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Saturday, February 16, 2019

Cold Does Not Keep Us Indoors

Hard frost. Temperature at 19 degrees Fahrenheit, with a reported “feels like” effect in single digits. Brrr! But the sun is coming up, and Sarah and I are going out, meeting neighbor friends Therese and Buddy and Mollie for a dog walk — cross-country, up the wash, back down the road. I bundle up. Sarah, of course, is always ready.

(My camera battery was low, almost but not quite at the point where it needed to be removed and recharged, so the camera stayed home on the 19-degree morning, and photos today are a composite from various other mornings.) 

For the duration of our winter stay here, Therese has loaned me her extra Camelbak©, a handy lightweight backpack with its own waterbag, complete with flexible drinking — or squirting — tube. No need to mess around with a bottle of water, either carrying it in the hand or having to extract it from a backpack and uncap it for every drink. The gentle squirting function makes it possible to refresh dogs, too, as they quickly learn to catch water in their mouths. I also packed along dog treats for Sarah and, for myself, a fresh lemon and plastic-sheathed knife for cutting the lemon. Water is necessary in the desert and at high altitudes but not always sufficient. As I learned from my experience in the Dragoon Mountains, electrolytes can be crucial, and juicy fresh lemon does the job.

Buddy and Mollie have accepted Sarah, and she is comfortable with them now, too. The three don’t engage in much direct interaction (after the initial tail-wagging and you-know-what-sniffing), but that’s okay. (Parallel play is good enough.) On our first walk together, Sarah took on the role of Boss Dog, but Mollie has gotten over being intimidated. Now the girls take turns — though with Mollie challenging Sarah regularly, my old girl might just be content soon to play second fiddle. We'll see!

Nothing is blooming yet, but the desert is always interesting nonetheless, and we did spot new green growth -- not only the thistle below but other plants that will have flowers in a month or two.

Cowpaths make the land seem homelike, domestic, while a bleached bone, a memento mori, says something very different. To my great satisfaction and gratitude, Sarah obeys the “Leave it!” command immediately when tempted to sniff around a small cave where javelina den up for the day. Good dog! Notice how the wind is blowing her ears and tail, too.

Last year Therese and I and her dogs — without Sarah — were out one morning for two hours. I like having Sarah as part of the larger pack on walks this year, but it’s pretty clear that one hour is more than enough for her. 

She keeps up and has a wonderful time, but on our first cold morning, when we got back to the cabin she was barely in the back door before she crashed. 

Well, I don’t mind a quiet interlude myself and sit down for a few minutes with poetry books to read. Another  winter day has started well in Dos Cabezas.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Mexican Workers, American Jobs

Do you think Mexicans are taking jobs away from American workers? In 2010, the United Farm Workers (UFW) set up an employment website where jobs in agriculture were offered to U.S. citizens and other legal residents throughout the country. About 4 million people visited the website, of whom 12,000 went on to fill out applications for agricultural employment. How many of those 12,000 showed up for work? Take a guess. And while you’re thinking about it, I’ll tell you where I ran across the story and a little more of what’s in it.

“In the Valley of Fear,” by Michael Greenberg, appeared in the December 20, 2018, issue of the New York Review of Books. Greenberg notes that working to harvest fruits and vegetables is a “one-generation job.” Workers want something better for their children. 

This means that a constant supply of impoverished Mexican immigrants willing to do the work is required. But [now] those immigrants aren’t coming.

They are afraid to come, and the labor shortage, especially in California, is critical.

Greenberg gives background on farm worker demographics, beginning in the 1950s. In that decade, as reported to Greenberg by the son of Cesar Chavez, 12-14% of field hands came from Oklahoma and Arkansas, 8-10% were African-Americans from the cotton fields, 12% were Filipino, and 55% were Mexican, half of the last group first-generation Mexican-American, half Mexican nationals.

Who are the farm workers in California today? According to Greenberg — and the statistics may be in part confirmed for him by Chavez — at least 80% are undocumented Mexicans. And most of those are from indigenous populations and “speak no or very little Spanish, much less English.” These are the workers the farmers need, the workers now terrified to come for jobs, jobs that Americans refuse to do, even when hourly wages offered in one vineyard went as high as $20/hour.

So are you ready now to guess how many legal residents and citizens of the United States showed up for agricultural jobs across the United States after 4 million visited the website and 12,000 applied for jobs? Twelve. That’s right, 12 people showed up for work — and “Not one of them lasted longer than a day.”

How many of my friends have done farm labor? I picked apples one fall in Leelanau County, Michigan. I lasted a month, part-time (4 hours a day), in sun and rain and cold, before my hands felt as if they might become permanently crippled, and regretfully I gave notice. How about you? Your children? Your nieces and nephews, your grandchildren? Do they look for farm work in the summer to pay down their student loans or buy books for the next semester? “Potato vacation” is a thing of the past, and not even farmers’ kids want to pick asparagus any more. Will the United States become one big “city,” importing food from other parts of the world where people are willing to grow and harvest it? Is that what we want?

