Birding the Apocalypse In and Around Villa Juárez, Sonora


Industrial-scale agriculture on the coastal plain of Sonora.

Day One, March 5, 2019

We left Alamos at 9 a.m. on our adventure to the Sea of Cortez estuaries, isolated igneous hills, towns, villages, and the raped coastal plain of Sonora. We stopped in Navojoa to shop for a few groceries and get money. As is often the case when traveling anywhere, our errands became a time sink. We had to go, for example, to several banks before one would spit out our money.

We didn’t have far to go. Only an hour and a half—if one had planned wisely not to stop in Navojoa. Our idea was to spend two nights at the Hotel Perla (which, at my request, we had inspected on a previous trip) in the farm town of Villa Juárez. We’d be close to all our destinations and could get up-and-out early to bird.

Villa Juárez was founded in 1943 and was initially called Colonia Irrigación. It is an urban consequence of Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution and its economy revolves around industrial-scale agriculture. The town reminds me of Topsy, the valiant slave girl in Uncle Tom’s Cabin who grew up fast and haphazardly with no guidelines or advocates, who said, “I s’pect I just grow’d. Don’t think nobody never made me.”

The town sits amid a maze of canals churning at this season with water from the Río Mayo. Water everywhere for crops, not so reliably for people: While we were there, parts of town were without water and trucks were driving around filling rooftop tanks. A hardscrabble place—dusty streets, concrete-block houses, hard-packed dirt yards, ag-related businesses, big lots with farm implements and anhydrous ammonia tanks, and a surplus of grandiosely bland governmental buildings erected for who knows what purpose and a few appearing to be abandoned.

The town seems not rich, not alarmingly poor whose citizens work and work some more to make ends meet in a social and economic system that affords few escape routes. In this way Villa Juárez is like millions of other towns around the world. I think one of the most important things we as human beings can provide our offspring is the option of escape. Stay if you truly wish, fling out if you have the desire, initiative, curiosity, and the means. Often it is the means—education, financial resources—that is lacking.


Ana Luisa (right) and her daughter Perla.

We had lunch at Ana Louisa’s where she and her daughter Perla (not named for the hotel or vice versa) lavished us with good cheer, good service, and good food. Perla about whom I wish I knew more would make a great study in options and opportunity. She is a U.S. citizen but like many Hispanic Americans has never learned English. She lives part of the year in Villa Juárez to be close to members of her family then spends June to October in Juneau, Alaska, working in a salmon processing facility. Assuming she makes about $12 an hour working 12-hour days, she earns much more than the average wage in Mexico, which ranges from about $13 to $19 a day. I am not sure a job in a fish-processing factory qualifies as an escape. But I can’t impose my definition of escape on Perla who does have options. These are the things that clatter around in my brain when we have wonderful but fleeting encounters with Mexicans we meet when we are out birding.

But before we got to town, we had the birders’ serendipitous delight. On the highway a few kilometers before the Villa Juárez turnoff, David saw a bird on a wire. He veered to the road shoulder, braked, backed up. A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher! Such a beautiful, winsome bird from my heartland of Texas. For several giddy moments we stood on the shoulder as cars and trucks whizzed by. This individual was off course on its northbound journey by at least fifteen hundred kilometers; I admit I fret that such vagabonds will never make it back to where they belong.


The vagabond Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Photo by David Smith.

After lunch we headed to some ponds near town David had seen on Google Earth. We thought they might be wastewater treatment ponds (magnets for birds). Instead they are aggregate pits filled with water—perhaps irrigation water is diverted into the lagoons for temporary storage, who knows. Many things in Mexico remain a mystery to me. There was nothing much beautiful about this landscape. Fields forever, dusty roads, scruffy shrubs, trash, and—another mystery about Mexico—piles of broken-up concrete from some failed or demolished structure, who knows. Escombros—rubble—is the word for these piles. I see these heaps all over Mexico except in the wildest, most remote places. Looking at this debris makes my head hurt. How can so many construction projects devolve into abandoned wreckage?



We had a great time in this wasteland. David, who has a vastly superior eye than I for vines and shrubs whose flowers and fruits attract insects and birds, spotted a rambling mass of climbing milkweed, Funastrum cynanchoides, growing by the first lagoon on our excursion. Its clusters of white flowers look nondescript from a distance but are beautiful up close. Butterflies are attracted to the nectar.

We were enjoying this and other nuances of the landscape when a pack of dogs from a nearby dwelling or industrial equipment compound—it was hard to tell which and perhaps it was both—came bounding and barking toward us. Their ranks grew, as more dogs kept streaming out onto the road, at least a dozen, pups of various ages, females, males. Some of the males were even neutered, a rare practice in most of Mexico. They were handsome, reminiscent of Rhodesian ridgebacks, and well cared for and bluffing. They were in fact hilarious, wanting almost to be petted but shy and skittish.



The road to the next lagoon passed through this compound, where a woman blank of expression was standing by the fence watching us. We smiled. She smiled back. We explained we were birdwatchers and that we got a big kick out of the dogs. Well, actually I don’t know the equivalent in Spanish for getting a big kick out of something. So I probably said something like “¡Disfrutamos los perros!” or “¡Qué padre los perros—son muy divertidos!”—Spanish that probably sounded stiff as a board to her. Her smile got bigger and the dogs leapt and whirled and barked around our car. Just around the bend by the lagoon was a cattle pen containing half a dozen cows. This enclosure was constructed of scavenged lumber, posts, cardboard, barbed wire, and hardware. It looked like it would fall over with a shove.


