Recovering the Mojo: When Secret Sky Island Springs Flourish

Rare Slough Amberwing Damselfly photographed at Secret Sky Islands Spring, V. L. James 2018

“It’s a snout storm!” Vicki, a member of our group joked as we hiked into the fabled Sky Island mountains that transect the U.S. -Mexico border. It was the tail end of the monsoon season and the air was thick with butterflies, most notably the migratory American Snout.

Smaller than a monarch, the mottled grey, orange, and white butterfly is a phenomenon of nature. In 1921, a flock estimated at more than 6 billion “darkened the sky” over the Rio Grande. The migration lasted 18 days.   Here in Arizona, back in the 1940’s, locals say the lights had to be turned on in Tucson in the middle of the day to see amongst the Snouts.

I remember another outrageous display of migratory butterflies I witnessed one summer flying over my former property near the border: pale yellows up from Mexico, a sensual drift that filled the sky like lazy pollen fall, the epitome of natural magic.

“Must be because of all the rain we’ve had this season,” said Birdie, another member of our group. Along with a parade of wildflowers, the hillsides are rich with newly greened thornless acacia shrubs and hackberry bushes

“Hackberry bushes are the American snout’s host plants,” said Vicki.

American Snout Butterflies on a Desert Hackberry Host Plant, photographed at a Sky Islands Spring, V. L. James 2018

It’s a pleasure to share company with naturalists who are keen to identify plants, bird calls, and insects.  Birdie is a former biology teacher and local resident; Vicki with her husband Gerry continue to volunteer with the Southeast Arizona Butterfly Association after long careers in the National Park Service.

Together, we are trekking to the natural spring my partner Steph and I adopted through Sky Island Alliance’s Adopt-a-Spring Program. This is our final visit monitoring the spring’s on-going health; it’s water quality and flow, flora and fauna. We will pass on what we’ve learned to Sky Island volunteers Birdie, Vicki, and Gerry, the new stewards of the spring.  Through each season of the next year or more, they will play a crucial role in maintaining this vital wildlife corridor in the borderlands.

Joining us is Rich Bailowitz, an Entomologist and co-author of the book “A Field Guide to the Damselflies and Dragonflies of Arizona and Sonora.”  He is always on the look-out for new species and he will not be disappointed today.

“I was a butterfly freak first,” Rich said. But when U.S Fish and Wildlife Service asked me to do another order of insects besides butterflies I chose aquatic insects rather than terrestrial and ended up writing the book.”

Rich Bailowitz, Co-Author of “A Field Guide to the Damselflies and DragonFlies of Arizona and Sonora” identifying a tiny Damselfly, Sky Islands Spring, Photograph V.L. James 2018

On the way up the hillside, Rich pointed out an orange and black butterfly with white spots – an Empress Leilia – hugging a hackberry. We also spotted a Mexican yellow alighting on one of the thornless acacia shrubs.

Gerry stopped in front of me, cocked his head, and listened intently. “Do you hear that? he asked smiling. “I think it’s a Cassin’s sparrow.”

The rainy season plus the sparrow’s irresistible need to breed could have brought out this secretive resident of the Southwest grasslands. We could also hear mighty cicadas, the ubiquitous “Saints of Summer” in the Sonoran Desert, washing over us in waves, building to a thundering crescendo, then subsiding abruptly.

Large Sonoran grasshoppers that we thought would die back over the summer flit back and forth in front of us, revitalized with the monsoon rains. They were everywhere in the ground cover, like fibers in the wall-to-wall carpet of common purslane and grama grasses covering the desert floor.

On top of the hill, we looked down into the cool cleft of the spring hidden in a grove packed with sycamore trees, cottonwoods, willows, and walnut. Vicki noticed a large nest camouflaged in the canopy of the tallest cottonwood. I wondered if the nest belonged to the grey hawk we spotted here last time, but the nest is too high to identify.

“It’s good for the hawk that the nest remains hidden,” Vicki said.  “It needs to remain a mystery,”

Later, we heard it, the scolding screech of the hawk, maybe aggrieved at the encroach of humans upon its private domain.

The spring was as monsoon green as expected. Tall cattails shot up from one of the pools and plump grasses grew from another. At the first pool, wild grape vines circled around flowering Desert Cotton, a host plant for desert moths.  In the spring there is no denying the primal relationships between every living thing. All life in the spring is hosted, or it will not exist.

Dragonflies and Damselflies

Right away, Rich noticed a damselfly in the Ciénaga surrounding the spring; a stunning springwater dancer. The entomologist Odonata-spotting vision is as alert and practiced as the hawk. Odonata, the ancient order of carnivorous insects that dragonflies and damselflies belong to, have been found in fossils dating back to 325 million years, around the time dinosaurs began to appear. The word Odonata, derived from “odonto,” the Greek word for tooth, refers to the strong teeth found on the mandibles of most adult Odonata.

I learned to tell other-worldly dragonfly and damselflies apart. Dragonflies are mostly shorter with thicker bodies and huge eyes (think The Fly) that practically wrap around the whole face. Damselflies have ethereal, twig-like bodies. Their eyes are large too but distinctly separated. The difference in wing size and position is the key to a clear identification. The dragonflies’ wings are larger and perpendicular like an airplane at rest while damselflies’ narrower wings come together above the body.

A Great Spreadwing Damselfly, Sky Islands Spring, Photograph by V.L.James 2018

While the others in our group measured the length, width, and depth of the ever-changing water level of the spring’s top pool, Rich trekked to the bottom pool of the vertical seep, his large white butterfly net outstretched. Each will be quickly identified and then released. With practice, he’s developed the sensitive dexterity needed to grasp and safely immobilize tiny insects in the hand before letting them go.

One of the first found was a black and white damselfly, an extremely uncommon species found only in the Arizona borderlands, the only place it’s ever been recorded.

“If anyone wants to see this Damselfly,” Rich said, “they have to come to southeastern Arizona.”

“Plus, this one only comes out in the morning when there is dim light or when a storm is coming,” he said as he looked up at the darkening sky overhead.

In no short order, Rich found a red Neon Skimmer Dragonfly, a Great Spreadwing, the largest damselfly in the region, a Lavender Dancer and a bright blue Spine-Tipped Dancer. He then spots the rarest find of the day: a diminutive Slough Amberwing Damselfly. Altogether, Rich identified eleven species of Dragonflies and Damselflies that day, two of them new.  After all his years of field research, Rich still shakes his head in wonder

As Steph showed the new stewards how to find and chart water flow in the Spring’s bottom pool, Rich pulled out a field journal and noted his findings before they could be forgotten.

Preserving the Mystery

Our work at the spring finished, we follow Birdie to the end of the seep where we will all hike out. At a fork in the arroyo, I decided to veer down a path less taken. There, in the bottomland, I found a mound of deer bones, a recent kill, a reminder that we are walking in lion country. With countless caves pocketing the cliffs and ribbons of hidden springs, the Sky Island mountains of southeast Arizona host cougar and bobcat, ocelot and jaguar. Besides aquatic and terrestrial insects, there is much more here than meets the eye. What remains hidden and left alone stands a good chance of surviving.

“The last time I saw this spring, at least a decade ago, it was beaten down by cattle,” Birdie said. “Now that the cattle are no longer here, the spring has reverted back to its natural state and it’s recovering beautifully.”

The danger, of course, is that humans will not protect a paradise we don’t know exists. Taking great care not to disturb, volunteer naturalists gain rare access into our hidden world and they are reporting back. Regional guides like the “A Field Guide to the Damselflies and Dragonflies of Arizona and Sonora” help us identify and understand what we see there.

Gerry, Sky Island Volunteer and Entomologist Rich Bailowitz, Butterfly net in hand, Sky Islands Spring, Photo by V.L.James 2018

Steph and I miss the spring already, but we know we are leaving it in good hands. As we learned more about its native flora and fauna over the last year, we experienced profound connection, healing a primal wound of separation we human beings are often unaware we carry. The spring gave us much more than we were ever able to give her.

Climbing up and out of the arroyo, up hillsides of blue wildflowers and pink velvet pod mimosas, we heard a sudden rush of wind in the canyon behind us. Seconds later it began to pour.

“Rain in the desert is a blessing,” said Gerry. To be rained upon in the desert is to be twice blessed.”

Sky Island Volunteers hike to hidden Natural Springs in Southeast Arizona,  Photo V.L.James 2018

To volunteer go to Adopt-a-Spring Monitoring at Sky Island Alliance:




























Blessed are the Makers: Devotional Art on the Border

In this time of shocking family separation and violence against the most vulnerable among us, we are often paralyzed by sorrow and a loss of faith. Creativity and the Acts of Devotion offer us a path to healing the rift, individually and collectively.

Published by Kosmos International, picked up by, then licensed under Creative Commons: The Migrant quilt is the story of how women on the U.S./MX border are taking the matter into their own hands…

Sourcing Devotion: The Art of Nature


“Nature is the Art of God,” Dante

Had we missed the last spring wildflowers this year? Super blooms in the desert grasslands: Southern Arizona’s dazzling Art of Nature: wide swatches of color and scent, the sensuality of life unbridled.

Giving an out-of-state presentation on Devotional Art from the Border had kept me from our original devotional art here at home in the Sky Islands, the verdant mountainous border of Arizona and Mexico.

