Category Archives: Arizona

Mass Extinction Events

Cactus on front lawn in San Tan Valley near where we lived this year

Though there have been awesome changes in the Grand Canyon, they pale in comparison to what happened around the world.

As if these changes in the Grand Canyon  were not enough, 5 times in the past, nearly all of life was destroyed. These are called the 5 mass extinction events. The last mass extinction event occurred about 65 million years ago.

This was much earlier than the carving of the Grand Canyon. In that event the dinosaurs who had been ruling the earth met their match and became extinct.  Although there is more than one theory that has been advanced to explain this event, the one most widely accepted by scientists, is the one where it is believed after an asteroid hit the surface of the earth, exploding on impact, creating at first sudden radical changes on our planet, and raising ash and dust that blackened the sky, causing massive loss of lives.  75% of all species living on the earth vanished as a result of this mass extinction, but it was not the most destructive.  That event brought an end to the dominance of the planet by dinosaurs.

Some earlier mass extinction events resulted in an even greater loss of life. One wiped out about 95% of all species on earth. But each time life rebuilt itself as a result of evolution. That is what life does. During those 65 million years some astonishing forms of life were created such as orchids and cactuses.

Orchids (a clump of yellow lady’s-slippers. Manitoba’s most common orchid

Nature always bats last. Thank goodness for evolution.


Visible Changes




There is no doubt about it, the Grand Canyon is grand. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I is also fascinating because it makes long history visible before your eyes. We did not visit it this  year when we were in Arizona, but we have visited it many times. Some places brag about being worth the trip even though the claims are dubious. The Grand Canyon has a right to brag.

You can see some of the history of such astounding changes in places like the Grand Canyon of Arizona. The geological history of the American Southwest revealed there makes visible what has happened in the last 1.7 billion or so years. That is long before there was any human life on the planet.

Each layer of rock is displayed in different colours. It may be the best record of the earth’s formation anywhere in the world. Almost 2 billion years of history are recorded there although the most dramatic changes occurred recently about 5-6 million years ago when the mighty Colorado River began to carve its astonishing path through the canyon walls. Even that  relatively recent history, includes no history of human life, because there was none.

The fossils found in each layer tell the story of the development of life on earth. The Vishnu Schist which is one of the oldest layers, near the bottom of the canyon, was formed when the first life on the planet, bacteria like creatures and algae first emerged.

Many of the other layers were created by billions of small marine animals, when this area was submerged by ocean. Their shells eventually accumulated to such an extent over hundreds of millions of years that they built up into thick layers of limestone that we can see today from the top of the canyon, looking a mile down. I am always amazed to think that a sea covered this incredible land.



As far as plant life goes, since I self-identify as a flower guy, they have been around for at least a 125 million years or so.  During that time, they evolved astonishingly from tiny barely visible flowers to glorious huge dahlias, from nearly inconspicuous grasses to majestic Redwood trees. All of those are flowering plants!

Life really is grand.  We must learn to appreciate all life. Not just human life. That is part of what I call a new attitude to nature.


A History of Environmental Catastrophes


Monument Valley on Arizona-Utah border

These photos were all taken on an earlier trip to Arizona.

David Attenborough in his documentary summing up his life abandoned his traditional approach of nature documentaries where he carefully avoided making personal statements. This time he made exactly those statements he had avoided in the past.

Attenborough had travelled to every part of the globe. Sadly, I have not, but I have travelled extensively and have seen some remarkable things too and have given some modest thought to the same issues that have been bothering him. Like him I have been to some extraordinary places as well. Perhaps I have a little something useful to contribute as well. I have been around for 74 years and likely will not be lucky enough to live another 20 years like he has done. As he showed in his film, I will also include in these posts to follow some photographs of where I have been and creatures and organisms I have been lucky enough to see.

North Window Monument Valley

When Attenborough was very young, in 1937, the human population was “only” 2.3 billion, there was “only” 280 parts per million of carbon in our atmosphere and 66%n of the world’s wilderness remained intact. Since then, things have changed dramatically and our species is largely responsible for that. Today there are more than 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere.

