Available from Denman Studios
Available from These Fine Galleries
Available at Special Events
Limited Edition Reproductions from Greenwich Workshop
Archive of Previous Work
Solo Touring Show: The Modern Wild
About the Artist
News & Events
Teaching & Workshops
Newsletter & Mailing List
Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, Mexico:
A Travel Journal, Written by Andrew Denman, 2016:
Shortly after my national touring exhibition, The Modern Wild, opened at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) in Tucson, the director of the ASDMís Art Institute, Holly Swangstu, approached me about an upcoming project called Sonoran Desert Resurgence. She was a bit close-lipped about the details at first, given that much of the planning was still to be concretized, but I gathered that it would involve a field trip or multiple field trips to various regions of the Sonoran Desert in the US and in Mexico with the end goal of producing an art exhibition. In concept it didnít sound too dissimilar from David Wagnerís Sea of Cortez trip I took in 2009, which ended with an art show at the ASDM and was a terrific experience, and Iíd had an exceptional time working with Holly on The Modern Wild, so of course I gave a tentative yes, barring any scheduling conflicts. A few months later, the first of these trips, to Cabo Pulmo at the Southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, became a reality. A week before leaving, I had a Skype meeting with Holly and the team. Our trip was to include, Holly, Craig Ivanyi (Executive Director of the ASDM), his wife Rachel (a participating artist), their son, Jordan, Martha Thompson (a fellow artist) and her husband Glenn (a marine photographer- both he and Martha, I should add, have been friends of mine since the Sea of Cortez field trip), Jake Bryant (an artist, professional photographer, and documentarian) Debbi Hutchinson (Aquarium Biologist at the ASDM), Sergio Avila (a Conservation Biologist at the ASDM), Jesķs GarcŪa (an Education Specialist at the ASDM), and me.
The Sonoran Desert Resurgence Project, I should clarify, is a broad, cross-disciplinary undertaking that is still evolving organically at this time. The ultimate goal is an exhibition and companion book bringing together the work of artists, educators, scientists, and conservationists alike, but there is not a hard and fast calendar just yet, so stay tuned for more updates in the future. In the meantime, the following text is my daily journal, written on the ground in Mexico over the course of the trip, which should give you a good sense of what Cabo Pulmo has to offer, both as a seaside desert community, and as a National Marine Reserve.
For more information on the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, please visit: cabopulmopark.com
For more information on the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, please visit: desertmuseum.org
Arriving in Front
My flight to Mexico is easy and uneventful. Despite sitting at the very back of the airplane and waiting for what seems like eons to exit the aircraft, the flight itself is pretty much cake. Once youíve traveled ten hours to the UK and another eight to Kenya, a three-hour flight seems almost inconsequential. I busy myself with a bit of writing, a bit of semi-somnambulant half-nodding off, and chatting with the passenger next to me who, as it turns out, owns a chain of fitness centers in the Bay Area with which Iím familiar. I experience a brief moment of panic as Iím leaving the plane, having convinced myself that Iíve lost my passport, but after a few moments of scrambling through my bags like a furiously burrowing ground squirrel, I find it, and all is well.
I breeze through immigration, baggage claim, and customs with unanticipated celerity, and emerge at the taxi area with no one I know in sight. I feel a bit of panic considering that fact that Iíve not even thought to ask where weíre staying in town, and without a cell phone, Iím not sure if I can contact Holly or Martha. I send an e-mail (my international cellular plan on my iPad is working) and settle down to wait. The front of the airport is essentially a bar (thank you, Mexico!), and a moment later a server approaches me and asks if I want a drink. Anyone who knows me knows that the answer is an emphatic yes, so I sip my Corona with lime until my friends arrive, which is only a very few minutes later. I watch as Holly Swangstu, who has not yet seen me, unfurls a ďWelcome Andrew DenmanĒ sign, and then I make my entrance. Jake Bryant, our project photographer and documentarian, who Iíve become acquainted with on Facebook but not yet me in person, is there to snap a few pictures of my arrival, my beer in hand and all. Fellow artist and friend Martha Thompson is here as well, and we greet and wait for her husband, Glenn, to arrive with the car. With them is Sergio Avila, a conservation biologist (also someone Iíve met on Facebook but not in person), who I quickly discover is an exceptionally charismatic and funny man. We have a bit of a comedy of errors as we leave the airport. His conversation through an intercom with a less than adeptly communicative woman regarding payment for parking might as well be a Three Stooges sketch. We are told repeatedly to pay for parking ďIn FrontĒ but the woman cannot communicate ďin front of WHAT!Ē Doing this or that at the front of some indeterminate location seems likely to become a running joke for the next week.
Meanwhile, Glenn has provided me with a delightful and much-appreciated snack, some delicious fried red snapper, which I eagerly consume. Sergio deftly guides us to the hotel where we take a ninety-minute siesta before reconvening for dinner. Holly has had to ďde-cockroachĒ her room, but Iíve had no such problems, just a nice hot shower, a nap, and a change of clothes. The place is far from fancy, but itís perfectly serviceable, and thatís all I need. We eat some very authentic tacos at a delightful little restaurant, but discover that they have no liquor license, so we begin scheming about where to go afterwards for a drink long before the meal is over. Sergio drives us around a bit in search of a suitable watering hole, and, after several abortive attempts, we settle on a Jazz and Tapas Bar where we are immediately guided (without even asking I might add) to a private room where wine and some very good Herradura Gold Margaritas on the rocks are consumed.
Amidst the revelry, we have some very serious conversations. Sonoran Desert Resurgence, which has only been very ephemerally outlined to me up to this point, begins to resolve from the gloom. I gather that our mission here is to combine the talents of researchers (Sergio), administrators (Holly), Artists (Martha and I), photographers (Jake and Glenn) to further the museumís mission of inspiring a love of and coexistence with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Region. We will eventually combine all of these diverse contributions into an exhibition that is both scientifically valid, artistically expressive, and educational to the layman. Additionally, the show will provide an opportunity for many of the disparate and often isolated communities actually engaged in important conservation work on the ground in Mexico to connect with one another and discover how they are part of a much broader tapestry of conservation initiatives throughout this sensitive landscape. We discuss how scientists, as important as they are, often times do an inadequate job of communicating the importance of their work to the public at large. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) is an entity designed to be that bridge between serious science and public access. Our job here is to play an important role in furthering that cause, to use our talents, not just to communicate information to the public, but to help them fall in love with the very things the ASDM was established to protect. It is a cause well worth fighting for, and I feel fortunate to be a part of it.
I look forward to tomorrow when more of our team will join us, including the Executive Director of the ASDM, Craig Ivanyi, his wife Rachel (also an artist) and son, and two more important scientists with plenty of legitimacy and knowledge to contribute.
Welcome to Cabo Pulmo
We get up fairly early, grab a coffee and head to the local supermarket to shop for the week. On the way, Sergio is kind enough to help me navigate the cell phone shop next door. I am unable to find a local SIM card that will work in my unlocked international cell, but 390 pesos buys a whole new phone, and before long Iím in business (after some help from Martha to activate it that is). The supermarket is massive and very much the Mexican equivalent of a Walmart, with everything from food and drink to tire irons and bathing suits. After much perusal, we fill several carts and check out. Iím a bit shocked to learn that our massive haul is under $300 US (not including the odd bottle of wine or tequila which we are responsible for paying for ourselves), the exchange rate being a shocking eighteen pesos to the dollar. Next up, we stop to pick up lunch at a very popular local eatery whose logo is a disturbing cartoon image of three pigs roasting each-other alive. Think Disneyís Three Little Pigs trapped in a George Romero or Eli Roth film heavy on the cannibalism. I see the servers wearing T-shirts with this image and try to buy one for Guy as a gag, but they only have a few smalls in stock, too tight for either of us to squeeze into. After that weíre off to the airport to pick up the rest of the team.
Iím told that of all of our group the Ivanyiís are the most nervous to visit Mexico owing to travel advisories (they do, after all, have their young son with them), so Holly devises to pay a random Mexican guy to hold the ďWelcome IvanyiísĒ sign while we all hide. The plan is all set to go forward when Rachel Ivanyi emerges from customs and makes eye contact with Martha in the crowd an instant before we have our man in place. Everyone has a good laugh anyway. We welcome Craig, Rachel, Jordan, and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Aquarium Biologist, Debbie Hutchinson, hop in our Suburbans, and hit the road for Cabo Pulmo. The Suburbans, I should note, have blacked out windows and no license plates, so we look a bit like Mafiosoís or Cartel members as we head out of town; Iím undecided as to whether this presents a safety advantage or disadvantage.
