To tell a story set in the Sonoran Desert, which occurs in only one region of the world, we must include the iconic species of plants and animals who are its defining features. Their presence maintains the balance of life and contributes to the great beauty of this desert landscape. The saguaro cactus is its signature plant life, who some believe evolved from a tree in the tropical rainforest that dried to a savannah and then to a desert over thousands of years.
Saguaro in Tucson Arizona after a rainstorm. Its long shallow roots absorb water efficiently after a heavy monsoon rain.
Threshold tells the stories of many desert plants, trees, insects, invertebrates, and mammals. One strategy for conserving water is to be active at dusk and dawn. These animals are said to be crepuscular (as contrasted with nocturnal). The jaguar is thus, and also nocturnal. Panthera onca is the third largest of the cat family with a bite more powerful than the tiger or lion.
I named the jaguar character in Threshold. Duma. With the risk of personifying a wild animal by human standards, I tried to stay strictly to the known biology, behavior, and observed lifeways of jaguars in the Sonoran Desert. In my story Duma obtains his name from first graders in Phoenix. You’ll have to read the book to learn how that came about. Below you see another feature of this remarkable character: he is an albino, a White Cat, causing local observers to refer to him as the “ghost cat” as he moves about the fields and pastures of farms and ranches, terrifying livestock and infuriating their caretakers.
Duma is my writer’s device to represent wild nature and the impact of a changing climate and human activity on his lifeways. His story also allowed me to describe the labyrinth of environmental and conservation laws on both sides of the border and how Duma becomes, literally, emmeshed in them. He crosses the U.S. -Mexico border while roaming his natural range which stretches from Sonora in Mexico north to Phoenix in Arizona. Duma is caught up in the social and political turmoil.
It is important to me to consider the lives of other species who share our habitats in what is a human centric world.
More conversation with Amitav Ghosh, author of The Nutmeg’s Curse on Emergence Magazine brings up similar themes incorporated into Threshold, a novel about climate change in the Southwest. In it, I layered the rich cultural endowment of the Tucson area, with ancient Indigenous and current day Native Nations wisdom, and Mexican American land and agricultural practices that have and continue to shape the local zeitgeist. But, like most communities in the Southwest, capitalistic systems drive commerce rendering the living Earth mute. All these ways of living mix together yet one has dominated the political and economic forces, imperiling Tucsonans to climate emergencies.
Listen to a chapter from Threshold as a major character of Mexican descent, Delores Olivarez, takes a hike up “A” mountain observing the changes in the Tucson valley that trace all these cultural ways of knowing. Thanks to Terrain.org for publishing this chapter of Threshold.
I know the Colorado River where it flows through canals across sweltering fields of lettuce, and where it runs under highways, past skyscrapers and homes. It spreads over shallows where it rises into a cerulean sky to join with clouds.
Yet, the ghost of another river abides here, too.
My first encounter with the Colorado River occurred as I travelled over the Laguna Mountains in California into the Imperial Valley of southern Arizona. My body understood before my brain that I had entered a place of tight margins.
It was early March. I thought the region would be cool. As I reached the desert floor—a descent of 6,000 feet—the temperature rose and the balmy sea air from which I had emerged, dried into hot metal fumes off the hood of my truck. Air streamed hot and unfriendly past the open windows. Yet I was surrounded by a surreal sight of sprinklers throwing arcs of water over row upon row of broccoli and lettuce. Discovering farms in a desert initiated my long meditation on the conundrum of how 40M people came to live in a place where water is the limiting factor, where life balances on a sharp edge.
At the time I did not know that I was meeting the river itself.
In Yuma, Arizona I instructed children descended from the River People who were among my middle school students. Through them I learned the long history of human settlement along the river. For them history reached back thousands of years. Their culture observed the river’s spring floods and tranquil summer flow by moving to the hills when it flooded, returning as it receded to plant crops in the flood plains. They were expert fishers. Legends of people walking across the river on the backs of abundant fish persist in memory. They hunted game in the mesquite forests and among the reedy banks of the river developing a sustainable technology and material culture.
When the first Europeans began to explore the area, one tribe alone had an estimated 20,000 people living above and below what is now the U.S. – Mexico border. Today, desert people abide in and around current day metropolises of the American West. The old cultures knew how to live well on the land under their feet—knowledge that persists to this day.
Read about the history of the Cocopah Nation in Yuma, Arizona.
Fast forward to the 20th century. The United States sent John Wesley Powell to answer a question: “Could the West be farmed like the eastern half of the United States?” Powell made three expeditions to determine the feasibility of farming and city-making in dry lands. A scientist, he studied the watersheds, which was logical. He consulted native people, farmers, and cattle owners. His answer to the lawmakers was not popular. He reported that any development in the west should be done according to the watershed and a set of rules. Annual rainfall for replenishment of ground water would provide the limitations for growth. For example, if a farmer buys land in dry country, he should pay to bring that water to his enterprise and observe the natural recharge limits.
