It’s Flag Day so the pup and I did what all patriotic Americans should do on this momentous holiday, we trudged up to our nearby national forest and basked in the lifesaving coolness that awaits us desert dwellers at 10,000 feet. We went for a long hike and then lounged at a friend’s cabin where I sit penning this entry for my blog. We’ve seen all kinds of wildlife in this high country ecosystem...obnoxious Stellar Jays, curious white-tailed deer, defensive collared lizards, pensive cottontails, and several squirrels who clearly suffer from ADHD. But it wasn’t until we got back to the cabin that we saw any insects save a few pesky gnats. In the cabin, the first being to greet us was a very large, unintimidated wolf spider. These spiders are very large and Sam (Chinle named him...I never claimed she was creative -- cute but not creative) was no exception, with a body the length of a quarter. He sat looking at us with all 8 of his eyes, legs crossed as if inviting us to tea. So we picked him up (gingerly) and put him outside which seemed to annoy him as it clearly dawned on him that it was noon and, since his kind are nocturnal, he really should have been sleeping instead of making tea. I looked at him and said, “I’m sorry but, dude, you can’t be in the house.” Interesting that I’ve gendered him male. He may have been female, but I read not long ago that male wolf spiders are known to cannibalize their female mates and even their young so now I assume every one of them I encounter must be male (I realize how dumb this is, so no need to put it in a comment). Ecologists think that, although male cannibalism behavior is somewhat rare, it is intended to cull the numbers of the population to keep the density in check.(1) Yet another example of why we should be happy (sometimes) that humans don’t possess all the natural habits of non-human species.
Of course cannibalism among spiders is well known in a species that dominates my backyard this time of year. Black widows are nasty females (no intended connection to recent electoral politics here) who consume their mates shortly after doing “the deed”. Our backyard is a favorite refuge for these jerks of the wild as are so many yards in Tucson. I diligently “control their density” and delight in their demise every summer. Just the other day I was noticing that parked cars, check that, neglected cars, no that’s not quite it either...dilapidated, abandoned, ruined cars seem to lure these messy nesters more than most places. Cars as ecosystems...strange but true.
And anyone who lives in or has visited Tucson knows that once you head south of River Road, the phenomenon of broken down cars parked in the front yard comes ubiquitous. I am so puzzled by these cars. I just cannot fathom leaving a car to rot. It strikes me as deeply desperate or infuriatingly wasteful – so I try not to judge, but I do notice how prevelent the practice is. Most of the ruined cars have rusted exteriors. Some have broken windows. All have chipped or fading paint. In my neighborhood alone, we have no less than 10 such cars. One is a formerly blue 1980s Honda accord. Another is snazzy black 1980s Toyota MR2. A once-white late 80s Volvo sits forlorn in front of a gentrified house with impeccable landscaping. This one is the weirdest one of all to me. It sits right in the middle of their driveway...looking like someone parked it in 1990 and then just forgot to ever drive it again.
But my favorite abandoned car is a 1957 Thunderbird. It, unlike most of these cars, has 2 friends in the yard (the friends are, to my untrained eye, unidentifiable so rusted are they). I only know the Thunderbird because Chinle and I recently asked its “owner” what kind of car it is. He smiled great big as he stood up from putting a “No Border Wall” sign in his yard and limped over (he is definitely as old as the Thunderbird and nearly as dilapidated -- although thankfully no one has parked him in the yard and forgotten about him). “I’ve owned that car since 1958. The good old days. Ya know before the Civil Rights movement and us white folks could be secure in our domination and exploitation of racial others. Now it’s all [long pause] complicated.” This neighbor has progressive signs at every election and sometimes in a non election year (he had just put up a NO Border Wall sign as I walked by for heaven’s sake) so I was understandably confused by the comment and wasn’t sure if he intended it as a joke so I just looked back at the car, and he seemed to think I was confused about the condition of the auto so he elaborated on that (thankfully). “At some point, I just stopped the upkeep. I don’t even remember the year. Maybe it was in the 80s.” Huh...seems as though something was going on with people and their cars in the 80s. “The biggest issue was that it was hard to find tires.” I look now, and notice what must be original tires on the beast. They are completely flat and miles of strands of spider webs connect all four of the tires under the car and between the Bermuda grass that grows valiantly in the shadow of the Bird.
