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The Literal Landscape
by Simmons B. Buntin, Editor/Publisher, Terrain.org

Sense of Place in the Sonoran Desert

Sometimes our lives are a series of goings-back.  More often, they're a series of trying-to-go-backs.  What we're trying to find is a sense of place, something we recall having as children, in a home of our remembrance.  Though we hear that we can never go home again, I'm not so certain.  For one thing, many Americans move so often that it's hard to say where home is.  In the three decades of my life, for example, I've lived in South Florida, Central Kentucky, Southern Arizona, Central Florida, Northern Colorado, East-Central Alabama, Maryland, and the Colorado Front Range.  And then if we ever do make it back home, chances are we're not really going home, that larger-than-life, fuzzy place we recall more often from a sudden, distinct smell than back-of-the-brain memory alone.  We're going, rather, to the town we're from, or the town where our parents live, or the town of our ancestry, or the town where once we stayed a while.

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.

Sonoran Desert
The full range of the Sonoran Desert.  Tucson is in the Arizona Upland (green portion).
Graphic courtesy of Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

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.

Tucson, Arizona
Tucson looking north past downtown and
toward the Santa Catalina Mountains.

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."

Saguaro at dusk
Saguaro National Park, both east and west of Tucson, at dusk.

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:

Almost imperceptibly, through February and early March, the pulse of the happy season beat fuller and stronger.  Butterflies, once rather a rarity, became common.  The first to appear in force were those same mourning cloaks, dark with a cream-colored border, which circle the temperate regions of the globe..  Exotics, like the zebra swallowtail uncommon or unknown farther north, appear only slightly later, and about the same time hummingbirds return from the south.

If the ornithologists are right in believing that the light of lengthening days is what puts birds on the move, then they cannot be much influenced by unseasonable freaks of the weather.  With plants it is otherwise, and I imagine things were a bit delayed in that department by the fact that the showers we should have had in February did not come until late March.  By the equinox, nevertheless, the improbable, and improbably bright, flowers which bloom by the driest desert roadsides were beginning to startle the eye by suddenly blazing forth where it had, only a short time before, appeared as though nothing could ever grow.  Already in mid-February the wild rhubarb, a coarse weed, was putting forth its not overly attractive flower, but it hardly counted.  Now, masses of purple verbena began to appear from nowhere; the prickly, foot-high shrub called false mesquite began to call attention to itself by displaying its purple, threadlike "fairy dusters," and the so-called desert marigold waved its innumerable, curiously luminous yellow heads in the sun.  In New England, the earliest spring flowers are modest and retiring; here, they flaunt themselves, florally if not vegetatively..

Other, smaller cacti are also blooming, and so are the giant saguaros, at the ends of whose grotesquely curving arms there appear little circlets of creamy white flowers.  The effect is modestly pretty but seems a little inadequate for so gigantic a plant; and it suggests the odd fact that in the cactus family there seems to be a strange lack of proportion between the size of the various species and the size of the blossoms they bear.  The saguaro flower is smaller than that of the prickly pear; even more remarkable, many a five- or six-inch variety, half-hidden under a shrub or a stone, bears flowers as large or larger than either.  One hardly notices these plants until they bloom; and one would hardly notice the bloom on the saguaro had not the forty- or fifty-foot trunk long been the most conspicuous thing in the landscape.

         — Joseph Wood Krutch, The Desert Year

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. 

Sprawl in the Tucson Mountain foothills
At the lush foothills at the base of the Tucson Mountains
west of the city, auto-oriented, non-indigenous residential
development threatens horned toads and much more.

Esperanza Molina, a conference host, discussed the conference's importance in creating sense of place:

One of our key struggles is for place.  This is what my people, the Yaquis of Hermosillo, have fought for over sixty years to obtain.  Place is not an abstract concept for us-it is how communities maintain and revitalize culture and tradition.  Until 1994, the communities of La Matanza and El Colosio in Hermosillo celebrated their religious ceremonies in open lots within the city limits.  Although they did not hold title to these parcels of land, the Yaqui community considered them sacred sites.  City officials, however, did not share our view.  Rapid urbanization soon swallowed up Yaqui ceremonial grounds along with a cemetary where Yaqui leaders were buried.  Fearing that the traditions would die out without a communal place to gather and worship, I decided to petition the government.  We gathered together a group of Yaqui women, and held protests for three months in front of the governor's office.  The government finally responded by granting our community four and a half hectares on the outskirts of town. 

Today this piece of land, named Sarmiento after a priest who helped the community, is the ceremonial center for the Yaqui of Hermosillo.  Five families have built homes on the site, and another hundred families are waiting to do the same.  Gardens have sprung up and huge yellow gourds hang from rope-like vines snaking up a large mesquite tree.  The gourds will be used as drums and rattle in this year's religious ceremonies.

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.

Saguaro in bloom
Saguaro in bloom.
Photo courtesy of Great Outdoors Resource Page.

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?


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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