Category Archives: Abbey Country

Sandhills on My Horizon

Each spring and fall, sandhill cranes migrate over our home on the west slope of the Sierra.  Like so many of my friends and neighbors, I run outside to hear their calls and witness their grace.  So, imagine my delight on vacation here in Abbey  Country, when my friends Sheri Williamson and Tom Wood, who run the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, asked me if I’d like to take a drive and see sandhills in their “loafing place”–Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area near the Mexican border in Cochise County, Arizona. I met up with them on a cold, clear day in Bisbee. Snow had dusted the town the night before.

The cranes leave this loafing area around dawn to go feed miles away.  Here, we can see them on the distant horizon as they return to rest and digest their meal.

The cranes leave this loafing area around dawn to go feed miles away. Here, we can see them on the distant horizon as they return to rest and digest their meal.

The Whitewater Draw is in a riverless basin. The water is accumulated rain water from  the last monsoon season. The cranes bathe in it and use the water to soften the corn in their crops--corn they gleaned earlier in the day over 10 miles away.

The Whitewater Draw is in a riverless basin. The water is accumulated rain water from the last monsoon season. The cranes bathe in it and use the water to soften the corn in their crops–corn they gleaned earlier in the day over 10 miles away.

The viewing deck is quite a distance from the cranes; the only close up view is with a scope.  Here's my attempt to take a photo through the scope.  Not elegant, but at least you can get an idea of what they look like up close.

The viewing deck is quite a distance from the cranes; the only close up view is with a scope. Here’s my attempt to take a photo through the scope. Not elegant, but at least you can get an idea of what they look like up close.

Each day, dozens of people come to visit the cranes, ducks, geese, falcons, hawks, and doves that frequent the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area.  Here, Sheri and Tom adjust their scope for this young birdwatcher.

Each day, dozens of people come to visit the cranes, ducks, geese, falcons, hawks, and doves that frequent the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. Here, Sheri and Tom adjust their scope for this young birdwatcher.

Through her work at Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, Sheri teaches hundreds of children each year.

Through her work at Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, Sheri teaches hundreds of children each year.

The cranes rest and digest near the ducks, with whom they live in harmony. The crane's most significant predator is the eagle.

The cranes rest and digest near the ducks, with whom they live in harmony. The crane’s most significant predator is the eagle.

Noon approaches and more birdwatchers arrive. Sheri spontaneously fields questions and offers fascinating bits of information.  For instance, within the huge flocks, the sandhills travel in family pods of three or four birds. Sadly, if a youngster is orphaned, he or she will not be adopted by other adults.

Noon approaches and more birdwatchers arrive. Sheri spontaneously fields questions and offers fascinating bits of information. For instance, within the huge flocks, the sandhills travel in family pods of three or four birds. Sadly, if a youngster is orphaned, he or she will not be adopted by other adults.

Tom explains to fellow birdwatchers about the daily migration of the cranes from the cornfield--their feeding place--to Whitewater Draw--their loafing area.

Tom explains to fellow birdwatchers about the daily migration of the cranes from the cornfield–their feeding place–to Whitewater Draw–their loafing area.

More and more cranes kept arriving.  Tom estimated there were about 10,000 cranes on the ground and in the air. Each crane consumes a pound of corn a day.

More and more cranes kept arriving. Tom estimated there were about 10,000 cranes on the ground and in the air. Each crane consumes a pound of corn a day.

The cranes will feed and loaf in Cochise County until midwinter, when they will begin their migrations. Some will travel as far as Siberia.  These aren't the cranes that pass over my house in the Sierra, Tom says.  Those sandhills winter in California's central valley.

The cranes will feed and loaf in Cochise County until midwinter, when they will begin their migrations. Some will travel as far as Siberia. These aren’t the cranes that pass over my house in the Sierra, Tom says. Those sandhills winter in California’s central valley.