A couple of weeks earlier, driving to the border town of Ajo, a full palette of wildflowers ribboned through the Tohono O’odham reservation. Buttery Desert Marigolds and Mexican Gold poppies, stalks of magenta Penstemon and cobalt blue Lupine… a fiesta of wild beauty that unifies the bi-national landscape of cactus and creosote.

As spring turns to summer in the desert, we – my partner Steph and I –  volunteers with the Sky Island Alliance Adopt-a-Spring Program, are checking the health of our hidden natural spring’s water quality and flow, changes in flora and fauna, tracks and scat.

Hiking to the spring, chunks of calcite and quartz at our feet glittering like stars in daytime, we crested a hill and I saw them, the wildflowers, albeit smaller in stature and not as showy. Tiny bluets and white zinnias and a fade of pink fairy dusters embroidered the full apron of land surrounding the spring.



Up high, ocotillo flowers highjacked our eyes. A forest of the awkwardly elegant shrubs overwhelmed us with their size and numbers. The complex composition of many together instead of one prompts a different way of thinking about plant life. Instead of individual “loners” in competition for nutrients, new scientific evidence reveals that plants and trees cooperate instead, forming communal alliances and even communicating through a collective intelligence we are just beginning to understand.

Breath-takingly alien in appearance, like slow-moving stick bugs, the up to 20 ft. Ocotillos loomed over us with command and presence. In the breeze, their cane-like stems tipped every which way, like the cutting-edge choreography we witnessed at the UA dance theatre the night before.

Ocotillos are so outrageous in appearance, many never forget the moment they first saw one. I remember being rooted to the spot and asking a traveling companion “What is THAT?” I had never seen anything like it in my life.

“Supreme sculpture of the desert environment…” Steph mused, leaning against her walking stick.

“It’s like the first time you see a Giacometti sculpted figure… the linear nature of them… but Ocotillos are orders of magnitude more magnificent than anything created by humans,” she added.

Indigenous people of the Sonoran Desert – the Papago, the Hohokam, the Tohono O’odham and others, turned Ocotillo’s unique branches into artful architecture, arching shelters, and living fences. In the studio, art colleagues and I have dipped Ocotillo’s dried branches into paint and wax and then woven them through fiber pieces. Ocotillo’s long sharp thorns will draw blood unless approached with serious respect.

I wanted to know more about this dramatic shrub I thought I knew. As much as I appreciate the INaturalist APP – a digital whizz of Bio-identification – one of the things I love best about our relationship with Sky Island’s flora and fauna, happens later at home when we do the research… poring over old books, unearthing the word roots of what we saw and experienced, discovering the integral part the natural world plays in art and culture, biology and history and the mysterious mythologies surrounding what we see in the field.

The thrill of discovery, the art of it all, enriches my understanding, so much so that when I think about it, I can taste the clarifying air of knowledge in my mouth, tangy like Ocotillo nectar… a favorite for hummingbirds and our indigenous ancestors.

I learned that Ocotillo is also known by the names Coachwhip and Slimwood, and my favorite moniker because there’s a story in it, Jacob’s Sword. Jewish Sages say Jacob’s Sword & Bow refer to prayers and supplications before God. Looking up to see the Ocotillo’s carmine trumpet flowers beseeching the sky, I can see that too.  As we left, a breeze picked up and the legion of Jacob’s Swords seemed to wave us goodbye.

The Gray Hawk


Descending the hill, Steph looks up and stops. Binoculars to her eyes, she cites the finding of the day: a Gray Hawk, perched in the highest canopy of the Spring’s giant Sycamores.

We passed the binoculars back and forth in slow motion, barely breathing, hoping what we were seeing was for real and praying we could keep the bird in sight as we made our way down to the spring.

The Gray Hawk, according to the Cornell Ornithology Lab is a tropical species that barely crosses the border into Arizona and Texas. The raptor follows a narrow riparian corridor; cottonwood and mesquite forests along a few streams.

The hawk’s pale form seemed to appear and disappear, camouflaged by the glaring mid-day sun. Its peacock-like call pierced the air and a moment or two later, pierced it again.  Did the Gray Hawk have a partner or was it alone? Apparently, there are fewer than 50 nesting pairs in the U.S. After breeding, the Gray Hawk, also known as a Mexican Goshawk, migrates back to Mexico. Long considered a threatened species, human development, and associated groundwater depletion make increasingly fragile its world. Was there a nest in one of the spring’s big cottonwoods?

Male and female Gray Hawks build their nest together. The male builds the foundation out of living twigs and the female artfully shapes the nest, an awesome collaboration.

The Spring


As we duck under the canopy of trees over the spring, we stop to take it all in. The area is the greenest we’ve ever seen it. Shades of shy mint color and virgin lime expand into fields of emerald.

The ambient temperature under the tree canopy is in the 60’s. Bird calls fill the air. The last time we were here it was winter. The great cottonwoods and sycamores were lace-like, stripped of leaves and there were no bird calls, only silence.

Our first steps leave footprints on the saturated ground. The distinctive smell of rich loamy soil hangs in the air. I take in big draughts of air through my nose and down into my lungs, a respite from dusty wind on the hillsides. My skin feels instantly smooth to the touch, soothed by the moist languid air.

At the mouth of the seep where we measure water quality and flow we see a familiar phenomenon – bees clustering at a dry tiny recess, the very inception of the spring. Pools of spring water lie within their reach and yet for some reason the bees prefer the promise of water, fresh water that they somehow smell or sense under the surface of rock and soil. It’s as if they know where the good stuff is, and they’re going for gold.

The cluster buzz, the sound of bees signaling virgin water mimics – or is it the other way around –  the constant chant of monks: a vibratory hum, the sound of the earth itself.  Lining both sides of the spring: a huge family of fountain grass. Grassy heads crowd together in serious communication like a backup choir to the cluster buzz.

I spot an odd shape on the ground, a squarish chunk of dark honeycomb, waxy to the touch.  The Hexagon “tiling,” of the comb, individual housing for bees or ants are a model of divine symmetry and proportion in the wild. Pattern and repetition, the formal balance of the honeycomb’s natural design generates a feeling of order and wholeness deep within the body.

“Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better,” Albert Einstein said simply.

It’s written that we are born with an innate sense of design because of our connection to the natural order. I would take that a step further. Harmony – the belonging of one thing to another and a foundational principle of design – begets unity. Like tadpoles, we instinctively swim toward an inner harmony but unity, the sum of all parts, the “All Shall be Well” of mystic Julian Norwich’s time, only occurs if we care for harmony in nature together as one.

While Steph monitors the health of the upper spring I follow a large Black Swallowtail Butterfly down to the bottom pool.  The butterfly is soon joined by another and they circle endlessly together over my head.

Hunkering down in the bushes at the water’s edge, I sit and wait, hoping to get a photograph. Many minutes pass but the butterflies refuse to alight anywhere. They’re busy. It’s spring. They may never stop. I finally set my camera down, content to sit and listen to the birds in the canopy. Some of the calls I can readily identify: The white-winged doves – Who cooks for you? –  and cactus wrens and Gila Woodpeckers at opposite ends of the spring. Other species, Northern Cardinals, Scott’s Orioles, and finches we track later through binoculars.



At the water’s edge, time feels long and languorous. My breath slows, and my eyelids grow heavy. Suddenly: a rush of feathers in my face, in my ears. A Magnificent Hummingbird – nearly twice the size of other hummingbirds – lands on a seep willow branch an arm’s length away. And then another. It is the closest I have ever been to hummingbirds in the wild. They somehow do not see me or if they do see me, they do not care. And they do not linger long. Spring: the first hunger of life, the whole world in movement. Dragonflies, Damselflies and diminutive butterflies everywhere on the wing. All are paired.

Wildflowers here are few but striking. I see mostly single-stalked wildflowers, large and leggy. The blooms we saw earlier in the year made way for sturdy almost athletic specimens. At the spring, mysterious variants are the order of the day.


A blue-green patina of algae and wisps of pollen on the surface of the pools draw my gaze. My eyes read the small details, the minute life forms. I sit and breathe in the spaciousness between bird calls high in the canopy, and I listen to the invitation that is already there.

I am so grateful for extended observation like this in Nature, the opportunity to deepen the practice of sacred seeing (Visio Divina), devotion to the source while at the same time volunteering for Sky Island Alliance. I want everyone especially children to have the same opportunities. I want them to know what it is to love the natural world and feel loved back.

When it’s time to go I shuffle my feet. I don’t want to leave. I am as devoted to the Sky Islands of Southeastern Arizona and Mexico as I am devoted to my faith. They are one and the same.













































Contemplative Ecology in the Sky Islands: To Everything a Season

“Within the recesses of the forest, even when in the midst of it (the deafening noise of the insects), a universal stillness appears to reign,” Darwin, Brazil, 1830’s.

In Fall of 2017 and in Winter 2018, our adopted relationship with a Sky Island Spring deepens as we tap into the exquisite silence of hidden waters. There, we hear the prima vox, the “voice primordial,” of a desert Oasis, its’ plants, invertebrates, and mammals, sustained by life-giving water.

Gila Woodpecker in the Canopy of the Spring, Fall 2017

Fall 2017 Visit to the Spring

People seeing the Sonoran Desert for the first time often miss subtle signs of autumn. Higher in elevation, tucked into riparian areas, where seeps and natural springs are found, Cottonwood trees, Arizona Sycamore, Willow, and Arizona Ash, flame with outrageous color.

