Tag Archives: nature

Summer Comes to Phoenix

While the rest of the country is busy settling into a much-anticipated summer; Australia (along with parts of Africa, New Zealand, Brazil and Argentina) are heading toward winter. Phoenix, however, is set on “broil.” The local joke is that Phoenix is where hell spends the summer.

For the first time in five years, one of the cacti put out a bloom this year.

For the first time in five years, one of the cacti put out a bloom this year.

Snow birds (mostly Midwesterners, Canadians and Germans who bought houses here when the prices were in the dirt) head home. The huge RVs that are parked on residential streets and serve as winter in-law apartments vanish. Suddenly, those of us who stay can get a reservation at any restaurant. Movie lines are short enough so you have a chance at staying alive while you wait to buy a ticket to a cool place. Parking places open up.

The blossom lasts one night. Until it bloomed, I had no idea the cactus is an organ pipe cactus, dangerously far North for winter survival

The blossom lasts one night. Until it bloomed, I had no idea the cactus is an organ pipe cactus, dangerously far North for winter survival

And then, it is summer in Phoenix. So hot you bring a tote bag with you to carry your CDs, GPS units and anything plastic (handcream, phone chargers) into stores with you. They won’t last long if you leave them in the car. Windshields explode out of their frames, shattered by the temperature difference between air conditioning on high and the direct sun. Between the two of us, we’ve gone through five windshields in five years.

agave1My favorite plants to watch are the giant agaves that bloom just once in their lifetime, so they make it worth the effort.

agave2They start by sending up a long stalk, anywhere from 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 meters) tall. The stalk is nubby, and then, almost overnight, it is covered in yellow blossoms.

agave3And I do mean covered. In yellow blossoms.

agave4The stalk and blossoms stay beautifully in bloom for two to three weeks, feeding bees, hummingbirds, and fruit-eating bats at night. And then, before they die, they sprout the next generation up and down the enormous stalk. The tender shoots drop off, complete with the long “hairs” you see. Birds use the hairs as nesting material, and the agave goes with it, slowly growing. Other plantlets hitch a ride on coyotes or bobcats and are scattered into the ground, where they set root. Some just drop and tumble into a new home.

deadagaveThe original plant dies. Even that is an elegant sunburst of neutral colors. Here in the desert, there are few plants that bloom in summer. It’s our gray season, our stormy, humid seasons. We get Monsoon Rain storms that bring us half a year’s worth of rain in eight weeks. We get dust storms. Each summer several tourists die while hiking because they don’t believe the heat or the power of the heat. When it’s 117 degrees F (47 degrees C) you don’t want to be exerting yourself. So we estivate. Estivating is the summer version of hibernating.

We stay inside, we swim in too-hot pools, and we wait for September. At night, when you swim in the pool, your face can feel both the coolness of the night sky and the warmth of the heat radiating from the brick wall. A small gift in the hot season.

A full moon hangs in the palm tree

A full moon hangs in the palm tree

-–Quinn McDonald waits for summer with a sadness she discovered only in this climate.

Making Mistakes, Thrasher Style

Red bird of paradise bush

The thrasher outside my office window was fighting a small snake under the red bird of paradise bush. The bird, about the size of a robin, would advance, peck the head of the snake, then grab the neck and jump back, pulling the snake off the ground.

I watched this while I was on the phone. Thrashers are insect eaters, but have a curved, strong bill, so I wasn’t surprised to see him going after the snake. And it was a small snake–about as big around as a pencil. He may have thought it was a caterpillar and discovered it was too big to manage.

After about five minutes, the thrasher gave up and flew into the nearby ocotillo, where it warbled for a while, then flew off. He did not take the snake, so I wondered if he’d killed it.

After I’d completed the phone call, I went outside to take care of the snake. Checking under the bush, I saw what the battle was about. No snake.

Thrasher

The thrasher had attacked my drip irrigation hose, about the size of a pencil in diameter, and made of black rubber. The bird had worried about 18 inches of the hose out of the gravel and sand. The small gold-colored metal head was almost completely pulled off the hose. Dead, for sure.