Reluctantly we left Whitewater Draw a bit after noon, stopping on the way to glimpse some doves camouflaged in the brush, then to attempt to photograph elusive Merlins and hawks. “We’ll have to come back tomorrow,” Sheri said to Tom, “for a hawk stalk.” For twenty five years they have been visiting here, first when they were stewards of the Ramsey Canyon Nature Preserve, and now as administrators of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory–SABO. For more information about their work, or to make a contribution to SABO, visit them at



Filed under Abbey Country, photographs


Hummer has been slang for hummingbird since 1868, when Titus Fey Cronise used the term in The Natural Wealth of California. For birders, the term refers to one of dozens of species of hummingbirds rather than obscenely big cars or bedroom frolics. Having spent some time in Abbey Country with birders, I often forget it has any other connotation.

Cochise County, May 12, 2012

For a couple of months each spring and a couple of months each summer, dozens of volunteers gather in Abbey Country to observe and band local and migratory hummingbirds. Banding takes place at SABO (Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory) and at the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. SABO is administered by Sheri L. Williamson, who wrote the Peterson’s Guide to Hummingbirds, and her husband, Tom Wood.

Banding takes place at the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area on Saturdays from 4-6 p.m. in April and May, July and August. The event is free and interactive.

4:00 p.m. The bird trap is set to catch a hummer. A bird enthusiast holds a remote control device about twenty feet away from the trap. When a hummer starts to feed, down goes then netting. Sheri Williamson waits nearby at a processing table to band caught birds and release them.

This giant cottonwood is just feet away from the trap. Many hummers nest in this tree. During the two hours this Saturday, they flew out of the tree and right past the trap to sip nectar from ocotillo and other blooming desert flowers.

4:15: Tom Wood waits near the trap. The previous week at San Pedro, SABO caught and banded twenty hummers! So far, not one has gone near the trap.

4:30: Tom (left) and another hummer-lover wait in stillness for a capture.

The minutes ticked by. About a dozen children in the crowd continued to wait with more patience than I thought possible. The afternoon breeze along the San Pedro was warm, and the calls of several kinds of birds dotted the relative silence. Tom and Sheri speculated that the birds weren’t coming to the trap for two main reasons: They were already on their nests, and the nectar of the blooming ocotillo was preferable to the clear sugar water in the feeders.

5:00. One hour in and no birds captured. The man with the remote waits quietly to trap a hummer.

The hummers that hang around San Pedro in April and May are mostly local, and many are on their nests by the beginning of June. The hummers in San Pedro over the summer tend to be migrants from Mexico, some bound as far as Montana and beyond.

Finally, just as the crowd was beginning to give up, a cheer came from around the trap. Tom carried the black-chinned hummingbird in a small net cage from the trap to Sheri’s processing table.

Sheri’s examination begins. She’s wearing high-powered magnifying glasses.

Hummers, according to Sheri, have excellent spatial memory. They remember what flowers they visited and when. She is often asked if the banding process harms the birds. “They are incredibly brave and tough little birds,” she says, “They are emotionally durable.” They are not physically traumatized, of that she’s sure. It takes one to two minutes to process a bird, and they won’t leave birds waiting for more than ten minutes. The birds are handled gently and given a drink when the banding is complete. Sheri says she’s caught some birds up to sixteen times, five times in one year. Given their intelligence, she thinks, they wouldn’t return if they were emotionally traumatized. She says, in fact, that it’s difficult to emotionally traumatize a wild animal. Given the intelligence of the average hummer, the birds tend to go into a “this is weird…what happens next” mode, playing possum. Most birds take the drink at the end, and this is their way of saying that they’re okay with the process.

The band goes on the leg. This banding number goes into a national database that helps SABO and other groups track the migratory habits and numbers of hummers. The pliers Sheri uses were made especially for the purpose by a retired machinist. These are heirloom, she says, and will be passed down to another bird bander when she retires.

The band goes on. This little guy’s band number is P44045.

Now that the band is on, Sheri will quickly assess the health of the bird.

Sheri determines that this bird is male. Susan Ostrander, the SABO spokeswoman for the afternoon, explains that birds such as this are “dead beat dads”. Many species of birds mate at least for the season, and the male helps build and guard the nest as well as feed the hatchlings. Not hummers. Once the eggs are fertilized, the couple separates permanently, and the woman is on her own. Hummers are loners, as well, not migrating in groups but preferring to go it alone. Once the female’s hatchlings leave the nest, she flies solo once again.