Note: All my images today come from Leelanau County, Michigan, not from California, and most are from the summer farm market in Northport, where food comes directly from growers to purchasers.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Donde la tierra es roja

Agriculture in Graham County, AZ
He looked out at the red earth stretching around them. It was hard to imagine, but millions of years ago this had been the bottom of a massive inland sea. Aquatic dinosaur bones had been dug up under this soil and there were still places in the desert where mounds of fossilized seashells baked under the sun. 
- Jane Harper, The Lost Man 

Harper’s story takes place in the Australian outback, an environment even drier and more severe than Arizona. The red earth passages, though, set me to musing, first on similarities between Australia and Arizona, and then to other red earth parts of the world. Here in southeast Arizona, our pinkish-grey mountains can turn red at sunset, and there are places in Cochise and Graham County where the soil is red enough to remind me of Georgia clay. Here’s a passage from a children’s novel set in Georgia:

Then it began to rain. It rained and it rained and it rained. The yard ran in gullies, the lane was pink and slippery, and the road was deep in red mud. 

“I’m a-going to lose my mind,” Ma said, “if you all don’t stop a-tracking that old red clay into my house.” 

- Virginia H. Ormsby, Long Lonesome Train Whistle
That reminds me also (as my train of associations rolls along) that the first time I traveled in the American South, camping with my parents and sisters on our way to visit grandparents who had moved in retirement to the Gulf Coast of Florida, the red Georgia soil seemed bizarre and alien to my Midwestern eyes, whereas now, in more recent years, whether traveling through the South or spending time in Southwest, I have repeatedly been struck by the similarity of red earth in the southern U.S. to that where my “pen pal,” Kathy, lives in New South Wales, Australia, and — between here and there, if you take the Atlantic route — the red earth of South Africa, Botswana, and other countries in Africa, places I only know by reading about them. 

I asked Kathy (she’s the one who sent me the book quoted at the beginning of this post), for permission to use one of her photographs, and she not only said yes (thanks, Kathy Dowling!) but also sent another image, one I hadn’t seen before and had a little trouble deciphering at first. The first photo you won’t have a problem interpreting, but the second image below is a photograph taken during a dust storm that had engulfed my friends’ country home and B&B. This is not an altered image: the dust is this thick, bright red. Can you believe it?

Red earth around dam (pond) in New South Wales

Red dust storm, New South Wales

And now an old friend from my earliest Michigan life, married to a Brazilian, has sent me photos from their South American life — and there it is again: red earth. Jeanie Furlan writes, “The color of the earth is sandy red … in Pereira Barreto.…  Closer to São Paulo, the Ribeirão Preto earth is a deep, rusty red, and it is much more fertile.”  

Red earth in Brazil

Besides photos of the red earth, she sent an example of local architecture, saying, “This is the Aunt and Uncle’s house where I first visited in 1973  (outside Sales Oliveira). They use flooring that will match the earth and outside wall color is also the same as the earth.  It makes sense since people will track this color from boots and rain, dust and wind will blow this color around.”

Utilization of earth tones, Brazil

Of course, dwellers in the American Southwest have long used the colors of local earth in houses, walls, tiles, and decorative items. And here are a couple more red-earth images from here in Arizona, down near Pearce:

We know now that the continents of earth were not always configured as they are today, but I was in school too early to have been taught about plate tectonics, so lately I’ve been doing some catching up, marveling that the idea of continents moving at all is so recent in scientific history. In The Fossil Book: A Record of Prehistoric Life, by Carrol Lane Fenton & Mildred Adams Fenton, I turn (after lingering on the familiar Devonian examples) from compelling illustrations of fossils in rocks to passages of text that dwell on the movements of continents. There I learn that when Alfred Wegener and Alexander du Toit seriously proposed the idea in 1912, neither they nor anyone else could explain how the continents might have moved. The theory of seafloor spreading didn’t come along until H. H. Hess of Princeton put it together and published in 1962. So when I was in my high school freshman earth science class, plate tectonics theory was brand-new, a subject of scientific debate, and not the accepted working model and received knowledge it has since become. Pangea, Laurentia, Gondwana — prehistoric continents — an entirely different configuration of earth’s land and water. Fascinating!

I read novels set in other parts of the United States and the world, dwell on images sent by friends, recall soils in places I have visited, and I imagine (mind you, this is only my imagination at work!) all the red earth territories originally conjoined, and when I’m actually in red earth country, staring at the bright ground and rocks, I feel closer to other red earth parts of the world, as well as to characters in books who live in such places, as if we are still connected somehow by being on similar ground. Then I wonder this: around the world, how many different languages are spoken in red earth lands, and how many different words do human beings use to describe those places?