Cows in a rickety pen.

Least Grebe

One of the Least Grebes in the lagoon. Photo by David Smith.

We spent about an hour birding around this lagoon. The stars of the show were three Least Grebes who I coaxed into a frenzy by playing their rapid stuttering chatter. Tiny wind-up-toy birds, shiny black with piercing yellow eyes, they became whirling aquatic dervishes.

Earlier we had stopped at the Hotel Perla to secure a room for two nights, a superfluous exercise. We were the only guests the first night, and one of three the next. In the evening, back at the hotel, we sat outside under a semi-dilapidated palapa drinking some beers and making a bird list, while a friendly woman married to some member of the establishment pushed her little daughter on a tricycle up and down the concrete parking lot.


Our room at the Hotel Perla.

My description of the Hotel Perla is by no means a reproach. We have stayed in and will encounter in the future similar places throughout Mexico and we will go back to the Perla. The décor was simultaneously garish and Spartan. The bedding consisted of a brilliant purple polyester bedspread with a neon-green fitted sheet of some indescribable filmy fabric, no top sheet, and two flattened pillows. There was one bath towel, no bath soap, no toilet paper. After we asked the man on duty—a friendly, ecstatic, and strangely challenged individual—if he could round up a missing showerhead for the pipe sticking out of the shower wall and he returned with one that did not fit, we decided it would be simpler to go out and buy the bath soap and toilet paper. The water was hot—the most important factor in any hotel all over the world—even if it poured out of a pipe. The owners were cordial. The surfaces were clean. It was quiet. It cost $18 a night. Our man on duty had the most endearing manner of leaping and twirling before performing his next task. And the Virgin of the Guadalupe in her grotto twinkled each night with a halo of lights.


Virgin of the Guadalupe, guardian of the Hotel Perla.

Day Two, March 6, 2019

We left the Hotel Perla at dawn and drove back to the highway to see if perhaps the wayward Scissortail was still around. Negative. In order to head back toward the coast, David turned into the municipal garbage dump to turn around. Birds like dumps, so we lingered for David to take some photographs. A man on a motorbike drove into the dump—either an employee or a person looking for useful items. A garbage truck pulled out to go pick up a load. Cattle egrets, like white-robed angels, pirouetted on mounds of trash. Even a garbage dump is beautiful in the gilded light of sunrise.


Sunrise at the municipal garbage dump.

On the highway we passed an abandoned cotton gin we’ve seen on numerous other occasions that always makes me think we have been hurled across space to the Delta of Mississippi and men walking on the road shoulder wearing white boots and carrying a shovel over their shoulders going to manage irrigation water in the fields.

We were headed for estuaries and mudflats on the Sea of Cortez where shorebirds, herons, egrets, pelicans, gulls, and other costal birds congregate as the tides recede. Our destinations are poised between two ragged fishing towns—Paredón Colorado and Paredoncito. I love coastal birding but I find coastal Sonora and marine fishing as a way of life to be so stark and inscrutable that I don’t have the language to describe it, and if I made a flailing attempt it would be unfair to the people who live and work there. I do like to eat seafood and we had a fabulous lunch of fresh crab and shrimp tostadas at El Mirador in Paredón Colorado. We were the only clients sitting in the sprawling palapa—this is an establishment that caters to weekend visitors from nearby cities like Ciudad Obregón. The young woman who waited on us was disinclined to make eye contact or smile. Perhaps she was afraid her shellacked purple-red lipstick would crack.


American Oystercatchers (the clown-like birds) and more subtle dowitchers.

The attractions of coastal birding are many. The pastime requires a telescope to see faraway birds and to focus closely on plumage and other anatomical details for tricky identifications. Looking through a telescope blocks peripheral vision. The distractions of the world fade away. It becomes a quiet Zen experience, like snorkeling amid a coral reef.

The species of birds that occur in estuarine zones are beautiful, some spectacularly so (Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret, American Oystercatcher, Black Skimmer), others subtly so (sandpipers, gulls, terns, dowitchers, curlews). The subtle ones can be a challenge to identify. A clutch of Red Knots in winter plumage, a skittering group of Dunlins, also winter-clad, with their droopy bills, a lone Sanderling dashing like a mad Sherlock at the edge of the foamy surf. I feel a small triumph when I can pick these birds out of a crowd and put a name on them.

Before returning for the evening to the Perla, we went back out on the highway for another Scissortail check when we encountered a spectacular mob of blackbirds swirling, perching, swirling again, clashing and bickering for priority perches on the wires and armature of large electrical poles. Of this assembly the most stunning and entertaining were the Yellow-headed Blackbirds—jet black bodies with brilliant yellow heads and breasts and flashing white wing patches—making their medley of hoarse, rasping calls. They are described on the Audubon website as perhaps “the worst song of any North American bird”—an assessment with which I do not agree.

We went again to turn around in the municipal dump. This time a young couple came vrooming in on their motorbike. They stopped a moment to chat. Where were they from? I asked. Bayajorit, they said, a village a few kilometers away at the base of an isolated igneous hill on the coastal plain where we planned to go birding on our way home. What brings you to the dump? I asked. They come regularly, they explained, to scavenge for discarded food to feed their chickens. What an excellent idea, I said.


