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Notes on Transplanting Mexican Elberberry


by Charles Bowden 

(Note from Jon- Charles Bowden is a well-known southwestern nature writer who has published many books about the Sonoran Desert. He is also known for his investigative journalism and books about the Mexican/American border country. We asked him to write a small piece for our newsletter and this article is what he submitted. He was then writing a new book at a retreat in Arivaca. We consequently received much good feedback (he has a lot of fans among Tucson's nature lovers). This article originally appeared in the May/June, 1994 issue of The Wild Bird Store newsletter. We are reprinting it exactly how it appeared without any editing.)

By the numbers it goes like this: I am digging up a Mexican elder berry sapling (Sambucus caerulea var, mexicana) at 9:10 a.m. on April 10, 1994 at precisely 3900 feet. The nearby arroyo snakes through stands of Arizona walnut and velvet ash. There is no under story, cattle have devoured everything within their reach. The winter rains have been scant and I can almost hear the land groan. A great horned owl sits on a clutch of eggs about fifty yards away in a huge ash. At the base of the tree, javelina have recently torn up the ground rooting for something. Eric Clapton belts out "Layla" from my stereo system up on the hill and the song wanders through second growth mesquite to where I work. The trees glitter with vermillion flycatchers and cardinals. Spring lust is apparent. A male Costa's hummingbird suddenly whirs before my face and then darts off.

My digging goes slowly, I am determined to get as much of the roots as possible. I pause, lean on my shovel, and look up. A golden eagle soars overhead. They are said to nest on a ridge about two miles away and often hunt this small valley. Eric Clapton says, "Layla, you've got me on my knees." An immature red tailed hawk (or so it looks to me) spins into view above the eagle, dives, and strikes the huge bird on the head. This happens several times. Finally, the eagle does a kind of barrel roll and extends its talons. The red tail persists and after a few minutes they float over the ridge and out of view.

I lift up the sapling, speaking softly to it, load it in the truck and take it to its new home up on the hill. Eric Clapton continues singing as I put the young tree in five cubic feet of mulch and one cubic foot of topsoil. I bless it with a feathered Huichol prayer wand (after all it is a Mexican elderberry and the Huichols live about a thousand miles south in the forests of Nayarit), while Clapton comes on loudly with "Let It Grow". The sapling wilts from the shock of transplanting but I have hopes for it. Birds are said to relish its berries. Thirty yards below the tree a red tail dives into the tall grass. It does not come up as I watch the spot for five minutes. There is now one less rabbit on the hill. We all have seen Bambi and have a tendency to forget how things really operate. John Baker, in the Peregrine (University of Idaho, Moscow), without any question the best book I've ever read about another life form, hits hard on this point:

I shall try to make plain the bloodiness of the killing. Too often this has been slurred over by those who defend hawks. Flesh-eating man is in no way superior. It is so easy to love the dead. The word "predator" is baggy with misuse. All birds eat living flesh at sometime in their lives. Consider the cold-eyed thrush, that springy carnivore of lawns, worm       stabber, basher to death of snails. We should not sentimentalize his song, and forget the killing that sustains it.

That afternoon, two pairs of hooded orioles come to the feeders. The following day I stumble onto what looks to be a nesting golden eagle in a grove of walnut, cottonwood and ash. The huge raptor eyes me with distrust. Wild grape vines whip through the trees. A gray hawk hunts just above the canopy of the gallery forest - a small green remnant of that fabled Southwest where the rivers actually ran and the huge trees lined the purring waters and the bosques throbbed with life.

Where am I? Oh, five or six miles the Mexican border, about an hour from Tucson, a couple of time zones from Greenland. It hardly matters, the action seems to be going on everywhere.

On the third morning, the sapling begins to faintly stir. Some of the leaves now lift up, though most still droop. I stand over it with a cup of coffee ten minutes before sunrise and listen to the buzzing of the hummingbirds at my feeders. A hundred yards below me, the waters of the small pond (a tank scrapped from the earth by a bulldozer) gleam like steel in the gray light. Suddenly, in a brushy finger of the pond, coyotes kick in with their dawn song. Their rendition continues for almost a minute. I walk around the house to a platform seed feeder near the picture window just as a kestrel dives on the clot of pine siskins gathered there. This happens often. I seem to be running a mess hall. Just after sunrise, the orioles descend and go to war with the hummingbirds over the sugar water. A black-headed grosbeak wallows in the bird bath. The coyotes have moved closer and bark nearby - at least close enough to spook a couple of jackrabbits that explode from the ground and streak past just below me.

I must get out of the house more often.

Charles Bowden is an acclaimed Arizona writer whose subjects include the desert, ecology and environment, and politics. He was the founding editor of City Magazine. Among his published works are Killing the Hidden Waters, Blue Desert, Frog Mountain Blues, Mezcal, Red Line, Desierto, The Sonoran Desert, and the Secret Forest. Bowden frequently collaborates with Tucson based, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jack Dykinga.

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