RECONNECTING WITH NATURE
In the Stress-Free Zone of the Bear Creek Nature Preserve
at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses in Southwest New Mexico
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out
that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity;
and that mountain parks and reservations are useful
not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.
John Muir – 1901
HOW HUMANS CAME TO BE DISCONNECTED FROM NATURE
Mogollon Culture adze or hoe found on 10-foot terrace above Bear Creek near current garden at the Casitas, probably used in farming there; groove for attachment of handle extends 3/4 of the way around tool; tip of tool (left end) broken off
1,000-year-old pottery shards from Mogollon Culture litter the ground at a village site on the Gila River near Gila, NM.
Current scientific thinking suggests that Modern Humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) began to acquire modern behavioral traits around 50,000 years ago, existing as hunter-gatherer societies up until around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago when some groups began to develop sedentary agriculture. How and what these prehistoric Humans thought about is poorly understood, particularly the question of how they saw themselves relative to the rest of the Natural World in which they lived. With the advent of writing around 5,000 years ago and modern world-wide archaeological and anthropological studies, especially cultural anthropology, we have been able to obtain much greater insight into this question.
In his 2002 book The Lost Language of Plants, Stephen Buhner, herbalist, naturalist, and teacher, presents a synthesis of how a majority of nonindustrial and indigenous peoples thought about Human and Nature connections and relationships. Some of key points of his synthesis are:
- “At the center of all things is Spirit. In other words, there is a central underlying unifying force in the Universe that is Sacred.”
- “All matter is made from this substance. In other words, the Sacred manifests itself in physical form.”
- “Because all matter is made from the Sacred, all things possess a Soul, a Sacred Intelligence or logos.”
- “Parts of Earth can manifest more or less sacredness, just like human beings. A human being can never know when some part of Earth might begin expressing deep levels of sacredness or begin talking to him. Therefore it is important to cultivate attentiveness of mind.”
- “Human beings are only one of the many life-forms of Earth, neither more nor less important than the others. Failure to remember this can be catastrophic for individuals, nations, and peoples. The other life in the Universe can and will become vengeful if treated with disrespect by human beings.”
The Prague astronomical clock: Installed in 1410, the Orloj clock is still operating on the southern wall of Old Town Hall in the Old Town Square in Prague, Czech republic
René Decartes, after Franz Hals, 1648
As Buhner summarizes in his book, this view of a Sacred Intelligence at the center of the Universe prevailed in various forms until the concept of a Clockwork Universe began to emerge during the Renaissance (14th to 17th century) and the following Scientific Revolution (16th to 18th century). The scientific paradigm that arose during these early days of science was that the Universe and everything in it is to be thought of as a giant clocklike machine that eventually can be completely understood through the process of scientific reductionism, a method and process whereby something is reduced to smaller and more basic individual parts which can then be further dissected and studied to determine to see how they work.
Gradually overtime, and greatly influenced by the thinking of René Descartes (1596-1650, French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist) the concept of the Universe as Machine evolved to a point where much of science concluded that human beings were the only conscious and intelligent life-form on Earth; and, depending on the scientist’s religious beliefs, that humans were endowed either with or without a soul. Once having reached this state of understanding, as Buhner elaborates in his book, humans thus became separated, isolated, and estranged in Body, Mind and Spirit from the rest of Nature both in thought and deed, setting up most of the environmental and societal problems we struggle with today.
THE RECONNECTION OF HUMANS WITH NATURE
There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore,
there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar;
I love not Man the less, but Nature more.
Lord Byron, British Romantic Poet, 1788-1824
By the beginning of the 19th century the concept of a Universe as Machine prevailed within most scientific thinking in the Western World, along with widespread acceptance of the corollary that humans were to be considered separate from, unconnected to, and even dominant over Nature. The fallacy of this premise began to be challenged in mid- to late-19th century England and other countries, however, with the emergence of what was eventually to become known as the environmental movement. In England, this initial awareness developed around the recognition of the human-caused problem of severe smoke pollution in the atmosphere that was being caused by the Industrial Revolution. For those early environmentalists, there was no question that humans were indeed connected to Nature in that it was obvious that humans were destroying the very air which they breathed, and consequently ruining peoples’ health!
“Rocky Mountain Landscape”, Albert Bierstadt, 1870; Location: White House, Washington, DC
About the same time, an early “Back-to-Nature” conservation movement was also developing in England, promoted by advocates such as John Ruskin who wrote extensively on the value of retaining and living a rural life surrounded by unspoiled Nature. On the other side of the Atlantic in the United States, environmental awareness was simultaneously emerging out of concern for protecting the natural resources of the West, a movement that was especially spurred on through the widely read and appreciated philosophical writings of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, and American landscape painters such as Albert Bierstadt. Gradually over time, the environmental movement expanded, matured, and spread throughout the world. Embedded deep within the core philosophy of this movement was the recognition that humanity is, indeed, very much connected to and a participant in Nature.
Today, the values and benefits of Humans reconnecting with Nature are being increasingly explored, studied, and researched in a multitude of disciplines concerned with various aspects of well being of the Human Body, Mind, and Spirit.
RECONNECTING WITH NATURE FOR HEALTH OF THE BODY
The old adage “Use It or Lose It” has never been more appropriate than it is today relative to maintaining and improving human health. The key point is that the human body and form were designed to MOVE: fast, over long distances, and for extended periods of time from the earliest days of the species. This was the way it was used through the hunter-gatherer days, the nomadic days, the early agricultural days, until the start of the industrial revolution. Then, as machines began to take over physical work, accompanying human lifestyles became increasingly sedentary, until the ultimate degree of sedentism arrived with the advent of the Digital Age. Exit the Human as Runner; enter the Human as Couch Potato, and long live Screen Time! It is not necessary to describe the effects of this evolutionary—or would we better say devolutionary—journey on the health of the body; millions of us suffer because of it every day and in so many different ways. Thank God for and long live Big Pharma!
Hiking the Gold Dust Trail, Whitewater Canyon, Gila National Forest, New Mexico
Of course, there have been many efforts to counter this world-wide epidemic of Debilitating Ultimate Digital Sedentism Syndrome, or (DUDSS), in the Human species. Home gym and exercise machines (increasingly digital, of course) are quite the rage, available in various (though mostly high) price ranges. Public gyms now proliferate everywhere offering any number and type of machines, focused on various muscle groups (available in both manual and, of course, digital models). Participation via membership in such gyms is available in various formats and (again, mostly high) price ranges.
There is, however, an alternative prescription for combating DUDSS which has been around for ages, that in recent years has been making a comeback, particularly by cognoscenti of Nature, and that is the humble field of Outdoor Sports Activity Enthusiast (OSAE). While the Digital Age has been making inroads into this time-honored form of Human endeavor, the basic prerequisites for participation have remained the same down through the years, requiring only two ingredients: 1) One Body, and 2) the Will To Move It … the latter sometimes being the hardest to come by. Admittedly the transition for a person suffering from DUDSS TO OSAE can be a challenge. But evidence shows that it is well worth the effort. The great thing about becoming an OSAE person is that all people of all ages can participate according to their ability and needs. Programs can range from a short walk in a public park, to watching birds in a pristine forest, to cross-country running over rough terrain, to mountain climbing. Results will vary with the individual, but frequency, persistence and commitment are primary keys to success. Costs for these programs vary but generally can be done on the cheap — unless you have developed an addiction for the latest in personal designer attire, footwear, or the latest in digital body function monitoring devices (DBFMD), which can drive up your costs exponentially.