As we move away from the city, the bustling human activity, colorful buildings, and surfaces plastered with advertisements and logos, give way to the gentle browns, greens and greys of the desert, punctuated by man-planted clusters of aloes decorated with yellow spires, scatterings of palm, and ornamental cacti. Soon even these human contributions vanish, and we wind along dusty road cuts through an undulating sea of low desert scrub. A shrubby, low-growing form of Ocatillo intermittently breaks the monotony with a few spears of red, but even these touches of color are tempered by a thin film of dust that seems to cling to every plant along the road. Sergio is driving the other car, and Jake drives the one Iím in. He deftly navigates the twists and turns, and we all cling to our seats when the road becomes as rough as a washboard or a sudden bump jostles us like bowling pins. When the ocean finally comes into view, we pull over to have lunch.
The pork tacos we purchased earlier are a hit, and we all stuff our faces while soaking in the glorious view. The sky is sparkling, and the water ranges from a brilliant turquoise to lapis, to the deepest indigo. Itís easy to see why this area is called ďwhere the desert meets the sea,Ē because thatís exactly what it is. Young Saguaro Cacti dot the seashore like strident green exclamation marks, while other species, looking curiously like spiny grey octopi sprawled along the ground, trail their ďtentaclesĒ in wild cursive scribbles.
As we continue the drive through the carved granite landscape, we see a wonderful grouping of eight or ten Turkey Vultures appearing to hang as motionless as black kites against the blue of sky and sea. Iím excited to see a number of Caracaras, which Iíve previously only seen in raptor centers. The weird, pterosaur-like silhouette of a Frigate Bird crosses the sky every so often and Mockingbirds and the occasional Loggerhead Shrike bob excitedly from high vantage points.
There are a few homes along the coastline, and most are quite large and beautiful, almost certainly vacation homes, though a few bear more signs of human presence. Iím impressed by much of the architecture; an interesting mix of minimalist Mesa Style and Santa Monica Beach Modern seems to predominate. The big bold shapes of these buildings manage to look welcoming even behind heroic gated entrances. Most are white or neutral in color but a few more adventurous owners have chosen bright pinks, oranges, yellows, and reds, all of which practically sizzle against the cobalt sky. Nearly all of them exude wealth and good taste with noble, minimalist gardens of palms, cacti, and succulents trailing off into the sparse coastal scrub.
When we roll into Cabo Pulmo, our casitas are small, rustic, and comfortable. As promised (or forewarned) there is no wifi and the cell signal is not strong. Despite dreading picking through a flood of e-mails when I return home, Iím rather looking forward to being a bit cut off. Thanks to Sergio and Martha, I can at least text back and forth with Guy, and we Ďve managed a few brief phone calls as well. Shortly after unpacking, we take a short trip to the local school where weíll be doing an art program with the kids. Itís a lovely place, but most of the conversation is in Spanish and far too quick for me to follow, or even limp after, so I wander off after the tantalizing call of a nearby bird. The bird reveals itself to be a Gila Woodpecker, and I spend several minutes clicking away with my camera. After the school visit we decide to reconvene at 6 pm for dinner, giving us about ninety minutes to fill as we see fit.
I wander down a walking trail that Rachel has pointed out, and within minutes Iím happily sleuthing about in the shrubbery, following bird calls this way and that. Iím astonished to encounter in just a few minutes and only yards from the casita a stunning array of bird life: Verdin, House Finch, Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher, Pyrrhuloxia, Cardinal, Mocking Bird, Cactus Wren, Black-Headed Grosbeak, Hooded Oriole, White-Crowned Sparrow, and an Ashy-Throated Flycatcher.
We have a pleasant dinner at a local eatery where I mostly listen to Craigís tales of reptile and amphibian encounters. Iím already scheming to get myself to Los Alamos, another area of interest to the Sonoran Desert Resurgence Project, where heís seen brown vine snakes and a host of other critters Iíd be very excited to encounter. As we leave the restaurant, several of us take a side trip down to the beach to look at the staggeringly full and rust-colored moon, which is just rising above the dark, lapping waters of the ocean. Looking at this moon, itís easy to see why for nearly all of human history it has been associated with fecundity. It hangs in the sky like a lurid red egg, and I canít help but imagine virgin sacrifices to a heathen god under just such a moon. Despite the moonlight, the stars are as bright and vivid as a handful of diamonds strewn across a jewelerís table; my favorite constellation, Orion, stands tall and defiant in his circumpolar niche, a welcome male counterpoint to Dianaís bloodshot eye. Holly comments on the kismet of the moon rising directly across from where we are staying, framed perfectly between the observation tower and the Palapa (an open-sided dwelling common to this area) at the verge of the short cliff that separates the main street of this tiny town from the roaring sea. Itís as if the moon has made this appearance just for us, and I for one take it as a good portent, a fertility symbol for the birth of our ideas on this expedition.
Of Lizards & Lariats
I get a good nightís sleep and wake just before seven am. The song of birds and the orangey light of dawn peeking in my window are almost enough to get me out of bedÖalmost. I finally drag myself into consciousness and take a short walk before breakfast, but soon head back, determined to make enough coffee for everyone to have at least one cup from the first pot. Having suffered from heartburn the previous night, I keep breakfast light, a bowl of cereal with papaya, and hang out at the house while the divers scurry off to prepare their gear for a first excursion into the Sea of Cortez.
Craig, Rachel, Jordan, Sergio, and I stay behind and decide to hike up into the nearby mountain in hopes of finding some reptiles. Of course, my eyes are peeled for birds along the way. We find a tiny and colorful Leaf-toed Gecko early on, but Craig is disheartened that it drops its tail after hardly being touched. We have a few more lizard sightings throughout the morning, but nothing dramatic. We see, quite literally, the spiny tail of a Spiny-tailed Iguana, but the rest of the lizard remains illusively inside a rock crevice. A smaller lizard- I forget what species- busies Craig, who uses a long, retractable pole with a tiny slip-knotted noose on the end to lasso his tiny quarry. It looks ridiculous, like some Looney Tunes Acme invention that Willie Coyote might use in yet another desperate and unsuccessful attempt to snag the maddeningly illusive Roadrunner, but it is apparently very effective.
The most memorable part of the morningís walk is the landscape. The rock faces are riddled with caves. Beautiful abstract patterns are gouged and furrowed into nearly every surface. Iím a bit befuddled as to what weathering action takes a boulder and nearly hollows it out into a perfect, bowl-like shell, but it seems to have happened here in abundance. I walk every day with our dogs back in Antioch, CA, but I realize how sorely out if shape I am as I billy-goat my way over the rocky terrain. There are plenty of places where the soil is obviously unstable, but just as many where what looks deceptively like firm rock nearly dissolves underfoot into loose sand. With this in mind, every footstep must be deliberate and calculated, which makes progress slow, arduous, and both physically and mentally taxing. Additionally, the landscape is peppered with all manner of inhospitable plants. I have to re-evaluate my course more times than I can count in order to avoid the unforgiving spines of an Ocotillo or any number of other brutally spiny desert plants. I only fall once, but it is fortunately only a minor scrape, though I have more than a few scratches. Iím a bit amazed that all three of my fellow hikers are wearing shorts, and Iím thankful to my thick jeans for protecting me in the midst of- quite literally- a few scrapes.
My most memorable encounter on this hike is actually with a plant, specifically a young elephant tree, a member of the Bursera family. With their succulent trunks and small leaves, these are tough plants built to survive in tough conditions, but I canít help but be impressed by this one specimen. It grows out of an exposed rock face, and one can trace two swollen, woody roots shooting out from the base in opposite directions along the course of a crack in the rock that runs at a forty-five-degree angle to the horizon. The vision of this plant, not just valiantly clinging to life in this very precarious niche, but thriving there, is one I will not soon forget.
We head back for a lovely lunch around one pm. The divers have returned, and though Jake is more or less ecstatic with his experience, Glenn is less than thrilled by the dayís poor visibility. Apparently because of the winds, the water was choppier than ideal and the churned up sediment reduced visibility to just eight or ten feet. Still, glancing over Glennís shoulder as he is downloading photos, they look pretty neat to me. We have a nice lunch, but the whole while Iím a bit distracted because of the large numbers of Hooded Orioles I saw on the way into the restaurant. As we go our separate ways after eating, I donít even make it past the front gate and hang out there for more than an hour happily snapping away. Itís great fun to watch the orioles, a stunningly beautiful bird, drink the nectar from a dense patch of particularly vigorously growing aloes. The combination of the male birds with their luminous pumpkin orange and black plumage and the acid yellow panicles of aloe flowers is intoxicating. Painting ideas begin to formulate in my head. Even more interesting is the behavior. The male birds mercilessly squabble over the best flowers (or at least the flower that the other fellow is interested in). The females, in turn, ruthless knock the males and each other out of the way in pursuit of their favored blooms; the males, being gentleman at heart, typically acquiesce to the ladies. As an added bonus, a few Verdin, which I did not know were nectar feeders, join into the fray as well. I get some splendid shots of these tiny, round little birds flitting about and drinking their fill, when, of course, the larger orioles donít shoo them away.
