The Literal Landscape
Sense of Place in the Sonoran Desert
In the summer of 1983, my mother packed my sister and I up and, with U-Haul in tow, moved us from Tucson, Arizona, to Ocala, Florida. Between seventh and eighth grades, I was awkward enough without having to lose my good friends and make new ones. What made the loss most difficult to handle was losing the kinds of friends that you can't phone across two thousand miles on a slow Sunday afternoon, the kind you can't send your Little League, bat-across-the-knee portrait to. The friends I most missed-and had the hardest time keeping in touch with-were the horned toads, palo verde, and red-tailed hawks. The washes, saguaro, and roadrunners. The linkages of Sonoran desert that fingered off the dry riverbeds throughout the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, where we lived.
Though I returned once just a few months after we moved, the trip was so full that I didn't get the opportunity of just wandering along the washes: scaling bareroot trees that cling to sandy ridge, delicately lifting rocks to reveal spiny insects full of color and venom, tracing lizard tracks until they disappeared at the jumbled intersection of bird claw prints. But I never forgot the incredible diversity of the Sonoran landscape, never lost the Southern Arizona impressions burnt upon my mind by the arcing desert sun.
The thought of Freshman Honors Biology compelled me only slightly more than Beginning Chemistry and Lab, but not nearly as much as the upper-level wildlife biology courses I traveled all the way from Florida to Colorado State University to attend. As a professor talked in the brief orientation just a few weeks before classes began, there did, however, seem some potential. Here were in fact two professors, who demanded the use of their first rather than last names, discussing not cellular or molecular biology (which they assured us we'd get to), but rather challenges of preserving and restoring the environment, and how it was our responsibility to do so. Idealism turned lose upon such open slates as incoming college freshman? Already?
I drank it in.
I left the introductory hour, and the three-day orientation, with a list of three books to read prior to the initial class: Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf, R.H. Lawrence's Secret Go the Wolves, and Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire.
Abbey's book is subtitled A Season in the Wilderness, and it centers mostly on his time spent outside Moab, Utah, at Arches National Monument. But that didn't matter, because in the thick liquidy blanket of humidity that is August in Central Florida, I was suddenly thrown back to the Desert Southwest, and my arid journeys just beyond our untended yard of the Catalina foothills.
Just two pages into this lean and driving book, Abbey writes, "For myself, I'll take Moab, Utah. I don't mean the town itself, of course, but the country which surrounds it-the canyonlands. The slickrock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky-all that which lies beyond the end of the roads."
Ed's landscape, his personal sense of place, was the indigenous Southern Utah that is not so different-at least for a boy somewhere close to the Atlantic who had never been to Utah-from the indigenous Southern Arizona landscape. But location is not really the point: the imagery itself is. Desert Solitaire made me yearn for the desert that formed my environmental ethic-the Sonoran Desert. It still does.
Over the next two semesters I returned to Ed's manuscript, now dog-eared, and thought often of my desert. As autumn turned to winter and then to spring, I searched the summer internship boards for a field assignment that might, if I was lucky, bring me back to the Arizona Sonora. An assignment performing nocturnal studies of lower Texas's ringtail cat was intriguing, but not quite there. Neither was field research of osprey in Northern Arizona's Kiabob Plateau, though closer. Then finally, just weeks before the end of the semester, I landed a field job studying the elusive titmouse in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona.
I loaded up the truck and drove down to Tucson. I wasn't going home again, but I was going back to the Sonoran Desert, a place that even in college felt like home. Or, rather, it felt like it should be home. It was a place I knew.
Stepping out of my truck and into the sandpaper-harsh heat, I quickly learned that there are two giants in Tucson. The first had been there all along, the mighty saguaro cactus. The second, it turns out, was me. But I didn't realize this until I stepped back into the neighborhood where I once lived. The sidewalks were narrower, the rooflines lower, the trees smaller. Was Tucson different, or was I? Did I really still know this place?
An old buddy and I took an evening walk along the edge of a wash where we used to build forts bravely defended against imaginary armies and dragons and, occassionally, our sisters. "You know," he said as I tried to imagine away the fresh residential development along the wash's far side, "I don't see horned toads anymore. They're all gone."
Back in our elementary school days, we spent hours foraging among the desert, catching horned toads and bull snakes and other reptiles. My friend certainly knew if the fat lizards were no longer around, I agreed.
Or maybe we were actually the ones who had gone, me to Florida and then Colorado, my friend to a more social construct, that of college and dating, though only a few miles away at the university.
