: an Easter Resurrection, the annual triumph of life over death. The first to catch my eye on the path were spiky lavender Thistles and Miniature pale blue Wooley Stars. Then, dark blue Arroyo Lupines deepening in color and spreading to a carpet of purple Owl’s Clovers.

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Miniature pale blue Woolley Stars

Halfway into the hike, we stopped at cool water meandering down the arroyo, maybe the last water we’d see until late summer monsoons. As we ducked into a spot of shade under an Arizona Ash tree just greening out, a small commotion erupted in the branches overhead. A streak of yellow shot past us, landing on top of a snag on the other side of the creek bed. With binoculars, we identified a Lesser Goldfinch, one of a pair.

The couple’s nest, tucked into the tree canopy over our heads, brimmed with four big-headed chicks. Later, I learned that the seeds of the lavender thistles spotted along the path, are the favorite food of the Lesser Goldfinch and thistledown: the favorite lining material for their nests. Landscape connectivity provides all the conditions to support life: food, water, and shelter.

There is life everywhere here. The key to opening the wonder hidden in plain sight is patience; the quintessential contemplative practice. I sat as still as possible on a smooth boulder in the center of the stream, adjusted the zoom on my camera, and caught the baby birds in the nest, craning towards their mother’s return, mouths stretched open as wide as their heads.

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The Lesser Goldfinch Father of the nested chicks

Many minutes later, my companion pointed out a gray Canyon Treefrog, perfectly camouflaged next to me on the boulder. Down the stream, a healthy foot-long desert lizard sunned itself on another boulder. White, gold and black butterflies dotted the corners of my vision and bizarre looking insects skimmed the top of the stream. The air felt soft, blurred with winged things.

I dug a copy of the New Testament out of my daypack. Opening it to John 20.11, I read and wept with Mary at the loss of her son and then wept some more, this time with joy as I imagined Mary discovering him alive. Cupping my hands, I scooped up cool water from the stream, poured it over my scalp, and cooled the hot skin on my face with wet palms. My tears melded with the waters from the stream and I was refreshed and made calm.

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Still Waters

Hiking back, we noticed the white flowers first. Daisy-like Fleabane and Tufted Evening-Primrose. Then, pale yellow Paper Daisies and orange Arizona Honeysuckles.  Loveliest were snapdragon-like pink Desert Penstemons, a favorite of hummingbirds and bumblebees.

The Catalina mountain’s high desert plant species, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals are protected by sturdy American Environmental laws that manage our borderlands. Organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity implement those laws, especially critical now with a border wall in the making that would split all biological connectivity.

I believe, the urgent wilderness call I hear is no accident, but part of a greater calling. I’m reminded of Frederick Buechner’s oft-quoted “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Over the Easter weekend, faith leaders from a whole host of religions spilled out of churches and into the streets, linking arms in front of a Detention Center in Los Angeles to pray for our broken immigration system and stand for those who have been silenced. Recognizing that God has no Borders underscores a larger truth: To desecrate any one thing – the land, the animals, or the people – is to desecrate all god’s creation.

Church is everywhere these days, the scent of sacred activism perfuming the air like wildflowers, drawing us closer. It’s up to us now… we who love the land, the animals and the people, to link arms and stand for the most vulnerable among us.

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Transcending the Wall; Guadalupe’s Wildflowers

Spring 2017

Published April 8, 2017

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.”  Pablo Neruda

To Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos and all displaced peoples everywhere we say:  You belong among the wildflowers. You have the right to be free.

Each girl grabs a handful of wildflower seeds from a bowl of Bosque del Bac Habitat Restoration Wildflower Mix. The sisters, a five-year-old and a three-year-old, twirl in the wind, arms outstretched, open their palms and broadcast the seeds across the clay flat. It’s Spring in the Sonoran Desert and I am visiting my old homestead, a small ranch this young family now inhabits, located next to a Border Patrol checkpoint.

“I am remembering Guadalupe,” I say, throwing great arcs of seeds into the wind.

“Who?” the 5-year-old asks.

“Guadalupe. She’s a mother who can not be with her children right now,” I say.