RECONNECTING WITH NATURE FOR MENTAL HEALTH AND WELL BEING
While the personal benefits of reconnecting with Nature for physical health are for the most part well known and universally accepted, even within orthodox medicine the concept of reconnecting with Nature as a prescription for improving one’s mental health and general well being has only in recent years become a subject of considerable formal scientific study and research. Folk wisdom and old-time country doctors, of course, have always known of the peace of mind and well being that comes from a quiet interlude or sojourn in a natural setting. Most early sanatoriums were often built in places renowned for their pristine Nature, be it a scenic landscape of mountains, lake, or forest or a special climate or purity of air or water. However, the scientific evidence that a short-term one-on-one encounter of a human being with Nature could bring about an actual measurable physiological or psychological improvement in an individual’s mental health, mood, or sense of well being has only in recent years been forthcoming from mainstream scientific research.
Hiking Mineral Creek in Winter, Gila National Forest, New Mexico
In the past decade there has been a virtual explosion of renewed interest and research regarding the benefits of reconnecting with Nature for mental health and general well being. News articles championing the concept appear with great frequency on the topic, such as this one in the Stanford News: Stanford Researchers Find Mental Health Prescription: Nature. This article reviews two studies by Stanford University researcher Gregory Bratman and his colleagues. The first study compared the effects of a 50-minute walk by 60 participants in a natural versus an urban environment. The results showed that the walk in nature produced a decrease in anxiety, rumination (repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self and emotions, a known risk factor for mental illness), and benefits in complex working memory tasks among participants. A second expanded study involving 38 participants compared a 90-minute walk in a natural setting with a 90-minute walk in a high-traffic urban setting that gave similar results, i.e. reduced rumination in the natural setting, plus reduced activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex of the brain (an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness and depression). Both of these studies support other related research which reports that people who live in cities have 20% higher risk of anxiety disorders, a 40% higher risk of mood disorders, and are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia as people who live in rural areas. The results of these two studies are highly significant, the Stanford News article reports, in as much as presently more than 50% of the world’s population live in urban environments, a figure that is projected to increase to 70% by 2050.
A recent article in the National Geographic Magazine, 2016, entitled This Is Your Brain on Nature describes several research projects around the world which have shown positive benefits of Nature upon mental health and well being. One project, led by Dr. David Thayer, cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, involves three-day camping trips in the wilderness where participating students are wired up to a portable EEG machine that records changes in brain waves over the three-day immersion in Nature. The results of his project in many ways mirror the Stanford results, it that they show a positive restorative effect where the brain basically calms down and resets itself so that mental performance and well-being improves.
Hikers immersed in Involuntary Attention going up Sacaton Creek in the Gila National Forest
Summaries of additional research into the restorative effects of Nature upon the Mind can be found in a 2013 article in the Atlantic Magazine entitled How Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies. The article goes into what it is that sets natural environments apart from others, namely the two types of human attention as identified by William James, the great American philosopher and psychologist. One is Directed Attention, the type of attention that rules the day in completing daily tasks in the urban environment, such as driving, writing, tending to business, etc. Directed Attention demands a highly focused attention which tires and depletes the energy of the mind quickly. The other type of attention is Involuntary Attention which requires no mental effort at all and actually is restorative to mental well being, just as food and water restore the body.
When out in Nature it is Involuntary Attention that entrains one’s consciousness, an effortless attention of immersion into the myriad of Nature’s delights and ways … the pretty stone, the falling leaf, the gurgling stream. Psychologists have a name for this mental restorative process resulting from contact with Nature and it is Attention Restoration Theory or ART. This theory was developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in 1989 in their book The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. A more recent article on the theory, The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward an Integrative Framework can be found by doing an Internet search on the title.
Children connecting with Nature by making plaster casts of animal tracks in the Bear Creek Nature Preserve
Children connecting with the Natural World of the Mogollon Culture of 750 years ago at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
In 2005, an author by the name of Richard Louv coined the interesting term Nature-Deficit Disorder (NDD) in his 2008 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. This book investigates the phenomena of increasing estrangement of children from Nature in a historical context from past to present. The term has caught on and is in wide use today to describe numerous physical and psychological problems that result from a lack of physical and mental connection of both children and adults from the natural world. Louv cites increasing lines of research that investigate a variety of problems that can result from NDD, such as limited respect for immediate natural surroundings, attention disorders and depression, child obesity, and myopia. Primary causes suggested for these problems would include our increasing digital addictions, loss of access to and time spent out in Nature, and parental fears which keep children indoors. Several organizations both in this country and abroad have been formed with the focus of increasing childhood connection with Nature, such as The Children and Nature Network and The No Child Left Inside Coalition.
For those interested in reading further about the connection between Nature to Human Health and Well Being, there are numerous recent books, articles, and reports on the subject. Some which have received favorable reviews would be:
- Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life by Richard Louv
- Your Brain on Nature by Alan C. Logan
- The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More by Florence Williams
- For those who would appreciate a more comprehensive and in-depth discussion of this subject, the following report available on line might be also be of interest. In 2010, a large research project was completed for Beyondblue Limited, the National Depression Initiative, a non-profit Health Promotion Charity funded by the Federal, State and Territory Governments of Australia to research the connection between Nature and mental health and well being. The completed report for this research project conducted by Professor Dr. Mardie Townsend and Rona Weerasuriya of Deakin University, Australia, is entitled Beyond Blue to Green: The benefits of contact with nature for mental health and well-being. This comprehensive report (160 pages), although somewhat dated in terms of current research into the subject, is an excellent overview that goes deeply into the history and present trends regarding the scientific background, theory, areas of research, and discoveries regarding Nature and Human mental health and well-being.
RECONNECTING WITH NATURE FOR SPIRITUAL RENEWAL
Keep close to Nature’s heart …
and break clear away, once in awhile,
and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods.
Wash your Spirit clean.
John Muir – 1915
Monsoon thunderstorm over Turtle Rock at Bear Creek Nature Preserve
Spirit, as in human spirit, and spirituality, are prime examples of words in common everyday usage that have various meanings to those that hear, speak, or read them. Traditionally, the terms have had a deeply religious context, with specific meanings tied to the various religions of the world and their accompanying Diety belief systems. In many of these religions, the connection of spirituality to the world of Nature is considered an important and often-referenced concept in the scriptures.
In modern times, there has been a gradual separation of the term spirituality from a strictly organized religious context as stated in the increasing espoused phrase “Spiritual but not religious”, or SBNR, to a context where the emphasis in meaning is placed on 1) the subjective experience of a sacred, unknowable, unseen, or ineffable (that which cannot be put into words) dimension, and 2) the deepest values, principles, and learnings by which people live, which typically include a focus on personal psychological growth and improvement, a quest for an ultimate understanding of the meaning and purpose of life, pursuit of spiritual experience, or discovering one’s inner self, being, or dimension.
William James in his 1902 seminal book, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, was not particularly interested in the theology and organizational aspects of religion, but rather investigated and wrote about various aspects of direct, personal religious experience. Two important parts of this work included discussions of 1) the reality of the unseen aspects of the Universe, for which he criticized science for ignoring, and 2) the two main features of mystical experience, namely its Ineffability – where “no adequate report of its contents can be given in words”, and its Noetic Quality – where “mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect”.