The historian in me can’t help but wonder about his tire dilemma. The situation of rubber in 1958 was indeed precarious. The US was well committed to the Cold War by that point and a key natural resource both in winning the war (World War II) and in fighting the Cold War was rubber. Rubber has some of the most fascinating political and environmental history of any resource ever studied. For example, Henry Ford knew how important it would for the burgeoning car industry in the 1920s and so obsessed was he with ensuring access to natural rubber, he set up an imperialist utopian dream settlement deep in the Amazon. According to an article written by New York Times writer Simon Romero, who recently visited the now defunct Fordlandia (although it still has 2000 residents and plenty of dilapidated cars), Ford had “waded into an industry shaped by imperialism and claims of botanical subterfuge. Brazil was home to Hevea brasiliensis, the coveted rubber tree, and the Amazon Basin had boomed from 1879 to 1912 as industries in North America and Europe fed the demand for rubber.” (2) Rubber’s importance to the nation’s industrial prowess even inspired federal government initiatives to develop domestic supplies of the Hevea plant in the Gilded Age and early Progressive Era. Mark Finlay writes in his terrific book, Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security, that, before World War I, Americans believed American farmers would find a way to have a domestic crop (they had done all kinds of other crazily impossible things, so why not rubber?!?). The problem was that the stubborn plant just preferred the jungles of Southeast Asia to anything temperate America had to offer, so horticulturalists mostly gave up and, thanks to a lot of complicated geopolitical factors in 20s and 30s, “artificial and imported solutions to economic and political problems [came to] offer suitable alternatives to the traditional dependence on domestic natural resources.” But a crisis in supply and demand in early World War II ensured that, “the struggle for a domestic rubber crop” would mark “a transitional phase in the history of American technology and science.” (3) Who knew...tires...as global change agents and coveted space for spiders.
From that point forward, most of the emphasis was on creating technical (synthetic) solutions rather than biological (natural) ones. By the 1950s, US manufacturers and cold warriors were hopeful that the solution was synthetic rubber made from petroleum. By the 2000s, most everyone realized that synthetic rubber wasn’t as durable or as sustainable as “real” rubber. Tire companies then set out to figure out how to grow rubber domestically. I just learned that Bridgestone, for example, has set up an entire branch in their company to research and develop natural sources of rubber. One source is intimately connected to Arizona. This particular plant is called guayule (Parthenium argentatum -- and don’t think I know the Latin names of these plants...that’s one of those cool sciency things this historian has just never picked up so I always rely on others). It’s native to arid Mexico and thus is drought tolerant (hooray for the US West). The plant grows naturally and well in the harsh desert world of northern Mexico, west Texas, and southern Arizona, but when you are trying to produce something for use as a commodity, things are never that easy. Long story short, guayule (pronounced why-yoo-lee) has had to be manipulated by industrial and government plant scientists and chemists in order to make it easier to harvest for use as rubber. Bridgestone boasts that it has set up a Biorubber Process Research Center in Mesa, Arizona and, in 2015, successfully created tires made 100% from materials that came from the hundreds of acres of the desert shrub it cultivates outside of Eloy, Arizona.
I mention this to my neighbor. He says “don’t that stuff grow in Mexico?” Yes, and here too, I reply. He looks back at his newly erected sign… “just another reason to keep that damn wall from being built,” he growls. “Course tires are no longer the real issue with this beauty. But maybe I should get her back up and running. Maybe it would make me relive the simpler times.” Chinle and I are feeling the heat rise so we are not keen on getting into a long-winded or nostalgic political debate. I look back at the ruined Thunderbird, his shiny sign, and his webbed tires searching for a way to change the subject. “You’ve got some spiders under there,” I say offhandedly. He grunts as if to signal our neighborly chat is over. But, as I walk away, I can’t resist one last observation, “I’d be careful if I were you. They look like black widows.”
1) James Wagner and Richard Wise, Ecology: Ecological Society of America, Volume 77, Issue 2, March 1996: 639–652. Accessed June 14, 2017. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2307/2265637/full.
2) Simon Romero, “Deep In Brazil’s Amazon, Exploring the Ruins of Ford’s Fantasyland,” New York Times, February 20, 2017, Accessed: June 14, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/20/world/americas/deep-in-brazils-amazon-exploring-the-ruins-of-fords-fantasyland.html?_r=0; See also National Public Radio’s All Things Considered story on Fordlandia. And for a monograph on the topic, check out Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, (New York: Picador, 2010).
3) Mark R. Finlay, Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009).
