Welcome friends - I'm posting published articles and sundry items as time allows. Most subjects pertain to conservation, photo trekking and tourism in borderlands Arizona, USA. More of my articles can be seen on my publisher's website

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Article: "Sonoran Moods"

(Published April 2008 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

Isn’t the Sonoran desert grand? 

It's not just big, having a range northward almost to Prescott and southward across the border to the tip of Mexico’s Baja California. I also mean fabulous and awesome. 

Being one of you, a borderlands photographer, it’s a bit hard for me not to capture images common to the Sonoran desert. A venerated subject of nature photography, the Sonoran desert includes archetypal landscapes and the saguaro cactus. The iconic image of the Saguaro is clichéd, but for the purpose of my column this month, so what! The saguaro is grand, and enduringly popular.

That said, my photography often veers away from Sonoran images, dwelling instead on scenes in higher-elevation zones of the Santa Cruz river area, such as the mesquite-bosque, desert scrub, desert grassland, and riparian zones of this region. Sonoran images are well covered already by other photographers, and besides, our borderlands region offers so many diverse alternatives. However, the nearby Sonoran expanse begs my interpretation of it.

The village of Tubac lies on the eastern edge of the Sonoran desert, near a transitional grasslands area bordering the Chihuahuan desert farther east. I feel a bit sorry for points east since, by and large, they don’t have the saguaro and appear sparse without it!

Threats to the Sonoran desert are many and extreme. Ignorant and greedy development is foremost, and illegal border activity, off-road vehicle abuse and invasive species such as buffelgrass add to the crisis. Currently, freeway by-pass construction is a major threat in Pima county which must be fought vigorously.

But even with all the stress imposed by humans, the Sonoran desert still provides a world of unique photographic subjects, including vast open spaces with few scars yet, carpets of seasonal wildflowers and thousands of native American sites of photogenic rock art, most of which are still secret.

Broad expanses. 
Among trackless open spaces nearby is the Tohono O’odham Nation. This native American land is a giant slab of southern Arizona which, in a way, is another Sonoran desert national park which will never be developed (except, of course, at the edges with casinos). You should go visit this vast place. If you do, and want to head into the back country, you will need a permit that’s available by calling tribal headquarters in the town of Sells. Here, your landscape photography should often feature the sky, especially during monsoon season. The desert's clear blue skies do actually become tiresome; the clouds of the brief stormy seasons create the most awesome skies available anywhere on the planet, providing the drama of color and texture to the sky.

Wildflowers are among nature’s most popular desert photo subjects, under the right conditions of moisture and temperature. February and March are the best times for Sonoran wildflowers and, locally, some of the best places to see them are Picacho Peak State Park, Ironwood Forest National Monument, and of course, Saguaro National Park, which is split into eastern and western districts. I often visit the eastern district’s southerly-facing Hope Camp Trail for a multitude of wild blossoms. Seasonal snow runoff provides an extra benefit: streams and waterfalls.

The big guy.
Another wildflower, the big one, is the Saguaro blossom which blooms later, peaking in late May. Also, saguaro oddities are a favorite photographic subject in the Sonoran desert. The strange and fantastic shapes of the arms of mature saguaro, including the rare crested saguaro, a mutation, have infinite variety. Once you’ve found something unusual, it’s best to work carefully on the angle of your photo to capture the odd shape in the best way, often upward with the sky in the background to provide clear contrast.

Archaeological sites. 
Rock art can be found in Ironwood Forest National Monument, but you must search for it, as sites are not officially marked in order to preserve them. If you discover pictographs or petroglyphs, never touch them or walk on them. Just take lots of photos from a short distance. When you do, make sure plenty of light exists to highlight the faded artwork, preferably in open sunlight or with flash. Rock art often creates fine black-and-white images and these can be improved by increasing contrast to elicit the patterns clearly.

Be careful.
The open Sonoran desert involve risks existing throughout this region, only more so. To paraphrase "Duke" Wayne, everything in this country either sticks you, stings you, or bites you. I never wear shorts while hiking even on the hottest days. The primary danger is rattlesnakes, and 80 percent of bites happen in the lower legs. You might consider buying gaiters, or lower leg chaps, designed to be snake-proof. The other 20 percent of bites are in the hands and arms, so always be careful where you reach. There’s no treatment for rattlesnake bites except anti-venom administered by medical personnel.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Roads Caller

Article: "Bees, Butterflies and Blossoms"

(Published March 2008 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

This month’s topic is a very manly one. It's “mucho macho.” 

