Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Not Mutually Incompatible

© 2017 Tina Quinn Durham
© 2017 Tina Quinn Durham
When you think about science, it’s easy to imagine a sterile laboratory with glass petri dishes, neat rows of test tubes and mysterious machines tended by people in white coats. It’s harder to imagine scientific discovery happening in a stunningly gorgeous natural setting, but that is exactly what is happening at Biosphere 2. Nestled among the rugged southern edge of the Rocky Mountain ranges are bee houses, flowers, trees, and even a sculpture garden. Paths lead you past boulders and rocks meant to educate the mind - and delight the eye. Biosphere 2 even has an artist-in-residence program.

Science and beauty can exist side by side, and strengthen one another. The order and beauty of nature are not inimical, but rather, intrinsic to the mission of Biosphere 2.

(This reminds me of a poem - I feel a song coming on..... "Ode to a Grecian Urn" by John Keats....)

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sightseeing in my own backyard
(well, sort of)

Biosphere 2 rises out of the landscape like a futuristic cathedral.
Photograph © 2017 Tina Quinn Durham
Biosphere surprised me.  My memories of it, from the ‘90s, were of sensationalism and a vague sense of science gone bad. 

I suppose that one ought to expect failures when attempting to do something incredibly difficult for the first time.  After all, no one had ever before attempted to simulate an interplanetary mission to colonize another world.  “No material in, no material out” for two years was a truly ambitious goal.

The logistical problems encountered and solved in those first Biosphere attempts will probably save many lives in the future.  Scientists learned a great deal from those experiments, including the surprising fact that concrete can absorb oxygen and threaten the stability of a closed ecosystem. 

Nevertheless, I had casually dismissed the Biosphere project as irrelevant, a mere tourist attraction from a by-gone era.

Then I found a book in a thrift store about Biosphere, and flipping through it rekindled my desire to see the actual Biosphere project.  Yet years passed, the book sat on my shelf unread, and we did not take a day to visit Biosphere.

The book that spurred me into action.

In 2017, Hurricane Irma struck the Caribbean island we were supposed to visit.  The hurricane removed the fourth floor from our hotel and radically changed our travel plans.  We decided to stay closer to home and to explore the state in which we live.

The journey shaped itself around one destination:  Biosphere 2, in Oracle, Arizona - 120 miles from our home.  Sixteen years after its inception, we were finally visiting Biosphere 2.

More About Biosphere 2

 “Life in Biosphere 2.”  In her TED talk, Jane Poynter talks about what it was like living for two years in Biosphere 2, and advises Tucsonans to throw away their rakes.

Biosphere 2 - the official website

The Wikipedia article on Biosphere 2 - a nice overview, with lots of history

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Spring Food from the Sonoran Desert

Cholla Blossoms, McDowell Mountain Regional Park.  © 2017 Tina Quinn Durham
Cholla - the same cactus that modern hikers hate and fear - actually sustained Native Americans in the past.  After a winter of dried foods, the Tohono O'odham would carefully gather the cholla buds just before the cactus flowered in the spring.  Then they would carefully clean off the spines, and boil or roast the buds, which are low in calories but high in calcium.  And of course, they were careful not to harvest all the buds, because they understood that sustainability is critical to a society’s long-term survival.

Today, people use tongs to harvest the buds, and clean off the spines with a screen box, rolling the buds across the screen with a whisk broom, and then pulling off the remaining spines with tweezers.  This is definitely not fast food!

Cholla buds could be cooked fresh, or dried and cooked later.  But raw cholla buds contain oxalic acid which irritates the throat of any human unfortunate enough to eat a freshly picked cholla bud.  Fifteen minutes of boiling will remove the acid, and then the cooked buds can be added to other dishes.

However, javalina, jack rabbits and pack rats can all digest oxalic acid, and so eat the fruit of the cholla and the prickly pear without damaging their esophagi.  Which is fortunate for them, because they don’t have access to a kitchen!

Works Cited

Acoba, Elana. “It's Harvest Time for Cholla Buds, a Subtle, Versatile Native Food.” Arizona Daily Star, Tucson.com, 8 Apr. 2012, tucson.com/lifestyles/home-and-garden/it-s-harvest-time-for-cholla-buds-a-subtle-versatile/article_c9e74554-3c65-5976-ac29-bd3668399c5a.html.

