Friday, August 27, 2021

Chubasco's Magic Shit Show

A dream directed me here. Serengeti landscape kept me here. 

I was preparing to depart Washington State when a dream awakened me with a snapshot image of an unfamiliar crag jutting into the air. The image returned in two more dreams, tickled my subconscious as I drove southeast, Arizona-bound. I had just gassed up in Tucson, headed to Patagonia for the winter, or so I thought. I was breezing down I-19 when that rock appeared out my driver's side window. Not one to ignore omens, I took the next exit and turned onto Arivaca Road. It only went in one direction: west. A ribbon of highway weaved over hilltops, around curves and into dips across dry arroyos, following the contours of the Sonoran desert hills. Long grasses and mesquite thorn bush reached in every direction. It was as Serengeti-like as possible, short of returning to the African plains. I pulled the truck and trailer to the side of the road, jumped out and stretched into the expanse. My eyes scanned the hills, half expecting a lanky giraffe to lope over the hills. 

I am on my seventh year in Arivaca-land. Five of that was half year, wintertime stints whereupon I  headed north for Park Ranger seasonal positions. The past year and a half, since covid, I have remained year around on the ten acres I call Querencia Hill. Querencia, Spanish for safe place; a place where one can be their authentic self. Authentic self? -- my first instruction to visitors is to pee anywhere, the desert needs it. This place continues to parallel Africa. Pronghorn, closely related to giraffes given their leg structure, grace the Buenos Aires Refuge hillsides. There is a rainy season called the monsoons, and like the Serengeti, it explodes the tawny landscape into green. Waterholes fill, including my very large, horseshoe-shaped pond. The unusual abounds. Roseate Spoonbills were recently spotted at Aguirre Lake. No hippos have taken up residence in my pond, but it is possible a jaguar could drink from water's edge.  

Roseate Spoonbills at Aguirre Lake 

And then, there's these ... the crazy, head-turning, miracle worker beetles rolling ... shit.

How DO they do it? Look at that perfect ball! 

I'd seen these dung-rollers in Tanzania and Zimbabwe. I honestly didn't pay much attention while in the company of elephants, cheetahs, klipspringers, zebra, wildebeest, ostrich, well you get the idea. But when recently riding my e-bike across the Sonoran hills I spotted a ball of cow poop rolling across the asphalt road. I braked and turned around. Could it BE? 

So, why DID the dung beetle cross the road? And, how? I was shocked to see that they direct their ball with their rear legs, standing on their front ones. I thought they worked with gravity because they were using the curve in the road in their favor, but then I witnessed one reach the opposite side of the road, only to hit the white line and nope. He didn't like it. He changed direction and headed up hill. Another had no problem with the white line, rolled his ball across and onto the ground. 

As to why? These beetles use their ball of dung to nest, feed and raise their young. The "roller" is the world's strongest insect, observed pushing 1,141 times its own bodyweight. That's equivalent to "an average human hauling six double decker buses full of people." Their journey is fraught with risks. Besides being squished, the male roller may come under attack by another male to steal his ball. (Dung ball theory of history, anyone?) Once he gets rolling, a female joins him, crawls upon the ball and rides along. Remarkably, the dung beetle uses the Milky Way to orient and find his way. 

To witness a dung beetle is to see a being who has been around for eons. They wrangled dinosaur dung (their remains found in coprolites, fossilized dinosaur dung) and images of the Scarab beetle are found throughout Egyptian iconography. They believed the Scarab's ball of dung a representation of the sun traveling through the sky, carrying new life.  

The chubascos are full on. Rains began late June and continue. It is not the normal spotty storms laced with scenic lightning and rolling thunder. This year the storms are angry. Thunder rocks the land, lightning bolts blast the hilltops. Thankfully, I have received fifteen inches of rain on Querencia Hill. The pond is full. Spadefoot toads sing the night awake.  

In between the squalls a small beetle pushes a large, round ball of waste across a road. Guided by the Milky Way, his ball guarantees the next generation. Or as the Egyptians believed, the genesis of new life. I inhale the wildness of these hills; ferret out the metaphors. It is a potent realization that a small beetle has evolved for eons as thousands of butterflies flutter through the lush green grasslands. The covid Delta variant spreads like fire across the globe, and here I am, in the dizzying cosmos, under the brightest Milky Way I have ever seen. I ponder excrement and birth, my journey to this Serengeti land led by a dream of an elephant head, and the necessity to roll shit through rocky terrain into verdant hope-filled fields. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Horned Lizard Magic: A New Neighbor on Querencia Hill