This day, we will witness leaves on the trees silently morphing from smooth yellow to mottled red to papery ochre, pressing together in an annual return to the wet earth, caking into a baklava of rich humus, imprinting the soil in a cycle of endless regeneration.

In her essay, Why Leaves turn color in the Fall, Naturalist Diane Ackerman observes that the leaves echo our own hope upon death:

“Not to vanish, just to sublime from one beautiful state to another.”

“Though the leaves lose their green life, they bloom with urgent colors, as the woods grow mummified day by day, and Nature becomes more carnal, mute, and radiant,” Ackerman writes.

As we hike to the Spring, the temperature cool, smelling of winter rains, and the sky gray with curtains of virga on the horizon, whole flocks of birds fly overhead, no doubt on a migratory route.

Steph points out a hidden canyon high in the cliff face, a classic v formation in the rock with a clot of dark green growth at its apex. We wonder if there is a hidden spring there or a seep, water percolating through the rocks in the cliffs and bubbling up like the spring we are descending into. The hydrology of the mountain range can by its nature be unpredictable, but we know water is there; the lifeblood of the dense tribes of trees we see.

Descending into the valley of the spring, Fall 2017

Through binoculars, we examine dark vertical streaks on the cliffs, “desert varnish,” a mysterious glassy patina that generations of scientists, including Darwin, puzzled over.

High up, near the desert varnish: another V-shaped canyon. We wonder how many undocumented springs remain hidden in Arizona.

We are deeply humbled by our naïveté. There is so much we do not know.

Indigenous, first nations people could well know. Craig Childs, the author of The Secret Knowledge of Water, cites the belief of native people of the Southwest:

…that natural springs were “points where creation came to the surface and spilled out, where a hand could actually reach forward to feel the emergence.”

Other dark crevasses in the rock near the ridgeline draw our gaze. Could a mountain lion be drinking right now at a high spring?… Or ocelots – rumored to be in this mountain range – or even a jaguar, cats that do not fear water. Most natural springs remain hidden, a good thing. Would wild animals survive in the desert without them?

We slip down the shale-covered hillside, the “ecotone,” grassland border surrounding the spring until we find the trail. I am grateful for my walking sticks.  We are learning to hike slowly and mindfully. It’s a long walk to enlightenment. Smart to follow deer paths.

Stands of dried grass tamp down the trail, like old hay on gray ground. We spot pumice-like lava rocks, up to a million years old blasted from vents in volcanic fields in Mexico. The rock’s shapes and surfaces resemble living coral from the Sea of Cortez, a few hours south of the border

Other large smooth stones are aproned with circular blooms of lichen, evidence of life persisting in the most unlikely of places, even on sun-blasted faces of stones.

The variety of scat on the path – deer, rabbit, coyote – also clues us into species roaming the ecotone. We pass shallow hollows in the dirt where smaller animals, rabbit or fox, may have bedded down.

Suddenly, in the distance: rat-tat-tat of semi-automatic gunfire. Sounds like a firing range. The gunshots originate from the back side of the ridge but still, I jump, my startle reflex working overtime. Each shot raises the hair on the back of my neck.

We wonder how animals handle the sound of gunfire bouncing off the cliffs. Do deer tremble? Coyotes shake? Rabbits run? I know how it makes me feel.

The closer we come to the spring, the more bird calls. In between calls, to our distress, more gunfire, louder, on the other side of the ridge. Blast, bird call… Blast, our Human song.

A flash of red, high in the trees flanking the Spring: a bright Northern Cardinal. Later, we see a Gila Woodpecker in the spring. A Cactus Wren scolds and a dove mourns.

The Spring

Steph photographs the spring-fed pool, Fall 2017

We duck slowly and carefully under immense branches, dropping our voices, conscious we are entering hallowed ground. Others may be lingering at the waters. I have longed for the contemplative balm of the spring and I am not disappointed. The world is silent, timeless here. The birds are quiet, and the semi-automatic gunfire has thankfully, stopped. All sound goes subtle, muted like a seashell to the ear.

A slight breeze picks up, rustling the remains of the canopy. Leaves flutter to the ground and the ambient air temp drops a good 10 degrees, a portent of winter to come.

We walk with long strides slo-mo, cross-country skiing through a dense carpet of cushy leaves and deadfall. Yellow Cottonwood and orange and red sycamore leaves shush beneath out feet. I wince, not wanting to surprise any inhabitants.

The autumnal leaf matter has so seriously altered the topography of the area since our last visit, we can barely make out the first pool covered with plant debris. On the way there, I trip over deadfall but go down softly, cushioned by the leaves.

As citizen Science volunteers with The Sky Island Alliance Adopt-a-Spring Program, we gauge the health of the Spring, measuring length, width, and depth of the water source. As we quietly work together, I sense small eyes watching us, curious and aware of our presence. I don’t sense any fear. I imagine this must be because we too are quiet and reverent.

Just a few months ago, during the Monsoons, we were overwhelmed by the chaos of color. Now, all of the monsoon’s (second summer) wildflowers are gone as are the hummingbirds and the butterflies in constant movement. Missing also are the abundance of grasshoppers but we do see ants, flies, and spiders moving through the ground leaves, and one dragonfly on the water.

And bees. Clustering at the very place the spring emerges, its’ inception, the incarnation of the water, translucent wings catch the light. With more water than they could ever wish for in the spring’s pools, they lust for the very origin of the wet, drawn inexorably to it.

Circular masses of large deer grass lend a kind of animal softness to the bank of the spring’s pools. Massive mother patches line the bank on one side of the water and smaller patches on the other.

A discarded Mexican blanket on the bank, made from wool, breaks down naturally in the elements, changing with every season. I’d love to harvest some of the still colorful woven fiber and weave the essence of this place into some new art, but it’s not wise to remove anything from the area. Every aspect of this place, every stray thread, belongs here in the House of the Spring, destined to become building materials for nests or burrows, beds for small beating hearts.

Mexican Blanket left behind, upcycled by wildlife, Fall 2017

I think about the necessity of pause for all living things, how these pools, teeming with life a few months ago, have gone into a kind of abeyance. I think about the powerful elemental draw to the interior that marks this season of the year, the long wait for the light of new life to return.

A shimmer of blue undulates in the dark waters of the spring and I look up to see a blue-sky hole in the cloud cover, startling in its’ rarity.

Velvet Mystery

“Go ahead, touch it, I dare my partner Steph, and she does.

“Wha?!” She gasps, drawing her hand back.

“That’s the softest thing I have ever felt in my life.” She says, mouth gaping in shock.

I nod. I have felt other soft-leaved sensuals in the field: Woolley lamb’s ears… Mullein…… Hairy Desert Sunflowers, but nothing like this.

Steph shakes her head in utter incomprehension. Her long artistic fingers are so sensitive they practically have eyes at the tips and right now their tiny pupils are dilated. An alarm is sounding in her body. A seasoned scientist with no frame of reference, she thinks this cannot exist.

“It feels like an animal,” she says. “What if it’s the only thing of its kind anywhere?”

The exotic plant, all leaves, no flowers, stands by its lonesome in an easy to miss section of the spring. Maybe it is the only one or maybe it’s just never been seen before, by non- indigenous humans that is. Does it have a purpose? Is it a medicine or food? Could it simply exist as an expression of beauty? Beauty never seen?

Anything is possible in this singular stand-alone spring with its unique and provocative ecosystem. We imagine the next time we visit the plant will be gone. Every time we come we find a wholly different spring. We marvel that we can still be surprised by such natural mystery, stumped by the unknown, bemused by our own innocence.

Ecology as a Contemplative Practice

“Darwin’s manner of deep watchfulness allowed the ordinary ground of life to become sanctified, to be brought into Sensus plenoir – a fuller sense – through the offering of simple attention.” Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Author, and Naturalist.

Charles Darwin, like many scientists in general, is not commonly associated with being “spiritual,” yet profoundly spiritual he was as his observations matured into a kind of contemplative practice, muses Theologian Douglas E. Christie in The Blue Sapphire of the Mind; Notes for a Contemplative Ecology.

Mindfulness, meditation, and centering prayer originating in the world’s religions, now part of our kid’s school programming and present-centered cognitive science, are practices that quiet us into relationship with the essence of life found in nature, with Dylan Thomas’s “force that drives the water through the rocks.” And our basic senses – sight, hearing touch, taste, and smell – allow us fresh wonder, and the gift of empathy, a felt sense relationship with the natural world.

“…what would it mean for contemplative practice to be considered an integral part of a deepening ecological awareness? Christie asks.

Winter 2018 Visit

Giant balls of Deer grass line the banks, Winter 2018

The sun is shining but the wind blows bitter, chapping the skin on contact. Waves of wind curl the bleached grass, pressing it against the hillside.

On the way to the spring, we pass stands of fallen cactus: saguaro and prickly pear in a state of decay, crumbling under our feet to dust, reminding us of the importance of the season, death, and resurrection. We pass tall grey ocotillo, skinny standing bones, thorned, sentinels of winter in the desert.

