Places – Tucson High Desert

Saguaro Near the Catalina Mountains

Tucson, High Desert – 2006

Across the desert floor saguaros bake in the hot, dry air. It is the time when the saguaro fruit sets and ripens. Birds, bees, javelinas, coyotes, bobcats – and people – dine on the sweet red fruit. The Desert People will make syrup or jam and ceremonial wine for the rain dance inviting the wind and clouds to bring the precious gift of water once more.

After the harvest is the time of waiting and watching. We see voluminous clouds pile up over the mountains – swirling dark clouds over a living desert. Even their shadows cast welcome relief.

We wait … immersed in an ocean of heat. We sweat and burn in light that cuts like a hundred blades into unprotected skin. On the Fourth of July midtown rockets burst on an obsidian sky while desert creatures prowl in the cool moonlight.  This day marks the arrival of the monsoon. Even the word, its utterance, a desert dweller’s mantra, offers relief:  monsoon!

And then it happens … the first dollops of rain splash down! Perhaps we see it far across the valley falling in just one particular area. We are jealous, but encouraged, for we know that soon it will fall on us, too. Our lives are made more certain with the rain. No creature can live without this precious rain. No, none.

The summer rhythms of this desert remind us of our vulnerability. That is the gift of the Saguaro season. We are dependent. Humbly we may realize it. We stand outside like fools and let it fall on us, run down our faces and spine where its coolness makes us shiver when only a second ago we were sweltering.

People in their cars, navigating flooded intersections, are amused. In washes, valleys and hillsides the shallow roots of columnar cacti, the ancient trees of our land, pump in the crystal substance as it trickles or gushes through the sand and stone. Their fluted forms expand with the tidal rhythm.

It is a desert baptism among people who still appreciate the desert’s rhythmic character. They catch rainwater in barrels and dig wide basins in the earth to hold the precious rain and prepare the soil for native seeds saved from last year’s harvest of squash, beans, corn, melons, and greens. They collect the mesquite beans and pound the pods into sweet flour to make bread that heals the body.  The harvest is bountiful when the gardening is blessed and prayers go forth in gratitude and hope.

When the big clouds roll up from the Gulf of California, the old women lift their harvesting sticks to pull down the clouds and bring the rain. The Tohono O’odham, The Desert People, keep vigilance over the city and the land around it and even the Europeans are learning to pray, in their own way. The Mexicans and Spanish have always kept the seasonal rhythms of land and seed and they pray to their spiritual guides, and all together raise their faces in prayerful patience as the clouds move up from Mexico over the Santa Catalinas swirling dark and black over the Old Pueblo. Somewhere I imagine there may also be a jaguar looking up in want of rain.

 

Right of Passage in a Monsoon Storm

moth-daturacroppedWhen I fist moved to Tucson, Arizona, I was new to the high desert. Biologists refer to its flora and fauna as “lush”–a term that up until then I would not have chosen for a desert.

Through colleagues at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, I learned about a poetry reading at University of Arizona by Dr. Ofelia Zepeda, 

Dr. Zepeda is a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a lifelong desert dweller, a linguist, and cultural preservationist. In 1999 she was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship for her work creating a Tohono O’odham book of grammar. However, Dr. Zepeda’s poetry is what I wish to focus on and how the chance encounter with her performance in the first week of my residency in Tucson led to my deep feeling for a place and community as culturally rich as any I’ve known.

The poetry reading took place in the circular auditorium (kiva) in the American Indian Studies Department at U.A. In the large room with rows pitched down toward the lectern in its center, a soft voice rose and fell. Dr. Zepeda’s was reading from her book, Ocean Power She spoke in O’odham and English, alternating between each as she read.  I closed my eyes to listen to the language of desert communities at Tucson’s origin.

She explained the relationship of her family and community to rain in the desert, its precious nature, and how, after the long hot, dry foresummer, the first monsoon clouds gather, and people point and wait for the first cold dollops of rain.

After her lecture, I walked to my hot, dusty car to drive home. Not long after I was on the road, a massive monsoon cloud, as black as coal, threw lightening strikes like explosions on the ground, and rain burst from the sky, falling n buckets, cleansing the car and blinding my sight. I had to pull over. Flood waters gushed around drains, cars stalled as the water rose, but all the people smiled behind their windshields or stood outside their vehicles with open arms, letting the storm soak them to the bone. It was a celebration, first delivered through Dr. Zepeda’s poetry and, then, by the monsoon itself.  I believe to this day that hearing about rain on the desert in O’odham made the impact of the storm much deeper for me. It was a true rite of passage. Listen to a short video about Dr. Zepeda.

 

It’s Raining on the Desert

Monsoon on  Sonoran Desert

Monsoon on Sonoran Desert

The adjacent photograph was actually taken in 2007 before I left Tucson, AZ for Pensacola, FL. The location is near my friend’s home in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains that form one boundary of the City of Tucson.

Today I am writing from the Baker’s home on a September afternoon and once again the monsoon rains are falling on this high desert. The desert’s flora is in full glory, cacti swollen plump with water, blossoms forming in colors of lemon and peach, and aqua blue prickly pear pads sprouting cherry red fruit. If you have never visited or seen the Sonoran Desert, it probably seems an oxymoron to call this desert a place of lushness, but, it truly is such a wonder.

Barrel Blossoms

Barrel Cactus Blossoms Ready to Bloom

The Southwest is experiencing a late and strong monsoon season that some expect may go right on into the rainy winter season. If so, that will be a huge blessing for a region in a long-term drought. Rain on, oh great monsoon clouds! Let the liquid wonder work its magic down into the desert pavement, and travel into the arteries of the giant saguaro, and down the throat of desert critters, and gather below in rock lined aquifers. Rain on! Rain on!

 

Prickly Pear Fruiting

Prickly Pear Fruiting