Desertwise

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If you are going to die

the desert is a good place to be.

Like a thirst driven cactus

you shrink and cease to be.

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Wily Ravens

The other morning I was out watering when a raven landed on the compost heap and began “talking” to me. Naturally I replied. This raven wasn’t “quorking” but making other curious and complex sounds while staring directly into my eyes and the further we got into conversation the more fascinated I became. S/he used so many vocalizations in response to whatever I was saying that I couldn’t keep track of them. This raven pointed his beak directly at me while speaking. Our mutual exchange ended when the raven flew off to join his mate, leaving me with a sense of wonder. What had we been talking about? I would have given anything to have a tape of that dialogue! One curious note: ever since that conversation these same two ravens acknowledge me with a quork whenever they fly over the house.

For anyone seriously interested in ravens I highly recommend Bernard Heinrich’s book “The Mind of the Raven.” This biologist has probably studied ravens more extensively than anyone on the planet. He believes they are the brightest avians of all. As a naturalist, and therefore a generalist, I have to say that I believe that all birds are equally intelligent, albeit in different ways, but Corvids including jays and crows do seem to have a curious edge in terms of problem solving. My neighbor Rose has been feeding the latter for years and witnessed one crow solve the problem of how to fly off with only their ripest pears! i watched a blue -jay working an ant hill with a stick.

There are three species of ravens but in this article I will be talking about Corvus corax, the common raven, which is geographically and ecologically one of the most widespread naturally occurring birds in the world. The raven is distributed throughout major portions of North America, Europe, Asia, and North Africa, and in all terrestrial biomes except tropical rain forests. The typical adult common raven, the largest of the three, measures about two feet from the tip of its bill to the tip of its tail and is a luminous coal black.

Highly gregarious, adaptable and resourceful, ravens roost and feed in pairs, or scattered flocks, sometimes numbering hundreds (or thousands) depending on the area. Typically, they migrate only short distances with a change of seasons or variability of food sources. They may welcome newcomers, inviting them to dine. They may “mob” a would-be predator or intruder to protect each other or nestlings/ fledglings. The young birds may play games including having a tug of war. For fun, they may also drop and catch objects in mid – flight or snitch and cache shiny and inedible objects in secret places, Sometimes they yank the tail of a would be predator.

Opportunistic and omnivorous, the ravens and crows feed primarily on the most abundant food source available. This could include a broad range of insects, arachnids (e.g. spiders, scorpions), reptiles, small birds, small mammals, pilfered eggs, grains and fruits as well as carrion and human refuse.

Throughout the year, the birds spend substantial time resting, preening, sunning and peering around at their surroundings. They may bathe in shallow waters, sprinklers and snow, preening extensively afterwards. Most fascinating to me is that ravens may post themselves near an ant bed, allowing the insects to crawl through their feathers, leaving a blanket of formic acid to protect them— probably a natural pesticide that eliminates parasites – and then pick the ants off and eat them!

In the spring, when breeding season arrives, raven pairs mate and bond for the year and perhaps for life. During courtship, the birds may preen each other’s head feathers and gently clasp each other’s bills. They may engage in acrobatic flight, showing off, trying to impress a prospective partner. The male and female may spread their wings and tails and fluff their feathers. In the common raven’s version of a lovers’ serenade, the two partners make gurgling, choking and knocking sounds. After mating, a pair turns to homemaking, which often becomes a family affair, with two or three “helpers” – often progeny from the previous season’s hatch – contributing to the raising of the young.

Typically, the birds build their nest on a solid platform such as the fork of a tree, the cross arms of a power pole or, sometimes, in the case of the common raven, on a ledge or crack in a cliff face. It appears that the male hauls most of the construction material to the nest site, and the female builds the nest, which she will make sturdy because she may use it again in coming years. First, she braids small branches and twigs and sometimes even bone or wire into a rough bowl shape spanning a foot and a half to several feet in diameter. Then, she lines her nest with whatever softer materials may be available—grasses, shredded bark, leaves, moss, animal fur, sheep wool, mud and maybe even rags or paper. The lined cup may span a foot in diameter and measure a few inches in depth.

After she finishes her nest, the female lays five or six generally oval-shaped greenish-colored eggs over a period of several days. While she takes primary responsibility for incubating her eggs, the male guards the nest from predators, feeds the female on her nest, and may even incubate the eggs for brief periods.