The morning walk
Every day I take my dogs, ooh -- strike that -- dog (my other one died earlier this month) on a walk in my Tucson, Arizona neighborhood. There are plenty of stories and connections to make every day, but today was especially rich, ironic, and beautiful. To begin the walk, my 8 year old, 80 pound "puppy" and I encountered our neighborhood coyote off in the distance. We have named him Clarence. He's THAT kind of Clarence. A bit stodgy and perhaps he even wears glasses when he plays the piano. At the moment, Clarence is suffering from a bit of mange. It can happen to the best of us. The neighborhood association has wondered on our social media group about what to do about Clarence. Some folks advocate trapping him and taking to a wildlife care facility in town. Others think the Arizona Department of Fish and Game should come take care of the scoundrel (he's after our kitties and toy poodles, after all). Then there are those who argue he should be fed dog food and offered water so that his mange clears up, and he can become an upstanding member of our community -- or at least a better looking one. The discussion on Facebook has gone from do-gooder ("that poor sweet animal") to paranoid ("what if that mange is contagious!?") to rational ("the law says we cannot do anything therefore we shouldn't") to angry ("WHY ISN'T ANYTHING BEING DONE" in one post while another asks "WHY ARE YOU YELLING AT ME ABOUT THE LAW?"). In many ways the diversity of opinion on just how to handle Clarence is indicative of my neighborhood. We are seriously a motley crew -- all ethnicities, creeds, socioeconomic statuses, gender identities, ages, nationalities, and political persuasions live within one square mile. Mostly peacefully if you can believe that. After we turn in the opposite direction of Clarence (I mean, what if the mange IS contagious??), a young woman, who has just bought a new house in the neighborhood waves and says timidly, "can I ask you a quick question? You seem like you know things." This is something I get often. Everyone, everywhere I go seems to think I know "things" -- especially where the nearest bathroom is. Guess I just have that face. Anyway, the woman, whose dog is named Dakota (of course I didn't ask her her name), then asks me if the neighborhood is safe to walk in. I suggested that property values were higher across the main street, so maybe that would feel "safer" to her, but that despite our very palpable diversity, it is "safe" to walk a dog here in the early morning sun. And then, I thought, I should tell her about Clarence, but just as I began to mention the most controversial character in the hood, I stopped. Mange?? I mean, that might lead this sweet, young, clearly innocent woman to rethink her choice in real estate. Better to hope she can just avoid the most unsightly parts of our community. From this encounter with purity, I next came across some laborers who were re-roofing a home. Look, it's Tucson. In June. If there is a worse job in the world than roofing in Tucson in June, it is probably only roofing in Tucson in August. One of the laborers was taking a break. He had propped his head up with his empty water bottle and had settled his floppy hat on his knees. He spoke in rapid Spanish to someone on the other end of an inexpensive cell phone. Languid yet animated his darkly tanned face broke into a broad smile when he saw me. He sat bolt upright and waved...to my dog. "Beautiful coyote" he said. I swear Chinle (my Lab/Weimeruner mix) stood a little taller having been mistaken for the brave dog of the desert. I suppose the timid woman who inquired about the safety of the neighborhood may have had this guy in mind when she asked. Maybe she would fear he had been brought to this place by a coyote more mangey and more nefarious even than Clarence. I asked if he had water (his pillow bottle was empty), and he nodded "oh yes...plenty of agua but thank you." Then he looked sideways at me as if I didn't quite belong in this neck of the woods (keep in mind I was in short shorts and a florescent yellow tank top with a green sports bra and Nike running shoes to match with no hat and clearly no water). "You from Tucson?" he asked, and I said no, I'm from Colorado but I've lived here a long time." I returned the question and he said, "no, not directly from Tucson, but indirectly far back into generations." Chinle and I continued our walk (80 degrees by 9 am), and just as we were returning home, we saw Clarence again. He stood in the middle of the street, staring at us. Now that we were closer, his mange seemed better than it had last week. He seemed less desperate and more astute. Just as we were saying hello, a feral cat caught he and Chinle's eyes. Feral cats are ubiquitous in our neighborhood. And all fear them. Lizards, birds, pet cats, backyard sitters (you see they use EVERY piece of sand as their litter box): ALL fear the ferals. You can tell the feral ones from the "outdoor cats" by the wild look in their eyes and their unkempt fur that needs love and attention. Chinle and Clarence looked back at each other just long enough to share a connection that goes back far into generations. Coyotes united by a common past and a common memory. And it made me think about the worker who lay on the sidewalk to grab a bit of shade and the woman who was worried about her safety. What were their shared memories? Surely there were some. As I opened the door to the blast of 72 degree air, I wondered who, in this morning's story, were the actual interlopers and who, in reality, had more to fear? I had at least part of the answer, certainly; that non-native, unloved cat who ran for its life with Clarence in hot pursuit and Chinle following in spirit.