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?
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.
Everyone in Arizona this year, as in many other places in the southern USA, complained a lot about the bad weather. I admit it—I was one of them. Everyone complained. Some told me it was the worst winter in 40 years. It was awful. But it was also great!
From the perspective of a wildflower guy—like me—it was fantastic. Conditions were great. I learned from Ranger B an interpreter at the Maricopa Parks where we often attended his talks, that the ideal conditions for wildflower growth were a wet autumn followed by consistent occasional rain from January to March. This is exactly what happened this past year. He said it happened about once every 11 years. Well it happened this year. Life is good.
I had been hoping to experience one of those years ever since I heard about it. Ranger B says it was fantastic to see. He was right.
The result of these ideal conditions is called by local “a Super Bloom.” And that was what we experienced this year. Now I say it was the best weather ever in Arizona. Though, I admit, I also complained about it. Some of us are never happy and are never satisfied.
At Casa Grande Arizona, a steel and concrete canopy was built in 1932 to protect what remained of the Great House from the elements.
As I mentioned earlier the great puzzle is why were these magnificent structures and elaborate towns abandoned in favor of smaller communities after about 1450 C.E.
Some have speculated that some catastrophe caused the people to leave. There is evidence that the area experienced significant floods between 1300 and 1450. Those were followed by intense periods of drought. Severe climate change in other words.
Archeologists use multiple kinds of evidence to answer such questions, or at least shed some light on the questions posed. As a result, they have been studying salt discharge on the Salt and Gila rivers, as well as the increasing soil salinity, diseases, and evidence of malnutrition. It is likely that environmental conditions changed and the Ancestral people of the Sonoran Desert (formerly Hohokam people) did what all smart people do, they adapted to changed conditions. That is how people survive. That is a lesson we moderns are beginning to experience. How will we adapt is not so certain.
The evidence does show that the extreme flooding deepened the Gila River Channel making it more difficult for canals to carry water to fields where water levels were low. Part of the canal system was abandoned while other parts were extended miles upstream to maintain proper water flows. Around 1350 C.E., the time of the Great House, a combination of factors may have triggered a breakdown of Hohokam society and undermined their leadership.
It is probable that as a result of all of these factors, the survivors of the floods and droughts abandoned large sites like Casa Grande in favor of smaller settlements along the Gila River. Today’s O’odham people believe that they are the descendants of the Hohokam people. As a result, Hohokam society never disappeared it just adapted and changed to a lifestyle that was better suited to the changed conditions. This change was likely to one more similar to their ancestors. They changed to a simpler life. Perhaps that is what we will be compelled to do.
That canal system in time became the most elaborate and well-engineered in all of North America if not the world. The Ancestral People cooperated to build and manage a vast canal system that diverted waters from the rivers to irrigate their croplands. Because these croplands were located in land that was lower than the surrounding rivers the canals were started about 17 miles away to divert water by gravity flow. Where there were croplands without nearby rivers, they diverted storm run-off or tapped groundwater.
The canals were amazing. First of all, they were constructed entirely by human labor without any draft animals. The only tools they had were made of wood or stone. They had no shovels. The ground was true hard pan that made digging very difficult. The slope of canals was 2 ft. for 1 mile. That is a very gentle slope, but it is more than enough to lead the water to where they wanted it. The canals were also surprisingly large. They were about as tall as a man.
This was very sophisticated agriculture. They farmed the area for about a thousand years. At its height the canals irrigated 1,900 acres of land. The canals stretched for 220 miles in this area alone. What amazed me was that these Ancestral People were extremely successful farmers. They produced higher yields than modern farmers with modern equipment and techniques. Modern Hohokam farmers see people as their main resource.
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.
I was also astonished to learn that there is evidence that the ancestral people were about 2-3 inches taller than the Europeans who arrived in the 17th century. Like the indigenous people of the Great Plains who relied principally on bison, that meant they were better fed than the Europeans who came here to civilize them! Perhaps the ancestral people ought to have civilized the Europeans! After all, the period of 300 to 1450 A.D. was the period of the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe.
When Father Keno was the first European to see this land in 1694, about 200 years after the Ancestral people of the Sonoran Desert left, he was struck by the beauty and ingenuity of the building. That is why he called the main structure that was left. Casa Grande (Great House) because he said he had never seen anything comparable in Europe.
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.
