RED HOT TUCSON
Or “This is the desert, Mr.Brown,” (a marching quick-step, apologies to Irving Berlin’s WW2 ditty.)
A couple of summers ago, the ever-helpful National and Local weather Service pronounced one of their Heat Warning Advisories to the region. Not unusual. You’re up for the sun’s warmth. That Tucson heat feels so good on old bones, and you’re pretty aware of old Sol’s forceful rays pounding on your brain if he gets out of hand. But just in case you missed it, they tell you.
Not to say they overstate the obvious; there are after all tourists passing through – among them lots of foreign youth inflated with an irrational sense of invulnerability – they clearly need a heads up. This unlucky day, the imprudent students, euro travelers exploring this side of the Pond, went striding out, unaccustomed to such heat but intent on proving their toughness.
Of course, they do have hot spells over there. Once on a chorus tour we simmered with sweat trickling down our legs to pool up in our shoes, in huge cathedrals whose massive stones had heated up to a nice baking temperature. But that’s rare, in Europe.
And anyway, that’s not even close to what our southwest desert can slam you with. This time, arrogant German youths shrugged, sniffed at the warning, hiked out in 117 F temps that rose to 124 F, bearing just a small bottle of water. They collapsed and died, fried on the trail. One chickened out early and barely made his way back to be hospitalized, but lived to tell about it.
To locals, the desert’s heat, besides providing warmth, is an acknowledged shimmering, tongue-parching, water-stealing, life-withering normality. Strange, to strangers. Exciting, dramatic, for those who get a delighted frisson of fear, watching the thermometer’s little red line climb into the three-digits – watching it safely from indoor air-conditioned coolness. If it weren’t for that air conditioning, flourishing Tucson would still be a mere settlement fighting desiccation on cactus festooned plains.
But the same indoor climate control that allowed NASA’s space program to operate in Houston put this place into the hearts and minds of big sky seekers and settlers, the adventurers and sight-seers of the world’s grandest of sensuous red-stoned canyons, places wind and water-sculpted through eons to bring heart-lifting elation to those who get to see them. Just a couple of hours north.
Looking out across the wide valley to its far mountain horizons, once the open range of the horseback cowboy and the pioneer wagon, Indians and palefaces – if you squint just so, far-spreading grids of streets seem to blur into an overlying sheet like pale bubble-pack, pooches and pockets of cooling air conditioning that harbor homes, businesses, restaurants, museums, hospitals. God help us all if the power fails. It’ll be quite beyond the rain-dancing Kokopele, the area’s Indian god of all sorts of fertility including rains for agriculture.
That in mind, towering wind farms and solar collectors are sprouting on braced legs in fields and on roofs. The paleface is clever, by gum. No electrical failure is going to rob him of his paradise. One way or another, he will use Mother Nature to give him what he needs. It’s a struggle, but anything good is worth the struggle. And he likes that sun’s warmth on his creaky body.
There’s a huge crater punched out of the earth’s surface north of Tucson, just east of Flagstaff, a big dent where a long-ago meteor appeared out of the cosmos and whanged the world quite smartly. A “come-see-me” for the curious. What happened when it happened? The whole globe maybe jiggled like Jell-O. Probably sent up a giant, lingering cloud of sky-hiding dirt, a colossal solar screen. That could happen. No sun, no solar power. For how long? Solar collectors as solutions are a small, slow beginning.
Could it revert? Never would happen. Tucson heat feels too good. In moderation. Better learn how to store it once they’ve got it.
They’re working on it.
*(From my forthcoming book, A Love Letter to Tucson)
When being raised by my solidly conservative parents, people I can confidently declare members of Tom Brokow’s Greatest Generation, they advised me never to discuss politics or religion in polite society. Simply not done, was the lore.
Polite society. What’s that? If one were to believe one’s lying eyes, there is none left to be found. Rights activists decry Christianity, protesters loudly chant against Muslimism, the social media is infested with Russian hackers bound to stir America’s pot, a pot that simmers a stew of discontent which people avidly read and believe. It’s a free-for-all out there. Uncontrolled kids feel free to sass and punch a teacher. Respect has become perverted. Others pick up a gun and run amok.
