Sonoran Desert

Phoenix, Low Desert – 1999

At midnight the heat radiates from the cement driveway under my feet. I stand in the white moonlight gazing up at twinkling stars. The dark outline of tall trees and roof tops form a stage-drop where city glow breaks the blackness of night.

This is my summer ritual: star-gazing in my pajamas. I wake out of some consciousness that tells my snoozing brain I can open the doors and go out to a cool 90 degrees. I lay in a chaise lounge in the middle of the driveway under a sparkling dome of heaven. The air is gentle, warm, caressing. Like other desert creatures, I have become nocturnal. The moon is my muse.

It’s summertime in Phoenix, Arizona. Temperatures soar over 110 ̊. After June, the buildings and streets absorb the day’s solar energy and then slowly release it through the night. Even though the sun goes down, the built environment radiates like an oven.  The hum of air conditioners is a constant auditory feature of modern desert life.

In the old parts of town residents open aqueducts in their yards. Encircled by an earthen berm, the lawns hold the precious ground water releasing it slowly to soak deeply into the sandy soil and keep their urban lawns green. In the 1900’s people moved to the desert for its dry climate and to escape allergy-causing vegetation. However, the mulberry and olive trees they imported with them resulted in Phoenix becoming the asthma capital of the west by 2000. The average low temperature has increased by 10 ̊ in just 40 years—the result of miles and miles of asphalt and concrete which act like a heat sponge.

Native trees have been reduced by introduction of non-natives (exotics) like the Tamarisk tree in areas where the water table once ran close to the ground. For thousands of years these habitats supported the greatest species diversity in the state.  Beavers and otters abound in rivers and streams, and fauna like deer and Coati mundi inhabited native forests. Memories of Arizona’s extensive green belts have faded with each new generation. Who will remember what has been lost?

Gazing at the twinkling night sky above me, I imagine the ancient Hohokam people—who laid down the original grid of canals still in use today— how they, too, must have lain outside in the cool of moonlight thousands of years before me. Did they work and cavort at night like the desert’s creatures, and sleep in the cool of their adobe huts, or under a shady ramada of reeds, during the blistering heat of daytime? What happened to their great city and 200,000 inhabitants? Why did they leave this valley and its two rivers, the Salt and the Gila, leaving only their canals behind?  Am I part of a Great Reenactment?

I watch the dark outline of a big, brown bat drinking nectar from a tall saguaro’s bloom in my neighbor’s yard. Afar I hear coyotes yipping from a hilltop in a suburban sea. In the wee hours of the warm, dry night, I drift into a deep sleep under a canopy of stars.