ADAPTATIONS

Life as usual

isn’t.

Routines have changed and I’m evolving, shaped

by circumstance, wriggling into

new spaces, expanding into

unfamiliar realms, making it

mine,

adapting.

***

Just short of four months ago I traveled deep into the Sonoran desert near Arizona’s border with Mexico with my partner.  We explored Organ Pipe National Monument, part of a vast desert landscape that ranges through parts of California and Arizona, and into Mexico.

Cutting across this desert is an international border. It is ignored and crossed fairly easily by plants and animals – at least while there is no wall. People fight over this line and suffer deeply because of it. Many lose their lives. The evidence of this struggle is quite apparent. Between border conflicts and the difficult desert environment, it’s clear that here, the ability to adapt is crucial.

How people adapt or fail to adapt is a complicated story that I don’t feel equipped to tell, except to say that the signs I saw – the border fence and checkpoints, the helicopter that buzzed us when we went off trail, empty water jugs scattered across the sand, graves and roadside memorials – those signs of struggle were impossible to get away from. In retrospect it’s almost as if they were a portent of the life-threatening change that would throw us completely off balance within hours of returning to civilization, a change that forced us to adapt beyond what we would have imagined.

But as we walked and drove through the desert we were purely in the moment. I was focused on taking photographs. Needless to say, I took a lot.*   Looking through them, an obvious category is plant life – the cacti and their allies, those brilliantly adapted, tough and prickly plants of the desert that tell their own stories of adaptation.  Another group of photographs, maybe for another post, touches on the stark realities of the border and this desolate, unforgiving country. For now, the plants:

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The familiar looking Englemann’s Prickly Pear cactus (similar cacti grow in many parts of the US) is found scattered throughout the park. I love the soft green color of this cactus but in black and white one’s attention is drawn to the contrast between its round shape and spiky spines, which I find compelling.

The large, multiple stem cactus for which the park is named is the Organ Pipe cactus. It’s more common in Mexico but inches onto the southern edge of the US map, here in the hot Sonoran desert. This cactus and others that are rare in the U.S. are the primary reason the land was set aside, way back in 1937.

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I’m not big on interpretive signs, preferring to keep fresh eyes and form my own take on things. Once in a while I do read them. A sign along the winding, scenic road through the park informs visitors that wind blowing through an Organ Pipe cactus makes a strangely beautiful sound. It was a breezy day so we chose a huge old specimen and gingerly stuck our heads into the mass of spine-cloaked stems.

The sound was enchanting and otherworldly – a kind of breathy, ethereal melody perfectly suited to the spare, quiet landscape.

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Another cactus more often seen Mexico than America is the Senita cactus, below. It has a similar growth habit to the Organ Pipe, but the details are different. Older specimens in the second photograph show the Senita’s distinctive hairy looking tops. A moth has co-evolved with the cactus, both species adapting to the environment and one another in a complex evolutionary dance. The moth larvae live on Senita cacti and eat the fruits; the moth itself pollinates Senita’s night-blooming flowers. This cactus can grow tall, to 13 feet.

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Twenty-six species of cactus live at Organ Pipe; all have adapted to life at temperatures ranging over 100 F to below freezing, with scant, unpredictable rainfall. Below is a typical jumble of peculiar forms as Saguaro, Ocotillo, Senita, Cholla, Brittlebush, Palo Verde tree, and others vie for space in the arid environment. Organ Pipe National Monument is really a lush desert garden.

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Perhaps the most common cactus is the Saguaro, seen here in the foreground and scattering up the hillside to the left.

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An example of the rare cristate mutation on a Saguaro. The cause might be frost but no one is sure why the cactus sometimes grows in this ornate pattern.

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Cacti can be seen at Organ Pipe in all stages of growth and decay. Both Organ Pipe and Saguaro cacti will often begin life hidden under a desert tree such as the Palo Verde, which provides just enough shelter for the cactus to get a good grip on life. Once we started looking for them, we saw many young cacti under trees and shrubs, like the Organ Pipe below. Look carefully and you can see a shorter stem in front of the main stem. Over time, it will grow many stems, and may live well over a hundred years.

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Below is the skeleton and peeling “skin” of a fallen giant – in this case, an Occotillo.

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The fallen Saguaro below pulled up the desert floor when it toppled, exposing the rough rock it grew in.  Below it you can see the “skin” of a dead Saguaro.

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This oddly beckoning skeleton is probably a Jumping Cholla cactus. Further down, you’ll see a live one.

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Like the Tohono O’odham people, who have lived here for many generations, cacti have adapted well to desert extremes.  Shallow root systems and flexible “skins” allow cacti to quickly gulp down rain that falls as unpredictably as a cat’s meanderings.  Pale colors reflect away the over-abundant light. Spines provide protection from thirsty animals, guide raindrops towards the cactus flesh, and create slender threads of shade on sweltering days. Many cacti can put their metabolism into idle mode to wait out the calendar’s rough spots.