Engols, Kimberly, and Season Eggleston. The Incredible Edible Desert. Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Dept., University of Arizona, 2010, eebweb.arizona.edu.

Tohona O'odham Community Action. “Ciolim: Cholla Cactus Buds.” Tocaonline.org, Tohono O'odham Community Action, ND, www.tocaonline.org/ciolim.html.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Surprised by a Sahuaro

Sahuaro, McDowell Mtn. Regional Park, AZ.  ©2017 Tina Quinn Durham
I was going to write a post about sahuaros that was replete with intriguing scientific facts about this unique cactus which grows only in one desert in the world - the Sonoran desert of the American Southwest and northern Mexico.  Instead, I ended up writing a poem about sahuaros which might actually be a publishable piece of work.  When it hits a small press magazine, I'll let you know.

Meanwhile, a couple of fun facts about sahuaros:

You may have known that Lesser Long-Nosed Bats are a primary pollinator for sahuaros, which bloom at night.  What you may not have realized is that the flowers stay open until the following afternoon and that the white-winged dove is an important pollinator of sahuaros.  This dove actually times its migration to coincide with the flowering and fruiting of the sahuaro cactus ("Migratory Pollinators," Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum).

Another surprising bit of information:  a sahuaro cactus may weigh up to 8 tons, and its roots can absorb 200 gallons of water during a single rainfall.  That's over 1600 lbs. of water! ("Sahuaro Roots," National Park Service).

Here's the last weird thing about sahuaros:  they have shallow root systems.  Although the roots may extend several feet in all directions, they're only a few inches deep (ibid).  You'd think something as tall and heavy as a sahuaro might be more like mesquite trees, with tap roots that reach down a very impressive 200 feet into the soil (Dimmitt, "Plant Ecology of the Sonoran Desert Region").  But no, three to five inches deep is all a sahuaro needs to survive for over 100 years in its desert environment.

Which just goes to show you that there's more than one way to live in harmony with your surroundings, and to thrive even in harsh conditions.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Just another amazing Arizona sunset

McDowell Mtn. Regional Park.  ©2017 Tina Quinn Durham
When we got to McDowell Mountain Regional Park and set up camp (inasmuch as one ever sets up camp in a motorhome), the first thing I did was put on the hiking boots and head down the spur toward the Granite Trail. It was a spectacular sunset and a lovely, peaceful hike.

Moments like these are why we live in Arizona!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Another Road Trip - Arizona Oct. 2017

Sabino Canyon, near Tucson, AZ.  ©2017 Tina Quinn Durham
Okay, this was kind of a weird vacation for me because it was more or less unscripted in that we knew what places we wanted to visit, but didn’t have reservations or a fixed timetable.  Also, because we were camping in various state, national or regional parks, it was different from any RV’ing I had done before.

DAY ONE: TUCSON AND SABINO CANYON.  Sabino Canyon is one of the places I’ve always wanted to visit, and I’ve rather envied Jeff the opportunity to hike there as a teenager.  Having two kids within two years of getting married really cramped our style when it came to hiking, or doing anything that required money.  Now, however, the kids have been grown for a long, long time, and we're finally getting around to some of the items on my bucket list.

The National Forest Service website says that "over a million visitors a year" come to see the "soaring mountains, deep canyons, and the unique plants and animals" in Sabino Canyon.  The rugged landscape and the sahuaro cacti are definitely worth the visit.

I was impressed with the quality of the narration on the tram ride.  The driver knew the plants and animals in the area as well as the natural and human histories of the canyon.  Not only that, he could get across the narrow stone bridges without falling off!

We didn't do much hiking because of the heat.  Yes, even though it was mid-October, the afternoon was still too hot, and it didn't matter that it was a dry heat.  It was just too hot. Nevertheless, we got off at the last tram stop, wandered around a bit and enjoyed the amazing vistas before heading back to civilization.

The other high point of our day was lunch at Brushfire BBQ in Tucson.  Pulled pork sandwiches with a sweet, hot BBQ sauce, topped with fresh creamy coleslaw and washed down with Prickly Pear Iced Tea.  What could be better than that?