Feeling a bit wrung out after my hike, I head back to the casita and take a nap. Unfortunately, I wake up feeling more tired than before and have to drag myself to the next event, our first outreach program at the Cabo Pulmo Learning Center. Iím told we will take a hike and each have a couple of kids to help sketch or photograph from nature. One of the very friendly dogs, a big yellow lab mix, weíve seen wandering about the town is here at the Learning Center, and the kids busy themselves plucking ticks from its grateful body and crushing the engorged vampires under pebbles until they burst like stewed raisins. When all the kids have arrived, Holly gives a short presentation, and Sergio translates into Spanish. I also meet Joy, an American writer and the Board President of the Learning Center, and her friend, Shelly, with whom she is collaborating on a cook book. I hit it off with both ladies and look forward to meeting up with them again throughout the week. My expectation for the day is a short hike, followed by an hour or so in one place while I draw and do my best to instruct (given that the kids speak Spanish and I do not, save a very limited High School vocabulary), but what actually happens is quite different.
Rather than walking from the center, we pile into several cars and drive to a nearby trailhead. The poor dog wags its tail in desperation and looks from vehicle to vehicle with that at once devastated and hopeful looks only dogs can pull off; ďIím not coming with you, really? How can that be?Ē She seems to implore. Amazingly, when we arrive at the trail, the dog is there, happily panting away after having followed the car caravan the entire way on foot.
Gabby, a lovely young Program Coordinator at the Learning Center, has planned a hike for us that just keeps going. On those occasions when we cross paths, she is very patient in explaining to me the Spanish terminology for various plants, birds, and nests, and I in turn do my best to feel my way through my haze of dimly remembered High School Spanish. I discover that I can understand more than I thought I would, but my formulation of responses is a bit lethargic. Itís a bit like searching for a witty come-back when one has been unexpectedly insulted; it comes, but ten minutes too late to be relevant. Itís a beautiful trail, and the kids seem to have no problem hiking, photographing, and sketching on the hoof. I, on the other hand, can hardly give a drawing demonstration and walk and keep an eye on the two little boys Iím shadowing at the same time. All of the kids are terribly enthusiastic and very much engaged in their various observations and recordings, so all of us artists, myself included, go with the flow. Occasionally I see our four-footed friend appear on the trail ahead of me, still happily chugging along with his people. One of the boys Iím watching, Julian, checks in periodically to pantomime a question about the camera heís borrowed from Holly or show me his developing drawing, and the glimpses I get of the other kidsí work is just as encouraging. I know Holly feels very responsible for this trip, and Iím a bit worried sheíll be terribly frazzled by the time we get back, since the whole thing is a bit more free-form that I think any of us envisioned. I can occasionally hear her ahead of us, perhaps a quarter mile away shouting ďLetís Move, Hurry up!Ē Given that we are rapidly losing the light, her concerns are real, and I take up the chorus with my own ďVamnos!Ē or ďRapido, niŮos!Ēto similarly minimal effect. But of course itís impossible to be too frustrated with children who keep stopping to observe nature; in my neck of the woods, itís more a matter of prying children away from a tablet, smart phone, or X-Box. Pleasantly, I find Holly in great spirits as we trudge up to the cars just in time for a glorious sunset that plunges the greys, greens, and browns of the desert into a watercolor palette of pink and lavender highlights amidst mysteriously inky purple and blue shadows.
We have another wonderful dinner, full of much jubilant conversation. Sergio pops up to comment on a TV spot about jaguars that is playing above the bar and end up chatting with some leggy blonde tourists. One of them starts talking about a snake that she and her friend observed that day, and Craig is up as if spring-loaded to follow up with ďHow big was it, describe the color, and where did you see it?!Ē Itís quite refreshing to be amongst people as enthusiastic about wildlife as I am. I have a nice long chat on the phone with Guy before hitting the hay, then fall into a deep and pleasantly dreamless sleep.
The Devil's Claw & Crab Rock
Yesterday, Holly piqued my interest with a description of some interesting crabs on the rocks just down the beach. She saw them around eleven thirty am, and if I head out for a walk along the coast by eleven, the timing should be just right, assuming the tides and the crabs follow a similar pattern to the day before. After an early morning spent catching up on my journal, Iím well placed to start my walk now. Iíve hardly begun traversing the dunes when the barest hint of movement draws my attention to the left, where a tiny lizard, as white as the sand, scurries away from my approaching footsteps. I see several within just a few minutes, and they are amazingly fast; they almost seem to glide just above the surface of the dunes like lizard-shaped hovercraft.
Only slightly further along the beach, I find a Devilís Claw seed pod on the beach amidst the tumbled stones and bits of broken coral. After only a moment of glancing about, I see the plants themselves, and discover that the steeply sloping dunes immediately above the beach are dotted with them. Iíve been interested in Devilís Claw ever since my carnivorous plant phase. Though whether or not they are true carnivores seems unproven, apparently the succulent, furry leaves of these vine producing tuberous plants exude a sticky sap that ensnares tiny gnats, flies, and other insects. The most dramatic part of the plant, however, are the seed pods, which are wonderfully abstract and evocative woody carpels that look a bit like devil or ramsí horns. Iíve heard that the plants themselves are not showy, and thatís certainly the case. In fact, the vast majority of the vines themselves (which only really grow during brief wet seasons) are almost entirely desiccated, but Iím surprised and delighted to find that the tubers, which are partly, or in some places almost entirely, exposed by wind erosion, have their own unique visual appeal. Younger tubers have a shocking orange color and protrude from the sand like sinister, serpentine carrots. Older clumps look like rubbery, yam-colored crabs, others weirdly anthropomorphic like the fabled Mandrakes of the Mediterranean. I take an absurd number of photos and begin formulating a composition in my head, based mainly on the exciting contrast between these strange tubers, the dark, hard lines of the seed pods, and the subtle tracery of filmy vines and their squiggly grey shadows across the white sand. Late that morning I ask Gabby if the locals have a name for this plant; she tells me they call it something that sounds like ďtoritoĒ because of how it becomes snagged on clothing. I regret not asking for a spelling.
Further on down the beach, I encounter a few brown pelicans, a very noble and beautiful bird. They allow me to get quite close before soaring off a few hundred yards and resettling on the beach. Their silhouettes are majestic and prehistoric against the endless horizon, crashing waves, and pebble-strewn beach. On closer inspection, many of these pebbles are actually broken bits and pieces of coral. They lie in ceaseless profusion, looking like a graveyard of tiny maquettes for a Henri Moore exhibition. Amidst the coral are plenty of actual rocks, in an astonishing array of colors, but all worn and polished smooth by wave action. A trace of movement draws my attention to a tiny shell, and Iím delighted to discover that it is a Hermit Crab. After a moment of panic, the tiny little thing emerges and starts scuttling about my hand, comically searching eyes waving on long stalks, mandibles and antennae twitching at some ceaseless and utterly alien task. I deposit him back amongst the loose shells and gravel and watch for a long moment, soon discovering how many of what I assumed were loose rocks or discarded shells are actually Hermit Crabs. I worry that I could be standing on one of these tiny crabs at this very moment and quickly move away from the rocks and back onto the beach, where each footfall does not threaten to cause such damage.
Soon after I find Hollyís crabs. There is a large grouping of boulders near the cliff that marks the end of the beach. At first glance, there doesnít appear to be much activity, but on closer inspection they are teaming with dark-colored crabs. They cling to nearly every surface like great black rock spiders, and seem impervious to the thundering waves. In those areas where I can get reasonably close without fear of either slipping on wet rocks or having my camera equipment splashed by salt spray, I can see an intricate pattern on their shells. Later I ask Debby to help me ID these characters; though she canít positively identify the species, sheís quite certain these crabs belong to genus Pachygraspus. They look to both of us a lot like the highly colorful Sally Lightfoot Crabs weíve both observed in San Carlos, but the color pattern is distinctly different.
