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Finding solace in the winter of a warming planet

It’s winter in the desert. Cool days, cooler nights. I wouldn’t go so far as to say “cold nights” for there would be contention with those who do in fact endure nights in which being out of doors would be unpleasant, even difficult to endure.

While we might enjoy a dusting of snow, even a few inches each year, this year is coming up mostly dry, warmer it seems than the prior two. I have not yet seen ice crystals formed from latent dew, nor have the mesquite trees lost all of their leaves.

I am deeply concerned. This doesn’t feel right. It should be colder, and with global warming and associated climate change, I wonder if we will ever again have a proper winter, here or anywhere. I feel suffocated by the notion of a world without snow. My childhood memories recall massive snow piles formed by the snow plows clearing the church parking lot just up the street, built even higher by the blowing wind and associated drifts. Nebraska was a winter wonderland in the 70′ and 80’s, yet even there were stories of much heavier winters with drifts over rooftops, roofs collapsing under the burden of such a load.

One cold, bright morning my father attempted to exit the front door of our home in Columbus, Nebraska. The wood door open to the inside, the screen door its winter glass panes made it fully evident that a drift has completely blocked this north-facing exit. The side door, to the west was the same. As our garage was attached, my brother and I pulled on our many layers of winter gear, grabbed shovels, and climbed through the high kitchen window to the south. We sunk nearly to our chest, through the thin crust and into the light drift. I wonder now if I was at all concerned with falling all the way through, well over my head. Yet I was a kid, and such thoughts were not likely present in my brain filled with the adventure of of a house buried in snow.

We made our way along the west side of the house, around the corner to the drive way that terminated beneath the shallow overhang and garage door. We dug our way to the front door, clearing shovel after shovel until the porch was revealed. Our father greeted us from the inside, smiling for our endeavor.

I don’t recall the details, but he surely joined us in clearing the drive such that he might be able to get to work that or the next day, by foot or by car. But in that neighborhood, as with so many, the social duty of clearing snow, raking leaves, mowing the yard was more important than the need to get out of the house. Then, as now, I prefer to be snow’d in for a few days, a week or more.

In the southestern corner of Arizona, in the San Pedro River corridor and our community of Cascabel, it would take a total shift in the global climate to result in such an event (which would be welcomed by some, and completely rejected by others). We embrace the winter rain as the reason to tend a fire all day, set a kettle on the wood burning stove, and remain in doors. The clouds roll as turbulent waves overhead, this mesquite forest at the bottom of a shallow sky sea. The steel panel roof alerts me and Colleen to the rain even before we take notice of the wet patio and smell of the desert drinking it all in. That sound, the sound of rain drops that have fallen several miles only to crash into a metal surface, roll down to the gutter, and into the planters and water catchment systems–that sound is as comforting a lover’s voice at the break of dawn, as engaging as an orchestra in its first movement, as breathtaking as the opening score of a favorite film.

Once again, I am counting raindrops in Cascabel, cherishing the waves of precipitation throughout the night, and secretly hoping it will snow.

By |2022-01-23T14:54:07-04:00January 22nd, 2022|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on Finding solace in the winter of a warming planet

When the muse cannot find the keyboard

So many stories, so many things I want to say trapped in an internal monologue. Sometimes the words make it to my mouth, sometimes to my tongue only to be whispered in an inaudible tone. But my fingers, they are so simply too far away from my brain. By the time the words reach those distant implements, those tools of communication the words fall silent and lose their form, only an echo of what were moments before clear in my head.

By |2022-01-23T15:27:09-04:00November 21st, 2021|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on When the muse cannot find the keyboard

When the sky opens and the water comes down

How does one describe rain falling upon the desert? Sometimes drop by drop as counted upon the sheet metal that lines the rooftop. Sometimes as an afternoon shower that reduces the heat for just a few hours. Often the storms are seen in the distance, on the far side of a ridge or across a wide valley. The waterfall beneath a distant cloud is painted as dark brush strokes across a backlit, fire lit sky orange and gray. And sometimes, just a few times each year the rain is described not by how it falls but by how it fills the mountain stream beds. Otherwise dry tributaries give rise to cascades over mineral stained lips and parched hanging gardens into fields of polished boulders, crafted over millions of years.

