I have always wanted to visit one of the 10th Mountain Division huts tucked high within Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Named to honor the men of the 10th Mountain Division of the US Army who trained during World War II in Central Colorado, the system of 29 backcountry huts are connected by 350 miles of suggested routes.

Gardener In The Wild

An Essay: Gardener in the Wild

The San Jacinto Mountains, above Palm Springs, California, shoot up 10,804 feet from the desert without, as one writer has it, the geologic fanfare of foothills. I'd come in January to one of its mountain towns, Idyllwild, to try to recover some shred of a self, fractured from a September move. I left a beloved New England landscape, townhouse, and garden for a particularly congested section of Los Angeles, called Miracle Mile. The miracle, as far as I can tell, has to do with cramming 5,280 linear feet with a million people, an equal number of cars, and billions of dollars.

Every day in L.A. was raw, and seemed dangerous. Drivers were poised to kill. I saw a homeless man brush his teeth over a trash bin. On a clear night in October we heard long minutes of gunfire. I couldn't sleep. A California native, Salvia leucophylla, bloomed blue-lavender in the neighborhood, but my heart was closed. One afternoon I hit a car in a parking lot. In early January I had two bouts of traffic-induced panic.

All this was confusing and upsetting. When I did sleep, I often woke up crying. I wanted to steady myself, thinking of the far greater displacement and losses suffered by survivors of Katrina, and tried to buck up. But all life is individual life.

The first week or so in mile-high Idyllwild I ran at urban speed. Cell phone work? Wi-fi card installed? Bills paid? On a six-hour hike on the familiar South Ridge Trail, I scrambled off-trail up a ledge, and then couldn't remember the way I had come. Body not attached to head.

On the coastal side of the mountain, eleven overlapping life zones seem to call in the plant diaspora of California. It's a dizzying and unpredictable botanical stew, where Chaparral-zone shrubs chat up lodge pole pines. Particularly striking are the twisting architectural shrubby trees, manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.). The mahogany-cinnamon color of its smooth and slick-looking bark enlivens the forest and rocks and boulders and honeycombed canyons of greens and greys and coffees. Even the silvery skeletons shine.

One warm mid-January morning something happened between me and a manzanita that brought me back to ground and to my senses. I was walking along the Ernie Maxwell Trail. I had strolled by thousands of these shrubs and small trees already when, for some reason I spied, I suppose in some Buddhist sense, one. It was holding onto a small slope just up from the trail, trapped by debris from a fallen tree. I jumped into the manzanita. I grabbed dead branches from its crown. I pulled out pieces of wood from its branches. I threw it all into a pile across the trail. I cracked, shoved, dragged, kicked. It was as if I had run out after a storm to find the venerable mountain laurel in my Massachusetts garden similarly stricken. I worked so fast and hard my arms scraped and bled, but not so mindlessly that I lost balance or footing.

I finally stopped. The tree was permanently pinned and torn in three places by the splintered giant. Short of a chainsaw, I could work no further. I grieved for this little tree.

Then, I took a broader view. The mountain was witness to thousands of crushed manzanita, most still living. I've since returned to Idyllwild (it's the anti-L.A.) to see new growth on the tips of "my" manzanita, in spite of its wounds. A couple of times though, preoccupied on the trail, I've whizzed by it. So much for oneness.

Yet I carry a few of the manzanita's small leathery leaves in a pocket, and hide three or four in my pillowcase. I can't explain why.

Two days after my adventure on the trail, a generous Czech woman in Idyllwild leant me a book about "plant spirit" medicine. She did not know about the manzanita.

Eliot Cowan writes in this book: "[T]he magic is not in the matter. It's in the spirit." So I don't worry about losing the leaves. I don't know what to make of it all, really.

Sometimes I think it was just the natural behavior of a gardener in the wild. 

Paula Panich, Los Angeles, CA 

Paula Panich is author of Cultivating Words: The Guide to Writing about the Plants and Gardens You Love (Tryphon Press, 2005).

The Birth of Teen Empathy

The birth of empathy between siblings is a beautiful thing to witness.  One of the many unexpected joys of living abroad is watching the way such a powerful experience changes your children.  For the better.  Kids who travel together, learn to rely on each other in a deeper way than life in suburban America demands.

Wings Over Willcox: A Birding Adventure

The take-off is amazing. But, it’s the sound that stays with you, I’d been told. Still, I couldn’t imagine the impending glory of the moment.

I was too cold.  

This was my first visit to Willcox, Ariz., for the town’s annual celebration of the sandhill cranes’ migration to their southern Arizona winter home.