Real men love bees, butterflies and blossoms. Now, spring is just around the corner in the borderlands and very few photo opportunities during the season will surpass the vivid beauty of this topic.

In a way, this article is a sequel to last month’s, which was about birds, since bees and butterflies provide a similar delight and challenge to the borderlands photographer.

Bees are bathing in a saguaro cactus blossom's pollen. How 
can they fly like that?
I enjoy taking close-up images; some of my favorite shots are close-ups. One of my books is on this month’s topic [link]. Close-up photography reveals a whole new world that escapes most humans. Also, there are probably more opportunities for capturing striking close-up images than for landscape photography – there’s simply more content available, if you look for it.

In close-up photography, the subtle play of light and shadow and shape combines with a rainbow of colors coming from your subject, creating a universe of options. As with bird photography, the subject’s surroundings can turn a bee, butterfly, or blossom photo into artwork.

To me, butterflies are as beautiful as birds and probably easier to photograph. Getting close to butterflies for good shots is not as difficult as with birds, since generally they don’t scare off so easily. There are exceptions, of course, and some butterflies are skittish subjects for portraiture.

I use a zoom telephoto lens for taking most butterfly photos. I’ve come to call it my “butterfly lens” since it allows me to position myself at just the right distance from the critter to fill a frame, while providing narrow enough depth of field, or focus area, for the image to have a blurred background. This background is what can produce a fine image, when your subject itself is well focused. The background may be filled with color, shadow, and light but blurring it allows the photographer to highlight the photo’s central subject, the pollinating critter.

Bee and prickly poppy blossom.
In borderland Arizona, I started out taking cactus blossom pictures, which is common. While a flower by itself can be a great image, a better composition is a picture that combines a shot of a flowering plant with an energetic pollinator. This does require patience to achieve the right composition. The position of the critter should either emphasize its pollinating function or its inherent beauty, or both.

A bee or butterfly which is hovering is the best, requiring a high camera shutter speed. Technically, butterflies don’t really hover, so catching them in flight with the camera is sometimes harder than capturing a bee.

A dazzling blooming ocotillo and friend.
There are many specialty lenses used for close-ups. By and large, they are called macro lenses. Whichever lens you use, depth of field is the key to these images. Your focus depth should be enough to highlight the subject but narrow enough to blur and simplify the background so that it’s not too “busy” and doesn’t distract from the subject. When using a zoom lens, the farther you zoom, the less depth you get.

Many artful shots, as distinguished from reference shots, don’t require the subject to be entirely in focus. With butterflies, it’s important to have a clear image of the head and antennae and proboscis (or “tongue” which sips nectar). With flowers, often just parts of them are required to be in focus, such as the stamen and pistil together, or several petals. 

The wings of butterflies are the highlights of the show, and it’s good to remember that the undersides of wings sometimes are not as striking or colorful as the top of the wings.

Dragonflies and damselflies are very fine subjects, too. These critters are delightfully delicate; it's best to get their entire wings focused if you can, in order to highlight the detail. Improving your odds is the fact that dragonflies and damselflies are more patient posers than bees and butterflies.

Finally, for the amateur naturalist in borderland Arizona, the scientific identification of a photo’s subject is a big part of the fun. Field guides exist en masse to help you with this, and can be used for taking notes while you shoot, or better, back at the ranch with your finished pictures in front of you. I often use the internet for reference. For identification of any critter, it’s best if you achieve shots from different angles, and for flowers, you should include shots of its stem and leaves for quicker identification.

Good hunting.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Roads Caller

Article: "Birds in Action"

(Published February 2008 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

The high season for birding is upon us. The next few months are a peak time for our feathered friends, and for those human friends who visit southern Arizona to witness the spectacle. 

I’m neither a bird expert nor a specialist in bird photography. But I have grown very fond of them since moving to the borderlands.

The birds I’ve photographed are mostly common, either as permanent residents of this area or as migratory visitors. I don’t spend a lot of time hunting for a particular bird to fill an objective, but instead I roll the dice and take what the day provides. Common birds make great photo subjects.

