Along the border, 500 miles of desert species

One early March morning in southern Arizona’s Coronado National Memorial, an uneven line of scientists and amateur naturalists in floppy hats and hiking pants crept up a steep hillside through yellowed grasses and dark shrubs.

Volunteer Dispatch: Ecology as contemplative practice, pt. 4

by Valarie lee James, Sky Island Alliance Adopt-a-Spring volunteer

“Darwin’s manner of deep watchfulness allowed the ordinary ground of life to become sanctified, to be brought into Sensus plenoir—a fuller sense—through the offering of simple attention.” – Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author and naturalist.

“…what would it mean for contemplative practice to be considered an integral part of a deepening ecological awareness?” – Theologian Douglas E. Christie, author of The Blue Sapphire of the Mind; Notes for a Contemplative Ecology

Sky Island Alliance Volunteer Log
Winter 2018 Visit to the Spring

The sun is shining but the wind blows bitter, chapping the skin on contact. Waves of wind curl the bleached grass, pressing it against the hillside.

On the way to the spring, we pass stands of fallen cactus: saguaro and prickly pear in a state of decay, crumbling under our feet to dust, reminding us of the importance of the season, death, and resurrection. We pass tall grey ocotillo, skinny standing bones, thorned, sentinels of winter in the desert.

Deer trails etch deeper into the hillside, revealing how fragile the surface of the desert really is. Trails created even once carve into the topsoil like scars on the skin. The only thing that soothes and sometimes removes the mark-making are the rains, scanty this year.

Though the grasslands are winter-dried and tamped down, tiny pokies with feral intelligence find their way into my socks and I need to stop, drop, and remove my shoes.

Dotting the trail like bread crumbs in a fairy tale: chunks of chalcedony milky quartz.  Some resemble circular geodes broken open. Some have a vulva-like shape and are shaped like roses. I always think of them as Desert Roses though this term is actually associated with rocks created from gypsum. Common in the Sonoran Desert grasslands, chalcedony quartz pieces are a child’s ‘jewels’ of the desert.

I pick up a palm-size chalcedony desert rose and think about Tucson’s beloved “Pink Rose of the Desert,” the Benedictine monastery shuttered this year after 75-plus years gracing our region. The monastery was lived in and loved by the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, a contemplative order well-versed in the traditional Benedictine practice of Lectio among other charisms. Lectio (Latin for Divine reading), devotional listening with the ear of the heart, continues to inform my growing contemplative take on the natural world.

Sycamore leaves carpet the ground and float in the swollen spring waters.

Maple-like Arizona Sycamore leaves litter the hillside having blown up the slope from the spring. I pick one up and cup it in my hand. Fragile to the touch and dry as the desert air, it miraculously retained its shape, curled up like a starfish. From A Botanist’s Vocabulary, by Pell and Angell, I learn that in winter the leaf’s “acuminate” tapered points draw in toward the center, towards the “petiole,” where it connects to its stem. The pull to turn inward and draw down, to contract in the process of dying, untethers the now concave leaf, freeing it to chart a new course: a paper boat on the wind.

The first thing that jumps out as we approach the spring, almost assaulting the eye: bright white branches of the huge Arizona sycamores. Called ‘ghost trees” in winter, with their leaves stripped bare, they display an austere beauty, a natural authority over all other elements in the Spring. Next to them, the cottonwoods look shabby-chic like old heirloom lace.

Entering the spring, there is a sense of coming home. We hear naught but one single solitary bird: the dove mourning. The spirit of winter has officially abducted the spring. It is now an otherworldly destination, commanding solitude, silence, and peace.

In the center of playgrounds of leaf litter strewn all over the grounds—plugging even the badgers’ holes—we are astounded to see patches of lime green grass, asparagus-like shoots, dotting the grounds like candles on a cake.

There’s more water here than we’ve ever seen!” Steph exclaims. Black soil gushes under our feet with each step. Showers in the mountains above, rain unseen, must have fed the underground waters.

Higher than the known top of the seep, giant round balls of deer grass can only mean one thing: A new water source. We watch with awe as water flows down the entire valley of the spring, sparkling in narrow shafts of sunlight beaming through the canopy.