Wings Over Willcox Sand Hill Crane Convention

The sandhills’ stop in the Southwest is perhaps their most famous performance. Scouting for a suitable mate, the birds spend nearly a month entertaining avid birders and the casually curious. The crane population peaks around St Patrick’s Day, before they depart en masse for the Arctic, where a demanding breeding season ensues.
I had heard about Wings Over Willcox and had been eager to introduce the birding extravaganza to my sons.

My own interest in the cranes began when I first read A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University, 1970) in my 20s. Aldo Leopold, the late Wisconsin naturalist, wrote of his fondness for the sandhills in his 1949 classic.
Each year this farming community in Cochise County, roughly 80 miles east of Tucson, welcomes winter visitors of multiple species. Plenty of heat-seeking humans show up from places like Vancouver and Kansas. And as many as 30,000 sandhill cranes find their way to a 60-sq.-mile roosting site near Willcox. The Arizona Game and Fish Department owns the land where the birds roost and makes sure it is flooded each year to create the six-inch deep pool the cranes find so appealing.

Nature Calls
In an era when social media and sporting events are mainstays for the modern teen, it is not easy to arouse enthusiasm for a weekend spent in a small Arizona town, where the adventure’s highlight is a predawn excursion to see a mass of long-necked, pointy-billed, spindly-legged birds take flight.

I am fortunate to have raised nature lovers. When journalist and youth advocate Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books, 2005), sparked a national discussion about the lack of time children spend in the natural world, I have felt grateful my sons have grown up exposed to desert wild flowers, the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River, and now, the dance of the sandhill cranes.

Ancient Wisdom
There is much to be learned from these ancient birds that live long lives, up to 25 years, despite an arduous lifestyle; some are known to commute as far as Siberia. The cranes also are monogamous, have several offspring and even dance for their mates. They will mightily defend their loved ones and their territory. Their young even go through voice changes, just as humans do, says Michael Forsberg, a nature photographer and expert on crane migration and social behaviors.

National Geographic considers this avian traveling show one of the continents two greatest wildlife events, sharing honors with the great caribou migration. The residents of Willcox must be proud.

Lift Off

So it was that we found ourselves in the cold, dark Arizona morning, swaddled in warm layers to ward off the chill, waiting for lift off.
Then we heard it. As the rising sun spewed light on the shallows, a jarring whoosh filled the air and washed over us like a wave over sand. In that moment, thousands of birds, with five- to six-foot wingspans, and weighing as much as 14 pounds, took flight. They were embarking on a day that would include lollygagging in nearby cornfields and flying in V formation to the delight of mesmerized onlookers. Later they would return, to roost once again, in this Sulphur Springs Valley sanctuary.
Thankfully, the rising sun, and the somehow haunting ritual, warmed us as well.
As we settled into a welcome breakfast of eggs over easy and piles of pancakes, we spoke of the birds’ flight.

And of the sound.

The amazing sound of the sandhill cranes, in unison, breaking the sacred silence of morning.

If You Go

  • Each year, the Wings Over Willcox Birding & Nature Festival (WOW) takes place during January’s Martin Luther King weekend. While the cranes are the stars of the show, the festival offers tours and educational programs that also explore photography, geology, archeology, history, botany, agriculture and ranching. Visit the Web site to review the seminars and tours that interest you and your family.
  • Reserve early.
  • Just for kids
    Children can explore a nature expo in the community center, which features educational booths, live animal displays, and a wide variety of vendors with nature-related crafts and activities. Free seminars on various topics are offered throughout the day.
  • Be prepared
    Mornings are cold with temperatures dipping well below freezing. (Think 15 degrees Fahrenheit.) Wear gloves, hats and layers. Rain is unlikely, but possible.
  • Bring your camera.
  • Where to stay
    The WOW Web site lists most available lodging options, including chain motels, local B&Bs and guest ranches. Top pick: Muleshoe Ranch. Run by the Nature Conservancy, its simple casitas in a birding sanctuary are ideal for nature-loving families.

Guided Tours
Every winter, tens of thousands of sandhill cranes come to roost around the town of Willcox, 83 miles east of Tucson off I-10. For several years now, the town has decided to celebrate this event by staging a major festival during the third weekend of January, with birding tours and field trips to Willcox Playa, Cochise lake and the Apache Station Wildlife Area (the main habitats of the famous cranes). Other excursions take visitors to see raptors, sparrows and waterfowl wintering in the mild Southern Arizona climate. Inquire about tour dates and prices. Seminars and presentations on local wildlife are free. Due to limited seating, registration is required for all tours.

For more information, visit www.wingsoverwillcox.com;

Page 2 of 2