Artist’s point was a favorite spot of the director John Ford who shot many of his westerns starring John Wayne in Monument Valley

Scientists have learned that over the nearly 4 billion years that life has lived on this planet, life has changed dramatically. Usually it has changed slowly, but it has always changed and given millions of more years the changes are likely to be astounding.

Over time, some species die out. New species evolve after organisms adapt to changes on earth. It is an amazing process. After about 4 billion years bacteria can evolve into humans. Think about that.  Our earliest ancestor was something in the nature of bacteria! Life has evolved from microscopic organisms to giant creatures. Some creatures on the other hand, like crocodiles have hardly evolved at all.


Totem Pole at Monument Valley

About once every 100 million years or so, planet earth has experienced truly catastrophic losses of species. These are called extinction events.  There have been 5 such extinction events. One of them led to the loss of about 95% of the species on earth. And what remained have evolved into the incredible array of biodiversity we have today. An enormous number of organisms have died out. An enormous number of species have died out too.

Great natural forces have also impacted the earth and the creative organisms on it. For example, one of my favorite places on earth is Monument Valley in northern Arizona. I am constantly amazed by the large number of people that come regularly to Arizona like we do but have never visited this place of such astounding beauty. I think it might be the most beautiful place on the planet yet far more people I meet here have been to Las Vegas than Monument Valley even though both are similar distances from Phoenix. The powers of erosion by wind, water, and ice applied to geological forces that created the enormous changes to the landscape including carved mesas and buttes.

Change is a relentless part of life. The only thing constant is change. We must live with it or die. No matter how much some us hate change we cannot avoid it. Mother Nature never stands still.

Silly Mountain



Silly Mountain is the first Mountain I ever climbed. It is a pretty modest mountain of course, but I loved the walk up with the Driedgers a few years back in my first winter in Arizona. I will never forget the experience.

It was not just the flowers that were gorgeous.  The desert turned green! Hard to believe. A green desert but that can happen in the Sonoran Desert which gets more rainfall than any other North American desert.


A dead Saguaro and one very much alive

But this year was different. This year the flowers were stunning.

Today the flowers added a luster to the walk. We did not walk up the mountain. We just strolled at the base and took a few photographs.


One of the things that was striking about Silly Mountain is not just the yellow flowers but the base of green. All the rain we had in the autumn last year and then from January to March have produced an abundance of vegetation.








Far from the Maddening Crowd


These are not great photos because they were taken directly into the sun but I have tried to capture the crowds that came to look at wildflowers at Lost Dutchman State Park Arizona. I estimated there were about 250 flower lovers.

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect to see such crowds coming to look at wildflowers.

The people were of all ages. Old Codgers like me to young bright and eager kids. It was spectacular. Wonders never cease.



If you click on the photo and make it bigger I think you will see what the park is usually like. Finally I was far from the Maddening crowd after I lost them. I took a wrong turn.   How can you lose 250 people?


Hawk’s nest in a Saguaro


There was nest of a hawk or eagle in the crotch of this Saguaro butwas empty.  It might be that no bird was occupying it, but also it could be that the crowds were spooking the birds and not able to nest.  I hate to think that eggs in the nest were not being attended to because of the crowds.

This is another shot of the saguaro with an empty nest. Somebody ought to have warned the birds that this would be a super bloom year and hence they would be plagued by flower children.



Ancestral Spirituality

Great House

Like many other Indigenous people of North America in a number of other places, the Great House of the Ancestral People of the Sonoran Desert was carefully aligned with the sun. In fact, 17 different astronomical observations could be made from the Great House.  First of all, the house was carefully aligned between North and South.


There was also a round hole “window” that once each year lined up perfectly with the sun on the day of the summer solstice. Another rectangular hole carefully marked the spring and fall equinoxes.