Today, the concepts of the SBNR and James’ ineffability and noetic quality of mystical experience are integral parts of a growing ecological movement known as Ecospirituality, a concept that connects the science of ecology with spirituality, and brings together religion and environmental activism. Ecospirituality has been defined as “a manifestation of the spiritual connection between human beings and the natural environment”(Nature). Ecospirituality includes many of the tenets of Deep Ecology, an ecological and environmental philosophy that explores the importance of recognizing and preserving the complex inter-relationship of all organisms of which humans are just one part; and Ecopsychology, a branch of psychology that studies the relationship between human beings and the natural world.
If one considers the combined philosophies of ecospirituality, deep ecology, and ecopsychology it seems to suggest an emerging overall worldview that is in many ways similar to the major points presented above in Stephan Buhner’s synthesis of how nonindustrial and indigenous peoples of the past thought about Human and Nature connections and relationships. Hopefully the emerging worldview is a more enlightened one, having evolved from an interconnected Universal Consciousness and intelligence that infuses all life and matter where humans are just one part, to an inanimate, clock-like, Mechanistic Universe where humans are the sole conscious life form , and is now slowly returning to a more inclusive and connected worldview where Humans are no longer separated from the rest of Nature.
THE BEAR CREEK NATURE PRESERVE
Rising majestically above Bear Creek, Turtle Rock is the centerpiece of this Mid-Winter scene.
By Late Spring, Turtle Rocks takes on an even warmer tone as the Sun soars ever higher in the sky and the Bear Creek riverine forest puts on its brightest show of yellow-green.
As the Summer afternoon Sun slowly sets in the West, Turtle Rock will change from yellow, to orange, and then to red just for an instant before … lights out!
Once the leaves peak along the Creek and start to fade and fall, the towering shadowed cliffs of Turtle Rock will remain as an essential focal point of contrast in this gorgeous scene until the last of the color is gone and the more somber tones of Winter once more return.
The Bear Creek drainage is roughly 25 miles long, extending west from its headwaters in the town of Pinos Altos, 5 miles north of Silver City, to empty into the Gila River between the communities of Gila and Cliff. From prehistoric days up until the late 1800s Bear Creek served as a major route for east-west travel because of the presence of year-round water and plentiful game, and a constant, gentle change in elevation. Up until the discovery of gold in and around Pinos Altos in 1860, followed by open-range ranching in the 1870s and 80s, Bear Creek flowed through pristine, wild, mountainous country. With the exception of a continuing presence of low-intensity cattle ranching, and minor placer mining in the early 1900s, the greater portion of the Bear Creek drainage has remained in an essentially pristine state with little human development to speak of, with approximately 65-70% of its course flowing through Gila National Forest, Bureau of Land Management, and State of New Mexico land.
The Bear Creek Nature Preserve had its beginning in 1998 with the purchase of 70 acres of land bordering a half-mile stretch of Bear Creek about 5 miles upstream from its confluence with the Gila River by the present owners, Becky and Michael O’Connor, for the development of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses. Originally, this parcel of land was part of the vast Hooker Ranch, a pioneer ranch dating from the 1880s, that encompassed some 100,000 acres. Prior to the Hooker operation, all of this portion of Southwest New Mexico was considered Apache Indian territory, who continued an active and much-feared presence over the landscape from sometime in the late 16th or early 17th century until 1886 when Geronimo surrendered. Preceding the nomadic Apache, around a thousand years ago, the Native American Mogollon Culture lived in several villages along Bear Creek, farming the river bank terraces, growing the “Three Sisters” crops of maize (corn), squash, and beans.
In 1998, the section of Bear Creek which was to become the Bear Creek Nature Preserve, especially the active floodplain, was in a very degraded state due to extreme overgrazing by feral cattle which had been allowed to roam over the property for about 15 years following the termination of the Hooker Ranch operation. While a few mature and very old Cottonwoods, Sycamores, Willows, and Gray Oaks lined the sides of the floodplain, the creek banks and adjacent floodplain were extensively channeled by repetitive flooding, covered with coarse gravel, and almost devoid of any vegetation taller than the new owners. Soon after purchase of the Casita property, the north and south ends of the property along the creek were fenced and the Bear Creek Nature Preserve was born.
Great Horned Owls nest within the Bear Creek Nature Preserve
The restoration of the Bear Creek Nature Preserve along Bear Creek is now beginning its 19th year, and what amazing changes have taken place there during that time! The floodplain is now covered with a mature mixed forest of Cottonwood, Sycamore, and Willow with many cottonwood exceeding 60 feet in height. The indigenous understory vegetation is more diverse and lush, providing ample shelter, food, and safety for animals, birds, and reptiles. For the past three years, breeding pairs of Great Horned Owls, Cooper’s Hawks, and a large flock of wild Merriam’s Turkeys have taken up residence. Last Spring a returning amateur ornithologist from England reported 91different species of birds on the Bear Creek Nature Preserve and nearby surrounding areas during a one-week stay at the Casitas.
Animal life is also diverse and plentiful. All of the small mammals of Southern New Mexico including the rare and rarely-seen White Nosed Coatimundi are resident, as well as a small herd of Mule Deer. Occasional visitors to the Preserve include Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Couger, and Black Bear. Many varieties of reptiles live on the property, and during the summer the creek is a haven for a wide variety of butterflies and insects. Small minnows and frogs abound both in and along the creek. The restoration of harmony and balance of Nature is evident everywhere.
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep on the cliffs above Bear Creek at the Bear Creek Nature Preserve
Over the years, between 2003 and 2010, additional acreage was acquired on both sides of Bear Creek, enlarging the Bear Creek Nature Preserve to a total of 265 acres, much of which is accessible to Casita guests over a network of 6 miles of maintained trails, ranging from foot paths over a variety of terrain to a challenging hike up Paradise Overlook Mountain where a 360° view looks out into the Gila Wilderness to the north and the newly established 6,000-acre New Mexico Game and Fish Wildlife Preserve directly adjoining the Casitas de Gila property to the east.
View from the top of the Paradise Overlook Trail at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses
The Bear Creek Nature Preserve is a very special landscape of unique geology, diverse habitats, and topography including juniper- and mesquite-covered hillsides, Bear Creek Canyon and Creek, adjoining dry washes, and a 1,000-foot range in elevation. With the exception of the Casita buildings clustered on the edge of Bear Creek Canyon, the ¾ mile private gravel road leading into the property, a short dirt road leading to a small horse coral and vegetable garden down near the Creek, and the six miles of foot trails, the rest of the property is undeveloped and is reserved untouched for the plants, birds, animals, reptiles and fish that choose to inhabit and visit the Preserve.
RECONNECTING WITH NATURE IN THE STRESS-FREE ZONE
OF THE BEAR CREEK NATURE PRESERVE
Reconnecting with Nature is easy in the stress-free zone of the Bear Creek Nature Preserve for people of all ages and physical abilities at any time of year. The Casitas are situated along the very edge of Bear Creek Canyon, 80 feet below. All that is necessary is to step outside one’s Casita, plop down in a chair overlooking the the Gila Wilderness to the north, the close-by rocky crags of Turtle Rock, and the small mountains of North and South Peak rising up from the Creek to the east, relax and, presto, you will soon be connected! Best times are early morning when, depending on the time of the year, you can watch the Sun rise over Turtle Rock or North and South Peaks, and late afternoon when the setting Sun in the west illuminates those same mountains with a gradually-changing hue of yellow to orange to red, just before lights out. Or, if your visit is timed just right, a full or near-full moon rising over those same mountains is transcendent.