TV flouts violence – it’s a culture of “Monkey See, Monkey Do.
And the spirit of man goes begging.
So that opens the door to one of my favorite subjects, the Guardian Angel. You think you don’t have one? Think again.
Unless you’re so ba-a-a-d you think only evil, you surely have one. Don’t believe it? Doesn’t matter if you believe it or not.
Hovering behind the scenes, waiting to step in where he can, you have one.
Think of it this way. You are equipped with a guidance system from the cosmos, a.k.a. your inner voice, your intuition. Some avow prods from the Holy Spirit. You know, those scalp prickling moments when your inner alarm says “Blrrrt, blrrrt, don’t get in that elevator!” – and if you’re smart you don’t. Pity the ninny who wasn’t paying attention, or wasn’t tuned in, or shook off the warning with a frowning, self-admonished “Don’t be silly,” – and maybe ends up robbed, raped or dead.
Not all help is all that dramatic. And I contend we folk are meant to be angels to each other. I will share a recent encounter of my own. Right there in a Safeway parking lot. You’ll swear I’m crazy, but here goes.
The Tucson afternoon was smoking hot – so hot that when I fell and subsequently slid off my shoes to try to get up more easily, the tarmac wanted to sear my feet.
My husband was a handy grab; I had clawed him down with me. We both roundly thwhacked our sacroliacs; somehow a hips and shins got into the mix. Voicing dreadful pain, groaning on the hot oily blacktop, I figured this was it. Yep – finally my old seasoned bones had broken and I would need to plaster up and be put in traction. After a long life of damage-free tree falls, ski spills, and stair stumbles, woe woe woe the luck had surely run out. Arthritic points of contact were screaming at me. I hollered back.
My unladylike yowl had drawn a small crowd; “Are you ok, lady?”
“NO,” I sputtered, wailing.
Cell phones came out of pockets to dial 911.
Then something most extraordinary happened. A stranger appeared and stood over me. Quickly he crouched down and placed one hand on my shoulder, taking my head in his other, and brought his face close to mine. As if by silent mandate, I placed my hand behind his head. His eyes locked onto mine; his penetrating gaze filled my consciousness, and an odd warmth.
He commanded, “Let the Peace flow in.” Again he said, “Let Peace come in.”
And so I did, and it did. Peace, the peace that “passeth all understanding,” swept through me, and pain vanished into nothing. How could this be? Remarkably, I was all right.
Someone’s arms came behind me to lock and lift me up, but I exclaimed “NO! NO! I‘m too heavy!” Never mind – I was absolutely ignored. Behind my back, unseen arms grabbed under my armpits, in front of me my husband’s hands took mine, and in a rush, like a weightless feather, I was whished upright and standing.
I looked about to find my Helper – he was nowhere. NO where.
I wasn’t left unmarked by our fall. I say “our” because as surely as my coccyx thumped the tarmac, so did my poor husband’s when I pulled him down with me. But he didn’t hit as hard.
Today I peer at fading black bruises and ponder the man who was there, and wasn’t.
And I reflect on that healing peace.
My guardian angel stepped in for me.
I know what I know.
OYSTERS, OYSTERS EVERYWHERE
Or The Rule of OysteR
Some of us are oyster addicts, yearning hopelessly for the gray flaccid treasure lolling moistly, inertly in its rough little casing, the shell lined with a subtle shining nacre, poor cousin to the shimmering abalone’s. But the succulent meat of the oyster way outshines the abalone, that rubbery delicacy of the Caribbean. Abalone fritters? Only if you’re desperate. The oyster comes in toothsome stews, elegant spinach creations labelled Rockefeller – and the mouth-watering naked pleasure of nestling oysters on crushed ice plates, cocktail sauce at the ready. And those stupid oyster crackers, their raison d’etre totally mysterious.