“Why not?” she asks.

“Well, that’s complicated but what’s important is she can’t be with her kids.”

“But why not?” the girl presses. Her three-year-old sister twirls in the wind, hay-colored seeds swirling around her like a little dust devil.

“Guadalupe is stuck in another country but her kids live here, near us in the United States. She must miss them very much.”

The 5-year-old squints in the sun and looks at me blankly. She’s never been without her mother. She’s never had to fear.

“When will the wildflowers come?” she asks.

“They might pop up at the end of this summer, after the monsoon rains or maybe they’ll wait until next year. You never know about wildflowers.”

“So, the wildflowers are coming?” she asks again.

“Yes, they always come back. Wildflowers are tough.”

“When we see the flowers with all their beautiful colors,” I added, “we’ll remember Guadalupe and all other mothers who could be separated from their children.”

We covered up the area with nearby plant litter to protect the seeds from hungry birds. Though it seemed like we had more rain than usual this winter, the desert was rocky and dry, no growth anywhere. I remind myself it’s still early in spring.

But walking back, we spotted wild honeysuckle growing next to the wash. Squealing with delight, the girls plucked the bright orange tubular flowers, one at a time and sucked out the nectar. The 3-foot tall shock of orange was a Justicia Desert Honeysuckle; specifically a Mexican Honeysuckle. Native to the Sonoran Desert and considered a botanical treasure, the wild perennial straddles the border of Arizona and Mexico.  In Spanish, it is known as Chuparosa, a nod to the hummingbirds that feed on its nectar.

I wondered if the wildflowers are out yet in Nogales, over the line in Mexico where Guadalupe stays at a shelter protected by nuns. I imagine she like me, is marveling at a wild flower’s off-handed elegance.

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The Chuparosa; a Botanical Treasure

I don’t think I will ever be able to shake how she looked, as I witnessed in real time on social media, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayo’s detainment in Phoenix and subsequent transport to Mexico, played out in front of her kids.

Debased and humiliated, behind a gridded glass window in an ICE transport van, Guadalupe’s eyes were downcast, circled by exhaustion, her beautiful round face dulled in a slap of finality.

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Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos; Family Treasure

I remember her teenage kids huddled together on the curb at one point. Their eyes were fixed on the strip of asphalt stretched between them and their apprehended mother, like a long gray desert they could not cross. Their young shoulders hunched from the sheer weight of such a thing.

Yes, Guadalupe broke the law. Years back, she made a choice. She chose to work without papers to feed her family. Could she have made a different choice? Did she have the power?

Guadalupe: the picture of an abused woman. ICE: Abuser of the first order. Denigrate, dehumanize, then deport. Build the wall, slap the face of beauty.

For me, Guadalupe’s abduction brought back nightmares. The first nightmare had me in a car at night, pulled over by men in uniform, then arrested. In the dream, I knew the men were coming for me and I felt oddly calm, until the terror began, slowly like a tarantula lock-stepping across my chest until it was all I could do not to scream.

And Just like that, I’m back at the ranch, almost a decade ago, my neighborhood under siege, a new Border Patrol checkpoint 300 paces from my place, ICE agents in desert camo gear roaming outside my bedroom window, weapons drawn, ready to shoot even my Golden retriever, should she accidentally get loose and run outside.

In my dream, I was not surprised by their quiet efficiency, the way the officers in their sand-colored uniforms looked past me into the distance as they slapped the handcuffs on, for I had colluded with the “enemy.” Men like that, they never look you in the eye.

Occupiers and nightmares share a stealthy patience. They wait for the calm dark and the unsuspecting. They wait for the ordinary nights, the pauses in the forward march of just people and just laws. You can not tell me that they don’t know… If you remove a wildflower from the soil where its’ gently rooted, you risk its very life.

To Guadalupe and to all displaced peoples everywhere I say,  You belong among the wildflowers. You have the right to be free.

Linking arms with my fellow artists and writers on the border, I say, along with Frida Kahlo, “I paint flowers so they will not die,” and then like Frida, I lay my brushes down, open my journal and write.

