The Fauna of Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum


There are now two main sections of the Arizona- Sonora Desert Museum where animals are prominent.  As with any zoological park, the venomous reptiles and arachnids are kept in displays that are apart from other areas of the zoological segment.  Large predators are likewise kept in areas appropriate for their safety and well-being, and those of all other living creatures, including us.   The new addition to the museum is Warden Aquarium, which focuses on the Sonoran Desert’s rivers, particularly the Colorado, and on the Gulf of California/Sea of Cortez.

Let me start with my greeter, a small lizard.      

Immediately to the right of the lizard’s lair is Warden Aquarium.  You may recognize the animals who greeted me there, as relatives of those featured at the Birch Aquarium, in La Jolla.

Yes, sea horses from the Sea of Cortez!

Moving on, we find more curious animals sticking out of the sand.


These are garden eels, saying “Welcome!” to one and all.

Do you think all minnows are small?

Psych!  These are pike minnows.  They are among the largest members of the minnow family, and are carnivorous, sometimes eating kangaroo rats and small birds, which may get too close to the water’s edge.

I visited this cave, but no bats were around.  Actually, the bat area is off limits, as they transmit fungal and other diseases to humans.

Of the larger predators, the Mexican gray wolves were out and about.  The mountain lions are arthritic and have been sent to Mountain Lion Assisted Living.  A new mountain lion is being sought.  The sea otter is also being replaced.  The coyotes and javelinas  were in hiding, as it was afternoon when I got to their area.

Prairie Dog Town was lively, as always.  Prairie dogs don’t take well to strangers, be they big animals or other prairie dogs from outside the family.


A Great Blue Heron was ruling the roost on this fine spring afternoon, near the lagoon.

Finally, the Desert Bighorn Sheep were ranging about their enclosure.  Arizona has some of these great creatures in an area called Palm Canyon, north of Yuma.

There were no sheeple here today.  Everyone was rather animated and engaged in the magnificent surroundings.


The Flora of Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum


In 1952, desert afficionados William Carr and Arthur Pack began this center for the extensive study of the Sonoran Desert and its surrounding geological areas.  It was named for both Arizona and the neighbouring Mexican state of Sonora, to lend credence to the view of the desert as a biological zone which transcends national and state boundaries.  This was one of the first international biological preservation efforts.

I was delighted to be able to visit this beautiful site, 12 miles west of Tucson, on the afternoon of May 5.  Here are several scenes of its botanical and zoological treasures.  In this post, the plant life takes center stage.                         

Cacti and succulents, including spurge, are brought here from around the world, just as they are at Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden.  The spurge species below are from Ecuador and from Madagascar.


Flora in the Sonoran Desert can be lush,

or sparse.

A single plant may resemble a colony.

A colony may look like a single plant.

A garden may be in its first stages,

just as a nearby plot is in full bloom.

Some gardens fulfill an ecological role.


Others are more spiritual in purpose.


The Labyrinth Garden, above, is arranged to allow the visitor to experience it, while walking in meditation.  The three plots shown immediately above it are intended to attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bees.

As plants set the stage for animal life, so the next post will give a few glimpses of Arizona-Sonora’s fauna.


The Mission Church at San Xavier del Wa:K


It is visible from Interstate Highway 19, which links Tucson with the Mexican border:  The gleaming white dome shimmers off to the west.  Upon arrival at Mission San Xavier del Wa:K, one encounters a vibrant little community of Tohono O’Odham people, offering basketry and ceramics- and love for their Creator.  They, and the Akimel (Pima) followed the teachings of a Messenger they called I’itoi (“Elder Brother”), so it was easy for them to embrace Christ, when the Spanish brought His teachings.

The mission is among the most active in the Southwest, with several services on Sunday and Wednesday.

As I approached the church, the outside  balconies were striking.  They were built to replicate Christ’s Mount at Capernaum, when He delivered the Beatitudes.

The mission bells struck twice while I was there.

While waiting for Mass to finish, so my photo shoot inside the  church could commence, I wandered over to the west chapel, and noted this fresco of the Madonna.

While entering the church, I noticed the foyer’s ceiling is similar to that of other Franciscan missions in the area-ocotillo lashings, supported by mesquite beams.

At 10:10, the scrum of photographers were able to enter the sanctuary.  I captured these fine features:






With St. Kateri as witness, the choir is in full voice, each Sunday, from this loft:

A soloist frequently rings forth, from this dais on the side of the nave:

Although I am not a Roman Catholic, I find the efforts made by this faith community are laudable and uplifting. The mission is sure to be the subject of further visits.







The Mission San Xavier del Wa:K: Its Surroundings

  • Mission San Xavier del Wa:K, like Tumacacori and Tubac, to the south, is a mission established and still operated by the Franciscan Order of Roman Catholic monks.  Like them, it is a mission to the Tohono and Pima people.  Nearby Pascua Yaqui people also attend services here, as do Hispanics and Whites who live in the vicinity.  San Xavier operates a mission school, located on the grounds to the west of the church.

    Wa:K (pronounced “bvaak”) is a Tohono community.  Tohono speak a language similar to the Pima, and both are descended from the Hohokam, the ancient farmer-gatherers who lived in the Salt, Gila and Verde River Valleys, from what is now Tucson to what is now Prescott.