Deer trails etch deeper into the hillside, revealing how fragile the surface of the desert really is. Trails created even once carve into the topsoil like scars on the skin. The only thing that soothes and sometimes removes the mark-making are the rains, scanty this year.

Though the grasslands are winter-dried and tamped down, tiny pokies with feral intelligence find their way into my socks and I need to stop, drop, and remove my shoes.

Dotting the trail like bread crumbs in a fairy tale: chunks of Chalcedony milky quartz.  Some resemble circular geodes broken open. Some are vulva-like and are shaped like roses. I always think of them as Desert Roses though this term is actually associated with rocks created from gypsum. Common in the Sonoran Desert grasslands, Chalcedony Quartz pieces are a child’s ‘jewels’ of the desert.

I pick up a palm-size Chalcedony Desert Rose and think about Tucson’s beloved “Pink Rose of the Desert,” the Benedictine monastery shuttered this year after 75 plus years gracing our region. The monastery was lived in and loved by the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, a contemplative order well-versed in the traditional Benedictine practice of Lectio among other charisms. Lectio (Latin for Divine reading), devotional listening with the ear of the heart, continues to inform my growing contemplative take on the natural world.

Maple-like Arizona Sycamore leaves litter the hillside having blown up the slope from the spring. I pick one up and cup it in my hand. Fragile to the touch and dry as the desert air, it miraculously retained its shape, curled up like a starfish. From A Botanist’s Vocabulary, by Pell and Angell, I learn that in winter the leaf’s “acuminate” tapered points draw in toward the center, towards the “petiole,” where it connects to its stem. The pull to turn inward and draw down, to contract in the process of dying, untethers the now concave leaf, freeing it to chart a new course: a paper boat on the wind.

The first thing that jumps out as we approach the spring, almost assaulting the eye: bright white branches of the huge Arizona Sycamores. Called ‘ghost trees” in winter, with their leaves stripped bare, they display an austere beauty, a natural authority over all other elements in the Spring. Next to them, the cottonwoods look shabby-chic like old heirloom lace.

Entering the spring, there is a sense of coming home. We hear naught but one single solitary bird: the dove mourning. The spirit of winter has officially abducted the spring. It is now an otherworldly destination, commanding solitude, silence, and peace.

In the center of playgrounds of leaf litter strewn all over the grounds – plugging even the Badger’s holes –  we are astounded to see patches of lime green grass, asparagus-like shoots, dotting the grounds like candles on a cake.

New Growth in Winter, 2018

There’s more water here than we’ve ever seen!” Steph exclaims. Black soil gushes under our feet with each step. Showers in the mountains above, rain unseen, must have fed the underground waters.

Higher than the known top of the seep, giant round balls of deer grass can only mean one thing: A new water source. We watch with awe as water flows down the entire valley of the spring, sparkling in narrow shafts of sunlight beaming through the canopy.

Tarzan’s Tree

Last summer, our first time at the spring, Steph and I, along with Sami Hammer, Conservation Biologist at Sky Island Alliance, our guide that day, nicknamed the largest Sycamore, Tarzan’s Tree.

Sycamore tree trunks grow wider than any other hardwood in North America) and this tree is no exception, measuring a good 4 ½ feet in diameter. The tree must weigh in the thousands of pounds. Tarzan’s tree cantilevers over the middle pool of the spring, it’s huge exposed roots gripping the bank like the tentacles of an octopus squeezing its prey. We sit on the ground, our backs tucked up against the roots, and marvel at the improbability of its on-going horizontal survival: Is the tree growing toward the water or the light?

We estimate the Sycamore to be upwards of 200 years old. Water-loving Sycamores are some of the oldest trees on earth and noted for their longevity (500 – 600 years in some cases). After 200 years, the tree rots inside and hollows out, but lives on, ensuring nest sites for Elegant Trogons, owls, and many other birds. The spring’s ecological zone is packed with the stately elders.

The spring’s Ancient Sycamore Habitats, Winter 2018

Sycamores figure prominently in History from Hippocrates to the Ancient Egyptians and in literature e.g. the poetry of William Carlos Williams’ Young Sycamore and in the Bible:

“I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I took care of Sycamore-fig trees.” Amos 7:14

Here in the Sonoran Desert, we must be the shepherds, the stewards of all the plants and pollinators and natural springs critical to wildlife corridors on both sides of the International border.

Douglas Christie finds parallels between naturalists (in the tradition of John Muir and Thoreau), and Scientists: “…the way they have trained themselves to gaze at the world and the language they use to describe their experience of the natural world… One can find “a deeply contemplative sensibility that reveals a reverence and even a love for a world not often accounted for by the limited vocabulary of science.”

The reverence gained in my own winter of years does not escape me. It is here in the spring, that I feel most congruent with the cycle of seasons, with life and death, the fecund dark, and life-giving light. After Fall, in the great pause of winter, the animals, the land, our bodies, and our souls, are granted the balm of contemplative rest.

The sun begins to slip behind the mountains and the temperature drops fast. It’s in the low 40’s now. We are expecting a freeze tonight and we still have to measure the spring’s all-important water flow: an entire liter of fresh clear water in 5.25 seconds! My fingers, wet and starting to freeze tell me it’s time to go.


Measuring the spring’s Water Flow in Winter: 1 Liter in 5.25 seconds!


As for our mystery: the softest plant ever, we found its’ young shoots again and photographed them. Later research leads us to believe they are saplings of Velvet Ash, native to Arizona. The Velvet Ash tree can grow up to 40 feet tall in riparian habitats, its’ leaves velvety only while young.
























Jewels in the Crown: How Ancient Contemplative Practices Can Rescue Us from Digital Darkness


Found Guadalupe prayer card
Model of Contemplation unearthed on the Migrant Trail, AZ/MX Borderlands

We work more hours than ever, our time and attention brain jacked by multiple screens. Our focus and attention skip like slim stones on water. You feel unwell.  Inside, you sense you’ve lost something but instead you jump to the next ping, avoiding for the moment, the looming awareness of wrong, a serious disconnect you ultimately cannot afford to deny.

You are losing it:  your sense of wonder and awe, your hope, your happiness. Already gone: Your deeper sense of peace and well-being. Losing my religion plays on a loop in the background, breaking through the soundtrack of your busy day. The good news is this: you know intuitively when enough is enough.

Increasingly, people are turning to contemplative practices to restore necessary balance and sanity, some to find God. At our local grocery store, I spot three different magazines touting Mindfulness, an Eastern wisdom tradition. I wonder how many customers are aware that mindfulness practices also exist in the Western traditions and that these contemplative practices have the capacity to rescue us all from digital diaspora.

“There are jewels in each one of our [spiritual] traditions,” writes Omir Safi, author, and professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke. “That intimate tasted knowledge of God has been with us before there was a time, or a there…”

In the 21st century, it’s a wonder anyone can know the peace of God but know it, we must. To live a life in balance, to feel nourished and hopeful, to have the life we deserve, our birthright… to save ourselves and in doing so, save the planet, we must drink at the well of our deepest humanity. We must place ourselves and our relationship with the divine, first.

For those whom the word God is a stumbling block, yet who long for a sense of spiritual peace in daily life, historic contemplative disciplines are the key to peace and happiness. The trick is to find those practices that resonate with you and then, in the spirit of devotion, give yourself up to them like you would a lover. For the spiritual realm to be real, to be actuated in the digital age, the spiritual must be embodied. That is, you’ve got to feel it in your body, the temple of your soul, through and through.

We are all made from and united by an awesome ineffable mystery, the source of life… and death. This essence that some call God is not a formless mystery outside of one’s self, a chimera, a fantasy. God is the pulse in the blood, the salt in one’s tears, the sweet scent emanating from an infant’s scalp. It is familial love and laughter that cannot be contained and it is the shattering pain of brokenness and loss. God is the wonder of the body made of stardust. God is within.

And religion, at least for me, is as much about religiously attending to a devotional practice as it might be of a particular denomination. The root meaning of the Latin word Religio is bond and reverence. In Middle English, Religio meant “Life under monastic vows.” The prefix “Re” is about re-bonding and reconnecting.

For the past 25 years, on and off, I’ve maintained a yoga practice. Simultaneously, along with the yoga that sustains me, body and soul, I listen to a Benedictine Liturgy on podcast – sung by women religious – that infuses my entire being and invites me to reconnect again and again. Like most of us, I have a limited amount of time in my day to enter into source, to engage with the divine, so I need to make time count. Combining practices – yoga and liturgy, movement and meditation, allows me to care for my body and my spirit simultaneously.

If a daily commitment like this feels like just another obligation in an already over-scheduled day, imagine this bit of time bathed in the presence of the Divine as a gift, as soul time, as sacred leisure. No matter how busy we are, we somehow manage to find downtime most of us simply not do without. Let your leisure time be nourishing and formative. With each calming breath, consistent practice cultivates loving kindness, gratitude, and peace…

I’ve been a Benedictine Oblate for the past 7 years, part of a monastic tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages. Oblates are secular monastics who offer themselves (the meaning of the word Oblate) for the service of God and their neighbors to the best of their abilities. Among fellow (inter-faith) Oblates exist Protestants, former Buddhists and Sufis to name a few. We all share the same timeless goal, a longing to know God in our lives, a desire to live a balanced life of prayer, work and study, and a calling to extend hospitality and peace in the world.