Tarzan’s Tree

Tarzan’s Tree still stands proud, bare of leaves for winter.

Last summer, our first time at the spring, Steph and I, along with Sami Hammer, Conservation Biologist at Sky Island Alliance and our guide that day, nicknamed the largest Sycamore, Tarzan’s Tree.

Sycamore tree trunks grow wider than any other hardwood in North America, and this tree is no exception, measuring a good 4 ½ feet in diameter. The tree must weigh in the thousands of pounds. Tarzan’s tree cantilevers over the middle pool of the spring, its huge exposed roots gripping the bank like the tentacles of an octopus squeezing its prey. We sit on the ground, our backs tucked up against the roots, and marvel at the improbability of its ongoing horizontal survival: Is the tree growing toward the water or the light?

We estimate the sycamore to be upwards of 200 years old. Water-loving sycamores are some of the oldest trees on earth and noted for their longevity (500 – 600 years in some cases). After 200 years, the tree rots inside and hollows out, but lives on, ensuring nest sites for elegant trogons, owls, and many other birds. The spring’s ecological zone is flush with the stately elders.

Sycamores figure prominently in history, from Hippocrates to the Ancient Egyptians, and in literature, like the poetry of William Carlos Williams’ Young Sycamore and in the Bible: I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I took care of Sycamore-fig trees. – Amos 7:14

Here in the Sonoran Desert, we must be the shepherds, the stewards of all plants and pollinators and natural springs critical to wildlife corridors on both sides of the International border.

Douglas Christie finds parallels between naturalists in the tradition of John Muir and Thoreau, and scientists: “…the way they have trained themselves to gaze at the world and the language they use to describe their experience of the natural world… One can find “a deeply contemplative sensibility that reveals a reverence and even a love for a world not often accounted for by the limited vocabulary of science.”

Delicate shoots of green sprout from the spring’s life-giving waters.

The reverence gained in my own winter of years does not escape me. It is here in the spring, that I feel most congruent with the cycle of seasons, with life and death, the fecund dark, and life-giving light. After Fall, in the great pause of winter, the animals, the land, our bodies, and our souls, are granted the balm of contemplative rest.

The sun begins to slip behind the mountains and the temperature drops fast. It’s in the low 40s now. We are expecting a freeze tonight and we still have to measure the spring’s all-important water flow: an entire liter of fresh clear water in 5.25 seconds! My fingers, wet and starting to freeze tell me it’s time to go.

As for our mystery: the softest plant ever, we found its young shoots again and photographed them. Later research leads us to believe they are saplings of Velvet Ash, native to Arizona. The velvet ash tree can grow up to 40 feet tall in riparian habitats, its leaves velvety only while young.


Read the first installment of Val’s Volunteer Log from summer 2017.

Read the second installment of Val’s Volunteer Log from monsoon season 2017.

Read the third installment of Val’s Volunteer Log from fall 2017.

All photographs by Stephanie Stayton & Valarie Lee James

Note to the Reader: the whereabouts of this wilderness spring is not revealed to ensure the survival of its unique ecosystem.

The desert, divided

In early January, almost everyone in the country seemed to have the flu, including U.S. House Rep. Raúl Grijalva. “My grandkids made me sick!” he exclaimed over the phone from Washington, D.C., sounding congested. Grijalva, a Democrat, represents Arizona’s 3rd District, which comprises most of the state’s southern border, including Nogales, a town of one- and two-story buildings, nestled in a valley and named for the groves of walnuts that once thrived in the surrounding hills. It’s separated from Nogales, Sonora, by the international border. The binational city is known as Ambos Nogales, or “both Nogales.” When Grijalva asked me how the weather was in Nogales, I wondered if he was homesick.

Border BioBlitz documents Santa Ana wildlife in binational science effort

ALAMO — Looking to preserve the biodiversity of the Rio Grande Valley, volunteers from both sides of the border have been working to document as many species as possible. Last Saturday the group gathered at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge to participate in the Border BioBlitz, a one-day binational science effort to record as many species as possible along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

Too much at stake—no border wall in our Sky Islands!

