The Birds and the Bees

IMG_7209My dear friend and author Katie Towler recently visited the ranch from New Hampshire. Her part of the world was getting hammered by a late winter snowstorm. As a birder, she was grateful for the warm weather and bird songs. One morning after breakfast, we drove up into the Chiricahua Mountains about an hour west of here, looking for birds to add to Katie’s life list.

I didn’t know a sparrow from a Cactus Wren. I also didn’t know what to expect when we pulled into Bob Rodriquez’ driveway just down the hill from Portal, Arizona at the mouth of Cave Creek. Katie mentioned she’d found Bob’s bird sanctuary on Bob is one of a handful of folks who welcomes birders into his yard as a public service in exchange for a small donation for birdseed. His place offered parking and a narrow walking path that opened up into a clearing where feeders hung from trees and a rock fountain provided water. The only birds I recognized were the Gambel’s Quail in the sea of small, squawking feathered creatures that fluttered about in trees and on feeders. Someone had skewered oranges on tree branches. Katie explained that orioles like them. I was just along for the ride and had managed to forget my binoculars in the truck. We sat quietly for several minutes. The birds had a calming effect that drew me closer to the present until all my obligations, worries, and the list of chores waiting for me at home dissolved. We heard distinct chatter coming from the brush and turned slowly to follow the noise. To our delight, a Hooded Oriole perched on a branch above an orange. “That’s it,” Katie whispered.

It was a gorgeous day. There was a light breeze and the temperature was in the seventies under the trees. Katie slowly passed me her binoculars and pulled out her camera. To my surprise, the bird, clear as the blue sky behind it, came into focus. I caught my breath. “It’s beautiful,” I said.

I had never noticed the small birds that chortle and sing as the sun rises in the pine trees outside our bedroom window. Since Katie left, I carry a pair of binoculars with me when I work in the orchard, walk the dogs, or tend to the garden. I’ve started my life list using The Sibley Field Guide of Western North America and a small notebook. I like the physical feel of a book in my hands and the weight of a pen between my fingers. I like being outside with a purpose other than work. I like surprises. These intriguing birds force me to slow down and take stock of my environment and my place in it. I ponder the symbiotic relationship. The birds go about eating insects and spreading pollen while the ranch provides shelter, food, and water.

IMG_7187Last night, before sunset, I spotted a Vermillion Flycatcher rested on the garden fence. This morning a pair of Western Kingbirds called from an apricot tree. Each day I talk to the Great Horned Owl who has not left the nest in over a month while she incubates her eggs. Her partner is more elusive, but he visits at night and in the early morning bringing her food and conversation. Katie and I listened to the hoot-hoot of the owls one night while we lay awake in our respective beds. The sound settled deep inside me, lulling me to sleep.

Katie’s article in Literary Hub, “Why do Writers Love Birding so Much?” delves into the intellectual, joyful, and spiritual world of birding. The act of seeking out birds allows some writers an escape from the creative self that tends to needle at us. It is a must-read for anyone willing to step into their yard with a pair of binoculars.

Thank you, Katie, for opening the door to this new adventure. Gifts don’t always come in packages. Sometimes they are simply shared through friendship.

Portal–Bob Rodrigues yard (Dave Jasper’s old yard), Cochise, Arizona, US
Apr 2, 2017 1:30 PM – 2:15 PM
Protocol: Stationary
11 species

Gambel’s Quail  8
Broad-tailed Hummingbird  1
Curve-billed Thrasher  1
Black-throated Sparrow  2
White-crowned Sparrow  25
Canyon Towhee  1
Northern Cardinal  2
Pyrrhuloxia  1
Hooded Oriole  1
House Finch  10
Pine Siskin  8

