There are windswept days in the Arizona Desert where seemingly every color of the spectrum may be examined upon close inspection. This particular area is just north of McKellips Road and Crismon Road in East Mesa, an area where Usery Mountain Regional Park stands adjacent to Tonto National Forest. After a period of seasonal rain, it is amazing to see how green this area becomes, bursting with lime-green, yellow-green, emerald green and dozens of other varieties of spectacular hues. When the desert is dry, one notices the rust-colors, the tans, the yellow ochres, the bleached greys, faded green hues and ashen rocks. The wildlife also exhibits great variety of color, from flashy iridescent hummingbirds to motley colored songbirds and rustic desert quail. Once I visited a Park nearby and witnessed Harris hawks sailing high overhead, looking like noble black falcons on a cerulean blue sky. I am reminded of a phrase coined by American artist Wolf Kahn, a gifted painter and fantastic landscape artist. Kahn once told a group of Drew University art students that he was intrigued by "the tangles of nature," those outdoor spectacles we notice when we truly study and observe the natural environment which surrounds us. The Arizona Desert is indeed such an environment, filled with tangles and colorful spectacles stretching from the desert floor all the way to the blue-grey, purple and lavender mountain peaks.
I love the contrasts between light & shadow upon the desert mountains of Arizona. This area is known as Usery Mountain Regional Park, located just 20 minutes from my home in Mesa. The Park encompasses 3,648 acres and is situated at the western end of the Goldfield Mountains, adjacent to the Tonto National Forest. Pass Mountain rises to 2,840 feet and features a spectacular hiking trail which allows views of 70 or more miles into the distance beyond. The lower Sonoran Desert is a fascinating place offering a wealth of rich color and a diverse variety of flora & fauna. On a bright day with palatial clouds sailing overhead, you can absorb the pulse and atmosphere of this remarkable environment. As you take in the sweet birdsong and distant calls of wildlife, for just a moment you begin to absorb the manifold beauties of the wilderness preserve.
A Wilderness Journey & a Memorable Encounter
Many years ago I drove from my home in Mesa to spend a day hiking in the Superstition Mountains at Lost Dutchman State Park, just north of Apache Junction, Arizona. It is a leisurely drive from where I live to the entrance of the Park, perhaps 30 to 40 minutes, with clear views all around and a rare majesty of the mountain/ desert interface on panoramic display. On this particular day I brought an Audubon Bird Call with me as well as some reading material, good hiking boots, comfortable clothing (safari style), a couple of snacks, plenty of water, and a nice cowboy hat to offer some shade from the hot desert sun. Early in the morning I started up the main trail and hiked a brief segment until I found a shady spot next to some palo verde trees and rock outcroppings. There I found a perfectly secluded spot where no one could see me and I could rest amidst the bounty of natural flora & fauna, taking delight in these extraordinary surroundings.
A Startling Sound & A Brilliant Display
As I became entirely comfortable in this desert hideaway, I began to read and to quietly mimic the sound of bird chirps through the use of the bird call. After a few minutes I suddenly became aware of a thundering sound and a delicate palpitation right next to my right eye and upper cheek. I thought for a moment that it was a very large bumble bee or honeybee and I just froze unable to move. This winged phenomenon was beating its wings wildly in an extraordinary manner, and I could hear it and feel it so distinctly, perhaps only 6 inches from my face. I turned my gaze ever so slightly toward this object and noticed very bright, iridescent colors, and a very long, slender and narrow bill. It was a beautiful hummingbird just hovering next to me, apparently attracted by the sound of the bird call and looking me over from cowboy hat to dusty boots! This moment only lasted a brief minute or two, yet I was so delighted and stunned to come that close to such a beautiful creature. The little fellow took off after a suitable inspection, allowing me to savor that spectacular chance meeting as a divine and cherished gift.
The Audubon Bird Call
The Audubon Bird Call was invented in 1947 by Roger Eddy, an author and member of the Connecticut State Legislature. This small device, just a couple of inches in length, is made of cast zinc (or other metal) and birch wood, made in Rhode Island and available from many specialty shops in either red or natural wood color. You can twist the metal knob and mimic the sounds of a host of different species of birds, from chirping sounds to song-like tweets. The wooden chamber may be treated with a bit of rosin (usually supplied by the manufacturer) in order to keep it at its best sound-producing capability. If kept dry and away from moisture or humidity, the bird call should last indefinitely and provide many hours of bird-watching enjoyment.
Hummingbirds are fascinating creatures to watch, with estimates of anywhere between 60 to 200 times per second of the flapping of their delicate wings. They experience a fast breathing rate, fast heartbeat, and high body temperature, can fly up to 60 miles per hour, are capable of incredible gyrations & mid-air maneuvers, and can live 5 to 6 years in the wild. There are some 320 species extant, covering a wide swath of geographical territory, often migrating appreciable distances. Their colors are fabulous in richness and vibrant in texture, shining in a spectacular manner, especially in the deserts of Arizona, a location noted for brilliant sunshine year round.
