Saguaro

IMG_5985.JPGLife in the hot and dehydrated Sonoran Desert needs to be strange to survive. The bark of palo verde trees is pistachio-green with chlorophyll, which means the trees can photosynthesize even after dropping their leaves to conserve water. The ocotillo plant grows in clusters of slender, vicious-looking stems several yards long, like a car-sized sea urchin, that are decked with even more spines to protect the tender leaves that occasionally appear. Cholla cactuses are so densely covered with spines that they look fuzzy and can grab onto passersby at the slightest contact.

Looming over them all are the saguaros, unmistakable sentinels found only in this desert and the namesake of Arizona’s Saguaro National Park.

I’ve come to this place for years, way longer than I’ve had the notion to visit and photograph all of the national parks. The photos here come from as far back as 2008. The park’s right outside of Tucson, where my mom has lived for years, and each visit brings at least a glimpse of this odd desert forest.

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Arizona-January-2010-077.jpg(That’s Tucson in the distance.)

Saguaros grow slowly and can live for a century or two, reaching 60 feet with their upturned arms. The ridges up their sides allow them to expand like accordions to take maximum advantage of any rain, and inside they’re supported by a circular cluster of wooden slats, like the support beams of a building. The leftover skeletons of dead saguaros can sometimes be beautiful on their own.

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Christmas--Arizona-08-268.jpgThe Arizona clouds overhead often bring another kind of beauty. Usually I’ve visited in winter, so that might be behind it, but almost every time I go I see these huge brushstrokes of wispy vapor stretching and twisting across the dry air.

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Take plenty of water if you go. Many of the trails here will probably leave you looking like this:

Arizona-January-2010-118.jpgThanks for looking,

Dan

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Fall’s first days

_C1_4813.JPGThousands upon thousands of motorcyclists rolled into town this past week for Bikes, Blues and BBQ, but for the first time since I moved here, I mostly skipped it. The rally has an oversupply of photographable characters, not least one fellow in a Viking helmet who buzzed around on a scooter waving around a plastic hammer. But I wasn’t really feeling the earsplitting roars and smattering of white supremacist symbols that also tend to come with it. I hiked this morning instead.

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_C1_3497.JPGThe first time I walked around Lake Wedington, back in April, the lake and the waterfall draining it were overflowing with rainwater. I had to turn around about halfway down the trail because of it. Now we’ve gotten hardly any rain weeks, so I wanted to try again.

The water was mostly still, steaming in the early morning and disturbed only occasionally by a solitary circle of ripples. The trees have begun losing their green. A motorcycle occasionally drove by on the lake’s other side.

When I got to the end of the lake’s dam, suddenly there were a lot more of those ripples. Little black shapes hopped out of a quiet cove every few feet, one after the other. They disappeared so quickly that I’m still not sure if they were frogs or little fish, fleeing from a bigger fish or pouncing on prey. They popped up silently and constantly for at least the 20 minutes I sat watching.

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_C1_4765.JPGThe waterfall was a trickle, but I still couldn’t go any further. Spiderwebs more than a foot wide slung across the path. I knocked one down, made lots of noise when I walked into another, and saw yet another further along. You win.

_C1_4774.JPGThanks for looking, and happy fall.

Dan

The center of the world

_C1_3223.JPGThis mountain bears the likenesses of some of the most influential people in United States history and took more than a decade to carve. It’s a striking and masterly monument, without question. But even more impressive, at least to me, is the other history tied to Mount Rushmore and the rest of South Dakota’s Black Hills.

From a geological perspective, some of this rock is about half the age of the planet. Some of it is the rounded and durable granite you see above. Other outcroppings have been squeezed and deformed, sometimes until the original rock layers are vertical, and sparkle in the sun with countless flecks of mica. All of it is topped with rugged pine and spruce that give the Black Hills their name.

As for humans, they’ve been living around here for at least 12,000 years. The hills are therefore heavy with myth and religious significance, including ties to Oglala Lakota creation stories. A holy man named Black Elk called this place the center of the world, and his people called Mount Rushmore The Six Grandfathers, referring to the earth, sky and four cardinal directions, which might make Rushmore something like seizing and then carving into the Sistine Chapel. The U.S. swore it wouldn’t take these lands but broke the promise because of gold. (The U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 ruled several tribes were owed compensation now worth more than $1 billion because of this, but they haven’t taken it, preferring to get at least some of the land back.)

Despite all of this, it isn’t hard to see much of the Black Hills as they have been for ages, even just around the corner from the monument.

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IMG_2719.JPG(Note the climber there in the lower middle)

The Black Hills also hold more wonders hundreds of feet underground, and I don’t mean that gold. Wind Cave National Park, about 20 miles south of Rushmore, holds at least 150 explored miles of passages that could connect to several times as many unexplored miles, according to the National Park Service. Those passages are often brimming with formations called boxwork — tangled, glittering, translucent blades of calcite about the width and sturdiness of tortilla chips. I couldn’t photograph it adequately, but try to imagine this coating the walls and ceiling around you:

IMG_2681.JPGSome chambers feature calcite in other forms, like spiky frostwork and little rounded blobs called cave popcorn, or, in this case, both:

IMG_2682.JPGIn the end, all of the Black Hills’ contents have something to offer. Just remember where you’re standing.

Thanks for looking,

Dan

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