The silence of Nature is pervasive throughout the Preserve. When walking the trails along Bear Creek or reclining in the hammock at the foot of the big Cottonwood, the only sounds are those of Nature: the murmuring of water passing over rocks, the hoot of the owl, the call of the Gamble’s Quail or White-winged Dove, or the rustle of the wind in the Willows and the Cottonwoods overhead. No personal effort required, just relax and Nature will make the Connection.
In late October Bear Creek becomes a winding ribbon of gold
Have a camera?
Unlimited connections are there for the taking.
Bear Creek Sycamore in the Snow, oil on canvas, 2015, M. O’Connor
Like to sketch or paint? A thousand or more subjects await your enchantment and connection!
Reconnecting through Chi Gong next to Bear Creek in the Bear Creek Nature Preserve
Is meditation, yoga, or chi gong your path? Scattered over the Preserve and awaiting your discovery are numerous hidden spaces perfect for an ultimate connection.
Supermoon rising over North Peak, Bear Creek Nature Preserve
Is the starry firmament above your source of connection? if so, bring your telescape and your camera, for the night skies over the Preserve are absolutely some of the clearest and darkest skies in the continental United States.
Are words and journals your joy?
Poetic inspiration surrounds you in the Bear Creek Nature Preserve
The Mountains are calling and I must go . . .
MIDWINTER ENCHANTMENT IN THE BEAR CREEK NATURE PRESERVE
AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO
January 22, 2017 at Casitas de Gila on Bear Creek, looking north to the Gila Wilderness covered in deep snow
SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO: A NATURE LOVER’S PARADISE WITH FOUR GENTLE SEASONS
The High Chihuahuan Desert of Southwest New Mexico is a landscape of exceptional beauty, diversity, and distinct seasonal climatic change due to a rugged topography ranging from 4,000 to 11,000 feet. For the city or urban dweller longing to reconnect with millions of acres of pristine and untrammeled Nature, the lowland deserts, soaring mountains, and numerous rivers and creeks of the vast Gila Wilderness, Gila National Forest and other public lands in Southwest New Mexico offer an unlimited array of outdoor opportunities that can be enjoyed every season of the year … including Winter!
Situated on 265 private acres on Bear Creek, near to and directly overlooking the Gila Wilderness and National Forest, Casitas de Gila Guesthouses has since 1999 specialized in providing its guests with the best directions and information regarding access to, knowledge of, and pursuit of the various outdoor activities possible on these public lands. In addition, Casitas de Gila is most fortunate in having been able to develop within its own property the Bear Creek Nature Preserve, a unique landscape that offers Casita guests an exceptional connection and access with Nature right out the door of their Casita to over six miles of trails along Bear Creek and the adjacent mountains.
In Winter, Cottonwoods cast long shadows across trails along Bear Creek
THE WINTER OF 2016-17: AN EXCEPTIONAL DISPLAY OF NATURE’S SURPRISE, MAGIC,
AND CHANGE WITHIN THE BEAR CREEK NATURE PRESERVE
In most years, Winter at the Casitas and the Bear Creek Nature Preserve is a rather laid-back season, a time for quiet personal reflection on the year gone by. It’s a time for leisurely walks on sun-dappled paths beneath towering groves of the leafless Cottonwood and Willow that line the tranquil, faintly gurgling waters of Bear Creek. Or a time for an exhilarating climb up the more challenging trail just across Bear Creek leading to a magnificent 360° panorama at the top of Paradise Overlook Mountain. Or, if the spirit is feeling a little more restless and adventurous, one might head out to the nearby spectacular Catwalk Recreation Area, the intriguing Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, or one of the many beckoning nearby trails in the Gila Wilderness and National Forest. Later, as the afternoon shadows lengthen and the temperature begins to fall, it is time to return to the comforts of one’s own warm Casita to end the day with a relaxing meal, followed by a good book in front of a crackling fire in the kiva fireplace, a serious game of Scrabble or Monopoly, or maybe even putting together a 1000-piece puzzle! Ah yes, that has been the Winter experience at the Casitas for most years. But so far, this Winter has certainly not been like most!
A WINTER OF SURPRISING WETNESS BEGINS …
Jet Stream pattern responsible for White Christmas at Casitas, Dec. 25, 2016 (source: squall.sfsu.edu/crws.html)
Jet Stream map showing cutoff loop bringing moisture from Baja California to Casitas on Dec. 22, 2016. (Source: CA Regional Weather Server, Dept of Earth & Climate Sciences, San Francisco State Univ, squall.sfsu.edu/crws.html)
Weather wise, early Fall at the Casitas in 2016 was essentially normal, a little drier perhaps and somewhat warmer, but typical great weather for outdoor pursuits. During the first three weeks of December this pattern continued for the greater part, but with interspersed short periods of clouds, minor precipitation, and colder than average weather in response to repeated events in which the Arctic jet stream would loop south from Canada down the US West Coast and then into Southwest New Mexico.
Then, on December 22, the first of what would become a month-long series of abnormal precipitation events began, when a persistent, cut-off segment of one of these Arctic Jet Stream loops began pumping a cell of Low Pressure moisture from Baja California across the Southwest into New Mexico, bringing the Casitas over an inch of rain. At the Casitas, most of this rain was quickly absorbed by the very dry ground. Bear Creek, however, rose several inches in response, making access to the trails on the other side of the creek a little more difficult, but still doable for most of the guests who were now coming in for the holidays. Following a brief day of clearing, on Christmas Eve the clouds came in once more as a new Arctic Jet Stream loop of cold air pushed down from the North to collide with a still active Southern Jet Stream segment that was pumping moist Low Pressure air in from Baja California.
Christmas morning 2016 at Casitas de Gila, looking north to the Gila Wilderness (hidden in clouds)
The snow began falling after midnight and by morning the Casitas awoke to a big surprise: a magnificent White Christmas with three inches of snow coating everything in sight. By early afternoon, temperatures had warmed considerably as the Arctic loop of cold air dissipated, melting all of the snow except in the higher elevations in the Gila Wilderness mountains to the north. Over the next few days a persistent plume of Jet Stream coming up from Baja California continued to bring warm, cloudy, moist unsettled weather in over Southwest New Mexico, culminating with a major storm on December 31, to finish out the month of December with over two inches of rain at the Casitas. Throughout this time water levels in Bear Creek continued to rise as the rain and warm weather melted the snow in the higher mountains, rendering trail stream crossings in the Bear Creek Nature Preserve impossible. Outdoor pursuits elsewhere in the surrounding area were likewise severely curtailed as the same storms caused numerous problems: highways, roads and destinations were closed by snow or washed out, including the Gila Cliff Dwellings and the Catwalk, as well as many of the trails of the Gila Wilderness and National Forest. Two groups of hikers in the Gila Wilderness had to be helicoptered to safety on Christmas Day when land based rescue teams could not reach them because of high water on tributaries of the Gila River.