What made me smile about this was that the bird eventually recognized that the hose was not a snake or a caterpillar.  The metal cap wasn’t a snake head. The bird did not slap himself on the head and berate himself. The bird did not kick the dirt and hang its head, embarrassed. The bird flew into a nearby tree, claimed its territory, and moved on.

Wildlife is smart that way. It doesn’t feel embarrassment, shame, or guilt. A mistake is a mistake. In this case, not deadly, so no harm done. (Well, as far as the bird was concerned. I’m going to need a new drip head to replace the shredded one.)

How smart we’d be if we could be the same way. Recognize the mistake, be OK with it, move on. Not dredge it up for years, worrying it like a sore tooth, making it into statements about our general character, intelligence, or emotional state.

Make a mistake, move on. Good lesson from a basic bird.

—Quinn McDonald learns from nature, which seems to have a lot to teach if we watch.

Normal Reactions

In the years when I lived and worked in a cold climate, there was some sort of

Snow tree from mylovelypurplepearls.com

drive to master the weather. No matter how much snow or ice piled up and coated your windshield, you got to work on time. (I was not a surgeon or a firefighter, I worked in marketing departments.) There were pre-dawns I shoveled snow, panicky that I could not overcome nature. That I might be late for work. It wasn’t that many years ago that I walked to work in three feet of snow, to prove I was not afraid of weather. That I was not a slacker.

When we arrived at work, it was in 3-inch leather heels and stockings, wool-blend suits and other materials that were easily ruined by salt and water.

A certain level of success and wealth was implied by striding into work without an umbrella, without a canvas tote of boots and gloves. There were executives who had heated garages and even heated driveways. Proof that you were above the weather.

Arizona wildfire. Credit: AP Photo/ The Arizona Republic, Carlos Chavez

I think of those days when I hear about the wildfires in Colorado. The fires have no concern for wealth or status. One person’s house stands, another burns. Reconstruction will take years, souls will knit their cracks only with time and love–neither on sale at Walmart.  Or Barneys.

One of the reasons I love my new home state of Arizona is that the citizens (wild, strange, loving, caring and occasionally gun-totin’) pay attention to the weather. I wear sandals to teaching jobs. I wear linen and cotton clothing. Neat, pressed, but lightweight in deference to our 113-degree heat.

Dust storm (haboob) rolling over Phoenix from geek.com

In the evening, I’m in the pool. Not swimming laps, not using exercise tools. I’m in the pool because the weather is hot and the water is cooling. It’s sensible and sane.

I like living in step with nature. I like being realistic. It gives me a sensible outlook on life. And in a way, when our wildfires sweep across our Ponderosa pines (as they did just a few weeks ago), I might feel sorrow, or empathy, or even fear, but I don’t feel outrage. I don’t feel entitled to perfect weather. It feels like a real life.

--Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who keeps her house at 83 degrees during the day. Because that’s still 20 degrees cooler than outside.

Nature, Text Messaging

When the phone rang at 6:30 this morning, I already had the headset on. When you are a creativity coach, you leave at least one morning for early calls and one evening for late calls. Not every client wants to call from work, so you plan to do the coaching early or late. After the coaching calls were over, I prepared for a client meeting. It is a lovely May day, and I decided to leave the studio window open.

On my way out of the studio, I heard the text message beep that signaled an incoming message. I smiled. One of my clients loves to text me. I love this client’s ability to summarize problems; he drew me into learning how to spell with my thumbs 9 years ago, and now I love the brief exchanges of ideas.

We’d talked early, and I was surprised to get a text message. I put my purse containing the phone on the kitchen chair when the beep sounded faintly again. “I need breakfast first,” I said to the purse, poured a cup of coffee, and reached for the granola. Another beep. I gave in. This many messages sounded serious. Before I poured milk on the granola, I pulled the phone from the briefcase. No messages. I checked again. Nope, no messages. I shook my head. I could have sworn I heard it. I dropped the phone back into the purse.