Below, a roadside scene at Organ Pipe where Cholla cacti and Saguaros are set against the Ajo Range. On the other side is the 4,340 square mile Tohono O’odham (‘Desert People’) reservation, the second largest in the country.

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Where there’s water, plant life adapts and changes gears.  At Quitobaquito Springs near the border, trees and a wild tangle of grasses edge a pond.

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This harsh land has a strange beauty. The image below is an Ocotillo plant with the Ajo Mountains in the background. The Ocotillo’s peculiar spindly form is an odd favorite of mine. I was introduced to them silhouettes at Joshua Tree in California. It was good to see the Ocotillo’s eccentric scribbles punctuating the landscape again in southern Arizona.

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Some Ocotillos sport striped branches that contrast with new leaves, others don’t.

Another adaptation? Maybe. The small, tough leaves can appear a few days after a good rain and then fall off in dry spells, the plant going dormant, for years if necessary.

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This is Jumping cholla, or Chain fruit cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida). This specimen, with its balanced, formal symmetry, reminds me of Victorian decoration.

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Below is another Cholla cactus, the Teddy Bear Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigloveii). Its tiny, backward hooked spines are like little velcro magnets – get anywhere near them and they’ll detach and seem to jump onto you. Good luck removing them! At Joshua Tree in California I saw a discarded T shirt by a Cholla patch – picking out the spines just wasn’t worth the effort (it would have been nice if they’d packed it out).  This cactus is also known for the way its spines catch light, glowing into dusk.

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We were too early to see cactus flowers, except for a few. Below, the bud of a cactus, possibly a species of Mammillaria. Many species of Mammillaria cactus grow in Mexico but only a few thrive in the US, at least in the wild. They’re actually popular as cultivated cacti. Below that is a barrel cactus with last year’s fruit, well protected behind a thick ring of sharp spines.

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Below, a rare Elephant tree (Bursera microphylla) wedges its water-swollen trunk and lower branches into the poor soil on a rocky hillside. I would have inhaled deeply if I’d known the tree has a wonderfully pungent fragrance, which I learned later online (no interpretive sign for that!). With all the moisture it can store, this tree can go a year without rain. Very susceptible to cold, it doesn’t get very tall here. It has tiny leaves (so it won’t lose too much water to respiration) arrayed on delicate branches, which contrast with the tough-barked swollen trunk. The leaves’ pores open at night, further conserving water.

Certain indigenous people cautioned that its reddish sap, used medicinally, must be kept out of sight. I was drawn to this mysterious tree and would have liked to sit under it for an hour, but I don’t usually have that luxury when traveling.

Lessons for my next trip:

  1. Read up more before you go, if possible.
  2. Work in time to just sit and take it all in.

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Another intriguing adaptation is the relationship between the Phainopepla, a medium sized, crested bird and the Desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum). When the bird eats mistletoe berries, they’re digested and the seeds are left behind, typically in a perfect spot for future germination.  The mistletoe is a hemiparasite that grows on desert trees and shrubs, and the Phainopepla naturally deposits the seeds onto a branch as it perches, looking for the next meal. Below you can see the berries growing close up, Desert mistletoe in a Palo Verde tree, and berries left on a branch – they don’t appear to have gone through anyone’s stomach, but the desert’s mysteries are many…

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Maybe that’s a Phainopepla feather caught on that mistletoe branch…

Our own adaptations to changing circumstances – physical, emotional, intellectual – may be a little harder to see than those of the plants at Organ Pipe, but are just as interesting if you think about them. Let’s hope we can be as successful, and can evolve with rather than against our surroundings.

*

* Taking travel photographs is challenging.  Every time I travel to a new place, excitement takes over. When I get home I realize all the things I forgot to do: I should have used a different aperture, I shouldn’t have left the polarizing filter on, I should have composed more carefully, held the camera steady, checked the exposure, etc. Maybe I should tape a small sign on my camera the next time I travel that says, “Stop. Think.”  The most successful photos above are thanks to a practiced eye and the miracles of digital cameras and software, in spite of an over-excited mind. The less successful ones are lessons for me.


57 comments

  1. Wow, what a lot of pictures! And for someone who’s never been to the Americas, what an alien landscape – the Old World deserts I’ve seen don’t have cacti! I VERY much like the two mono shots at the top of this post, especially the 2nd one. And the cristate mutation is really striking too. Seeing all these pictures is like going there, and I’m fascinated. A 🙂

    • Yes, so many photographs, and of course there are more…but for someone who spent so much time in Africa, you should be comfortable with alien landscapes, no? Maybe not as alien as this though! Glad you liked those first two; I was really happy with them, and figured I would go ahead and mix the black and whites with color shots as I’ve done before. I’m glad you’re fascinated, too – and I haven’t talked about the border issues, or the small – very small – town we stayed in. Will hopefully post roadside photos one of these days. It IS an intense place.