The Sky Islands are a Continental Crossroads, a place where cultures from two countries and multiple Native Nations mix and mingle, where black bear, coati, and jaguar meet. It is a place of transitions and extremes—extreme heat of the desert summer broken by cool mountain tops and monsoon rain and extreme diversity of plants and animals thanks to its location at converging mountain ranges, grasslands, and deserts. It is a place of movement. The Sky Islands sit at the heart of continental migratory corridors and pathways for local migration of wildlife responding to changing seasons.

Although the Sky Island Region and its species thrive in the U.S. and Mexico, the politically charged international border, sits at the heart of the region. Proposals from Washington threaten to harm our borderland communities and our natural world in the Sky Islands. In defiance of common sense, President Trump insists on building an unnecessary border wall that is both wasteful and immoral.

Existing walls, barriers, and roads along the border are already degrading habitat and impeding wildlife movement.

As a nation, we must recognize that the Sky Islands are worthy of our attention and investment, and the vibrant culture and environments of the Sky Islands are assets that benefit us all.

At a time when complex widespread threats like climate change and biodiversity loss are altering the face of our Sky Islands, stressing fragile desert waterways, and pushing animals and plants to the limits of their abilities to survive, any further construction of border wall spells community and ecological devastation. The Administration continues to ignore the rule of law and side-step its responsibility to invest in communities and protect natural areas.

We may be a small organization, but we stand for big ideals. A Sky Island Region that is not limited by political boundaries, and where unity and community thrive during these times of so much divisiveness, is central to our mission and our values. We will not allow the proposed border wall to:

  • unravel decades of effort invested in building crossborder community collaboration
  • block the Path of Jaguar, cutting off the migration corridors of so many iconic Sky Island species
  • disrupt delicate ecosystems at springs and rivers, which are already under dire threat due to drought and climate change

For over two decades we’ve worked with all of you, our donors, supporters, volunteers, and partners to build a binational conservation movement. We’ve documented what is at stake in the Sky Island borderlands—the amazing and beautiful diversity of life. The natural treasures and beauty of our borderlands are underscored by the extent of public land gems including multiple national parks and wildlife refuges and millions of acres of national forest.

The rights of our wildlife and wild lands are more important than the current divisive political agenda, which seeks to divide us and promote fear. We will stand united against any attempt to build walls, barriers, and roads along the U.S.–Mexico border.

More road development and higher walls will impede wildlife and damage ecosystems. We will continue to work with partners to protect the heart of our Sky Islands.

Take Action

  1. Join our growing volunteer corps documenting wildlife movement within key crossborder pathways. Email Bryon at to sign up for a wildlife tracking team or to monitor our remote cameras.
  2. Donate now to support our work training young Sonoran biologists in wildlife monitoring and becoming advocates for wildlife connectivity.
  3. Visit to tell your representatives in Congress not to fund the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Where to Embark on a Sky Island Adventure

It’s the most romantic name in the world for a mountain: sky island. The two words conjure up a magical, lofty kingdom from Avatar or your favorite children’s book, and though they’re surrounded by land and not water, they possess all the island essentials. They are separate. They follow their own rules. And they are hard to get to.

Volunteer Dispatch: To everything a season, pt. 3

by Valarie lee James, Sky Island Alliance Adopt-a-Spring volunteer

“Within the recesses of the forest, even when in the midst of it (the deafening noise of the insects), a universal stillness appears to reign,” – Darwin, Brazil, 1830s.

Sky Island Alliance Volunteer Log
Fall 2017 Visit to the Spring

In Fall of 2017, our adopted relationship with a Sky Island spring deepens as we tap into the exquisite silence of hidden waters. There, we hear the prima vox, the “voice primordial,” of a desert oasis, its plants, invertebrates, and mammals, sustained by life-giving water.

People seeing the Sonoran Desert for the first time often miss subtle signs of autumn. In higher elevations, tucked into riparian areas, where seeps and natural springs are found, cottonwood trees, Arizona sycamore, willow, and Arizona ash flame with outrageous color.

Fall color brings the canyon to new life.

This day, we will witness leaves on the trees silently morphing from smooth yellow to mottled red to papery ochre, pressing together in an annual return to the wet earth, caking into a baklava of rich humus, imprinting the spring-fed soil in a cycle of endless regeneration.

