Following the Trail of Water

Mark Hainds, Border Walker

A friend of mine, Mark Hainds, is a forester and author, who has challenged himself to walk the entirety of the U.S. – Mexico Border. In doing so, he is noting the conditions of the landscape, meeting the people who live there, the people who are passing over the border in hopes of a better future, and experiencing the deep peace from long hours of silent walking. Be sure to visit his site above.

On Friday morning I dropped him off at mile marker 40 on highway 82 near Sonoita, Arizona. This is grasslands – basin and range territory – home of historic ranches, antelopes, and hardy people who love the land.

Grasslands of SE Arizona

To a visitor is can seem very still but to locals who know its subtle changes, it is an exciting place to call home.

Patagonia Lake State Park

Luckily, the Nature Conservancy and the Bureau of Land Management had foresight to preserve large tracks of riparian habitats (those areas where water flows near the surface of the ground, and in wet seasons, runs in streams and rivers). When you gaze out across expansive grasslands and see a line of bright green trees, you have found water.

Cottonwood Gallery Forest

Today I followed the traces of water across the landscape by looking for those trees. While I walked the fields and paths, small herds of tawny pronghorns on far hills bounded in the high grass, white rumps flashing in the sunlight.

At the historic Empire Ranch, I listened for the voices of families, ranch hands, and cowboys lingering in the old structures of the house, cottages, corral, and barn.

Old Barn

Empire Ranch Grounds circa early 20th century

Wandering the paths into a cottonwood gallery, I felt spirits walking next to me. A time gone but with lingering energies, whispering to us modern day visitors.

What are they telling us?

Would it be a cautionary tale? The ranch was passed through many hands, each family working it for 35-50 years, then to developers, and finally into the protection of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The ranch and 42,000 acres of riparian corridor and grasslands is now Las Cienegas National Conservation Area which we all can visit.

Yet these images show a time gone by, when the big cattle ranches reigned, and then died as water receded, and the demand of beef declined.

Perhaps we live in a more enlightened time. But, that remains to be seen. Will we remember the lessons of the past, or are we doomed to repeat mistakes with forgotten memories?

The ghosts of the land whisper to us. What are they telling us?

One whose spirit speaks to me is Aldo Leopold: “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

When the cows and the buffalo roamed…

And just like that, a second novel

Mountains to the Sea

Well, that second novel has been “cooking” in my mind for many years, and builds on years of experiences that reach back to 1990. That year I moved to Yuma, Arizona to teach middle school students at Crane Junior High School. Yuma first introduced me to the Sonoran Desert, and naturally, I experienced the hottest part of it first. Yuma temps that first summer hit 122 degrees Fahrenheit. My friends and neighbors taught me how to stay safe while traveling, and how to get out early in the morning before the heat made it impossible.

All around the school and neighborhoods where I lived, agricultural fields stretched out in long even rows with canals as borders, while row upon row of blue water soaked into the ground, evaporating in the intense heat. Surrounded by a sea of broccoli, my school was embedded in the large-scale industrial farming operations in which many of my students’ parents labored. On these intensely hot days, I wondered at the ability of human beings to endure hard labor in those fields.

AZ Agriculture Photo

Then, the fact that the water came from the high Wyoming plateaus and Rocky Mountains was only vaguely in my awareness. Precious river water poured down through deep canyons into the dams that controlled the North American Nile, and by a complex system came to Yuma and the Imperial Valley to grow 90% of America’s leafy produce between November through March. Then, I was focused on my students’ daily struggle to learn and grow up under harsh conditions of poverty and discrimination. But, all around us was a BIG STORY about a river, its people, and how it came to be the most controlled and overused body of water in North America. Indeed, the Colorado River is so over-allocated that it no longer winds its way to the Gulf of California as it did for thousands of years.  The  magnificent delta region, one of the world’s largest and most productive wetlands, literally dried up and died.

This is the subject of my second novel, The American Nile: Voices of a River and Its People. I am working with a talented editor and should have a solid draft completed before I return home from Tucson in late April.

Tucson – My Military Life

Tucson became my home from 1999 to 2008, but I had been a resident in the Old Pueblo when I was just a babe. Dad (Major E. B. Feathers at the time) was stationed at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. I was 2 years old when we moved there. I remember photos of my mother, sister and me in sundresses and sandals in front of a house with a large shaded porch, cacti and sand.

Little did I know that I would one day return to Tucson as an adult. When I was just getting started in life, I had an early encounter with the desert by falling into an Opuntia (prickly pear). Mom recalled she was pulling needles out of my arms and legs for a month.