My personal affliction took hold when I was two-and-a-half and my Army Air Corps mission-flying Daddy returned to Ohio from New Orleans with his crew, bearing a gallon jar full of freshly shucked oysters. They swept me up onto the kitchen counter to perch beside the jar, grinningly offering a slippery morsel. They knew full well that of course I would be revolted by their sliminess, and looked forward to my wails of protest. Silly men.
I remember how big they were, and how they crowded the little kitchen. While they debriefed among themselves about their DC-3 junket to the South, I dipped in to help myself to more. I greedily slurped down about a quarter of the jar before they noticed. In horror, they saw what I had done, and rapidly plopped me onto the floor. My mother giggled and patted my little blonde head.
It was the beginning of a lifelong, world-wide search for more perfect oysters, a reprise of that pre-WW2 moment in that kitchen.
On Australia’s Gold Coast, there were oyster shooters, wallowing in saki and wasabi. Then there were New Zealand South Island’s bluff oysters, a gustatory destination unto themselves. Truly, it’s said New Zealand grows the best of the best.
But it’s a tad out of the way, no?
As is South Africa, home of the biggest oysters we’ve ever seen. HUGE. We were on a motoring tour of South Africa, a nation full of marvelous beasts and vistas. This stop wasn’t on the list of must-dos, but a coastal town? That called to us. It was on our track.
Knysna, rife with marinas, fishing boats and a plentitude of bars and restaurants, pulled us in. Turned out it offered the most enormous and delicious oysters we’d ever seen. We stuffed ourselves and waddled out nearly delirious with our discovery. Years later, in Tucson’s Scordato’s restaurant bar, we met a man who lived just uphill from Knysna. He knew about these oysters.
Now, we settle for northern hemisphere troves. And there are plenty. Maybe not so huge, but surely as flavorful.
Our favorite haunts for the fattest oyster lie around the continent – first found was the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, D.C., play place of news folk and congressmen in the shadow of the capital building. The Ebbitt usually flaunts a menu of six imports.
Then we have Texas with their Gulf oysters – and of course, New Orleans, where it all began.
We’ve been lucky with our finds. Just down the road from Alamos, our charming Mexican town, there’s a source on the Sea of Cortez. Shrimp as big as your fist – and gloriously large oysters. We do indulge, from time to time.
But in Tucson’s dry southwest, far from the oceans, how could we sate ourselves? Aha! They import, of course, from everywhere. To reliably satisfy cravings in Tucson, we aim at Kingfisher’s imports, or the Valencia that trucks them up from Mexico. As good, would be Sullivan’s. All have decent oysters, but sadly the rule of “R” is written in stone, in North America. I have a story….
Once, overnighting in Fayetteville, N.C., en route to a Christmas in Texas, we were directed to Fayetteville’s popular 316 Oyster Bar. We were so enthralled with the succulent oysters spread before us, we had two dozen each. Ooooff. So, when flying past there again a few months later, we stopped to indulge ourselves again at the 316. Mouths watering, we ordered a dozen each.
We anticipated the same excellence we’d found before. But no. What were placed before us were wee marble-sized niblets – not the eye-popping wonders of six months before. What was the problem? We summoned the waitresss.
“Gee, ‘at’s the way they’s comin’ th’u these days,” she said.
Baffled and annoyed, we asked to see the manager.
“Hey, we made a special trip to have your great oysters,” we whined to him. “what’s this miserable offering, those pea-sized things?” we queried.
“Oh, ah’m so sorreh – we kin give yuh an extruh dozen to make up fuh that. But yuh see, this idn’t thuh raht season for oystuhs and we are not puhmitted to get them from thuh public bids. So we buy them from private bids, jes’ tuh have em, since folks expect us offuh oystahs. You know that rule? In months with AHR, oystahs ahr in season. This heah is June, an the oystah idn’t grown big yet. No ‘ahr’ in June.”
After downing the sad offering, and muttering between us about this horrid development, the light went on. “Bids” was southern for “beds!” Oyster beds. And we had totally forgotten the Rule of OysteR.
Those tiny things show up in Tucson as well. We try to control our lust till we enter the R months.
It’s now May.
We have a wait.