Late one afternoon in early January, soon after arriving in Arizona, I went for a lovely walk in San Tan Mountain Regional Park after purchasing an annual pass that allows unlimited walking through the desert. I bought the annual pass for about $70 even though we won’t be here for more than 3&1/2 months, it won’t take long for me to recoup my investment.
On my walk I listened to the incredible irrational exuberance of the coyotes. That is the true sound of the wild. I did not see them on this walk, but I did on others.
Edward Abbey is one of the finest interpreters of the Southeastern United States. His book, Desert Solitaire, about this region is a masterpiece. Everyone who wants to understand this place should read it. And then read it again. I will be referring to that book that I read before my second trip to this wonderland on this voyage of discovery.
Edward Abbey appreciated the wild. That meant he appreciated coyotes. This is what he said about them in that wonderful book:
“I have been honored by the serenade of a den of coyotes—a family perhaps—somewhere about a mile to the west of my camp. Weird unearthly song—like the legendary wail of banshees…Occult music is but a part of the coyote’s repertoire: they vary the program with more conventional howls, yelps, and barks when it pleases them to do so. Usually, they stop their singing and retire to the rocks, out of caution, soon after the sun comes up…We need coyotes, need them badly…As does the nation as a whole, for that matter. We need coyotes more than we need, let us say , more people, of whom we already have an extravagant surplus, or more domesticated dogs, which in all fairness could and should be ground up into hamburger and used as emergency coyote food, to raise their spirits and perhaps improve the tenor of their precious howling.”
Rather harsh words, but not entirely without merit. If you want to learn about the deserts of the American Southwest as I do, I strongly recommend Abbey’s book. And a walk in the desert. If you hear the coyotes your soul will be filled.
I claim to be a flower child, but the truth is I love birds too. We stopped at the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson on our way home this year. I try to go there every year. They have a show nearly every day where you can see raptors in flight. Free flight they call it. It is truly amazing to see them flying and perching so close. These photos however are from previous years. I like them better.
These birds are imprinted on their handlers but are free to fly away. Sometimes they do exactly that. Usually they come back because after living with humans who deliver food to them every day they realize they have it pretty good in the Museum so they come back. The “Museum” by the way is mainly outdoors so they are not captive in the sense of being in cages.
This hawk prefers thorn scrubs for its habitat. Like many hawks the female is larger than the male. The likely reason for this adaptation is that in this way they don’t compete as much for prey.
These are one of the few birds that cooperate in groups. As a result they hunt together. This is what we saw at the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson. Cooperation is a very helpful technique in deserts where one Harris Hawk might chase a rabbit into some scrub and then flushes it out so others in the group can capture and kill it. This is the only hawk to hunt cooperatively. They also cooperate in the raising of the young, again, the only hawk species to do this. Nature is not just about competition. Cooperation is important too.
This hawk is rare in Manitoba. I have not seen it here but it is fairly common in the American south.
Chris is not standing barefoot in snow. This is sand–incredible sand!
For years I have wanted to visit White Sands National Monument. There is nothing like it on the planet. The main geological feature here is sparkling white sand about the color of sugar. I had heard about it, but nothing really prepared me for it. This is the largest white gypsum dune field in the world. The glistening sand dunes are found in the Tularosa Basin at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico north of Las Cruces and south of Alamogordo.
It covers about 800 sq. km. (300 sq. mi). Gypsum, which is also found in Manitoba in a completely different form, is a water soluble mineral that is not often found as sand. Because there is no drainage from the Tularosa Basin surrounding the white sand dunes the sediment from the mountains that is washed by rains, even though infrequent, gets trapped in the basin. When the rain evaporates dry lakes form and strong winds blow the white gypsum up into huge fields of rippling white sand dunes.
Sand dune never remain in place. They are constantly on the move. At one point we saw dunes about to climb over the State highway we had driven to get here. What surprised me is that the water table here is very shallow and water can actually rise to the surface after heavy rains turning the interdune area into temporary large ponds.
Geology is always interesting. There is a lot of history in rocks. Millions of years ago, an ancient sea covered most of the southwestern United States and during this time layers of gypsum were deposited on the floor of the sea. Of course that sea was never static either. It rose and sank many times over millions of years. This started the process of the creation of gypsum.
