The Constant Apprentice is a place for curious humans to explore craft, visual arts, writing, nature, food, and all things classic, then and now.
{ Curators: Roseann & Jonathan Hanson —> }|{ Craft }|{ Classics }|{ Travel }|{ Food }|{ Nature }|{ Science }|{ Writing }|{Visual Arts}

Dung beetles, Sonoran Desert

Dung beetles, Sonoran Desert an iPhone video by ConserVentures on Flickr.

We frequently see dung beetles diligently working the cow droppings around Ravenrock. Earlier this spring we watched six beetles at one fresh cow patty, madly rolling up dung into perfect spheres and then surprisingly quickly pushing it away with their hind legs, usually two beetles to a ball.

But yesterday we found these two just outside the front door to our cottage—and were just enchanted.

I need to research what species of dung beetles are here in the Sonoran Desert; it's possible these 2 are in the genus Onthophagus. 

Has anyone seen any like this before? To describe them as "adorable" seems antithetical to a dung-harvesting insect, but it's true!

Desert Rain Cafe, Tohono O'dham Nation

Desert Rain Cafe 6aDesert Rain Cafe 1Desert Rain Cafe 2Desert Rain Cafe 3Desert Rain Cafe 4Desert Rain Cafe 6b
Desert Rain Cafe 5Desert Rain Cafe 8Desert Rain Cafe 9

As a thunderstorm charged across the desert floor north of us, dust and sheets of rain sailing dramatically in its path, we headed west across the vast Tohono O'odham Nation to visit a little cafe we read about over the weekend.

Tohono O'odham Community Action ( has many worthwhile projects across this vast nation (2.8 million acres), but their Desert Rain Cafe and Gallery, in the very nice, rather upscale shopping center on Sells' main street (Indian Route 19, on Google maps), is their most visible.

We pulled up at about 1 pm, and the place was hopping. All the tables on the porch (cooled by misters and shaded by mesquite trees on the west) and inside the small but cheerful cafe were full, and there were several people at the counter ordering. It's hard to miss the bright yellow walls—exactly the color of desert marigolds.

The menu features not only desert foods, but locally farmed on the nation. All the proceeds benefit community projects, and the young people involved in the cafe project and farming are gaining valuable skills in food production and running businesses. From the TOCA website:

TOCA’s Desert Rain Cafe’ opened in April, 2009 as the only restaurant using locally-farmed Tohono O’odham foods, including tepary beans, O’odham squash, and cholla buds. In the first year, the cafe served 90,000 meals.  In September, 2010, TOCA was able to publish From I’itoi’s Garden: Tohono O’odham Foodways. The cookbook serves as the basis for Desert Rain Cafe’s menu.  
TOCA’s commitment to offering affordable, fresh, native meals in the O’odham community has improved the local food system.  The cafe’s success and leadership by young adults has helped TOCA and our community partners bring traditional O’odham foods into the local schools:  
- In April, 2010, the first O’odham meals were served in local schools.  
 - In October, 2011, the Indian Oasis Baboquivari School District made tepary bean quesadillas part of its daily menu for K-12 students. 
- TOCA’s Y.O.U.T.H. & Project Oidag help in the school gardens and activities.

We ordered from the lunch menu ("Monsoon") as well as the appetizers ("Drizzle"). I had the prickly pear cactus-and-chile-glazed grilled chicken sandwich with freshly baked roll, which comes with a side of tortilla chips and pico de gallo salsa made with tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and cholla cactus buds. Jonathan had the white tepary bean and short-rib stew with a chile cornbread muffin. We both had lemonade sweetened with agave nectar. Both entrees were delicious and perfectly cooked, with the glaze just spicy enough to be interesting, and the stew very hardy but not greasy; the cholla-bud salsa is also very tasty, though you have to get used to the slightly mucilaginous texture of the buds. The food at the cafe is also very affordable—the stew was $5.95 and the sandwich $8.95. With drinks and an extra side of chips, the total was $25.

The service was not fast, but there were only 2 staff to handle phones, counter sales, and table service, and they did so with quiet efficiency and friendliness, though not effusive; if you're fond of the "Hi guys! My name is Mandy and I'll be your server!" perky waitstaff, head to the university, not an Indian nation.

Despite being happily stuffed, we had to get a couple of giant mesquite cookies to go. Made with flour from mesquite tree beans, these cookies had an almost gingerbread-like flavor and texture, naturally sweet and carob-y from the mesquite, though they are pretty dense and not super moist.

The clientele was eclectic and friendly; from hip young O'odham women in business attire texting madly on iPhones to bad-ass young men (who Jonathan dubbed, politically incorrectly, "Papago punks") with gelled hair, Bowie knives, tattoos and 'tudes, as well as Anglo teachers and social workers, O'dham business people, and "foreign" travelers (two men from Germany). It felt like we were far, far from the USA, which in a way we were.

As we left the cafe to head back to Tucson, we saw a scene unique to Indian nations and developing countries across the globe: livestock casually wandering the streets, in this case half a dozen horses with new foals, the traffic barely slowing down to get around them.

It's great to be reminded you can explore just 50 miles from home and still have wonderful travel experiences.

This is just wrong

And yes, I checked, and it's true. Current official Boy Scout knives are made in China.

If I perceived the slightest sign of quality in this thing, I wouldn't be quite as upset. But I don't. The "stainless" steel doesn't appear to be remotely so. The blade isn't just corroding (which most stainless steels will do to a greater or lesser extent); it's rusting.

A Boy Scout knife used to be a prized possession, something for which one saved or wished for at Christmas, and then probably used well into adulthood or passed on to a son (or daughter). They were made by legendary companies such as Case, Camillus, and Kershaw.