Powell mapped the available water sources. He had lost an arm in the Civil War making his accomplishments even more astounding, including navigation through the Grand Canyon by raft and boat when the Colorado was still running free and fierce.
Congress and colluding business tycoons paid no heed to Powell’s report (1879), lusting over the profits. They asserted that the country could prevail over nature, somehow, someway, with massive dams, canals, and all manner of concrete and steel. The river became the locked and labored one that I came to know. Now, a record drought, dwindling ground water, and water wars over a jerry-rig of litigation known as the Law of the River, exhibits their folly. Forty million people face a doubtful future.
What gives me hope is the knowledge that the Colorado River Indian Tribes exist today. Could they lead us out of this crisis? Help us reset to a new relationship with the river?
Over my years of meditating on “the water issue,” I have imagined that not too far in the future children bicycling through abandoned roadways, past forlorn and silent high rises, might ask their parents, “What place is this? What happened here?”
Preposterous, you say. What could be more so than what we created in a land where life exists in narrow margins? A river has a body and a spirit that is interrelated with ours and all living creatures that imbibe its life-giving waters. That is not fiction but science and lived experience. These principles can never be violated without consequences. Eventually the river dies and all life dependent upon it. Desert peoples observed, experimented and then fit their lifeways to the river’s way. That is what we must learn to do, using our advanced technologies to mimic nature’s circular systems that regenerate energy and recycle materials.
When I moved to Tucson, the first night there I attended a poetry reading by a Tohono O’Odham elder who described her childhood living in a one-room adobe far from the nearest river. Ofelia Zepeda’s nation captured water from rainfall during the summer monsoon. The people practiced “dry” farming in which no irrigation was available, only rainfall and gratitude. She told us how the old women pulled the rainclouds from the sky with their harvesting sticks. I was moved by her beautiful poems and stories.
Upon walking to my car, thunder rolled above and a deafening crack of lightening played in a vast display across the heavens. Dark monsoon clouds released buckets of rain that filled streets, making gullies in the soil, and immediately chilling the air. It was July and the monsoon rains. For me it was a baptism, an initiation and welcome to the real and living desert.
Moving to the Colorado River Valley in 1990 began a great period of personal growth and learning. Teaching children of migrant farm workers (who harvested lettuce in view of the classroom windows) and children of Colorado River Indian Tribes who lived on near-by reservations, I quickly learned the harsh realities of the cultural landscape as well as the natural landscape on which our life science lessons focused.
The following blog posts are three memories from living in the desert (1990-2008). The first is my initiation to the land’s elemental beauty and its stark realities. The second and third memories illustrate lifestyles in two desert cities with very different perspectives on how to live there – Phoenix and Tucson.
Because I was introduced very early in my time in Arizona to indigenous perspectives, I was able to more acutely measure the gap between native and contemporary points of view about the human relationship to nature, the meaning of community, and the underlying values that are at the roots of how cultures develop.
By getting to know Cocopah families – families whose nation was separated by the U.S. Mexico border and whose way of life on the Colorado River was fractured by the damming of the river – I witnessed the social, financial, emotional and spiritual devastation wrought by being unable to live by the values one holds dear and by which one knows oneself.
Another important stream of influence on my thinking was the environmental movement in which I was actively engaged through education, a daily endeavor that caused me to read the history of these great cities and to get involved in local citizens movements to create more sustainable ways of living there.
While we are going about our daily lives, critical problems such as over-drafting groundwater continue. Indigenous values that have been pushed to the background are emerging into the foreground. Are we paying attention? What can we learn about place and the art of living from the first people of a place?
I understand, now, why spiritual seekers often go to desert lands. There is quietude and mystery. Stories are hidden from casual view, unspoken but exerting their presence. The quest then is discernment.
My romance with Tucson seems predestined. This long relationship began in my childhood with Dad’s assignment to Davis Monthan AFB.
Fifty years later, I moved back to Tucson to accept a position as Director of Education at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Little did I know that a future friend and writing fellow was finding her way to Tucson from her home in the Republic of Columbia, in northwest South America. We never met while we lived in Tucson but we would later share our love of the desert in a more tropical habitat.
That is because both of us left Tucson and ended up in Pensacola, Florida. Vicki is a member of the Portfolio Writers’ Group, one of many writing groups in the West Florida Literary Federation. She is a poet and talented painter who not only continues to inspire my writing, but who, by virtue of membership, became an early editor of drafts of the Threshold manuscript.
For me it was wonderful having a talented writer/friend who knew Tucson and is bilingual. She was able to spot problems and to provide correction to Spanish terms and translations. (Vicki is a Spanish instructor at the University of West Florida and provided instruction for students at the University of Arizona while in Tucson.)
It seems that wherever I go, Tucson follows along. I am so glad because it is a community that won my heart. I even bled for it (see previous blog). That initiation got buried in my unconscious. Good thing. I might never have returned!
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.