It was a few days before summer solstice. Daytime temps breached 110-degrees, forcing life into the cover of shade. The anticipated end of day took on a heavy significance. I did not step outside until the blistering sun was down. Once thankfully behind the mountains, the world in shadow, I ventured out to watch the remaining quail, doves and towhees vigorously scratch for overlooked seed. For several days, out of the proverbial corner of my eye, I had noticed something run across the feeding area and into the rocks. It appeared gray at low light. I figured it was a mouse. Two days later the little stranger's head peaked out from the rocks. Definitely not a mouse! I was pretty certain it was a rare horned toad and I was ecstatic. The next night, walking along rocks in the feeding area, I almost stepped on her. Her entire body exposed, there was no doubt  as to her identity. I leaned down and welcomed the Regal Horned Toad to Querencia Hill. Not that it hadn't been here all along, but she finally decided to show herself, camouflaged par excellence! This morning she showed up again and I grabbed my camera for this shoot. 

There are fourteen horned lizards in the United States. 
Most are in the southwest but they range from 
the Sierra Nevada into the NW, to the Great Plains, the Colorado Plateau, Chihuahuan Desert, west to the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts and to the Pacific Ocean. The Regal prefers mesquite, rock and gently sloping desert hills. Well dang, that defines my ten acre Querencia. They like to eat ants and I have plenty. They can down 2500 ants in one meal. They catch them like toads, on their long, sticky tongue. The Regals are slow movers who depend on their camouflage, but when threatened or captured they squirt blood from their eyes, aiming at their predator's mouth and eyes. This defensive stream can travel four feet and can be repeated. I'm glad my visitor trusted me. 

Indigenous cultures of the southwest have long held horned lizards in esteem. The Pima, Tohono O'odham, Hopi, Dine (Navajo) and Zuni believe they symbolize strength and possess healing qualities. Anasazi, Hohokam, Mimbres and Mogollon cultures painted horned lizard symbols and images on pottery. Navajo's refer to the horned toad as Cheii, the maternal grandpa of all Navajo's. They offer him water and corn pollen when they come across a horned lizard. They place him gently on their hearts in a ritual of protection. 

For myself, I am honored that the Regal one has graced me with her presence. Mating starts this month, egg laying starts in late July and August. That's rainy season on the Sonoran desert. I'll be on the lookout for babies and watch where I step. I welcome horned lizard's strength and protective energies, right down to projectile blood spurts. The land feels different with this discovery, full of promise, as an untold story unfolds:

She arrived with the brutal heat of summer ... 





Thank you Mary Scott, dear sister friend, who gifted me a photographic field guide to Lizards of the American Southwest.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Dulce in Snake Land: Aversion Training Up Close


Dulce closing in on coiled, hooded rattlesnake (circled) seconds before shock

I was about to depart for Dulce's snake aversion class when I received word that a friend's dog was bitten by a rattlesnake. Twice. Once on the foot and once on the face. Her beloved Corgi was in the throws of emergency treatment, receiving doses of antivenom. She was hopeful for a full recovery and looked forward to bringing Dweezil home the next morning.

Snake tracks across the road 

The class took on a heavier note. Dulce had already had four encounters with rattlesnakes: twice while on walks along the road, once in the dark outside my home and most recently one crawling by the deck at nightfall. I used the experiences to reinforce "NO, get back." She'd done well, but the fact remained, I would not always be with her to warn her curious nose away. The class was $100 and the professional trainer was coming to a local park. It couldn't have been more convenient.

The outdoor class entailed four snake encounter sites and used a shock collar to negatively reinforce the dog's curiosity of a snake. A shock was delivered as soon as the dog began to show interest in snake sight, smell or sound. My concern was that Dulce was timid in strange circumstances. I didn't want her overstimulated, on the other hand, I wanted her trained.

The teacher collared Dulce, led her on a lead and instructed me where to stand in relationship to the stations. The first station was a large plastic coiled snake, head rising with a scent pad. Dulce circled a wide berth, whereupon the instructor asked if she'd had encounters before. Most definitely, I said. The second station was a live, hooded, angry snake on the ground and a bucket w/scent. Dulce showed some curiosity about ten feet out (see first photo). ZAP. A shock, a yelp, a jump. That's all she needed. The third station was another species of snake and Dulce had nothing to do with it. Same with the final station, a scent bucket. The class reinforced immediate feedback many feet out from the snakes, who have impressive striking distance. 

