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).
6/18/2017 06:44:00 am
Interesting and entertaining blog today. Good reading on an early Sunday morning. Thanks.A friend of mine
6/18/2017 06:48:32 am
By the way I totally enjoy the noisy, silly Stellar Jays - they are one nature's commedians. Also, a friend of mine in college (at CSU had a blue T-bird convertible. We a lot of fun in that "rich" girls car. Thanks again for this blog. luv, moms
6/19/2017 03:31:37 pm
Love that! Rich girls car! ha! Glad you liked the blog this week. xoxo
6/19/2017 12:17:31 pm
A few years ago at some outdoor gathering at StG, I complained to Jeff Decker and Bonnie Miller about those buzzing gnats. I asked them what function they served in the ecosystem, other than to annoy me while I was walking the dog. Bonnie replied that, if nothing else, they served as a source of food for other critters. That answer continues to strike me as both practical and existential.
6/19/2017 03:31:07 pm
Oh geez! I totally agree, Stan! Those damn "no see ums" -- oh I see em alright!!
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