Ash-throated Flycatcher
Patience is a virtue when taking pictures of birds. Many photo professionals use blinds and sit and wait like a hunter. My style is an impatient one: I’m a marauder with my finger on the shutter like a gun's trigger. Generally speaking, a hunter's luck is improved by venturing outdoors a whole lot. When arriving at a likely spot, try sitting still and waiting (unlike me) in one spot for 20 minutes or more. Let the birds come to you.

Mr. & Mrs. Acorn Woodpecker
I’ve built a selection of bird images due to living near Madera Canyon of the Santa Rita mountains. In south-central Arizona, the geographic sphere of this newspaper, Madera Canyon with its creek is a major birding destination. Any place with a spot of water in this area will support plenty of winged creatures, as long as there also exists good native tree and brush habitat.

Apart from Madera Canyon, some other central borderlands birding destinations are: the lush cottonwood-willow riparian environment of the Santa Cruz River, especially from Rio Rico north to Tubac; the river’s Sonoita Creek tributary from Patagonia downstream; Aliso Springs, Puerto Springs and Sycamore Canyon in the Tumacacori Highlands area, and Arivaca Cienega; Bog Hole in the cinematic San Rafael Valley, Parker Canyon Lake and the famous Ramsey Canyon near Sierra Vista.

Next I'll list a few tips I learned the old fashioned way. These tips mainly involve getting as close as possible to your prey. As mentioned, let the birds come to you.

Use a telephoto. I’m not really big on hardware, as in comparing the length of my lens to the other guy’s, but one piece of equipment is necessary for taking pictures of birds, and that’s a telephoto or zoom telephoto lens. I use zoom telephotos, either a 70-300 mm or a newer 80-400 mm vibration-reduction (VR) lens. The latter lens is a heavy brute and its effectiveness beyond the older lens is marginal. Some birders use the new binoculars with built-in cameras.

A Roadrunner, "peacock of the desert."
Specialists in bird photography employ even more powerful and expensive lenses which bring in huge amounts of light and magnification, and require a tripod or a monopod. (In Alaska long ago, I met a bird photographer using a very long lens mounted atop a contraption that was built for holding a camera as if it were a rifle or machine gun, complete with grips for both hands and a gun-like trigger.)

My style is a rapid-fire one, always on the go, with no tarrying about. So, I don't use a tripod at all for birds. I’ve blurred many a shot that way, but I’ve also achieved other great ones which wouldn’t have been possible while lugging a tripod. The VR lens mentioned above is made for that, heavy as it is. My style is to photograph while trekking actively in the wild, avoiding controlled circumstances. 

Beauty is close up. Even a common bird looks extraordinary if you can get right next to it. You’ll discover that a plain bird, or the female of a species which is usually less resplendent than the male, displays wonderfully delicate patterns of feather texture and color when viewed in extreme close-up.

Orange-crowned Warbler upon landing.
The eyes have it. In the movies and fashion photography, the eyes of the subject are the focal point of the universe. This applies no less to bird photography. If you have a telephoto, you should often be able to get in close enough to capture the bird’s eyes. A point of sunlight reflected from dark eyes is even better. The points of light are tiny but they add dynamic charm to the image. Larger birds of prey such as owls and hawks have the most gorgeous eyes. Capturing them in a picture is mandatory. 

Direct sunlight can be good or evil. The best part of birds is their feathers. The way to exploit this beauty is to achieve a side view of the critter using uniform lighting from direct sunlight. Bright sunlight highlights a bird's spectacular feather colors and textures. Luck is needed to avoid the high contrast of direct sunlight and shadows caused by objects and the bird's position. For some bird and hummingbird photography, flash is used; high dollar equipment includes flash extenders.

The surroundings and circumstances make the art. As you acquire more experience, you'll master the skill of capturing a bird with perfect light and clarity, and yet, the image may be static. This is a reference photo. An art photo, to make a distinction, will use the qualities of the milieu, such as colors, shapes, motion, or shadows, to create an effect which enhances the overall image. 
Action pictures are best. Good pictures with motion often are the hardest to achieve. In your art photo, the bird will be doing more than just sitting and resting on a twig or fence post; it'll be hunting or flying or playing with a mate. This dynamism will add a flash of borderlands magic.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Article "A Charm Not Yet Lost"

(Published December 2007 in Arivaca Connection.)