I sprinkled blueberries on my granola and poured milk over it. The beep again. But this time, it seemed to be coming from the window in front of me. I pushed open the window and heard another incoming message. But this time I saw the message-sender. The mockingbird sat in the fig tree next to the kitchen window. He’s heard the beep often enough to repeat it. He already mimics my alarm clock and now he’s got the text message notification down perfectly.

When mockingbirds learned to mimic sounds, it must have been for a better reason than echoing technological tools. But I have to admit, he’s useful. I’m a sound sleeper, but what the alarm clock can’t do–the mockingbird can. I can’t turn him off.

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach, writer and art journaler.

My Father’s Art Journal

My father's art journal, made before 1937.

My father was an immigrant to America. Shy and studious, married with two sons, he came to America with little except his family, his talent as a research physiologist, an ability to draw, and a few boxes of possessions. He was middle-aged, and starting over. He had been respected as a physician and researcher, an intellectual living in a European capital. When he came to this country, his work was needed in the early American space exploration program. He  was sent to Randolph Air Force base, in rural Texas. San Antonio was 20 miles away in those days, and my father didn’t own a car. The family lived in a farming community close to the base. He commuted by bicycle. He was a stranger in a strange land. Within a year after arriving, he and my mother had their third child and first American family member.

My father was a naturalist—he taught me about constellations and weather, birds and plants. He created a set of nature sketches in a journal. It was an art journal, but completely different from the art journals of today.

Crab, pencil on paper, c. 1950 © Quinn McDonald, 2010

My father’s journal survived the war and was in his box of important possessions. The cover shows signs of being handmade. The paper looks like pastel paper, thick but brittle now–it’s more than 80 years old.

The art he created was spare sketches of the insects, reptiles, plants and wonders of his new world. There are a few images of the past, too–a parakeet that didn’t survive the war, a son who did. The pictures were done in pencil or colored pencil. If there is writing on a page, it is a date or an identifying Latin name. My father was a man of few words, but his journal speaks volumes to me. He’s been dead for almost 30 years, and every time I look at the images he drew, I smile at the love of nature he passed on to me.

Texas horned-toad, pencil on paper, 1948. © Quinn McDonald, 2010

Parakeet, colored pencil on paper, 1937 © Quinn McDonald, 2010

--Quinn McDonald is an artist who is writing a book for people who want to keep an art journal but don’t know how to draw. You don’t have to know, you just have to want to live fully. It will be published by North Light Books in the summer of 2011.

Renaissance Man. . .and Woman. . .Write Blogs

A Renaissance Man (or woman) is a a person who has many talents and interests in how things work and how people think. In other words, humanities. In today’s practical-application world, Renaissance people are rare and strange. They care about things other people don’t. Things that aren’t outwardly practical but are profoundly interesting either in their complexity or in their simplicity.

DaVinci, the original Renaissance Man

DaVinci, the original Renaissance Man

Renaissance people aren’t complicated, just curious about a lot of things. And we wonder why other people aren’t. Why is my pool water pool-blue when the sides and bottom are painted white? What is sleep, and why do some people need more than others. What causes dreams and what do they mean?

In the world of bloggers, there are those who blog for the joy of writing and those who blog for profit. In the world of profit-bloggers, the mantra is “focus.” Blog about one topic, keep it short. Become known for the thing you blog about.

Secretly, I feel sorry for those focused people. Of course, my blog is not for profit. It’s about curiosity. You are as likely to find a book review as a tutorial, thoughts on writing and writers, nature, idea boosts, recipes and dreamwork. Sometimes it’s practical, sometimes not. I tried very hard to focus, but there are too many ideas to limit myself to one thing. I have a blog on the burning gas pit in Turkmenistan, about a guy who would appear naked in the window of his 14th story apartment, about making lemon posset. I’m interested in them all. (And if you are interested in the naked man, so many other people were, too, in rather graphic ways, that I took down the post.)

I think writers are curious about many things. we like to read other people’s blogs, books, magazines, newspapers. We value opinions, logic, imagination, weirdness. And while I admire the focused writer, I admire the wide-ranging one more. And that’s why I can’t focus on just one topic here, and never will. It might not get me a sponsor, but it makes a great daily-writing practice. I hope you are still enjoying it after 700 posts.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer, life- and certified creativity coach. She has a business website and an art website for art journalers who can’t draw.

