Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Dose of Big Sky

While looking at a house, a buyer asked the real estate agent which direction was north because, he explained, he didn’t want the sun waking him up every morning. The realtor asked, “Does the sun rise in the north?” The buyer gently explained that the sun rises in the east. The realtor shook her head and said, “Oh, I don’t keep up with that stuff!”

Okay, maybe nature just isn’t your “thing.” Given a choice between watching the Suns (the Phoenix basketball team…in case you don’t keep up with that stuff…) and watching a sunset, you’ll go for the game. “Take a hike,” sounds more like an expletive than a good way to spend a Saturday morning. And when it comes to saving your nails vs. saving the whales, there is no way you are going to give up your manicure!

Anyway, who has time?! Between dealing with the kids, chores, a part-time or full-time job, volunteering, shopping, and driving all over creation to take everyone to their lessons and games…getting to the park, much less a desert preserve, is just not going to fit into the schedule. Besides, outside is either too hot, too cold, too rainy (even in Phoenix), too windy, or too far from a decent toilet. Peeing outside is DEFINITELY not in your comfort zone, thank-you-very-much!

But even when the amount of time we spend outdoors dwindles to the thirty seconds it takes to walk across the parking lot from our car to the grocery store, and we prefer a climate-controlled environment to the viscissitudes of weather, un-tamed nature can still be part of our lives. No matter how disconnected our lives might become from the wildness which begat us, it is difficult for anyone to ignore a glorious sunset or an amazing rainbow, even if it is viewed through a windshield.

If nothing else, it is worthwhile to find the time to enjoy a sunrise (east) or a sunset (west) at least once a week. No matter what is going on inside the house, “Sunset alert!” or “Rainbow alert!” is the rallying call at our home to get everyone off the couch to take a dose, however small, of the mystery and beauty of nature. When thunderheads pile up in monsoon season, that is good reason for a round of cloud appreciation. At night, a moonrise is cause to gather in awe. Even when there is no outstanding heavenly event, we can be thankful for the incredible color of the clear blue sky.

And no matter what direction your family's bedroom windows face, we've taken the time to make sure that what each person sees out that window is worth waking up to…a tree, a flowering shrub that attracts hummingbirds, or a simple frame of Cielo Grande (…that's Spanish for Big Sky).

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.