Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Surviving In Beauty

(stone marker at Tohono Chul, where the photos below were taken)

(saguaro, wildflower, and bee)

I first visited Tucson and thus the Sonoran Desert in the spring of 1993. I was teaching in eastern New Mexico and had met some folks from Tucson at a conference at Ghost Ranch (another land I love, a post for another day) who invited me to come out for spring break. So I did.

I had never seen anything like it. My new friends took me hiking and reveled in showing me the vast variety of desert life; I also spent a day at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, where I learned how plant life in particular had adapted to the harsh environment and delighted in rocks, javelinas, a whirring hummingbirds.

Here is what you may not know about the Sonoran Desert: It is lush. It is vibrant. It is massive and delicate all at the same time, and abounding in variety. It can be astoundingly green.

And what tugs at my heart, is the fact of the beautiful adaptations for survival, for life. Of course all ecosystems are built around these same needs to adapt to the environment, but there is something about the Sonoran desert where the line between life and death is so stark that makes the choice for survival that much more beautiful to me.

Here, for example, is a palo verde tree, one of my favorite desert flora.

I think if you click on it you can get a bigger version. Palo verde means "green stick" in Spanish, which is the perfect description for this tree. These trees tend to be lower and spread out wide, providing, incidentally, bits of shade and thus relief for other plants and animals. The "green stick" part of it is this: The leaves on this tree are tiny, so much so that you might think from even a small distance that there are no leaves at all -- just a tree of sticks. This is to protect the leaves from being burned by the sun. In other trees, of course, like oaks and maples and whatnot, the leaves are where the photosynthesis happens...so what does the palo verde do? Why, the bark itself is green, all year round. Green Stick. Brilliant.

Here is more desert beauty:

Fish-hook barrel cactus, with fruit.

Entertwined palo verde and prickly pear...who's sheltering whom?

Purple prickly pear and purple wildflower.

Prickly pear and red flowers, a favorite of hummingbirds.

A phainopeplas, or black cardinal. S/he had a lovely little song that we whistled back and forth to each other for a bit. S/he has a delightful little feather-crown. I had never seen one before.

Baby saguaro and mesquite tree. And something else flowering in the front.

An agave getting ready to shoot up its stalk.

A type of cholla in the front, palo verde in the back.

A magnificent saguaro...there are holes for bird's nests in there. Saguaros can get even huger than this.

All kinds of desert goodness here.

Cholla up close and personal. You don't want to back into this by accident!

Wait, that's not desert fauna. That's Todd Helton at a Rockies/Rangers spring training game!