Once Iíve has my fill of crabs, I wander about this spot for quite a while. The view of the rugged coastline is amazing, and, as often happens to me when I visit the ocean, I begin to feel terribly introspective. I reflect on a conversation we had a breakfast. Rachel mentioned her brother, who died recently at just forty-four years of age from brain cancer. I mentioned my friend Ajay, a fellow artist who, at the time of this writing, is in hospice with an aggressive bowel cancer. I never met Rachelís brother, but I know that for Ajay one of the biggest challenges in dying is knowing that there are so many paintings he will never paint. For my own part, I am far more afraid of leaving artwork undone than any other aspect of departing this mortal coil, and being near the sea really drives that sense of temporality home. It occurs to me that, geologically speaking, most of us only witness the gradual chipping away of the earth. Few people ever see a volcano erupt, but everyone who has ever witnessed a rain storm has seen weathering in action. The ocean is a very powerful place both because it is the crucible in which all life was forged (what Walt Whitman memorably called ďThe Cradle Endlessly RockingĒ) and because its daily ebb and flow grinds mountains into sand. True, it works its destructive power with imperceptible slowness, but work it it does, and it has always made me feel awed as a result. Few people use the word ďsublimeĒ correctly, and few things so accurately encapsulate this unique junction of the beautiful and the terrible as perfectly as the sea. So standing before this roaring chalice, I feel wonderfully small, and know that, in a way that takes no importance or value away from my lifeís pursuits, that none of it truly amounts to more than a grain of sand.
I wander back along the beach and take a narrow side trail off into the coastal scrub just to explore. Before long I catch sight of an interesting bird, one Iím certain Iíve never seen before. The sighting is so brief I have little more than the very general sense of a finch or sparrow-shaped bird with a tomato red or rufous crest. I miss taking a picture for the few instants it perches in the light, and then it dives deep into the interior of a knot of shrubbery where I can hear, and occasionally just barely see it sifting about, in the fallen leaf litter for grubs. I take a few pictures, but they are almost entirely useless (Iíve seen clearer shots of bigfoot!) except for one that at least makes clear a grey body and yellow or olive-green wings. I circle around the bushes to get a better look and plow straight into a local toilet. The ground is littered with human excrement and great clots of half-solidified toilet paper peppered with flies. Spent toilet paper tubes and soiled underthings hang unceremoniously from Ocatillo branches. Itís a sober reminder that even here, in a town known for its ecological conscience, one that must maintain its environment for the tourist dollars that constitute its very livelihood, local people still need to find a place to take a shit. Itís hardly the first time- and it wonít be the last- that environmentalism and practicality collide. I am hardly willing to suffer this affront to my senses to get a closer look at this or any bird, so I retrace my steps.
As I wander back toward the casita, a lone pig, pink, lean, and hairy comes huffing along the trail and darts off toward a local encampment (a few out of commission cars, an old Airstream, a lean two, and a few dogs and chickens) but it is quickly shooed away by one of the residents. The pig blunders back into the undergrowth, but I can hear it snuffling and snorting away in the bushes as I pick my way -pausing, of course, for bird shots- back to the house. On two separate occasions, it burst out of the undergrowth, sees me, squeals, and trots hurriedly off in the opposite direction. I love pigs, but it would appear that the feeling is not mutual.
We meet up for lunch where everyone is a buzz about a shark sighting. It seems a large bull shark emerged from the gloom just a few scant yards from Martha while everyone was diving the local shipwreck, and sheís now determined to paint a shark for the museumís Vanishing Circles collection. Iím still on the fence as to whether or not Iím willing to go snorkeling, and this does nothing to inspire my confidence, despite assurances from the divers that we wonít be snorkeling anywhere near this spot. I reflect, with wonder and amusement, on the fact that Martha intends to seek out an experience with the exact same animal I would do anything to avoid. My own quarry is a bit less threatening, though no more cooperative than Marthaís furtive bull shark. After lunch, I take another short excursion in the scrub with the exclusive goal in mind to get a better look at my mystery bird. I take an ďI saw it shot,Ē but nothing more. Despite awful lighting, the picture is good enough that when I see Sergio later in the afternoon, he is able to help me identify it as a Green-tailed Towhee, a completely new bird for me. I am all the more determined to get better shots tomorrow. I also snap a few pictures of what I am certain is a Thrasher, but Sergio and I both agree that it does not match any of those in our field guides. Itís a bit of a mystery, though I donít want to get overly excited that it is some rare vagrant. It could just as easily be a local color variation of a well-known bird that is simply not covered in the field guides. Hopefully I will be able to clarify the issue once I have proper internet access again.
The afternoon at the Learning Center is a great success. Holly teaches and Sergio translates (or rather translates and narrates), and the kids- all twenty-two of them- engage in some wonderful artwork for a very full and very frenetic afternoon. I resolve to give a little demo, and I paint a still life of an embryonic dogfish that sits in a jar of formaldehyde on one of the shelves in Gabbyís classroom. The kids are bright-eyed and enthusiastic, and it warms my heart to see so many of them so thoroughly engaged in art-making. Holly is obviously over-the-moon with the dayís events, and that makes me glad. She is very quick to share credit with everyone around her, but the fact is that she is very much the driving force behind all of our activities and is to be applauded. Joy is just as engaged in the activities as the kids, and both Holly and I offer her a more advanced art lesson.
After the teaching draws to a close, Joy has a dinner to go to, but her friend Shelly joins us. We eat at Nancyís tonight, a beautiful, charming, candle-lit restaurant, run by an old Gringa as worn and leathern as a piece of beef jerky, but who exudes a warmth and grace that could make anyone smile. She and her dog, Squeak, make us feel immediately welcome, and we all proceed to eat and drink too much before calling it a night. Itís a very convivial evening, though a vigorous debate develops between Glenn and Shelly over whether the serverís general description of the fish-of-the-day as ďSea BassĒ (which can mean any one of dozens of fish) is an adequate one. Itís a worthwhile question, but as the debate drags on, I get the impression that they are both enjoying needling the otherís sensibilities. I keep things simple and order chicken fajitas.
What Lizard Are You?
First thing in the morning, I head off with Craig, Rachel, and Holly for a hike. We were all very enamored with the spot that Gabby showed us with the kids and are eager to spend more time there. It doesnít take us long to find, and we start off, retracing the previous dayís steps, only this time keeping a sharp eye out for reptiles. Holly and I witness a few abortive attempts by Craig and Rachel to catch a tiny lizard that has just darted off into the interior of a maze of shrubbery before Craig finally snags a Zebra-tail. I take some macro photos for him while he holds it firmly but tenderly and shows us this tiny gem up close. The color and pattern are beautiful, all the more so because the fragile little creatureís fast breathing reminds me that this painted gem is alive and vulnerable. Iím surprised to learn that the much paler-colored lizards Iíve seen on the dunes are actually a color variation the same species. We let it go, or rather, it leaps out of my grasp when I offer to hold it, and away it goes, virtually flying into the leaf litter and sandy soil where it disappears.
We encounter a number of young Whip-tails, which, to my surprise are extraordinarily colorful. In addition to very dramatic lateral stripes running down the full length of the body, the heads are golden and the tails are a shocking turquoise blue. Craig explains that the adult lizards will lose this flashy coloring all together. I follow their halting, jerky movements as they zip along a few inches at a time amidst the leaves and twigs that collect around the bases of shrubs and cacti, actually managing to take a few halfway decent pictures.
As we walk, we discuss what lizards best represent our own personalities. Holly needs an animal with attitude, so Craig suggests the Granite Spiny Lizard. With my penchant for wearing a lot of bright colors, Iím assigned the Baja Rock Lizard (not too bad, itís the prettiest lizard in the area). Craig takes a chameleon, though there is still some discussion of which species, and Rachel breaks all the rules by eschewing reptiles in favor of her favorite amphibian, the Sierra Nevada Ensantina. This conversation picks up again later in the evening when Debbie appropriately claims the tough and compact Horned Lizard and Jake the Leaf-tailed Gecko; jut as this lizard camouflages itself before striking unsuspecting prey, Jake hangs back unobtrusively before snapping his candid photos.
We reach the point in the trail where we turned back towards the wash with the kids and discover a little interpretive center down in the gully. Apparently this is where Gabby was eager to take us before had there been enough time before nightfall. It looks like there are two different ways down, so Craig and I take one while Holly and Rachel take the other. It doesnít take Craig and I long to realize that our path is a bit circuitous. With every switchback we seem to be getting farther and farther afield from our objective. Itís a beautiful landscape, however, and we both see some intriguingly huge Roadrunners down in the wash. Sadly, even the most promising groupings of boulders yield no Baja Rock Lizards. We are just about to turn back when I insist on climbing up an outcropping to see if I can spy a pathway down into the arroyo. Itís not exactly a trail, but it seems accessible, so we pick our way down into the wash, encountering a nice specimen of a thorny, crab-like orb weaver, similar to the one we saw on our last hike but larger.
The landscape at the bottom of the wash is stunning. The geology is quite different here, with the bumpy, wind and sand-rounded rocks we saw on the ridge above replaced with flat slabs crisscrossed with geometric fractures and furrows. Great mantles of roots and vines twist in and out of this network of toeholds, and many small trees seem to spill directly out of the cliff face like swirling, curvilinear, abstract sculptures. On one such tree, a trace of movement turns out to be a medium-sized, juvenile Spiny-tailed Iguana. I manage to snap a few good pictures before it leaps from its perch and disappears into a rock crevice.