In her essay, Why Leaves Turn Color in The Fall, naturalist Diane Ackerman observes that the leaves echo our own hope upon death: “Not to vanish, just to sublime from one beautiful state to another.”

“Though the leaves lose their green life, they bloom with urgent colors, as the woods grow mummified day by day, and Nature becomes more carnal, mute, and radiant,” Ackerman writes.

As we hike to the spring, the temperature cool, smelling of winter rains, and the sky gray with curtains of virga on the horizon, whole flocks of birds fly overhead, no doubt on a migratory route.

My partner Steph points out a hidden canyon high in the cliff face, a classic V formation in the rock with a clot of dark green growth at its apex. We wonder if there is a hidden spring there or a seep, water percolating through the rocks in the cliff and bubbling up like the spring we are descending to. The hydrology of the mountain range can by its nature be unpredictable, but we know water is there; the lifeblood of the dense tribes of trees we see.

The canyon reveals itself with a slash of color seen from above.

Through binoculars, we examine dark vertical streaks on the cliffs, “desert varnish,” a mysterious glassy patina that generations of scientists, including Darwin, puzzled over. High up, near the desert varnish: another V-shaped canyon. We wonder how many undocumented springs remain hidden in Arizona.

We are deeply humbled by our naïveté. There is so much we do not know.

Indigenous, first nations people could well know. Craig Childs, the author of The Secret Knowledge of Water, cites the belief of native people of the Southwest: that natural springs were “points where creation came to the surface and spilled out, where a hand could actually reach forward to feel the emergence.”

Other dark crevasses in the rock near the ridgeline draw our gaze. Could a mountain lion be drinking right now at a high spring?… Or ocelots—rumored to be in this mountain range—or even a jaguar, cats that do not fear water. Most natural springs remain hidden; a good thing. Would wild animals survive in the desert without them?

We slip down the shale-covered hillside, the “ecotone,” grassland border surrounding the spring until we find the trail. I am grateful for my walking sticks. We are learning to hike slowly and mindfully. It’s a long walk to enlightenment. Smart to follow deer paths.

Stands of dried grass tamp down the trail, like old hay on gray ground. We spot pumice-like lava rocks, up to 30 million years old blasted from vents in volcanic fields in Mexico. The rock’s shapes and surfaces resemble living coral from the Sea of Cortez, a few hours south of the border. Other large smooth stones are aproned with circular blooms of lichen, evidence of life persisting in the most unlikely of places, even on sun-blasted faces of stones.

The variety of scat on the path—deer, rabbit, coyote—also clues us into species roaming the ecotone. We pass shallow hollows in the dirt where smaller animals, rabbit or fox, may have bedded down.

Suddenly, in the distance: rat-tat-tat of semi-automatic gunfire. Sounds like a firing range. The gunshots originate from the back side of the ridge, but still I jump, my startle reflex working overtime. Each shot raises the hair on the back of my neck. We wonder how animals handle the sound of gunfire bouncing off the cliffs. Do deer tremble? Coyotes shake? Rabbits run? I know how it makes me feel.

The closer we come to the spring, the more bird calls. In between calls, to our distress, more gunfire, louder, on the other side of the ridge. Blast, bird call… Blast, our Human song.

A flash of red, high in the trees flanking the spring: a bright northern cardinal. Later, we see a Gila woodpecker in the spring. A cactus wren scolds, and a dove mourns deep in the shadows.

The Spring

Giants guard the approach to the spring!

We duck slowly and carefully under immense branches, dropping our voices, conscious we are entering hallowed ground. Others may be lingering at the waters. I have longed for the contemplative balm of the spring, and I am not disappointed. The world is silent, timeless here. The birds are quiet, and the gunfire has thankfully stopped. All sound goes subtle, muted like a seashell to the ear.

A slight breeze picks up, rustling the remains of the canopy. Leaves flutter to the ground and the ambient air temperature drops a good 10 degrees, a portent of winter to come.

We walk with long strides, slo-mo, cross-country skiing through a dense carpet of cushy leaves and deadfall. Yellow cottonwood and orange and red sycamore leaves shush beneath our feet. I wince, not wanting to surprise any inhabitants.

The autumnal leaf matter has so seriously altered the topography of the area since our last visit, we can barely make out the first pool covered with plant debris. On the way there, I trip over deadfall and go down softly, cushioned by the leaves.

