Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Tuning Into the Desert
Having moved to the Sonoran Desert from a place that registers, on the average, 40 degrees lower in temperature any day of the year in comparison to Phoenix, it has been a long, slow process for my body and mind to adjust to the new climate. After five years, however, my idea of “cool” has transformed from below 50 degrees to anything below 100. “Hot” now means anything over 110, rather than in the 80’s. And, much to my chagrin, I find myself donning a sweater when the thermometer dips below 70, rather than stripping the same sweater off when it spikes to 60. This is all part of tuning into the desert.
Despite my traumas with thermoregulation, I’ve made it my mission to get out into wild desert places as much as possible, rather than just peering out from the climate controlled environment of my home, car, and ubiquitous malls. Fortunately, this is as easy as exiting the front door of my cookie cutter tract home and cruising up the wash at the end of our cul-de-sac. Five minutes later, my feet leave concrete rip-rap and step onto a trail etched in basalt gravel.
In the desert, air conditioning means a gentle breeze flowing over small passes and ridges. When that breeze whips up, I can hear it whistle through saguaro spines, and rattle dried leaves of brittlebush. Quails rise up from the desert floor, wings purring loudly, while riffs of another covey echo from a distant hollow. A cactus wren rasps from atop a cholla. In the spring, palo verdes hum with swarms of bees gathering pollen and nectar from their clouds of pale yellow flowers. This all fascinates me, but I still couldn’t clearly understand the appeal to the millions who inhabit this desert, human or otherwise. I was trying to tune in, but there was a lot of static.
Then one evening, while hiking the Deem Hills just north of Happy Valley Road, we stopped to rest on a rimrock at the edge of a trail to admire the rosy glow of sunset on Pyramid Peak. The air was perfectly still. Even the low hum of the highway seemed to momentarily cease. As the sunset morphed from pink to orange and lavender, a coyote howled. Another joined in, and soon we were listening to a veritable symphony of Canis latrans that lasted what felt like a good long three minutes. Then, the chorus was clipped by a staccato yip. The desert air was silent once again. As if directed by some invisible conductor, we next heard a mourning dove call, followed by the soft, low hoot of a great horned owl. A visual grand finale was the owl’s silhouette lifting off of a nearby saguaro to glide into the valley below. Somewhere in the middle of that performance, my mind tuned in. The desert suddenly felt like home.
Since then, I’ve returned to those few moments many times in my head whenever my body and mind feel torpid from the endless desert summer. Now tuning in can be as simple as walking into the back yard and admiring a queen butterfly drift through the garden, or taking a deep breath of creosote-scented air after a summer rain. But for true clarity, I walk into the wild desert and find a place to listen.