Jet Stream loop responsible for bringing 1-1/2 inches of rain to the Casitas January 14-16, 2017 (source: squall.sfsu.edu/crws.html)
Jet Stream pattern responsible for bringing persistent clouds and moisture to Casitas from Pacific and Baja California for first week and a half of January 2017 (source: squall.sfsu.edu/crws.html)
During the first week and a half of January, another strong Southern Jet Stream flow continued to bring in clouds, moist air, and various amounts of rain from the Pacific and Baja California to Southwest New Mexico, keeping Bear Creek running high, fast, and uncrossable. Not to be deterred, however, intrepid Casita guests ventured out on most days to give the various trails on the Casita side of the Creek a good workout or hiking Gila Wilderness trails that still remained open. On the bad days, they stayed inside their cosy Casita reading by the kiva fire, besting their partner at Scrabble, completing that puzzle, keeping up with the outside world on the Internet, or simply resting up for that all-to-soon return to the outside world. Elsewhere in the area, the Catwalk, Cliff Dwellings, and many Gila Wilderness and National Forest trails remained closed.
Then … surprise again! Just when one thought the rain was over, another Arctic loop came down from the north for another three days, dropping another inch and a half of rain from January 14-16 before gradually moderating into three days of patchy clouds, wind, and cold, but without rain. An improvement! But not for long, as, totally unsurprising at this point, on the 20th yet another major Arctic loop dropped down from the north bringing more than an inch of rain over the next four days for a total monthly rainfall on January 24, 2017, of 2.68 inches!
Is the Midwinter Deluge of 2017 over? Well, as of January 24th, the five-day Jet Stream forecast looks promising, and the ten-day Weather Underground forecast reads clear and sunny with rising temperatures! We shall see …
SOME MAGIC AND CHANGE EXPERIENCED WITHIN THE BEAR CREEK NATURE PRESERVE DURING THE DELUGE OF 2016-17
Bear Creek out of its channel and flowing across the adjacent floodplain, making crossing the creek impossible
Put in historical perspective, the Midwinter Deluge of 2016-17 was a truly-unique Winter weather event during the 18 years of operation of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses. Never during that period has this much rain (4.5 inches in 5 weeks) fallen in such a short time at this time of year, turning seasonally placid and faintly gurgling Bear Creek into an raging, growling Bear RIVER for over a month! The closest similar Winter Season event was the Great Flood of February 12, 2005, when a slow-moving warm front coming up from Mexico dropped 2.5 inches of rain over a three-day period over the entire Bear Creek drainage and also melted most of that Winter’s snow pack in the Pinos Altos Mountains and Silver City Range in the headwaters of Bear Creek. The combined runoff from that storm resulted a two-week flood at the Casitas that crested at 8 feet above normal level, and relocated the channel from the east side to the west side of the floodplain in front of the Casitas.
During most of the time period covered in this blog, half of the floodplain trails and the trail up Paradise Overlook Mountain on the east side of Bear Creek remained unreachable because of high water. All of the numerous trails along the west side of the floodplain below the Casitas, however, remained accessible, offering guests unique opportunities to experience up close and personal the magic, the many changes taking place, and insight into cause and effects of Nature’s unleashed power that were unfolding below their Casita on a daily basis.
Entering the grove of Gray Oaks by Bear Creek, the trail passes through a fantasy world of white lace on gnarled branches!
Along the trail heading down to Bear Creek and the cliffs beyond
No matter what the season, unexpected moments of Nature’s Magic are frequent at the Casitas for those who seek them, whether just sitting in front of the Casita on the edge of the Canyon gazing out at Bear Creek below and the mountainous Gila Wilderness beyond, or while answering the call of the ever-beckoning trails. In Spring, it might be the sudden encounter of a profusion of rare wild flowers blooming along one of the Casita trails. In Summer, the sudden flash flood from a monsoon thunderstorm surging across the Bear Creek floodplain is an awesome experience. In Fall, a brief flurry of golden Cottonwood leaves swirling to the ground along Bear Creek can cause one’s Spirit to soar. But come Winter’s cold, typically it is the magical rays of the Sun that stir one’s senses, be it those first rays of a frosty morning Sun breaking over Turtle Rock to illuminate a snow-covered wonderland, or the brilliance of the late afternoon Sun piercing through the maze of barren branches above to cast a kaleidoscope pattern of hard light and deep shadow over the floodplain path below.
This winter, the magic of the snow-covered wonderland came early Christmas morning, and for those guests who trekked out early on the trails before dawn, the magic was palpable at every turn. This was especially so down along Bear Creek where the snow created a fantasy world in high contrast black and white among the majestic trunks and tangled branches of the gnarled Gray Oak, Cottonwood, and Willow. However, on this Christmas morning, the Sun’s rays didn’t break over Turtle Rock as the clouds hung on until around ten o’clock before clearing slowly to reveal the gleaming soaring peaks of the Gila Wilderness mountains just to the north. During the following weeks, the Sun’s rays became an increasingly rare magical treat as the persistent jet stream continued to drag clouds and rain in from the Pacific, reminding the Casita hosts more and more of their seven-year sojourn in Southwest Ireland than of the normally ever-sunny Winter enchantment of Southwest New Mexico!
Heading down the Corral Road to Bear Creek with Turtle Rock beyond
Over the Creek and through the Willows leads the trail to Paradise Mountain.
But while the Sun’s rays continued to play a mostly well-hidden game of hide and seek, down below the Casitas there was a rare form of Nature’s Magic taking place for those who would care to observe … the magic of Active Change within the Bear Creek floodplain.
ACTIVE STREAM PROCESSES AND CHANGES OBSERVED WITHIN THE BEAR CREEK NATURE PRESERVE
The month-long duration of the Mid-Winter Deluge of 2016-17 provided an exceptional opportunity for interested Casita guests to observe and reach an understanding of the primary forces and processes of Nature that have acted overtime to create the Bear Creek Nature Preserve environment.
CHANGES IN STREAM CHANNELS AND FLOODPLAINS
Stream channels and floodplains, by their very nature, are environments of constant physical change in terms of shape and location (geomorphology). This is due to the constantly fluctuating volume, velocity, and turbulence of stream water flow through time that causes the erosion, transport, and deposition of the loose sediment being carried downstream. Most of the time the changes are imperceptibly slow; at other times they can be extremely rapid, causing major change in a matter of hours. During the Midwinter Deluge of 2017 the stream channels and portions of the floodplain underwent major physical change largely because of the exceptional, month-long duration of a persistent rain and snowmelt runoff event.
Stream Gradient and Base Level
As the high water continued, both the bottom and sides of the channel were eroded, undercutting the Cottonwoods on the edge of the floodplain
It is the nature of all streams, rivers, and creeks, no matter what size or where they are located, to evolve towards a state of an equilibrium where there is neither erosion nor deposition of sediment within the channel of the flowing water. Factors inherent in achieving such a balance include the variables of volume, velocity and degree of turbulence of the flowing water, plus the gradient of the stream.
Stream gradient is a term that describes the grade or slope of the stream’s surface, and is a measurement of the drop in elevation of the stream’s surface over a horizontal distance. Stream gradient is typically stated in feet per mile or meters per kilometer. High gradient streams have a steep grade with greater velocities and turbulence within the flowing water, typically resulting in erosion of loose sediment from the bottom and the degradation or cutting down of the channel bottom. Conversely, low gradient streams have less slope with slower flowing water and less turbulence that typically results in deposition of transported sediment and aggradation of the channel bottom.
Downstream at the southern end of Casita lands, as Bear Creek Canyon widens, so do the channel and floodplain, resulting in a lower gradient stream with deposition of finer-grained bed load and coarse suspended load
As the gradient of a stream approaches zero the stream is said to be approaching equilibrium at base level where all sediment transport and deposition ceases. Attainment of equilibrium along the course of a stream is rarely achieved for more than a brief span of time during periods of changing velocity or volume of water flow, exceptions being when the stream encounters a temporary base level, such as a stream flowing into a lake or reservoir. Ultimate base level is reached when a stream finally flows into the ocean.