*Photos courtesy of Katie Towler

Stormy Weather

barn owlIt is not late snow or heavy rains that send us indoors dreaming of better weather to sooth our aching souls after months of cold and darkness. Here, in Animas, it is the wind. March comes, and we pray this spring will be different. It never is.
I have sacrificed scarves, hats, dog dishes, even food (Cheetos mostly) to the wind gods, and still they laugh, sending stronger gusts our way. A stretch of I-10 is often closed this time of year because of dust storms. The birds and rabbits hunker down for days. We pray the roof will hold. It’s that kind of wind.
I was out of town last weekend when Ron called to say he’d found the barn owl that lives in our pine trees, injured on the floor of the garage. Ron surmised because of remarkably strong winds, the bird was caught off guard and may have slammed into a tree. Soon a photo came, via text, of this once majestic bird laying with its wing at a peculiar angel on our doggie bed.
Ron and I both made calls and by ten that morning, we’d found someone who could help. While I went about my business in town, Ron wrestled with a logistical nightmare to get the owl to a wildlife rehabilitation hospital.
The recent weather reports coming from New Hampshire and Louisiana sound like something out of a postapocalyptic thriller. Before cable television, weather events like we’re seeing now were big news. Families huddled around the TV in the living room, where they watched stories that rocked the nation on the CBS, ABC, or NBC evening news. Parents shook their heads at climate anomalies. “It wasn’t like this when we were growing up.” People talked about the aftermath of such storms in a collective frenzy at offices, schools, and factories. There was a sense of community in the shared experiences we gleaned from the news. The nation would have grieved for the people who lost their lives in Louisiana; the family who lost their house when a tree toppled in New Hampshire. “Terrible,” we would have said while waiting to use the copy machine. “Just terrible.” “Let us bow our heads in prayer,” our spiritual leaders would have asked of us.
It isn’t like that now. There are too many bells and whistles vying for our attention. We are all kids in a global candy store. Our barn owl nearly lost its life in a crazy wind storm. Like us, it was caught off guard by changes in the weather; by the changing times.

Border Talk (Part 4)

StockSnap_MUTRARWBJC (1)Last week, 3,600 pounds of marijuana were seized by Border Patrol agents about twenty miles south of the ranch. The bales were stashed in the back of two pickup trucks covered with camouflage tarps. Three people were arrested, and one man got away. This is the report the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) shared with the public in their statement. The rest of the story is the stuff legends are made of.
Once the trucks were discovered, Border Patrol went in search of the smugglers. Soon we learned someone had stolen a prized horse worth thousands and expensive tack to boot. The owner wanted his horse back. Local ranchers and cowboys saddled up and went looking for the drug-smuggling horse thief. My husband and a friend took to the air hoping to spot the outlaw.
Meanwhile, a phone chain rivaling a PTA bake sale was underway to warn local community members. Figuring the smuggler traveled back to Mexico, it took some time to realize he’d ridden north. A quarter mile from our place, he cut fence on his way down the valley headed for I-10. Over the next several hours, many fences were destroyed as he rode just east of the local highway. He bedded down at a neighbor’s ranch for the night, where he fed and watered the horse before continuing on. The following day, a few folks remembered seeing someone riding through open country. Eventually, the smuggler made it to the interstate where he surely caught a ride. The horse was recovered in a pasture several miles south of the highway, most likely making its way home. The stolen tack was found on the roadside.
This story will be told with varying degrees of fact and fiction as it morphs into a local legend. Remember the time that drug smuggler stole a horse and got away?  Over time, the details of the story will fade as legends are designed to make us feel invincible. But today, we are concerned for our neighbors. We understand the repairs to fences will cost ranchers time and money. We recognize the toll on Border Patrol agents who put their lives on the line every day. We contemplate the proposed border wall.
If history is any indicator of the effectiveness of walls, Washington will soon be erecting an eyesore on the landscape as another costly example of government’s lack of foresight. The drug smuggler’s story is fascinating because of the lens in which we currently view the border. A bad guy got away, build the wall! In political debate and even in some social contexts, the wall sounds like a good idea. None of us want criminals sneaking past law enforcement and infiltrating our communities.
The psychological costs are far greater than anything Washington has up its sleeve. Feeling overwhelmed by big issues, we build our own walls; oftentimes relying on the opinions of family, social, political, and religious networks as brick and mortar. Fueled by fear and uncertainty, these barriers can cause us and others harm.
Build the wall. Don’t build the wall. Either way, it won’t stop the drugs and illegal immigrants from coming into this country. The problems are complicated and require mindful solutions to repair the destruction caused by a history of threats and empty promises on both sides of the border.
The street value of 3,600 pounds of marijuana pales in comparison to the cost to this valley, our communities, and beyond no matter how fantastical a story the outlaw left in his wake.


