Third month in Tucson: February 1-29, 2012

Reminders: 1. Posts are in chronological order with most recent on top. 2. Pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them and then using the back button (not close) to return to the text.

February is an incredible month in Tucson. The world’s largest gem show begins in late January and runs for over two weeks. There’s a huge rodeo with the longest non-motorized parade in the country. There’s the Accenture Match Play championship (Tiger went home after round 2), a major pro soccer tournament (with Beckham), a Trap Shooting match drawing people from all over, and a Southwest Native American Festival. And more.

The turnover in our campground was far more than we usually encounter at a winter haven. Many snowbirds here seem to stay put for a couple of months and then explore east and west before heading back north. Even the people who recommended our coming there in the first place left early (and rather suddenly; we heard there was a medical issue). As a result, Christine was an amazing juggler throughout the month. No computer – she keeps track with a tote board and clip board. Three or four units were often hooked up in the parking lots in front of and alongside the office. The 20 sites in the lone “pull-through” row were like turnstiles. And others dry-camped for a night or so, some moving to a site with facilities for more nights if one opened.

The long and short of the month for us was catching up on tasks, with a couple of visits each week to attractions. I spent a lot of time making five Nantucket baskets, of which two were replacements for ones I’d given to Dot and then took back to sell at one of our guild shows before we left in ’09! I also did some advanced prep for the class I teach in North Carolina in the late spring. We got both the trailer and truck washed and waxed and numerous other maintenance chores done.

And we entertained. Dear friends Mike and Margaret Stern came to Tucson for the Gem Show. When she’s not lawyering, Margaret creates lovely jewelry for sale at home in Maine and comes down to shop ’til she drops each year. This year, she brought along credentials for Dot so she, too could get into the wholesale exhibits. We had them over for dinner and the Super Bowl, and we all went out to dinner at Pinnacle Peak Steak House – a true western experience where they carry out the threat to cut off your tie if you wear one.

Ten days later, my niece Kim and her husband Jay — both teachers in San Diego — extended their President’s Day holiday to visit Tucson. We all went up to Biosphere 2 one day. They took in downtown Tucson and the Desert Museum, as well as hooking up with two other friends in Tucson. And they came out to our site twice for dinner.

I’m going to start by exploring the flora-camels of the desert with you. We have become very familiar with half a dozen variety of cacti, and two dogs and two humans have become all too familiar. If you’ve never experienced them, listen up: the needles are sharper than hypos and as just as stiff . Both Dot and I have tangled with them, and a needle is ⅛ to ¼ of an inch into your finger before you can say Owwww. Gracie stepped on a sprig and got it caught between two paws — Marvin came to the rescue with his Leatherman tool. Allie and I have both been hobbled by picking them up with our bare/sandaled feet.

They’re everywhere down here. The acres of federal land behind our campground host all varieties of desert. Nearby, they are protected in the Saguaro National Park. The Sabino Canyon at the foot of Mt. Lemmon (elev. 9200 feet) — both parts of the Coronado National Forest — was another excellent viewing place. Rides up and down smaller mountains have also provided plenty of photo subjects.

The Saguaro (“suaro”) is the most familiar. The tall robust multi-branched examples you typically see are over 100 years old. They start very slowly to grow straight up a few inches the first few years, then shoot up as much as five feet a year. And they only begin to sprout arms at 70 or so. Their capacity to store water during the monsoon season – a ton of it or more per plant — can support their thirst for over a year. Their spines act as ribs to allow them to expand and store the fluid in their internal pithy later. Their flowers bloom in May and June and are harvested and prepared by locals. Their main enemies: lightning and cold. Examples below show not only healthy ones but one struggling (see the tiny bit of new growth on its leaning stem) and the skeleton of a goner.

Probably the next most commonly recognized is the Prickly Pear. Immediately identified by its circular flat leaves, its fruit is an essential ingredient in southwestern cooking. Both the Santa Rita (green) and the Purple versions are rife in the area, with yellow, red and purple flowers.