The community of Oblates I belong to are formally affiliated with the Benedictine Monastery: the historic “Rose of the Desert” in Tucson. Like many other monasteries nationwide, the current drop in new postulants means that the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration are now closing the monastery to return to their central Mother House in Clyde, Missouri. While our lay community and Tucson at large mourns the loss of our beloved sisters and the monastery, local Oblates have been welcomed at a supporting (Episcopal) church in Tucson.

“Even as the number of religious ordained monks and nuns continues to decline, the number of Oblates everywhere keeps growing…” writes Brother Benet Tevdten, author of How to be a Monastic and not leave your day job. While being part of a monastic community is ideal, the way of the Oblate is an on-going journey in personal spiritual formation.

Contemplative practices in the Benedictine tradition that guide one closer to God are Contemplative Prayer and Lectio Divina (sacred reading). The transformative practice of Lectio Divina can be applied to Music, Journaling, even Film. Visio Divina (Contemplative Art) and Motio Divina (Lectio Divina with Movement) are two of my favorite practices. And the emerging practice of Contemplative Ecology: a deep honoring of Genius Loci: Spirit of Place, within and without, is proving to be more important than imagined to our ecosystem as a whole.

Seven years into this on-going lifetime journey, I feel changed at my core. Though I am still in the world, I often feel apart, more spacious inside, less ego-attached. I listen better to others and myself. Sacred Attention, mindfulness, deepens my work and enriches my days. I feel more childlike. Wonder and awe and gratitude flow regularly through me like a fresh spring in the desert, even as I see multiple screens depicting the dark sides of human behavior. Prayer helps sustain my hope for humanity. Unplugging does too. The more contemplative practice I enjoy, the more I feel a palpable sense of eternity: whole chunks of time, World without End. There are moments in the day that feel endowed with soul, rich with meaning, and blessed, like beads in a rosary.

Though I falter at times in my practice, I know now, that in saving myself, I contribute to saving the planet. My commitment to social justice and the environment, rooted in the good earth of steadfast contemplation, blooms in regular expressions of beauty and art. Steeped in the “Re” of religion, I am restored and replenished.

Renowned Benedictine Sister and Author Joan Chittister put it this way: “All life takes on a new dimension once we begin to see it as spiritual people. The bad does not destroy us and the good gives us new breath because we are aware that everything is more than it is… We begin to find God where we could not see God before, not as a panacea or an anesthetic, not as a cheap release from the problems of life, but as another measure of life’s meaning for us…” Meaning indeed. Humankind’s contemplative practices can go far to heal the collective wounds of Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World.

Earthly Beatitudes: Baja, Arizona’s Hidden Desert Springs

One of Baja, Arizona’s hidden Desert Springs

As we scrabble sideways down the mountain’s slippery face to get to the natural desert springs we adopted through the Sky Island Alliance, I think about people gathering to bless the waters, locally and around the world, mostly women guided by indigenous traditions. I think about how it is me instead, who is blessed every time I engage with this hidden spring, a life-giving conduit to healthy wildlife corridors throughout Southeastern Arizona. Our natural springs, water in the desert, are what writer and Ecotheologist Thomas Berry meant by “Earthly Beatitudes.” All that thirsts, bows down in profound gratitude, reverence, and respect.

Our first visit to the spring at the height of the Sonoran Desert summer exceeded our expectations, yielding water flow, nothing short of a miracle. Now, at the end of the monsoon season, we continue our mission to monitor the spring’s over-all health. September’s mid-nineties temperatures have us sweating under our leg gators.

We hear it before we see it: the spring’s resident Cicadas, the only insects capable of producing such distinctive, sometimes deafening buzz. The cicadas’ percussive audio – the sound of summer in the desert – blasts up the mountain and then slips down into the shade of the spring where massive walnut and sycamore trees spread their muscular arms.

Once there, we thrill at the cool air permeated with the fecund scent of rich black mud. We walk carefully, soft and silent on a carpet of moist plant matter: the lush cycling of nutrients in a riparian zone.

After monsoons, growth in the springs is expected to be high, but my eye is virtually hijacked by an explosion of green. Knee high bunches of wild grasses and sedges line the banks of the spring.  At eye level, seep willow saplings compete with young walnut.Wild mint and grape vines spread long fingers through the trees. Like a desert animal, I want to drop right then and there and press the heat of my belly against the cool bottomland.

But Citizen science calls and we carry on, hiking up the vertical drift to the mouth of the spring to measure the length, width, and depth of the pool and then the water quality: the particular matter, and the PH.

Sky Island Alliance Volunteer Steph Stayton measures water depth

“Look how clear the water is,” my partner marvels. In between floating islands of healthy green algae, the water reflects a turquoise sky beaming through holes in the canopy.

I kneel on the bank and observe. There at the mouth of the spring, honey bees cluster at the smallest point of origin. Flame-skimmer Dragonflies jab the surface of the water, up and down, slaking their thirst. A huge White-lined Sphinx moth flutters down to the water to take a drink, then slips between the grasses on the bank, perfectly camouflaged. Across the water, dense spider webs veil the top of the grasses, successfully netting a multitude of winged food sources coming to water.

Flame-skimmer Dragonfly over the water

Next to me on the bank, ringed by stands of bull grass: spiraled turf presses down like a crop circle. It is a mark, a sign that wildlife has been here, no doubt drank at the spring, and then bedded down in the tall grass. I imagine a mother deer or a fawn resting, allowing themselves a moment to close their eyes. Unable to resist, I curl up too, in the center of the spiral and for a moment, close my eyes. Encircled by a steady hum of insects, I feel the deer’s wakeful rest.

A White-lined Sphinx Moth

Shortly after, hiking down the drift to the next pool, we pass bones: a deer jaw, small leg bones, and hooves. A Deer track shines in the black mud like a carved relief and seed balls of scat dot the path. Farther down, I spot the back end of a coyote running silently through the shadows at the base of the trees.

There are no signs of human habitation or visitation. A colorful Mexican blanket we saw on our last visit, woven from natural wool, continues to work into the soil, decomposing organically. The surface has been artfully picked apart by birds and rodents, busy upcycling the fibers. The natural fiber transmutes into primo nesting material, fiber art in the trees, unique decor in the house of the spring.


We pass more color threaded into the biota: wildflowers we’ve not seen before that correspond to the monsoons: purple flowers from the snapdragon family, yellow/orange Trixis Sunflowers covered with butterflies and a single Arizona Wild Cotton plant with one spectacular white blossom.

Trixis Sunflower hosting Butterflies

At the final pool, I lay a pipe in a cleft near a boulder where we had discovered water flow on our first visit. The flow coming through the pipe increased by 60% from our summer visit.

Measuring water flow

As we finish measuring flow, I look up and peering through the trees, see something unfamiliar, vertical shapes I cannot identify from a distance.  Determined to solve the mystery, I bushwhack my way down another level, jump water, climb over jagged stumps, and shimmy under deadfall.

“Oh my God, Steph!” I yell.

“I see Cattails! It’s another pool!”

Cattails in the Spring’s final (hidden) pool

Hidden in plain sight: Cattails up to eight feet tall shoot out of a pool that measures twenty-two-feet in length by eight and a half feet wide. The PH level is close to neutral and the water teems with life. I spot at least three different butterflies at this section alone: Mexican Yellows, Checkerspots, and a single handsome Bordered Patch.

A Bordered Patch Butterfly

“What a surprise!” I exclaim out loud, climbing up the drift again.

“I think this spring is gonna continue to surprise us every time we come,” Steph says, her grin as wide and sunny as the mountainside we scaled to get here.

It’s mid-day now.  We feel the ambient air temperature rising even in the spring’s cool reaches. We decide to sit a spell under the largest Sycamore and gather our strength for the trek out. I lean against the tree massive roots rising above the ground. It’s very hot. I close my eyes, breathe, and open them again.  Directly in front of me are heaps of dirt. Beyond that are large holes: nine to twelve inches wide at the base of the tree roots. Badger holes! I am sitting on an entire Badger sett, a network of tunnels. I would have missed them entirely had I not been quiet and contemplative, in a state of wakeful rest.

Classic (sideways D), clean Badger Holes, part of a Badger Sett.

Beyond the holes, more butterflies circle a large patch of diminutive fluted wildflowers. I can identify the butterflies: a yellow Sulfur and a blue-black Pipevine Swallowtail but the wildflowers they love are some kind of composite, frustratingly impossible to name.

The importance of naming cannot be underestimated. Along with the scientific power of discovery, naming what we see bookmarks famed biologist and author Rachel Carson’s “rush of remembered delight,” and furthers a deeper intimacy, a re-enchantment with the natural world. To name is to see, to know, and to remember. Ultimately though, Carson’s writings help us understand that to nurture a life-long sense of wonder and awe  it is “not half so important to know as to feel.”

A leaf the color of raw umber sways lazily down onto the ground. I realize that signs of summer’s end are browning in the Sycamore’s high canopy where the sun rules. As I stare at the leaf, its autumnal color out of place in the emerald green spring, an Arizona Powdered Skipper lands on it. I blink and the moth-like brown butterfly does a fade into the dried leaf of the same brown hue. Sitting next to me, Steph spots both a mysterious winged arthropod and a hidden cicada exoskeleton clinging to a stem.