The first water is quickly absorbed by decaying litter and underlying sand. But as the hidden boundaries between ancient geological features are saturated, the water rises up, filling the space between grains of sand then cobbles, submerged tree trunks, and river banks. This is when the water falling down transforms into a race across the land; when we no longer count the rain drops but instead take heed of the shaking earth, at first from thunder and then the tumbling of stones and uprooted trees whose trunks are too large for human arms to embrace.

It is in these desert interactions that earth-bound creatures touch the sky, when heaven, as if needing to relieve itself of a heavy burden tears does open wide. We look not for angels nor the shadow of a bearded man, rather we applaud the branches of blinding lightning and celebrate the ability of a storm to cut to the core of our animal being.

In Cascabel the rain is a reason for celebration. The many varieties of succulents fill to nearly bursting their green skin. Garden vegetables and fruit trees no longer hesitate to yield. Seeds dormant just below the surface break through the crust, rising from seedling to six feet tall in less than two weeks, each day noting increase in height and stem diameter. Neighbors phone friends and send email messages with timing and directional movement of the storm. “Here it comes!”, “Get ready!”, and “We got over an inch already!” followed by “Made it to town” or “The road is out!”

The rain is welcomed even when it makes travel difficult for it reminds us of our incredibly small importance in a much larger world. When all that we have built, when all we have carefully organized and maintained can be undone in a matter of hours or in a single flash flood, the storm reminds us to respect and embrace the ambiguity of a world in which we are not in control, and to celebrate that which we are given, even if just a few times each year.

By |2022-01-23T15:36:20-04:00August 3rd, 2021|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on When the sky opens and the water comes down

A summer harvest

A spring harvest

The Cascabel Community Garden never ceases to amaze me with its prolific production of fresh produce, even as the summer temperatures set new high records. Our local community members apply their experience, skills, and labor year-round, with roughly three growing seasons and associated harvests. Today, following my morning run, I stopped by the garden to select onions, garlic, tomatoes, and the last pickings of leafy greens. The tallest of the tomatoes were started in my house in January, way ahead of the official season. When I moved to the Biosphere 2 to work on SAM the weekly watering was not ample to keep them from wilting on my window sill. Transported to the community garden greenhouse, they were well cared for and now stand over six feet tall, with juicy, sweet tomatoes on every vine.

If I could never again eat a store-bought tomato, I’d be a very satisfied person.

By |2021-07-21T17:07:37-04:00July 12th, 2021|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on A summer harvest

Snowfall in Cascabel, a photo essay

Woodpeckers in snow, by Kai Staats

There is something magical about snow in the desert. It’s unexpected, often rare. Last night we went to sleep to the sound of rain on the steel roof. Sometimes soft, like sleet. Sometimes hard as the water hardened to hail. This morning the sound was clearly unique, that of a dusting across the windows and corrugated metal sheets, the sound that only snow can make.

We set out by foot, to the end of my land, down into the San Pedro basin, and up the far west side. The goal was to overlook the entire valley from that higher vantage point, but the snow didn’t let up and the visibility remained low. We walked back down into the San Pedro, past the three ranches on the far side, and then south up Page Canyon. Three miles in the flakes grew larger, wet, and sticky. Every few minutes we were shaking off the build-up on our hats, gloves, jackets and eyebrows.

I’ll never outgrow the desire to romp in the snow as puppies do in their first winter. The smell, the sound, the crisp taste of the air. And today, that rare desert phenomenon came to Cascabel. Thank you Colleen for sharing the magic with me.

Woodpeckers in snow, by Kai Staats Snow in the San Pedro, by Kai Staats

Snow in the San Pedro, by Kai Staats Snow in the San Pedro, by Kai Staats

Saguaro in Snow, by Kai Staats The Abominable Snowwoman Colleen by Kai Staats

By |2021-02-02T12:35:35-04:00January 26th, 2021|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on Snowfall in Cascabel, a photo essay

Nothing quite like a wood burning stove

Wood burning stove

David Omick installing a wood burning stove, photo by Kai Staats A year ago today my neighbor and good friend David and I completed installation of a wood burning stove in my Arizona wilderness home. My electric bill dropped by more than 50% overnight, and my deep satisfaction with a fully renewable energy source remains unquantified by percentage or monetary value.

With 17 acres of mesquite forest, a maul, and a weekly workout, the main floor of my house is heated with the radiant heat of a single stove. As expressed in The axe and the fire, the manual preparation of wood for heating a home is gratifying in ways difficult to describe. Yes, it’s hard work. Yes, it takes time. And it is intentional, meditative, and a good workout that makes one truly appreciate warmth felt.