DUST DEVILS, WHIRLWINDS, WILLY-WILLIES
(But not “willywaws” – those are something else.)
The world-wide plains of our continents are full of them, those mysterious rising ropes of writhing dirt. Even the oceans have them, where they’re called water spouts. Skinniest of tornadoes, if you will, a rotating tight spin of air sucking up loose things that make them visible. Thermals, those rising columns of heat that top off with a cloud formation at condensation levels, can take that whirling dust up thousands of feet.
Once, flying north out of Mexico on approach to Phoenix at 5,000 feet, we spotted one a mile or so off our wing, then a few others here and there in the hazy distance.
I called the controller and expressed my surprise and awe. I could visualize his blasé shrug as he said, “First time out here, or what? We get those all the time.”
The ones I remembered from childhood dotted the desert, reflected in mirages, bringing to mind cowboys and cattle and the song “Cool, Clear, Water. ” This was way different. I meekly responded with a “Roger.”
Once we saw one on a taxiway at the Tucson airport, an oddity that appeared ahead of us, as thin as a pencil, moving along the route to our tie down. Was it dangerous? We stopped, mesmerized, and announced our dismay to Ground Control, then watched as it wandered off and dissipated.
“Yeah, we get those sometimes. They’ll spoil your paint job,” replied Ground.
From our hillside Tucson home in the Catalinas, selected for its fine view of Old Pueblo (Tucson’s original name) and the wide Sun Corridor around and beyond it, now and then we spy a rise of dust, a fat puff forming into a vertical thread, coming off perhaps a downtown construction site. As the air mass moves it, a wind shift probably, the dust column is directed away from its source. It breaks up and falls away. Usually.
Sometimes they turn into those “Devil not a man” things, showing us that the far west spirits are still there. Populate the plains as much as you will, you can’t cover it up. The Tohono O’odham Indians, a large group whose territory abutted the peaceful Hopi, were here first; their culture influences life today. You find traces in names and beliefs. Their dancing fertility god Kokopelli, the flute player, celebrated on tourist paraphernalia, is one. It was believed the hunchback tootled babies into being – and rain. Many of these agricultural peoples farmed in flash flood waters and mountain runoffs. Those thermals can rise up to bring us storms – when there’s enough moisture in the clouds.
If you look with eyes clear, then squint, sometimes you can see Kokopelli dancing with his flute through the climbing haze. They say the Tohono O’odham see him.
Maybe so do I.
MOTHERS’ DAY, ALAMOS MEXICO
In the nighttime, dark and warm, through the flickering shadows cast by the odd street lamp, you hear it. Music wafting on the gentle movement of air, a special music.
Alamos is full of music and fiestas; there’s always a celebration about. Tired and bored? Wait a moment. Soon you’ll be swept up in a happy swirl of guitar and trumpet gaiety. It’s the Mexican way. This time and this music is different. It’s the eve of Mothers’ Day.
Mexicans worship their mothers. The mother is the touchstone of the family, the touchstone of their civilization. The maternal, matriarchal society of Mexico joyfully exists, mothers surrounded by their men and children, loved and idolized. And they celebrate her appropriately. After all, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to the people of their countryside, herself an icon of motherhood and held close to the hearts of millions.
A decade or two ago a new tradition was born. It started with a few strolling guitarists, ambling and strumming, singing the traditional “Las Mananitas” throughout the neighborhoods, serenading all the mamas of the town, all through the night. Women would hear the thrums of drums and dash to their doors and windows, waiting for the melodic waves to wrap them in what is, clearly, happiness and love.
And so, last night, way past bedtime, I heard the musicians too. These days they move about on a flatbed so as to reach all the barrios. The town has grown in the last few years, with families moving here from the mountains for jobs and a better life. These mamacitas get serenaded too.
The night was clear, the stars seemed to shine with a special effort. It was Mothers’ Day Eve. The music exalted and embraced me, and I teared up with happiness.
Dawn came. Ah, today is The Day. The rolling musicians are still at it, passing through neighborhoods again with their brand of alegria. The day will be filled with flowers and feasting. Dancing, too. Fun for the young – as well as for the not-so-young.