After about three weeks, the eggs begin to hatch. Babies are born blind and helpless, covered with a slight down. While the female carries most responsibility for brooding the newborn, the male and, now the helpers as well, fetch food, typically insects, grains, carrion and food scraps for the female and the new arrivals. Sometimes, the male and the helpers dip the food in water to make it softer and easier for the nestlings to swallow.

Within a couple of weeks, the young have opened their eyes and begun sprouting feathers. Within four or five weeks, they are fully feathered, and active. They begin short flights. They develop the ability to take care of themselves, but stay in the vicinity of the nest still begging their parents and the helpers for food. After a couple of months, they may leave to join other adolescents, but some may return the following year to serve their turn as helpers in raising their parents’ next brood.

The next time you see a raven strike up a conversation and see what happens Observing these birds as they go about their business of making a living is so much fun!

 

1. Ravens are one of the smartest animals.

When it comes to intelligence, these birds rate up there with chimpanzees and dolphins. In one logic test, the raven had to get a hanging piece of food by pulling up a bit of the string, anchoring it with its claw, and repeating until the food was in reach. Many ravens got the food on the first try, some within 30 seconds. In the wild, ravens have pushed rocks on people to keep them from climbing to their nests, stolen fish by pulling a fishermen’s line out of ice holes, and played dead beside a beaver carcass to scare other ravens away from a delicious feast.

If a raven knows another raven is watching it hide its food, it will pretend to put the food in one place while really hiding it in another. Since the other ravens are smart too, this only works sometimes.

2. Ravens can imitate human speech.

In captivity, ravens can learn to talk better than some parrots. They also mimic other noises, like car engines, toilets flushing, and animal and birdcalls. Ravens have been known to imitate wolves or foxes to attract them to carcasses that the raven isn’t capable of breaking open. When the wolf is done eating, the raven gets the leftovers.

3. Europeans often saw ravens as evil in disguise.

Many European cultures took one look at this large black bird with an intense gaze and thought it was evil. In France, people believed ravens were the souls of wicked priests, while crows were wicked nuns. In Germany, ravens were the incarnation of damned souls or sometimes Satan himself. In Sweden, ravens that croaked at night were thought to be the souls of murdered people who didn’t have proper Christian burials. And in Denmark, people believed that night ravens were exorcised spirits. It was important not to look up at them in case there was a hole in the bird’s wing, because you might look through the hole and turn into a raven yourself.

4. Ravens have been featured in many myths.

Cultures from Tibet to Greece have seen the raven as a messenger for the gods. Celtic goddesses of warfare often took the form of ravens during battles. The Viking god, Odin, had two ravens, Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory), which flew around the world every day and reported back to Odin every night about what they saw. The Chinese said ravens caused bad weather in the forests to warn people that the gods were going to pass by. And some Native American tribes honored the raven as a deity and because of its clever ways. Raven led the people to food sources and assisted hunters, Raven was also seen as a sly trickster who was also a creator god.

5. Ravens are extremely playful.

Indigenous peoples were right about the raven’s mischievous nature. Ravens have been observed in Alaska and Canada using snow-covered roofs as slides. In Maine, they have been seen rolling down snowy hills. They often play keep-away with other animals like wolves, otters, and dogs. Ravens even make toys like bears do by using sticks, pinecones, golf balls, or rocks to play with each other or alone. Sometimes they apparently taunt or mock other creatures for their own amusement.

6. Ravens do weird things with ants.

They lie in anthills and roll around so the ants swarm on them, or they chew the ants up and rub their guts on their feathers. The scientific name for this is called “anting.” Songbirds, crows, and jays do it too. Theories range from the ants acting as an insecticide and fungicide for the bird to ant secretion soothing a molting bird’s skin to the whole performance being a mild addiction. One thing seems clear, though: anting feels great if you’re a raven.

7. Ravens use “hand” gestures.

It turns out that ravens make “very sophisticated nonvocal signals,” according to researchers. In other words, they gesture to communicate. A study in Austria found that ravens point with their beaks to indicate an object to another bird, just as we do with our fingers. They also hold up an object to get another bird’s attention.

