A Ten-Foot Tall Giant in the Prairie – Pale Indian Plantain

Pale Indian Plantain - Tallgrass Prairie Flower

Pale Indian Plantain – Tallgrass Prairie ©2014 Bo Mackison

Pale Indian Plantain, these tallgrass
prairie flowers rival the prairie’s grasses.
Tall and thick, its stem the deepest red like rhubarb stalks.

Leaves large as a father’s weathered hand hang low on the stem,
rough and ragged. Midway, the leaves are mother-sized hands,
reaching towards the sky and the cluster of
child-sized leaves high on the stalk.
This family of leaves. Orderly.

I stand on the earth, side by side with the Pale Plantain.
It towers above me, statuesque,
hovering over the other prairie flowers,
with an occasional compass plant its only rival.

Its whorl of yellow-green florets gives way to shriveled fibers
signaling another turn of the seasonal cycle.
And late summer drifts towards autumn.

My Desert Office


“When I look in the mirror, I see a woman with secrets. When we don’t listen to our intuition, we abandon our souls. And we abandon our souls because we are afraid if we don’t, others will abandon us.”  ~ Terry Tempest Williams

When I am in Arizona, I often go to the desert to work. I follow my intuition and my need to settle into a place of sunshine, heat and silence, spaciousness and solitude. It’s not the place most people would choose as prime office space, but it suits me fine.

When I connect with nature, I experience a boost in my mood. My imagination switches to on, and I find my work projects more inviting. Perhaps it is simply a change in scenery. Some women I know find a quiet niche in their local library, head to a busy coffee shop to write with companions, set up a sewing table in the midst of their garden, or paint in a park.

But me? I head to the desert. I bring my backpack filled with writing materials and my camera, and settle in one of the covered shelters scattered throughout Saguaro National Park. These stone and “cactus-wood” shelters were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and still provide a shady place for me to set up my temporary desert-scape office.

If you are not finding the time for creativity, you are not finding the time for one of your main reasons on earth…to fully allow the creative force of your divinity to connect and move through you. ~ Jill Badonsky

The change of pace triggers the little child in me who says, “Yippee! I don’t have to work inside today!” Suddenly any resistance I may have brought along decreases and I’m more motivated to look at my scribbled to-do list–a very casual document–and choose an item that catches my attention.

I also give myself permission to begin by working in very small increments, especially if I’m considering a project I find overwhelming, technical or difficult.

“Just begin,” I remind myself. “Start working for just ten minutes.”

After ten minutes, I have already given myself permission to stop, although ninety percent of the time once I’ve gotten started I keep right on working productively. I have broken through the “get started” barrier, broken through the procrastination, the overwhelm – and I get my work done.

But if after ten minutes, I’m still looking at a blank piece of paper, or kicking my toe into the desert dust to watch it poof, or I’m distracted by the cactus wrens building a nest in the rafters, I change tactics.

Usually, when the distractions of daily life deplete our energy, the first thing we eliminate is the thing we need the most: quiet, reflective time. Time to dream, time to contemplate what’s working and what’s not, so that we can make changes for the better. ~ Sarah Ban Breathnach

I grab a tiny notebook and pencil and my camera, and I hike through the Sonoran Desert. I study the giant saguaro, I watch the tiny lizards scuttling from the shade of a boulder to the skirt of a low-growing acacia shrub, I stop and listen to the coyotes sing as they gather in the arroyo when the shadows lengthen.

If I need more time, more grounding, I’ll walk in the canyon deeper into the wilderness, and head away the few people who also walk the desert in the late afternoon. I might sit on a rock outcropping, and settle my feet upon the earth. If I’m taking photographs for a project, I take time to contemplate my surroundings.  Study the muted colors, the desert is awash in greens and yellows. The ocotillo’s bare branches swaying in a slight breeze, ten foot long sticks that will sprout green leaves after a rainfall. Birds chatter and swoop; ground squirrels chase each other.