The day begins to simmer hot and dry; the dogs loll in the shade near the fountain. Birds flit around it, using it for a quick fluttering bath and a sip. They’re ignored by the dogs, who don’t even flick an ear at them. The dogs do react to the circling vultures, however, and leap for the chase when one swoops low. It’s hilarious. They haven’t snagged one yet.
The iron bell outside the service door clangs vigorously; the bell-pull to it from the street gate is strung across the courtyard through the mesquite tree and whimsically jiggles its lower limbs back and forth, lacy leaves insistently proclaiming a caller. Perhaps someone of interest? Lottery tickets? No… Raising funds for a child’s operation? Could be a sob story for free money, but a required document from the Palacio is proof of veracity, and we donate.
Throughout our dozen years of residency, beggars have learned we’re not a soft touch – they have gotten sent to the charitable Las Comadres office in the town center, whose volunteers will help them out as need is able to be discerned (there are as everywhere, plenty of lowlife cheats). The vendors with real business know we love to see them coming.
Here in Alamos, there are pleasant aspects reminiscent of the USA’s early 1900s. Astonishing and delightful. Vendors who come right to your doorstep.
This morning, the bell has clanged and moved the mesquite. The local fish monger, Salvador, has rolled his wheeled ice chest to our back door, displaying his marvelously fresh fish. They’ve been protection-frozen for the trip from the nearby shore.
We peer down into his stash. He pulls out a bag of giant shrimp to swing before our eyes; he only comes to me when he has those giants. Experience has taught him I won’t buy any little ones. The muchachas who tend the household have called me to see. “Senora, esa semana hay camarones como le gusta.” (Senora, this week he has shrimp you’ll love.”) They are gorgeous.
Mentally the girls are already boiling the shrimp to cool and peel. And as I, too, assess them, they lie pink and plump across my mind, all cooked and ready to pop into mouths, tails ready to grab and dip into the cocktail sauce I treat with a pinch of wasabi. We know our routine. I give thanks for Salvador and Alamos.
And of course there’s more.
Hal’s poker crew are playing at Casa Cabot this afternoon. All is tranquil, the remote clicking of chips and an occasional burst of male laughter filtering up and out of the library.
But oh-oh. My siesta is violated. The dogs bark a fierce frenzy at the portal gate. There has been no warning bell. What’s this about? Aha. It’s the pickup truck loaded with asparagus bunches; he has snuck in through the drive-in gate left open for the players.
It’s a good thing – he sells lovely asparagus and I’d have missed it otherwise, as only the help answer the walk-in gate, source of the entry bell – and they’ve already gone home for the day. Mornings are their duty time.
I buy my two bunches, only fifty pesos each, then consider the boys in at the game. Daring the den, I go in and tell of asparagos. Sure enough – there are takers. Cards are placed face down on the table and fingers dig into pockets for pesos. They are no bargain at the price, but one doesn’t pass up fresh asparagus.
Everyone is happy. The weather-wrinkled work-worn face of the asparagus guy is crinkled with smiles, and he departs for his next stop.
Again I give thanks.
Another day brings the deaf-mute, ringing at the pedestrian gate. He has folk art masks he carved himself. Usually we buy one. They hang on a special wall – a handsome display. He is accompanied by a child and a woman they say is a puta, one who makes her living, well, you know how. What do I say, what do I think? Hey – it’s a tough life out there. You do what you have to. I smile at her and the boy.
And again give thanks.
They all pass and disappear down our dirt road, coming eventually to the cobblestones at the corner. They cross themselves at the tree-shaded shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe, mostly in thanks I believe for having made a sale.
We’re glad they came with the goods, and give our own thanks.
Ole’ for Alamos vendors!
It’s early Sunday morning; the doves clamor annoyingly, insistently, cooing outside windows. The caged parrot yaks at us to take off his nighttime shroud, and the dogs moan for breakfast, pushing their cold noses into our warm bedtime faces.