The spring has pulled on a blanket of fall leaves.

As citizen science volunteers with the Sky Island Alliance Adopt-a-Spring Program, we gauge the health of the spring, measuring length, width, and depth of the water source. As we quietly work together, I sense small eyes watching us, curious and aware of our presence. I don’t sense any fear. I imagine this must be because we too, are quiet and reverent.

Just a few months ago, during the monsoons, we were overwhelmed by the chaos of color. Now, all of the monsoon’s (second summer) wildflowers are gone, as are the hummingbirds and the butterflies in constant movement. Missing also are the abundance of grasshoppers, but we do see ants, flies, and spiders moving through the ground leaves, and one dragonfly on the water.

And bees. Clustering at the very place the spring emerges, its inception, the incarnation of the water, translucent wings catch the light. With more water than they could ever wish for in the spring’s pools, they lust for the very origin of the wet, drawn inexorably to it.

Circular masses of large deer grass lend a kind of animal softness to the bank of the spring’s pools. Massive mother patches line the bank on one side of the water and smaller patches on the other.

A discarded Mexican blanket on the bank, made from wool, breaks down naturally in the elements, changing with every season. I’d love to harvest some of the still colorful woven fiber and weave the essence of this place into some new art, but it’s not wise to remove anything from the area. Every aspect of this place, every stray thread, belongs here in the House of the Spring, destined to become building materials for nests or burrows, beds for small, beating hearts.

Nature reclaims its dominance.

I think about the necessity of pause for all living things, how these pools, teeming with life a few months ago, have gone into a kind of abeyance. I think about the powerful elemental draw to the interior that marks this season of the year, the long wait for the light of new life to return.

A shimmer of blue undulates in the dark waters of the spring and I look up to see a blue-sky hole in the cloud cover, startling in its uniqueness.

Velvet Mystery

“Go ahead, touch it,” I dare my partner Steph, and she does.

“Wha?!” She gasps, drawing her hand back.

“That’s the softest thing I have ever felt in my life,” she says, mouth gaping in shock.

I nod. I have felt other soft-leaved sensuals in the field: Woolley lamb’s ears… Mullein…… Hairy Desert Sunflowers, but nothing like this.

Steph shakes her head in utter incomprehension. Her long artistic fingers are so sensitive they practically have eyes at the tips, and right now their tiny pupils are dilated. An alarm is sounding in her body. A seasoned scientist with no frame of reference, she thinks, This cannot exist.

“It feels like an animal,” she says. “What if it’s the only thing of its kind anywhere?”

The exotic plant, all leaves, no flowers, stands by its lonesome in an easy to miss section of the spring. Maybe it is the only one or maybe it’s just never been seen before, by non-indigenous humans, that is. Does it have a purpose? Is it a medicine or food? Could it simply exist as an expression of beauty? Beauty never seen?

Anything is possible in this singular stand-alone spring with its unique and provocative ecosystem. We imagine the next time we visit the plant will be gone. Every time we come, we find a wholly different spring. We marvel that we can still be surprised by such natural mystery, stumped by the unknown, bemused by our own innocence.

Read the first installment of Val’s Volunteer Log from summer 2017.

Read the second installment of Val’s Volunteer Log from monsoon season 2017.

All photographs by Stephanie Stayton & Valarie Lee James

Note to the Reader: the whereabouts of this wilderness spring is not revealed to ensure the survival of its unique ecosystem.

Groups plan longer Tucson campaign to beat back invasive buffel grass

Doug Siegel is among thousands of volunteers on a mission to “Save Our Saguaros,” one clump of buffelgrass at a time.

“The Sonoran Desert is one of the most diverse deserts in the world, and if we ignore buffelgrass and let it take over, we will see what we have disappear and be transformed into something completely different.

Passage Prevented

For more than a year, then-candidate Donald Trump promised voters at rallies, in tweets and on debate stages that America’s very safety and sovereignty had been compromised, and the only solution was to build a wall on the porous and unprotected U.S.-Mexico border.