Sunset from the rooftop of the Hotel Perla.

The light was getting golden. We returned to watch a fiery sunset from the roof of the Perla with our evening beers. A Merlin on a mission blasted by in the twilight, a fine bird to end the day.

The bonus before we adjourned for bed was meeting Victor, a long-haul trucker whom we met in the parking lot. His big, new, shiny white tractor was parked next to our car. We struck up a conversation. He is from the state of Morelos and has traveled all over Mexico for his job. He loves Mexico and its varied and stunning landscapes. We concurred and told him that we also travel far and wide in his wonderful country. He takes a lot of photos on his smart phone. He has a superb eye. His photos of landscapes and cloudscapes were beautiful.


Victor, the bonus, and David, and Victor’s rig.


Harvesting Brussels spouts.

Earlier in the day on one of the maze of canal roads crisscrossing fields we had stopped to watch a crew of workers who were standing on platforms on a hulking harvester. They were processing by hand Brussels sprouts as the machine slowly lumbered through the field plucking the stalks and feeding them up on conveyors to the hands of the workers. In the morning, Victor told us he would pick up his refrigerated trailer full of Brussels sprouts and haul them to the border for export to the U.S. market.



Posted in Mexico

Fotos ocasionales de México


A public health announcement on the wall of a clinic in the village of Copala, Sinaloa, February 26,2019.

The messages: “Social network – Prevent maternal death.” “The uterus gives life and is fragile like a rose. Get your PAP smear!”

The red dirt trench and pile of rocks are characteristic of unpaved roads in villages and rural areas around Mexico, which seem to be in a perpetual state of repair or disrepair—it is often hard to know which.


Posted in Mexico


“The sky throughout history has been variously filled by the promptings of the imagination, whether with gods and prophecies and the rhythms of the zodiac,
or with the first faint stirring of scientific thought.”

—Richard Hamblyn, The Invention of Clouds

In January this year we had several good rains in southern Sonora. Precipitation in the winter is much appreciated by all because it provides a buffer against the impending dry season, a parched, sweltering, and dusty period that persists until the onset of the rainy season in mid to late June. When we were talking about the good fortune of these winter rains with Alejandro Sauceda, a friend who grew up and still lives in the campo, he told us about a weather-forecasting system still widely used by country people around here. With our imperfect comprehension of Spanish as spoken in rural Sonora, we picked up on the idea but not the exact details—something about using the times when it rains in January to predict weather patterns, especially rainfall, in the ensuing months.

Not immediately catching the name he used for this practice, I asked, “¿Otra vez, cómo se llama este sistema?” 

Las Cabañuelas,” Alejandro replied, of course repeating the word several times until we thought we had captured all the syllables. Alejandro is very patient.

 We asked another friend Ángel Esquir if he could elaborate on the subject. We figured, rightly, he would know all about it, because he was born and spent the majority of his 80-plus years in the campo, which here in Sonora is more commonly referred to as el monte. We videotaped his explanation of Las Cabañuelas so we could refer to it and translate the details and so we would have this memory of him explaining it. The elders who hold the knowledge of the Sonoran monte—its pastoral culture, norms, economy, and natural landscapes—are fading away.

I was skeptical when Ángel made the claim that Las Cabañuelas is a universal weather-forecasting system. Considering that Ángel’s universe is Hispanic, he is basically right. According to Wikepedia, today’s widespread click-away source of information, the tradition of Las Cabañuelas dates back at least several centuries in Spain, and its use spread around the world with Spanish conquests in the New World and parts of Africa.

Ángel grew up with Las Cabañuelas and can recite its rules like an anthem. Still I don’t know how doggedly he adheres to it as a forecasting tool. He, my husband, and I often discuss the science-driven weather forecasts we follow online and he follows on the blurry television in his home. I think Las Cabañuelas is simply woven into the fabric of his life. Just like Groundhog Day is woven into mine.

On the subject of weather, I just finished reading The Invention of Clouds by Richard Hamblyn. What a wonderful book! It is a biography of Luke Howard, a British chemist, Quaker, and amateur meteorologist who in the early 1800s devised and promoted among the scientific community a classification system for clouds.

I have been reading a lot about clouds and weather since 2016 when I purchased the CloudSpotter app ($2.99) and joined The Cloud Appreciation Society (member #41,844). I am accustomed to looking up. I have been watching birds for fifty years. Now I simply look up more often.

Adapting the Linnean system for ranking living organisms, Luke Howard used Latin names to classify clouds according to such factors as altitude, temperature, and solar radiation that drive their formation. For his continuing efforts to elucidate the clouds and share his knowledge with an enthusiastic public, Howard was greatly admired, indeed a celebrity, in Great Britain and Europe.

As Hamblyn writes, “By the end of the eighteenth century the grip of rational entertainment had firmly secured itself on the public mind, and had done so because it served the equal, if novel, demands of pleasure, instruction and imagination. Science had been on the rise for a century or more, and had now ascended to its height, where it drifted through the cultural atmosphere of the age.”

