A gift from my parents, On the Road With John James Audubon by Mary Durant and Michael Harwood is a travelogue and historical biography—and an enjoyable read. I recommend it if you like geography, history, birds, and travel. Especially if, like me, you aren’t deeply familiar with John James Audubon’s life story.
Tracing a person’s life by following his exact steps is an uncommon way to structure a book—and it works well here. Though the narrative started out a bit heavy on Audubon’s personal details, I felt that by the middle of the book the authors did achieve a balance of historical bits with modern day observations. Mixing snippets from Audubon’s letters and journals and examples of his famous illustrations, the authors wove together their story with his. Engaging with the places and people everywhere they went, adding flavor, detail, and humor as they explored the story with new eyes. (Note: though modern compared to Audubon’s day, this book was written over 30 years ago. Still relevant and interesting, however.)
A unique thing about this book is the trio of voices, where two authors—only one a “serious” birder—intertwine with Audubon’s personal account to create a fascinating description of a changing landscape and culture, of an America awakening to its vast natural treasures. Speaking to how important these treasures are for us to preserve, Durant and Harwood highlight over and over the troublesome relationship we’ve had as a nation with our animals, plants, rivers, coasts, and mountains. The struggle between conservation and exploitation of our resources.
Several times the itinerary followed a path similar to our own RV travels, places we’d stayed or visited. Which made me want to hit the road again! What I liked most about this book is how the authors combined their passions and interests into a compelling travel adventure. There’s something to admire in that; a story is more powerful when told with a purpose.
Faintly, along the shadowed shores of night
I saw a wilderness of stars that flamed
And fluttered as they climbed or sank, and shamed
The crouching dark with shyly twinkling light;
I saw them there, odd fragments quaintly bright,
And wondered at their presence there unclaimed,
Then thought, perhaps, that they were dreams unnamed,
That faded slow, like hope’s arrested flight.
Or vanished suddenly, like futile fears—
And some were old and worn like precious things
That youth preserves against encroaching years—
disappeared like songs that no man sings,
But one remained—an ember in the dark—
I crouched alone, and blew upon the spark.
You might know him from epic portrayals of the American West, pioneers, cowboys, women and men who built the new country. And a bit of a poet; the selection here is “An Ember in the Dark” from a collection named Smoke from this Altar.
Apart from the Westerns that made him most famous, this author’s other wonderful works deserve a mention, including:
Education of a Wandering Man, his life story—how he lived what he wrote about. How he started from humble beginnings in North Dakota and worked his way around the world, seeking adventure.
The Walking Drum, an epic historical novel about a man named Kerbouchard, another adventurer and seeker of knowledge, set in 12th century Europe and Middle East.
Who is this author? Can you guess based on this description?
As I post this, a balloon rises near our house and heads over slowly but surely—puffing hot air. Beautiful and colorful yet much too loud in the morning stillness. Neighborhood dogs whine as the flame whistles, WHOOOOSH.
It’s hot air balloon season in the Tucson Mountains.
Thanks to a tour hosted by Old Pueblo Archaeology I finally had the chance to visit a place I’d long desired to see: Ventana Cave. Twenty (gasp) years ago while attending the University of Arizona I studied the archaeological excavation of the site. It featured prominently in my coursework as it contained evidence of human activity going back 10,000 years.
That length of continuous history at one site in the US is rare and it is the only one in southern Arizona. I suppose my professors might have also emphasized it since the dig was under the auspices of Emil Haury, famed archaeologist and early head of our department.
There are a few misconceptions I should dispel before going further. First, it is not a cave, it is technically a large rock shelter located in the side of a volcanic hill. Second, it was never used for long-term habitation, in other words, it was never permanently occupied. Third, the spot is still in use today by Tohono O’odham and migrants.
Why has this spot been so popular with native peoples for thousands and thousands of years? You know what they say in real estate; location, location, location. That was as true back then as it is today and Ventana Cave had everything you could ask for: a commanding view of the valley below and a small spring which is the only permanent water source for miles. Based on the evidence archaeologists believe the site was used as a seasonal camp for hunting and gathering.
When the excavation began in 1941 Haury had no idea the accumulated layers were 23 feet deep or that they would span such a vast amount of time. The top layer was littered with detritus from contemporary Tohono O’odhams while the bottommost layer contained the remains of Pleistocene megafauna. They uncovered extinct species such as bison, dire wolf, tapir, giant ground sloth, and early horse.
Ventana Cave was clearly an important location for the walls are covered in pictographs (which are rare in southern Arizona), there are a dozen bedrock mortars, and 1585 projectile points were found along with 39 burials, ten of them infants. Of those inhumations, three were associated with the Archaic period (8000-1000 BCE) while the rest date to the Hohokam period (200-1450 CE).
The variety of pictographs also denote the passage of time; from the dots and lines of the Early Archaic period, to the humanoid figures of the Hohokam, to the riders on horseback which can date no early than the the mid 1500s.
Two of the burials were especially interesting. An infant was found with well-preserved feces which were carefully examined. The child’s last meal contained mesquite meal, saguaro seeds, and cholla pollen. Since cholla blooms in the late spring they were able to determine the time of year the child died.
Also unique was Burial 9, a middle-aged male. He was wearing a cotton breech cloth, a rabbit fur belt, a wooden nose plug, shell earrings, a fur robe, and a human hair wig. Next to him was a skin quiver with arrows, creosote branches, a cactus needle, four bone awls, and two Archaic projectile points tied with string. In other words, he was not your average Joe.
To assuage any worries, all the human remains and associated burial items have been turned over to the Tohono O’odham who have reinterred them in a special cemetery set aside for the ancients.
Which brings up a question that Haury was unable to answer and still has yet to be definitively answered, Were the Hohokam the ancestors of the Tohono O’odham? The archaeological record is unclear. The tribe doesn’t know; some elders say no citing oral history, while younger O’odham say yes. Modern techniques such as DNA testing could solve the puzzle but the tribe (like most Native American groups) will not give permission since the test would destroy part of a skeleton and that would be sacrilegious.
Archaeologists are still studying the Ventana Cave artifacts in hopes of answering that question and many others. It is a fascinating place!
The beginning of another year is a wonderful time to pause and reflect back upon the one that just ended. Even though the majority of the year was consumed by aspects of daily living, those are not the things we hold dear. Time spent with loved ones and friends: hiking, rafting, Letterboxing, disc golfing, playing games, sharing mealtimes, birding, bike riding, and attending baseball games, to name a few. Those are the memories that stick with us.
As you may know, we share a healthy dose of curiosity, an urge to explore and understand the world around us. Which explains our love of travel, reading, and spending time outdoors. There are just so many fascinating aspects of life to discover. Ansel Adams summed it up quite well, “In wisdom gathered over time, I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.”
Our lives are enriched in a myriad of ways during our explorations, often tangibly. This past year one of the tangibles was an injured kitten discovered while out hiking—a tiny, dehydrated ball of fur. Six months later spunky Wylie Kitty is a welcome addition to our household. Even curmudgeonly old Bailey likes her.
Our love of and fascination with the Sonoran Desert morphed into an ongoing volunteer project to improve a small corner of it. That in turn led to a part-time job for Erin this past September. The Buffelgrass Outreach Coordinator position is fulfilling and flexible, a perfect fit.
Lance’s job as a Theme Wrangler with Automattic continues to involve a good mix of travel, exciting projects, and new challenges. In other words, never a dull moment. Which is good because neither of us enjoy boring.
And so we look forward to this new year and all that it holds in store. For the new adventures. For the new discoveries. For the shared times.
For the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes. —e.e. cummings