Monday, July 30, 2007

Monsoon Season

It is Monsoon season right now in Arizona. When I moved here I assumed there were only two seasons: cool, wet, winter or hot, dry, summer. I've since discovered there are five seasons here; winter, spring, dry summer, monsoon, and autumn. I can't comment on autumn yet because I haven't experienced it. Being from New England, it would take a lot to impress me, but spring was beautiful with the desert in bloom, and dry summer was just that; hot, dry, and very sunny. We had a 36 day streak of temperatures over 100 degrees before the Monsoon hit and the temperature dropped into the 90's.

What I didn't realize before was that with the Monsoon came the humidity. Having moved here to the desert, I had hoped I could avoid this uncomfortable atmospheric aggravation. However, much to my dismay, the humidity during the monsoon is almost as bad as it can be in Connecticut! Though the outside temperature may be cooler, the humidity makes it much more uncomfortable to be outside. When it is 100 during dry summer it might be too hot to be outside at noontime, but once the sun drops, so does the temperature and the evenings and mornings are pleasantly cool until the sun rises again. With the humidity in the air, the soggy warmth follows you into the night and your hair clings to your neck like soggy noodles or a wet octopus.

One of the chief benefits of monsoon is the rain. Most rain comes with thunder and lightening making a spectacular lightening show in the sky. The rain falls in curtains across the desert and the mountains, running off in huge cascades into washes and rivers. I've been driving over these dry rivers and washes since I've arrived here. I've seen their steep banks with railings along some, and dry sandy earth below. I laughed at their audacity to call themselves a river. People rode horses up the Pantano Wash and others rode 4-wheelers in the Santa Cruz River. But now I have seen these same washes fill to overflowing. Nightly the news carries stories of people who have to be rescued from the washes. Sometimes kids or teens take inflatable rafts and try to float down the raging torrents, only to be trapped on sandbars or in trees. The lucky ones get rescued. The unlucky are recovered.

It occurs to me that Monsoon season is like winter in the northeast. It is the most active weather time here and the weather forecasters hyperventilate with excitement. The rains and flash flooding close roads. Micro bursts cause power outages and cancel schools and businesses. The weather is almost always the lead story of the night and dust storms often precede the rains, causing low visibility as they scour the countryside.

My house is built with a wash behind it and a holding basin beside it. It has been dry ever since we moved in, though we have had a few storms. Still, I had never seen the wash run or the basin fill, but now the ground is saturated and last Monday we had a torrential downpour.

I was home alone at the time. Lightening cracked the leaden sky. Wind whipped my velvet mesquite tree and rain poured down in sheets of gray so thick that I was unable to see the mountain behind me and I could barely make out the homes across the wash. My small back yard became a coffee colored puddle with a creek running through it towards the street. I ran from window to window watching the excitement and photographing it whenever possible. I had to see if the wash was running, and so grabbed my umbrella and went outside to see what I could see. The holding basin rapidly filled as a churning chocolate colored river of runoff cascaded down the wash. The force of the water carved a huge crevice in the earth and tumbled the rip rap down into the basin. This was soon buried in sand and clay as the water rose ever higher towards the spillway. It finally crested just 2 to 3 feet bellow the overflow, but other holding basins were not so lucky. The one at the bottom of the cul de sac across from me filled to overflowing and spilled off into the desert.

As the storm abated I had to see what the other washes in my neighborhood were doing. I grabbed my cameras and jumped in my car. I drove down the street and found two washes raging. But then, the next wash down was completely dry with no flowing water! This caused me to shake my head in disbelief at the marvels of nature and hydrology. I drove out to the main road just to see how far I could go but I didn't get more than a quarter of a mile before I encountered water over the road. I pulled off to the side to photograph the sign that said "Do not enter when flooded," then watched as 4 vehicles drove through the rushing water. I turned my car around and drove home. I didn't want to be one of those people who showed up on the nightly news or got a "Stupid Motorist" ticket for crossing a clearly marked flood zone.

That particular storm pulled down 10 power poles in one location. The storm we had this past weekend pulled down 14 in another. Some people are still without power today. While the road crews here don't have to plow snow, they do have to go out and barricade roads during these storms. Afterwards they send out trucks and tractors to plow away the rocks, sand, and debris that the floods leave in their wakes. We may not get snowstorms here in Arizona, but we certainly get weather worth talking about!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Place Called Home

It was spring when we arrived in Tucson. We spent the first 2 months in a one bedroom apartment looking for a home. While my husband started his new job, I set off to explore this strange new place I had come to. My first trek was to Saguaro National Park East. I drove the Sunset loop, stopping here and there to observe birds and take in the scenery. On my first visit to the park I saw cactus wrens, Gambel's quail, a gilded flicker, and Gila woodpeckers. A white-winged dove perched atop a saguaro with its waxy blossoms. In the mesquite trees tiny verdin chattered and twittered in their hurry to goble up as many insects as possible. Turkey vultures soared in the rising thermals, searching for something dead to dine on. One of the biggest ravens I have ever seen crossed overhead, a black shadow over the sunny landscape. Curved-billed thrashers hid in the brush. Ocassionally one would perch on a branch and sing. One of the prettiest birds I saw was a black-throated sparrow with its beautifuly striped head and black bib. On a subsequent visit I discovered a great-horned owl and her chicks nesting in a cave high up in a sand bank!