Amazing Anthropod

In my peripheral vision, a Cooper’s hawk perches in the lower limbs of a tree, not fifteen feet from me. Slowly, I turn my head and meet his golden eye. The breath catches in my chest. We both freeze and stare.

The Cooper Hawk’s home

Each time I see a hawk I am reminded of the Hawk I saw, we all saw, soaring above the crowd at the Women’s March last winter. 750,000 people in the streets in downtown Los Angeles were spellbound by the sight. Later, reports came in of another hawk soaring above the crowd in downtown Denver. I would not be surprised to hear there were many more sightings of hawks soaring high above the crowds across the nation that day.  According to Indigenous Native peoples, Hawks carry elemental wisdom. They remind us to see the big picture, to rise above identity politics and unite… to keep our eyes on the prize: the earth itself and its most diverse inhabitants in the web of life.

The hawk flies and we get ready to go. First, we pass in and through an “Ecotone,” an important border or transition zone between two biomes; in this case, riparian and grassland. Beginning the climb up and out, we note changes in color – green grass to dry brown – and then in plant species. We see a huge Hackberry bush bursting with edible berries and a Cholla cactus housing two cactus wrens’ nests. As we hike, we flush out at least three different varieties of Sonoran grasshoppers in an astounding array of size and color, invertebrates not found in the spring and a favorite food of cactus wrens.

One of the ecotone’s astounding array of Sonoran Grasshoppers

It is now over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit and we are thankful for afternoon cloud cover. On the mountain, my hiking sticks ‘stick’ in the vine-like wily grass like knotted hair on the scalp. The monsoonal growth, lusting after life in the sun, does not want to let go of us. We follow deer trails when we can find them, and slip and slide on loose rock hidden under the scrub, when we cannot. The climb is arduous and we stop often to chug water. Secretly, we both wish it would rain but we know the monsoon season is at an end. Yet, suddenly, we are blessed once more. Great wet drops cool and refresh as we hike back to the car.

On the trek out, clouds gather before the rains

Written by Valarie lee James

Photos by Stephanie Stayton & Valarie lee James

































Restoring Wildlife Corridors: Caring for Desert Springs

In alliance with the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge’s Stand against the Wall in Southern Texas: here is the Sky Island’s Blog covering the hidden Desert Spring we monitor to keep healthy wildlife corridors. To the people, and the wildlife of the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in Texas, we are with you!
Note to the Reader: the whereabouts of this wilderness spring is not revealed to ensure the survival of its unique ecosystem.
Deep in a mountain range in southeastern Arizona, dry summer grasses flanking the border of Mexico, a ribbon of healthy green bewilders the eye. We are approaching a lush and life-saving spring hidden in a moist ravine.

Our guide, Sami Hammer, Conservation Biologist & GIS Specialist at Sky Island Alliance, leads us up and over a ridge line to the green ribbon below. We traverse the side of the cliff, stumble over craggy rock and slip on dry scrub-grass, then slowly circle down into the ribbon of green. At the bottom, we duck under barbed wire and into National Forest.

As newly recruited volunteers for the Sky Island Alliance’s Adopt-a-Spring program, my partner and I are thrilled. We have signed on to monitor the health of this spring, one of thousands, many still undiscovered, scattered throughout Arizona, one of the driest states in the union.

Once every season for the duration of one year, we will visit the spring. We will measure the width, breadth, and depth of the spring, take water samples and measure flow, observe and document plant and animal species, tracks and scat.

Natural springs provide the biological and species connectivity throughout Southeastern Arizona and Northern Mexico critical for the survival of species in our deserts. The health of a spring’s ecosystem also provides with us crucial information about climate change and how it’s affecting the region.

“Smell the sycamores yet?” asks Sami.

Taking our eyes off our feet, we find ourselves gazing on a raft of trees. We cross a wet meadow carpeted in lime-colored green grass and duck under massive sycamores. We smell the subtle, newly defined scent and feel the ambient temperature dropping markedly from the 100 + degrees in the sun to a cool mid-80’s.

My eyes follow the tree limbs up and into a flushed canopy of rustling leaves. The tree’s immense and ancient limbs curl over and drop-down, like great matriarchal arms, shading, protecting and shielding the waters within.

Outside of lots of natural deadfall, the area is pristine. There are surprisingly few tracks or scat to speak of here, no signs of cattle, no people, only one javelina track and a bit of deer scat.

Walking the length and breadth of the area of the spring on a cushion of leaves, we pass large stands of Deer grass, a desirable native grass common to areas where there is shallow ground water. Sami also points out other wetland grasses and sedges as we pass: Bull grass, a fluffy headed native, and a non-native invasive grass Sami identifies as Red Bromegrass, a well-established threat to the Sonoran Desert.

Along with the sycamore trees, we see cottonwood trees, and large walnut trees, indicators of shallow ground water. An old stand of wild grape vines, as thick as my wrist, forms an arch from one old walnut tree to another, reminding me of the children’s book “The Secret Garden.” The air is fragrant with scent emanating from the walnut trees.

“It feels like a sanctuary, doesn’t it?” Sami says. Overwhelmed, I can only nod.

She identifies song birds: Summer tanagers, towhees, flycatchers and wrens flying in and out of the canopy, calling and singing.

At the top of a vertical drift, we find the first small spring pool, surrounded by seep willow. Sami points out a whitish cast on boulders: residual salts and minerals, the tracks and scats of receding spring water. One of the boulders sports a camouflaged Canyon tree frog, as still and gray as the stone it straddles.

Water in the shallow spring pools is carpeted with honey bees and wasps buzzing like mad, and four different species of butterflies: A Black Swallowtail, a monarch-like queen, a pale yellow Lyside Sulphur, and an anonymous moth-like brown butterfly.

Bright orange Flame Skimmer dragonflies dart over the water in tandem with tiny near-translucent blue Springwater Dancers: dragonflies and damselflies are surely the Fairies of old in this secret garden.

“It’s like a wonderland” I say. My words sound hollow as soon as they spill out of my mouth. I have no words. No words for this Sonoran Eden, an Eden before the fall.

Finding flow

My partner Steph was the first to see it: water flow and only after she took a second look. Impossible to spot at first glance, flow was happening deep inside a narrow crack running through a rock outcropping that separated two small pools.

We are avid hikers in Southeastern Arizona. The few times we discovered water in the desert I returned home feeling wholly graced, supplicant to the miracle of water in the desert. This was no exception. I dropped to my knees.

“This is Great!” Sami exclaimed. I didn’t think I’d get a chance to show you now, in June, how to measure flow.”

The connecting channel was partially obscured with organic material and mud. Kneeling also, Sami cupped her hand and gently scooped out earth and leaves and tiny branches. She then laid a piece of PVC pipe into the channel water flowed steadily out the front end of the pipe, like a garden hose.

We filled up a plastic bucket, then filled it again. Steph measured volume and temperature. The water was a temperate 77 degrees, appropriate to water flowing underground in the desert.

“It turned out to be a significant flow.” Steph said, smiling. “Bright highlights dancing on the surface of the water indicated movement of water below.”

The water had a pale sepia cast and smelled slightly of sulfur but was otherwise clear. We wondered if this good rich smell was due to tiny particles of organic debris in the water or a hot spring somewhere along the course.

Seeing the volume of water in the bucket, everything in me wanted it: my tongue, my skin, my eyeballs. I wanted to be immersed. I wanted to drink it in long draughts like the bees and the butterflies and all other creatures that frequented the spring.

Of course, I knew I dare not unless the water was purified, though if I had to, I would.  A single tattered plastic bottle at the edge of one of the pools was evidence that someone else had also thirsted at this spring long ago. A hand-woven Mexican blanket nearby, now tamped down in soil and covered in decayed plant matter, had become part of the earthen fiber of this place.

I wondered: Had they sheltered there at the spring? Had he seen deer or coatimundi in the still of the night? Could she have witnessed Ocelots or even Jaguar at the water? Could any creature, two-legged or four-legged, winged or scaled, part from the call of water?

On Your Knees: Art, Technology and Divinity

As seen in the Huffington Post:

07/31/2017 10:17 pm ET


After all these years living near the Arizona-Mexico border, encountering the other lost and blistered, hobbling across our ranches… after countless heart-wrenching moments with men, women, and children whose bitter desert crossings would humble even the most conservative citizens, my colleague Antonia Gallegos and I emerged from DirectorAlejandro G. Iñárritu’s VR experience at the L.A. County Museum of Art, our faces wet with tears.

     Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena: Flesh and Sand, a virtual reality tour de force, “drops a depth-charge into the souls of all who experience it,” writes Reverend Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, part of our visiting group who also left the exhibit in tears. Rev. Burklo wonders now how religious and other faith leaders can incorporate similar empathy-inducing technology. Iñárritu’s Virtual Reality experience brings you to your knees then leaves you wanting more. In the filmmaker artist’s hands, the migrant experience is no longer an abstraction. It now lives in the body, in your body.

      As contributors of many of the Carne y Arena’s artifacts from the Arizona desert, we were invited to experience it for ourselves. Iñárritu’s VR experience, kept under wraps, is still largely a mystery, rare in this transparent age. The mystery was better understood after we realized, like eyewitnesses to an accident, each viewer-participant experiences a different Carne y Arena.

     My own experience began as soon as I opened the door to an ice-cold waiting area outfitted with prison-issue steel benches bolted to the floor.