8. Ravens are adaptable.

Evolutionarily speaking, the deck is stacked in the raven’s favor. They can live in a variety of habitats, from snow to desert to mountains to forests. They are scavengers with a huge diet that includes fish, meat, seeds, fruit, carrion, and garbage. They are not above tricking animals out of their food—one raven will distract the other animal, for example, and the other will steal its food. They have few predators and live a long time: 17 years in the wild and up to 40 years in captivity.

9. Ravens show empathy for each other.

Despite their mischievous nature, ravens seem capable of feeling empathy. When a raven’s friend loses in a fight, they will seem to console the losing bird. Ravens are known to mourn their dead as so many other animals do. They also remember birds they like and will respond in a friendly way to certain birds for years after seeing them. (They also respond negatively to enemies and suspiciously to strange ravens.) Although a flock of ravens is called an “unkindness,” the birds appear to be anything but.

10. Ravens roam around in teenage gangs.

Ravens probably mate for life and live in pairs in a fixed territory. When their children reach adolescence, they leave home and join gangs, like every human mother’s worst nightmare. These flocks of young birds live and eat together until they mate and pair off. Interestingly, living among teenagers seems to be stressful for the raven. Scientists have found higher levels of stress hormones in teenage raven droppings than in the droppings of mated adults. It’s never easy being a teenage rebel!

Desert Fire

 

 

When days

seem endless

and a glaring white sun

stings my eyes…

when a harsh west wind blows

and searing heat strikes

this mud house

shriveling bittersweet wild flowers

lizards fly –

The walls are too hot to touch.

This intolerable fire

raises a question –

to stay or go?

Desert heat is a form

of body torture.

 

Yet, this morning

the owl hooted

from the cottonwood…

I walked to the river

under a waning moon

blessed this body

under seige,

felt intolerable anguish

how much more can she stand?

I gave thanks for water

felt the cool air

and breathed so deep,

shivering

in pre-dawn air.

I watched a

dark god soar

under a luminous white pearl

reflecting,

querying,

to stay or go?

 

The question can

only be answered by

this body

who knows

what I do not.

Will this brief daily respite

from ongoing suffering

be enough?

 

Desert heat is a form

of body torture,

unlike any

I have ever known.

Tumbleweed Torment

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Look how pretty they are when tumbleweeds are young!

 

Every time my little dogs and I walked into Owl canyon last winter and spring one or both dogs would step on a tumbleweed spine. Some days I was extracting these little monsters from my dogs’ feet a dozen times or more, while they held up a tormented paw with a pitiful look. No matter how carefully I scanned the arroyo for tumbleweed prickers I just couldn’t avoid them.

 

After moving into this adobe house, I began the process of land reclamation casting wildflower seeds that I had collected last year, and began watering the disturbed and barren earth – a normal consequence of building a new house. I also removed every tumbleweed skeleton in sight from the bare ground – a massive undertaking – with the hope that I could stem the tumbleweed tide. To my horror the first seeds that sprouted were tumbleweeds! That was almost two months ago, and today I daily fry uprooted tumbleweeds on hot stones   while ruefully accepting the inevitable – I will be weeding tumbleweeds indefinitely!

 

In this process I have developed a begrudging respect for this plant that is a true survivor! It loves wastelands and I am amazed by the plants’ tenacity and determination to reproduce. When the plant is young it is quite pretty with its purple stems and lacy stems shaped like a rosette but I learned the hard way that if I broke the plant from its root two days later I would be pulling two or three thick rooted tumbleweeds where originally there had been one!

 

I am not naive enough to believe that I will ever be able to eradicate this plant, but my intention is to persevere because around the house I want my dogs to be able to run around without prickers in their feet.

 

“Tumbleweed,” “Russian thistle” and “wind witch” are common names for this plant. “Wind witch” annoys me. I am tired of women being attached to plants that are considered dangerous or are considered pests. The war on women – especially old women – never ends. Russian thistle alludes to its Eurasian origin. Scientific names for tumbleweed begin with the Latin word Salsola in reference to the plant’s salt tolerance.

 

Virtually everyone recognizes a mature Russian thistle, which looks like the skeleton of a normal shrub. Plants may be as small as a soccer ball or as large as a Volkswagen beetle! One flew over the Trailercita last spring that boggled my mind – it was huge! The seedling and juvenile plant’s bright green, succulent, grass-like shoots have tiny green flowers each one accompanied by a pair of spiny bracts. Mice, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn eat the tender shoots. I personally have never seen tumbleweed nibbled on by anything.