Charles Lindbergh dedicates Davis Monthan Field: September 23, 1927

In 1925, Tucson’s City Council purchased 1,280 acres of land southeast of town to relocate the city’s municipal airport. Unknown at that time this new site would become the nucleus of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Six years earlier Tucson had the proud distinction of opening the first municipal-owned airport in the nation. Located four miles south of the city on Nogales Highway, the present day location of the Rodeo Grounds, the 82.64 acres was designated Tucson Municipal Flying Field after several name changes. Following years of stalled negotiations with the War Department, city planners elected to purchase the larger site and transfer airport operations in hopes that the military would reconsider establishing an aviation branch in Tucson.

Construction at the new site was completed in late 1927, and on September 23 of the same year, Charles Lindbergh, who months earlier crossed the Atlantic in the “Spirit of St. Louis”, formally dedicated the site in honor of Lieutenants Samuel H. Davis and Oscar Monthan, two Tucson aviators whom died in separate plane crashes after World War I. The city shared another proud moment with the opening; Davis-Monthan Field immediately became the largest municipal-owned airport in the nation.

Military presence at the new Davis-Monthan Field began October 6, 1927 when Staff Sergeant Dewey Simpson transferred the military aircraft refueling and service operations from the old municipal airport. He also brought something very unique with him, a log book that was signed by the field’s patrons. Early aviation greats such as Foulois, Arnold, Spaatz, Vandenberg, Earhart, and Doolittle took the liberty of signing the registry as a record of service. (Currently the Registry is on display at DM’s Base Operations). With only two military personnel assigned to the field, negotiations between the War Department and Tucson would remain at a stand-still until 1940.

My Dad was stationed at Davis Monthan AFB in 1947. He had just rejoined the USAF after it formed from the Army Air Corps after WWII ended. Dad flew B-29s in the Air Force. Davis Monthan AFB began its revival after the war as a location for the successful Super Fortress (B-29 Bomber). The very dry air provided an ideal location to store the Superfortress,  and other air craft accumulated during the 2nd World War in the desert.

In another amazing connection with Tucson, the daughter of Dad’s co-pilot was instrumental in locating the Z-49–the B-29 my father and her father had flown 35 missions over Tokyo from their base in Saipan. It was found in an aircraft graveyard in the desert. The Z-49 was restored and is now on exhibition at March AFB in California:

Z-49 March Air Museum, CA

Z-49 March Air Museum, CA

The B-29 was dubbed the Three Feathers, originally complete with three nudes on clouds following the pilots’ tradition of painting sexy women on the nose of their aircraft. The Three Feathers had a prestigious life. Read its history here.

Dad talked about flying in the desert. The pilots rose very early to beat the heat, and then cruised above the desert with a view that stretched for hundreds of miles. He recalled the heat and the electricity on the metal and how it gave them all a huge bolt of energy whenever they touched metal on a very hot, crackling dry day.

We soon left for Los Angeles where Dad studied meteorology, a fateful study which later sent him to Fletcher’s Ice Island T-3, a floating iceberg in the Baltic Sea. He was part of a global study, for his team it specifically encompassed ice flows in the arctic.  I was 14 when Dad was featured in Time Magazine after being attacked by a polar bear on T-3. Now in 2016, my first book (Threshold) includes a polar bear–in Carla Conners’ nightmare. I think all this qualifies as the circularity of a life’s path.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Raining on the Desert

Monsoon on  Sonoran Desert

Monsoon on Sonoran Desert

The adjacent photograph was actually taken in 2007 before I left Tucson, AZ for Pensacola, FL. The location is near my friend’s home in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains that form one boundary of the City of Tucson.

Today I am writing from the Baker’s home on a September afternoon and once again the monsoon rains are falling on this high desert. The desert’s flora is in full glory, cacti swollen plump with water, blossoms forming in colors of lemon and peach, and aqua blue prickly pear pads sprouting cherry red fruit. If you have never visited or seen the Sonoran Desert, it probably seems an oxymoron to call this desert a place of lushness, but, it truly is such a wonder.

Barrel Blossoms

Barrel Cactus Blossoms Ready to Bloom

The Southwest is experiencing a late and strong monsoon season that some expect may go right on into the rainy winter season. If so, that will be a huge blessing for a region in a long-term drought. Rain on, oh great monsoon clouds! Let the liquid wonder work its magic down into the desert pavement, and travel into the arteries of the giant saguaro, and down the throat of desert critters, and gather below in rock lined aquifers. Rain on! Rain on!

 

Prickly Pear Fruiting

Prickly Pear Fruiting