By Amy Knight

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The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona


With the cool evenings and early mornings we’ve been having here in Tucson, it’s starting to feel like fall—even if it is over a hundred degrees at the moment. When I think of fall I always think about trees. I grew up in the mid-Atlantic region, with elms and maples and oaks, and September would bring brilliant bright colors. I loved them, the colors, the smells. The trees marked the seasons; there was a dogwood outside my bedroom window that would burst into a flutter of pink all of a sudden every March. And July and August would be blanketed under a canopy of green so vivid I can’t even really imagine it here, in the washed-out desert.

One of my falls in Montana, we missed out on leaves altogether—it snowed, and froze hard, before the leaves had really turned, and they all just turned black and fell off. It was disorienting; the transition had been deleted. Summer went straight to winter.

Not to say that deciduous trees that turn yellow and orange are the only trees I could love. On a trip to Los Angeles this spring I had my first real encounter with the absolute explosion of purple that was blooming jacaranda trees. And driving to Mount Katahdin in Maine, the highway cut through such a dense forest of tall pines that it felt like a different planet.

The glories we have here are different. There’s nothing like a mountainside covered in saguaros, and this year, we had an incredible bloom in the spring. But a part of me will always be attached to trees.

The lot where my house will be has one tree already, a big old mesquite. Mesquites are real desert trees; they need very little water, but they are most definitely trees, not cacti; they have trunks, and branches, and leaves, although their leaves aren’t the big floppy green things of my youth. And I will plant more.

The rainwater harvesting people told me with a well-designed “oasis zone,” irrigated with graywater, I could grow all kinds of trees; at their demonstration property they have a peach tree. They have a fig tree; I, too, could have these things. And of course there is a long tradition of growing citrus here, which does need some extra water but grows well. I can imagine myself having a lime tree. There’s something about limes that appeals more than the other citrus trees. It feels like a festive, relaxed fruit. It’s margaritas and gin and tonics. It’s Mexican food and Thai food. They remind me how hard I laughed the time my sister asked me, “What’s in a vodka tonic?” (Turns out it was actually the lime she wanted to know about.)

I thought about having a jacaranda here; I saw one in a neighborhood up in Phoenix when I was out with a friend walking her dog. But they can be delicate, and don’t withstand our extremes well. On a home tour I went on, I saw an incredible, majestic tree that turned out to be a shoestring acacia. It reminded me of the weeping willows of my youth.

Whatever I end up planting, I want it to be happy here; I would never want a tree that I brought to this climate because I missed it, only to see it struggle to stay alive. I’ll see fall colors again; that’s why we have airplanes. And I will have trees that will shelter my house and maybe even garnish my cocktails.



Amy Knight is the fiction editor for In this weekly series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at or leave a comment here. Visit her website, or follow her on twitter @amypknight.

Image of trees courtesy Pixabay.

Water Rising is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.