Friday, May 22, 2009

The Unexpected Gift

A year that has brought us record breaking early heat has also brought an unexpected gift. The best gift you can get in the desert. Rain.

In the land of five seasons, the current one being Foresummer with its primary characteristics of drought and increasing heat, a long slow cool rain is the last thing you’d expect. Desiccated cactus, panting birds, and triple digit temperatures, yes. Water falling from the sky, no.

For most places a rainfall total of a few tenths of an inch would go essentially unnoticed, but here it can be a life changing event. Desert plants and animals are patient during drought and fiercely opportunistic with the smallest measure of rain. Saguaro feeder roots rest an inch or two under our rocky soils and the slightest rainfall is instantly put to use restoring water provisions, swelling the cactus’s girth overnight. Ocotillo take the opportunity to push leaves out of their thorny canes within 48 hours, transforming themselves into huge bunches of green pipe-cleaners. Resurrection fern, a crumbly paper bag brown plant masquerading as dirt most of the time, will unfurl into emerald green carpets in a few hours. Birds, encouraged by the vegetation growth they instinctively know follows rain, will decide to start second or third families for the year while the air is perfumed with the scent of the creosote.

Though the mesquite branches are now bowed, laden with rain, we desert dwellers know that in a day, maybe two, the sun will again feel like an assault and the ground beneath our feet will appear to have never experienced the gift of rain. But we’ll see the subtle effects -- greener trees, plumper prickly pears, new strings of baby quail. It will be enough to see us through to the next season, the summer monsoon and its embarrassment of riches.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Sunday, May 10, 2009

It's a Dry Heat...So Use It

There’s something so wonderfully elemental and sensible about drying laundry in the fresh air of the out of doors. Here in the desert with its bountiful sunshine and low humidity, hanging wash outside is not only intuitive, but a pleasant and satisfying task which falls somewhere between a chore and an art form on the housework continuum. For many it is reminiscent of a time when life was simpler, if only made so by the passage of time itself.

Stuffing wet laundry into a machine that is noisy, heat producing, and a squanderer of a non-renewable energy source may be quick and easy, but it hijacks an opportunity to be One with Nature in a delightfully parsimonious and practical way: peeling all those sodden pounds of damp cloth off the inside of the washing machine basket, the outside layers dimpled from the spin cycle’s effort to strain them through the tub’s drain holes; plopping them in a laundry basket and ferrying them outside to endless blue skies and searing sunlight; feeling them instantly begin to give up moisture to the bone dry air.

The clean scent of the laundry soap mingles with the sharp smell of the desert vegetation and dry gravelly soils. My skin appreciates the slight rise in humidity in the immediate vicinity as I begin hanging the laundry. It gets me outdoors for a brief time in a climate that can be a challenge in co-existence during the daylight hours for much of the year.

For many of us, our home owner associations, in their infinite wisdom, have prohibited the traditional laundry line. In this day and age to discourage the almost effortless accomplishment of an unavoidable chore through the use of a limitless and non-polluting energy source can only be regarded as a patent crime against nature. The horror of being exposed to our neighbors’ sheets and boxer shorts is deemed a hideous affront to our sensibilities, instead of some lively and temporary yard art billowing and snapping in the desert winds.

Not to be deterred, I visited our handy hardware store and picked up a collapsible wooden drying rack. Occupying a space of about three square feet of the back porch when in use and extending to chest level, I can strategically arrange a full washer of laundry on this contraption, enjoying the accomplishment of a simple challenge well met. In little more time than it takes to cram my laundry into the gaping maw of my drier, the damp laundry is efficiently hung on the rack’s dozen or so rungs. Before the last piece is draped, the first is showing the effects of our miniscule humidity, already feeling slightly dry to the touch. Depending on the contents of the load – heavy towels and jeans obviously are slower to relinquish all their moisture than pillow cases and unmentionables – the abundant breeze driven hot air does its job with amazing efficiency, quietly taking advantage of a free and inexhaustible energy source.

Then there’s the bonus of the finished product. Aside from blowing a cosmic raspberry at my HOA, I love the feel and smell of laundry dried outside. Removing the items from the rack, they have an agreeable stiffness, a gentle rigidity. Towels have a pleasurable roughness when first put to use after a shower, doing their job with astonishing effectiveness, and stimulating the skin in the bargain. Cloth napkins and dish towels dry to a pleasant smoothness and are not only satisfying to fold and store, but when retrieved from their drawers are a reminder of having gotten a nice assist from Mother Nature. Perhaps the greatest gratification comes from bed sheets hung outside, smelling of sunshine and dry sage and childhood, their solid smoothness a pleasure to slide into at night. Who could help but sleep better in sheets cloistering remnants of sunbeams shot across 93 million miles of our solar system, convincingly coloring dreams with the certainty of our oneness with the universe?

Saturday, May 9, 2009


There’s one in every crowd – the overachiever for whom the best is not good enough. You know them. The high school valedictorian who graduated with a 4.25 GPA. The marathoner turned triathlete turned ultra triathlete. Richard Branson.

Every April we begin watching the saguaro for the little flat green buttons on the prickled pleats of this cactus. We know these smooth discs will grow into knobs that will, some time in late April, open in the dark of night into iridescent white cupped flowers. These flowers will be filled with cool sweet melon scented nectar, manna from heaven for everything that can get to it during this parched dry pre-monsoonal season. Bats and moths visit by night. Bees and birds by day, particularly the white winged dove which follows the saguaro blooms up from the southern Sonoran Desert in Mexico. Enticed and rewarded by the fragrant nutrient-rich liquid, partakers leave their host dusted in pollen, carrying it to the next flower they visit, fertilizing flowers for fruit and seed production, the benefits of which they will reap in June.

A few weeks ago as we left for a ramble in the Tucson Mountain foothills, we spotted our first open saguaro blossoms, usually soloists this early in the blooming season; occasionally with two or three in a saguaro’s crown. A few miles later we spotted in the distance what looked like a saguaro wearing the white flag of surrender, or a brilliant white tee shirt a wind had caught and tangled in its thorns. When we got closer we realized that this overachiever of saguaros had cloaked itself in well over a dozen blinding white blooms crowded cheek to jowl in remarkable display of overabundance.

There must have be some extremely sated birds resting in the nearby mesquites.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Paloverde Zenith

If the towering armed saguaro is the iconic cactus of the Sonoran Desert, the paloverde (translation: green stick) is its signature tree. This native tree with its acid green bark grows with rampant abundance across the foothills and valleys in and around Tucson.

Paloverdes begin blooming in April and by early May the trees are so laden with small soft yellow blossoms that they look flocked. Bees drone through the branches by the thousands, their avid pollen collection creating a dull roar. Driving a two lane road is like piloting a plane through a corridor of mounding sulfurous clouds. Across the valley the mountains' feet are smothered with flaxen foam.

They've peaked now, raining spent petals, cloaking the ground and the plants sheltering beneath them with a pale golden mantle, their musky scent attracting herds of javelina who will kneel in blissful oblivion to graze this floral feast. The last gasp of a desert spring, paloverdes herald the advent of triple digit days with a yellow haze.