Friday, January 28, 2011

Black widows, Part I

I keep promising to do regular wildlife posts, and something keeps putting them off: sometimes something more important comes up, sometimes, well, sometimes I don't know what happens. But I finally had it all squared away this week. I'm kicking it off with ... big surprise ... black widow spiders. (I know. Again. But I thought a proper post was in order.)

However, yet again, I got sidetracked, this time by a cold. More to the point, by my cold medicine. I've had a cold for half the week, and it's not the end of the world for sure, but I finally decided I would actually like to breathe. This is a problem. Decongestants, antihistamines, expectorants (what? I'm already grossing you out with black widows, right?), and really anything stronger than a children's chewable vitamin (and maybe those too) -- they all have about the average medicinal effect on me. What isn't average at all is their drowsiness effect. Seriously. I just now sat here, with my head cocked to the side like a dog waiting for a treat, racking my brain because I couldn't remember the word "drowsy." Cold medicine especially, including the alleged non-drowsy kind, either knocks me out straightaway or renders my intellect somewhere between Sarah Palin and a sea slug. (Decide for yourself who belongs on which end of that spectrum. It's still not good news for me.)

So if I were to give you a Wildlife Wednesday this week, all you would have gotten would have been something like this:

See? Did you see the error there? I just proofread it, and I know there's at least one error. I spelled "Yea" "Yay!" Clearly I'm not ready for this post.

But! Today is a good day for black widows anyway, because this one won me a camera rental, thanks to Aimee over at Greeblemonkey and all the wonderful, awesome, able-to-see-beyond-spider-prejudice people who voted for me:

You might recognize her from the top, although I flipped her for the header. Embiggen her here.

That gives me an idea. I can totally cheat and call this "Black widows Part 1." I have plenty of images from when I wasn't drugged/incoherent. Enjoy.

The classic:

A brilliantly illuminated juvenile (thought by some to be an adult brown widow but I totally don't think it is, and I've hatched a generation of spiderlings and am watching them through their moltings just to prove myself correct -- more on that next week):

A super closeup, showing her eyes and mouthparts:

And just so you can appreciate how small the eyes are and how big of a freak I am for getting so close, a full-frame head-on shot:

And lastly, our babies:

...and their rather unfortunate favorite meal:

I'll have more to share next week.

What? I look at your baby pictures.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The butterfly effect at Boyce Thompson Arboretum (also the Gila monster/vulture/hummingbird effect)

The butterfly effect: It means one small event or change can have huge influences in other areas down the road. It doesn't usually involve actual butterflies, but one of ours did.

If I hadn't been frantically Googling one night in 2005 for ideas for a college magazine writing class (way past what was supposed to be the idea stage), I never would have stumbled upon that first news release from Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Then I never would have proposed the article, and my professor never would have suggested it as a weekend spread to the Republic.

I'd probably never have gotten hooked on Boyce Thompson Arboretum and all the amazing nature (and fantastic staff) the place has to offer. I probably wouldn't have gotten a season pass for my son and me (always mailed to "David and Kimberly Hosey" as if he were the head of the household -- he's so tickled I never thought to correct them).

I'd certainly never have walked down the gold-carpeted paths that fall, and every fall since. I'd never have begun faithfully attending every Welcome Back Buzzards day in March (as turkey vultures return in force to our neighborhood) and Bye Bye Buzzards day every September (to see them off as they head for Mexico).

I'd have missed meeting my first wild Gila monster, as well as the feisty rock squirrel that torments it. I'd have totally missed seeing my only Jerusalem cricket ever, which has got to be one of my all-time favorite insect sightings. (And you know me. It's a long list.) I'd have missed the chance to provide my son with firsthand knowledge of half the Arizona animals he knows by sight, sign, and sound: tarantula hawk wasps, with blazing orange wings and huge blue-black bodies; the funnel-shaped sand pit traps of antlions; the high-pitched trilling of a male hummingbird as he swoops and displays for a female; the brutal but impressive efficiency of a dove being devoured by a hawk; tarantulas peeking out of burrows; and once, fleetingly, a backlit bobcat.

