Monday, April 12, 2021

Catch me if you can: the fastest lizard in the desert

Tucson Botanical Gardens exhibit: zebra-tailed lizard drawing on live-edge wood

 Tail tales--In the 1940s, the geometric pattern and colors earned these fast-sprinting zebra-tailed lizards the name “gridiron” #lizards, and the tail-wagging gave them the Spanish name perrito — little dog. On #NPR, I talk more about an intimate encounter with the fastest lizard in the desert

This drawing and 11 other critters are displayed outdoors at #Tucson Botanical gardens through June 6

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Give a hoot

 Only 95 degrees, so out I wander, at dusk, 
when the bats flutter like punctuation marks lit by a red moon.
Onward to the owl tree
where I wait
 beautiful feathered bloomers 
and talons
sharp as razors

 The Great Horned Owl

is awake,

facing away from me

 preparing for the evening fly-out

scanning the sky from a great  height

Whoo whoo hoo-hoo 

I call

The owl turns, first head then body

    A woman parks her car near me, in the driveway of the home of her elderly mother, 
who she tends devotedly.
watches me watching, 
asks what I see
"Oh, the owls are back?" she asks. "I rarely see them unless they hoot," she says,
 turning and walking away, to her mother
The owl has also turned away from me, again, so I hoot. 
The owl responds with a full-on glare.
 The woman, not turning back says, "There it is, the hoot." 
Pleased,  I say "No, that was me."
Further along, in the almost  dark,
I ask another neighbor why she is walking without her Akita.
We mourn together at the necessary death, 
the gift she gave to her elderly dog,
a missed companion.
The woman, whose family has been in Tucson forever, rallies and tells me 
about two Mojave rattlesnakes she has seen lately.
I picture the shape of those heads.
We don't talk about the strength of their venom,
but we know.
Masked, walking six feet apart,
 we go looking for snakes,
 finding none.
 A Cooper's hawk watches us as the bats flicker and dive.
I return home, every bit of cloth sticking to me


Sunday, May 31, 2020

Creating Sanctuary

Instead of saying that I am easily distracted, 
I prefer to believe that I am easily attracted 
to everyday doings in nature.

Pollen flies around the interior of the cupped flower as the bee circles and burrows until

exhausted and covered in pollen, as if wrapped in stars,

 the bee sleeps in its own contained universe.
That bee finds contentment, as I do, as you can choose to do, in the embrace of those soft petals that sprout from a prickly host.
One might argue that the bee can fly away, as I cannot
but I am not here to argue with you
or the universe
or God.
I am here to make my own sanctuary.
And you?

Monday, January 6, 2020

Fire Ceremony

As we tended the fire outside at sunset for a ceremony, 
the Great horned owl called. 
As the sky darkened, we watched the flames settle.

Eventually, I found the Pleiades, 
those seven sisters that I locate each night as my beacon.
I was once again reminded of my lack of relationship with linear time.

It's been 16 years since I leaped over a fire at Beltane, my tribe of sisters following suit, 
each of us flying over the glowing wood, 
calling out the actions we would leave behind in order to move forward. 
We leap more metaphorically now, but the intent is the same.
Great Horned Owl drawing by Beth Surdut
For sale

Dream land

Madmen Dye Happy (Siesta Key, FL) 
painting by Beth Surdut
28" x 40" fiber reactive dyes, resist, silk.

Wherever I've lived
I've learned about paying attention to moments 
so fleetingly beautiful,
 they seem like a dream.
My usual walkabout, Tucson, AZ.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Monsoon in Raptorville with owl and hawks

When it's monsoon season in raptorville, and the temperature is below 100, I go for an evening walk. First, a visit with the young great horned owl who watched my every move
until potential dinner flew close by and turned the owl's head

As the sky began to darken, nighthawks flew above me, in numbers I've never seen before, all heading in the same direction, like the bats that fly out from under the bridge each night. There were bats flying also, but they fluttered like erra
nt bits of confetti.

A Cooper's hawk arrived. I focused on it, but from behind me I heard a man's voice calling in a loud whisper, "Miss, oh, Miss, look here." He was pointing to a second hawk in a different tree. 

He introduced me to his dog, Gracie, her back end wagging while her front end was poised to escape. The man directed me not to make eye contact with her if I wanted her to approach me. "She's my rescue. I don't know what happened to her before I got her, but it wasn't good."