My motivation was strictly commercial. Working for the highway department, I was planning a new freeway from Nogales to Yuma along the international border, which will double as a border wall.

The border wall (in 2007).
If this sounds farfetched, you haven’t lived in modern-day Arizona for very long.

For me, in reality, there’s nothing more charming and anachronistic than an international border fence which is comprised of a couple strands of beat-up barbed wire designed to keep the cattle in check.

A day-long rocky photo-trek, demanding of one’s ankles and all the rest, satisfied my photographer’s curiosity and need to chronicle the length of a fabled canyon, in its fall-color splendor. Most of all, it revealed an international border monumental in its political magnitude but archaic in its appearance.

Believe it or not, I’m hesitant to talk about it, since in current-day Arizona, just mentioning an existing length of this old fence begs fate to bulldoze it overnight for something much bigger, and uglier. 

Poets will write with more eloquence about the societal ugliness that surrounds a border wall. They’ll write about the wall as a symbol of many things, of the failure of governments or the futility of this or that. But I prefer a naïve conclusion that says that I’m coincidentally witnessing a era of wall-building that is but temporary, in the span of the natural world.

I believe gullibly that the entire proposed border wall may yet not be built, due to an imminent new federal administration. And, I believe that if it is built, the wall will eventually be taken down (but probably not in my lifetime).

Yikes! My toe was an illegal immigrant to Mexico.
Trekking to the border inside the depths of the legendary Sycamore Canyon, of the Pajarita Wilderness, took me through a day of complete solitude. On that day not even a nature-lover was to be seen on my path. The only mega-fauna I encountered was what appeared to be a Mexican cow having scooted northward under the creek-span of a decrepit border fence. 

A 10-hour round-trip forced march of rock-hopping and bushwhacking propelled me the 11 miles to this fence, with stops for photo-taking, of course. Rewarded by the raw spectacle of the canyon around every turn, I passed the test of endurance. Satisfying also, was the sight of a charming little wire barrier at the mouth of the canyon, marking the international border, and, by its unimposing quaintness, symbolizing so much more that is being lost. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Roads Caller

Article: "I'll Stick to Butterflies"

(Published September 2007 in Arivaca Connection.)

There is risk to trekking alone in the wilderness. Most experts advise against it.  The risks are of no laughing matter, and I treat them seriously.  By far the greatest risk is one of accident and not being able to summon help.  My cell phone, which I use only for emergencies, is of course worthless in the more remote borderland areas.  When I’m a few feet from the interstate, it starts working.  I would need a satellite phone.

As a gentle nature photographer, I’m basically a chronicler of tadpoles and beetle larvae.  The hardships of trekking remote areas are rewarded by the discovery of unique photo-opportunities.  Photographers, when working, do not hike, and that’s why they often go alone.  Hiking implies steadiness.  A photographer’s pace is maddeningly erratic to normal people.  Transit time is wasted time, so getting to places is often speedy and harrowing.  Then, once a “photo-op” is found, the lingering in the heat can often be too much for companions.

I was by myself mid-day August 19 in Pine Canyon, which runs roughly north from Atascosa Peak near Ruby Road towards the Tumacacoris.  Pine Canyon runs into Peck Canyon, which separates the Atascosas from the Tumacacoris.  Just finished photographing a large (during monsoon) waterfall, I decided to climb up the ridge above the waterfall and perch for lunch.  While there, a hundred feet above the canyon, I finished lunch quickly since I was hungry and, moreover, the one-half submarine sandwiches from Safeway are now only 3 inches long, so lunch went down quickly.

Reflecting on this, I was suddenly disappointed to hear voices.  Solitude is a goal and reward of being a nature photographer, and nothing interferes with nature photography like people.  Glancing down to the waterfall where I had just been, I saw that several young men had just come down the same canyon I was going up, but I had missed them by being on higher ground, while they had passed below me.

They rested for a time, but it was brief, because in their business transit time is also wasted time.  I realized they were all young hale Hispanics, probably not out to admire the wildflowers.  They carried neither water, food, nor supplies, only huge packs of contraband.  They all got up and then I pulled out my telephoto lens.