Measuring the bill determines the age of the bird. This guy’s bill measured 19.1 mm.

Based on the size of his bill, Sheri concludes that the bird hatched last year. She also notes the “perfectly clean, uniformly green back”, and explains that black-chins molt partially in the fall, partially in the spring. If he were older, some of his feathers would have turned blue and be broken at the tips.

Kathy records the data that will be sent to a central banding laboratory in Maryland.

Sheri explains her process to the crowd as the dozen patient children wait for a chance to hold the hummer.

Using a straw, Sheri blows aside the hummer’s feathers. This allows her to assess the bird’s percentage of body fat, which is too high for him to be a local bird. He’s a migrant, Sheri concludes, “one of the millions that uses the San Pedro as a highway to get up from Mexico to the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin, into western Canada and even Alaska.”

Sheri (left) and Kathy (right) continue to process the young, male, migrant black-chinned hummer as one young bird enthusiast takes it in.

Sheri wraps the bird in a screening material in order to weigh him.

He weighs in at 3.5 grams. That’s heavy for a hummer.

Right after the exam, the hummer gets a drink. It’s important to note that red dye should never, ever be used to feed hummingbirds. It poisons them.

The banding and exam are complete. Just about all that’s left now is his release. But before that, Susan whips out a stethoscope so that the children can hear his racing heart.

Their patience rewarded, the children wait to hear the hummer’s heartbeat. One of them will get to release the bird.

When birders arrive at San Pedro house between three and four to prepare for the banding, they are given a number. First come first served: if your number comes up you may hold the hummer before it’s released. Today, since there was only one capture, adults with numbers gave them to the waiting children.

According to Ostrander, some say the hummer’s heartbeat sounds like wind blowing through the trees, others say it’s like a cat purring. One man, she remembers, said it sounds like a Harley on a distant hill. Twelve hundred beats in a minute is not unusual.

Ostrander places the hummer in this boy’s hand as the crowd watches. Surprisingly, he does not fly away.

Since the hummer seems to want to hang out with the children, Ostrander transfers him from one child’s hands to the next. The atmosphere becomes hushed; the children even more reverent.

“We only got one today, but we got a lot of time with him,” one parent says.

These two brothers waited so patiently for the capture. I was impressed!

The bird seems reluctant to fly away, so Sheri gives him another drink to make sure he’s okay.

Fly away, fly away, fly away home.

It’s tough to say good-bye.

6:00 p.m. Sheri and the crowd wait for the hummer to fly away. He’s allowed Susan to transfer him four times, which is most unusual.

Then, faster than my camera can capture, the hummer is airborne, flying toward his superhighway and his summer home.

If you look closely, you can see the tiny black speck: our male, after hatch, migrant black-chinned hummer. Bon voyage!


Filed under Abbey Country, Back Yard Days, photographs, Sustainability

Riding the Wind

“I’m sure the way to enjoy life is to live in obscurity with frequent escapades” –Freya Stark, late 19th Century explorer

Cochise County: May 12, 2012

I arrived at the airport near my mom’s house with Tony the Amazing Tour Guide and Charles, another person who wanted to fly that day. I was a little nervous. I’ve been in many small planes and I love flying in general, but I’d never been in a glider before. I’d never flown in the air without benefit of the almighty engine.

The Sierra Vista airport in Cochise County is the most versatile airport in the country, my sources say. It is utilized by military, civilians, border patrol, and fire fighters.

The airport was quiet this Saturday, and we quickly found John, one of the pilots and partners in Southern Arizona Flight Services. His partner, George, was bringing the plane around.

John and George’s motorized glider sits on the tarmac at Libby Field–“Libby” to those who know it on a first name basis.

Despite the monsoon-like storm a couple days earlier, the May day was already hot. It was a little after noon as Charles prepared for his flght.

Charles, left, gets the 411 on the glider ride from George and John (right).

When Tony told me that George had been flying for 50 years, and John for 40, I had to admit the word geriatric came to mind. I was quickly humbled. Whatever ages these gentlemen are, it is the new 50.

George was a pilot in the army before he retired and started Southern Arizona Flight Services about fifteen years ago. Here, he quickly pulls the hatch down and starts the engine.