We can hear Rachel calling for Craig, but sound travels weirdly in the arroyo and itís hard to tell where or how far away she and Holly might be. We finally see them on the cliff above us and shout that we will meet them further on down the wash. By the time we cross paths, Craig and I are so engaged in conversation that we nearly walk straight past them. Apparently we can spot lizards better than humans.
When we return for lunch, I hear that Martha has had no more luck finding her sharks than Iíve had securing a quality photo a Green-tailed Towhee. When my fellow hikers and I begin recounting our exploits, Jake is intrigued by Hollyís description of her path, and he and I return there in the afternoon. We take roughly the same hike, only this time we follow the trail Holly and Rachel took and get to enjoy the little ranchero house at the base of the cliff. According to the signage, houses like this were what the first native settlers lived in when they first began establishing permanent homesteads and raising livestock. On our way out of the wash, Jake suggests we climb the rock mound adjacent to where weíve parked the Suburban. Itís an easy climb in comparison to the arduous trek the Ivanyiís and Sergio and I took the other day, and the view from the top of the brilliant expanse of blue ocean is breathtaking. The time, wind, and water-worn rocks turn golden, then red as the last vestiges of daylight momentarily spotlight our surroundings, and then fade. Tiny round cacti make miniature bonsai gardens about our feet as we stare out of the expansive nexus of sky, sea, and desert.
After another nice meal, this one at the supposedly famous Titoís, which paradoxically features a plaster sculpture of a fat Italian caricature near their entrance, we wander home in the dark, half lost in glow of good food, drink, and friends, half transfixed by the milky way above us, dense and brilliant in a black empyrean vault.
I make cocktails at the house and we lounge about discussing the day. Once we share our game of ďMatch the Lizard to the PersonalityĒ everyone gets into the act, especially Jordan. A wonderfully weird exercise emerges in which Jordan cocoons himself in the hammock, then whispers his character assessment of each of us to his mother, after which she is expected to repeat his observations, complete with his choreographed body movements. All of his pronouncements are shockingly perceptive, but my favorite is his description of Sergio. ďSergio,Ē he claims ďIs the flirtatious swan who perches atop the Saguaro and says ĎCaw-CAW!Ē complete with flapping wings and pelvic thrust. Itís important to note that Sergio is a terribly magnetic personality and an outrageous flirt; at dinner that night I asked him how to say "flirt" in Spanish and he responded, ďSergio.Ē Iíll give this much to Jordan; the kid pays attention! When Jordan has hung up the magic hammock and Rachel is done playing not-so-psychic medium, itís time to go to bed.
Sleep, however, is slightly delayed by the enormous Giant Crab Spider which clings to the wall above the spare bed. Iím no longer as terrified of spiders as I once was, but I know there is no way Iím sleeping within feet of this creature, so I carefully trap it under a glass and deposit it gingerly outside. Crisis averted and off to bed!
In the Sea of Cortez
The day has finally arrived when weíre planning to snorkel, something about which Iíve been very nervous. I should clarify that I have never been comfortable in the water, and am somewhat horrified at the idea of being in the ocean. Perhaps Iíve simply seen jaws one too many times, or perhaps the fact that the ocean is a completely alien environment in which I could not survive long is enough to convince me that I donít belong there at all. Either way, my gut feeling is that snorkeling is something I simply donít want to do, but I plan to come along anyway. I figure that if Iím ready to go, I wonít be left out if the water looks clear and shallow enough for me to be comfortable; conversely, if conditions are too murky, I can simply stay in the boat and snap a few pictures of seabirds.
We visit the snorkeling outfitters in the morning to pick up our gear, but it isnít until Iím back at the casita that I examine my mask and think to ask Glenn a very important question ďHow do I wear my glasses with this thing.Ē ďYou donít,Ē Glenn replies. I have to admit Iím torn between being a little disappointed and terribly relieved. I know that in all likelihood, I will not be able to muster up the nerve to get in the water, but Iím a little disappointed that I no longer have much of a choice. Iím so nearsighted that anything more than two feet away will be a complete blur. Seeing as my biggest concern with snorkeling is visibility, this takes me out of the running no matter how clear the water may be. Though Iíve found plenty of fascinating things to explore on land, Cabo Pulmo is best known as a National Marine Park, so Iím determined to at least get out on the water.
I use some of my down time to prepare lunch for the divers who will be returning soon and will need to eat and make a quick turnaround if they are to accompany the snorkelers. They come back in high spirits after an encounter with not one, but four, bull sharks a short distance from a local shipwreck. Jake is still in bemused shock after the experience, while Martha beautifully describes the eight or nine-foot-long predators gliding just above the sandy bottom at about forty feet, their shadows playing beneath them like dark ribbons across vast expanses of empty sand that bears the ripples and furrows of the current. Iím very excited to see how she will translate this experience into a painting.
Glenn, Martha, Sergio, Jake, Holly, Craig, Rachel, Jordan, and I head out from shore together after lunch. The water is sparklingly green and the rush of salty sea air feels wonderful as we roar out into the open ocean. Glenn is feeling under the weather, so Iíll have some company in the boat even if everyone else goes out. When we get to the first snorkeling spot, Iím amazed at how clear the water is. Our guide, Luis, says itís about fifteen to thirty feet deep, but the bottom is clearly visible, and I can see all manner of beautiful fish through the shifting, fun-house mirror-like distortion of the rippling surface. The black and orange of a large angel fish, the yellow and white of a Moorish Idol with itís elegant, trailing dorsal fin, and a host of others I canít identify, appear and disappear beneath me like polychromatic ghosts in a sea-green dawn. The snorkelers soon return to the boat, everyone chattering enthusiastically about their experiences.
Our next stop is quite extraordinary. Luis slows the boat and asks us to smell the air. ďDoes it smell like fish?Ē he asks us. It does, but not unpleasantly; Debbie comments quite aptly that it smells very much like an aquarium. Not only can we smell the school of fish weíve been looking for, a moderately large group of Big-eye Trevalle, we can see it from the surface, an oval-shaped, wine red and indigo darkness occasionally broken by the silver-white slice of a fin. The snorkelers are warned about currents and instructed to keep swimming with the school of fish at all times, and with that, they slowly lower themselves into the water. Everyone comes back sufficiently awed, especially Holly, who has apparently overcome some serious phobias in coming this close to such a large group of fish. Her first comment is about how large the fish are, which is something I get no sense of from my dry and comfortable viewing platform.
We head to another spot closer to shore where I have the opportunity to photograph a beautiful group of sea lions, sunning themselves in languid luxuriance on the rocky shore. One big male sits erect with chest puffed out absurdly and his head back in a theatrically dramatic posture that calls to mind the stylized sculptures of Bejamino Buffano that I used to climb in the courtyard of the old Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco when I was a boy. A short distance from here is our last snorkeling spot. This one is within a stonesí throw of the shore and the first spot weíve been too where I feel a twinge of regret at being unable to get into the water. I know itís purely psychological, but Iíd feel much more comfortable in the water if I could literally walk to shore. Even without the ability to snorkel, I enjoy the view of the shore, especially a large assemblage of beautifully carved boulders that looks weightless and surreal. I know it is an illusion, but I imagine that if I could reach out and touch them, Iíd find the surface of these rocks as subtle and yielding as the skin of a ripe fruit. A great blue heron stands idly in the shadow of one of these natural sculptures, a pale and lonely exclamation point in a static swirl of warm browns, cool greys, and crackling shadows.
We finally head back to shore, and several of our partly look half asleep. I remember that most of them went on two dives in the morning in addition to this latest adventure.
After a short nap, I head off into the scrub, and return, once again, without having seen my illusive towhee. The last member of our team, Jesķs GarcŪa, has arrived, and we sit down to chat. Within a few short moments, I mention my interest in the Devilís Claw, and we immediately plunge into deep geek mode. Apparently Jesķs grows some varieties of this plant originally domesticated by the local indigenous people for use in basketry. The flowers are pink instead of yellow, and the seed pods can be up to eighteen inches long and have upwards of four prongs, rather than the typical two. He shows me a picture of a scorpion he has made using the beautiful carpals and seeds, and I go to bed with visions of stick-built arachnids dancing in my head.