Many others are common, including the Barrel and multiple varieties of Chollas (choyas). The latter, our biggest enemies, are prone to dropping short sprigs that automatically find their way into naked parts of the body, or even through the soles of sandals.

Pictures were collected at the various venues listed above. The picture series of the Native American collecting and processing Saguaro fruit (right) is found at the Saguaro National Park. While there, we viewed a short video about the cactus and the efforts to preserve it. When finished, the giant screen rolls up like a theater curtain to reveal a 30 x 120 foot picture window exposing the audience to the live view (left above). At Sabino Canyon, we took a 45 minute tram ride and marveled at not only the cacti but also the the hundreds of stalwarts of all ages hiking the tram route and the spider web of trails.I am indebted to Keith Blakely for the pics at Sabino – in my haste to transfer my own from camera to computer, I crashed them! Keith salso upplied this close-up of a road runner at left!

Biosphere 2

When we got to the Biosphere, our first question is where’s Biosphere 1? Kim’s husband Jay and I surmised that it was the place where the biosphereans were isolated for a couple of years. Turns out that experiment was Biosphere 2. Biosphere 1 is all around us — it’s the land in which we live. (I’m indebted to Jay for three of the pix below that were better than mine!)


You probably remember that the Biosphere experiment ended in failure. In fact, two of them did. The goal was to develop a terraform, an environment that could be established in an alien setting – such as another planet – and support human life as we know it. It was “hermetically sealed,” letting in nothing from the outside world but sunlight. Electricity was supplied by gas generators along with some passive solar, and heating and cooling were regulated by giant air exchangers (no Freon was allowed) that frequently broke down and had to be repaired by the occupants — who in the primary experiment were one doctor and seven scientists, not mechanics or farmers. Each occupant had a two story apartment, and they took turns creating group meals. In addition to the agriculture dome, which was extensively pre-established, there were five biomes: rainforest, wetlands, ocean/reef, savannah, and fog desert. All were drawn from “neutral” sections of the Earth, mostly near the Equator. They had to focus far more attention to growing their food than carrying out their tests, and they suffered from oxygen/co2 imbalance. Both were attributed, in part, to an extraordinary loss of sunlight due to El Nino. A second set of seven occupants was later isolated – this time one of them a farmer – but their efforts were halted by disputes between outside and inside staff, requiring intervention by U.S. Marshalls at one point when outside staffers attempted to sabotage the experiment by introducing outside environment.

A bit more about the facility. It was built at a cost of $200 million by Space Biosphere Ventures between 1987 and 1991 and principally financed by billionaire Ed Bass. In 1995, management was transferred to Columbia University for use as a research laboratory, and between then and 2003, many successful experiments were carried out, though now in an unsealed but controlled environment. For the next four years, it was in limbo; the land was sold to a developer who intended to preserve the facility as a lab and an attraction. Its future became more assured, however, when the University of Arizona assumed management in 2007 and has since dramatically the experimentation taking place on the premises. The most exciting program on the premises is LEO, the Landscape Evolution Observatory being created in the former agricultural zone. It is under construction at the moment (pic at left) and according to their website is designed to “determine how water, energy and carbon move through landscapes, how biological systems (vegetation and microbes) modify landscapes, and how water resources alter with climate change.”

Our tour guide was an enthusiastic UA graduate assistant who gave us almost two hours of our time, during which he urged questions and patiently answered every one. After introductory information, he took us through each biome, describing its development and content and explaining recent or current experiments in each. In one case, there were flora planted in controlled containers that were being grown in two distinct environments for comparison of the effects. To those of us non-scientists, it takes a leap of faith to recognize that what seems like minutiae to us actually paves the way to our future. Jake, on the other hand, is a wonderful teacher.