When Tony first told me about the glider ride, I pictured a hang glider and immediately thought: My mom will freak out! Many people first conceptualize a hang glider, Tony and John both told me. John reminded me that the typical glider is towed by a small engine aircraft, then released in mid air for the float down. But Libby won’t allow operation of that kind of glider, so they went with this Austrian motorized machine. The pilot (George today) will cut the engine at about 12,000 feet.

Charles (left) and George ready for the taxi out.

This baby is all wing.

Charles and George were gone from our landscape in a moment, audible only through the occasional radio transmissions that came through John’s walkie talkie while we waited and chatted about Southern Arizona Flight Services. In addition to helping out the military by shadowing its UAVs, the two entrepreneurs run a burial operation called Final Flight, complete with a CDU (Cremains Dispersal Unit) that George designed and the FAA approved. John, unlike George, came from a civilian background; he was a commercial pilot for decades before retiring. He’s also Coast Guard certified and in his spare time, if he’s not SCUBA diving, is a tennis umpire for the the professional circuit. (He’s officiated over John McEnroe’s games.) When I asked John why he and George chose to invest in the motorized glider when it’s a small, fiscally insignificant portion of their business, he replied without blinking. “For the love of it,” he said. “To share with people the joy of silent flight.”

Charles landed safely and I took his seat, remembering the thrill of being in a small plane, and thinking, as I inevitably do in such situations, about perceived risk.

George’s wings reminded me of my father’s. It’s fascinating to find put your life in the hands of a complete stranger.

I got the feeling that George could fly all day every day and still have this smile on his face.

George started the engine and the propeller quickly became a blurry circle directly ahead. It was noisy, hot, bumpy, and exciting.

leaving the tarmac for the hazy desert sky

We flew over the outskirts of Fort Huachuca and the town of Sierra Vista.

We traveled toward the Mexican border and the Huachuca Mountains.

9,500 feet and climbing

We almost have the altitude we need as we approach the Huachucas.

The bits of verdant green on these high desert mountains were encouraged by the early monsoon three days before.

Bird’s eye view: The Huachucas

The desert as it wanders into Mexico

We climbed and climbed, glimpsed the border and the Coronado National Monument as we peeked over the Huachucas. I watched the altimeter complete circle after circle with its two hands–like a clock gone mad. I wondered how it would feel in my body when George cut the engine.

12,500 feet. it’s time.

George pulls down on the throttle. The engine stops, but the sound of the wind is almost as strong. The propeller freezes and I stare at it whimsically through the windshield. It’s a strange, exhilarating feeling.

There we were, hovering over the mountains I love, a tiny plane with two people, riding the wind.

The propeller rests as we begin our very gradual descent over the Huachucas.

The closer we nestled into the land, the more I felt that impatient feeling I remember from my childhood. I did not want this to end. I wanted to hover above those mountains and never come out.

Before I knew it, we could see Sierra Vista and the tarmac. George spoke to John over the radio: a bunch of numbers and of course “Libby”.

We glide in for the landing.

John and Tony watch us taxi in. Another glider ride; another enthusiastic passenger.

Although my glider flight lasted about an hour, the afterglow lingered for days. It is a privilege to see our world from a different perspective. A few years ago my friend Holger took Mr. Lightcap and me up in his Cessna. It was mid winter and we asked him to fly us over our house and then up into the high country we love so much. We saw Lake Faucherie snowed over, Jackson’s Meadow a luxurious white canvas, sleeping deeply. Then, here in Abbey Country, I went inside the hills that protect Kartchner Caverns, and said as I still often do, that I will never look at a hill or mountainside the same way again. “It pleases me, loving rivers,” Raymond Carver said, but it is the mountain that is my greatest lover, and seeing one from the sky or from the inside out is beyond breathtaking for me. The morning after my glider ride I enjoyed my usual sunrise walk, complete with a view of the Huachuca Mountains. As I gazed up at them I felt a deeper kinship, a kinship that came from riding the wind.

The Huachuca Mountains on my sunrise walk.