Dinosaurs in the Trees
I awake in the early morning to a loud clattering on the patio outside my window followed by stealthy scratching and rustling. After a few minutes of listening, Iím convinced that an animal is rooting through the trash can. It goes on for several minutes, and I almost creep outside to investigate, but Iím a little unsure of what I might encounter. As I stand with my hand on the door knob, ready to fling open the door and shine my flashlight on the intruder, I realize that this the moment in a horror film when the audience screams, ďDonít open the door, you moron!Ē so I ultimately decide to exercise caution. After another few minutes, the stealthy sounds and occasional clattering of cans and bottles ceases, and I return to bed. In the sober light of day, I feel quite silly for being fearful, especially when Craig speculates that it could have been a Ringtail, a slender, raccoon-like animal Iíd very much like to see.
Still determined to get a better look at my Green-tailed Towhee, I get up early and take a long and meandering walk through the scrub between the casita and the rocks I climbed my second morning in Cabo Pulmo with the Ivanyis. This time, however, rather than walking strictly along the road or even the main path, I divert on many of the narrow and winding side-trails, quite a few of which Iím convinced were forged through the undergrowth by pigs rather than humans and require more than frequent ducking under limbs and vines. There is a pig pen off in one of these thickets that I have encountered a few times, and which is almost certainly the source of the one wandering pig I crossed paths with the other day.
I see a lot on this particular walk, including several more of my mystery thrashers, a lovely yellow-green bird that could be a vireo or a warbler, a good-sized covey of California Quail, Verdins, and some Cardinals. Iím just about to turn back when I see an oddly shaped dark bird flying off into a dense thicket, so I head a little further to investigate. Iím almost convinced that it was a male Phainopepla, but my impression was of something larger, and I did not detect a crest. I explore a bit further, but my interesting black birds are nowhere to be seen. A moment later, I notice what looks like a piece of a black plastic trash bag stuck in a low branch of a large bush and focus the camera. To my amazement, this awkward shape actually is a bird, and I immediately recognize it as an Ani. Iíve only seen Anis before in Trinidad, and I have no idea what particular species this could be, but the heavy, almost parrot-like bill is unmistakable. With their stout bodies, heavy bills, and bright, inquisitive eyes, there is something a bit subversive about them, like a distant tease from some prehistoric epoch ruled by pterosaurs. The emergence of a second bird breaks me from my trance, and I snap away furiously with my camera, desperate to capture the dinosaurs in the trees before they fly from sight. Frustratingly, when they grow tired of my paparazzi routine, they only retreat further into the interior of the tangled shrubbery, rather than flying off. The result is hardly any different than if they had flown away, but itís especially galling to know they are so close but completely beyond my reach. After waiting for a stupid amount of time, I return, defeated, to have breakfast.
As we eat, Sergio and Jesus help to identify my Anis as ďGroove-billed,Ē narrow down my vireo/warbler to any one of a few different warblers, but likely immature, and speculate about my mystery thrasher. It seems likely that itís the endemic Grey Thrasher. I feel very fortunate to have such expert brains to pick. After eating, I head out again to find my Anis and get some better photographs, but to no avail. I do see a beautiful male Varied Bunting flitting about deep inside the interior of a bush. I manage to get an ďI saw itĒ photograph in which the beautiful ultramarine blue of the rump is just illuminated by a tiny shaft of sunlight. As I trudge on, I follow much the same path I did before breakfast, but also find some new ones. The day is already quite hot, and Iím exhausted by the time I turn back. Despite having taken a circuitous route and wound back on my trail numerous times, Iím shocked that water tower near the restaurant where weíve had lunch numerous times is still visible. I can scarcely justify being this tired after having traveled such a minimal distance, less than a mile as the crow flies!
Back at the casita, everyone (except for the divers who are still in the field) has gathered to bid the Ivanyis and Debbie a fond farewell. Everyone on this trip has so much to offer, and the rest of our experience in Cabo Pulmo will not be the same without them. Craig, of course, has a whole institution to run, and Debbie is eager to get back to the aquarium. Just before this trip, the museum acquired baby stingrays for an exhibition currently in development, and I gather that it was very difficult for her to come on this trip as a result. Debbie leaving her baby stingrays in the care of her co-workers is much like a mother leaving her newborn infant in the care of a babysitter. I look forward to connecting with her, Craig, Rachel, and Jordan again when I likely return to Tucson this fall. Until then Iíll miss Rachelís sunny disposition and great sense of humor, Debbieís infectious enthusiasm and gusto, and Craigís gift for vivid storytelling.
Only Glenn and Martha have been diving today, and they return late, looking tired and satisfied. It seems Martha has found her ďshark grooveĒ and they now see these impressive predators nearly every dive. Itís good to see that Glenn is feeling better, that youthful sparkle back in his eyes.
With part of our team gone, it feels as though everyone needs to regroup and have some down time, so I have what I consider to be my first lazy afternoon in Cabo Pulmo. Sergio, Jake, and I hang out at Sergioís casita and chat about politics, conservation, and the differences between the US, Mexico, and the UK. While weíre relaxing, Holly, Martha, and Glenn are busy interviewing some of the locals about Cabo Pulmo, the local community, and their conservation efforts. Later on I get a thumbnail sketch of these exchanges from Holly, and the interesting history of Cabo Pulmo starts to emerge. Apparently it was the Castro family, of which Gabby is a member, who were among the first residents here to lobby to designate Cabo Pulmo as a protected marine reserve. Apparently some researchers from the local university were concerned about damage to the unique local coral reefs from anchors; they spoke to the local community and suggested that if they stopped fishing and worked to protect the reefs, they could create a new source of income. Historically, the local people were all working fisherman, but the fish populations became so depleted around this time, especially by large scale commercial fishing, that they were no longer able to make a sufficient living from the sea, so this suggestion was eventually welcomed. With their livelihood drying up, they decided to start promoting snorkeling to tourists. The government designated Cabo Pulmo a marine sanctuary and fishing there was made illegal. Such a transition, of course, cannot occur overnight, so for the first ten years, the locals obtained special dispensations to fish nearby (though not in the coral reef), while back on land their wives managed the tourist business. The men would go out fishing in the early morning, and their wives would signal by flashing a mirror from the shore when it was time to return and take the tourists out to the reef. With only a few locals taking a limited number of fish from the sea, the fish populations recovered, and as the fish rebounded, the popularity of snorkeling off Cabo Pulmo began to grow. Eventually the eco-tourism business was enough to pay the bills, and the men no longer needed to fish, allowing for the environment to recover even more fully. It is a great story that illustrates something I have learned about wildlife and habitat conservation from my partner Guyís work in East Africa: a conservation plan that does not directly involve and benefit the local people is never successful, let alone sustainable. It is very easy -and very ignorant- to sit in oneís air-conditioned home in front of a sixty-inch television in the US watching a documentary on Netflix and opine about habitat destruction by ďignorant locals,Ē especially when one has a full belly and a reasonable expectation of where his next meal is coming from and when.
Later in the afternoon, I meet Holly at the Learning Center to help her set up for another art class with the local kids. Once tables, chairs, and materials are in place, I happen to glance across the road at precisely the moment a large, black bird sails by. Having just seen them that morning, I immediately recognize the shape and flight pattern, and Iím across the street like a dart, camera in hand. I can hardly believe my luck; two Anis are perched on a bare-limbed tree not twenty yards away, perfectly awash in late afternoon light with the blue of the sea behind them. Throwing caution to the wind, I squeeze through the barbed wire fence that separates me from my quarry and slink toward the Anis, keeping low to the ground and as much below their line of sight as possible. I am able to get remarkably close and take some pretty good shots before the fly away. Fortunately, they only fly a short distance, and I spend ten or fifteen minutes following them about, clicking away to my heartís content. As I take my pictures, I silently formulate how to say ďSorry for trespassing. Iím just taking pictures of birdsĒ in Spanish, but no one questions my presence, and I slip back under the fence without incident. Iím very excited to have more than enough quality pictures to use as reference for a painting, which makes a few barbed wire scratches seem inconsequential.
Back at the learning center, I spend most of my time chatting with Joy about art and poetry as she paints along with Holly and the children. When the art lesson is over, Jesķs gives an informative slide presentation about the Sonoran Desert, itís history, geography, flora, and fauna. Despite the language barrier, and largely due to Jesķsís skill and enthusiasm as an educator, I absorb quite a bit more of his information than one might expect. When the dayís activities conclude, we all decide weíre on our own for dinner. Jake and I head out to eat together, but in a town with only four or five restaurants, we end up at El Caballero where Sergio and Jesķs are already enjoying drinks with Gabby and two volunteers from the local park service who are here to do research. Much of the table conversation is in Spanish, and I listen intently, trying to catch on where I can. It would probably be a generous estimate to say that I pick up on five to ten percent of the discussion; Iím simply pleased if I can catch what the conversation is about. I crack one joke in Spanish, but Iím not sure if everyone laughs because it was funny or because I butchered the language; Iíll live with the mystery.
