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When the Rains Come, the Desert is Transformed

Julie Wnuk reviews When the Rains Come: A Naturalist's Year in the Sonoran Desert, by John Alcock

When the Rains Come: A Naturalist's Year in the Sonoran Desert, by John AlcockAs a relatively recent transplant to Portland, Oregon, I am still trying to habituate myself to the copious amounts of rain my city receives. Most of this rain occurs during the winter months, and in turn I spend those grey, rainy days holed up indoors, indulging in reading, armchair travel, and wistful fantasies of sunny summer hikes. This winter, I retreated from the seemingly endless deluge with biologist and award-winning nature writer John Alcock’s most recent book, When the Rains Come: A Naturalist’s Year in the Sonoran Desert.

I have had the privilege of experiencing the Sonoran desert only once, while visiting a friend at the University of Arizona in 2006 (coincidentally, the year Alcock happens to chronicle in his book). It was a memorable visit. The desert was strange but beautiful to me, and as a botanist of sorts, I was thrilled to see many plants I had previously only studied in textbooks or herbariums growing in their native habitat. The brevity of my visit, however, meant that I could only be an admirer. Developing a deeper understanding and appreciation of a place is like building an intimate friendship: it takes time.

John Alcock has established just this sort of relationship with the Sonoran desert through more than 30 years of study. In When the Rains Come, he records a year of his personal experiences in the Usery Mountains (one of his primary research sites) and other locations he has frequented. Drawing upon his decades of research and keen observations, Alcock refutes the common stereotype that the desert is a harsh, unchanging, and barren landscape. Harsh it may be at times, but unchanging and barren it is not. Alcock demonstrates repeatedly that the Sonoran desert is, in fact, a complex and dynamic environment rich in biodiversity.  
When the Rains Come explores a wide range of subjects relating to the Sonoran desert’s natural history, but ultimately the theme that unifies the entire book is change. The changes Alcock addresses occur on many scales and in many forms: some occur seasonally, others over decades, and still others over the span of geologic time; some occur naturally, while others are human-induced. By revealing the many ways in which the desert is constantly changing, Alcock hopes to foster in others the same enthusiasm that he has for this unique landscape. “Becoming aware of the entire spectrum of changes in our desert may give us a better sense of where we live and a greater appreciation for it,” he writes in the introduction.

The driving force behind the majority of these changes, and the thing that ultimately ties all desert life together, is the most critical resource of all: water. In a drought year like the one Alcock describes, its availability is even more crucial than usual. The rains of the book’s title bring deliverance to the desert, making the difference between life and death for its inhabitants. When the rains come, the desert is transformed as its inhabitants spring into action.

While reading When the Rains Come, I felt as though I were being guided through the desert by a skilled and friendly naturalist. Alcock’s lucid, descriptive prose is a pleasure to read, and he is adept at blending the narrative of his personal experiences with additional research from academic literature. Though the book contains a lot of scientific information, rest assured, it does not read like a sterile lab report. At times, I found myself holding my breath, sharing in the anxious anticipation of waiting for the next shower to arrive in the desert, even as rain was pelting the windows of my home.

The spectacular pictures that accompany the text further enhance the feeling of “being there.” Alcock’s writing is engaging enough that it could stand well alone, but the photos, taken by the author, augment what he says and allow the reader to share directly in his observations. For example, when he writes about the growth of a juvenile cactus recruit he has been following for decades, we can view its progression for ourselves. Likewise, when he writes about the effects of drought on a blooming season, we see a dramatic side-by-side comparison of the same site, taken in the same month of two separate years that experienced different quantities of rain. Alcock acknowledges that many of his own insights have come from comparing his photos.

Alcock’s insights also come from getting to know many of his subjects on an individual basis. One way he does this is by marking various flies and wasps with harmless dabs of paint to track their behavior to see, for instance, which male perches on a specific bush at what time of day, and how it interacts with other individuals it encounters. He does this to study mating behavior, but it also means that where others might just see a bunch of insects swarming around, Alcock notices patterns, and he demonstrates how the species he follows have their own daily and seasonal rhythms.

One might think that Alcock, having studied the Sonoran desert for so long, would have seen just about everything, that there would be no surprises left for him to uncover. But this isn’t true, either. Perhaps most inspiring, Alcock shows us there is always a possibility for new discoveries if we leave ourselves open to it. In one of my favorite chapters, he relates the discovery of a wasp he has never seen before (which, after more observation, a bit of confusion, and some assistance from a colleague, turns out to actually be three species of wasps in the same genus). Like so many scientific discoveries, his results form a combination of astute observation and serendipity.

If I were to recommend an audience for whom When the Rains Come should be required reading, it would be those who call the Sonoran desert home. However, those who (like myself) don’t reside in a desert shouldn’t feel deterred from reading it. If anything, I feel that I have gained a new appreciation for where I live by learning more about an environment that is so different from mine. I think that what makes the book a worthwhile read is that some of the most important messages to be gleaned from it transcend the boundaries of the Sonoran desert: Alcock demonstrates the value of getting to know our natural surroundings, connecting to them on a personal level, and maintaining a sense of curiosity.


Julie Wnuk holds a degree in biology from Hiram College and spent several seasons working as a botany technician for Ohio's Wayne National Forest. She resides in Portland, Oregon, where she enjoys hiking and learning the ecology of the Pacific Northwest. Often finding herself on the fence between pursuing graduate studies or the life of a vagrant explorer, her current goal is to become a certified master naturalist.
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When the Rains Come: A Naturalist's Year in the Sonoran Desert

By John Alcock

   The University of Arizona
   334 pages
   ISBN 978-0816527625


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