Stream Sediment Transport
Sediment transport by running water in rivers, streams, or creeks, such as Bear Creek, occurs in two ways: as bed load where the coarse sediment (sand and gravel) maintains contact with the stream bottom by rolling, sliding, and skipping along the bottom (a process also known as saltation); and as suspended load where finer-grained sediment (sand, silt, and clay) are carried suspended by turbulence within the moving water column.
The unconsolidated fluvial sediment that makes up the channels, floodplain, and adjacent stream terraces of Bear Creek ranges from clay size particles less than 4 microns (.004 millimeters) in diameter to boulders up to 1 meter in diameter. The rate at which this sediment is transported downstream as bed load and suspended load varies greatly depending on the sediment size, the velocity and the turbulence of the moving water. In general, the larger the sediment particle, the slower it travels downstream.
As the flood waters begin to recede, a coarse deposit of cobbles and boulders bed load is deposited on a gravel bar at the side of Bear Creek while the suspended load muddying the water continues downstream
Suspended load sediment is carried downstream at the velocity of the stream, which during flood stage on Bear Creek can move at rates of up to 20 miles an hour. The size of sediment particles carried in the suspended load is dependent on the velocity of the water plus the roughness of the stream bottom due to big rocks, roots, branches, etc., along the bottom and sides of the channel which create turbulence in the water column that acts to keep the sediment suspended.
In most years, the waters of Bear Creek within the Bear Creek Nature Preserve measure a few inches in depth and only 10 to 20 feet in breadth for about ten months out of the year; the water is crystal clear, and moves downstream at speeds of only a few feet per second. During such times, sediment transport and changes in the morphology of the stream channels and the adjacent floodplain are, to the casual observer, essentially non-existent. It is only upon very close examination that movement of fine-grained sediment as bed load can be observed along the bottom.
SOME CHANGES REVEALED
During the Midwinter Deluge Event, the flow of water in Bear Creek remained high, fluctuating between just remaining within the main stream channels with depths of 2 to 3 feet to occasionally overflowing the channels by an additional 1 to 2 feet and flowing out across the floodplain. While the velocity and volume of the water during the event were elevated, it was not just the velocity or volume of the flowing water that produced the major changes observed in the Bear Creek Nature Preserve during and following the event. In this case, it was the duration of the high water event, which persisted unabated at consistently elevated levels for more than a month. This produced many dramatic changes, including:
As high water erodes banks of the channel, floodplain trees topple in the Creek diverting the course of the channel
• Significant channel modification through erosion of channel banks and diversion of stream flow by the undercutting and toppling of trees along channel margin
• Initiation of new channel development and deepening of older high water channels across the floodplain
• Massive erosion, transportation, deposition, or relocation of vast tonnages of coarse bed load and suspended load sediments
• Selective suspension and removal of sand, silt, and clay sediment from the bottom and sides of stream channels due to high level turbulence within the fast moving water. Under these conditions, once this sediment was suspended it was carried downstream out of the Bear Creek Nature Preserve leaving behind channels that have been cut deeper by one to several feet and filled with coarse gravel and boulders.
As floodwaters leave the channel and flow across the floodplain, new channels are cut, such as in this photo with the old channel on the right and the new channel that was started at high water on the left
With only a few more floods, this new channel being cut into the floodplain will soon become the main channel; note the massive amounts of bed load and suspended load left behind by the receding waters
By early February 2017, the flood waters had dropped significantly, revealing the active Bear Creek channel cut down about 2 feet with the sides and bottom lined with large coarse gravel, cobbles, and boulders deposited from the bed load; the sand, silt, and clay sediment having been selectively removed from the channel as suspended load and carried away downstream
A MID-WINTER DAY’S SEARCH FOR CHALCEDONY AND FIRE AGATE
AT ARIZONA’S BLACK HILLS ROCKHOUNDING AREA
Fire-agate and chalcedony collected at Black Hills Rockhound Area
THE SOUTHWESTERN NEW MEXICO AND SOUTHEASTERN ARIZONA BORDER COUNTRY
– A ROCKHOUNDER’S PARADISE
The three physiographic regions of Arizona: Colorado Plateau Region, Mogollon Rim Transition Zone which includes the Mogollon-Datil Volcanic Field, and the Basin and Range Province (Wikimedia Commons: Mortadelo 2005)
The Southwestern New Mexico and Southeastern Arizona Border Country offers some of the finest and most diverse rockhounding opportunities to be found anywhere in the Southwest. Semi-precious gems, minerals, and rocks of an extremely wide diversity can be found here, including white to pink chalcedony, fire agate, banded agate, red and yellow jaspers, carnelian, obsidian, geodes and thunder eggs, and banded rhyolites, as well as exotic copper minerals like turquoise, malachite, azurite, and chrysocolla. These are but a few of the treasures that can be hunted and collected here, scattered over the surface on many thousands of acres of public lands, as well as excellent specimens that can be dug from the tailings dumps at numerous abandoned gold, silver, and copper mines that operated in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The reason for this great abundance and diversity of collectable rocks and minerals is that the Southern New Mexico-Arizona border straddles a complex geological transition zone encompassing the eastern edge of the Basin and Range Province and the southwestern side of the Mogollon-Datil Volcanic Field at the southern end of the Colorado Plateau. During the Oligocene and Miocene Epochs of the Mid-Tertiary Period between 35 and 15 million years ago, this vast area in the American Southwest was the site of repeated episodes of extensive faulting, vulcanism, and extensive mineral vein intrusion, each of which are critical factors favoring the formation of unique and desirable specimens sought by the avid rockhound. Situated just 30 miles east of the New Mexico-Arizona border, Casitas de Gila Guesthouses is located in the heart of this rockhounding paradise. As such, no matter which direction one takes from the Casitas on a single day’s outing, there are excellent collecting sites to be discovered.
FIRE AGATE: THE PREMIER SEMI-PRECIOUS GEMSTONE
OF THE SOUTHERN NEW MEXICO-ARIZONA BORDER COUNTRY
An exceptional piece of high grade fire agate in the rough from Slaughter Mountain, AZ, showing beautiful fire agate just beneath an enclosing layer of semi-transparent chalcedony (Wikimedia Commons: Maricopa Mining LLC )
One of the semi-precious stones most highly sought after by rockhound guests staying at the Casitas is fire agate. Fire agate is a type of chalcedony (SiO2) which contains multiple, extremely thin layers of the iron oxide minerals of Goethite (FeO(OH)) and Limonite (FeO(OH)·nH20) imbedded within, and commonly completely enclosed by, semi-transparent to translucent layers of cryptocrystalline chalcedony. When cut and polished down to the layers containing the iron oxides, the stone displays a metallic, shimmering iridescence known as the Schiller Effect, where light is reflected and refracted off the various layers containing the Goethite and Limonite iron oxides to give the exquisite play of colors—or “fire”—for which the gemstone is named. Colors displayed by the “fire” vary greatly, the most common being shades of orangish brown, but also all shades and tones of yellow, orange, red, and green, and more rarely, purples and blues.
Semi-transparent and translucent chalcedony as collected at Black Hills Rockhound area February 10, 2016
Pure chalcedony, while composed of only cryptocrystalline SiO2, is actually a very fine intergrowth of two separate minerals, quartz and moganite, which have the same chemical composition but differ in their crystal structure. In the New Mexico-Arizona border country, chalcedony is typically found in shades of translucent white to pink and light grays and blues. It commonly displays a waxy luster and botryoidal texture.