I'd have missed all the wonderful opportunities to photograph jewel-bright hummingbirds. I still miss most of the shots, but it isn't for lack of opportunity.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend procrastinating one's journalism assignment as a means of discovering a lifelong favorite haunt, but like the proverbial butterfly, it changed my life. Like a certain proverbial mouse and his cookie, once the arboretum gave me a flower, I wanted a butterfly to go with it. Once I had a butterfly, I wanted the side lighting to capture its proboscis just right. Once I'd come at just the right time of day for the perfect light, I wanted to see what the next season had to offer in that same light. When I did that, I wanted to find some dragonflies to catch the light as it glanced off their huge eyes infused their veiny wings. When I'd done that, I wanted to capture the colors of the neon and roseate skimmers just right. Then I noticed how their colors were nearly as vividly repeated all throughout the canopy in fall, and became obsessed with fall color photography. Then I noticed that, holy cow, I'd never really photographed the cacti in detail. And chances are, if I have a cactus, I'm going to ask for a flower.

(That last paragraph makes more sense if you're familiar with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.)

The 320-acre park boasts 3,200 plants, 230 birds and 72 other animal species. I've really only scratched the surface in the last five years. It has miles of trails that wind throughout the place, but is as accessible as you need it to be -- I've actually driven the whole way and (thanks to the unpredictable predilections of a young child) gone only as far as the Demonstration Garden, maybe a quarter mile in all. (If you're feeling particularly peeved at your child at this point, pose him or her in front of "Demonstration Garden" sign and take a picture. If you crop it right, your child is neatly labeled "Demon," which can be immature but immensely satisfying. I assume. Not that I've done anything like that.)

The goodies start right away (I saw the Gila monster at the beginning of the trail, and the hawk at the entrance). Still, if you press on, you're rewarded tenfold. You know how a lot of drives and hikes have signs at certain points saying "photo opportunity" or "scenic overlook?" You don't need the reminders here. On the long main trail, just as you're at the apex and winding your way around the canyon and back down, the view just ... opens up. Tree and cactus and just sheer depth crowd the bowl of the canyon. Dense masses of the softer foliage wave and lap almost right up to the volcanic rocks enclosing it, like you're at an ocean cliff, but the sea is alive. Above the waves soar the desert's answers to seagulls: red-tailed hawks, giant barking crows, and trilling bright red flashes that you only just realize were cardinals before they flutter off to make another circuit of the canyon.

I sat down thinking I would write about my favorite season at the arboretum, but it didn't work. First, I like them all; and second, we don't have seasons like a lot of you. I mean, sure, we have the calendar seasons, and according to horticulturists, we have not just the two seasons with which Arizonans are familiar (summer and almost-summer), or even the traditional four, but seven seasons. (Better known as summer, supersummer, summer on steroids, hot-as-balls, hot-as-balls-if-balls-were-made-from-lava, thank-god-it's-finally-down-to-98, and almost-summer-again.) (I'm joking, horticulturists.)

But we don't have sharply delineated seasons. One kind of blends into the next. Still, if you go often enough (and we do), you'll see the seasons change.

Summer (real summer), if you can brave it, is a season of flying jewels. Blue, red, orange, magenta. It's dragonfly season for us more than it is summer. You can also catch some late-nesting hummingbirds (don't bother them, though, or you'll have a very pissed off boy from this family down your throat), as well as turkey vultures gliding silently over the eucalyptus grove. Also, that bobcat was in late summer. How awesome is that?

Fall ... oh my god, you guys. Bring your camera between mid-November and early December, find some good Chinese pistachio stands, and you can't take a bad shot. (Fall was also when the coolest black-widow-involving thing that I totally missed went down.)

Spring comes alive. The demonstration garden is like walking into a Monet painting. Butterflies are so thick my son's been able to stand in whirlwinds of them.

Winter quiets down, but it has some real treats. Woodpeckers working so hard you'd think they'd get concussions. Giant hawks perched atop saguaros, talons clenching between spines, like the most awesome totem animals you could ever hope to see. One winter morning, we drove out only to get there right as it stared to pour. I think there were four people in the entire place. We borrowed umbrellas and walked beneath the dripping trees, watching thrashers fling off water and dart out to snatch berries. Soon the sun came out, and the day was rinsed fresh and crisp. We'd been sitting there so long we'd become part of the ground, and thrashers and cardinals hopped out to surround us.