Since it was spring, the hedgehog cactus were in bloom. Like cucumbers with spines, the hedgehog's magenta flowers sprouted from their top ends like ruffled Easter bonnets. Soon after they blossomed the ocatillo with their flaming orange candles blossomed, along with prickly pears and barrel cacti.

Besides Saguaro east we visited the Tucson Botanical Gardens. A pyrrhuloxia flashed across our path as we walked to the entrance. Inside the gardens wildlife and birds populated this protected area inside the city. Desert cottontails hopped among the agave. Mourning doves walked peacefully among the flowers and along the paths. A Gila woodpecker peeked out at us from its nest in a Saguaro hole. Between Saguaro National Park and the Botanical Gardens I learned much about the Sonoran desert and the plants and animals that now inhabited my world.

Out home sits in the Sonoran desert at the foot of the Santa Rita Mountains. Sycamore Canyon is a wildlife preserve which is being developed to preserve the desert and wildlife around us. There are 8 miles of hiking trails here. The trails are mapped and marked. Small plaques point out the names of plants or habitats of animals. The philosophy is one where people and nature can coexist. Any habitat destroyed in the building process is supposed to be restored and native plants are suppose to be saved whenever possible. I am not sure that this is happening. Still, much open space and green space is being preserved, which makes life here much more enjoyable.

From my windows I can see giant saguaros towering over the desert. Behind me the Santa Ritas rise strong and solid. On the side of one mountain is a white stone projection that I have been told is a former limestone mine. Whenever I leave the house to drive to town I can see this mountain and this mine. I look at them and think, "That is where I live. That is my home." To get to town involves a 15 mile jaunt downhill all the way. To get home is 15 miles all uphill. There are no alternative routes. What goes down must go up! Still, it is this isolation that for the moment gives us peace. The nights are quiet here, with the occasional howl of coyotes. From my yard I can see the milky way, something I missed dearly living near Salt Lake City.

I don't know the name of the mountain behind me yet, but I am determined to find out. It is important to me to know the place I live in. Places are like people; they have personalities and emotions. They have their own characteristics and feelings. Places have moods along with their vegetation, their topography, and climate. I want to know the plants, the paths, the inhabitants of this place. I want to know the contours of the land and where the washes run. Where do the lizards live, where do the rabbits hide? I want to know if I will love it and if it will like me. When you know a place, when you love it, then it becomes a part of you and a part of who you are. It is like knowing your mother or your lover. It is like knowing your self. It is connected to your heart.

Friday, July 27, 2007


I came to this desert in April 2007. Having come to the Sonoran desert from New England by way of Utah, it was quite a change. I entered a world of cacti unknown to me before. Everything has prickers and thorns! Even the bushes and trees have spines. I had to remind myself not to grab onto a branch for support.

After a world of maples and oaks, of sage brush and marshes this desert world is a whole new discovery, an alien place of dangerous beauty. As a bird lover, this world is alive with exotic species. We moved into our home in the Sonoran desert at the end of April and I started to experience what my new life would be like.

One of the first things to take into consideration is our little dog, Blossom. She is a Japanese chin mix and only weighs about 12 pounds. She is black and white like a Holstein cow with a tail that curls over her back whenever she is happy. Her nose is short like a pug and she has the same bug eyes like a pug. Here in the desert are dangers unknown to us before. We have to protect her from coyotes and rattlesnakes, but being in a fenced yard isn't enough, for eagles can strike from above during the days, and great horned owls would dine on her at night. We always walk her on a leash to keep her from snakes and cactus spines. Plus, when she gets the scent of a lizard, she turns into Blossom the Dragon Slayer! Her tail goes up, her tongue comes out, and off she goes! The lizards are in no danger, however, as they run much faster than she does and disappear into the rocks.

In the house we have two cats; Breezy, a 4 year old fluffy white male with blue eyes, gray ears and a gray tail, and Sweet Bonnie Blue Eyes. She is short haired, a year younger, and the juvenile delinquent of the two. Her favorite pastime is shredding paper. Both of them like to watch birds out the windows.

I am an avid bird lover and have set up feeders in my yard. My yard here is quite small-more like a courtyard than an actual yard. Still, I've managed to plant one velvet mesquite tree and put up my bird bath as well as numerous feeders. Since this is a new development, I thought it would be awhile before the birds showed up, but it didn't take long at all! So far I have had cactus wrens, curved-billed thrashers, Gila woodpeckers, white-winged doves, and canyon towhees along with the usual mourning doves, house finches and house sparrows. Come join me as I discover life in Sycamore Canyon!