David Omick installing a wood burning stove, photo by Kai Staats David Omick installing a wood burning stove, photo by Kai Staats

By |2021-07-26T19:58:35-04:00January 18th, 2021|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on Nothing quite like a wood burning stove

Working with wood

Living on the road for eight years granted me a global perspective. I saw what was once my home from an outside point of view. I found comfort in moving from place to place and solace at each point of entry.

My outlet for creativity was almost entirely digital. On my laptop I could edit photos, produce a film, and write essays, letters, and post blog entries. But no matter how I shape, carve, cut or polish in the realm of electrons, the smell of sawdust and stain cannot emanate from ray traced wood grain. I craved expression in three dimensions, with excess glue beneath my fingernails and cuts to my skin to remind me of challenge of forming something beautiful.

I thought I sought a house to enable me to open old boxes with so many forgotten stories, a place to do laundry without coins and to prepare food without an order. But truly, it is working with wood that gives me a sense of purpose, pleasure, and home.

By |2021-08-13T14:38:10-04:00December 12th, 2020|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on Working with wood

Apples and Cheese

Mostly, I place the slide of cheese on top of the apple slice.

The soft cheese presses against the roof of my mouth while my tongue enjoys the cool, sweet flavor below.

Sometimes, I flip it over and the savory flavor is met first, the sweet crunch a moment later.

Just one slice of cheese and one slice of apple, but a completely different experience.

Then there is peanut butter, hummus, and melted baker’s chocolate, but that is another post for another time.

By |2020-10-31T17:24:55-04:00October 31st, 2020|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on Apples and Cheese

Walking in the ripples of the rain, a photo essay

San Pedro running, Galiuros standing, by Kai Staats

In the desert, the rain seldom arrives in a subtle manner, quietly or over the course of hours. Rather, it obliterates the sun within minutes, a bold, dark mass that hides something sinister. At the leading edge of the billowing clouds is a swirling mass of cool, moisture ladened air. A simultaneous sense of excitement and dread is carried by a deceptive, playful greeting. Soon, that same wind is breaking branches and tossing loose sheets of metal into neighboring pastures. Bold strokes of light rise from points unseen, echoed by melodramatic rumbles that awake toads for a twelve hours mating ritual.

Just before sunset, blue skies chase black past the horizon and the rivers run as though they were never without water, only a memory of dry sand a few hours earlier.

Walking in muddy waters, by Kai Staats Hand in hand with the San Pedro, by Kai Staats

The mighty, muddy San Pedro at Cascabel, by Kai Staats Ripples of the San Pedro, by Kai Staats

Deer at the confluence of the San Pedro and Paige rivers, by Kai Staats Paige, San Pedro confluence, by Kai Staats

By |2020-07-28T02:07:14-04:00July 28th, 2020|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on Walking in the ripples of the rain, a photo essay

Ash Creek, a photo essay

Ash Creek, Galiuro Wilderness, by Kai Staats

There are places yet remaining that feel to the visitor untouched by time. We call this wilderness, and we protect it from recreational vehicle, developers, and politicians whose pockets are too easily filled with bills too large. These areas must remain wild, free of human impact other than photograph and footprint if we are to maintain some semblance of balance in the world at large. Something must offset the impact of cities and urban sprawl. Some places must give us reason to pause, to remember what it was like to be just another humble animal on a planet we did not always dominate. On trails too narrow for vehicles, on paths too jagged for wheels, that is where we recall who we really are, the human animal.

Ash Creek, Galiuro Wilderness, by Kai Staats Ash Creek, Galiuro Wilderness, by Kai Staats

Ash Creek, Galiuro Wilderness, by Kai Staats Ash Creek, Galiuro Wilderness, by Kai Staats

Ash Creek, Galiuro Wilderness, by Kai Staats Ash Creek, Galiuro Wilderness, by Kai Staats

Ash Creek, Galiuro Wilderness, by Kai Staats Ash Creek, Galiuro Wilderness, by Kai Staats

Ash Creek, Galiuro Wilderness, by Kai Staats Kai Staats and Colleen Cooley

By |2020-04-28T03:27:08-04:00April 18th, 2020|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on Ash Creek, a photo essay