Across London, many lecturers expounded on biology, geology, meteorology, and new inventions, and their audiences widely embraced scientific discovery. Hamblyn writes, “…people cheered loudly at lectures.” I detect a bit of wistfulness in his tone as he describes this era—or I am projecting. My goodness, from my vantage in 2019, it is hard to imagine the public in the “grip of rational entertainment” or the appreciation of science drifting through the cultural atmosphere of my era.

With some modifications and additions over the years, Howard’s Latin-based nomenclature became the universally accepted system of cloud identification used by meteorologists around the world to help forecast and explain the weather and by cloud enthusiasts, such as myself, who wish to put names on the gorgeous specimens we gaze up at. A truly monumental effort, the International Cloud Atlas, first published in 1896 and still in print (and online), is the official authority and keeper of the cloud classification.

The Invention of Clouds is far more than a biography. Hamblyn uses clouds and the wonderful life of Luke Howard to tell a history of our human quest to understand, codify, explain, forecast, and frequently create dogmas about, the weather. In the chapter “A Brief History of Clouds” Hamblyn makes a sweeping survey of the subject drawing on ancient Egyptian and Babylonian texts, Chinese yin and yang philosophy, Taoist hierarchy of gods, Norse mythology, Greek and Roman treatises on mathematics, astronomy, and meteorology, Christian theology, the Cartesian scientific revolution and Age of Enlightenment (bringing the invention of the telescope, microscope, thermometer, and barometer)—all leading up to the cloud classifications proposed by the modest Quaker Luke Howard.

Although Hamblyn does not reference it, the Iberian spread of Las Cabañuelas around the world, news of which reached me in southern Sonora, Mexico, in 2019, is part of Homo sapiens’ long march to decipher the weather, which is so basic, changeable, critical for navigation and aviation, essential for forecasting and responding to weather-related emergencies—and so very personal. For eons people have been parsing the clouds and inventing interpretations that range from the  quaint (Las Cabañuelas) to the sinister (Noah’s Ark). That there is now a rational explanation for clouds based on their chemistry and physics—what makes a cumulus a cumulus and a cirrus a cirrus—in no way distracts from marveling at their mutable beauty as they waft, roil, and shift across our sky canvas. I often stand outside looking up a cloud formation and hear myself saying, “Oh, my.”


Posted in Mexico

February 10, 2019

The snow is blowing sideways on Boom Island in the Heartland. It looks like Marge Gunderson is going to announce her candidacy for president. No, no—it’s Senator Amy Klobuchar. There she is stepping out of the stratus clouds, coming barely into focus, dusted in snow. Yes, Klobuchar is going to run for president. She could not have picked a better place or better weather. On the Mississippi River in a blizzard! What a beautiful day, as we say in Minnesota.

Posted in The Amy Diaries | 1 Comment

Tláloc at work, Tláloc in repose

Thunderhead over Lerma Marsh, March 6, 2018.

If I were inclined to believe in a deity, it would be Tláloc, the Aztec god in charge of making it rain. To call him the Rain God, however, is to oversimplify the manifestations and metaphors of his godly responsibilities and of water itself. Tláloc has many names. In Náhuatl Tláloc means el néctar de la tierra. By virtue of his rainmaking role, Tláloc was, and perhaps in some quarters still is, venerated as dador de vida—giver of life. By virtue of the destructive potential of water or the lack thereof, Tláloc can bring on tempests, floods, hail, blizzards, hurricanes, and drought. He can give and take away.

Just to be clear, I am not a theist or a polytheist, but I am romanced by the imagery and poetry swirling around Tláloc, and I hold in high regard the power of water.

Last spring, Tláloc was at work, drumming thunder and throwing lightning bolts across the dark skies over the Lerma Marshes in the Valley of Toluca about 50 miles southwest of Mexico City. We were with several long-time birding friends on a standard birders’ pilgrimage—looking for a bird threatened with extinction in the last remnants of a largely destroyed landscape. It is a pastime fraught with despair.

Looking for the black-polled yellowthroat at Lerma Marsh while thunderstorm approaches.

The black-polled yellowthroat is a small, secretive warbler now confined to five wetlands in central western Mexico. The Lerma River, the second longest in Mexico, originates at about 9,800 feet on the Mexican Plateau and flows 470 miles to Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest lake, near Guadalajara. Its once vast marshes have been cleared for agriculture and drained for crop irrigation and urban water. In a recent article about the yellowthroat’s current distribution, population, and prognosis, the authors estimate the remaining habitat where it is found is 23,462 acres. By comparison, the metropolitan area of nearby Mexico City is 366,952 acres. The authors call for urgent action if the little bird is to survive—for instance, protecting and restoring some portion of what remains of the marshes, stopping illegal burning and harvesting of aquatic plants—none of which in my humble and pessimistic opinion is likely to happen.

black-polled yellowthroat

A black-polled yellowthroat seen briefly in its thicket of reeds in Lerma Marsh. Photo by David F. Smith.

It is a beautiful sprite of a bird with a jet-black mask and lemon-yellow breast, and we had no trouble seeing a few. We tricked them by playing a recording of the male’s song. Thinking their territory was being invaded, they popped into view here and there in the marsh to defend their turf. The God of Technology—probably not a term that translates easily into Náhuatl—is in the birder’s pocket. I cannot speak for my companions, but seeing the yellowthroat so easily and so well produced a certain euphoria in me that dampened if only briefly the true state of its peril.

On the horizon, a fire burns in the marsh.

