Crime writer Sulari Gentill and a cactus

Books, On the Run

Lifting the Tone: A Field Guide to Arizona’s Natural History

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Crime writers Sulari Gentill, Robert Gott, Jock Serong and Emma Viskic are in the midst of a US tour, On The Run: Australian Crime Writers In America, and have promised a daily update of proceedings.

In this instalment JOCK SERONG takes in Arizona’s flora and fauna, from the roadrunner (yes, a real bird) to a frightening insect by the name of the tarantula hawk. 


Coyotes (Carnivorous vulgaris) live in the deserts of the American west, and their main source of interest for scientists is, of course, their limited immunity from the laws of gravity. Because as everybody knows, when outwitted by the resourceful but fictive desert bird the Roadrunner (Accelerati incredibilus), a coyote will hang stationary in space for some seconds before plummeting to the canyon floor below.

Now, a couple of things about this. Firstly, coyotes can also be found in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. There is some stuff in here I will be making up, so I just want to be upfront about that. But this I am not making up. I went for a walk (nobody mugged me, yes, thank you) and there I was, in an average looking down-the-street park, the kind of park where you might for instance take a toddler, when a large dog-like critter crossed the path in front of me.

Having now spied a tax lawyer in New York, a literary agent in Dallas and a coyote in Phoenix, I can go home happy in the knowledge I’ve collected a full set of North American carnivores.  

American dogs are most often attached to humans. In fact, too attached to humans. They take them on domestic flights as ‘support animals’, with the perverse result that airports – and again, this is a bit I am not fabricating – have ‘relief stations’ for pets, right next door to the human conveniences, which says ew even more emphatically than a codpiece bedazzled with the Stars and Stripes, for those of you who have been keeping up with the social media from L.A.

But I got diverted there somewhere. Ah yes, the dog. The dog was not attached to an American, which immediately aroused my suspicion. It crossed the path and looked both ways, fixing its yellow eyes on me with a look of pure cunning: exactly the same look you would recognise from that moment in a Roadrunner episode when Wile E. Coyote opens a box of ACME firecrackers.

It did that look and then it continued on, loping into the shade. Every time I raised the camera to my eye it shifted a bit so it was out of shot. Convinced by now that I was not looking at a large sneaky dog but at a coyote, I retrieved the Argument Settler from my pocket and looked it up: that very day, the local newspaper was reporting a series of pet dismemberments at the hands (paws) of coyotes in this very suburb. A much-loved Pomeranian had been found scattered over a city block only hours earlier.   

Having now spied a tax lawyer in New York, a literary agent in Dallas and a coyote in Phoenix, I can go home happy in the knowledge I’ve collected a full set of North American carnivores.  

But the Roadrunner is another thing. If I was to say to you (as somebody said to me over a beer, and I’m a credulous audience when drinking) that Roadrunners really exist, and their Latin name is not in fact Accelerati incredibilus, but Geococcyx Californianus, I imagine you would twig to the obvious arse jokes in that name, and tell me I was having a lend of you.

But it’s true. I know you’re reaching for the Argument Settler, but I’ll save you the trouble. The non-cartoon version of the bird is a member of the cuckoo family, and it has splotchy, uneven plumage and a perky little head. It is also known as the Snake Killer, and will eat tarantulas and black widow spiders, and if that’s not cutting an impossibly cool swathe through the bird kingdom for you, then stuff this in your bird feeder. Their favourite meal is a thing called a tarantula hawk.

Now before I embark on explaining the hideousness that is a tarantula hawk, I need to get a little them-and-us out of the way. Many times now, upon hearing our accents, American people have said ‘oh, you’re English: sorry about Boston and all that.’ Then, upon realising we’re Australian, they will immediately say ‘Oh my God, how do you even survive your day? There’s snakes and sharks and killer jellyfish and crocodiles and…’ Well, you know the routine.

Australians could learn a thing or two about arid-climate gardening from the Arizonans. Nobody here is wasting vast quantities of water trying to grow roses and camellias in fond tribute to our teapot-wielding colonial overlords.

I’m always tempted to point out that most Australians are every bit as urbanised as Americans are, and we’ve built lives that don’t intersect with these creatures. Then I’m tempted to ask, have you thought at all about your gun laws? But then, I find myself saying what about bears and you’ve got sharks anyway and there’s alligators and scorpions and rattlers and doomsday cults and by Christ almighty there’s a thing called a tarantula hawk.