Gypsum is created within layers of sedimentary rock often found in thick beds or layers. It forms in lagoons where ocean waters that are high in calcium sulfate content slowly evaporate but are regularly replenished with new sources of water. This is precisely what happened at White Sands.
Massive gypsum rock forms within layers of sedimentary rock, typically found in thick beds or layers. It forms in lagoons where ocean waters high in calcium and sulphate content can slowly evaporate and be regularly replenished with new sources of water. Because gypsum dissolves over time in water, gypsum is rarely found in the form of sand. That is why White Sands is unique.
Many factors led to the creation of this astonishing ecosystem. 280 to 250 million years ago (‘mya’) the continents of the world were welded together in one massive mega-continent now called Pangea. Part of what we today call the United States in the southwest, including the southern part of current New Mexico, were covered by what we now call the Permian Sea. When the sea rose and fell repeatedly thick layers of the mineral, gypsum, were left behind along with other minerals that were also dissolved on the seafloor.
About 70 mya when the earth’s tectonic plates started to shift they collided into each other. In some places the pressure from such movement pushed up land and created many mountain ranges including the Rocky Mountains and the mountains that now surround the Tularosa Basin.
30 mya ago the tectonic plates began to pull apart in the opposite direction creating many fault zones. Large portions of mountains were sometimes split apart causing sections of the Earth’s crust to drop thousands of feet, forming basins along the faults. At that time 2 distinct mountain ranges were formed in this region—the San Andres Mountains to the west that are shown in my photographs and the Sacramento Mountains that we could see to the east. Between the two mountain ranges, where we stood, the Tularosa Basin was formed.
About 2 to 3 mya the Rio Grande River flowed along the southern edge of the Tularosa basin bringing sediments and minerals into the basin. This eventually blocked the basin’s outlet to the sea. Water that was trapped at the blockage started to collect at the lowest point and eventually formed Lake Otero. This lake was about 1,600 sq. miles and covered much of today’s basin.
24,000 to 12,000 years ago the climate was much colder and wetter then it is today. About 12,000 years ago when the climate changed and the last ice Age ended, Lake Otero began to evaporate and when conditions became dryer a playa or dry lake bed was formed. Around 11,000 years ago, the rain and snowmelt carried dissolved gypsum from the surrounding mountain ranges into the Tularosa Basin. Much of that gypsum runoff settled in Lake Otero.
As the climate became even warmer and dryer the sun and winds combined to transform this area into the Chihuahuan Desert and almost all of Lake Otero dried up completely. The dry portions of the lakebed became what today is called Alkali Flat. When Lake Otero’s water disappeared selenite crystals formed on the bottom of the Alkali Flat. Small pieces of gypsum crystal were broken down by strong winds leaving small grains of white sand that were polished into a brilliant white color unlike anything I have ever seen anywhere. These Sands, unlike the white sand beaches of the Caribbean are really white. The sands were consistently pushed to the northeast by the prevailing winds from the west accumulating into massive dunes forming the white dune fields that we saw today.
Of course not all geology is old. Geology is today too. At the present time change occurs as well. Rain and snow melt from the surrounding mountains and even upwelling from the deep water within the basin from time to time fills Lake Lucero with water that contains gypsum. When the water in the lake evaporates again small selenite crystals (2cm to 3cm) are again formed on the surface of the temporary lake and Alkali Flat in the same was they have for thousands of years. It is usually when large floods concentrate the mineralized water about every 10 to 14 years that crystal formations again occur. After that the relentless forces of wind and water again attack those crystals of gypsum creating ever smaller particles of white sand until they are as fine as the sand we walked on today.
Of course it is not just the geology that is interesting in White Sands National Monument. A plant guy like me must pay some attention to the plants. One of the more interesting ones is Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata). The plants and animals of White Sands are special because they must have special attributes to survive the harsh and changing conditions of the desert. The desert is not place for wimps. The landscape here is constantly changing, even more than most other environments. The sand moves. It never stays for long in one place. That is a characteristic of all dunes.
The Soaptree yucca adapts to these changing conditions by growing rapidly. Yucca first take root in the interdunal soil. Then when the sand piles up as it inevitably does, it elongates its stem to keep it’s leaves above the sand so that they can continue the important work of photosynthesis whereby light is miraculously turned to energy. What looks like a yucca of 4 to 6 feet, as many of those I saw, are actually much taller with a long stem that connects to the roots in the interdunal soil. Plants are smart!