In truth we're all different. The place has changed and so have we. There is more Tucson and less Sonoran Desert, more adult responsibility and less opportunity to just wander. I'm not surprised that there are fewer indigenous animals among the ever-decreasing riverbeds, not surprised either that it had been years since we'd actually looked for any. Just saddened by both.
I returned to Tucson only once more that summer, and then not again until March 1991. Yet the images of the lush Sonoran desert-for here the cactus and lizard and songbird biodiversity seems as high as anywhere-were always tucked on a ready shelf in the back of the closet of my mind.
I arrived in Tucson to visit my brother, stationed at the local Air Force base, and to explore the foothills area around Sabino Canyon, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and other places remembered. I had never seen the desert so green. Frontal storms out of the Pacific had been steadily dropping rain over Tucson, and any semblance of desert was distant at best. Only the rows of spines on the elegant, leaning ocotillo and the sentinel saguaro gave my location away.
Spring in this area of the Sonoran desert, tucked between four mountain ranges, is the desert's finest season. With the silence of autumn and winter behind, and the promise of desert heat looming short months away, spring captures the truest spirit of the Sonora:
What Tucson and the surrounding desert have, I realized as I returned to this spring carnival in full bloom, and the one thing that so many of us strive for, is a sense of place. Perhaps that is what keeps drawing me back? Or maybe it's the sense of place that I remember as a child, in the safety of the abandoned pecan orchard, along the banks of the dry Tanque Verde, beneath a Suesslike canopy of cholla and palo verde and prickly pear. It doesn't really matter, I suppose, for it's the fitting into place, the knowing of place as one's own, the "human capacity for the homing sentiment," to quote Abbey.
Fittingly, the Tucson-based Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has initiated an outreach program that partners with community institutions to enhance cultural and ecological heritage. Called the Sense of Place Project, the living museum's effort "seeks to incorporate views from both sides of the border and from our various cultures in promoting wise stewardship of natural and cultural resources found within the communities" of the Sonoran Desert. It lends educational, financial, and emotional support to tribal museums, nature centers, watershed and neighborhood associations, libraries, and groups of citizens concerned about their indigenous communities, both built and natural.
With the goals of promoting intergenerational learning, recognizing and honoring the wealth and knowledge residing within communities, encouraging community exploration of the Sonoran Desert's natural and cultural heritage, and protecting traditional knowledge for future generations to use as a guide for living in the Sonoran region, the Sense of Place Project has developed a series of helpful tools. They range from an idea book to Lugares del Corazn, the project newsletter. They encompass a "desert stories" traveling exhibit and "Keepers of the Desert Treasure" awards. Most importantly, they involve efforts that teach community members how to maintain and enhance their own sense of place.
One such event was the Indigenous Women's Conference, held April 1997 in the newly established Yaqui community of Sarmiento, just outside Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico. Women from across the Sonoran Desert, especially Mexico, gathered to discuss the challenges facing their communities, developed petitions demanding basic services, and asked that tribal authorities and indigenous traditions be respected.
Esperanza Molina, a conference host, discussed the conference's importance in creating sense of place:
North of Mexico, in southeast Tucson, there is another community rising, one that respects the indigenous Sonoran landscape and climate while providing for the people who wish to live lightly upon it. It is the Community of Civano, a pedestrian-oriented settlement based upon native building materials and energy, linkages to the natural environment, and social interaction. It is this issue's UnSprawl case study. It is a new neighborhood with a sense of place.
As I toured Civano this past February, I could immediately see myself living there, among the native plants and animals and structures, and also in a real human community. More importantly, I could feel the energy of the place, both figuratively and, I think, literally. The developers and residents-to-be and community showed the nervous excitement that precedes any paradigm shift-in this case, a shift to the way we live with the land, rather than on it. And then there was the energy of the landscape pulsing through the natural amphitheater of the wash, through the effectively transplanted palo verde and barrel cactus, through the entirety of the place.
Sense of landscape. Sense of history. Sense of place. Civano is caught in the middle of a dust devil whirling the community's senses together in what promises to be a full and thriving place that knows itself because it knows the indigenous place upon which it is built. As long as it respects its natural heritage, the cultural heritage will prosper.
Later next year I will again have the opportunity to return to Tucson, smell the creosote after a rainstorm, and view the progress at Civano. "The desert will still be here in the spring," promises Ed Abbey in the closing pages of Desert Solitaire. "And then comes another thought. When I return will it be the same? Will I be the same? Will anything ever be quite the same again?"
Will I once again find my sense of place in the Sonoran Desert?
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