When 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.