Filed under Abbey Country, Back Yard Days, photographs

Border Tour: Naco, Sonora

Cochise County, Arizona

I’ve been visiting here for over twenty years, since my parents left the Sierra Nevada foothills community we shared and started a new life here in Abbey Country. For many years, my dad would take us down to Agua Prieta for a fun walk and lunch in Mexico. He died right after 9/11, and the changes in the country at that point included a general opinion that the border towns were unsafe. The media encouraged this conception, and even now Americans are afraid to visit the border. As I’ve made friends down here the last few years, I’ve heard a much different story. This week my friend Tony drove down with me and we walked across the border into Naco, Sonora. As I crossed over, I felt as I always have when I’ve been in Mexico, whether it has been a border town or the natives’ district in Cancun, during the WTO in ’03. There is something so appealing,so genuine, so homey to me about Mexico that I wish I could stay. I feel more at home there, in a way, than I do in Cali. I have no explanation for this. I might be tempted to cross over and stay, except that unfortunately Mexico’s treatment of illegals is not as compassionate as ours. Maybe some day I’ll get a visa and live the ex-pat life for awhile, as so many of my friends now do. The afternoon we visited Naco, a monsoon-like storm had graced the border. It helped put out a fire west of us and gave the May desert a rare, plump drink. Here are some photos of our hour in Mexico.

crossing the border

Naco, Arizona is a ghost town compared to Naco, Sonora.

This handmade sign weathered the rain storm, and speaks to the “homespun” vibe I appreciate about Mexico.

Many, many US cop vehicles on the U.S. side of the border.

The first thing you see after crossing: this mural painted on corrugated steel.

a collective signature

The main drag: Naco, Sonora

One of the few residences on the main drag.

The street sports a large median and walkway with dilapidated statues and parklets.

apartments above, boarded up businesses below

One of the two types of businesses that are prolific in Naco, Sonora. Can you guess what the other type is?

city park

police station

Wide medians–even on the side streets.

Que es esta?

This business is just reopening after siesta. We toured Naco around 3 p.m.

We navigated the streets via the medians.

Two universals: water and politics.

The Catholic church was locked up tight.

CAFO burgers? Who knows.

One of several buildings that spoke of better days in Naco, Sonora.

Another universal: video rentals and sales.

Another residence. No sign of life inside. Siesta?

still another universal

Three p.m. on a Wednesday in May; the school was deserted.

An old building that has stood the test of time: adobe walls and a tin roof.

yet another universal….

…and another…

Feliz Navidad en Mayo. And yes, this is the other thriving business: dental offices. Three on the few blocks we walked.

a typical street corner

Behind a serious chain link fence…

This tile piece tells the history of Naco.

The tile timeline spans from B.C. to contemporary times.

Adios, Naco!

From there we went through the labyrinth of turnstiles and fences, back to the border. Three U.S. border patrol greeted us with serious intensity, reminding me for the tenth time that day of Abbey’s Good News. “You didn’t take pictures of us, did you?” one of them asked without smiling. We shook our heads and made our way back to the van.


Filed under Abbey Country, photographs, politics

New Frontiers: Kartchner Caverns

Cochise County, Arizona

Whenever I visit my mother in Abbey Country, I try to take her to someplace she’s never been before. My mom is over 90 now, a world traveler who still lives alone with relative autonomy. She’s buried a husband, son, and grandson. She is as wise as her years. There isn’t a lot she hasn’t seen. When my dad was alive, they traveled to many places near their southern Arizona home, so finding something new can be a challenge. Amazingly, she’d never been to Kartchner Caverns, a state park about 20 minutes from her house. I went there a few years ago with my husband and sons, so I already knew how indescribably special it is. Not even photographs can express the cavern’s intricacy and majesty. I figured the walk would be too much for her, half a mile in dim light, so we borrowed a wheel chair at the front desk, hopped on the tram, and I wheeled her into the side of a very ordinary looking little mountain.