The training was quick and effective. I don't anticipate Dulce getting near a snake again. Some folks get the snake vaccination and believe their dog is protected, however, every snake has a different venom and needs an antivenom to match. There are over forty species of rattlesnakes in the US and the rattlesnake vaccine works on one of those. In this neck of the woods, the vaccine is for the Western Diamondback rattler. Even in our small group of eight dogs, two owners had had encounters with deadly Mojave rattlers. If the vaccine and snake match, the vaccine may give more time to get to emergency. It may save your dog's life, but it will not save you the panic, emergency drive, heartbreak and vet bill. 

Rattler passing through  

I have a deep regard and affection for snakes. The one that slithered by my deck a couple weeks  ago was rudely interrupted by Dulce's barks. When I came outside to check I saw a four-foot, stretched out rattler beginning to coil. I ordered Dulce back and she actually ran a fifty foot circle around the house and came up the back stairs. We left it alone and it was predictably gone in the morning. There was another a few weeks ago near my portale, rattling so loud in the dark it sent chills through my body. We never did see it. Most dogs are curious, however. Many mistake a snake for a toy or a challenge. Last year a friend's unvaccinated dog got bit. My friend raced 50 miles, late at night, to an emergency vet service. They could not save his dog. Not only was his heart broken but he received a bill for $2500. 

It's a myth that young snakes are more venomous than older ones. Large or small, Dulce and I live in snake territory. There are plenty or rats and mice for them to feed upon. They like to be close to house foundations, shadows and porches. They can show up anywhere, and do. They hunt at night by following the heat of their prey, and while they will strike to defend themselves, they prefer not to be seen or threatened and go on their slithering way. If confronted, however, the snake is equipped. Hinged fangs unfold from the upper jaw; she lunges forward and delivers a powerful bite. The strike takes a half second to deliver venom. She chooses how much to inject, depending on the size of the predator, and may not inject venom at all.

My California friend's two Corgis were exploring the same area of yard together. One had snake aversion training, one did not. The one without training got struck. Forty-eight hours after the incident and numerous antivenom treatments, their beloved, vibrant dog couldn't turn it around. He was in extreme pain with neurological issues. My friends said goodbye to Dweezil.   

If your dog is six months old s/he is old enough for training. There's no perfect solution to dogs and rattlesnakes in the wild. I'm sure coyotes and wolves have figured it out. Shaking tails and hissing warn them away. Domestic dogs, on the other hand, need help to identify and avert snakes by smell, sound and sight. When Dulce bounds out the door I know I've done all I can to protect her. 

Dulce on watch 

Monday, May 10, 2021

One Fated Year

Oh those wily Fates. After several failed attempts to purchase land, I wondered if the Serengeti landscape southwest of Tucson Arizona was meant to be my home. That's when a piece of land I had eyed for over a year, and even recommended to others, became for sale. Not formally, mind you. I'd been perusing the internet and saw mention that the owner had ten acres for sale. Was it THEE ten acres? I contacted her immediately. We met that week and shook on a deal.  We finalized weeks later, on spring equinox. A few days later the country closed down in the face of Covid, as everyone struggled to get their bearings in the pandemic world. 

The Fates. World mythologies reference the trinity of magic ones in one form or another. They are the Virgin, Mother and Crone (Creator, Preserver, Destroyer); the Spinner, Measurer and Cutter of Life's Thread; Order, Destiny and Peace. Fairy Godmothers have their genesis in the Fates that stood at the cradle of newborns and determined the child's future. Parents would leave the door open and set out food to appease. As the Fates were present at birth they returned at death, to take back the soul. 

The energy around this land was definitely fated. From the fortuitous Facebook discovery to shaking on a deal with no idea how the money would materialize, right down to the flowing process with the county permits and electric pole installation. Even the trenching went smoothly, notwithstanding some major rock. Fates and friends were present from the beginning as the vision took hold: to create a place for rejuvenation and creativity on behalf of the planet. I named the land Querencia Hill. True to her name, those needing a safe place to express their authentic selves showed up and hooked up in the the RV guest spots I created. Build it and they will come. 

One year ago I moved onto this land. The work has been non-stop. The Fates giggled as countless loads of trash were hauled away, from RV walls to car parts to stoves and water heaters and a couple dozen tires. I joke that I am living atop a 1950's hardware store of rusty bolts, nails, screws and springs. I pull on a piece of buried wire and gawd knows where it will end. This morning I found a crochet hook. Pushing my rolling magnet is a regular exercise as more metal rises through the dirt. I wish there was a similar gadget for broken glass. The land sparkles at sunset. 

And yet, what more honorable work? Covid forced me here for a year, through 115-degree summer temps and a piece of the earth is better for it. What felt like a snail's pace now feels like a humongous accomplishment when compared to last April. This land has been an energetic confluence of loved ones. Solstice fires burn bright here; sisters drum heartbeats. Many grab a bucket to fill with trash or contribute to further the small projects. A shade ramada by the pond was moved to a back burner when the rains didn't come. The pond remains dry, in wait for charcoal moisture-laden clouds. 