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Hiding in Plain Sight: Migrating Muses of the Sonoran Desert

“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Georgia O’Keeffe

There comes a time (usually later in life) and especially now given the rancorous affairs of men when one realizes that the most radical thing you can do is pay attention to wildflowers; small worlds of vivid wonder we are often oblivious to. There are essential lessons to be learned among them, and deep soul to imbibe in the spring in the Sonoran Desert.

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Wild Desert Marigold; hierba amarilla

On a recent hike in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, 100,000 plus acres of semi-desert grasslands, seasonal wetlands, and a mountain riparian canyon located between Tucson and the AZ/MX border, we found pockets of wildflowers half buried under winter deadfall and plant litter, bending up towards the light.

I suspected spring wildflowers were not going to make much of an appearance near the border this year. We haven’t had the field size blooms we have seen in the past. And wildflowers are wild after all, coming up when they want and where they want. Yet, there they were… right at our feet.

Spring wildflowers are native to a given region or they’re migrants, growing from seed cast by wind or water or carried in the bellies of birds or hitching a ride on a hiker’s boot. Wildflowers provide sustenance for other often weary migrants like butterflies and hummingbirds. Butterflies, especially Monarchs depend on wildflower nectar to survive. Restoring native grasslands, one of the ways the Wildlife Refuge protects vital habitat corridors, goes hand in hand with landscape connectivity. Migration + landscape connectivity = healthy secure populations.

When we first arrived at the refuge, we scanned the horizon with binoculars hoping to catch a glimpse of rare Pronghorn Antelope. Miles of desert grasses waved in the Spring breeze like a magic carpet, ferrying our gazes all the way to the sacred Baboquivera Mountain range. It was when we dropped our binoculars that we realized what we really came to see. Like most good things, bright blessings were there all along, humbly hidden in front of us.

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Wild Desert Hyacinth; cobena, coveria

One of the first wildflowers I saw sported tiny cupped petals, the color of fresh orange I could almost taste on my tongue. Luckily, I had with me local Arivaca resident Maggie Moe Milinovitch’s Wildflower Field Guide from the Refuge’s Visitors Center. It is considered the best Guide to identifying our border wildflowers and a book I’ve been looking forward to using for a long time. My first wildflower turned out to be a Desert Globemallow.

I was hooked. The next time we stopped the truck, I got out and walked through the wild grass to the top of a rise. I followed a trail of wildflowers, their colorful heads peeking out between the tall grasses. Respectful of snakes, particularly rattlers, I stepped carefully, but not unlike the Greek Goddess Persephone, enchanted in the spring, I foraged ahead.

“Oh my God,” I said out loud, “Look at this one and this one!”

Squatting at eye level, I could take in the whole hillside. Multiple varieties of wildflowers cathected together in clumps of naturally occurring diversity, communities of color, families of affinity.

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Wild Mexican Poppy w/ Fairy Dusters; amapolita del campo huajillo, pelo de angel

The most ubiquitous were the Mexican Poppy A.K.A. the Gold Poppy. The Mexican Poppy, usually the first wildflower to come up in the spring, was already closing its petals on the shady side of the hill in preparation for sunset. The poppies were tucked into a cloud of magenta and white fairy dusters, a perennial native shrub. An important feed for butterflies, hummingbirds, bees and cattle, the ephemeral fairy dusters are easily mistaken for wildflower.

In the blue pages of the color-coded field guide, I matched purple spikes to Owl’s Clover, and a single lavender-blue lily to a Desert Hyacinth, and bunches of pinkish-violet flowers to Stork’s Bill Filaree, a member of the geranium family. The most striking of the magenta group seen were the tall tubular flowered Parry’s Penstemon.

I discovered Desert Marigolds, a member of the Sunflower family, attracting pollinators – a good sign – and then the most spectacular find: The Desert Mariposa, an Arizona Protected plant. The Desert Mariposa, the most beautiful of desert wildflowers is also referred to as the Star Tulip.

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Desert Mariposa; cobena amarilla

 “In a rich moonlit garden, flowers open beneath the eyes of entire nations terrified to acknowledge the simplicity of the beauty of peace.” Aberjhani

© 2017 Valarie lee James