Recently Roger Wolfson and his friends flew to Tucson, Arizona, to see the desert bloom. Never having seen desert before, Roger expected little more than sand, parched heat, and void. He found, instead, profound evidence of the ingenuity and heroic persistence of life itself. Far from empty, the desert overflows with organic matter and animals.
If you’ve never experienced the desert, then the best way to envision it is to come to grips with the fact that Dr. Seuss may not have been an imaginative genius; perhaps he just spent time in the desert and was deeply influenced by what he found.
About six different forms of plant life thrive most dramatically in the Arizona desert, and all them can be found in a single book by Seuss. Splattered across the desert you’ll find different forms of Cholla (pronounced “Choya”). In color and shape, the “Jumping” Cholla resemble miniature palm trees, coated with a nearly invisible layer of tiny spikes, each dangerously sheathed with a skin of silk. Prickly Pears resemble clusters of Mickey Mouse ears or a mobile by Calder, depending on your cultural bias. Joshua Trees look like, well, Muppet trees. Thick, hairy trunks lead to even hairier heads, gesturing every which way. Mesquite trees seem upside down to me; their branches like roots, tangled, tortured, thirsty. Totem Pole cacti stretch upward, spike-less, like yearning, semi-molten candles.
During the day, these plants feel comical, cartoon-like. At dusk they become magical and mysterious. At night, they are the stuff of scary, primitive dreams.
Most prominent of all are the Saguero (sa’WA’ro) Cacti, the giants of the breed. Ask almost any three-year old child to draw a cactus, and she’ll create a Saguero. Tall, noble, rising ten, twenty, thirty feet into the air; a single trunk, like a huge cucumber, occassionally with an arching arm, or several arms like a candelabra. At Saguero National Forest, thousands can found, spread ten to twenty feet apart, limitless variations of humongous fingers reaching out of the earth.
Soft and seemingly pliable, these multi-ton behemoths appear delicate. Birds (Flickers and Elf Owls) dig holes into them and make nests. They tremble in the wind.
But the Saguero are ancient. It takes fifteen years for Saguero to grow a foot tall. Their arms do not appear until the cactus is older than most humans – 75 years. They eke their way toward the heavens, inch by inch for two or three hundred years, until (successfully scratching the sky? failing?) they wither into skeletons, nestled into the desert floor. The nests the birds once created in their skin outlast the cactus; the cactus creates a wooden scab around the nests, and those wooden cups (called “boots”) lie scattered across the desert, like seeds.
Looking for animal life? Stop looking. Just listen. The desert has a silence all its own. First, you’ll hear a glorious Nothing; then perhaps the vibrations of the wind against your eardrum. Then tiny sounds appear as if from inside your head – nearby insects wrestling with a grain of sand, perhaps a stink bug or two. Then, more distant, a rabbit; tiny, with huge, worried eyes. Or a jackrabbit, massive, the size of a deer, bounding away from your smell. Soon a bird will make itself known. Perhaps a quail (with its preposterous lock of hair sticking straight from its forehead) or, more peaceful still, a cooing, creamy brown dove. Further in the distance, a coyote, perhaps? And cattle; long, low, moos.
Look at that rock over there – you’ll see animals, too. Etched deeply into the stone by ancient Native American tribes. Petroglyths depict the universal nature of the desert experience, showing how fascinating the first humans also found salamanders, birds, landscapes. The Sun.
The sun begins to set. It’s getting late, chilly. No clouds anywhere on the horizon, nor atmospheric moisture; before you know it the sun has left for tomorrow and the sky hasn’t even had a chance to change color. In fact, it won’t. The sky, so pale blue it is white, will simply fade into dark, into the distant hills and mountains, already rich and inky black. For those of us who dream in white and black, this is a sunset of dreams.