But more than those things, there’s that distant banging of the church bell announcing the hour. It clangs out from the town’s central Plaza de Armas, from the erstwhile cathedral, called such from the old days of the bishop. He’s gone and the status has been demoted from cathedral to church, but nobody pays attention to that. The faithful are noisily, vigorously, invited to early mass, bells clanging the call over the town. No mistake – they clang, they bang– the tower doesn’t hold a bell that traditionally tolls. The Alamos cathedral bell has an endearing if idiosyncratic thwanging clang, firmly announcing calls to mass. If there are bats in this belfry, they have to be truly jangled.
But never mind. It’s also a welcome alert to the township. This clarion gives the early heads-up for the soon to be opening tianguis, the popular farmers’ market lining the sides of the main arroyo. It’s loaded with everything from fresh vegetables trucked in from outlying fincas, to clothes swinging in the breeze, hanging on racks under shady canopies. And tools. And meats. You need it, it’s got it. And it has great stuff that you don’t need, too.
You arise, ready yourself for the day, and maybe indulge in breakfast out at any of the tempting breakfast places offering huevos mexicanos or plates of scrambled eggs laced with chorizo, that delectable spicy sausage that tingles the tongue. Afterwards, if you chose to eat at the Terra Cotta across from church’s bell tower, the church de la Virgen de la Purissima Concepcion, you make your way down challenging stone steps, turn left immediately at the Plaza, and haul yourself and your empty bags off to fill at the tianguis. Via, of course, the Kissing Alley, “callejon de besos”.
And there happily find that, by golly, the early birds haven’t wiped it all out – there’s still a profusion of good things to ponder. To collect, weigh and fill those bags.
You wander entranced past colorful piles of avocados and bananas, fat bunches of bright orange carrots, boxes of onions, boxes of potatoes – lovely groceries all interspersed with kiosks of shoes and handbags. You’re drawn to it all, fingering your pesos. “How much for that cute blouse with the sparkles?” you muse…and “What would that guy want for those fabulous figs?” you wonder, thinking about your ability to discuss it with him. You struggle with Spanish. They don’t mind. The folks are warm and understanding, and don’t care at all about your grammar.
The tianguis has a long-standing tradition entrenched in the weekly routines of many – Mexicans and expats both. Truth? In this Catholic town, some no doubt would rather miss mass than the tianguis. You stroll the crowded dry arroyo (locus of rain run-off from the neighboring Sierras) lined with tables of wares, crossing paths with neighbors that you stop and greet, and there go your own household workers! – they love the scene and know how to shop it successfully. They point out the fish monger down at the other end who has the biggest shrimp, the kind they know you like, the fish sellers set up by the bridge at the monastery. You note that the fellow’s wife is one who works at a local restaurant, and you grin happily at each other. “Hola senora, como esta?”
You glow from the recognition, and realize this has become your routine, too. It has become your town.
The day is over, afternoon siesta is done. Nightfall begins, and you stroll back to the Plaza de Armas. On the Portal of the Hotel Portales, overlooking the plaza, friends are grouping up to have tacos and beer. You join them. The cathedral bell clangs again, and people flow out from mass. It’s beautiful. It’s all good.
THE PACK RAT
A.K.A. WOOD RAT
Peering down at odd bluish chunks in the graveled driveway, I say to the real estate agent, “That’s soap! Why is Irish Spring bar soap trash out here?”
“Oh, that wards off packrats,” she replies. “They can be annoying – everyone has them out here, but they can be controlled; they hate Irish Spring.” (Later we learned otherwise, when a neighbor snorted and told us they love to line their nests with it.) Seeking to distract us, she gestured over to some admirable cactus groupings, popular xeriscaping. Not much water out here, and one makes do with Mother Nature. Best to use what the desert offers to enhance your property. The owners here had done a splendid job. “The saguaro cactus, whose bloom is the Arizona state blossom, is a dramatic icon out here,” she said. “See how many this property has?”
But I was too dismayed, appalled, viewing the blue bits with alarm, to be so easily diverted, as impressive as the monumental cacti were. We were besotted with the property – wonderful view of the city spread out in the distance – and intended to make an offer. But what were we getting into? Packrats so rife you needed to sow soap in the driveway? Good grief.