The transition from eighteen years on the road to womad-in-place has been brutal at times. Although my spirit was tiring of daily movement, I thrived on the novelty of the road -- witnessing new places through fresh eyes, the effervescent trust in spontaneous decisions, the faith-filled courage of risk. And while nomadic life can take place on the edge of one's bed through vivid imagination, it isn't the same. Leastwise for me. 

One year into life on Querencia Hill and two vaccinations down, I loaded VAN-essa for my first road trip to a NM hot springs. Four glorious days. White lines under the front bumper once again, and yes, it was good to get home where projects continue and I hold out hope for a healthy summer monsoons to fill the large horseshoe-shaped pond. I envision a meditation spot on the peninsula and a game camera to reveal nightlife secrets of this holy landscape. My neighbors had Spoonbills and Ibis on their pond. I am jealous.

I have learned new patience in this covid world. Plans are tentative at best, and sometimes I struggle to trust the unfolding. The Fates dropped me on the wind-whipped hillside where sunsets give new definition to awe. The fairy godmothers brought me a rescue dog, Dulce, who guards the boundaries with aplomb and cherishes life at my side. They provided Hobo a place to curl his snoring self in a patch of sun. Now the Fates stand at the open gate to welcome those who seek push the refresh button, to meet their muse and create. I  smile. Prediction has dropped from my dictionary as my wild friends hold court. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Kill on the Hill

The soft transition from dawn to day was still in progress when Dulce's urgent bark propelled me from my chair. Barefoot on the frosty deck, I scanned hundreds of acres of tawny hills, a collage of sun and shadow against a cloudless sky. Dulce was insistent. I followed her stare to two anxious mule deer does twenty yards away, their eyes transfixed downslope. They took turns charging at a form I was yet to discern. They stomped and snorted their obvious upset. Within seconds two, three, then six coyotes appeared and circled. They backed off when charged but returned to a spot they would not give up. This dance went on for several minutes.  

I grabbed my camera and headed toward the drama, choosing to leave my gun be. Dulce and I walked toward my northern fence line. The deer surrendered their positions and reluctantly trotted east as we closed in  The coyotes, now numbering a dozen, dispersed downhill into a ravine. I followed bloody grass and chunks of wiry deer hair to a half eaten carcass, the bright red ribcage protruding from pulled back skin. Thin, small-hoofed legs hinted at a yearling. The doe's coyote charge, although in vain, was the instinctual defense of her young. 

I stared, mesmerized, at the glossy red sinew as wary coyotes skulked around a wide perimeter. An ebony raven flapped low overhead and perched in the top of a mesquite. She would patiently wait, eyeing the venison spoils, the bones she'd pick and poke clean. Spring was anything but shy on this first day of March. A hefty rainbow pincushion cactus was aglow in pink; a small ocotillo cactus exploded in new leaves. To my left was a gut pile, so neat and defined it looked like a sculpture. I called Dulce to my side, lest she get a hankering to dive in and roll.  

I have garnered myriad lessons from the wild through my seventy years. Foremost, that one can not escape the ephemeral nature of existence. The song dogs that fill the night air with exhilarating howls and yips will feast on beloved jackrabbits. The coyotes that slept curled protectively by the door of a recent visitor, night after night, will probably gnaw on this deer.  

The sounds of the chase and takedown must have been a horrific intro to the mysterious unfolding. Were the coyotes latecomers to a lion kill? Were they the takedown artists or scavengers? It is known that ravens follow coyotes to find a kill. Vultures, who smell death a mile away, need no such queues, but they are yet to arrive, to scrape spring skies with their tippy soars. 

The spirits are many on Querencia Hill. Most prevalent are deer, javelina, coyote, rattlesnake, cooper's and red-tailed hawks, finches, doves, sparrows and meadowlarks, zippy hummers and soft-spoken quail. Outspoken ravens and silent vultures rule the sky. Cottontails and jackrabbits scurry amongst rock. Packrats and mice join in clandestine deeds. When the large pond fills with monsoon water and game cameras are in place, I'm sure to confirm coatis and ring-tailed cats and mountain lion; perhaps even a jaguar visit.   

Mysteries unfold. Wild tales/tails abound. Spring winds carry many secrets. Coyotes lope amongst deer.

Blessed Be.

Casa  Blanca, our 5th-wheel home


Querencia: Spanish word for that safe place where one can be her/his authentic self.