Cavers Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts discovered the caves in 1974 and kept them a secret so they wouldn’t get trashed by idiotic people, and thank goodness they did. Ranger Dave, who led our tour, said that men walked on the moon before setting foot in this natural cathedral. Dave, who seems to be a reincarnation of Mark Twain (who himself was a big fan of stalactites and stalagmites) was quite solicitous toward my mom, making sure she could see clearly from her perch in the chair. Her enthusiasm got the better of her several times, and she practically leapt from her seat, holding the rail and staring at the unique and bizarre formations that always look more to me like beeswax than millennia of rock, water, and nature’s chemistry. Wheeling her up and down the ramps, looking down at her soft grey curls and delicate shoulders, I felt a different kind of love for her than I’ve ever felt for anyone. It is not exactly a direct inversion, when the child begins to care for the parent. It is a sort of poetic payback, a retributive act that is in its own way romantic and warm. Pete, Ranger Dave’s assistant, kept a special eye on us, locking the chair for me when we stopped on inclines, offering his own brand of humor in his deep baritone. “What’s the difference between a cave and a cavern? A cavern has a gift shop.” Mom didn’t miss one joke, one soda straw formation or trippy “bacon strip”, or the deeply spiritual tone of the hidden world of Kartchner.

When Tenen and Tufts set out to keep their secret, they gave the caves the code name Xanadu. The most magnifcent formation in the Throne Room they named Kubla Kahn. There are benches in front of this formation, and the tour ends here with a light show, complete with music. I sat next to her, she in the chair, I on the bench, in perfect silence. I thought of all the Masses she’d taken me to, then later dragged me to, all the Hail Marys and Memorares I recited with her throughout my childhood. Now, here we were in my church, and she got it.

Witnessing her enthusiasm for this gorgeous place filled me with pride. Once again I’d succeeded in showing her something new in her own back yard. She came into my room to tuck me in that night, and put her hand over her heart, holding it there, pressing gently. “Thank you so much,” she said, “for showing me those caverns. We will always have that now.” Our identical green eyes danced with each other a moment. All around us, we felt peace.

[This link offers a map of the Caverns, and clicking on the map offers you several photographs. Visitors are not allowed to take photographs inside the caves. Extensive information about the Caverns is available onllne.)


Filed under Abbey Country, Back Yard Days, Essays

Thwarting Our Best Intentions: A Polemic

It has been a typical couple weeks on Facebook in the land of leftie politics.  Whether I am visiting the group for Save The Scenic Santa Ritas down in Abbey Country, or reading a post from a local food activist here in Nevada City, or perusing the many leftie slogans that litter my news feed, it is pretty much the same. People who care fervently about their causes are driving potential supporters away with their rudeness and their inaccurate and objectifying language.  After ten years of covering left-wing politics as a reporter, this doesn’t surprise me.  There is a reason why our frequent refrain in the newsroom was “fucking lefties!”  There is a reason why it is a cliché that the left forms firing squads in a circle. But what somehow surprised me about what I’ve witnessed on Facebook these past weeks is that the people spouting their venom and lies—spouting them in the hopes of prosthelytizing —know they are venom and lies but don’t care.

First, let’s go to Abbey Country, where Arizonans have been engaged in a feisty debate for months now. A Canadian company doing business as Rosemont Copper Mine wishes to build and operate a mine in what is known as The Scenic Santa Rita Mountains. Thousands of birders, hikers, wine enthusiasts, and other tourists visit these mountains each year and strongly oppose the project.  There is also a great deal of support for the mine, especially with Arizona’s unemployment rate finally catching up with the rest of the nation’s. With publication of the DEIS delayed more than once, the state has been in limbo. Now that the document has been published, public hearings are being held and there may soon be some actual movement.  It’s very much the same story line as Nevada County, gold, and Emgold.

Every few weeks I visit the group page Save the Scenic Santa Ritas on Facebook. When I went there late October, I observed a conversation between two women, we’ll call them Katey and Amber.  Katey was speaking passionately against the mine; I don’t know what her role is with the organization Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, but she posted with authority and obviously a great deal of knowledge. Amber popped in to the group having just been to an informational meeting sponsored by Rosemont Copper; she had follow-up questions.