Four Seasons in Arizona

When I tell people I live in Arizona, they say, “Oh, I wouldn’t like that. I have to have four seasons.” It always makes me smile. We do have four seasons, even here in the Valley of the Sun. Most people don’t know that in winter, the temperatures at the Grand Canyon hover around zero degrees. And most people don’t know that is snows in about 60 percent of the state, and that the roads around Flagstaff and Window Rock can be closed due to snow.

Most people think of Phoenix’s Valley of the Sun as representative of all of Arizona. But even here, in the Sonoran desert, we have four seasons. They are subtle, and you have to pay attention to nature. Sitting in your house is no way to experience our seasons. You have to get out in them.

Spring starts in early March. The lemon, orange and grapefruit trees bloom, filling the air with rich and invisible perfume. If you love perfumes that contain orange blossom, come visit in Spring. You’ll smell the real thing. At night and early morning is the best time. Drive past an orchard, and your car will fill with the fragrance.

Datura plant

Datura plant

Fig trees start to leaf out, as do Green Palo Verdes. The golden yellow blossoms fill the green-trunked trees. Ocotillo, those tall, long-thorned bushes, begin to set their tall red spiky flowers. The days get longer by about 3 minutes a day. Every plant that blooms, does. The mountainsides are covered in wildflowers. Birds migrate through to their summer homes. Hundreds of hummingbirds and sandhill cranes drift overhead. It’s perfect for hikinig.

Summer starts in May. It lasts till mid-September. Days are hot. You quit carrying black purses or wearing black shoes

Palo Verde with green trunk

Palo Verde with green trunk

because your purse contents melt and your feet fry. You take CDs out of the car and put insulated containers of water in the car every time you drive. The air is not always clear, and it can be really dry or murderously humid, depending on the monsoon season. Monsoon season starts in June and brings sudden, fierce thunderstorms. There are also duststorms. You don’t hike during June, July, or August.

By early May, you have painted your older citrus trunks with a special white paint, which acts as sunblock. Without it, the older-stock trees’ bark pops off from the overheated sap.  People wear sunblock too, the higher the number, the better. Pools become a necessity. In August, pools often go above 98 degrees during the day, but still feel deliciously cool, compared to the air temperature.

There are grackles, doves, and a few stubborn hummingbirds, but few other birds.

Fall starts in October. You plant tomatoes and other garden plants that can’t take

Canyon Lake in fall

Canyon Lake in fall

summer heat. Apples are ready for picking. Berries and watermelon are local and delicious. Your citrus trees are filled with green fruit. The migrating birds come back, and you hear different bird calls early in the morning. Trees stay green long into November. Nights start to cool down. We don’t have Daylight Saving Time, so it gets dark earlier, but not artificially early. We don’t have much of a twilight. Sun goes down, and it is dark about 15 minutes later.

Winter starts in December. It’s cool enough to sweaters and sometimes even a jacket. No more pool, no more sandals. The air starts to clear regularly, and you get full, high, bright blue skies. Trees lose their leaves slowly, over a month or so. But tomatoes and other container crops ripen, and you can have warm days. Rains start. The mountain tops get capped with snow, at least those over 5,500 feet. You have to rake the needle-like leaves of Palo Verde and the big fig leaves. Oranges ripen by January, but not all at once. You will pick and eat fruit off your tree through February.

Changing weather sky

Changing weather sky

One of the complaints I had living in Connecticut was the sheer amount of clothing you had to put on in winter–long underwear, socks, three layers of sweaters, a scarf, hat, gloves, sometimes boots or overshoes. You had several coats and more than one pair of gloves. I don’t miss those. I still have several scarves, but I don’t have several coats anymore. And I like my four seasons in moderation.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and naturalist who teaches art journaling and communication.

Sun, Moon, and Stars: Journal Prompt

Tonight the full moon rose in the sky like a silver charger–huge and bright. The moon won’t look that large again for many years. It made me think about how often we see images of sun, moon and stars in our lives and notice them.