The material of the artist lies not within himself nor in the fabrications of his imagination, but in the world around him . . . The artist’s world is limitless. It can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his doorstep. ~ Paul Strand

As I pay attention to my desert surroundings, ideas pop into my head, often answers to confounding questions that I’ve puzzled over for hours. I pull out my paper and pencil to capture the thoughts immediately. Thoughts like these are as fleeting as the dream you remember upon awakening, but forget before your feet hit the floor.

I always write breakthrough ideas down, no matter how certain I am I will remember them.

Before I leave my desert office, I add a short note in my journal. This is my “ta-dah” list, a list that is the sequel to my “to-do” list. On this second list, I write down the highlights of my day.

Here is a rather typical ta-dah list from a desert office visit this past spring:

  • saw a bright red cardinal and it made my smile
  • wrote 200 words on the ‘courage’ essay
  • took some fun photos of three lizards in the shadow of a saguaro
  • walked the canyon trail and listened to the coyotes sing, wrote some poetry as I stood there listening
  • felt grounded and grateful

Red Rock Overlooking Colorado River Canyon – Wilderness and Beyond

Overlooking Colorado River

Red Rock Overlooking Colorado River Canyon ©2014 Bo Mackison

“But love of the wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need – if only we had eyes to see.” ~ Edward Abbey

Playing with a Photograph of Lichen – A Meditative Process

Playing with Lichen

r Playing with Lichen on Red Rock © 2014 Bo Mackison

“…there’s a silent voice in the wilderness that we hear only when no one else is around. When you go far, far beyond, out across the netherlands of the Known, the din of human static slowly fades away, over and out.” ~ Rob Schultheis

Red rock and lichen.

A variety of lichen, but truly, there are at least 946 kinds of lichen in Arizona/Utah combined, and so there will be no identification of lichen in this post. But how glorious they are! Such simple fungi, but in glorious shapes and textures and forms.

Yes. This is a “fun” photo – one that I played with for an hour or so. Not so much to get the perfect photo or abstract, but more to observe the creation of pattern and color. It becomes a meditative process.

I’m not sure what it is about the processing part of photography, but I can get lost in the play of it. Explore the combinations of colors. Make the crevices a blue-gray while keeping the brilliant rock of southern Utah its deep orange-red. Add purple shadows, highlight the yellows, pull out the turquoises.

“We need the tonic of wildness… At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. ~ Henry David Thoreau in Walden

Hiking while taking dozens of photographs of rock and pattern was itself a meditative process.

I was off trail, but following close enough to the Colorado River so orientation was never a problem. Most of the rock was slickrock, wind-polished and swept bare, but there were pockets of lichen and the tiniest of wildflowers.

Crevices would suddenly appear, when I was anticipating solid rock, and there was the challenge to either step across, climb down and back up, or follow the edge until it descended to level rock. But I spent most of my time sitting and staring at the space.

The rock is endless. And the land is silent, only an occasional whisper of wind or the swooping hawk in search of prey. The land immense enough to roam, explore, study, and then realize that an hour stretches to four without notice.

The call of wilderness — silent and yet singing in a crescendo, lifting my spirit. Heaven on earth.

A Wildness in the Garden


A Wildness in the Garden © 2014 Bo Mackison

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe. ~ John Muir

Amidst the Water Lilies, the Sky, the Clouds…Replenishment

Water Lilies and Reflection

Water Lilies and Reflection © 2014 Bo Mackison

“What call thou solitude? Is not the earth with various living creatures, and the air replenished, and all these at thy command to come and play before thee?” ~ John Milton

Becoming aware of limits. Of the need for time to rest and replenish.

How much can I schedule in one day or one week or even in one month or one season? And when I have completed my work, how do I replenish, refill my well?

By slowing down. Leaving space in my day and my evening time. Planning, in necessary, twenty minutes of nothing time. Just observation and awareness time. No phone, Facebook, email checking, messaging. No television, music, sports in the background. No reading, writing, or ‘rithmetic!

“I cannot have enough of the hours of silence when nothing happens. When the clouds go by. When the trees say nothing. When the birds sing. I am completely addicted to the realization that just being there is enough.” ~ Thomas Merton

Day dream. Watch the outdoors through a window. Notice how the wind swirls through the leaves of nearby trees. Or how the clouds drift across the sky.