Sergio, Jake, Jesķs and I plan to get up very early to check Sergioís camera traps, so I crawl into bed early. Not two seconds after my head hits the pillow, I hear a scratching at my window. Hoping to see a Ringtail, I launch myself out of bed, flashlight in hand, and shine it out the window. Imagine my surprise to find a crab scuttling along the sill! Where the desert meets the sea, indeed!
Cactus Combs, Pencil Points, & Not Enough Time
I get up at five forty-five in the morning and have a quick bite to eat before meeting Sergio, Jake, and Jesķs. We have an invitation to have coffee with Juan, Gabbyís brother, and we wander over to his casita. Itís quaint and beautiful, and he is very proud of the fact that his family built this house around the local native vegetation to preserve the natural landscape. Jake is especially taken with Juanís romantic retreat and calls it ďthe love nest.Ē When weíve all had our requisite caffeine, we hop in one of the Suburbans and head off with Juan and the two students I met the previous night. Our main goal is for Jake to take photos of Sergio doing his field work in the early morning light, but along the way, we have an informative nature walk as well.
I have already learned that Jesķs is extremely knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna, and that his enthusiasm makes it impossible for him to turn off his tour guide mode. He stops frequently to point out plants and animals of interest, and I find myself wishing he had been with us earlier in the trip. With expertise in biology and ethnobotany, he is well versed in the relationship between the local flora and fauna as well the medicinal and cultural uses for every plant. We spend some time examining the fruit of one particular Saguaro that the indigenous peoples once used as a comb. It looks shockingly like a hairy, golden-brown sea urchin, or perhaps one of the tribbles from Star Trek. As one of the young volunteers laughs and try to pull the soft bristles through her long black pony tail, I imagine Spock looking over her shoulder and raising a lone eyebrow.
Back at home base, I take a short break and chat with Holly about the shape that the Sonoran Desert Resurgence exhibition will take. Weíre very much on the same page, and Iím excited to begin work on my small part when I return home. In the meantime, I make plans to meet with Holly in the afternoon to set up the no-less-important exhibition showcasing the artwork the kids have been doing all week with Holly and a few of us artists. I realize I have at least three hours between now and this engagement, and start musing over how to fill it. I wander about with my camera for a few minutes, taking yet more photographs of diving Brown Pelicans and Terns, when I recall a conversation I had with Jake the previous night; I said something to the effect that an important part of taking photographs is not taking photographs, because if one spends his entire trip glued to the camera lens, itís very easy to forget to actually experience what one is photographing, and often times, the important things are overlooked. I realize that I have not left the casita without my damn camera hanging like a yoke about my neck even once since weíve arrived. Worse yet, Iím here at a marine reserve and Iíve yet to walk along the sand without wearing shoes or even so much as get my feet wet in the surf. Determined to practice what I preach, I march back to the house, change into shorts and sandals, abandoned my heavy camera and lens, and head back to the shore armed only with a notebook and pen.
As I head towards the water, I meet Glenn and Martha coming in from their latest dive. Iím excited to hear that theyíve seen breaching Humpback Whales. Once theyíve filled me in, I wander down to the water and stand for a long moment with the cool ocean lapping against my feet and ankles, looking long and hard at The Sea of Cortez. Itís amazing how much more clearly I can see these beautiful surroundings without the constant obsession of recording images. The sky is a beautiful cobalt blue shifting to periwinkle at the horizon, where it meets an astonishingly rich turquoise that gradually shifts to the hue of a well-kept swimming pool and finally to the color of green tea with milk as the ocean currents stir the sediment and rush eagerly ashore to meet me. The retreating surf makes tiny vís in the sand around the scattering of stones and bits of coral that litter the beach. I reflect for a moment on how many thousands of years it must take to grind even a small rock into sand, let alone a mountain, and I marvel at the millions of years I can feel pressing between my toes. The Pelicans do their midair dance above me, which varies in its choreography all except for the finish, which is always the same plummeting joust into the surf. The Terns enact a similar ballet, but in contrast to the bulk of the prehistoric-looking Brown Pelicans, they seem as light and insubstantial as childrenísí paper airplanes as they lilt and flash, spiral and dive through the linen-crisp air. Further on down the beach, I climb out onto the rocks and watch the crabs going about their unknowable business; some move with the deliberation of old men, while others move in quick and nervous bursts. I discover one of these crabs battering back and forth in the surf; itís so exhausted that I am able to pick it up by the back of the shell and examine it closely. Up close, the dark colors that blend so seamlessly into the rocks are actually a kaleidoscope of colors, blue and green speckles on black, wine red claws and an underside with accents of pale cream and shocking blue-violet. I look into the crabís alien, stalk-born eyes and wonder what it must be thinking. A bit of struggling in my hand tells me that he has some good fight left in him, so I release him on the rocks and he scuttles energetically into a crevice. I am amazed to see dark colored fish feeding in the surf. It is impossible for me to identify them under the swirling distortion of the water, but I can clearly make out bright yellow tails and also see a suggestion of intricate striped and spotted patterns, perhaps blue, green, white, and black, though the water that obscures them is so green and clouded with sand itís impossible to be sure.
I run into Jesķs, Sergio, and Jake on the beach, who are in the midst of a nice siesta. I join them for a few minutes and Jesķs shows me a rope that heís just made from strands of palm fiber he found on the beach. He encourages me to try and break it, and Iím astonished at how strong it is. When itís finally time for me to head back, I feel reluctant to leave the water. I have the sudden thought to lie down in the tide zone and let a few waves wash over me entirely, to surrender, if even for a moment, to the sea, but standing even where the waves crash nearly to my waste, and despite the utter beauty of this place, the mystery of the sea and the deep growl that underlies even its softest whispers still fills me with fearful awe. I do not lay down, but stand and look for a while longer, then close my eyes and only listen to the boom of the waves, the hiss of retreating surf, and the endless, unquestioning repetition of it all.
By the time Holly and I are ready to set up the art show, Judy, the director of the Learning Center who has been away until this morning, has already erected a tent. We do our part to set up tables and chairs. I arrange a still life of ocean detritus that I collected on just one morning while Holly creates a display of the kidsí art and sets out materials for them to use if they want to create more. Rather than try and draw the entire sprawling collection of corals, shells, rocks and driftwood Iíve set out, I pick one item, a dried sea urchin, and start drawing it with great care. Before long a few kids, their parents, and other residents start chatting with me about art, and I'm in my element. One woman asks me what is the best place for her to start if she wants to experiment artistically, and I steer her in the direction of simply drawing from life. Itís the most fundamental skill, and sheíll need it whether she ultimately decides to use paints, pastels, or anything else. Itís also one of the most natural ways to approach art; a person finds an object that excites her senses, observes it, and in the process of translating it onto the page, makes that object her own. As Iím drawing, one little girl begins talking to me in Spanish. I hear the word ďlapizĒ (Spanish for pencil) and assume she is talking about drawing, but Jesķs informs me that she has just specifically- and correctly- identified the species of sea urchin Iím drawing as a ďPencil Point Sea Urchin.Ē I am suitably impressed. As the afternoon winds down, I suggest to Holly that each of the kids grab an item from the still life and run down to the beach to return them to where they were found. Martha translates, and off we go. The children carry their objects with reverence, and none of them tosses anything away until I give them permission by hurtling a piece of coral into the surf. One after another the kids send their sea urchins, chunks of driftwood, crab claws, and shell spinning into the air before running along the sand, laughing and playing. The setting sun has made a pink and lavender haze of the darkening sky and the quickly setting sun paints the wet beach as silvery and sparkling as a white-gold mirror. I stay for a while after the kids have gone and the sun with them, watching the water match the mysterious, lavender grey of the gloaming in ever shifting degrees.
Earlier in the day, I received a text message from Guy back home that our friend Ajay, who has been battling cancer, has passed away. The day has been so busy it has been hard to find a spare moment to think about him, but I think about him now. Ajay was an artist much like myself, in love with life and all the wondrous things nature has to offer, and I hope that his next adventure brings him more joy and beauty than he can handle. Standing here, looking out at this beautiful and ineffable world, I feel a weird mix of contentment and desperation; there really never is enough time.
Martha, Glenn, Holly, Jake, and I have a lovely last dinner in Cabo Pulmo. We go to La Palapa, a cute little restaurant perched at the very edge of the shore looking over the water. Amidst the clatter of glasses and flatware, the jumble of voices, and the booming of waves, we have a wonderful evening. Holly requests a special margarita, now called a Margarita Raymundo after the bartender who created it for her the previous night, and I join her. All of us are more relaxed than I think weíve been at any other time during the trip. Despite the fun weíve had, itís been a lot of work too, and I think everyone, especially Holly, feels as though a weight has been lifted. Iíve certainly let myself go a bit here, to the extent that I am now finding myself (the night before our departure of course) slipping a lot of Spanish into my casual conversation, even though it is totally unnecessary in this company. I donít kid myself at all that my Spanish is other than dreadful, but itís nice to feel the rhythm of Cabo Pulmo and its people bleeding, however imperceptibly, into my speech and attitude. The lights go off a few times during our meal, and weíre a bit concerned about whether or not weíll be able to finish our meal, but as I smell the aroma of good food, taste the warmth of good tequila and the tang of fresh limes, and listen to the squeaking bark of geckos as they scuttle about the ceiling beams above us, Iím not all too certain I care.