Images from childhood flickered through my mind. I again hear my Dad bellowing about finding acorn bits on his dresser right there where his money clip had been. The critters steal and swap. One imagines a little wee conscience plying payments for thievery. I envisioned vermin scurrying with bright shiny things in their paws and teeth, stuff they’ve stolen and are hauling back to their nests. Keys, buttons, bits of foil from gum packets – a diamond ring? – like magpies, any shiny thing that hits their fancy – leaving maybe a discarded nut as payment. Strange varmint. In my childhood home, rustlings in the walls and on rooftops turned out to be, yes, packrats.
I didn’t wish to have any on my beat. And I knew they were already there, as witness the messy display of Irish Spring. We bought the house and called in Mr. Pack Rat, ecologically kind capturer and releaser of the furry, furtive, little beasties.
He educated us: Prevention is kinder, cheaper and more effective than extermination. He pointed out bits of trash collected in one little area around a prickly pear. “That’s a sign to look for,” he said. “They nest in cactus root systems, making walls of thorny spines for protection. Pretty smart, these guys.” We nodded, glassy-eyed. “And you must clean up piles of brush debris around your acreage. They love those for nesting.”
He rid us of all nests he could find, and we carefully did what he recommended. Then found more. The previous owners were a combo couple of artist and professor, minds adrift on other than packrats. Would you believe the rascals took over an outside barbecue grill? And in the nighttime we heard scuffling sounds over our heads. Maybe bobcat? More likely pack rat.
What to do? Prevention is best. But forget the Irish Spring.
Our patio fountain, home to a few flitty goldfish (not koi, no chin whiskers) is a big draw for the Cooper’s Hawk. This fly-in hunter regards it as his private buffet. The fish, on the other hand, do not – and are uncooperative. They flee into shadowy hide-outs under lily pads and tumbled pots; they must detect his approach from way off. Coop soars in and lands on the top of the fountain. From this perch, he scowls intently down at the water, hoping, hoping. In vain. Frustrated, he settles his bottom half in the second tier of the fountain, and dips himself repeatedly, bobbing up and down in the water, fluffing and flapping his tail feathers in a whimsical cooling cleansing. It’s his spa.
When he’s done, he flies aloft and dries himself on the roof, whence he sorties to the neighbors’ to check for edibles. He’s handsome; I’m glad he considers us worthy. But I, the finches, and the goldfish are relieved to see him go. At his approach, the smaller birds had flown away in a frenzied startle, fanning out to make poor targets. Now they return to the thistle and sunflower seeds, doves too, to their ground level pickings from the feeder debris. And all take their own turns at the fountain. Late afternoon comes – the desert sun’s rays angle in to light up the red and yellow breasts of their last sips before they drift to the trees for the night.
Then, in season, comes the cautious single-file parade of hatchlings up from the lower garden, next to the grape arbor. Under the cumquat, just under the comforting edge of a spreading juniper, quail positioned their nest. The eggs have popped out tiny teetering fluff-balls, chicks who by are now are ready to move up into the larger world of the patio. The black-plumed caps topping adult heads jiggle like antennae as they lead their babies from the protected nursery, ultimately guiding them into the daunting vastness of the Catalina Foothills preserve. That will be their new home, where by instinct all quail belong. They carefully pass by the patio ramada, disappearing into the dense hedge haven of oleander bushes, exit route to the Great Outside. We will see our quail again later on, down on the road, busy crossing from one cactus patch to another. The chicks lose their adorableness – they’re entering their teens, bigger each day, skilled at ducking predators.
That garden exit path alarms me, because the occasional transient bobcat also pads into that floral dimness. It’s every animal’s covered departure path from our walled garden. He doesn’t come often – just checks in now and then for small live stuff. And so comes the bobcat. We sneak hushed to a window to observe his arrogant strut across the bricks. He is muscled, strong, catlike but not – and handsome. When my husband first saw him he said, “Come here! Look at that huge cat out there.” But the short, curled tail identified him as not a house cat…and he was big. He comes around looking, I think, for the odd prowling rabbit. Senor rabbit finds cover under long leaves arching out from our tropical bird of paradise. The bobcat wanders on to the neighbors, dissatisfied with us.