Sometimes we recognize them, sometimes not. Often, we aren’t in touch with the natural images around us, and we don’t feel the importance of the connection between our hearts and nature.  Grab your journal and write about your connection to nature. Do you notice where the sun is when it rises? How at this time of the year it is in the Northeast, but starts to move more to the East? How many stars can you see in your night sky? When was the last time you were out at night and not walking toward your car?

Sun

Sun

Moon

Moon

Stars

Stars

Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach.

Is It Fall Yet?

Here in Phoenix, monsoon season is officially over when the dewpoint is under 50 degrees for three days in a row. That hasn’t happened yet. But there are signs. It is no longer well over 100 degrees every day. And yesterday, the wind shifted to the West.

Approaching dust storm in Glendale, AZ

Approaching dust storm in Glendale, AZ

That shift came on the heels–or the grains–of a dust storm. It moved incredibly fast. One moment, there was a looming brown cloud and the next moment, the wind began to blow and visibility sank as dust blew across the road. Branches broke off my neighbor’s jujube tree and blew into the pool along with big swirls of dust.

There was a lot of pine straw on the patio, but we don’t have pine trees. At first I thought they came from some other yard, but then I realized that they are the dry parts of our Palo Verde tree. The tiny leaf-stems, which don’t have leaves yet, because it is too dry, look like pine straw. I’ll be raking it up for days.

The dust storm has odd effects–a bad one means you have to change the air filter in your car. Succulents that have cups in their leaves need to have the dirt rinsed off. The tops of trash cans have sand on them.

I wonder where the sand comes from–is it recently picked up from down the street, or is it sand from the Mojave, hundreds of miles away? It’s such an odd feeling to see something so new and see the results.

What I find so odd is that while we are having a dust storm, Texas is drowning in Hurricane Ike. It’s astonishing that these opposites can happen at the same time. Nature is amazing, and I’ll never live long enough to grasp it all.

–Quinn McDonald is a naturalist and a certified creativity coach. She firmly believes that there are lessons nature has to teach us if we will pay attention. See her work at QuinnCreative.com (c) 2008 All rights reserved.

Summer Heat Effects in AZ

cv  ewwdPeople warned me about July and August in Arizona. I was here last August for a week. But nothing prepared me for someone turning the temperature to “grill” and leaving it there.

I read that in the 1850s the military imported camels, but gave up because the mule lobby was too strong. No one knew how to pack an animal that came fully packed with two humps already, so they turned them loose in the desert to die out. The camels loved Arizona, swam the river like spaniels and multiplied. They were finally rounded up and ummm, eaten.

If you’ve never been here in July and August, here are a few hot facts about Arizona:

–You can take a comfortable shower using cold water only. The pipes aren’t buried deep enough to keep the water cool. Tap water comes out around body temperature.

–I toss two icepacks into the bed at night, like I used to toss a hot water bottle in the bed in New England’s January cold. By the time I crawl into bed, I can put one on my forehead and another under the small of my back.

–I keep a bottle of water next to the bed, but I put it in the freezer for an hour before bedtime. Otherwise it’s unpleasantly warm to drink.

–Yes, I have air conditioning. I’m trying to keep the bill for my apartment under $200 a month, so I keep it at 86, which is cool enough most of the time. After all, it’s 20 degrees cooler than outside.

–The door handle is too hot to touch.

–CDs, plastic cups and bottles left in the car will melt if you leave your car in the sun. And pretty much, the only place for your car is the sun.

–This is the only town I know where people will choose a parking lot for shade, not proximity to the mall doors.

–Pool temperatures are frequently above 98. That’s not the hot tub, that’s the pool.

–Mascara melts in the sun. It then runs down your face with your perspiration. Everyone looks like an extra from a KISS concert.

–The temperature at midnight is still 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tomorrow, I’m going to try frying an egg on the sidewalk. No reason it shouldn’t work.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach in Arizona. She believes in September.

Image courtesy http://www.dtrainfoods.com