Our resolutions to make 2018 a whole lot better

For all of us who care about our fellow humans, clean air and water, and sharing space with other creatures, 2017 was a roller coaster ride, and 2018 is starting out with more of the same. I’ve spent the first part of January taking stock and thinking about what we can do in 2018 to make things a whole lot better. Together, we can accomplish a lot.

In 2018, we pledge to hold fast to our ambitious vision to sustain the Sky Islands as a place where nature thrives, where open space and clean water are available to all species, and where people are deeply connected to the region and each other. We’ll continue to dream big, stay focused, and persevere, because that’s what jaguars, frogs, and our community need. Here are our resolutions for the new year.

We resolve to redouble our work on the ground to help wildlife and ecosystems respond to climate change.

Rapid and intense climate change was the story of 2017 in the Sky Islands. Every month last year had average temperatures above normal—with three months of the year being the hottest on record. Climate change isn’t going away, and neither are we. This year we will work to bring ecosystems back to health, protect Sky Island wet oases, and replace non-native vegetation with plants that provide food and cover for wildlife. We will provide refuge and support species as they adapt to these changing conditions.

We resolve to stand for healthy communities by fostering healthy ecosystems with flowing water.

So many of the ecological gems in the Sky Islands pivot on water—and so many of these water sources are exploited and disturbed by human use.  In 2018, Outstanding Arizona Waters like Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon are threatened by interests that seek to remove their protections so they can be more easily exploited and polluted. We can take charge and decide how we want to live in the Sky Island Region, with true appreciation and respect for how the ecosystems around us enrich our lives and our well being. This year our Sky Islands waters continue to be a key focus, understanding where water is found on the landscape, protecting these waters, bringing them back to flowing health, and recognizing the importance of our springs and streams in regulation and policy.

We resolve to build connections for wildlife large and small, terrestrial and aquatic.

With rapid and intense climate change, keeping wildlife and ecosystems connected is as important as ever. We want to give all animals, big and small, and the myriad plants in the Sky Islands the best chance possible to respond to climate challenges. We will continue to fight the proposed border wall and keep the Path of the Jaguar open for jaguars and all the plants and animals that live alongside them. We will continue to stand strong for policies and regulations that protect—rather than destroy—entire ecosystems and wildlife corridors.

In his most recent book, Half-Earth, E.O Wilson describes the Madrean Sky Islands as “one of the last great places on earth” and “a corridor permitting north–south expansion of species between the U.S. Mexican Plateau and the Cordilleras of Central America.” These corridors are critical to lessening the impacts of climate change, and we will work to preserve them.

We resolve to raise the profile of the Sky Island Region.

As a nation, we must recognize that the Sky Islands are worthy of our attention and investment and that the vibrant culture and environments of the Sky Islands are assets that benefit us all. Stronger recognition of the extraordinary natural and cultural values of the Sky Islands is essential to motivate people to demand and support protection for the region and reject actions that will diminish it. We will work to bring the story of vibrant Sky Islands worthy of protection to new and broader audiences.

We resolve to stand with science and empower young scientists, especially women scientists, to become forces for positive change.

Young scientists who love where they live and work and develop a deeper understanding of how to support and protect it are the hope for a thriving future in the Sky Islands. I came to Sky Island Alliance as a volunteer student studying science nearly 15 years ago. Now as Executive Director, I’m committed to raising the voices of young women scientists in our community. They bring creativity, commitment, intellect, and a passion that when fostered can change our world for the better. We will empower them this year with skills development, career mentoring, and opportunities to work directly on studying and protecting our Sky Island wonders.

We resolve to be united, focused, and determined

To us, being united means reaching across boundaries to build connections and community. As the only organization working to keep the entire Sky Island Region connected and thriving, we must remain focused and determined this year. We may be a small organization, but we stand for big ideals: a Sky Island Region that is not limited by political boundaries, and where unity and community thrive during these times of so much divisiveness. We will live these ideals in the way we run our organization and engage with all our Sky Island communities.

Want to feel better in 2018? Connect with the diversity of people that makes the Sky Islands a great place to live.

Come volunteer with Sky Island Alliance! Research has found that the overwhelming majority of volunteers feel mentally and physically healthier after a volunteer experience. Lower your stress, improve your mood, and build community with Sky Island Alliance this year as volunteer. We’ll be working in Sky Islands in the U.S. and Mexico throughout the year.