As well one square window lined up with the Lunar Standstill that occurred every 18.6 years. What is the Lunar Standstill? For the first half of each year, the moon rises during the day in phases from near-full to a mere thin crescent, rising earlier each month from early afternoon to early morning. In July, the moon rises between the rocks as a nearly invisible new moon around dawn. From August through November, the waxing moon rising between the rocks, ranges from crescent to nearly full. Moonrise continues to come earlier each month, from just before dawn to just before sunset. Finally, the full moon rises between the rocks at sunset near the Winter Solstice in December. The duration of the moon’s passing between the spires was different for each rising but generally lasted from five to fifteen minutes.


The moon’s orbit of Earth oscillates or wobbles, gradually causing the moon to rise at different points on the horizon over the years.  Actually, I never learned that the orbit of the moon around the earth is not as perfect as I thought. The entire cycle of the wobbling moon takes 18.6 years, and apparently the Ancestral people of the Sonoran Desert understood these imperfections, because they had observed. Even though I have never observed them. Have you?


At the termination of each of the swings of the moon, the moon seems to pause for about 3 years! There was such an apparent pause in 2021 and one in 2004.


At each end of its swing, the moon appears to pause for about three years, rising at the same point on the horizon before beginning to move. The cycle is complicated. That apparent pause is called the Lunar Standstill. There are places in North and South America where the indigenous people noticed these movements and sometimes built structures to take these movements into account. They paid a lot of attention to how these movements aligned with local landmarks such as rocks rising above the horizon.


No one is sure exactly why these alignments were produced, but they do show the sophisticated knowledge of astronomy that the Ancestral People had. I have my own theory.  Religion at its foundation is about connecting people to each other, other creatures, and the world. These alignments help establish these connections.



When we get the glorious opportunity to visit a place like Casa Grande or one of the other sacred sites of North America we can’t help but wonder who were these amazing people who built these astounding canals and structures and then watched the sky so intently. What were they looking for in the sky? Those first Spanish missionaries asked the locals here why that was the case, but the indigenous people had a difficult time explaining it to the newcomers. Perhaps they thought the new arrivals were too ignorant to understand.


To indigenous people of the American Southwest, as in so many other places around the world, the fundamental notion of spirituality and religion came from the notion of connection. That was always, at least until recently, the basis of religion around the world. In India the original meaning of the word “religion” comes from the Indo-European word “religio, which means connection or linkage. Religion is what connects us. It connects us to other people, and it connects us to the world.


In many North American languages, the name for the tribe means “the people”.  In other words, we are the people. Many North and South American people saw the connection between them and the world in how the stars or other celestial bodies aligned with the lives of people. It connected them to each other. It was the same with the ancestral people of the Sonoran Desert.


Unfortunately, adherents to some of the monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam forget the importance of connection and instead concentrate on what divides us from other people or the world. They see religion as something that makes them superior to others. In my opinion when this happens religion has gone off the rails, and in fact, in some cases is not actually religion at all, but its opposite.  Religion can become sacrilegious!


These odd alignments are all part of the mystery about the purpose behind the Great House.  It took an astonishing amount of human labor to create the house, but it was abandoned within about 75 years, even though the Ancestral People inhabited the area for more than 1,000 years. According to Rose Houk,


Modern archeologists have observed such an alignment of the sun through a “window” in an upper room of Casa Grande, marking the summer solstice. They have suggested that the “great house” may have been used as an astronomical observatory, one of several ideas about this enigmatic, imposing structure that stands out in the desert of central Arizona. Others have seen the four-story building as a fort, a granary, or a silo.  Whatever the truth, the Casa Grande’s significance was recognized early on when it became the nation’s first archaeological preserve in 1892.

The indigenous people here who consider themselves the descendants of the Ancient Ancestral Sonoran Desert people call this sacred place Siwan Wa’a Ki. To them it is a place to come and sing songs to the Huhugam Spirts. The non-O’odham call this sacred place Casa Grande Ruin. It was well known to their people and was mentioned in the O’odham legends.

What is clear is that this is a place Great Spirit.

Tohono O’odham/ Hohokam



Remnant of Great House

According to their own website the Ancestral People of the Sonoran Desert (Hohokam)  origins are linked to their homeland in the Sonoran Desert. Thousands of years ago, the ancestors of the current Tohono O’odham, settled along the Salt, Gila, and Santa Cruz Rivers in southern Arizona.