Eight months later, we were in Mexico City. We joined five friends, all birders and lovers of nature, two of whom had been with us at the Lerma Marshes. This was a trip about museums, markets, eating, walking, watching people, talking to merchants and waiters and taxi drivers, and marveling that the largest metropolis in the Western Hemisphere—with 21.2 million inhabitants—can function with such friendliness, politeness, good humor, sophistication, and the veneer of efficiency. We make no claims that this urban swirl is sustainable and we are not stupid. There is great socioeconomic disparity in Mexico City, as in all countries and vast metropolises. Unequal Scenes is a project that documents inequity around the world using drones,

On our last day in Mexico City, on the recommendation of Jeffrey Banister, a social scientist at the University of Arizona, we visited the Cárcamo de Dolores, a municipal pumping station in Chapultepec Park that has transported water from the Lerma River to Mexico City since the 1950s. Here we encountered Tláloc lying on his back, arms and legs outstretched, eyes to the sky, two ears of corn in his right hand. I wondered, is Tláloc just taking a nap or is Tláloc dead? Is this his bed or his sepulcher?

Tláloc in repose at Cárcamo de Dolores in front of the temple structure housing the waterworks. The orange barricades and empty reflecting pool–the watery bed Diego Rivera designed for Tláloc–were the only disconcerting notes in an otherwise beautiful place.

In the 1940s, Mexico City’s exploding population was creating an urban water crisis (even though the capital built on a spongy marsh experiences regular flooding). Officials embarked on an engineering project to construct 40 miles of aqueducts and 26 tunnels to bring a regular supply of water from the Lerma River to the city.

Mexico holds dear the profession of civil engineering. There are six engineers honored in the Rotunda of Illustrious People in the city’s Dolores Cemetery. Perhaps this veneration relates to the importance of large infrastructure projects in Mexico’s rapid transition from a third- to first-world country; perhaps it is because Mexico has long cherished the pyramids, temples, cities, and ceremonial centers built by its pre-Colombian civilizations. In this spirit, Ricardo Rivas—the architect of the Lerma pumping station, which resembles a Greco-Roman temple—set out to commemorate the engineering feat of his colleague Eduardo Molina, the civil engineer and Director of Water for the Federal District who designed the water transport system, as well as the 39 workers who died during the nine years it took to complete.

Rivera’s mural of the project engineers.

Rivas commissioned the famous artist and muralist Diego Rivera to create works of art in and around the pumping station to celebrate water. At the entrance, Rivera created the giant recumbent figure of Tláloc in a reflecting pool. Undergoing repairs to fix damage from the September 2017 earthquake, the pool was unfortunately empty on the day we visited, leaving Tláloc forlornly high and dry. Inside the pumping station on the walls of the gigantic tunnel that sluiced water into the city, Rivera painted vibrant murals that portray in gorgeous, fantastical images the role of water in the origin and evolutionary development of life, including the origin of Homo sapiens. Rivera based much of the imagery on the scientific theories of the Soviet scientist Alexander I. Oparin, a proponent of the primordial soup theory of evolution of life from carbon-based molecules. That Tláloc and Oparin inhabit the same art stage is proof of Rivera’s extraordinary gift for uniting myth and science as if the two were not at odds.

Tláloc’s foot.

Corn in Tláloc’s right hand.

The incoming tunnel once submerged in water coming from the Rio Lerma.

Two-thirds of Rivera’s murals would be submerged for 40 years. In 1990, the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes embarked on a decade-long project to restore the murals before they were totally erased by the rushing water and to open the pumping station as the public museum it so richly deserved to be. Underground tunnels were constructed to reroute the Rio Lerma water from the pumping station. Visitors can now stand and peer into the cavernous maw covered with Rivera’s amazing murals. In 2010, additional renovations began that included remedying what was lost in the renovation of the murals—the reverberations of water. Mexican artist Ariel Guzik designed a remarkable computerized mathematical system to replace the sound of water called the Cámara Lambdoma. Four outdoor sensors detect wind speed, seismic vibrations, angle of sun, and ambient temperature to activate a series of computer signals that in turn trigger organ pipes playing ever-changing murmurations.


The organ pipes of the Cámara Lambdoma.

Details of Rivera’s murals on walls of the waterworks.

Water as giver of life.

The origins and evolution of life.

The Cárcamo, with the ethereal music of the Cámara Lambdoma, is a jewel, one of the most beautiful and haunting spaces I’ve ever visited. Fifty miles to the southwest, black-polled yellowthroats, jewels of the Lerma Marshes, flitted in the cattails of their ever-shrinking waterscape. Here we were standing in an exquisite place that celebrates nature while at the same time destroying it. And I am left with a question. Can art take the place of nature?

Here’s the sound of water on an irrigation canal on the Rio Mayo, December 28, 2018. 
Jeffrey Banister has written about the capture of water in “Deluges of Grandeur: Water, Territory, and Power on Northwest Mexico’s Rio May, 1880-1910,” Southwest Center and School of Geography and Development, University of Arizona. 







Posted in Mexico

July 7, 2016

I took this photo of fourteen exuberant young people in eye-popping attire on July 7, 2016, two days after the end of Ramadan, at the entrance to Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Center near the town of Sandakan, which is in Sabah, one of two Malaysian states in Borneo, the third-largest island in the world. That is a lot of information for readers in the Western world, but it is important, in many ways, for me to establish the date and place. Malaysia is a multi-faith country with about 60 percent of its 32 million constituents practicing Islam. It is the first Muslim country I have visited.