As typical with Facebook, I saw the end of the conversation first, in which Amber sarcastically thanked Katey for her rudeness, since it had helped win Amber over to the side of the mine’s developers.  Having been to one of those informational meetings at Rosemont, I can see how Amber’s decision might have been made easier. The spokespeople at the meetings are very nice, quite calm and yet passionate, plus they had out free beverages and chips.   Treating people well is a great way to seduce them; Rosemont gets that but Katey doesn’t seem to.  As I skimmed through their conversation, I was stunned by Katey’s rude tone and dismissive approach to Amber’s questions.  Amber and I tried to tell her not to be so rude.  “A little honey with your vinegar?”  I wrote hopefully, only to also be chastised that Katey doesn’t have time for oversensitive people because it was a “fight” so she had to fight.  (I regret I cannot quote Katey more specifically, because she or someone on her behalf went back and removed every single one of her comments from the conversation. I attempted to contact her to follow up, but not only her posts but apparently her profile have disappeared from Facebook.)

In the rhetorical nightmare that embodies the flaccid ineffectuality of left wing politics, Katey has hit the jackpot.  Meanwhile, Rosemont Copper Mine has a new supporter. Amber is a small business owner in Tucson, so I imagine that she already has a sign up in her shop window supporting the mine.  Has Katey won the “fight”?  Hopefully the gorgeous Santa Ritas have wiser spokespeople in their camp—or else it will be Rosemont Copper Mine in Abbey Country.  More jobs, less tourism, American copper sold to China to make more cheap shit we’ll buy at Walmart.  Katey does not see that she is actually fighting for the enemy.  Perhaps she’ll get a thank you card from Rosemont Copper.

(And we need to remember that Katey, Amber, or both women could be on Rosemont’s payroll. Corporations regularly hire shills to infiltrate and affect grass roots groups, and given Rosemont’s manipulative television spots, I wouldn’t be surprised.  I have no evidence of this; I am merely saying it is possible. If either woman were to be on their payroll, I’m sure that the company feels its money is well spent.)

The Scenic Santa Ritas. I took this photo standing in the exact spot of the proposed mine.

Meanwhile, in Nevada City last October, I attended a dinner-and-a-movie fundraiser for a local farm defense fund.  The event was at The Willo, which impressed me, because it’s not a typical leftie venue.  It’s a venerable old roadhouse famous for its steaks and affordable cocktails. And eat steaks and drink cocktails we did, before we watched the film Farmaggedon, which offers vivid evidence and video footage of the USDA raids on artisanal and organic farmers across the country.  In the film, the footage of these raids is frightening to say the least. Machine guns and children in the same room, people’s yogurt, chickens, grains, sheep, confiscated before their tearful eyes. The raids are violent, the technology and firearms ratcheted up to the point of absurdity.  Before the film began, a spokesman for the farm defense fund gave a speech, as is customary at such events. He said there had just been a raid in Placer County, and that soon they expected equally dramatic events in Nevada County. As we listened to him, we were all sobered by the reality that USDA tanks and guns could soon be rolling down Cement Hill Road and Highway 174. It seemed far-fetched, hyperbolic–until we saw the film.

A couple weeks later, about the end of the month, a farm activist posted on Facebook: a food swap organization shut down in eastern Nevada County, in the town of Truckee. The farm activist, let’s call her Sheila, announced the incident with screaming caps on both Facebook and email:  RAID in Nevada County.  I checked in on Facebook with the group who’d organized the food swap, Tahoe Slow Food, and saw that the spokeswoman for the group was already putting out that fire.  “I would like to clarify,” she said,  “There was no raid!”  She went on to explain the relatively polite exchange between the group and the health department, and said they hoped to resolve things with further conversations.  (Not as exciting as a raid, I know.)  I went to Sheila and said, “Look, no raid.”  Her response: “a minor difference to me. Swapping food is still illegal.”

Most people, particularly food consumers who are not activists, would see more than a minor difference between an armed USDA raid and a quiet conversation between health department officials and a slow food group. Those people, who can’t quite grock that the USDA raids are even real, will brand Sheila’s hyperbole as hysteria and say something like this:  “Those left wing nuts. Talking all this shit about raids when there aren’t any. We can’t believe a word they say. Go Monsanto!  Go Walmart!”  Sheila joins Katey in getting a warm, fuzzy, thank-you note from her enemy. The more misinformation is out there, the less mobilized the public will be to engage in causes that are central to their lives.  But, like Katey, Sheila can’t see beyond her strident view to the larger rhetorical concern.