Sergio, Jake, and I get up at five-thirty to head out for one last photo shoot in the rocky hills above the town. We arrive in time to watch the sunrise, and itís quite magical how quickly and dramatically the landscape changes. What begins as a pale pink glow on the horizon, soon flares up in a scattering of neon pink clouds, then blooms into a quivering orange sun as rich and lambent as a drop of molten bronze in a crucible of endless blue. The lights creeps over the rocks like a living thing, painting highlights of pink and orange and trailing long, circuitous shadows over turrets of jumbled boulders patrolled by the silent sentries of hundred-year old cacti. Jake busies himself taking pictures of Sergio and I, and I try to snap a few candid shots of Jake as he works. I pause to take a few landscape shots as well once the sun crests the rise on which we stand and throws long stripes of golden light and deep shadows of purple, blue, and grey, across the valley and into the hills beyond. Itís a clichť well-known to artists of all stripes to call this ďmagic lightĒ but itís no less apt an expression for its overuse. The desert is, indeed, magical, a place of rugged beauty that offers no apology or explanation for its hard rocks, sharp spines, or blistering heat, but which offers great rewards to those who care to know her, who take the time to steal moments like this when nothing is expected and everything is to be had. I will miss it.
Weíre back in time for a late breakfast where we I bid farewell to Jesķs, who needs to leave earlier than the rest of us. I pack my bags (a frightfully banal exercise after the morningís climb), catch up on my journal, and chat contentedly with Holly for a while until Glenn and Martha return from another successful shark encounter. It will take them some time to clean and pack their gear, and Holly assures me we are in no big rush to be off, so I wander down past the scuba outfitters, bungalows, and restaurants say goodbye to the Sea of Cortez. Jake and Sergio are chatting with the volunteer girls and they offer for me to climb up into the observation tower where they have been living and sleeping for the past two months. I scale the wooden ladder and enter the room above through a trapdoor in the floor. Iím astonished at how tiny it is, perhaps ten by ten feet, and by how clean it is considering that this is the girlsí only private space. I step out onto the narrow balcony and take in the breathtaking view. From this vantage point some forty feet up un the air, one can take in the panorama of the entire beach in either direction, and even look down on the Brown Pelicans as they soar low over the green water, mirroring their dark blue shadows, each bird a pair of synchronized jet planes. When I head back down, I have to ask Sergio to remind me of the Spanish word for ďviewĒ and then proceed to tell the girls in Spanish that they have the most beautiful view in Cabo Pulmo.
When I return to the house, Holly has been looking for me to share something sheís found, a very beautiful but very dead Mocking Bird that apparently flew into a window. I position it carefully in the sand and hunker down to take photos, my thoughts immediately returning to Ajay. Heís one of a very few artists- or people at all- I know who would see this delicate creature as I do, not as something morbid or even sad, but as a thing of gentle beauty and a poignant reminder of our own brief dance in the sun. I share my thoughts with Holly and thank her for bringing me the bird. For a moment I see concern in her eyes that she has upset me, but I reassure her that the truth is just the opposite. It is far too coincidental that this event, inconsequential as some might deem it, comes less than twenty-four hours after Iíve received news of Ajayís death, and I believe on some level that this bird is as clear a messenger as a homing pigeon with a dispatch tied to its fragile leg. To me the message is very clear: ďItís alright,Ē Ajay tells me, or perhaps I tell myself. ďThis is simply what happens. Iím no different than the bird. The thing that animates us has flown away. Donít worry about me.Ē
Sergio comes back from the beach and sees Holly and I with the bird. ďUh, oh,Ē he says in the bright and jovial manner I have come to expect from him, ďNature happened.Ē Yes, I think with a sadness I cannot help but do not show, it certainly has.
We head out in good spirits, stopping to wave our goodbyes along the way, especially at the Learning Center where Gabby gives us her infectiously gracious and open-hearted smile as we leave Cabo Pulmo behind us. I watch the landscape change as we wind our way through the hills, the plant life becoming lusher and more tropical here, scrubbier and dryer there; though I know we will soon leave the seashore behind us, a blue sliver of ocean peeks persistently from between hills and above brush and cacti dotted desert like an outstretched azure hand waiving a reluctant goodbye. We stop once when the opportunity arises to photograph some Crested Caracaras perched atop a Saguaro off to our right. I get some halfway decent photos, but mostly Iím just excited to see these exotic-looking birds of prey more clearly than the few tantalizing glimpses of flying birds Iíve seen since my arrival. We see many more on our trip to the hotel, including a few resting in trees tantalizingly close to the road, but all are in locations where we are frustratingly unable to pull over safely on the narrow highway.
The hotel is the most bizarrely designed thing I have ever encountered. The man at the front desk shows us where to park, then proceeds to direct us (inadequately) to our rooms, which requires the most byzantine maze of up the stairs, down the hall, up more stairs, down more halls, and round and round, that I have ever encountered, all while hauling our masses of heavy luggage. I feel a bit like Iím in a Mexican Remake of Labyrinth and would not be surprised to find David Bowie around the next corner. I arrive at my room feeling like Iím a laboratory mouse and should reasonably expect a reward of cheese. Fortunately, the room, which is lovely, clean, and air-conditioned, is reward enough, and there is time to crash before we meet up for drinks and dinner. I take the opportunity to finally call and check in with Guy and then head out with Holly, Glenn, Martha, and Jake for dinner while Sergio stays behind to decompress. We have an unexpected lovely meal at an Italian restaurant, after which Jake and I decide to walk down to the beach (promised to be just ten minutes away by our hotel desk clerk) and find a beach-side bar for a night cap.
As weíre walking through what feels like miles of malls, past huge hotels and anonymous retail, Jake reflects that this kind of development is precisely what many people have in mind for Cabo Pulmo. The residents have so far violently protested any such development, even in neighboring towns, and I sincerely hope that they can continue to hold back the world. When we finally do find the ocean, itís shocking to me how close weíve been to it, but without the ability to see the darkness of the late night sea or even hear the waves past the megalithic resort buildings. It reminds me of the terrifyingly ugly Ocean City in Maryland, which Guy and I once drove through on our way to Rehoboth during an East Coast visit a few years back. We walk along the wide expanse of sand, listening to the crash of the surf and following the thunk, thunk, thunk of distant music. A wedding reception is under way at one of the smaller hotels, but the sprawling resort next door seems quiet and promising. We walk onto the grounds, past an absurdly large (and shockingly empty) network of interconnected swimming pools and hot tubs to the nearest restaurant where weíre told we canít even get a drink unless weíre guests at the hotel. I ask if itís possible to simply pay cash and get a definitive no, followed by a nod to the same security guards we just walked past, who proceed to lead us off the grounds. I appreciate that they have their rules, but there was no signage at the boundary between the hotel and the beach that even suggested we were treading on unwelcome ground. Iím assuming this is one of those all-inclusive places, but Iím a bit surprised they donít want any outside business considering how desolate the place appears. We head back the way we came and finally stumble upon an American style sports bar with ultimate fighting playing on multiple screens and the worst kind of pedestrian mass-market hip-hop infused pop nonsense playing just loud enough to slightly impede conversation. Iíve probably become closer to Jake than anyone else on this trip; living with a Brit myself, his dry sense of humor and sharp wit are more than familiar. We each have a couple of margaritas and find plenty to talk about, touching on everything from our time to Cabo Pulmo, our ideas for the show next year, our respective spouses waiting at home, and the not-so-subtly homoerotic overtones of the very sweaty wrestling match splashed across the monitors above the bar. Back at the hotel, I collapse on the comfy bed, still half-dressed, and fall into a sleep as deep and insensate as Ajayís Mockingbird.
We head to the airport the next morning and say our fond goodbyes. Itís always a bit surreal to part after a trip like this, both with the people Iíve come to feel so close to and from a place that has become a part of me. Iím already looking forward to seeing everyone again, and excited too to discover how the last ten days have inspired us all. As the plane rises into the air, I watch Mexico dwindle beneath me, first into a doll-house miniature, then a patchwork quilt, and finally the hazy topographic map of desert, mountain, and arroyo that is the Baja Peninsula.