Think this will be an heirloom someday?

Peach season: rustic tart, and . . . pickles?

Camera Roll-56 by ConserVentures

Our friends Diane and Steve recently brought back many boxes of lovely organic peaches from Willcox, Arizona.

Of course we've had peach cobbler, peaches on ice cream, and a rustic peach tart (above).

But this year I decided to try tershi, or Afghani-style pickled peaches.

With hot-pepper flakes, coriander, mint, garlic, and apple-cider vinegar, the results are puckery indeed—a bit much to just eat from the jar (though Jonathan did, to humorous results).

Last night I made whole wheat fettucini with turkey and sautéed onions, garlic, and celery with dried cranberries and half a jar of chopped pickled peaches and a dollop of the juice. The savory turkey, onions and garlic went very well with the sweet-tart pickles and cranberries—and the colors are really lovely as well.

Pickled Peaches, Afghan Style (tershi)

Recipe By: Mark Bittman (How to Cook Everything)


2 lbs. peaches, peeled and sliced
3 tablespoons kosher salt
2 cups white or white wine vinegar
1/8 cup sugar
4 cloves crushed garlic
2 teaspoons dried mint
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes


Put the salt, the vinegar, sugar, and spices in a pot over high heat. Bring to a boil, then let cool for about 5 minutes. Pour the mixture over the peaches and let cool to room temperature. (Add more vinegar or water if the cucumbers are not covered.)

Transfer the peaches and pickling liquid to airtight jars or containers; store in the refrigerator for at least 3 days or longer for stronger pickles. They will keep in their pickling liquid for up to 3 weeks.


My first batch was made with very ripe peaches; they would do better with ever-so-slightly under-ripe fruit, so their structure holds up and yields a slightly crunchier texture.

War of mimics

In the last week two male northern mockingbirds have set up and are fiercely defending adjoining territories with our home in the middle.

Starting at dawn (when this audio was recorded), they have been singing non-stop all day every day, and when the moon was more full, well into the night.

We have counted sixteen distinct species (at least) that they are mimicking—greater peewee, lesser nighthawk, American kestrel, Cassin’s kingbird, cactus wren, and Gambel’s quail, to name a few.

While we need to confirm it, it seems that they actually do tend to sing time-appropriate songs. For example, one of them sings Cassin’s kingbird's mostly-dawn and -dusk call right at dawn or dusk.

Anyone else notice this same phenomenon?

Photo credit: USGS Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter, George Jameson

Update on July 21: one of the birds sang most of the night last night, with a near-new moon and cloud cover.

Finding Magic in Our Own Back Yard

There is a thoroughly charming post in one of our favorite blogs Lovely Bicyle!—very much worth sharing. The author stumbled upon a tiny neighborhood book exchange for children built into a tree trunk, like Winnie the Pooh's house. Delightful, and also a reminder that exploration starts at home:

Lovely Bicycle!: Finding Magic in Our Own Back Yard

Secret book exchange, from Lovely Bicycle!

The Silk Road Trilogy

Our friend Steve Bodio—writer, falconer, coursing dog fanatic, and fellow "constant apprentice"—brought to our attention this wonderful project on Kickstarter:

The Silk Road Trilogy by Russian Life — Kickstarter

A small publishing house in Vermont will team up with translators to bring a bestselling Russian trilogy, set in 749 A.D., to English. We pledged, and will receive a copy of the first book, The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas. Congratulations to this project, which was successfully funded today.

Meanwhile, we still have the Blood and Leather project on Kickstarter, with 20 days to go and $800 pledged (and a few more dollars from some friends who just don't do online money stuff).

Please take a look:

Dust storm, July 2012

dust_storm_July09_2012 by ConserVentures
dust_storm_July09_2012, a photo by ConserVentures on Flickr.
On Sunday we watched a large, fast-moving thunderstorm moving west from Tucson. Its down-draft was impressive, sending a huge wall of dust speeding down the Avra Valley toward King's Anvil Ranch and the Altar Valley. We watched as the wall of dust raced down the valley and enveloped the ranch. Impressive!

Learning About Life on Mars by Studying Mexico Desert -

Quatro Ciénegas is a region on our short list of must-go places. This is an interesting story about not only their importance in science about life on other planets, but the urgency of protecting life on ours:

Learning About Life on Mars by Studying Mexico Desert -

Life is good. Chocolate-bourbon pecan pie.

Life is good. Chocolate-bourbon pecan pie. by ConserVentures

Jack Daniels Bourbon Pecan Pie


2 grade-A large eggs (slightly beaten)
1/4 cup dark Karo syrup (I use Sonoran Desert honey)
3/4 cup sugar
4 teaspoons corn starch
8 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup Jack Daniels bourbon
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate (I use Lindt 72% dark chocolate)
1 bag pecan halves (approximately 2 cups)


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Mix eggs and Karo.

Combine sugar and corn starch, add to egg mixture.

Melt chocolate and butter, cool. Add bourbon and combine with egg mixture. Beat together in mixer on slow speed. (At this point I usually sample the bourbon. Just to make sure it's fresh.)

Pour into a 9-inch unbaked pie shell. Sprinkle evenly with pecan halves. To make an impressive-looking pie, lay the pecan halves on top in a circle around the edge and keep making circles until the pie top is covered rather then sprinkling them on top.

Bake on cookie sheet for one hour. It's okay to keep sampling the bourbon.
Pie should be firm and will "set-up" while cooling. Serve with bourbon, if there is any left.

An Arizona beauty

AZ beauty by ConserVentures
AZ beauty, a photo by ConserVentures on Flickr.
Perfect crown of fuchsia flowers on an Arizona pincushion—fazed not a bit by the 100-degree mid-day sun.