I had been thinking about Katey and Sheila, about the frustrating reality that so many people with profound ideas about the future are marginalizing not only themselves but also the very causes they dedicate their lives to. Incidents such as the two I’ve described are as commonplace as they are polarizing.  Why is this, I’ve been wondering. Meanwhile, on Facebook, I began noticing a trend developing—a trend that began about the same time the Occupy movement went viral.  People began creating and sharing slogans and testimonials through photographs.  One stream of these photos is dedicated to the 99%, one person at a time telling his or her story about their fall from the middle class.  These, at least, have some text and explanation for why they are saying what they are saying.  Less so the slogans, which encapsulate complex social dynamics into dangerously simplistic ideas.  For example: “I have nothing against God, it’s his fan club I can’t stand.”  These slogans seem to make people happy; I think that’s because it does feel good to have one’s philosophies and ideas wrapped nicely and placed beneath the Christmas tree for others to “ooo” and “ah” over. These slogans are as dangerous to the left as are the rash actions of Katey and Sheila. The absurd generalization that God’s “fan club” can be lumped into one demographic is insulting not to the faithful but to the intellectual capacity of the left.

It is easy to fall through the trap door into the soft, pillowy comfort of smugness. Back in 2003 when I was a reporter I remember asking Jeremy Skahill, who’d just returned from months in Iraq, how the Iraqis felt about Americans.  Skahill was as nice as he could be when he told me how ridiculous my question was: “There are hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, each with his or her own opinion,” he reminded me. When we do as I tried, and attempt to reduce the complexity of a nation into a pat, sentence-long encapsulation, we oversimplify.  When we oversimplify complex issues, we polarize our audience.  “Where is tolerance?” a Christian I know and love wrote on Facebook.  “Why are there so many posts about how evil we are?”  The creator of the “fan club” slogan wasn’t picturing my friend, a hard-working, home-schooling, fair and open minded woman who happens to get strength from a different place than he does. He was objectifying her, oversimplifying the dilemma of organized religion and the harm done on its behalf, and in the process creating more hate and angst. He was, in essence, sabotaging his mission just as completely as Katey and Sheila sabotaged theirs.

Creating animosity, misinformation, and polarization are all ineffective, counterproductive ways out of the mess we are in.  There are mountain ranges to be stewarded, wholesome foods to be protected, and individual choices to be honored. Only when the left begins to treat others with the respect it demands for itself can it truly help the 99% it claims to care about.  Offering faux compassion to a massive body of people is meaningless; we need to care for and respect each individual that contributes to that statistic.  Furthermore, we need to make a commitment as individuals to go beyond the slogans, to challenge the hyperbole, to demand honesty and integrity in our daily conversations. If we can’t do that, how do we seriously think we change an entire planet for the better?


Filed under Abbey Country, Community, Essays, Farming, Mining, Polemics, politics, Sustainability

A Walk Along the San Pedro River

Photographs from Abbey Country

“It pleases me, loving rivers.”  Raymond Carver

The San Pedro River flows north from Mexico into southeastern Arizona.  It is one of the last free flowing rivers in the Southwest.  At the San Pedro River Riparian National Conservation Area in Cochise County, the river winds through a grove of cottonwood and willow trees at the juncture of four distinct geologic zones.  I visited the San Pedro about a month before locals expected summer rains, and at times it was reduced to a healthy trickle. (My friend in Bisbee said he’s recorded 17/100ths of an inch of rain since October, 2010.)  Below are some images I captured along the San Pedro in mid May, 2011.

Looking from San Pedro House toward the river.

The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area is visible for miles around: a luscious green strip of cottonwood and willow in the midst of the high desert.

lone, brave thistle flowers in the high desert wind

Suddenly, an oasis.

a little rapid, and it made a lively gurgle despite the algae

Green Kingfisher Pond is an old sand and gravel quarry.

One of the many giant cottonwoods gracing the San Pedro. Some measure over 35 feet around.

The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area is visited by birders the world over. The Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory (SABO) bands hummingbirds here in the spring. Next time I visit I’ll try to bring a birder friend and get some photos for you.

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Filed under Abbey Country, Education, Sustainability