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Saturday, February 23, 2019

Alligators — But Not in the Water

We have a mountain right in our winter backyard, and when we drive to Willcox and back we are surrounded by mountains. Mountains on all sides! Chiricahuas, Dos Cabezas, Pinaleños, Winchesters, Dragoons, as well as the various buttes and hills. So it isn’t as if we have to go out of our way to see them.  And yet, they are never the same two days — or even two hours — in a row, what with different kinds of weather, clouds, fog, snow, and angles of sunlight that change throughout the day, and we never tire of the sight of them. One recent morning of snow and clouds ushered in a quiet, stay-at-home day, but the very next morning brought a clear, cloudless blue sky, inviting us to venture with a visiting friend on one of our favorite excursions. This was, I should say, before the “extreme” weather beginning on Thursday evening, bringing yet another blizzard. But, for now, to backtrack….

Our visitor was not seeing Cochise County for the first time. He was with us last year and three years before that, so he had already been introduced to the Chiricahua National Monument, Texas Canyon, the Amerind Museum, and the towns of Willcox, Benson, Tombstone, and Bisbee. What could we show him that he had not yet seen? 

Out Fort Grant Road we drove, past the rodeo grounds and north to the beautiful grasslands, and then pausing as we near Bonita and again just the other side — but long before we reach the pause points, I see them in the distance and anticipate.

Cottonwoods were one of the favorite trees of the westward pioneers, for the sight of them always meant water, wood, and shade. - Mabel Crittenden, Trees of the West

Whether a creek or river or wash contains water or not, a wandering line of cottonwoods in the distance draws the human eye, tracing across the landscape the path of water when it does run. And yes, that day we did find water, flowing water in such abundance that it almost seemed to warrant the phrase “flood stage”! Beautiful trees, beautiful water!

Farther up the road, into the mountains, Sarah requested a stop in the Stockton Pass to stretch her dog legs among the alligator junipers, and we humans in the party were happy to oblige. More than happy, in my case, because as far as I am concerned, every trip to and through the Pinaleños goes by too fast, and I’m happy for any excuse to stop and stand and gaze about me, both to take in the long views and to examine more closely the “truly magnificent and unusual juniper,” as Mabel Crittenden calls it, the alligator juniper. 

The Alligator Juniper is often a beautiful big tree with wide-spreading branches and a large, thick-barked trunk checkered in an unusual pattern of dark reddish-brown squarish plates…. Although the scale-like leaves are very similar to Utah Juniper … and the One-seed Juniper…, the bark is so characteristic that it separates it from those junipers immediately. Once seen, it is a characteristic that won’t be forgotten, and this bark develops even on young specimens. - Ibid.

Arriving from the Upper Midwest in early 2015, with so many new birds and trees and wildflowers and cacti to learn, I was grateful to the alligator juniper for presenting me with an unforgettable identifying characteristic and conceived an instant fondness for it that is with me yet. Of course, in the otherwise arid southern landscape, not noted for trees, it does my Michigan heart good to get up into the mountains among the green leaves of oaks and junipers. A bit more about the alligator juniper from Mabel Crittenden:

It tends to be a wide tree rather than a tall tree, but it may grow to be as much as 20 meters (60’) tall…. If a tree is cut, it often sprouts from the remaining trunk. - Ibid.

Oaks identification presents me with a greater challenge than the magnificent alligator juniper, but I’ll take a gamble here (go out on a limb?) and say that the oaks in the Stockton Pass are probably the same species a neighbor identified for me in Texas Canyon, Emory oaks (named for the Army surveyor, Lt. William Hemsley Emory, who found the tree in Texas and brought it to the attention of science in 1846. Crittenden says of the Emory oak that it 

…appears “evergreen,” for its leaves hang on, staying shiny through the winter and only fall before the new leaves come out in the spring. It generally forms a small angular tree on grassy or rocky hillsides, but may grow to 15 meters (45’). The twigs are very tough and grow quite irregularly; when they are young they are fine-hairy and bright red. The branching tends to be very horizontal. - Ibid.

Horizontal branching is an attractive habit in a tree, especially to one reminded of dogwoods in the forests of southern Michigan (Allegan County and below), and I find charming Crittenden’s emphasis on the “very tough” young twigs of the Emory oak. The emphasis is hers from 1977. I’ll have to pay closer attention in future to the color of those tough young twigs. The final paragraph on this page of Trees of the West strengthens my confidence in the identification:

The Emory oak is the main evergreen oak of the southwest, found in canyons, hills, mountainsides, and higher range lands, but at lower elevations than the deciduous Gambel Oak. - Ibid.

Any day that takes me into the mountains is a richly satisfying day. 


George Colburn said...

Great stoty-telling, PG. Keep it up.

Mr G said...

The mountains in Arizona are truly amazing. Kama and I got a good dose for a week around Sedona and around Florence where Susan and Lee are. I understand now your love of those special trips through the mountains.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks, George and Steve. I'll have a new mountain episode for you very soon. Steve, glad you had a chance to experience it firsthand.

Dorothy Laage said...

Thank for driving around our valley and sharing with the locals. We had to venture to Sierra Vista. We had mountains in 3 valleys with snow. What a beautiful place we live in.

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Dorothy. I see there is still a lot of snow this morning (Monday) at higher elevations. It has been a lovely winter indeed in Cochise County, AZ.