We had come to Borneo to watch birds, many of them as exotic and eye-popping as this flock of kids, as well as primates and other mammals, and to be in forests with lizards, snakes, insects, orchids, fungi, the largest flower in the world, and some of the tallest trees on the planet. Borneo is a mega-diverse island, contains 20 percent of the world’s animal species. I will never forget the first Orang Utan I saw. We came back home dizzy with indelible experiences of the natural world and the rich and complex human culture.

A photo is a frozen moment in time, simple as that. But a photo also has context. Its moment stands in a continuum of present, past, future.

The photo’s present: While we were in Malaysia, details were emerging that then Prime Minister Najib Razak was busily looting and laundering money from a public investment fund he himself established to promote economic development. The sum was estimated to be $3.5 billion, millions of dollars of which he parked in the United States.

The photo’s most recent past: What is now called Malaysia became its own country in 1963 after centuries of domination by Portugal, the Dutch, and the British Empire. Global trade defines human history and human behavior. Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy with a government system based on Westminster parliamentary protocol. Malaysia has a robust economy—one of the best in Asia since its independence—and it strongly subsidizes free public education and free access to healthcare.

The photo’s recent future: Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, four months after I took the picture. A week after his inauguration in January 2017, Trump announced his travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim counties. Malaysia was not among them. In September 2017, as the U.S. Justice Department was investigating Najib Razak, Trump welcomed the Prime Minister to the White House and thanked him for “all the investments you have made in the United States.” In May 2018, caught up in his scandal, Razak was roundly defeated in the general election by a 92-year-old former political leader Mahathir Mohamad. In September 2018, a year after Razak was Trump’s guest at the White House, he was arrested on corruption charges and is awaiting trial.

I keep the photo of the Malaysian kids on my desk. All their youthful beauty, energy, and goofiness make me smile. Yes, a moment in time. But the longer the photo sits on my desk, the more I dwell on what has happened in my country and on the global stage since that moment. I see my photo as a metaphor of the multiple intertwined universes we live in. There is my universe where my fellow travelers and I merely want to be good citizens with rewarding work, educational opportunities, access to decent health care, occasions to have fun and be silly, the comfort of kinship, family, and friends. Then there is another universe where power corrupts and where this corrupted power can take down democracies, rob public coffers, build walls, start wars, divide races, ignite genocide, turn up the heat on climate change, bring on global economic disruption. In short, blow my universe to hell and back.

When I saw the kids hanging out, waiting to get their tickets to enter the rainforest, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I wanted to capture their radiance. I had just arrived in Borneo and did not know the customs for taking photos of people in a predominately Muslim culture. I took a chance, walked tentatively over, and asked if I could take a picture—English is the second language in Malaysia. It was as if they were just waiting for me to ask. They immediately choreographed themselves, striking poses, making hip hand gestures, laughing and smiling the whole time. Well, it was actually a short time, less than a minute. They went their way, and I went mine with my husband, off with our friends to watch more birds.

I will never see these kids again. I will never know where life takes them—or rather, where they take life. To a person, they are beautiful and lithe. The scourge of snacks and fast foods, so rampant in my country, has not taken hold among the people we encountered in Borneo. Their clothes and accessories are all over the global map—traditional Asia Islamic fashion, Westernized sunglasses, a shoulder bag, wristwatches, a fanny pack, headgear ranging from a hijab to a pork pie hat. The guy kneeling in the center has a flower tucked in his right ear. I have so many questions I wish I could have asked them. Maybe there is a future despot among them. But I am going to imagine, if only for my own peace of mind, that they will make their way in the universe of good citizenship, rewarding work, abundant learning, good health, fun and silliness, kinship, family, and friends.



Posted in Borneo

Cluck, Cluck


My first flock in Mesa, Arizona. When we sold our house in 2008 and moved to Minnesota, the sales contract stipulated that the hens would convey with the house. The purchaser, a young woman, was happy to have my hens.

I purchased my first batch of chicks on January 20, 2000, from Murray McMurray Hatchery, a wonderful purveyor of heritage poultry breeds based in Iowa. This for me was a promising way to launch the new millennium. The chicks arrived via U.S. Postal Service in a little cheeping box on February 21. I still thrill to get the phone call from a postal worker saying my chicks are ready for pick up.

We were living in Mesa, Arizona, a city founded by Mormons whose culture of practicality and self-sufficiency is reflected in city ordinances allowing homeowners to raise poultry and small livestock. We had a few neighbors who kept pigs, goats, and sheep. Backyard chickens are becoming more common across urban America. For example, since 2012 the Silicon Tour de Coop has sponsored a free, self-guided bike tour of chicken coops (and beehives and hoop houses) for a day in September around the Bay Area of San Francisco. The Food Policy Council of San Antonio sponsored its first chicken coop tour this spring. I am all for trends that inspire people to keep poultry and raise the food they eat. I’ve just always been grateful to have settled among Mormons who were more than a century ahead of this curve.