      • Oh yes, alien landscapes are fine with me, and esp deserts, in Arabia and Kenya – but maybe its the cacti that look so foreign. Yes, do mix colour and B+W, no reason no to. 🙂

  2. Wow! This is such an interesting post. You sure do know a lot about the desert and the plants that grow there. I’ll have to remember your advice: read up as much as possible before going, and build in time to sit and just contemplate.

  3. There is so much emotion here, including your love for the natural world, your concern for our ability to accept others, no matter which side of a sometimes-invisible line they live, the observations of adaptability – and its importance to survival — paired with those lovely photos, this post is classic ‘you.’

    You are so richly talented.
    Z

  4. Having lived in that part of the country, we know that the constant push and pull between the harsh landscape and the beauty that comes of it. That tension is wonderfully captured here. Particularly love the B&W images!

    • That’s an interesting observation, the harsh landscape vs. the beauty. When you get down to the southwest corner of the state I think that sense is even more intense. I’m glad you liked the black and white images – thanks!

  5. Thank you for taking us on a mesmerizing trip through the desert, Lynn. I am always the overexcited traveler myself and forget to do many things. I also don’t read the interpretative signs, but I do try to take pictures of them and read them later, and use their information when writing my blog. However, it would be so much better to read before going! I love all your photos, as always, and your words, especially your line about the rain that falls “as unpredictably as a cat’s meanderings.” And the story about the discarded t-shirt is so funny; I can just picture it! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • I always enjoy your comments Cathy. Sometimes I photograph those signs – but usually in museums, with my phone. Then of course we already have too many images on our phones and cards, so it gets crazy, doesn’t it? Glad to here that even you, who I picture as a very organized traveler (though prone to excess excitement!) can forget things. I hope all is going well in Japan for you – I will catch up with your blog soon, too..

  6. I really enjoyed your post, Lynn. Beautiful photos. And well thought out. We live in times of great change. Words like yours help us sort through the noise and confusion.

    • That’s blush-worthy praise, Sally – thank you very much. I do have to work harder to pull the words together! 😉 But it’s gratifying when it’s all done, especially when I hear back from people.

  7. Thanks for the fascinating and very informative travelogue — and of course, the lovely (as usual) photos.

    • P.S. Forgot to mention that I particularly like the stark black-and-white landscape with the mountains in the background. Would make a great poster for the Organ Pipe National Monument.

      • Great, that one was fun – what a nice idea you have. It’s got that graphic presence. Funny that before I read this I made a similar comment on your blog – the basketball series – those need to be published. The shadow ones would be great graphic images for some urban youth group or something.

  8. Another beautiful photo essay. The thoughts and emotions flow flawlessly through the information and images. I really need to take a trip to the desert. It’s the only climate I haven’t had a chance to explore much. Maybe next year…

    • Sheri, that’s music to my ears, about the flow – thanks so much for that. You know fares to Phoenix aren’t bad from here, the flight isn’t long, and you can rent a car and then be in some very extraordinary places in a few hours. There are lots of good airbnb’s too. We stayed in good ones in Phoenix, in Ajo and in the southeastern corner, too.

  9. Wonderful images I appreciate the b/w and the details of many and of course the size of these plants…amazing…I appreciate the stories of place and what we do as beings…all in this terrain amazing…also I have that feeling so much to see and capture…a blogger named Ray reminds me the photo takes me 🤓 have fun shooting and composing….for me it’s all about learning along the way and having fun….smiles hedy

  10. Hi Lynn, What a fascinating place and your post is full of terrific information. Your images are wonderful and I especially like the black and white and detail shots. Hearing the wind in the Organ Pipe cactus must have been a treat and photographing these otherworldly shapes a challenge. You did a great job given how much there is to think about as you are enjoying the place. Sometimes I just tell myself to stop looking through the camera so I can “see”!

    • A little misinformation, it turns out, as I misidentified a few things but the basics are OK, and I’ll fix what I broke. 😉
      Yes, hearing that wind softly blowing through the cactus spines was one of those moments you have in nature that remind you “This!”
      I appreciate your comments so much, thanks. This one was a lot of work!

  11. A fabulous post. Clearly it was a journey filled with powerful experiences, both natural and social. The photography, of course, is excellent and communicates your feeling response very effectively. Thanks for taking us with you ,Lynn.

  12. I took one look at the cristate mutation you showed and thought, “That’s fasciation.” In fact, a little research revealed that “cristate,” or “crested,” is another name for fasciation. It doesn’t occur only on cacti. Last Sunday, I found my first example of the phenomenon on a local prairie: a fasciated black-eyed Susan. There are more interesting details about the process, but i’ll be writing about them, so I’ll spare you.