     Once there, I do not sit down. The room is littered with a hazard of old shoes and bottles, tied together in clumps. Some of the gallon water bottles are covered with burlap, wrapped around the circumference. Denim pant sections or strips of cotton shirts cover others.

     Random shoes are kicked askew, some singles, some in pairs, damaged and new. There are boots, running shoes, and sandals made from tire rubber. I recognize one shoe: a child’s sneaker, one of many I had found in the desert, this one molded into a crescent shape by the sun, dried out like vegetable skin, the rubber ossified.

     Still standing, I bend down and reach under the bench to turn the shoe over. The dead can sometimes be identified by distinctive patterns on the sole. Suddenly, a voice from who knows where booms:

      “D o n’ t t o u c h t h e s h o e s.”

      I damn near jump out of my skin. O.K., I get it. I am not alone. I am being watched, every movement monitored. I shake my head, a reflex no doubt also recorded. I am already creeped out and the VR hasn’t even started yet. I pace the length of the room and pace some more.

      I’ve been told to put my stuff in a locker. I see a sally port, a Detention Center special, in the wall at eye level. The silver-gray sally port looks like a refrigerated locker in the morgue. I place my shoes and hat inside.

      A door alarm sounds and I step through it barefoot, gingerly, onto a field of sand. Immediately, my naked feet have posted to my brain: Alien. This place is alien and I am vulnerable.

      I steal a quick breath and walk into a large space, lit only by hot red tubing demarcating the square shape of the room. I walk towards two shadowy figures in a far corner. They touch my shoulder to steady me, fit a pair of goggles over my glasses, then tighten straps over my head like deep-sea diving gear. They then slip a 7 – 8 lb. pack on my back. How children or elders carry such weight plus heavy gallons of water across a desert is beyond my comprehension.

     The shadowy helpers demonstrate how they will signal me in case I find myself running into a wall or falling. Oh, I might fall or run into a wall? I am now officially destabilized. I tell myself It’s going to be O.K. I’ll make it through. This is virtual reality, right? It’s not real.

     I see helicopters on the horizon, fump, fump, vibrating through my chest. At first, the helicopters sound far away and then near, too near. Beams of light cut through the night. Figures emerge: men, women, children, screaming and crying. Suddenly Border Patrol vehicles appear, trapping us in their high beams.

     Faceless men in uniform jump from the vehicles with weapons drawn, and pin us to the ground like bugs. They are screaming a chaos of Spanglish, so loud I cannot understand what anyone is saying. One officer holds back a huge dog that won’t stop barking and I am choked with fear.

     “Down, get down!” a male voice thunders in my ear.

     We drop to our knees. I find myself praying, please don’t kill me, please don’t kill me. I start to cry even as the other part of my brain knows that this cannot be real.

     I see one woman injured badly and another trying to help her up. A child nearby, maybe four years old, holds his hands up in the air and an officer, points a weapon in his face. Oh, God, please, please don’t let the gun go off, I plead silently. Two more officers yell at another man on his knees.

     “Are you the smuggler? Are you? Are you the smuggler?”

     Suddenly, in the middle of one nightmare, another emerges. A new tableau: figures around a table. The table starts to shape-change, and something moves there, twisting, writhing, and I struggle to understand what I am seeing but my attention is ripped away. The officers have just discovered other people hiding behind the cacti.

     “Vamonos, Vamonos!

     Behind me, the two women, one holding the other up, limp to the squad cars, stumbling and falling half-way. They manage to get to their feet, then pass right through me like ghosts. God. A long shiver creeps up my spine.

     Suddenly the scene changes, night becomes day and I see articles of clothing snagged amongst the cacti, a forlorn aftermath of capture: The sky melts into morning orange. Across the clouds, a flock of birds flies in a silent elegant formation. I stand still, shocked by the beauty.

     A tug on the back of my backpack and it’s over: I feel undone, like a book that has been slammed shut in the middle of the story. Helpers pull off my gear and point me to the way out.

     Rattled, teeth to bone, I enter a long dark hallway. Tucked into individual niches in a black wall are Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s video portraits of the people whose experiences informed Carne y Arena. The viewer-participant has the choice to lean in, eye to eye, each face just inches away.

     As you fall into each person’s skin, personal stories slowly unfold in chunks of text on the screen. Like the contemplative Christian practice of Lectio Divina, you read slowly. The word becomes flesh and you listen with the ear of your heart.

     This contemplative part of the experience proves to be as compelling and intimate as the VR, and a necessary balance to its kinetic intensity. But even here, Iñárritu does not let the viewer entirely off the hook. Loud metallic groans blast periodically from the old rusted steel border wall behind us. Reality meets virtual reality.

     The Arts have the power to guide us into a liminal state where boundaries – blessedly – dissolve and merge. The embodied imagination, the ‘sensorium’ within, lifts us into a mystical oneness. Drama, music, movement, the visual arts  all gifts of grace  are in accord with the divine.

     According to Wikipedia, the root of the word Technology is techne, “art, skill, cunning of hand.” The technology of Art, in whatever form it takes, holds utility and applications limited only by our vision.

     Political leanings aside, we can agree that the technology of Art, now more than ever, engages the imagination, fosters empathy, and restores well-being in our communities. And where there is shared vision, there is hope.

     Places of worship can revitalize their congregations and champion genius art-making by simply opening their doors to artists. Contemplative space and support go a long way to encourage art and community, empathy and faith.

     At day’s end, another member of our group emerges from the experience, eyes wide and shiny.

     “I just wanted to help those women that were hurt and I couldn’t. I couldn’t help them,” she said.

     I’d bet my easel and my paints, she is inspired now to find a way to help them.


Desert Wisdom’s Great Reads

  7 Desert Wisdom’s Great Reads

For contemplatives living the connection between sacred desert places and the soul within, I offer a partial list of books on my shelf. Each is a great comfort and an invaluable resource for “homing” Art and Faith in the Desert. Every time I open one of these books, I find exact passages or quotes I am looking for: natural gleanings, like minerals in alluvial plains, placer gold in the black-sand bottoms of arroyos.

In the pages, I meet my intrepid peers: writers walking the margins, kindred spirits searching, seeking, questing… and I no longer feel alone. I settle into an easy chair and take my place in a chorus of voices speaking for the heart of the desert…

Note: Unless otherwise stated, all nonfiction selections include market descriptions. You can find many of these titles in used book stores, thrift stores, & garage sales. One of my favorite haunts is the all-volunteer “Friends of the Library” shops. If you can not find one in your community, start one!

Part 1 of the Series

1. A Beautiful, Cruel Country by Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce.

“Cruce’s book, rich with imagery and dialogue, brings Arivaca area to life in the early 1900’s. Her story of homesteading Arizona Territory, America’s last frontier, by Anglo and Mexican settlers alike, with Indian populations on the periphery, is built around the annual cycle of ranch life – its spring and fall roundups, planting and harvesting – and features a cavalcade of border characters, anecdotes about folk medicine, and recollections of events that were most meaningful in a young girl’s life.”

2. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes by Belden C. Lane

“In the tradition of Kathleen Norris, Terry Tempest Williams, and Thomas Merton, Belden Lane explores the impulse that has drawn seekers into the wilderness for centuries and offers eloquent testimony to the healing power of mountain silence and desert indifference….

Drawing upon the Wisdom of St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhardt, Simone Weil, Edward Abby, and many other Christian and non-Christian writers, Lane also demonstrates how those of us cut off from the wilderness might “make some desert in our lives.”

3. The Voice of the Desert; A Naturalist’s Interpretation by Joseph Wood Krutch

“This book explores the rich, intriguing, unexpected variety of life in the desert of America’s southwest. It is both for the lovers of natural history and for those who enjoy the ruminations of a wise mind. ‘A sound naturalist in the philosophical rather than the merely botanical and biological sense,’ Krutch’s adventure with the natural wonders of the desert is a joyful, wise and witty credo by a man who knows that the proper study of mankind extends to all of Nature.

4. Rain of Gold by Victor Villasenor

“Rain of Gold is a true-life saga of love, family, and destiny that pulses with bold vitality, sweeping from the war-ravaged Mexican mountains of Pancho Villa s revolution to the days of Prohibition in California.
An all-American story of struggle and success, Rain of Gold focuses on three generations of Villasenor s kin, their spiritual and cultural roots back in Mexico, their immigration to California and overcoming poverty, prejudice, and economic exploitation. It is the warm-hearted and spirited account of the wily, wary and persevering forebears of Victor Villasenor.”

4. The Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas Merton

 The Wisdom of the Desert was one of Thomas Merton’s favorites among his own books―surely because he had hoped to spend his last years as a hermit.

The personal tones of the translations, the blend of reverence and humor so characteristic of him, show how deeply Merton identified with the legendary authors of these sayings and parables, the fourth-century Christian Fathers who sought solitude and contemplation in the deserts of the Near East.

The hermits of Screte who turned their backs on a corrupt society remarkably like our own had much in common with the Zen masters of China and Japan, and Father Merton made his selection from them with an eye to the kind of impact produced by the Zen Mondo.