HOW FIRE AGATE AND CHALCEDONY FORM
The fire agate and chalcedony of the Southern New Mexico–Arizona border area is formed when low pressure and low temperature epithermal hydrothermal waters (50°-200°C / 122°-392°F) carrying colloidal SiO2 and iron oxides are injected into cavities in volcanic rocks such as gas bubbles in flow rocks, irregular-shaped vug fillings, or along fault or bedding plane fractures. Deposition of the chalcedony can take place by the slow buildup of numerous thin layers over an extended time from watery fluids, or rapidly all at one time from viscous silica gels, which appear to have had a viscosity of tooth paste … an extremely hot tooth paste! The May 27, 2014 Blog “Seeking Chalcedony and Jasper in Southwest New Mexico” includes numerous photos on the various forms and shapes of chalcedony and fire agate that have been found at or near the Casitas over the years, and presents more details on their various modes of formation.
A DAY TRIP OF COLLECTING AT THE BLACK HILLS ROCKHOUND AREA
The Black Hills Rockhound Area is located in Arizona, 50 miles west of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, just off US Highway 191, about 13 miles west of the crossroads community of Three Way and 19 miles east of Safford, Arizona. The site is a designated rockhound area on BLM (U.S. Bureau of Land Management) land, and is open to the public year round.
A BEAUTIFUL EARLY MORNING DRIVE OVER THE HIGH CHIHUAHUAN DESERT MOGOLLON-DATIL VOLCANIC FIELD TO THE SONORAL DESERT BELOW
The drive from the Casitas to the Black Hills Area takes about 1.5 hours, traveling on excellent highways that pass through some of the most scenic mountain country in Southwestern New Mexico and Southeastern Arizona. From the Casitas, the route goes northwest on US 180 through a High Chihuahuan Desert landscape affording magnificent views of the Mogollon Mountains before turning west on NM 78 through the incredibly beautiful Mule Creek Country.
Looking east to the Mogollon Mountains in the Gila Wilderness across the rolling grassland of Mule Creek Country just off State Road 78
Notable for having some of the finest ranch land in Southern New Mexico, the Mule Creek area is a mile-high landscape of rolling grasslands offset by a sparse scattering of Alligator Juniper trees. After passing through the tiny community of Mule Creek — don’t blink or you’ll miss it! — the road immediately enters the Gila National Forest where it begins a gradual six-mile climb over the northern extent of the Burro Mountains before crossing into Arizona and entering the Apache National Forest at an elevation of 6,000 feet.
Looking southwest across High Sonoran Desert from the overlook on State Road 78, 5.6 miles into Arizona from the New Mexico-Arizona border. From this overlook at an elevation of 6,250 feet the road descends 2,650 feet over the next 14 miles to the small community of Three Way, Arizona, on the Gila River. The 10,696-foot peak of Mt. Graham commands the center skyline 52 miles in the distance.
For the next 5.6 miles the road winds through a Ponderosa-shaded mountain roadway within the Apache National Forest before reaching an amazing overlook and parking area at the edge of a major topographic, physiographic, geologic, biologic, and ecologic boundary that marks the abrupt transition from the southwestern extent of the High Chihuahuan Desert of the Mogollon-Datil Volcanic Field into the eastern edge of the High Sonoran Desert of the Basin and Range Province. The westward view from this overlook affords a marvelous long-distance view into the Sonoran Desert Country within the Basin and Range Province of Arizona, with the 10,696 foot towering presence of Mt. Graham looming 52 miles to the west.
Leaving the lookout parking area at an elevation of 6,250 feet, the highway descends rapidly through a series of switchbacks and a distance of 4 miles some 1,200 feet down the face of a west-facing escarpment, leaving behind the flora and fauna of the High Chihuahuan Desert and entering the totally different natural world of the High Sonoran Desert. Upon reaching the base of the steep escarpment, Highway 78 continues a downward but more gradual descent of another 1,400 feet in elevation over the next 10 miles to arrive at Three Way, Arizona, at elevation of 3,600 feet. The change in landscape, both topographically, geologically, biologically and ecologically over this 14 mile stretch of highway is both dramatic and amazing and for most travelers will be remembered as one highlight of the day’s journey.
Entrance sign at U.S Highway 191 for BLM’s Black Hills Rockhound Area
At Three Way, Highway 78 ends and the journey continues straight ahead on U.S. Highway 191 to once again cross the Gila River and for the next 13 miles passes through a fascinating Sonoran Desert landscape of weathered and dissected volcanic hills, mountainous ridges, mesas, and sharp pinnacles or buttes, almost all of which is public BLM or State of Arizona land. At mile marker 141.6, a sign on the right (north) side of the road marks the entrance road to the Black Hills Rockhound Area.
Turning in off the highway, a well-maintain gravel road is followed for two miles to a parking area where another sign informs the visitor that they are at the center of the Black Hills Fire Agate deposit, and further states that while small pieces of fire agate can be found on the surface, large pieces will have to be dug for! Translation of BLM wordage: “the big pieces have already been picked up by somebody else before you got here.” But don’t be put off: there are still tons of collectable material out there … somewhere!
THE FIRE AGATE AND CHALCEDONY OF THE BLACK HILLS ROCKHOUND AREA
Every year during the Summer Monsoon Season intense thunderstorms expose, transport, and deposit new fire agate and chalcedony for collecting as heavy rain runoff rushes down from the higher regions of the Black Hills Rockhound Area to the lowlands below
Looking west from the prominent ridge on north side of fire agate deposit towards the parking area at Black Hills Rockhound area in center of photo, 2 miles in from US Highway 191
The Black Hills Rockhound Area is one of two designated fire agate localities on BLM land in Southeastern Arizona, the other being the Round Mountain Rockhound Area, some 27 miles to the southeast near the Arizona-New Mexico border. Both of these areas are well known and receive many visitors each year. Because of this, one might wonder if there is any material left to be collected. Actually this is not a problem for two reasons: the first being that the area at the Black Hills site where fire agate and chalcedony can be found is vast, comprising thousands of acres of public BLM land surrounding the main collecting area, some of which comprises incredibly rough and steep terrain which is rarely visited. The second reason is that because of the heavy rainfall the area receives during the annual Summer Monsoon thunderstorm rains, which can exceed 2 to 3 inches in a half hour, fire agate and chalcedony buried beneath of surface of the ground is constantly being uncovered and exposed by high energy flash flood runoff every year. Proof of this process of replenished collectable material is the fact that over the past 18 years no Casita guests visiting the area have ever returned empty handed!
Are some areas better to look than others? Of course! And in that respect, rockhounding is much like fishing:. experience and understanding of the quarry counts! And so, it is in that context that the following brief geologic overview is offered as an aid to knowing where to look for the Black Hills fire agate and chalcedony. After reading this, however, it must always be kept in mind when setting out for a day of rockhounding, that just like it is in fishing, there will always be the occasional great day, many good days, and those other days where, well, it was certainly a nice day for being out in the desert connecting with nature! But, then, isn’t that at least half of the fun anyway?
