July 2, 2009
Varied Bunting male
Varied Bunting male
I was down on my knees driving the last tent stake when something up in the wash caught my eye--something not of the desert, something man made, something reflecting the glint of the sun's last light as it dropped into the Baboquivaris on the western horizon.  Puzzled because the head of this wash leading into a deep canyon in a remote section of the Santa Ritas was such a lonesome place, I scrambled up to investigate.

One of the tightly held conceits of those who favor lonesome places is that no one of our species has ever walked this way before them.  As we all discover, though, we are all so similar, in ways both small and large.  The reflection was from two oval, bronze memorials, perhaps six inches across and twelve inches high, "planted" with steel wire into the desert floor beneath a scrub oak tree.

Down on hands and knees again to read the inscriptions, I lingered, unmoving, for several minutes to admire the handiwork, then to ponder its significance.  The names and dates suggested a husband and wife.  Was this a burial site, the small oak nourished by loved ones' ashes, or was this just their favorite lonesome place, or perhaps that of whomever planted the memorials--an excuse to visit their own private cathedral to reconnect with our earth mother?

I, too, had passed this way before.  Eight months ago I had photographed a male Varied Bunting singing in a nearby tree in this same wash.  Stunned again by the beautiful but subtle mix of reds and blues on this desert songster and blown away by how unusually cooperative it was in front of my lens, I apparently had never glanced around on the ground that day.  But, then again, the bronzes were quite small and inconspicuous, and they undoubtedly blended well with the wild flowers of late summer monsoon season.

Resisting my initial thought to pull up camp and leave these ghosts to their hallowed ground, I thought again of how each of us, in our own way and time, strives to make this reconnection.  And how it is always the death of a parent or loved one that reawakens the urge in us to do so.  I had recently received an email from a reader whose backyard hummingbird nestlings had succumbed, in the nest, to an unseasonably hot spring.  The mother bird had uncharacteristically built her nest in a spot unprotected from the sun.  Distraught, my reader had buried the two tiny bodies in a shaded corner nook and marked the gravesite with two small glass hummingbird replicas.

In emailing me he was seeking affirmation from a fellow traveler that he knew, from my musings on birds and life, must be following the same signposts along the way.  Closing the circle, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust," brings a certain calmness and quietude to the finality of life, and relinquishing it back to nature and our earth mother allows us to do so with dignity and hope.  Life cycles and recycles, and long after the bronze has tarnished and the glass has clouded the buntings and hummingbirds will still be there to help us reconnect.