    In this segment, I will show some scenes of the surrounding buildings, gardens and Grotto Hill, which augment the beautiful mission church.

    Here are the Arts and Crafts Center, and a panel of the Pavilion built by students at San Xavier Mission School.


    The Mission School serves the community of Wa:K lovingly and well.

    The gardens in front of the church, and to its east, highlight the importance of xeriscaping (desert gardening) to the Tohono.






    Grotto Hill features a pair of crosses, in memory of parishioners who are laid to rest there, and an outdoor shrine of the Virgin Mary.  The hill is of igneous rock, and has a path which circumnavigates, but does not climb, the promontory.  It lies just east of the Mission’s East Chapel.

    The visitor to Grotto Hill is greeted by twin busts of lions, which have assumed a prominence in this mission, to symbolize the tenacity of the missionaries in their service to Christ.

    The Shrine of the Madonna is just beyond the gate, at the foot of Grotto Hill.

    From Grotto Hill, one has several fine views of the mountain ranges which surround Tucson.  Here is a view of the Santa Rita Range, to the west.


    The Mission also honours a Native American saint, Kateri Tekakwtha, who was canonized by Pope John Paull II.

    Like many Catholic parishes in the Southwest and elsewhere in the world, San Xavier incorporates indigenous traditions in its work with the people.  Here is a Tohono prayer circle.

    This was the first part of my visit here on May 5.  Next, we’ll visit the church itself.



Tumacacori, Part II: Mission San Cayetano


Way back on May 4, when the temperature was 82 in Tucson, I spent some time inside the Franciscan mission of San Cayetano de Tumacacori, some 48 miles south of the city.  In the previous post, the exterior of the mission and its splendid surroundings were highlighted.

Here are some views of what lies inside.  First are the door to the foyer and the anteroom’s ceiling.


This brick seat was found in the baptistery, just to the front and left of the nave.

The nave itself served as a seating area for the congregants and ushers.

The sanctuary is still kept somewhat colourful, although it is being slowly restored.

Like many other missions and cathedrals, San Cayetano featured a high, domed ceiling.

The walls had three layers of brick.

Here are what’s left of the steps to the choir loft.

The grandeur, while faded in our time, nevertheless has kept the interest of those who look to our heritage for a sense of how to discern what works from what needs to be cast aside.

In the next two posts, I will focus on the third great piece of Spanish legacy, south of Tucson:  The still active parish of San Xavier del Wa:k (pronounced “bvak”).


Tumacacori Mission: The Exterior and Grounds


The above is a lame parody of New Mexico’s slogan, “Tucumcari Tonight!”, from the 1980’s. Tumacacori, three miles southeast of Tubac, in southern Arizona, is no parody, though.  I spent about 1 1/2 hours there, a week ago Saturday, after checking out the art and history of Tubac.

Tumacacori’s mission, founded by Jesuits and later taken on by the Franciscan order, after the Jesuits were expelled from New Spain, was the reason the garrison at Tubac was built in the first place.

I have split this visit in to two posts, for simplicity’s sake.  This post focuses on the outside of the mission and its garden, orchard and annexes.   Upon arrival, one is greeted by the modern Visitor’s Center, after which a side trip to the lovely front garden is in order.


The area occupied by the Jesuit mission was right in front of the still-standing Franciscan structure.

A closer look at the facade of the later mission shows the endurance of Moorish style.

A small nun’s quarters was maintained to the east of the mission.


The compuerta was used to channel water from the nearby Santa Cruz River.

Other acequias retained water for livestock and the watering of heirloom fruit trees.

There was a large orchard, just east of the mission and convento.


To the immediate northwest of the mission, there is a cemetery and mortuary chapel.


Behind these, there lies the ruin of a storage building.


Also in the southeast sector of the grounds is a traditional Tohono and Pima dwelling:  Melhok Ki.

Above all these, the mission bell still reigns supreme.

The Presidio of Tubac, Part II: Nothing Ever Completely Fades


The Presidio Museum and Otero Hall preserve the story of Tubac’s on- again, off-again Spanish settlement.  As mentioned earlier, Toribio Otero and his descendants were largely responsible for the early efforts at educating, and refining the quality of life of, both Spanish settler children and the indigenous Pima.  Don Toribio was also a farmer and rancher.

His implements for bringing water from the aquifer underneath, and for grinding corn and amaranth, were those commonly used in Spain at the time.  It is often forgotten that the west of Spain is much like our arid Southwest.  This was one of the reasons the Spanish were not put off by the climate of places like Arizona, New Mexico, west Texas and eastern California.

Here are the water pump and examples of the grindstones used in Pimeria Alta, in the Spanish era.


The Spanish did not import everything, though.  Native mesquite and ocotillo were used in construction, especially in roofing and fence-making.  Adobe was a common building block.


The living conditions of the Oteros, and other second-wave Spanish settlers in Tubac in the 1780’s, were not as comfortable as those of the great haciendas in other parts of New Spain.  The quarters were small and the furnishings sparse.