I was hoping to see Coyote, as I often do 

Coyote drawing Beth Surdut

but instead, I hooked up with  Maxfield Parrish, who'd come to  paint the sky.

 I walked home, watching the rain walk over the mountains.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The call of ravens and rain

Four ravens, all noisemakers, flew over my house as the first drops began to fall.

I ran outside to acknowledge them, and to wallow in the scent of rain. Monsoon has arrived, streaking down at an angle, gaining strength, and we all run for cover, but not too far.

Until I lived in the desert, I did not know these particular joys of being summoned by ravens and rain.
Original drawing ©Beth Surdut. Order signed prints at 

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Getting a buzz from raising the dead (cicada)

In the weeks and days before monsoon,
 rain is not a promise.
 It is a hope, 
and a tease.
 I  see it walking across the sky as I walk across the desert.

The cicada was perfect and perfectly still, so I picked it up, placed it on my palm. 

I admired the beautiful wings
contemplated a noisy courtship
the nuances of gratification
so much to accomplish as life shortens
and, forming a cage with my fingers,
carried the insect home.
Just as I entered the house, my hand
zzzzt                               zzzzt                                 zzzt                                     zzzt                     zzzzt

 I grabbed the camera with my other hand and headed to my outdoor worktable.
Cicada and I looked at each other for a moment
and then the little being I had mistaken for dead 
stood on its head 
spinning in moves 
that would impress a break dancer.

a final performance
a memorable dance of death

I'm still hoping for rain
and a noisy courtship.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Today I showered a snake and two hummingbirds

Early this morning, I was filling the watering stations in the tamarisk tree outside my bedroom.

I sprayed the thirsty tree and watched two hummingbirds in the mist.

At the base of the tree, where thick trunks and dried needles form a haven, 
a  beautiful king snake slid into view.
I gently showered the snake, who looked at me and seemed to enjoy the water.

When I returned with my camera, snake was hiding in the coils of a hose hanging against the wall.

As I walked closer, snake stretched out against the wall and slid towards the tree.
Headed for the shadows 
and the cradle of safety offered by the tree.
 that is the snake's tail and my snake tale. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

What, you may ask, makes a perfect day? This, all this, in a vast space, a few moments, and all I need to experience bliss with my raven clan.

The Gathering of Ravens, ink drawing on paper, ©Beth Surdut order prints

West. Go West. Stay West.

     Just as I was contemplating going 
to sing to a particular raven,
 the chorus arrived.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Soul of an Octopus: conversing with Sy Montgomery

In 2016, I conducted an interview on NPR with naturalist and author Sy Montgomery about the consciousness and emotions of animals. In September 2019, her engaging memoir, How to  Be A Good Creature, was published, and our conversation continues.

In 2012, deeply involved in researching, drawing, and collecting true first-person encounters with ravens, I was lured from Santa Fe to Tucson by a perfect combination--a book festival, Sy Montgomery, and, in particular, her book of essays, Birdology: Adventures with Hip Hop Parrots, Cantankerous Cassowaries, Crabby Crows, Peripatetic Pigeons, Hens, Hawks, and Hummingbirds.
We met. I told Sy about my ravens, and a friendship was hatched.
In 2013, I returned to Tucson to accept the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Award for Non-Fiction for my illustrated book-in-progress, Listening to Raven. After calling out the news to the ravens around my studio, I called Sy, who was working on a book about octopuses – not octopi.