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The 3.3 million acre Gila National Forest north of Silver City on the border of New Mexico and Arizona is a hiker’s paradise. Ron and I flew friends up there for the day to scout for elk. Shadowed by tall pine trees, patches of snow, and cool temperatures, the forest was a welcome change from the desert heat. It was morning; the dew had melted making it easy to recognize tracks and scat.
Ron headed off down a ridge in search of elk while our friends, Nancy and James Brady from Anchorage, and I wandered through the woods armed with binoculars and cameras in hopes of capturing moments of wildlife. James took the lead while Nancy and I chatted quietly; all of us stopping occasionally to locate the source of a bird’s whistle or to ponder animal tracks left in the damp ground.
On our slow, meandering hike, we saw wild turkey and a dozen elk. A curious kit fox climbed high onto a branch of a pine tree to observe us. The trail we’d started out on dissolved as we pushed on. Midday, the sun found its way through the trees and warmed our backs. Being avid hikers, it was unusual to roam freely without a destination or deadline in mind.
To the west, we met with a ridge, where at the bottom, the sandy clearing of a seasonal riverbed was shrouded by trees and brush. We were about to turn around when James noticed a Mexican gray wolf  some thirty yards away. In silence and awe, we watched as the wolf combed the area with its head down picking up the scent of its surroundings. Its thick, long coat blended in with the landscape, making it difficult to spot as it paced the riverbed. Being upwind, the wolf didn’t sense our presence. James slowly raised his binoculars. Later, he would tell us the animal had a reddish collar that Nancy and I were unable to see with the naked eye. Like us, the wolf moved with confidence and ease. Then it was gone. We remained still for several moments, while our primal inner workings aimed to make sense of the experience.
My days are filled with school work. In between grading papers and answering emails, I keep our daily lives on track. And when there is time, I write. It’s the life most of us live—rushing to finish one task to make room for the next. But, for an instant, I lived in the present when, on a perfect day in the wilderness, a wolf crossed my path reminding me I only have now.  airplane
Wolf photo courtesy of

Border Talk (Part 3)