Settler women, though, made sure there were reminders of home, at least in their apparel.

Gold was always on the minds of the conquistadores, to the point that the ossuaries which held the remains of the departed, for whom coffins were regarded as a lower class repository, were made of the precious metal.

Fast forward a bit, and an American item of note in Otero Hall is a Washington hand-printing press.  It was used to print the first newspaper in Tubac (1859) and is still operational.


The Rojas House, built in 1890, was a caretaker’s residence just south of the Presidio, until the last caretaker, Luisa Rojas, died in 1989.  It is now part of the Presidio of Tubac State Park.


The Rojas yard, like many in the area, has its own shrine to the Madonna and a water trough.

After nearly three hours among the shops and in the Presidio, it was time to cross the foot bridge to Tubac Stone House,

and enjoy some lunch.

There was another treat in store, three miles down the road:  Tumacacori.



Arizona’s First State Park: The Presidio of Tubac, Part I


The Spanish-era fort, the ruins of a barracks, St. Ann’s Church (built over the site of Mission Santa Gertrudis), Otero Hall and the Rojas House, where the last caretaker of the Presidio lived, until her death in 1989- all comprise Arizona’s first state park:  The Presidio of Tubac.  Together with Tumacacori Mission, three miles to the southeast, the Presidio tells the story of the Spanish settlement of Pimeria Alta, already home to the Pima and Tohono people, who still live in much of southern Arizona.

I started my visit to the Presidio at St. Ann’s.


The church was built in 1916, over the foundation of Mission Santa Gertrudis, which was established by the Franciscans in 1752.  I next wandered around to the Visitors’ Center, and learned of the often sketchy relationship between the conquistadors and the indigenous Pima.  When the native people revolted in the mid- 1770’s, the Spanish abandoned the Presidio and withdrew to Tucson.


South of the center, the carefully-arranged outline of the Presidio’s original foundation gives us a fair idea about life in a Spanish barracks, in the long run-up to Mexican independence.



As with any settlement, at least one citizen had the foresight to call for the education of its children.  Toribio Otero initiated the mission-based education of Spanish and Indian children alike, when land-grant farmers returned to Tubac in 1789.  His descendants secured the first public school in Tubac,and one of Arizona’s first such schools, in 1885.

In the next post, we look at Otero Hall, named for Don Toribio, and Rojas House, which housed a pioneer and caretaker family from 1895-1989.

Tubac Central Plaza and Secret Garden Inn


Just “behind” Tubac’s Main Street, to the east, is the heart of the town’s art scene:  Central Plaza.

Many southwestern towns have such an area, as do most Latin American communities.  Tubac’s plaza is ringed by several studios and shops.  At its western edge lies the Tubac Center of the Arts- a major showplace for young artists from around Santa Cruz County.

The Center adorns its entrance with colourful sidewalk tiles and a rock fountain.  There is plenty more colour inside, but alas, not to be photographed.


At the edge of the Plaza stands one of the sentinel houses of the old Spanish garrison- still preserved by the historical commission, though not officially a part of Tubac Presidio State Park.

There is a bright future for the arts in this northern tier of Arizona’s southernmost county.  It involves all media of the arts, from painting to bric-a-brac.

If you have a full day of arts and history, and don’t want to move any further until the next day, follow this path-

to this salubrious spot.


There are only two rooms, I’m told, and the price is a well-guarded secret, available only by phone.  Nonetheless, it’s on my list for “one of these days.”

Next:  Tubac Presidio, Arizona’s first state park.

Tubac’s Main Street

  • I spent last Saturday in the small southern Arizona towns of Tubac and Tumacacori, before heading back to Tucson and Sabino Canyon, for a short devotional with a friend.

    Tubac is well-known as an arts haven, as well as having been a fortress in Spanish colonial days.  This post focuses on the art scene and its various locales, along Main Street.

    One is greeted at the north entrance to Tubac by the five flags which have flown over the town:  US, Mexico, Spain, Confederacy and Arizona.  The Rebs ruled southern Arizona for about eighteen months, by default, as the Union troops were busy elsewhere.  They were driven out by California troops in 1863.  Anyway, Tubac became an art colony in the  mid-Twentieth Century.  It has drawn metallurgical artists, sculptors and painters since 1953.  Here are some scenes from Main Street.

    Casa Maya has two locations,both featuring a variety of Mexican metal work and ceramic ware.

    Spanish colonial styles are also ubiquitous, in both brick and adobe.  Cloud Dancer is a gallery housed in a Spanish brick garrison- style structure, complete with a bell tower.

    The lion figures prominently in this area’s decorative art.

    Later, emerging from Tubac Presidio State Historical Park (more on that later), I came upon a large emporium, La Paloma, which features the wares of Central America.

    Across the street from that massive series of shops lies a Bed and Breakfast named for its original occupant, Charles Poston.  He ruled the area as “representative” of the U.S. Government, with an iron fist, during the middle decade of the 19th Century- even being called “Colonel” by the local settlers.  Poston left Tubac when the mine which drew him there closed in 861.  Poston House is still a thriving establishment.

    The next post will focus on Tubac’s Central Plaza, east of downtown.