In the 1990s, archaeologists identified a culture and people that were ancestors of the Hohokam (later called Ancestral People of the Sonoran Desert). They grew corn and lived sedentary lives in villages all year round. It is now believed that they might have occupied the territory now known as Arizona as early 2000 B.C.E. They originated as archaic hunters and gatherers who lived on wild plants and animals, and eventually settled in permanent communities and became farmers producing their own food instead of living a more mobile life and gathering what nature provided.

The Hohokam culture included an astonishing skill to build very sophisticated water storage systems and irrigation systems to water their crops.

The Hohokam were master dwellers of the desert, creating sophisticated canal systems to irrigate their crops of cotton, tobacco, corn, beans, and squash. They built vast ball courts and huge ceremonial mounds and left behind fine red-on-buff pottery and exquisite jewellery of stone, shell, and clay.

Following their ancestral heritage, they became what they call “scientists of our environment.”  Like other nations in the Americas they used and continue to use meteorological principles to establish planting, harvesting, ceremonial cycles and they developed complex water storage and delivery systems. Those principles also continue to have spiritual resonance.

They learned to make the best of their environment, migrating with the seasons from their homes in the valleys to cooler mountain dwellings. Over time they learned to raise a wide variety of crops including tepary beans, squash, melon, and sugar cane. They also gathered wild plants such as saguaro fruit, cholla buds, and mesquite bean pods, and we hunted for only the meat that they needed from the plentiful wildlife, including deer, rabbit, and javelina. They continue to live this proud heritage today as 21st century Tohono O’odham.

These Ancestral people were the only culture in North America to rely on irrigation canals to supply water to their crops. In the arid desert environment of the Salt and Gila River Valleys, the homeland of the Hohokam, there was not enough rainfall to grow crops. To meet their needs, the Hohokam engineered the largest and most sophisticated irrigation system in the Americas.

The canals were perfectly laid out on the landscape to achieve a downhill drop (or gradient) of 1 to 2 feet per mile. Many of the canals were massive in size. The Arizona Museum of Natural History discovered a prehistoric canal in the Phoenix Valley that measured 15 feet deep and 45 feet wide. As a result of irrigating up to 110,000 acres by AD 1300, the irrigation systems of the Ancestral people of the Sonoran Desert supported the largest population in the prehistoric Southwest, and until I came to visit Arizona I had never heard of them before. My ignorance was profound.

They traded goods widely across the American Southwest and even into Mesoamerica (what is now called Mexico).  They produced cotton and woven goods that were highly desired by other Indigenous nations and were woven goods from which they made things like blankets that could be traded for very good prices

There continues to be a significant and thriving O’odham population living in the region. The members of the Salt and Gila River communities celebrate their heritage as descendants of the ancient desert people.

When we are in the San Tan Valley we often go to San Tan Mountain Regional Park for hikes and outings.  It is beautiful country and it is on the edge of territory of the O’odham nation or inside the territory of the Ancestral People of the Sonoran Desert (Hohokam).

The more I learn about these people the more impressed I am by their achievements.



Collapse of Society


For reasons that are subject to debate, during the period of 1400 to 1500 A.D. large community centers were abandoned in the American southwest, as were many canals. The people did not die out, they moved instead to smaller villages in small groups. They spread throughout much of the Southwest, including northern Arizona. They adapted to some changed conditions in other words.


What really interests me is why this occurred. It is one of the genuine mysteries of North American archaeology. I believe it has continuing important significance for our modern societies. There are lessons for us to learn here. Will we learn them?

They may have left because of environmental collapse. For example, because the ancestral people of the Sonoran desert were so successful at farming they may have produced too many people for the land to sustain.  People around the world need to learn modesty and humility. That certainly applies to us moderns as well.