The “world” is at once so large and, as “earth,” a home small and contained and intimate. Or so it often seems to me.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Adventure Called -- We Answered

The Artist and the dog and I do not bang and zoom around the countryside on fat-tired machinery, but we enjoy less-traveled roads and opportunities to get out of the car and explore. Friday began with another visit from the flock of mountain bluebirds featured in my last post, an event exciting enough that I would have been content to shop for groceries in Willcox and come home and clean the house. But when the Artist says, “How about…?” and his idea promises a good time, I rarely say no. After all, housework won’t disappear if it doesn’t get done on any particular afternoon.

We had noticed a certain tempting “primitive road” before but had not, as the Artist says, “stuck our noses down it” on other days. Now, however, the sun was shining, and we were ready to say yes to the road’s invitation. Oh, the rocks! Like the fabulous rocks in Texas Canyon, but far from expressway traffic.

Oh, the views! Close up and off into the distance, every aspect was enchanting. We felt we were in the kind of environment and having the kind of experience that people travel halfway around the world to find, and no one had “managed” it for us with guideposts and rest areas.

Recent rain had brought out the season’s first bajada lupines (not pictured here), the largest ones along this road no more than two inches across (and no flowers yet, of course), but I was equally pleased by a beautiful clump of grass and its shadow. Even an old rusty can had a story to tell, of cowboys eating beans while taking a break from moving cattle.

Because we did encounter cattle. No bighorn sheep or mountain lions, but gorgeous black steers with coats so rich and glossy in the sunlight and mountain air that they pleased us as much as wildlife would have done. We drove a prudent distance from the cattle before letting Sarah out to stretch her legs and apply her busy nose to the ground. What a good dog she is!

Lovely old oaks, oddball cholla (my name for it) and the ubiquitous soaptree yucca, so familiar to me now that it rarely brings Dr. Seuss to my mind any more — 

More rocks, more long mountain views — 

On another day, when we go back again, I would love to take along a picnic lunch. We had water, of course, but not so much as a granola bar or a peanut to snack on, and the fact that we lingered in the wilds so long, despite hunger, is an indication of how enthralled we were by the terrain. I’ll want my large sketchbook and pencils with me next time, too. But these “lacks” were hardly flaws in our Friday adventure. No, despite the lack of planning, our day was completely satisfying. It even provided a couple of especially unexpected and delightful additions to an expedition that would already have been perfect without them.

At our winter cabin in Dos Cabezas, a cactus wren comes to visit every morning. We’ve come to recognize his call, but never before had we seen a cactus wren nest, so finding not one but two in the mountains was another bit of excitement. Later I consulted my guides and found that Birds of Southeastern Arizona, by Richard Cachor Taylor, has this to say: 
Large, straw-colored, oven-shaped [“front-loading,” that is, rather than “top-loading”] nests are woven from fine materials and usually placed in a thorny cactus or spiny tree. Males may build up to five extra “dummy” nests, which can be used as roosts, as well as to discourage would-be predators.

Had we stumbled upon nests from last year, or were these “dummy” nests, the real home in which eggs would be laid and young raised somewhere else? How would one know? Another interesting fact about the cactus wren is that it gets all the it needs in the way of water from its solid food diet of insects and cactus fruits. Mountain bluebirds and robins, along with sparrows of all kinds, appreciate the clay saucer of water I set out behind the cabin, but the cactus wren doesn’t need me at all. And here is another description from Taylor that not only identifies the song we’ve come to recognize but sticks in this reader’s mind so the song cannot be forgotten: 
Chugging song, a  lengthy series of krr krr krr notes, suggests someone cranking the motor on a older car, trying to get it started. Loud and often heard, for many the song of the Cactus Wren evokes the Arizona desert.
All in all, our spirits were high and hearts full as we resumed the paved road. And yet we had not yet reached the end of the day’s surprises, for there along the roadside, weeks before I would have begun to look for them, Mexican poppies were blooming! My Audubon Society Guide to North American Wildflowers, Western Region, gives the Spanish name, along with the Latin for this bright, cheerful roadside flower, and so we learn that the very formal-sounding Eschscholtzia mexicana is more familiarly known as Amapola del Campo, or the “poppy of the countryside.” (I like that sweet, peasant-sounding name.) Audubon, or in this case Richard Spellenberg of New Mexico State University, identifies the plant’s habitat as “open gravelly desert slopes” and notes that “When there have been ample winter rains, this Poppy sometimes grows in dense patches.” Dense, bright, and beautiful, I would say, though the patches are more extensive along 191 going straight north to Safford. 

Well, it was a very full day, and Sarah had a pretty good time, too, which always adds to our happiness.