And he saved the best for last. Biosphere 2’s atmospheric pressure is controlled by two giant lungs. Simply speaking, the change in atmospheric pressure within the complex could explode or implode it if not adjusted. This was the function of the lungs. They consisted of 16 ton steel plates supported by monstrous Hypalon rubber diaphragms under an air-tight dome. Expansion and contraction of the atmospheric pressure would be compensated by the diaphragm, with the plate rising or falling with the pressure change. The lungs were connected by 150 foot tunnels; as we passed down one we could feel the strong wind through it. The south lung that we explored also featured an excess water pool which could be pumped anywhere in the structure for fire suppression.

Upon exiting through a side (triangular!) door, we gazed upon the generator plant and learned more about the additional solar research taking place on the site. The weather had turned cold, and we were underdressed, so instead of stopping at ancillary views we hightailed it back to the car. We were also running late on rescuing our dogs from excessive confinement!

International Wildlife Museum

I happened upon this place. I explored another route from northeast Tucson down to our southwest habitat and, in the process, rode through an area of dramatic fauna, estate-sized houses and this museum. Sponsored as an educational program of the Safari Club International Foundation, it is a collection of hundreds of preserved animals that gives the viewer an up-close view of nature that it would not otherwise see. Exhibits in cases show considerable examples of butterflies and moths; other panels clearly define the difference. But then the exhibits get larger, with critters as large as you’ve ever seen. Rooms are thematic and reveal many features and commonalities among our fauna; whether they walk or fly, use optic or olfactory senses, hunt or gather, or are prey or predator, they are shown in appropriate settings. It was a worthwhile journey, up close and personal. (The tarantula is live.)

Southwest Indian Art Fair

The Fair was held on the lawn of the Arizona State Museum, on the University of Arizona campus. We went for several reasons. First, the craft exhibits, involving over 200 artisans from many tribes in many media, were beautiful. Second, there was constant entertainment by multiple native groups. And third, admission to the event also permitted entrance to the Museum itself.

We walked up and down aisle after aisle drooling over the crafts of all varieties. There were demos as well, including basketweaving, rug making and silver and stone jewelry. But our interest was quickly drawn to the show arena, where we watched three performances. The first was the Navaho Turquoise Rainbow Dance Group (top 4 pics), slightly hindered by a lead dancer’s cast (she narrrated instead). The second was a performance by Estun-Bah, led by Tony Duncan on cane and wooden flutes accompanied by drums and guitar (row 2, first 2). Estun-Bah is Apache for “for the woman.” Tony is a serious hoop dancer as well as musician.

The final act was the Tonoho O’odham group, the Pablo Waila Band. It was a large family play-and-sing along, featuring performers from 2 to 80 (row 2, pics 3-4). They were joined by a troupe of lovely young ladies who danced alone and with the participating crowd (bottom row). As a finale, they did a dance,during which each young women walked about with a trinket in her hands until she attracted a man to dance with her. I was rewarded with a very pretty necklace of tiny conch shells.

Inside the Museum, we wandered through two major exhibits. One was Paths of Life, a study of ten Native cultures with a comprehensive look from their origins to their contemporary lifestyles. The second was The Pottery Project, the largest exhibit of Southwestern Indian pottery in the world, with over 20,000 pieces still intact (bottom 3 pics).

Dot went on two adventures on her own. Unfortunately, she’s not a picture taker. One was to the Mini Time Machine, a Museum of Miniatures. It was the outgrowth of the private collection of Pat and Walter Arnell and expresses their desire to share it with the world. Opened in 2009, it was carefully and well designed to show off three collections in its 15,000 square foot space. The collections are fantasy, historical and international, the latter exposing work from over a dozen European and Asian countries. On another day, she traveled 40 miles south to Tubac, AZ to visit the art colony that’s centered there. She reported that she was under-impressed and that it was more vending than viewing.

Just before the month ended, we served my world famous spaghetti to the dozen people in this campground with whom we’ve struck up friendships. Closest new friends are Keith and Cherie Blakely from Peculiar, Missouri (yes, that’s the name of their home town). Repeaters here, they were joined by friends from up-home, Charlotte Thornton and Marvin Krekel, who are newly retired and just trying out full-timing. We expect to see both couples mid-year in the mid-west.

But we didn’t say Au revoir – not quite yet.

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