Lost Dutchman State Park
40 miles east of Phoenix stands this remarkable sanctuary, nestled within the Sonoran Desert, featuring many trails which lead into the Superstition Wilderness and the Tonto National Forest. You can hike Siphon Draw Trail to the top of the Flatiron, an elevation of 4,800 feet, a height which affords a monumental view of the Valley below. At that elevation, Phoenix looks like a city made of toy blocks perhaps one quarter inch high along the distant horizon, and Mesa and Apache Junction fan out in dazzling array as far as the eye can see. Mule deer, coyote, javelina, jackrabbit, desert quail, and cactus wren populate the landscape here, with hiking trails and nature trails adding to the convenience of 72 campsites within the perimeter of the Park. The name "Superstition Wilderness" was apparently inspired by Pima Indian legends, and one may still find evidence of cliff dwellings and caves in this area. Salado or Hohokam Indians may have populated this landscape 100's of years ago, with Pimas, Apaches and Yavapais living here subsequently. In the 1800's this area became an Apache stronghold. In the 1840's the Peralta family of northern Mexico produced a gold mine here. In the 1870's Jacob Waltz and his partner Jacob Weiser apparently located the mine, but kept its location a well-guarded secret. After Waltz died in 1891, no one was ever able to find the exact location of "The Dutchman's" lost mine.
A Journey Across An Imaginative Landscape
In the late 1960's I often had occasion to travel via the Jersey Central Railroad from the Dunellen train station all the way to Newark, traversing the Hudson Tubes and eventually arriving at New York City. As an Art student enrolled in the New York Art Semester at Drew University, I was expected to visit museums and galleries, engage in class field trips to meet artists in their studio environments, and to keep a noteworthy journal of my thoughts, perceptions and observations. The Jersey Central provided a convenient method of commuting to NYC and I quickly became fond of train travel as an alternative to taking a car or bus to the City. The route began in Dunellen, traveled through Plainfield, Fanwood, Scotch Plains, Westfield, Garwood, and Cranford, finally reaching the great train station at Newark, a place of enormous overhead structures and miles of parallel tracks packed with passenger trains.
The View From a Train Window
There occurs a brief moment as you leave the train station at Fanwood heading East where the tracks curve slightly to the right and the train allows a view into the backyards of some vintage homes clustered along a stretch of wooded parcels of land to the North of the tracks. At this point the train seems to be at a somewhat higher elevation, perhaps as much as 10 feet higher than the backyards of the homes, giving the effect of looking downwards into a miniature canyon or autumnal valley. Just at this juncture of time and space, I would remember the lines from one of the songs by Judy Collins on her 1967 album "Wildflowers," a critically acclaimed album arranged and conducted by Joshua Rifkin. All of the songs on that recording are gems, but the one which keeps coming back to me is entitled "Albatross," one of the most beautiful works of art which Judy ever recorded. The first lines read, "The lady comes to the gate dressed in lavender and leather...," a poetic entry into a visual field of splendor. The song continues, "...She hears the steeple bells ringing through the orchard all the way from town." I do not remember if there were any gates that could be seen from the train windows, but there were certainly plenty of places that a gate might provide a beautiful entryway into these lovely homes with their petite backyards. Similarly one could occasionally view a church steeple briefly at some distance from the tracks, or imagine the bells heard in each neighborhood, or envision the neat topography of land laid out from the town center to the small wooded parcels dotted along the train tracks.
A Poetic Song with Evocative Images
Judy's song continues with vibrantly resonant language, pinpointing the grandeur of the human landscape as well as the natural landscape. "Many people wander up the hills from all around you, making up your memories and thinking they have found you." As I peer through the train windows I begin to see the history of the moment and the pattern of the events and the people in my life. From station to station, from track to track, from city to city....these thoughts and perceptions become the dialogues of a young art student transformed via time and the ongoing process of maturity. Judy speaks of "the embroidery of life" and then paints a picture which becomes indelibly etched in my artistic heart and mind. "...And in the night the iron wheels rolling through the rain, down the hills through the long grass to the sea." Joshua Rifkin's arrangement and orchestral conducting soar with an affinity for Judy's lovely voice during this powerful passage. There is a rise and fall of evocative feeling in this special music, conjuring images which remain impressively vivid.
Judy's song "Albatross" closes with some perceptive observations on the continuity of life. "Day and night and day again, and people come and go away forever." Who hasn't reflected upon our days of schooling or early family life or days spent working or travelling or interacting with others via relationships? Wave upon wave of events may occur as cycles existing in time, like the train excursions via the Jersey Central, peering out the train windows and recording the impressions one may encounter or visualize along the way. Then in the closing lines to the song, Judy so eloquently, so elegantly, quietly recites a marvelously resonant and poetic message, "Come away alone, ...come away alone....with me." This is the memorable language of love, a time and a place which can be viewed as a tender invitation, a noble passage, an everlasting entrance or an eternal gate.