Category Archives: 2019 Trip to Southwest United States

Musings on my trip to the Southwestern United States that occurred mainly in 2019 (though it started 2018)

The Beauty of Elvira Madigan


In Moriarty’s talk that someone recorded on YouTube so many years ago, the good professor Moriarty talked about Canada and the time he had spent there as a young university lecturer.  This was very interesting to me because it was the only time I ever heard him speak since he left Canada until I came across his lecture on YouTube.

First, unsurprisingly, he was astonished by the cold that came over the land after autumn. It was like nothing he had ever experienced in Ireland.  He said “you had to respect that cold.”  He loved Canada, but he longed for the clouds of Ireland.  He was burned by the pristine white snow on the ground and the deep blue skies. He wanted to have the protective clouds. His eyes were hungry for colour by spring. He was struck by the colours that a young female student in his class was wearing. He longed for such colours.  This is very much unlike my visit to Ireland when I yearned for the clouds to disappear and give me the sun and blue skies sprinkled with happy little clouds.

When he was in Canada, a student then said there was a film downtown in Winnipeg that he should see and Moriarty said, I am going to see that film because I don’t care what it is I just want to see the colours in the film. He said the film was called Elvira Madigan and it was a wonderful film. Amazingly I had also seen that little known-film that same winter! I remember it well. I was struck too by the beauty in the film embodied by the beauty of the young woman protagonist in the film. She was beautiful. Of course, I was a young lad much impressed by what I saw. The film was beautiful and I have never seen it again. I must see it again. I too long for the beauty.

Moriarty said he was entranced by the green fields in the film. I was entranced by the beauty of the woman. He did not remember much of the story other than that it was a love story. So too with me. That is all I remember, but I don’t remember the green fields I only remember the beautiful young woman.

Moriarty remembered more though than I did. He said a respectable bourgeois man, a middle-aged man, a married man, fell in love with Elvira and they went out into those green fields and tried to catch butterflies with their hands, but each time they tried to catch one it flew away. But the man had fallen in love profoundly without economic considerations. As Moriarty so eloquently put it:

“They are walking in the paradise that nature is, but also in the paradise of their love for each other. But they had their wing at existence anyways. Their love has given them the wings of existence that as Plato and Plotinus said we lost on the way down.”


That is what Moriarty wants to recapture. That is what he thinks we have lost in this world in which we can see only use and benefit. We can get that back through nature and we can get that back through love and if we don’t get it back, we will become so desperate that we will destroy nature or ourselves or both. Is that in fact what we are now doing? Moriarty clearly thought so. I tend to agree.

 Some of us watching that film might wonder what Elvira saw in the older man, the respectable man. He asks her what she, this gorgeous woman,  saw in him, and she said that before she met him she had the courage to walk on a tightrope above the ground as that was her occupation but, he gave her the courage to walk on the ground.

I think he meant that he gave her the courage to walk beautifully in nature. That is what Moriarty thought. So many of us lack that courage and that is a dreadful pity.


Septic Simple: Life in a Boler




This winter 2 friends visited us from St. Boniface–Gisèle & JP. They arrived in a wonderful little RV (although they call it a trailer saying that “RV” is too grand a word for what they have).  But what they have is all they need. It is small but easy to tow.

The Boler trailer is made out of fiberglass not plastic.  It is the grand daddy of the fiberglass clones that followed it. The original was invented by a person from Manitoba who noticed that a fiberglass septic tank could be converted to an RV (or trailer if you like). Think about that towing and living in a septic tank!  Of course their Boler was never used as a septic tank. It is pristine.

Gisèle & JP are wonderful and interesting people. They meander.  They tour around the southern USA for as long as they like each winter since they retired. They usually have no firm plans, except this year there was a convention of Boler owners north of Phoenix.  People who like Boler trailers from around North America  got together to celebrate their temporary homes. They are small but convenient.

Most owners of Boler trailers think (like me) that small is beautiful.  Frankly, when I see people driving honking huge RVs and then often with a car or even SUV or truck behind that, I feel sorry for them. It reminds me of some things Henry David Thoreau said. “Most the of luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only dispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts the wisest have ever lived a more simplified life than the poor. None, can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty. ”

Voluntary poverty is not what most of us aspire to. I don’t even say that this is the goal of JP and Gisèle, but we can all profit from a more simple life.  Thoreau said to be a philosopher one must “love wisdom and to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.” Thoreau felt sorry for “that seemingly wealthy but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.” Thoreau said  houses what could just as easily be said of RVs, “when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him…for our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them.”

Thoreau loved his life in a little cabin that he built near Walden Pond. One day he was visited by a well-meaning lady who offered him a mat, but Thoreau declined it, because “I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare without to shake it.” He preferred to wipe his feet on the sod outside the shack. “It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil,” he said.

Thoreau believed that people were possessed by their possessions. I think he meant that in the most serious sense of “possessed.” “The more you have of such things the poorer you are.” Or as he also said, “Men have become tools of their tools.”

Thoreau was happy and content. He had time to devote to more important things—the things he really wanted to do. Such as inspecting snowstorms, birds and flowers.  Personally I would substitute sunsets for snowstorms. Thoreau bragged, “my greatest skill is to want but little.” I think JP and Gisèle have that skill. I wish I had more of it. They also had what Vicky Robbin called a “high joy to stuff ratio.” I would like that too. They know how to live the good life.

More Birds of Arizona

I love these birds because they are willing to pose proudly.  When you find one they are very easy to photograph.

These photos are actually from previous years in Arizona.  This year I photographed this species before the glorious male plumage shown here. Good looking males should be allowed to show off!

