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."


Margarethe said... Best Blogger Tips

Well said! A great place to experience nature in a lusher form than in our backyard and always full of surprises.

SY said... Best Blogger Tips

well it's a good thing your procrastinated.. it seems like you would have missed out on a lot interesting

your take on arizona seasons.... makes me wish I were there

Heather said... Best Blogger Tips

I'm seriously heading there the next time I get to Arizona! It's breathtaking. And, who could pass up an opportunity to have a picture of your child labeled as a Demon ;)

FireMom said... Best Blogger Tips

Man, you make me want to take a vacation out thattaways sometime soon. I haven't been to AZ since I was... uh... let me think about my hairstyle and glasses... yeah, 14. (Bad, bad photos.) My husband has NEVER been. Maybe I can talk him into a weekend with my great-aunt in 2012. :)

Mary said... Best Blogger Tips

Stunning light and captures! I'd love to see all the birds/ raptors you mention in the wild. I visited Tucson once in the winter, but would love to go back in the spring!

~Kristina said... Best Blogger Tips

You make me want to rush out on the next plane for Arizona.
I hope to some day see that part of the world.

Anonymous said... Best Blogger Tips

I love the BT Arboretum! So glad this turned out so well for you.

Anonymous said... Best Blogger Tips

I really need to make a trip up to the arboretum! I hear good things about it all the time and the area around it is gorgeous, but I've only ever driven past on my way back and forth between reservoirs and one of the water labs in Phoenix. And I love the list of AZ seasons! Very funny, and oh so true. :)