5. Desert Cantos, by Photographer Richard Misrach, (a favorite submitted by Tucson Photographer Stephanie Stayton.)

“…His desert pictures as part of a single great work, divided by smaller themes and stylistic treatments. When collected together, they become a monumental study constructed by wide-ranging explorations of many aspects of a complex subject with a long history and ultimately a rumination on self and identity. The American West is the landscape that defined the American psyche as we know it. Through his work, we come to understand that both may be stranger than we think.”

7. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams

“In the early 80’s, The Great Salt Lake began to rise to record heights, threatening the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and the herons, owls, and snowy egrets that Williams, a poet, and naturalist, had come to gauge her life by. One event was nature at its most random, the other a by-product of rogue technology: Terry’s mother, and Terry herself had been exposed to the fallout of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s. As it interweaves these narratives of dying & accommodation, Refuge transforms tragedy into a document of renewal and spiritual grace, resulting in a work that has become a classic.”

Curated by Valarie lee James


* Add your own favorite Great Reads about the desert to the comments Section to be included on the next list in Desert Wisdom’s Great Reads. Stay tuned!







Wildflowers of Art Jump the Border Wall

Most U.S. citizens will never venture south to spend time with these images so let me take you along as I scout the margins of culture, my eye in my camera. Unless we get to know our neighbor’s cultural landscape, we are foreigners; “us and them,” unforgivable on this benevolent planet filled with Art and wildflowers.

Grafitti #4. IMG_2376
‘Someone Waiting for You and Thinking about You”

Wildflowers along the border thrive in the poorest of soils. Tenuous but tough, they prove to be some of the most resilient species on the planet.

Like wildflowers, street art flourishes in the bleakest of conditions. Art by the people and for the people: Graffiti, one-off posters, pop-up installations… wild, spontaneous, renegade art mirroring culture’s political truths and spiritual yearnings.

Our instinct as human beings, our unstoppable drive to “make marks” leads one to wonder if indigenous rock art, petroglyphs, and pictographs, were, in fact, the visual wildflowers of the Ancients.

Symbols stenciled on rock faces and laid out in line, shape, and form on the earth itself, gave human beings a pictorial language, a way to communicate pre-dating the written word.

Long before and after our small band of border artists in Amado and Arivaca, AZ., laid down our tools, other artists from the Americas, alone and in groups, have gathered at the Arizona – Mexico wall. Magnetized by a collective ache in the soul, wielding brushes and spray cans like a warrior army of creativity, artists manage to surmount the border wall time and again.

I believe artists of the future will be less lauded for singular genius and more noted for collaborating with other artists (and non-artists) in collective work that fosters community.

If there is any upside at all to our current Administration’s political climate, it is that more people recognize how essential the role of Art is in uplifting hearts and minds.  Artists carry a necessary role in inspiring, educating and healing the planet.

Outsider Art (who is the “outsider” here really?), like all natural phenomenon relegated to the margins, will always find its way to the center. Marginalized Imagery, walled away unseen and unimagined, eventually seizes the Commons with a new irrefutable language of the eye.

Unsigned and sometimes unschooled, created with no obvious economic incentive, and often scrawled furtively in the dark of night, Art on the margins carries a prescient message to the dominant culture. Fresh ‘Outsider’ – there’s that word again –  perspective roots and spreads like weeds, takes over and becomes the norm.

Here and now in the Sonoran Desert in early summer, the wild white Southwestern Prickly Poppy takes over. I think of it as the flower of June.


All along the highways of Southeastern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, and coming up through the cracks in the sidewalks, stands of Southwestern Prickly Poppy rise as high as four feet tall. Known locally as “Cowboy’s Fried Egg,” (Cardo or Chicalote in Spanish), the flower is as showy as it is prickly.

I think of another prominent summer flower, the Sacred Datura, as the flower of the monsoon season. As surely as the upward thrust of Sacred Datura and other desert wildflowers after the rains, Art of the people rises in response to the U.S.’s current anti-immigrant, anti-human regime especially here on the streets of border communities in Mexico.

I first saw the permanent ten-foot ft. high painting of 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, gunned down by U.S. Border Patrol, this Spring at Jose Antonio’s annual vigil in Nogales, Sonora, MX.

Jose long shot.IMG_20170410_191120246_edited-1

The frontal portrait, boldly executed in afterlife blue, mounted on steel and footed with rebar, was painted by a Tucson artist and donated to the family unsigned. Jose’s prominent and compelling face preserves history and guarantees that Jose Antonio will not soon be forgotten.

And in May, at the Mothers across Borders Unity Celebration held at the primary school nearby, we faced the border wall in front of us. Art executed by and for the people covered the wall’s concrete abutment. Eye level, it was all we could see.

The slatted 18 ft. high border wall loomed above us, jutting up from a concrete reinforced bank, itself 20 ft. high in some places. An alien thing, the metallic snake of a wall undulates up and over the hills of Nogales, disappearing over the horizon.



On the wall of a storefront between the primary school and the spot Jose Antonio was killed, you can still stick your finger in the holes in the plaster left by the bullets that cut that boy down.

A ghosted Banksy-like stencil of Jose Antonio is flanked by posters glued with a patina of decomposition. At the vigil, the wall provided support for posters of other victims of U.S. Border Patrol.

Jose stencil on wall. IMG_20170410_193202536_edited-1

Walking along the wall, I see another equally large painting affixed to the base of the wall. Imfoculla Inocencia en la frontera, depicts a young boy carrying a backpack astride a burro, looking over his shoulder, his eyes wide with fear. The shadowy figure of death waits implacably in front of him. The painting is signed by the artist Ruben Daniels and dated Dec. 2014.

Boy on Burro paintingIMG_20170410_191233178

Down the line, the concrete abutment to the wall is tattooed with graffiti. Universal symbols – A white dove, hearts, tears, bullets – share the concrete along with the powerful text: No Mas Muertos and Chinga la Migra plus the artist’s own street tags e.g. “We are as Free as the Paper.”

Grafitti #2 IMG_2373_

Grafitti #1IMG_2371

Grafitti#3 IMG_2374

Wooden crosses, in every color, span the length of the wall and lean against its metal base. I wonder if they are the same crosses (once white, maybe now repainted) I saw there in the early 2000’s or if they are wholly new. Probably, new. So many more have died since then. There will never be enough crosses to mark the dead.

Crosses leaning on Wall.IMG_2367

White palm prints climb the rusted metal slats leading to the words: Migrando Al La Libertad Sondeh – Migrating to Liberty. And: Volemos sin Rumba Sigamos Al Viento – Let’s fly without a Party, Let’s go to the wind. Here the palm prints change shape. Fingers turn to feathers.

Palm prints on Wall.IMG_2363_

Down the wall, images of candles painted in dusky gold flame on every post, inviting one to go through, lit by hope. Each wayfarer can’t help but feel the presence of all the souls who passed this way, though their hopes may have been forever extinguished.

Candle images on wall.IMG_23611_edited-1

Lastly, free-standing painted metal figures appear to be growing in number over time. Paseo de Humanidad, the Parade of Humanity, created by Nogales artists Guadalupe Serrano and the late Alberto Morackis are symbolic human figures combined with Aztec and Mayan codices and painted with contemporary border symbology.

Street Art MX 2017 Paseo de Humanidad #1 IMG_2353_edited-1

Apparently, when it was first installed on the Mexican side of the border the compelling piece became a shrine for families of migrants who placed candles and small offerings at the base of the sculpture.

I invite you, dear reader, to look closely at each figure. Paseo de Humanidad is a 3-D mural in the historical tradition of Mexico’s famous painted murals. Paseo de Humanidad instructs, inspires and in this case, memorializes thousands who have died crossing the border.

Paseo de Huminidad #2 2017 IMG_2354


One set of figures includes a skeletal human bent to the ground. Carried overhead: a mummy wrapped in cloth and tied with rope. A mariachi musician carries a sack of musical instruments, a mother holds a child, even narco saint Jesus Malverde joins the line. One human figure sports a volcano erupting from its chest, another is a human bomb, one is coiled with snakes, and one laborer shoulders giant screws and a washing machine.

Paseo de humanidad #3 IMG_2355

Large corn husks, prickly pear cactus pads, giant chilies and tropical flowers, all symbols of the earth are part of the figures themselves.

The iconic symbols continue through the next set of three figures chased by the dark green figure of a Border Patrol agent wielding a club. One orange humanoid has a retablo-like image: a carved soldier with a table-top cross on his chest. Another figure is covered with hand symbols and the next has eyes in his appendages while his internal organs have migrated to the outside of his torso.

Running over the heads of each figure are graphic iconic-like shapes, multiple Mesoamerican mask motifs, wild birds and a huge fish breathing water like air, along with plants, grasses, and shoes endemic to the migrant path.

Paseo de Humanidad IMG_2359_edited-1

Over the years, Artwork, especially Graffiti fades in the harsh sun but is inevitably retagged and replaced by more. Each season of repression gives rise to another generation of artists. The degraded soil sprouts Spring and Summer wildflowers and year after year, Mothers bear children… children who pick wildflowers, make art, and dream of freedom.

Jose portrait shrine. IMG_20170410_190645014_edited-1

*Note to the reader: Please extend a necessary grace to this post with regards to translations. The visual language of the people’s Art just south of the border wall has much to teach us. As a writer, I celebrate words, but as an artist, I hope my words don’t get in the way. *Also, I would like to see the Graffiti artists in this post be credited. Message me…