I don't have a tidy wrap-up conclusion, because we're not concluding our arboretum visits any time soon. Come out there. I'll be there most Sundays with my kid. He's the one holding an insect and labeled "Demon."

Friday, January 14, 2011

Delurking Day!

So today is Delurking Day, where I get to do a cheater post, rack up comments, and you all get to tell me how OMG, I totally read you ALL the time. Your single-digit comment counts have nothing to do with mediocrity. You rock the Interwebs.

Uh, I mean, today is Delurking Day, and, as Aimee at Greeblemonkey says, it's all about YOU! Yeah. That's it.

Idea/participation courtesy of Aimee via Chris from Rude Cactus, who hosts/organizes this.

Anyway, come say hi! Pretty please? In the mean time, here are some posts I have coming. (I bumped the promised "Wildlife Wednesday" because I had something even more important than spiders to talk about that day. I think you understand.) What do you want most?

--Black widow spiders: Their ugly webs are way more elegant than I'd realized, they make a sort of cricket-bait guano, and I'm trying to raise them, but they keep eating each other.

--Boyce Thompson Arboretum: Our version of Sunday Mass, and either recent adventures or how it changes through the seasons.

--The Time I Got Lost in the Superstition Mountains and Ended Up Drinking Leeches

--The Time I Forgot to Wear Pants to Class

--The Time My Husband and I Were Chased by a Bear (maybe) and I Almost Flashed Everyone in a Fever-induced Delerium

--The Time My Husband Gave Our Son a Clown Phobia

I'm off now to feed the remaining black widows, put on some pants and get my real job done. (Woo paying work!) Come visit. Good karma shall emanate from your monitor, and I'll be real happy.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

On being a better example

I wrote several things about the Tuscon shootings, first angry, then confused, then mostly just sad. Most never saw any eyes but my own, much less appeared on this blog. After everything, one bit stood out, however: on Sunday, as my son prepared to practice the clarinet (passed down from my father), I just watched him. I'd done a lot of extra kid watching since the shooting, not that it should take a tragedy like that to make me realize how damn lucky I am. But then something occurred to me, and I wrote:

So I don't know. I don't have anything new to offer about this tragedy, except maybe from the perspective of a perpetually analytical parent, and here's why: I'm a million times better as a person since having my kid, and not for the reasons you might think. It's not because I realized, holy cow, I have a human being to care for, and got my life together (though, to some extent, I did). It's not because I matured (I didn't), got all insta-lovey (I didn't), or hooked up with a network of other parents (I tried, and believe me, I can't). It's because, for the first time, I realized something that was true all along: There is someone who is paying attention to what I say and do.

Not all the time. But having my son just THERE, all the time, made me realize that, you know? This person sees me, really watches me. He has real expectations of me.

What you say, how you say it, and what you do have consequences, good and bad, far beyond what you might imagine.

Obama, of course, said it better, but I feel like I was on the same wavelength:

They are so deserving of our good example.

I want America to be as good as she imagined it.

Yes. Exactly.

I've justified my blog's title said all along that Arizona's true story is in its people. We lost some damn good ones. Let's all be better people, for them and for us, OK?

With apologies to all my out-of-state friends, Arizona is the most amazing state there is. Our sunsets are so unbelievable that other countries used to think photos of them were doctored propaganda images. You can't go out a door without seeing at least a few mountains, and we have this little hole in the ground you might have heard of. You can look down the Grand Canyon and look back in time, through billions of years in our planet's history. Our animals ... well, you know how I feel about our animals. We pretty much own the saguaro. We have a great art scene, seriously amazing food, and, well, I could go on for a while. And dude. I wore shorts today.