Sy Montgomery Interview
Conducted & transcribed by Beth Surdut 
contains additional content not heard in radio interview
Beth: Sy Montgomery. It’s so good to talk to you today. You know you really are a bold one. Your newest book, Soul of an Octopus, I looked at that and I thought, you were writing about animal cognition and emotion when even respected animal behaviorists— Jane Goodall, for instance—wasn’t publishing their own ideas because the scientific community wouldn’t accept them. Would you have been able to title a book Soul of an Octopus when you first started writing about animals?
Sy: No, absolutely not. You are so right, Beth. I think now, though, the world is ready to accept that animals have emotions and thoughts and feelings and that we are not alone in the universe in having consciousness. In fact, as you know, in 2012, the consortium of neuro-anatomists and neuroscientists and other scientists got together in Cambridge, in England, to write and sign the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness saying that all mammals and birds, and certainly some invertebrates-- they mention octopuses specifically-- have what they called the neural substrate necessary to generate consciousness.
So what you and I have known, and many of your listeners have known for decades, and many humans have known for centuries, now is being recognized by scientists and philosophers who weren’t ready to acknowledge that even just a few decades ago.
Beth: Are you familiar with the quote from Thoreau—so this would be in the 1800s-- Thoreau said, “Surely the most important part of an animal is its anima, its vital spirit, on which is based its character and all the peculiarities by which it concerns us, yet most scientific books which treat of animals leave this out altogether.”
Sy: Wow, that’s a great quote. That is a fabulous quote. Well, he knew stuff. Thoreau knew stuff. That’s for sure. That’s the thing, you know.
You, too, you’re an excellent observer of the natural world. To those of us who watch and listen, these truths are revealed to us. And I think you have to almost purposely blinder yourself to the thoughts and feelings of animals to deny that they exist. And anyone who’s had a pet dog or a pet cat can see this, can testify to it. It’s a little harder to see in an octopus, maybe, because we don’t get see octopuses as much as we might want to. But of you look, it’s there.
Beth: Well, I look at all the animals you’ve written about-- the golden moon bear, the tree kangaroo, the kakapo, the tapirs, snow leopards. Those are either exotic or cuddly looking.
And then there are the ones you have to respect—the raptors, the falcons, the Harris’ hawks, the man-eating tigers.
But you’ve got this other group of beautiful interesting creatures that are so different from humans that some people are scared of them, some people loathe them—tarantula, snake, and octopus---Three hearts! Suckers!
Sy: Ayup, and tasting with your skin. And being able to slip through a tiny opening because you haven’t got any bones at all, and a brain that wraps around your throat, and arms that, if severed, can go off and do things including change color and even hunt prey—this can freak some people out.
But how many people watched ET and loved that alien. Loved that alien for both the way it could connect with its children friends, but also for the ways it was so different from humans. And here we have, right on our planet these alien creatures, but they live in our world. And to me that is so exciting, it’s such a privilege and a lot of these critters…I mean, you’re not necessarily going to bump into an octopus if you don’t live near an ocean, and particularly some of the deep sea species of octopus.
But spiders, even if you don’t have a tarantula, all of us can meet a spider. If your like me and don’t vacuum too much, there’s tons of them right in your basement. But these are alien creatures, too, have what we would consider super powers if they belonged to a mammal.
They can shed their skin; they can taste with their feet. Many spiders, if they hurt their leg, they can pull it off and eat it and grow a new one. Wouldn’t that be great if we could do that?
Being able to pull this amazing substance, stronger than steel that they can pull out of their bodies and build webs with this. Wow. These are incredible creatures, and yet they’re amazingly common.
And we should just walk around this world gobsmacked, I think, realizing all these complex lives going on around us. Animals with powers that we only dream of, and yet all of them are thinking and feeling much as we do, and all of them love their lives as we do.

Beth: I never thought that I would cry over the story of an octopus, but I did, I did.
Sy: Oh, Beth.
Beth: When one of the girls in your book thought that she had viable eggs and tended them…could you talk about what happens to an octopus when they have eggs.
Sy: Well, octopuses lay eggs at the end of their lives, and they do it in darkness, no one can really see this happen, but we would come in and day after day there would just be more and more eggs.
Their eggs are the size of a grain of rice each, and they’re hung almost like clusters of grapes which they glue to the ceiling and the walls of their lair.
And from the moment the female octopus starts laying, until the time she takes her dying breath of water, she is completely devoted to these eggs. She will never leave her lair. She will never leave her eggs. She will not go hunting for food and sometimes even if you hand her food she won’t accept it, because her job, her whole raison d’etre, now, is to protect and clean and fluff and tend these eggs.
And when Octavia laid eggs, it was a bittersweet moment for all of us at the aquarium because we had enjoyed interacting with her. She knew who we were. She would look us in the eye and come over changing color with emotion, with excitement. She’d change red, she’d be so excited to see us. And greet us and put her suckers on us and let us pet her and we would play with her.
But once she laid those eggs, never again would she want to do that, because this was far more important. So we would see her fluffing the eggs, cleaning the eggs with her suckers, using her siphon to blow water across them to keep them clean.
Protecting them from, even though there weren’t really any other predators in her tank, there was always a chance that the sunflower sea star might come over and want to eat some of her eggs, so she was guarding the. She was the most devoted mother.
And there were times that people would come by and look at the exhibit and the octopus wasn’t moving much and they would be like “oh, well, that’s boring.”
But then you’d point out, “No, that’s a mama octopus and look, here’s her eggs,” and then people would be fascinated.
And there were a group of teenage girls who I’ll never forget, who walked by her exhibit and one of the kids said, “Eeeuw, octopus-- gross. Oo, I bet it feels icky to touch it.”
And I said to these three girls, “But look, it’s a mama octopus and here’s the eggs” and instantly these girls changed their minds. Instantly, they were like “oh, how sweet” and they wanted to know more about her.
And after we’d talked for a little while and they stood in awe watching her tend to her hundred thousand eggs.
And when they left, one of girls said to me, “You take care of that little mama.”
And this was somebody they’d found repulsive just minutes before.