    I laughed at the t-shirt story. I have in my closet a shirt and a pair of pants that had encounters with plants-that-wanted-to-be-friends. At least, they saw a good opportunity to spread their seeds. One of these days I’ll finish picking them all off, but there always seems to be something better to do.

    You know how I am about black and white photos, but that first one of the prickly pear is enchanting. I like the photo of the springs, too, and the striped Ocotillo. I think you’re exactly right that it has a Victorian feel.

    I thought it interesting that you don’t read interpretive signs. I’m an inveterate sign-reader. I’ll even stop along a highway just to read the historical markers. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have known that Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, grew up in Burdett, Kansas. Beyond that, I’m so ignorant of plants that if one has an identifier nearby, I’d better make use of it.

    Clearly, this was a rich and satisfying trip. We certainly profited from it!

    • Re the mutation – I think I’ve seen it on other plants as well. I look forward to your post. Re interpretive signs, it’s not something I’m proud of, though it may have come across that way above. It’s mainly that I just want to feel every drop of my own experience from a place in the time I’m there, I guess, and I don’t want to spend time inside, or too influenced by, another person’s ideas of a place. But clearly I miss things that way.
      I’m glad you liked the first photo – thanks to Silver efex and some tweaking, it came out nicely. But i DO so love all the soft, dry colors of the desert.
      There ARE better things to do than to tackle the shirt. You made me laugh though – there’s a pair of socks around here somewhere that ran into stick-tights (couldn’t have been me, must have been the socks) . I didn’t have the heart to throw them away, but…

  13. Holy smokes Lynn, there is just SO much to this post. Of course the photos are terrific but I also really appreciated your thoughts about adaptation and the border “wars”. Finally I totally agree with your comments about travel photography. I have the exact same reaction to the shots I make when I travel and all of the things I missed or the screw-ups I’ve made. Thank goodness for post-processing software. BTW one of the pros who visited us here on Kiawah said she always makes a list before leaving of all of the things she wants to be sure to shoot. I started doing that by envisioning a book about the places I visit and deciding what I want to put in it – adjusting the ideas later of course!! BTW my favorite shot is the cactus that looks like a shell of its former self. Have spent lots of time at my brother’s in Arizona and have seen most of what you’ve included but never anything like that one!

    • Tina, thank you for being a close reader and generous in your comments. That’s an interesting idea about envisioning what you would put in a book about a place you’re visiting. I have, on occasion, at least spent a little time thinking about what the challenges might be, but this idea is much more fun. I’m not sure which cactus you mean, probably the one that’s sort of beckoning with it’s empty arm? It occurred to me that if I had a few weeks in that place, I could really delve into the Saguaro’s different shapes. They do take on a myriad of fascinating forms as they grow.

  14. Gorgeous photos, Lynn, that make me rethink my feelings about cactus. As a child, I was forced to clean around my mother’s potted cactus collection, resulting in painful piercing wounds that were only just healing as soon as it was time to “dust” again. That said, I am willing to acknowledge the beauty of the landscape that you reveal, in spite of my deep dislike of painful plants. It is bewitching, if untouchable. Thank you for offering a new perspective that makes me reconsider an old plant “foe” into an appreciation of it in its natural habitat.

    • What a story, Lynn. And not a nice one. I was older and better able to deflect the bad feelings when my father made me plant a huge patch of pachysandra one year – ugh! A lot of work that was! Certainly the plants at Organ Pipe are a very different experience than a potted cactus far from its natural environment. Thanks for stopping by and overcoming your distaste, at least a bit! 😉

  15. Thanks to you, for few minutes, I was a part of that amazing world. Beautiful images, great photographies, a sense of miracle in each detail! Thank you Lynn!

    • Thank you, Scott, yes, it was quite the journey, as my husband had a stroke just when we returned to Phoenix, and it was three weeks before he could travel again back to our home state – crazy! He;s not real eager to return to Arizona right away! 😉 But I highly recommend it, and if you do go there, I’m told a terrific guide book is “A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert” published by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson.

  16. You captured the desert’s subtle colors and its tranquility beautifully with your mix of black-and-white and color photographs. I am still learning one of your travel lessons — taking time to appreciate everything. With so much to see and do in a new place, I have to remind myself to slow down and take some of it in.

  17. WOW … that IS a lot of photographs! You found so many great subjects. Great job! My favorites are the B&W organ pipe cactus and the tree with all the dry grass in the foreground. I was there several years ago and would love to go back.

    • Yes, a lot! Interesting to hear you’ve been there, too! Thanks for letting me know your favorites – I was happy with the BW Organ Pipe cactus, and the one from the spring sort of composed itself – those grasses fell gracefully.

  18. Pingback: BORDER BLUES « bluebrightly


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