Category Archives: desert

Avoiding our greatest Mistake ever

This is one of my favorite orchids of Manitoba


The fact is, as Attenborough said, “the natural world is failing. The evidence is all around us. I have seen it with my own eyes.” I agree. I have also seen it personally. I have seen places where once wild orchids lived in abundance that are now completely bare of orchids. They are gone.



I have detected it in Arizona this winter. I frequently went to a nearby park called San Tan Regional Mountain Park to hike and admire the local flora and fauna. The wonderful Saguaros—the cactuses are the mark of the Sonoran Desert because they grow nowhere else, but are disappearing before my eyes. They have been declining for years as their habitat declines.



This year, after a 2-year absence I saw a newly created residential housing subdivision son the edge of the park with all saguaros gone. They are amazing plants that can live up to 250 years in a desert. They can live for a year without water. They are incredibly resilient, but they can’t withstand human predation.  The proof of that is clearly visible in the bare desert now adjacent to the park where saguaros and other Sonoran Desert plants used to grow in abundance. Seeing this on my first visit here after a nearly 3 year absence was soul crushing.

Back home on the prairies I have seen the lovely yellow evening grossbeaks largely disappear along with many other avian species of the grasslands. Since 70% of our native prairies have vanished, the bird life is vanishing along with that. When I first became interested in birds as a young man these birds were in abundance. No more. Now they are nearly gone.

My 6-year-old grandson who loves to see birds and often asks me to help him identify birds may never see one. That is possible. I hope he does see them. His life would be poorer as a result of their absence. He is an amazing kid who should have an opportunity to see such birds.

This is one of my favorite spots in Arizona–Picketpost Mountain.  I would hate to see the saguaros disappears from its base.

David Attenborough said that he started this film, A Life on Our Planet, as his witness statement to what he has seen in his 93 years on the planet. I was inspired by that. I cannot make a film. That is beyond me. But I can prepare a testament. I made thousands of them over my nearly 50-year legal career, but none of them quite like this. I want to make a testament for myself. It won’t deal with property but it will be a witness statement, and a thinking statement. I have been involved a long and protracted “Long Think” as Huckleberry Finn said.  I want to talk about some of those things in this testament. A will is really a witness statement.

I want to urge people to reconsider what we are doing to our planet on which we depend for life and how we might change things for the better to make life better—for all. For all life on the planet. That is goal. I have concluded we need—we urgently need—a new attitude to nature. Economics is important but it does not trump nature.

I will comment on some of the things I think we are doing wrong, and things we are doing, and how we could make things better. This would benefit us all, but particularly I am worried about my grandson and granddaughters.  And your grandchildren too. Their future on this planet is clouded.

As David Attenborough said, “If we continue as we are doing, it might be the greatest mistake, but yet we have time to put it right.”

It’s time to start doing the right thing, before it’s too late. We must start by changing our attitude to nature.


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.



Super Bloom



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.



Decline of Ancient Ancestral People of the Sonoran Desert


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.

There is a lot to be said for a simpler life.

The Canal System: the marvel of the desert


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.

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.


An investment in Coyotes




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.


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.