A couple of years ago such a heron was a frequent visitor at our neighbour’s house. This bird was spotted near the Phoenix zoo.

I can’t get enough of these wonderful birds. This one was photographed at one of our favourite places–Usery Park in Mesa Arizona.

A lot of people don’t like grackles, but we should be careful about applying human standard to birds. Often their standards are better than ours.

Another of those wonderful wrens. These are much bigger than “our” wrens back home.

This vulture is common in Manitoba as well.  They look so beautiful in the air. On the ground not so much

Barn Owls and Gray Hawks



We saw these owls a couple of years ago. Owls may lay up to 14 eggs during years of rodent abundance, but fail to breed when rodent populations crash. Eggs are laid at intervals and incubation begins with the first egg, thus the hatchlings differ in size and the number raised to fledging depends on the food supply. Owls are smart. Like so many animals that are not given the credit they deserve. 

Usually only the female incubates and the male brings food to her; both sexes feed the young. Incubation is relatively long, being 32-34 days in the Barn Owl. Owls reach maturity at one year.


Gray Hawks are not found anywhere in North America other than Arizona or southern Texas


These are magnificent birds and we were privileged to see them flying free  in the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson.

Harris Hawk


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.







White Sands National Monument


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!

There is a lot to be learned from Basketball



In my opinion the NCAA basketball tournament is the most exciting sporting event in the world. Of course the sport has lots of flaws. It is the championship of American college basketball. It is a tournament of 64 or 68 teams (depending on how you count). Its complicated how to count the teams. It is like the Stanley Cup playoffs if each series was a sudden death game. It is all over in 2 weeks. Wonderful.

This year I watched a number of games on television. I watched the University of North Carolina (“my team”) suffering a crushing defeat at the ands of the surprising Auburn team. My heart was broken.

Yet today I learned something valuable in the defeat. Roy Williams of the UNC team said in his interview after that game that he was proud of how his players had played even though they made 3 critical mistakes in the last couple of minutes. He said his players showed a lack of communication that caused the errors and this was his fault. “I did a poor job of coaching for not preparing them for the game.”  Can you imagine that? He blamed himself for the poor performance of his team. He told his players he loved them and wished that he had been able to do more for them. What a class act!

I could not help but think that this was the opposite of the current President of the United States. When things go wrong he quickly throws someone else under the bus. Never himself. Trump has no class at all. Not a mite of class.

All of this was even more surprising because I had thought all year long that the UNC team was not as good as they seemed and that it was the best coaching year ever for Coach Roy Williams. I think he brought his team to play the best that they could play.

Modesty is becoming; bragging is not. This is a lesson that Trump would do well to learn.

I was also noticed during the game that a UNC player inadvertently bumped into one of his opponents so hard that he got injured and was out of the game. It was one of the best Auburn players and they had a narrow lead over UNC at the time. The UNC player tried to help the injured player and was clearly upset that he was injured. He had respectfor his fallen foe. The two were fierce competitors, but they competed against each other while respecting each other. Again this is something Donald Trump does not understand. He understands nothing like that. That is because, as I have said before, Trump has as much empathy as a Turnip.

We could all learn something from basketball. Winning is nice. In fact, winning is important.  But winning is not everything. Empathy is more important. As is honour. As is respect. Respect for others and respect for self.

In another game during the tournament, I watched the University of Virginia defeat Auburn University in a very close contest that went into overtime. It was an extremely exciting game. It was very stressful for the players and their coaches. The winner would go on to the Final Four next week. The losers would go home defeated.

Yet the coach of the Virginia team, Tony Bennet, seemed very cool and calm as everyone else was going crazy.  The coach has a motto: Calm is contagious. What an important lesson from basketball. This lesson could be important in many other areas too. We should all learn it.

There is a lot to be learned from basketball.

Signs of the Times

I can’t resist looking at bumper stickers or statements on T-shirts. Here are some of the ones I enjoyed in Arizona this winter:

“He’s not My President.”


“Reading is sexy.”


“Keep the Immigrants. Deport the Racists.”


“Trump 2020: Make the Liberals Cry Again”


“Make America Green Again.”  “Welcome Diversity” ( this came with graphics of various dogs of all sizes and shapes)


“Citizens United Against Citizens United.”


Saguaro National Park


Our last day in Arizona was spent at Saguaro National Park, which was created to save the iconic Saguaro Cactus from extinction. So far so good

Hedgehog cactuses are also gloriously in abundance in the park.


This part of the park is located at the east end of Tucson. The day before we spent at the west branch of the park.

I love the hedgehog cactus when they bloom.

When the yellow brittlebush wild flowers are in bloom the desert comes alive with beauty.


I don’t know if there is a better place to see the majestic saguaro cactus that grows no where else other than the Sonoran Desert.

We drove on an 8 miles self-guided drive around the park.

Some of the rock formations were beautiful too.

I never get enough of the lovely pink flowers of the Hedgehog  cactus.

Birds of Sonoran Desert Part 2

This hummingbird was a lifer for me. That means I had never seen it before. Though is was in an aviary at Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson. The word museum is really misplaced.  Most of what can be found there is outside. These birds flew freely, made nests and did what birds do, but they were confined to this aviary.

This is one of the more colourful hummingbirds with its iridescent breast feathers and bright red bill. I kindly posed for me.

This stunning male hummingbird pose very close to me. In fact I took a large number of photos that appeared to be out of focus. I could not understand why, until I realized I was too close to it and had to step back a bit.

Another stunning bird that i had never seen before. This was a good day.

I think this is one of the most beautiful birds in the world. About 15 years ago I saw one near Mitchell.  It is a fairly rare visitor to Manitoba. This was a great day for a bird brain brain like me.