The purpose of this new endeavor was to have a handy source of eggs, but I quickly realized that hens, beyond producing daily orbs of protein, give their caretakers so much more in the realms of entertainment and unadulterated joy. Nothing calms me so thoroughly as looking out my kitchen window and watching hens grazing in the yard. And no object is so perfectly formed and so comforting to hold as an egg.

Chickens also teach their owners about the folly of attaching too much affection to what are essentially feathered dinosaurs, although I haven’t entirely learned that lesson. Chickens provide blunt instruction in dealing with mortality. We, by which I mean my husband, David, have euthanized chickens with fatal disease or birth defects, but more often we have lost chickens to predators—foxes, coyotes, hawks, or rogue dogs.


Standard Bronze Turkey, a member of one of two flocks of heritage turkeys we raised on our farm in Embarrass

With the exception of a period in 2008, when we left Arizona and moved to our 80-acre farm in Minnesota, I have never been without a flock of chickens. Since moving to our place in the country, we have raised other poultry besides egg-layers. We often raise meat chickens (their lesson: never give names to creatures you are going to butcher). For two years, we raised heritage-breed turkeys. Yes, with the intent of eating them. They were a fabulously entertaining addition to our yard of free-range fowl. Great ambassadors, they would rush up our driveway gobbling and flapping their wings when we returned home or when friends dropped in to visit (some were a little panicked by the turkeys’ raucous greeting). Turkeys like music and mine would gather by a window if music was on the radio or I was practicing my accordion. One day they seemed particularly animated when they heard “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Turkeys are very hard not to get attached to and hence hard to dispatch.

One summer we had four runner ducks, which we acquired from Murray McMurray after seeing some the previous summer in the Poultry Barn at the Minnesota State Fair. We got them not just for their large, delicious eggs but because they are sleek, beautiful, and hilarious. On hindsight, it was a selfish indulgence on our part, because runner ducks are not acclimated to the sub-zero temperatures of northern Minnesota and they did not survive the winter. I have always felt guilty about the unintentional death sentence we inflicted on them and I sometimes imagine living somewhere like Oklahoma where having runner ducks would again be possible.


Our much-beloved runner ducks

I make no apologies for the fact that I give names to my egg-laying hens. I named my first birds in Mesa for women in my sphere I admired. Almost twenty years on, I’ve forgotten what some of those names were, but I well remember Bertha and Lucille, who I named after the Aunt and Mother of my mentor in Texas Edgar B. Kincaid, Jr. When we moved to Minnesota, my friend and neighbor Chuck Neil gave me a gift certificate for five chicks to start up my new flock. I named these girls after famous women chefs and cookbook writers—Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Diana Kennedy, Alice Waters, and Lisa Yockelson. Julia, as I will elaborate, went on to brief stardom on Minnesota Public Radio.

As an experiment, I decided not to name the hens in my current flock, acquired as chicks in 2015. I have found having nameless hens takes some of the fun and intimacy out of the experience. So I will likely start naming the chicks I purchased this summer to replenish my flock. One already has a name—bestowed by a six-year-old who was visiting our farm with his parents and siblings. Kids, as a rule, love chickens. We were in the poultry room looking at the chicks, one of which is not afraid to be picked up. So my little friend was holding her, and I said, “Let’s give her a name. What do you suggest?” “Brave,” he replied, without blinking an eye. So now I have the first named hen in my newest flock.

I don’t have the interest or patience to train my chickens (I have an amazing friend who does), but I do attempt to get my hens to habituate to me, so they come when I call and so they don’t mind being picked up. This training, such as it is, helps me manage my girls, for instance when I want to herd them into the coop when we are leaving the farm for the evening and won’t be back until after dark when predators are on the prowl. They come running when I call “Girlies, girlies, girlies!” in a loud falsetto voice while proffering a plastic scoop of hen scratch to reward their obedience. So I can say most of my hens tolerate me, but in every one of my flocks, there are one or two who simply stand out, who have an uncanny ability to relate to Homo sapiens, who possess an effervescent je ne sais quoi of hen-ness. Three of my feathered dinosaurs have been particularly dear to my heart. Lucille, Dixie, and Julia.

Lucille was a Rhode Island Red in my first flock. This American breed, developed in the late 19th century, is much beloved among poultry owners. The hens are a rich, silky mahogany color and are prolific egg layers. Individuals often have great personalities. Chickens, for good reason, tend to be skittish and on guard for any sign of predatory behavior. Lucille was confident, curious, and confiding. She would jump in my lap when I was sitting outdoors and nestle down contentedly. If David or I were stooping to pull a weed or pick up something on the ground, she would often jump on board and sidle up to a shoulder as we stood up. She occasionally flew up and perched on David’s head. In Mesa, with its almost year-round balmy temperatures, we kept our back door open. It was not unusual for a hen to wander into the house occasionally. This habit bothered us not at all. David grew up in a cotton-farming family in the Mississippi Delta and had lived in rural Liberia when he was in the Peace Corps and I had traveled a lot in rural Mexico—all cultures where chickens are part of community and home life.


Lucille of the Pillow Eggs

One day I found an egg in our bed. Our bedroom was in the far corner of the house, so whoever laid the egg had walked in the back door, through the den and kitchen, and down a long hallway to lay this egg. We soon discovered it was Lucille. Finding a hen in our bed—as if that were the most normal of events—was one of the pinnacles of my life with chickens and made Lucille all the more endearing. We called her daily offerings Pillow Eggs. We indulged her habit for quite some time, and then for some vague reason decided to start closing the door to the backyard. Lucille was to the manner—and to our modest manor—born. One sad day she was killed along with several other hens by a rogue dog that jumped our back brick fence.