 

As they roll down a desert road, tumbleweeds disperse seeds. Seeds are unusual in that they lack any protective coat or stored food reserves. Instead, each seed is a coiled, embryonic plant wrapped in a thin membrane. To survive winter without a warm coat, the plant does not germinate until warm weather arrives.

 

When moisture falls, it quickly sends up two needle-like leaves and begins to shoot skyward. By autumn the plant has reached maximum size, flowered and begun to dry out. A specialized layer of cells in the stem facilitates the easy break between plant and root, and the journey begins anew.
Like many weeds, Russian thistle exploited the destruction of native ecosystems and continues to do so today. When farmers removed prairie grasses, they created a perfect environment, smooth and flat, for a plant that could roll across the landscape dispersing seeds. Unfortunately herbicides are used to control the spread of tumbleweeds by disrupting the maturation process of the plant. Recently the U.S. Agricultural Research Service announced the discovery of two promising fungal pathogens that infect and kill tumbleweeds. Not surprisingly, the fungi were uncovered in infected Russian thistle plants growing on the Eurasian steppes — the original home of tumbleweeds.

Tumbleweeds were first reported in the United States in the 1800’s apparently transported in flax seed imported by Ukrainian farmers. Within two decades the plant had tumbled into a dozen states, and by 1900, tumbleweed had reached the Pacific Coast. Tumbleweeds have never stopped spreading. Nearly every state in the U.S. is now home to Russian thistle, as well as several newer GIANT tumbleweed species that arrived as immigrants from around the world. Tumbleweeds grow everywhere from Canada to South Africa!
Each winter after the plants die, the brittle bushy parts snap off at the roots and blow away, dispersing seeds wherever they tumble – about 250,000 per plant – a mind -boggling statistic for anyone like me who wants to keep these intrepid survivors under control!

Refuge

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At 98 degrees

the stones

catch fire

beneath my feet –

fry tumbleweeds.

Even the hardiest

desert flowers weep.

The Earth cracks

along invisible fissures

and all I can feel

is gratitude for this

home. Inside

cool walls and

tile floors, low light

and lemongrass

scents open space…

Grateful plants send

out new shoots.

Outside, hummingbirds

gather like bees

under the shaded portal

for sweet nectar

while most birds sleep.

A dust devil

swirls in the distance,

and cottonwood hearts

dance like butterflies

in a fierce west wind.

A sagebrush lizard

clinging to the

shaded

adobe wall

pierces the heat

with one eye.

Even he isn’t moving.

Houses made of mud

and straw

provide refuge.

The orange eye of the sun

can’t penetrate these walls.

The Old Ones knew.

The Soul and Spirit of Garlic

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Author’s kitchen window with garlic and scapes

 

Last night a second

bulb of freshly dug garlic

was waiting for me

at the gate

strung up with rainbow thread.

Such a lovely gift

from my friend –

soul sister, a muse…

The first bulb I hung

by the door

to repel dark spirits.

The second I cleaned,

peeling off layers

until her skin turned translucent

under a waxing moon.

Healers known as “witches”

understood the

uncanny powers of this

herb and used it

routinely to create

a barrier between

“this and that.”

Garlic and old women

have much in common.

Their power comes

out of roots

grown deep in dark ground.

Both ripen with age.

Juicy, fat and aromatic,

newly dug garlic

has the sweetest of scents –

is delightfully pungent

to the discerning tongue.

Not to mention

that ingesting this root

flavors any dish,

creating “perfection” while

repelling all manner

of harmful bacteria

that live on inside an

unbalanced gut.

Outside or inside

The Spirit and Soul of

Garlic reigns as queen!

Curing fresh garlic

takes time

requires solitude

and a penchant for shadows..

much like old women

who have become

wise in the ways

of Nature who seek

forest or desert as home…

The Soul of the Garlic

works underground

protecting heaped up hearts

repelling invaders.

 

As Spirit She banishes

the unholy – neutralizing

dark forces by returning

arrows of harm

to those who sent them.

Both Soul and Spirit of Garlic

heal and protect

as one undivided Whole.