A MODICUM OF UNDERSTANDING REGARDING THE SUCCESSFUL SEARCH FOR AND RECOVERY OF THE RECLUSIVE AND ELUSIVE FIRE AGATE AND CHALCEDONY OF THE BLACK HILLS ROCKHOUND AREA
Close up of pyroclastic rhyolite ash fall welded tuff bedrock forming massive resistant cliffs at east end of ridge north of parking area
Outcrop of broken angular blocks of andesite bedrock showing abundant gas bubbles near west end of ridge east of parking area. The large cactus is the Barrel Cactus, a common plant of the High Sonoran Desert.
The geology of the Black Hills Area is not very complex. Basically, there are two main volcanic rock types of Mid-Tertiary age (Oligocene to Middle Miocene or 30 to 15 million years ago) which make up the bedrock that crops out at the surface on the tops of the hills, ridges, and small mountains that surround the Black Hills parking area. These rock types consist of 1) dark gray to reddish gray andesite lava flow rock that is deposited in a sequence of essentially horizontal layers, many of which contain abundant gas bubbles, and 2) gray to light tan, silica rich, rhyolite pyroclastic ash flow or ash fall welded tuff that overlies or is interbedded with the andesite flow rock. The andesite flow rock is the host rock for the fire-agate and chalcedony which, as explained above, forms over time through secondary deposition from hydrothermal waters containing colloidal silica and iron oxide colloids that slowly fill or are injected into cavities such as gas bubbles, irregular shaped vugs, and thin veins within the andesite flow deposits. In most cases the overall volume percentage of chalcedony and fire agate that forms within the flow rock is extremely small — much less than 1%, although examination of the vertical sequence of the Black Hill andesite deposits does show that certain layers or levels do contain more void space and hence higher concentrations of chalcedony and fire agate than others.
Both andesite and rhyolite ash fall welded tuff bedrock occur along the top of the ridge north of parking area. In this photo weathered and disintegrating blocks of andesite comprise the foreground on left, and the high promontories on far right horizon, and rhyolite welded tuff constitutes the cliffs in middle distant horizon.
Massive cliffs and large broken blocks of andesite flow rock and rhyolite welded tuff bedrock comprise the tops of a low ridge lying about a half mile to the north of the designated parking area in the center of the Black Hills Fire Agate area. On the sides of this ridge, below and surrounding the solid rock outcrops, are loose accumulations of smaller broken rock, coarse rock debris, and soil that is in the process of being carried downslope from the rock outcrops.
Andesite is composed of a high concentration of feldspar and other minerals which over time will break down physically and chemically decompose to form an unconsolidated mineral soil of clay minerals and fine rock particles, thereby releasing the contained fire agate and chalcedony which retains its original size and shape because SiO2 minerals are very stable and inert to weathering and chemical decomposition at the Earth’s surface.
Following this breakdown of the andesite bedrock, the processes of gravity, wind (desert pavement), and running water in the form of flash floods, acting over thousands of years, will carry the altered and disintegrated clay particles, fine rock debris, and the fire agate and chalcedony further and further downslope and away from the bedrock to be redeposited in and over the surrounding lowlands, flats, valleys, and washes.
As weathering of the andesite bedrock continues over time, the bedrock and large blocks of andesite found higher up on the ridge are broken down into smaller and smaller pieces and loose mineral soil which are gradually transported further and further downslope by Monsoon rain runoff. Here, on the lower slopes well below the ridge east of the parking lot an abundance of Prickly Pear Cactus indicates the presence of an increased percentage of fine sediment and mineral soil plus accompanying retention of ground moisture. Note also the numerous small white rocks in the foreground. These are pieces of white chalcedony that also become concentrated on the lower slopes through the breakdown of the andesite bedrock.
Gradually, this process will produce a thick, wedge shaped deposit of successive layers of transported sedimentary material surrounding the bedrock core of the ridge. Since the clay and finest rock particles are selectively carried furthest away by the periodic flash flood runoff from the source bedrock upslope, a concentration or lag deposit of the larger rock fragments and, of most interest to rockhounds, the physically and chemically inert pieces of chalcedony and fire agate, accumulates over the ground surface following each successive flash flood coming off the surrounding the uplands. Successive floods will, of course, bury previously deposited layers of the concentrated fire agate and chalcedony as the erosion of the bedrock upslope on the ridge continues and the wedge shaped deposits surrounding the ridge thicken.
The important result of this process is, of course, that the concentration of fire agate and chalcedony which was less than 1% in the original solid host rock may now be increased many times over in the loose, unconsolidated sediments and mineral soil, which in addition to being picked up on the surface can be successfully recovered by digging with pick and shovel.
Naturally, the big question of course is: Where does one dig? Hopefully, the above discussion offers some clues as to where to begin, and your hosts at the Casitas will be pleased to offer additional suggestions if asked. However, it must be kept in mind that it is this very same question that has perplexed every prospector in the American Southwest for over a hundred years, and in most cases it is only after much personal experience and perseverance that Mother Nature will even consider beginning to answer the question. So in the meantime, good luck in your quest and enjoy the chase!
On the hunt for the reclusive and elusive fire agate amongst the Ocotillo and Prickly Pear Cactus at Black Hills Rockhound area
A welcome lunch break in the shade of the rhyolite welded tuff cliffs at the top of the ridge
A “DAY’S CATCH” AT THE BLACK HILLS ROCKHOUND AREA
As further proof that there is still lots of good fire agate and chalcedony to be found at the Black Hills Rockhound Area, the following photos represent the best of the “Day’s Catch” over a four-hour period by your Casitas’ hosts on a beautiful early Spring day in February 2016.
A large piece of fire agate encased in translucent chalcedony
No two pieces of fire agate in the rough are the same
Only through grinding and polishing of this fire agate in the rough can the underlying beauty be revealed
Fire agate is often encased in thick layers of semi-transparent to opaque chalcedony
Pure chalcedony can take on a variety of shapes and forms, such as this strange frog-like little creature perched on this fragment of weathered andesite¬
We’re taking a break from the Gila Nature Blog for a few months in order to focus on other projects. Since January 2011, when the first Blog article appeared, a wide range of topics has been covered. Here’s a summary of several topics. If your favorite topic isn’t listed below, use the panel to the left to find your interests.
We look forward to having you as a guest at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses!
HIKING AT THE CASITAS
• Hidden Spring Trail — January 2011
• Dry Wash Trail — October 2014
• Paradise Overlook Trail — February 2015
HIKING IN THE AREA
• Turkey Creek Hot Springs Trail — April 2011
• Mineral Creek — February 2012
• The Catwalk & The Gold Dust Trails — April 2012
• Middle Box of the Gila — June 2012
• Mogollon Box Trail — July 2012
• San Francisco Hot Springs Trail — September 2012
• Lower Little Dry Creek Canyon — April 2013
• A Fall Hike — October 2013
• Upper Little Dry Creek — November 2013
• Mineral Creek in the Winter — January 2014
• Sacaton Creek – November 2014
• Sheridan Corral Trail — May 2015
• Rain Creek Canyon – July 2015
• Volcanoes — March 2011
• Obsidian – August 2012
• Fluorite – May 2013
• Chalcedony & Jasper – May 2014
• Mineral Creek – February 2012
• Coronado – December 2012
• Apacheria (Part 1) – February 2013
• Apacheria (Part 2) – March 2013
• Ancient Crops – August 2013
• San Francisco River Back Country – February 2014
• Gila Cliff Dwellings (Part 1) – August 2015
• Gila Cliff Dwellings (Part 2) – September 2015
• Billings Vista Birding Area – June 2012
• Winter & Spring Birding – April 2014