bike I’ve been cycling the borderlands for years. My old route is 120 miles west of here on Highway 90 in Arizona. It’s a north/south bound road that takes folks heading out of towns like Sierra Vista, Huachuca City, and Benson to Interstate 10 and beyond. I used to park at a Shell station on Highway 82 and ride Highway 90 going north. Two miles out of Whetstone is a checkpoint manned by Border Patrol Agents who stop vehicles and ask the driver and passengers if they are US citizens. I rode through the checkpoint hundreds of times and never experienced any problems; however, I often saw people waiting out on the hot asphalt while agents inspected vehicles.
I was never stopped by an agent. I didn’t fit the profile: middle-aged white woman wearing bike shorts, a turquoise windbreaker, and helmet. I could have made millions smuggling cocaine and heroin in my sports bra. The ride is a cyclist’s dream. The ratio of hills to open road is perfect. The Whetstone Mountains and canyon lands are gorgeous. The wide, smooth shoulder make riding a breeze while cars and trucks whiz by at 65 mph.
When we first moved out to the ranch full time, I rode Highway 9 headed east toward Hatchita. Missing my old stomping grounds, I found this new route thwart with problems. The shoulder is too narrow; the terrain too flat, and there is wind—lots of wind. Out on Highway 9 without any traffic to speak of in vast, open country, I felt vulnerable. What if I stumbled across drug runners? Or was bit by a rattlesnake? I worried how long it would take a medevac helicopter to land if I were in an accident, and who would find me?
It didn’t help that Ron asked me to stop riding as the dangers I had conjured up were real. We live three hours east of Tucson and three hours west of El Paso. Even with medevac, a minor injury could turn serious. Drug trafficking is a real threat out here. In 2016 the Border Patrol Southwest Border Sectors  apprehended 11,526 people concealing marijuana. That’s mainly who we see coming through this area. Men with eighty pounds of dope strapped to their backs.
southAfter several months of taking my chances, I parked my bike in the garage and left it there. As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m like a border collie without a job when I don’t get my exercise. Ron and I make up the party around here. There is no place to go when tensions run high, so we needed another plan. For months my husband suggested I get an indoor bike trainer. The idea sounded ridiculous. More time went by, and he presented me with the trainer as a gift. We set it up in the man cave where it faces south, toward the border.
I ride at night after dishes are done, the dogs are fed, and it’s just me with Lyle Lovett or Earth, Wind, and Fire on Pandora. I miss the rhythm and challenges of the open road. My thoughts lately are consumed with the rhetoric surrounding illegal immigration. Drug runners versus honest people looking for work. Our friends and family who have lived in the States illegally for decades versus illegal traffic crossing our property. People asking for food and water versus criminals toting drugs, stealing vehicles, and harming our neighbors. Deportation of lawbreakers versus parents leaving their children behind.
This isn’t our first rodeo. Presidents since the Mexican-American War have dealt with our southern border issues. In 1977 Jimmy Carter gave the Undocumented Aliens Message to Congress. Much of what we are hearing today in regards to illegal immigrants and employment can be found in this speech, but as far as dignity and respect go, Jimmy Carter understood the human spirit when he said, “I have concluded that an adjustment of status is necessary to avoid having a permanent “underclass” of millions of persons who have not been and cannot practicably be deported, and who would continue living here in perpetual fear of immigration authorities, the local police, employers and neighbors. Their entire existence would continue to be predicated on staying outside the reach of government authorities and the law’s protections.”
Border issues impact all of us. Reform requires more than a broad stroke, one-size-fits-all solution. I peddle my bike to nowhere in the man cave because I fear encountering drug runners out on the road while our family and friends, who are here illegally, remain behind locked doors praying no one knocks.

Border Talk (Part 2)

Last week I ran into a friend who brought up the border fence. He seemed thrilled with the prospect. Said it would keep the illegals from coming over here to take advantage of our welfare system. I mentioned I’d been teaching on the border for over twenty years and didn’t know any immigrants, illegal or otherwise, who were on welfare. After that, the conversation died like it often does when two friends make a social agreement to be polite when complicated and opposing viewpoints arise.
I’ve heard this “illegals taking advantage of the system” argument before from other supporters of the fence, but I find it hard to swallow. I began my teaching career at an elementary school in Nogales, Arizona; a border town 200 miles west of the ranch. I taught migrant kids whose parents worked half the year picking fruits and vegetables here in the States and the other half in Mexico. Most of the families lived in tiny RVs or ramshackle single wide mobile homes on the edge of town in trailer parks owned by sketchy landlords. Parents worked long, grueling hours in the fields. Older children took care of younger siblings after school leaving little time for homework and extracurricular activities. The folks I knew would have benefited greatly from social welfare services, but to do so would have meant finding a ride to town and missing work to fill out applications in a foreign language. There was also the constant risk of deportation. At the end of the day, these immigrants didn’t have the resources or energy to scam the system. If they were lucky enough to save a little bit of money, a mother or father would purchase a fake Social Security card so he or she could work an honest job for honest pay.
Some years later I moved to Douglas, Arizona. My first job was as an English as a Second Language Instructor (ESL) at the community college where I still work. Most of my students came from Agua Prieta, a border town across the line in Mexico. Families scraped together what they could to send their children to college. For the students, it was a great privilege to be attending school in the United States. After 9/11, our program dwindled because of new immigration laws. Without proper identification, students could no longer attend classes. Dreams died, and I lost my job because of the decline in enrollment.
The college hired me back the following year as an instructor for a family literacy program where I worked in an old school on Fifth Street. Just five blocks from the port of entry, the fence was visible from my classroom window. My job was to help the women develop their English and job skills so they could find work in the community to help support their families.
I eventually moved to the Sierra Vista campus near the Fort Huachuca Army Installation where I continued to teach ESL for the college—this time to immigrants from all over the world. I supported these students while they built community and friendships around the common goal of creating better lives for their families.
I’m aware there are people who come to this country and take advantage of our system, just like I know there are people who were born and raised here who receive government assistance. Like so many times in my life, I avoided a conversation with a friend because I didn’t have the right words or maybe lacked the confidence to say what was on my mind, but I should have muddled through it. I have friends and family members who came to this country illegally. My nephew’s father is from Mexico. My husband’s father was deported to Mexico as a child during WWII when people were rounded up and sent back to their country of origin. The poet, Maya Angelo, once said her house was open to everyone, but that she would not tolerate anyone at her table who disparaged people because of their race, religion, sex, etc. That seems reasonable to me.