They started to head out from the shade and I snapped some shots.  They marched off towards Peck Canyon and perhaps east to the area between Rio Rico and the town of Tumacacori.  I then waited a bit, headed the opposite direction, and trekked out over the ridgetops, a task twice as hard but probably more than twice as safe.  I eventually lurched back to my truck, and then to Ruby Road, on which I flagged down two young serious border patrol agents to whom I gave my report.  What the agents did with the information, including GPS coordinates, I don’t know.  I assume they used their radios to call it in.

Press: "Art in Wilderness"

The book I did in collaboration with Sky Island Alliance and several other artists & musicians, 2007.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Roads Caller

Article: "Photo Composition: Positioning Yourself"

(Published December 2007 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

As this column has begun to explore, borderlands Arizona is chock-full of photo opportunities that, if political, would make a presidential candidate blush (almost).

The critters and plants around the home are close-in targets for the camera hound, and local watery places, though scarce, can provide even greater access to colorful natural prey for capture by the camera lens.

These are dove eggs in a nest built on top of the stump of a dead 
saguaro. I snapped this photo in the Ironwood Forest National 
Monument, northwest of Tucson. Seeing the mother fly away as I
approached, I could guess that a nest might be there. It was
up high at about my chin height, and by raising my camera
above my head, I took a picture of the scene with a nice perspective.
 I then rapidly departed, allowing the mom to return.
Going near or far, the position in which you put yourself – your body, if I may, can be equally important to creating a photograph that stands out from the rest. Moreover, positioning the camera away from your face can often lead to a much better shot as well.

Away from your face, you say? Yes, many photographers, no matter how much of a beginner they may be, learn that holding a camera (or cell phone camera) up over your head when you’re in the middle of a crowd can mean an unobstructed shot of that sports play or of the celebrity walking by.

A good example of variations in a photo 
made possible by subtle body movements, 
either vertical or horizontal, is in this panel 
of five pictures of the same 
Rufous-crowned sparrow perched on a 
cholla. I took these pictures with a telephoto 
lens near Amado in the Cerro Colorado 
Mountains, and I changed my position 
only a foot or so in any direction. 
Yes, the bird cooperated by staying in one place!
The borderlands photographer will learn that critter shots will often be best when taken at eye-level of the critter. So, whether it’s a Gila monster or a Gila woodpecker, it pays to adjust your height, if possible, to be on the same level as the critter.

So, when talking about reptiles, for example, this means that you must get down and dirty to get a dramatic shot, instead of the more common angle from the normal human standing position.

This normal human standing position is often the bane of the good photograph. A little physical discomfort may be required; in fact, professional photographers learn quickly that being self-conscious about their physical position is not a good career move. If that lizard or snake (providing you’re not too close) is on the ground ahead of you or on a rock, then getting down on your knees is often required. 

This is one reason always to wear long pants when photo-trekking in borderlands Arizona. The overall reason to do this, to paraphrase John Wayne, is that when you head outdoors, everything in this country either sticks you, stings you, or bites you.

But getting on your knees is actually not low enough, sometimes. A truly ground-level shot of a low-flying or low-hanging critter may require you to put that camera right down on or near the ground, without you looking through the eyepiece.

Many shots, such as the one of the sports play I mentioned earlier, will require you to just guess at the angle, and then press that shutter button many, many times. This is one beauty of digital photography these days, allowing you to take dozens of shots, many of which will be bad, and then just review the screen and erase the worst ones. If the shot turns out clear but the horizon is slanted, you can always crop it later on a computer.

This dragonfly had perched himself on the end of some tree twigs in
Madera Canyon. The first photo has a cluttered hillside background. 
By bending down a bit and aiming upward, I was able to capture the same 
subject with a clean background of sky which helps the viewer focus 
on the critter, achieving a more striking result.
The same ground-level lens-pointing guesswork applies to any other angular situation, including seeing around corners and taking a high-level shot downward (such as in this article’s bird nest picture). In fact, for those of us getting older, holding the camera away from your face sometimes prevents some hard physical bending which can be arduous at extreme angles.

Even subtle movements of your position can improve results dramatically, especially if you keep in mind the background of your picture. This article’s dragonfly picture changes significantly by forgetting human-height during composition, and moving the camera just a foot or so downward and aiming upward.