Dixie was a Black Austrolorps, a stunning hen with the glossy iridescent black plumage and ruby-red comb that are the hallmarks of this regal Australian breed. She did not get a name until her mishap, which was the result of my mismanagement. My Mesa flock never roosted at night in the beautiful coop David had built for them. Our large backyard was a semi-tropical expanse of fruit trees and clumping bamboo and our hens preferred this semi-wilderness to the coop. They roosted at night in our orange, lemon, and grapefruit trees and laid eggs in the shady root masses of these trees and other plants in the yard. I did not take a regular census of my dozen hens (a task that is easier when hens roost in a coop), and it was several days, perhaps a week, before I found one of my Austrolorps pinned by the leg between the slats of our compost bin in a far corner of the backyard. How she survived that length of time without water I will never know, but she was alive.


Dixie, when she had two legs and before she had a name, is one of the black Austrolorps in this picture. Lucille is feeding from my hand.

Her right leg was mangled. I felt terrible. I took her to our veterinary clinic, where as the owners of two dogs we were regular customers. One of the vets, Dr. Richard Funk, specialized in parrots and other pet birds, so he examined my Austrolorps and determined the leg could not be saved. Not a big surprise. The options were euthanize her or amputate. He assured me she would be fine on one leg. Driven by guilt and fascination with the possibility of having a one-legged chicken, I opted for amputation after consulting David about the cost and quickly getting his support. She went through surgery with flying colors and became quite the wonder-hen of the vet clinic. Dr. Funk kept a photo of her on a bulletin board in one of the exam rooms. I brought her home and named her Dixie.

As Dr. Funk predicted, mobility was not a problem—Dixie hopped around great on her pogo-stick leg—but her aberrant behavior immediately presented another dilemma. One unpleasant but evolutionarily hard-wired trait of chickens is that they do not tolerate freaks in their flock. My two-legged hens began to persecute her mercilessly, and it became immediately clear they were intent on killing her. So we segregated Dixie from her would-be assassins. We fixed up a private run for her—with a gate—in an ample space on one side of our house and for maximum security we put up fencing across the yard to contain the other hens. The DMZ was our patio space surrounding the swimming pool. Peace returned to the kingdom. When we were on the patio—which was often—we would let her out of her run to hang out with us. We spent many happy times with Dixie.

Then it all ended abruptly. David and I went on a trip—when and where I no longer recall—and one of his lab techs and her boyfriend stayed at our place to watch our dogs and chickens. David and my friends make regular fun of me because whenever we leave home I give our house and pet sitters explicit mandates about their responsibilities. I think I am being conscientious; they think I am being an obsessive worrywart. In this instance, I apparently was not worrywartish enough. I must have failed to sufficiently emphasize that Dixie had to be kept away from the other hens. It seems a gate was left opened. When we returned, Dixie was dead, a henocide. The house sitters were simultaneously remorseful and clueless. I was not vengeful but I was sad. I do not regret the decision at the time to amputate her mangled leg nor the cost to have it done. I doubt I would make the same decision now. The bigger cost, which I care not to pay again, was the emotional energy I spent on a one-legged chicken.


Julia Child

Julia, one of five chef-named hens gifted to me as chicks by my friend Chuck in 2009, was a Black Star, a breed that can be sexed at hatching by its color. This is a very useful trait to assure a poultry owner that she is getting hens and not an unwanted rooster. (Roosters, besides the fact they don’t lay eggs, are often ornery and frequently banned by ordinances in towns and cities.) Sexing chicks, a service that hatcheries like Murray McMurray offer, is not a perfect science, and the accidental rooster can turn up in a purchase of chicks sexed as females. David dispatched one accidental and vicious rooster. Another, named after my cousin Becky until we realized she was a rooster, went to live with friends who lived in the country. Her name became Beckett. I have a strong suspicion that Brave, in my current chick flock, is an accidental rooster, a fact that should be borne out in a few more weeks. Fortunately, the friend who takes care of my hens in the winter when we are in Mexico wants a rooster in her rural flock.

Black Star hens are good layers and quite beautiful—bronzy black with golden feathers on the breast and hackles—and Julia possessed all the joie de vivre of her namesake. She genuinely liked being picked up and carried around in the crook of my arm. One summer in the lead-up to the fall member pledge drive for Minnesota Public Radio, a young friend of ours who is an MPR sound engineer tasked with recording testimonials, asked if David and I would be willing participants. I agreed with the stipulation that my chickens had to be part of my gig. Our friend was game.

My hens in fact listened to Morning Edition quite regularly as it wafted out the kitchen window to the nearby bed of ferns where they often gathered. So it was only fitting that they should make a “pitch” for MPR. Our friend, an excellent audio editor, taped several minutes of my spiel, a chorus of cackling for background, and a segment when I was holding Julia and talking to her and she was clucking back to me. The segment, condensed to less than 30 seconds, was hilarious. It closed with my saying, “Julia, you love MPR don’t you?” “Cluck, cluck,” she replied affirmatively.


My retablo memorializing Julia









Posted in West Saari Road