Better yet, connect with nature by heading outside.  Stand barefoot in the grass and connect with Mother Earth. Close your eyes and hear the sounds in the environment. Silence, when listened to closely, turns into chattering and trills, a bird symphony. Breezes rustle the dancing leaves in the trees and shrubs, and whispers through the taller grasses.

I have put slowness into my photography practice. A time when I purposely keep my camera is in its bag and I sit and just watch. Watching the water garden, I noticed dragonflies and damselflies flit across the reflection pond. Bees sipped nectar from the water lilies and a turtle glided underwater, occasionally breaking the surface of the water. Clouds slid across the pool, reflecting sky in water.

Replenishing my well.

Paper Birch – A Study of the Nature of a Tree

Paper Birch Tree

Paper Birch © 2014 Bo Mackison

…It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
~ Robert Frost, Birches

Known as a Canadian tree,
its habitat dips into the cooler regions of the United States.
Northeast, Midwest, Pacific Northwest.

Paper Birch Tree

Three Trunks, Paper Birch © 2014 Bo Mackison

Birch tree, a variety of common names.

Paperbark birch
White birch
Paper birch
Canoe birch

Paper Birch Tree

Paper Birch Bark with New Life © 2014 Bo Mackison

Trees just beginning out in life and newer branches on settled trees are white barked,
smooth at first, then knotted with black spirals,
finally emerging as papery bark,
shades of browns, grays, greens and creams,
multiple layers,
wild and messy. And precious to the eye and hand.

Paper Birch Tree

Paper Birch Tree and Canopy © 2014 Bo Mackison

The canopy is my space. A place to spy on visitors and nature’s ways.

Like me, it too must have sun, a place of its own in full sun,
or it will not thrive.

Yet it is a pioneer. After fire or clear-cut, the birch is an early returner.
It makes do with less than tolerable conditions as long as it has its sunlight.

Paper Birch Tree

Paper Birch Bark © 2014 Bo Mackison

Its botanical name is Betula papyrifera.
Papyrus. Oh yes.

If you’ve ever handled the fibrous papyrus, woven horizontal and vertically and pressed flat,
then you will see evidence of those very first papers in this curling, peeling bark
its deep reds and oranges exposed.

Textures so full of depth, the longing to add a human element is strong
and equally strong, the urge to let it be as it is.

Paper Birch Tree

Paper Birch © 2014 Bo Mackison

An arborist writes the “catkins offer little special interest”.
I disagree. Delicate and pale green, swinging with the rhythm of spring winds.
Seeds feed the redpoll, pine siskin, chickadee; the catkins feed the ruffed grouse.

Catkins transform into nutkins, winged and fringed,
and fly the seeds away from its parent in autumn.

Roots and wings, the parent tree provides.

Paper Birch Tree

My Three Trunk Seat © 2014 Bo Mackison

Once the birch was utilitarian -
Bark as canoe cover.
Containers – baskets, bowls, baby carriers.
Comforts – mats, bedding.
Giver of light – torches.
Tool maker – spears, bows and arrows.
Transportation – snowshoes and sleds.
Sustenance – birch syrup, beer, medicinal tonics.

My birch?

It continues its tradition as a container – as I perch in its tri-trunked seat.
As a comfort – when I hold its wildness in my hands
As a giver of light – of the interior sort.

And as sustenance – for my heart and soul.

Tenacity – Part II, Showing Up Every Day and Hanging on

Happiness is a Red Balloon

“There are times in life when people must know when not to let go. Balloons are designed to teach small children this.”
~ Terry Pratchett

This has been a summer of choosing to hang on, even through periods of wanting to let go, cut my losses, and retire to the Canary Islands.

Well, not quite. I’m definitely not retiring and I’m definitely not traveling to the Canary Islands, although I hear they are charming and have black, sandy beaches.

But I have had plenty of conversations with Arizona, as it continues to beckon me home.

I am home AND I am not home.