But to me, the most surprising drop-in was the roadrunner. The chaparral. He advanced slowly, placing one dainty foot in front of another, his spikey black crest leading his speckled body, trailing his long tail. Cocking his head, beady eyes checking side to side, he made his way to the water source. A quick hop, and up he went to the bottom lip around the fountain. A few dips and sips, and when I turned back – he was gone. Never to return. At least not when I was looking.
Owls perform at night, hooting from their high watch on the iron gate. A flashlight illuminates their eyes… they glow eerily. Annoyed, the owls silently flap off, insulted. Our cookout guests have been entertained. They head off into the desert nighttime, saguaros looming like guards. We go in to bed.
I love Tucson.
THE COCKROACH – but who doesn’t know that?
The American cockroach that lurks in our kitchens and forages through our trash bins is about an inch long; it’s just one of thirty varieties that plague us. There’s also the creepy large version that lumbers about on longer legs throughout the South. Nearly mouse-size, they look possibly edible (if you’re desperate enough). Scary things, those.
And smart. There was one whose movement caught our eyes at the El Paso airport. He was scurrying intently across the terminal floor, skillfully avoiding large feet, aiming at the automatic door. Arriving at the exit, he paused to one side, seeming to wait for a human to activate his egress. We were fascinated. Someone came; he made his getaway. Clearly it was a process he’d used before.
A droll ditty exists about the cockroach, the popular toe-tapping Mexican “La Cucaracha” (origin unknown), the critter that doesn’t get around because he’s out of marijuana. For an entertaining summary of its lyrics and history, click on:
The ubiquitous cockroach, brown insect of the 4,600-member order Blattodea, is a survivor of everything. He’s known to have existed through life-threatening perils for 350 million years. The insect shifts its venue at will, living on dribs and drabs of anything. The cockroach has been known to lodge in furniture, even in a clock, and thereby change its residence with a cross-country move. They’ve been known to hitch a ride all the way from New York (big center of infestations) to a new dwelling thousands of miles away. The unsuspecting homeowner dreamed of being rid of them, to have left them behind in his now abandoned dwelling. Silly twit. If the cockroach can live for years behind wallpaper, what’s a clock to conquer? Its life, though threatened in today’s world by countless poisons, continues undiminished.
It knows only to scour for food – and propagate. Which it does abundantly. At night, mostly, furtively scuttling in dark places to nosh and poop, leaving behind its e. coli and/or salmonella tainted feces. Oh – and dysentery, among countless other contagion. Even dusty dried up cockroach poo can cause annoying issues, like asthma and allergies. It has no social bias. It burrows in slums on neglected garbage; it lives in kitchen cabinets of elegant homes in upscale neighborhoods.
Once years ago, at a League of Women Voters meeting in the most upscale town outside of Boston, I was asked to please look for coffee sugar in our leader’s kitchen cabinet. Dutifully I went to the kitchen, opened a cabinet, throwing light suddenly onto open boxes, marmalade jars and cans – and an alarming, writhing blanket of small brown cockroaches, their antennae waving inside those gaping cereal boxes.
I shuddered, closed the cabinet door, returned empty-handed to the living room, and avoided my hostess’ inquiring eyes.
Faces turned towards me. I announced to the group that she was out of sugar.
Our cockroaches? In Alamos Mexico, our home is free of them. Mirabile dictu. If you are anti-pesticide, I hang my head in quasi shame. But they are rife there, especially that big black tropical one – and it’s them or us.
In drier Tucson, the moisture-seeking insect tries to access our house through drain pipes, an age-old sneak, probably since the advent of lead pipes in ancient Rome. We foiled that by putting borax in drains, a desiccating and poisonous item for them; they collect and carry the powder away on their little hairy leg bristles where ultimately it dispatches them.