Composing an image usually starts with finding a subject, but you should always keep in mind the background of your picture too. If you’re lucky, as with this article’s bird pictures, some backgrounds offer a multitude of options. Experiment by moving yourself up or down, or sideways just a bit, and you’ll see the difference it can make.

Roads Caller

Article: "Heading Out? Head to Water"

(Published November 2007 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

In last month’s column we discussed borderlands Arizona nature photography as it pertained to backyard nature. Much is to be said about opportunities in your backyard for those who are camera-enthused.

A backyard has many of the photography benefits, and few of the risks. Natural habitat in many of the local developed neighborhoods is plentiful enough to attract many plants and animals of southern Arizona’s native and visiting species alike. Indeed, the super-natural care and watering that many of our backyards enjoy can attract even more of southern Arizona’s denizens than elsewhere.

San Rafael Valley - Bog Hole. This valley is often mistaken for the Midwest, and has been used as the setting for countless movies. It’s one of my favorite places in borderlands Arizona. Bog Hole is a state Fish & Game property, and is partly artificial  due to a wide dam.

But from time to time, the call of the wild entices the borderlands photographer to venture beyond the home and into the surrounding untouched lands that still exist nearby. This call to venture forth comes from our proximity to many great wild places, one of the enticing features of this place. A venturesome new resident, eager to put a camera through the paces, often will research nearby spots that have superb opportunities for outdoor photography due to their status as a desert oasis.

One rule of photography is to surround yourself with multiple opportunities, which watery areas can provide. No matter how good a photographer you are, your chances improve in these places that a frame or two will be truly special. 

Reputation and a map may lead a borderlands photographer to well-known area spots such as Sabino Canyon in the Catalinas, Patagonia Lake near Nogales, the cienega at Arivaca, Ramsey Canyon near Sierra Vista, Agua Caliente Park in east Tucson, or Brown Canyon beneath Baboquivari Peak where the water is often just below the surface, and where exists one of only two natural rock bridges over a waterway in southern Arizona.
San Pedro River – Hot Springs
Canyon/Muleshoe Ranch. 

The quarry for this intrepid photo-trekker often will be birds, since southern Arizona is such fertile ground for sighting hundreds of species which converge or live here. Water attracts all other types of critters, of course, as well as wildflowers and everything else which makes a picture even more special than a typical desert landscape shot. When you encounter cattails, fish, and frogs, you know that you’ve found a source of year-around desert water.

Watery spots for photography are just about everywhere after a rainfall, or snowfall. Often the best time to go out is right after a storm passes.  The aroma of wet earth and flora are enough to entice most people outdoors by itself.

Rainfall, of course, often brings out the best in the land and borderlands Arizona is no exception to this rule. Ocotillos sprout leaves almost immediately and wildflowers can spring up quickly, given the right overall conditions.

For many of my images, borderland Arizona’s precious, fragile spring waters are the lifeblood. They give birth to the hue and substance of the area’s natural beauty. A vestige of their earlier forms, southern Arizona’s spring waters often sink into the parched ground within a short distance of their surface origin. But these tiny and charming wild waters of Arizona continue to sustain vibrant wild life, enchanting those who discover these hidden spots.

What a major topic water is!  It is Arizona’s most important topic, and is the West’s most important topic, and is fast becoming the most urgent one for the planet.

Some local watery places, such as Sonoita Creek or the Santa Cruz River, are now flowing above ground mostly due to the effluent from wastewater treatment plants. Most of the natural flow of the Santa Cruz River, and that of many other Arizona rivers, disappeared decades ago due to the lowered underground water table from increased agriculture, mining, and urban development.  Along with that flow went much of the riparian habitat supporting the plants and critters that borderlands photographers now seek. Even CAP water, brought here by canal all the way from the Colorado River, robs this habitat: the lower Colorado riparian areas and delta have been mostly decimated to provide this water to us and millions of others.

Wild yellow Columbine at Sycamore
Creek near the Arizona-Mexico border.
The San Pedro River is one of the few Arizona rivers still battling to avoid such a fate.  When folks wonder how much development Arizona can eventually support, I tell them my answer is sadly simple. The rivers tell me that the natural capacity was already exceeded long ago.

But engineering and good science often is able to stabilize or re-create small patches of watery habitat necessary for wild things to flourish. An example is the Sweetwater Wetland in Tucson. Some even argue that old ranch stock-tanks support more wildlife than simply letting things go back to nature. 