This is not a bird of prey, but rather a large wasp that stings big spiders, thereby paralysing them, then carries them off to its lair and lays eggs on them – and stay tuned here, the spider is still alive and still possessed of its spidery consciousness – and when the eggs hatch, the larvae burrow their way into the spider’s abdomen and eat it while it is still alive, and they grow up to do this to other perfectly law-abiding spiders and live happily ever after.

The sting of the tarantula hawk was analysed by a frankly deranged entomologist named Justin O. Schmidt (you’re suspecting the hand of fiction again, aren’t you. That, I swear, is his real name), who invented a scale called the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which rates the agony inflicted by various insect bites. Schmidt had to have himself stung by every one of these odious bugs to develop his scale, and he described the tarantula hawk’s sting thus:

“Immediate, excruciating, unrelenting pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything except scream.”

Oh Schmidt. We need to move on. I’m sweating.

Australians could learn a thing or two about arid-climate gardening from the Arizonans. Nobody here is wasting vast quantities of water trying to grow roses and camellias in fond tribute to our teapot-wielding colonial overlords. Their front yards are full of bizarre cactuses, aloes, jojoba, prickly pear (not considered an enemy here) and other succulents in blues and grey-greens. The airport is painted with murals of cactuses. The house we rented was full of paintings of them. Plumbers’ trucks are festooned with cactus logos. They are the beloved, spiky heart of the state.

The tall ones that you see in a Roadrunner cartoon really are forked like that. Not all of them, I hasten to add – it can take a hundred and fifty years to grow tines. They’re called Saguaros, pronounced ‘sawarros’. There is a small bird called a cactus wren, which I haven’t yet looked up on the Argument Settler (I don’t want to discover that they’re a misshapen runt because in my mind’s eye they’re cute and plucky) which burrows inside the cactus and makes a home in there, fortified by the spikes so that its delightful little fluffy chicks (again, if you google it and they aren’t, you deserve the disappointment) can grow up safely.

There’s also an evil variant in the cactus genre called the Jumping Cactus. Now not even I would try to convince you that these actually jump. They got their name for their extraordinary ability to leave spines on anything that touches them. This I discovered to my painful surprise when I stepped on one and picked up about twenty spines in my long-suffering Globe sneakers (see episode one). In the process of picking them out – they’re about the size and shape of a sewing needle, and every bit as sharp) – one of them snuck onto my thumb and lodged itself there, an experience which I’m giving four stars on the Schmidt. The spine immediately breaks off in the flesh, a mechanism which cannot possibly have an evolutionary payoff and is surely an act of malice. As I write these words to you, every thwack on the space bar is a jolt of electrifying pain as the broken-off spine reminds me of its presence.    

Jumping cactuses come in buckham, cholla, teddy bear, beehive and Arizona Pencil varieties, though I wouldn’t bother asking your friendly nurseryman which of these he has on stock because you’d be stark raving crazy to grow one of these bastards in your yard. Then there’s a cactus called a Barrel Cactus, so named because John Wayne, in one of his westerns, cut the top off one, revealing a reservoir of water inside. This is Hollywood water and is not potable because it does not exist.

There are also the ubiquitous tarantulas, which although they are big enough to carry off your children, are apparently harmless. There are lizards called gila monsters which are mildly poisonous and will clamp onto a ball-searching hand and not let go, short of decapitation. There are badgers, raccoons, ringtail cats, foxes, squirrels and a remarkable oversize rabbit with antlers, known as a jackalope, which can inflict a nasty goring at about mid-shin height.

Thundering from Phoenix to LA on Interstate 10, Robert Gott and I both saw an animal take off in a blur across the hard-top ahead of us. We looked at each other silently, neither wanting to admit to the ornithological equivalent of a UFO sighting. It was a skinny-looking bird, very upright, very fast. Mottled like a baby emu, but unmistakable from the images I’d looked up on the Argument Settler. A Roadrunner. No coyote in pursuit, but situated in its natural habitat of cactus-studded desert and red rock mesas.

The three-tonne SUV was streaking along at eighty miles an hour, so the encounter was only fleeting, and to be fair it might’ve been the overspeed alarm, but I could’ve sworn, as the darting bird reached the safety of the verge, that I heard a little meep meep.

For the rest of this series click here.

One response to “Lifting the Tone: A Field Guide to Arizona’s Natural History

  1. Wonderful post, Jock. And I agree with you about what we can learn from the arid zone gardens of Arizona (I’ve only just realised that ‘Arizona’ sounds like a contraction of ‘arid zone’). The plantings in the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix are a stunning, require little water and pruning. And roadrunners live there.

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