When Spanish missionaries arrived at the end of the 17th century, they found only an empty shell of the once flourishing village of Casa Grande (as the Spanish called it). Over the next two centuries, many visitors visited the site and damaged it over and over again. Some were like vandals ruining what they saw. We could see graffiti from this time on the walls.  In the late 1800s scientists pressed for its formal protection and in 1892 Casa Grande Ruins National Monument became America’s first archaeological reserve. To this day, the Great House keeps the secrets of the Ancestral People of the Sonoran Desert within its protected walls.

We all must learn that societies collapse. Everyone has done that and so will ours.

First Masters of the Sonoran Desert

                                                       Sonoran Desert


According to one archaeologist the Ancestral People of the Sonora Desert were the “First Masters of the American Desert.” I like that term. It gives them the respect they deserve. They did in fact learn to live and even thrive in the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert for more than a thousand years.  They built brush-covered houses in pits that at first were loosely arranged. Later they built more organized villages around courtyards.

The Ancestral people of the Sonoran Desert (formerly called Hohokam) learned to live in harmony with the desert. They harvested the plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert, including saguaro fruit, mesquite beans, mule deer, rabbits, turtles and fish among others.

The climate in the region was hot and dry with very few all-year water sources and very sparse rainfall, and therefore provided very challenging conditions for permanent settlement. That was a challenge that the Ancestral people of the Sonoran Desert were up for during their 1,000 years of occupation here. They were darn good farmers. They grew crops that could withstand the harsh conditions. That included crops such as corn that matured fast enough that the plants were not exposed to the elements for too long. Some of their crops could be grown twice per year. They also planted beans, squash, tobacco, cotton, and agave. In their fields they also encouraged the growth of several local wild plants such as amaranth.

Interestingly, the main cause of death of the Ancestral people of the Sonoran Desert was tooth decay. They chewed corn and the sweetness caused tooth decay that led to many deaths.

In addition to farming, the Ancestral People also gathered food, medicine, and building materials from the surrounding wilderness. They collected wood, fruit, buds, and seed from plants such as Palo Verde, mesquite, ocotillo, ironwood, creosote, Bursage, and saltbush among others. They even ate saguaro, cholla, hedgehog, and prickly pear cactus.

The Ancestral people of the Sonoran Desert culture is thought to have begun at about 300 BCE (Before Common Era) to 300 CE (Common Era). During this period of time, the  Ancestral people of the Sonoran Desert began local agriculture and it is for this that they became most famous–justifiably famous I might add. They established villages with pit houses, storage pits, grading tools, baskets, and pottery. They also drew from the Mesoamerican civilization. It is fairly clear that by about 300 CE in Arizona the Ancestral People lived in permanent settlements along the Salt and Gila Rivers both of which ran permanently during this time before dam construction.

Ancestral farmers saw water as their most precious resource. It was sacred to the Ancestral farmers of the Sonoran Desert and facilitated the diversity of their crops.  Modern farmers plant monocultural crops.  Ancestral farmers often planted what they called “The Three Sisters” on one hill.  That meant that they planted corn, beans, and squash. Each crop helped the others by providing shade, shelter, or nutrients.  The earliest plants then provided shade for late comers, thus improving productivity. They did not believe in tilling the soil to remove competition. They expected their crops to cooperate with each other. A modern Canadian scientist, Suzanne Simard, has tried to make this important point about the ecosystem of the subtropical rainforest in British Columbia. Plants do compete with each other, but they do much more than that. They actually help each other too.  North American foresters had a difficult time understanding this. They assumed trees only competed with each other. She proved they also cooperated with each and even in some cases helped non-kin. The ancestral people of the Sonoran desert understood this 2,000 years ago.

Ancestral farmers concentrated on conserving water. They were not labour efficient, because to them labor was cheap. Water was expensive. As a result, they were very efficient with water, their most critical resource.

Modern farmers employ elaborate modern equipment that mechanizes the work and conserves human energy, thus conserving or minimizing their primary resource. They use huge water systems to bring in massive amounts of water to the desert. As a result, they are inefficient with water and very efficient with human labor. Modern farmers could learn a lot from ancestral farmers and vice versa.