Discovering watery spots in the borderlands area can sometimes require a very arduous hike involving no trails whatsoever. Prior research is needed to determine how tough things are going to be, in relation to your capabilities. Many readers might not be able or willing to reach such places. Preparation must be made, too, for a safe journey for yourself and for your camera equipment. Many rules exist and you should follow them, including the foremost rule: always carry plenty of water. Second, always watch for rattlesnakes and become paranoid about where you put your hands and feet at all times. Always tell someone where you’re going. 

Other rules are to carry a cell-phone, which may or may not work in some of these places. Carry a knife, toilet paper, a first-aid kit, a GPS or topographical map, and for your camera, a container easy for protecting it and retrieving it when needed. Also take cleaning equipment for your camera. Multiple camera lenses may be necessary for birds versus landscapes. Finally, I’ve found that in addition to sturdy boots or wet/dry trekking sandals, your best buddy is a small clean towel, to use with some water to freshen up in the field.

Threats to these places are, bluntly, staggering, and I’ve included references to some groups waging the battle.

Sorry, I’m not going to make it too easy on you by divulging exact directions. Finding places builds character. Men love to ask directions, don’t they? 

Friday, July 1, 2011

Roads Caller

Article: "Lochiel Lamentation" - More Scars upon Southern Arizona

(Published April 2007 in Arivaca Connection.)

When I arrived in Arizona only three years ago, Lochiel, and the entire superb agricultural San Rafael Valley east of Nogales, represented an intoxicating turn backward in time, to a more distant and perhaps innocent Arizona, a rural and remote place that remained relatively unscarred by heavy hands.

Sometimes called a ghost town, Lochiel’s residents would 
probably not consider themselves as ghosts.
Sure, there was the great and colorful ranching history that had its missteps with overgrazing and degradation of Arizona’s previously vast cienegas, or wetlands.  There were scars left by mining, too, some of them gigantic as a result of the open-pit method.  But in my mind I forgave these defacements of nature because these economic activities were part of Arizona’s heritage, just as boundless open spaces were part of this heritage.

As soon as I began to get serious about turning my camera to the land, sky, and their critters, however, I rapidly began to become aware of the tremendous threats to Southern Arizona.  It seemed that every time I discovered a new place, there immediately occurred an impending attack upon it.  Massively wasteful exurban sprawl at Red Rock next to Ironwood Forest.  Proposed new open pit mines from outside interests in the Santa Rita Mountains and eastern Santa Cruz County.  A proposed freeway through pristine San PedroValley.

Lochiel had a road bulldozed through its center, which 
follows the entirety of this new vehicle barrier to
 the river and beyond.  What additional fencing is to come?
I concluded with dread that Southern Arizona is under attack.  Whether it comes from unsustainable development techniques or invasive species – plant or human, it is not to be minimized – the natural and rural heritage of Southern Arizona is under massive attack.  I further concluded that Southern Arizona is no longer a place to be exploited, it is a place to be preserved.  And I’ll probably spend the rest of my days coming to terms with that.

Lochiel has such a great history: the place where Fray Marcos de Niza, the first European west of the Rockies, passed in 1539, mining, ranching, and Pancho Villa.  And the charm of the beautiful valley drained by the Santa Cruz River south into Mexico before it turns northward back to the U.S., a river segment which still has natural-flowing water.  Also, more recently, for the movie buff, the Lochiel area is a place of film locations with “Oklahoma” and John Wayne’s “McClintock”.  Most recently, it is a place of conservation with the San Rafael Ranch State Park and other preservation efforts.

The bucolic valley can be seen beyond Lochiel, and the border (a simple cattle fence to the right of the cottonwoods) the way it looked two years ago.
The dilemma of illegal border crossings is a complex one based in politics and social, legal and international policies. From an environmental point of view, the effect of walls on our border can have the intended effect of limiting vehicle and human traffic which scars the land deeply.  But, as these pictures show, walls, depending upon their attributes and accompanying features such as roads and lights, can be massive problems in themselves.

A charm is lost, but other things are gained. One thing is certain, however, and that is that the cost of installing these walls is only exceeded by the cost of removing them.  If all political and social causes of our Mexican-border wall construction were suddenly erased, who would then pay to erase the walls and their scars?