And the people, seriously. Arizona's got real, honest-to-goodness cowboys. (My mom's old boss used to say his top three priorities in life were 1) his horse; 2) his dog; and 3) his wife; in that order.) But it's the regular folks, mostly. I hear stories every day of people who help, always and extremely -- and half the time, I hear it in the course of reporting some other, unrelated thing, like it's a given and unimportant: Well, yeah; I was still in some pain from being shot and carjacked yesterday. I just figured, no one ELSE is going to help my friend move before he's kicked out. (Real example.) If you're ever visiting Arizona and decide to take a hike and run into an Arizonan, you can count on a brief lecture on heat and the importance of hydration, but you can also count on that person sharing his or her last quart of water.

Arizona rocks, everyone. Let's show it. Our kids deserve our good examples. These victims sure deserve it. We all deserve it. It won't make it better; it won't make it worth it, not by a very long shot. But it's a chance to honor them, and a chance to do what we should have been doing all along.

Let's make it count.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Because it can't be said enough: Vaccinate your kids

This has nothing to do with Arizona, per se. It also has nothing to do with me or my parenting, because it's not a decision on which I have ever wavered one scintilla since my son was born. We shall return to our regularly scheduled programming (I even might have a regular schedule! How d'ya like that?), but first, this:

Vaccinate your kids.

I'm sure you've all read by now -- the study's been known to be bogus for years and years now, but dangerous ignoramuses have made the issue much, much bigger than it ever had to be -- that the infamous 1998 Andrew Wakefield study linking autism and vaccines, published in the Lancet, is a fraud. This is slightly new news because not only have there been numerous studies since then showing no link between the two; not only have even the supposed "triggers" in vaccines been removed (no effect on autism rates was observed, except maybe a rise due, probably, to diagnostic improvements); not only have most of the co-authors dropped out and just about everyone disavowed the findings ... the study is out-and-out fraud. FRAUD. Fake. Garbage. Bullshit. And everyone knows it now.

So vaccinate your kids.

This moron is either lying through his teeth, or is in the deepest denial I've ever seen, but I don't really care which. Now avert your eyes if you are my mother, or are offended by strong language, because:

FUCK this guy.

Children have died because of what he started. Wakefield LIED in his study, he was hired by a lawyer who had it in for vaccine manufacturers, he refused to admit that he might possibly be wrong, other idiots took his bogus conclusions and ran with them, and rates of vaccine-preventable diseases -- death rates due to those diseases -- have risen. FUCK this guy.

If you were misled, I don't blame you at all. I realize I'm on the pretty extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to keeping up with these things, and probably even more extreme when it comes to detached, pragmatic, rational skepticism. I would contend that this is simply the right way to use one's brain, but I know there are drawbacks as well. I'm not so great at being sensitive. You, undoubtedly, are better at not pissing off your spouse or random Internet friends with extreme bluntness and an unquenchable need to correct others. And if you've been misled, anywhere along the way, I know it's not because you're stupid. You probably have a different circle of friends than I do. They are probably also smart parents. Many of them probably said, seemingly sensibly, that there must be something to this vaccine danger. Better safe than sorry. I get it. You were being the best parents you could.

But now it's out. It's all out; it's corroborated; you don't need to "trust the establishment." Independent researchers, doctors, reporters. They've all checked it out and come to the same conclusion. Everyone, really, but the ridiculous crack Wakefield, who might just be lying anyway. His study was FRAUD. Vaccines save lives. They do not cause (or "trigger") autism. If vaccines are readily available, and you decline to vaccinate your child, you're no less culpable than a parent who doesn't use a seat belt.

You ask me sometimes in messages, or on Facebook, or in parking lots, because you know I'm into this sort of thing. It's nothing like that this time, really. We're all "into" saving our kids. Maybe you refused vaccines before because you were trying to do just that. You were fed lies. Vaccinate your kids.

If you want to read more, here is the editorial in the British Medical journal, here is a CNN piece, and here is a slightly older comic that does a surprisingly good job explaining the whole thing. You can find countless other examples with the most cursory of Googling.

OK, OK. Inhale ... exhale. I'm not an angry person, really. If you have concerns / questions / commentary, if you agree or not, I really do want to hear about it. Are you still afraid to vaccinate your children? If you were, does this dispel any doubts? If not, what would?