Beth: It seems that humans tend to gravitate towards animals that act like humans. I say that in quotes. I think that you and I both have an interest in animals that act like whoever they are, not mirrors of us. There are animals, that, like an octopus or a snake, that aren’t mirrors of us. How do you go about choosing the animals that you write about?
Sy: Well sometimes they choose me, and sometimes it’s a very careful choice.
My first book was an homage to my heroines--Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas. And that book was about their relationship with their study animals. So, writing about those great apes was a great way for me to start my career writing about the minds of other animals because you know, we’re so closely related to a chimp, you can get a blood transfusion from a chimp. You look into the face of an orangutan and there’s that guy that took you to the prom in junior high. (Beth: laughter) They’re very much like us. But as interested as I am to find the similarities between us and other creatures, like you, I think I’m more fascinated by the differences.
Because this is what stretches our imagination. And also stretches the limits of our compassion. I mean, it makes us more compassionate to imagine, and conceive of and respect and care for other minds, minds that aren’t like our own. And that’s what really fascinates me.
I mean, Henry Beston was saying of animals in his wonderful book, The Outermost House, “You know, they are not underlings, they’re not brethren, they are other nations.”
They’re living by senses that we’ve lost or never achieved.
They can hear voices that we can’t. And this is totally true.
Animals have powers we don’t have: birds can see infrared light; um, octopuses can taste with their skin; um, spiders can shed their exoskeleton, which is more than just shedding your skin, it’s actually shedding your skeleton.
Um, animals have so many senses that we don’t and they’re able probe our world and know our world and know the truth of our world in a way that we can’t. And I love that.
So how do I pick the next critter to write about.
Sometimes it’s that lucky thing that you’re giving a talk on pink dolphins and you happen to meet the person who studies the tree kangaroos in Papua, New Guinea and that did really happen. And that’s how I ended up writing about tree kangaroos in Papua, New Guinea.
You’ll be in the Amazon writing about pink dolphins and you’ll meet the guy who eventually leads you to the golden moon bears.
And other times, I’ve made a deliberate choice and that was the case with octopus. I made a deliberate choice in that point in my career, feeling I’ve written mostly about vertebrate animals. Some of whom, can speak, like the birds, in perfect English to us.
But most of animate creation, most of animal life on our planet is invertebrate. And most life on our planet lives in the sea.
So I felt it like it was time for me to try to write about a marine invertebrate and write about its mind.
And that was what brought me, on that fateful day in March 2011, to the New England Aquarium where a keeper opened the tank that contained Athena, my first octopus.
And she reached for me from the water and I reached for her from the air and that changed my life forever and launched me on this book.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Love story from the Sonoran Desert

Today I sang to this raven. 
I started out with "Songbird," which got his attention, but his favorite seemed to be "I'll fly Away" because he raised his wings every time I sang those words, which are repeated in the chorus.
 I ended with this verse by Jesse Winchester
How far to the horizon
I'm in a rush you see
We were to meet by the western sky
My love must be waiting on me

And then, Raven being my one true north, 
I asked him to marry me.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

No such bird as a black cardinal

Phainopepla, midtown Tucson. Greek meaning "shining robe," common name is silky flycatcher. You might just want to stop here and admire this handsome bird.

Or you can continue on to information that will make your Christmas extra special...

These birds feed on mistletoe, and hang out in mesquite trees, pooping seeds that result in parasitic plants that can take over the mesquite, and give humans an excuse to kiss strangers under a plant that translates as "dung stick."