Border Talk (Part 1)

20150211_170328-1The proposed fence that is slated to go up in our backyard and the vitriol surrounding illegal immigration has left me gazing south out my kitchen window wondering what the hell happened to us. The actual border between the United States and Mexico is thirty-five miles south of our ranch. Several miles of paved road will get you only so far before you hit dirt. In dry weather, the ride is at best passable. Forget it when it rains. If you’re willing to risk your vehicle, the road takes you through some of the prettiest country this side of the Rio Grande. Cattle roam in tall grass and the rolling landscape is dotted with mesquite, desert oak, and yucca. Willow trees shade the enormous dirt water tanks and appear to wave at passersby on windy days. Jagged crags and deep arroyos remind visitors this is a rough, wild place. Deer, coyote, skunk, and pronghorn are easy to spot, while rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and bobcat live in anonymity.
Twenty miles out, there is a small fork in the road leading west to a Border Patrol Station that looks more like an old mining outpost than a 21st century government facility. How to actually get to the border, to the barbed wire fence that separates the United States and Mexico at the end of the road, depends on who you talk to. There’s a sprawling ranch out that way. The folks who work on it keep an eye on vehicles like they do their cattle and for good reason. Like us, they live and work in an illegal traffic corridor.
Recently Ron and I packed up the dogs and some chocolate chip cookies I’d just baked and headed south. Using Ron’s binoculars, we followed a group of eleven deer ascending a rocky hillside. Sure footed as mountain goats, they disappeared over a ridge before I could take pictures. We stopped at a water tank where a friend said we’d find ducks. To our disappointment, they’d taken the day off. Ron pointed out a few old homes where ranch hands and their families live. The dogs barked at cows. A typical Sunday drive, until shadows settled on the landscape reminding us the sun was setting.
Out on the dirt road, we came to an arroyo with standing water and agreed it was time to go home. If we got stuck in the mud, it was a long and potentially dangerous walk back to the ranch. With no radio reception out there, the ride was quiet. I thought about the fence and the decisions being made that might very well impact our lives. I felt eyes on us. From the hills, shrouded in darkness, to the oval office, I wondered who would win this ongoing battle. The drug runners who hid from our headlights, or the federal contractors with orders from Washington to build the fence?
Last week we learned Border Patrol Agents had been picking up groups of mules (men and women packing drugs) just east of our place nearly every night while we slept. Even so, I’m torn on the subject. A fence will no more solve illegal immigration issues than the National School Lunch Program cures poverty for children. Of course I would like to see the bad guys stopped from coming across the border, but I can’t imagine sending a mother back to Mexico after she risked her life to be with her children.
At home I fed the dogs. It was clear and cold without a cloud in the sky. Too cold for anyone to spend the night out in the desert. The great horned owls that live up in our pine trees hooted from their respective perches giving voice to ominous thoughts of who might be out there just beyond the porch light. I flipped up the collar of my jacket and walked back to the house. Once inside, I locked the door behind me.