It’s a delicate – and difficult – balancing act to connect with two disparate parts of the country as my “home”. Even with strong, well-thought out reasons for being/living/working in the Midwest half the year and in the Southwest the other half, it can be a bit crazy-making at times.

“When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt

So what could be better than to tie a knot at the end of a red balloon, and hang on while appreciating great moments in Wisconsin — walking the Capitol Square, shooting the flower-laden prairie. Be busy. Be still. Be in the present.

I’m keeping an eye out for red balloons!

After all, everything looks brighter when one’s guide is a big, red balloon!

Tenacity – Part I: Sunset Crater National Monument and its History

Sunset Crater National Monument

The cinder-strewn slope of Sunset Crater sweeps up a thousand feet into the blue sky.

Vincent Randall. He introduces himself in his native Apache language…my given adult Apache name means “Old Man Hunter.”

Randall, a Tonto Apache elder, has been coming here since the 1940s. He first came with his father in a 38 Chevy pickup… His people roamed the high country of this part of northern Arizona before they were confined to a tiny piece of land in the Verde Valley. But he says Sunset Crater remains a holy place:

“This is my people’s old homeland, you may have a piece of paper that gives you the deed which is a piece of paper that gives you the right to say you own this place, but in my heart, it’s still my land, it’s was given to us by God himself.

“One of the first things is when you enter a place like this you pray. Even today, I prayed this morning coming here.”

…from the transcript of Ken Burns’ The National Parks

Sunset Crater National Monument

Today Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument protects the Colorado Plateau’s most recent volcanic eruption.

It is the least-eroded cinder cone in the San Francisco Volcanic Field. The park is just a few miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Sunset Crater National Monument

Part of what restricts us seeing things is that we have an expectation about what we will see, and we are actually perceptually restricted by that expectation. In a sense, expectation is the lost cousin of attention: both serve to reduce what we need to process of the world “out there.” Attention is the more charismatic member, packaged and sold more effectively, but expectation is also a crucial part of what we see. ~ Alexandra Horowitz, in The Art of Looking

Sunset Crater National Monument

Lava flows and twisted Ponderosa Pines © 2014 Bo Mackison

Most of the lava in this region is black, bubbly basalt, called a’a.

A’a starts as hot lava that erupts from the Earth’s surface. Contact with the atmosphere or water immediately cools the hot lava and begins a rapid hardening process.

See the dark horizontal cave? It is a called a vesicle.

When flowing lava was still hot and fluid, gas bubbles formed. Once the lava flow surface cooled,  then hardened, the gasses were trapped beneath the crust and formed a bubble. The lava hardened around the gases and a cave (or vesicle) was born.

Sunset Crater National Monument

“Much of the ground surface is covered by lava flows or deep volcanic cinder deposits; at first glance, the landscape still appears stark and inhospitable. But look again – within the dramatic geologic features are small islands of pine and aspen trees, desert shrubs, and wildflowers. These provide small but unique habitats for wildlife as well. Slowly but surely, life returns.”~ from Sunset Crater National Park publication

Sunset Crater National Monument

Cinder trail scattered with Ponderosa pine litter — nature’s litter – layers upon the ashy earth.

To walk this trail is to walk in a sacred space. Nature left to its own. Both the struggle and the survival.

Sunset Crater National Monument

Sunset Crater is one of the younger volcanoes in the contiguous United States and was named for its brilliantly colored frothy textures on the cone.

The last eruption took place sometime between about 1080 and 1150 AD, only 900 or so years ago.

Sunset Crater National Monument

Searing basalt lava and hot gases erupted from Sunset Crater Volcano.

The cinders on the rim of the cinder cone, bathed in these vapors, chemically reacted with them to form iron oxide, sulfur compounds, and gypsum The result — red, yellow, and purple basalt cinders which still color the Sunset Crater Volcano’s summit.

Chemical interactions, gases, fire and heat, a crust of ash and a’a. And still, the trees and plants grow. Life.

That’s the history and geology.

Next post is Part II. A different take on tenacity.


Sun Burst through an Old Oak Tree


Sun Burst Oak Tree © 2014 Bo Mackison

“Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right…

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes…

~ George Harrison, lyrics