Review: The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide
Creosote. Ironwood. Jumping cholla. Saguaro. Tarantula. Cactus wren. Phainopepla. Javelina. Mule deer. Bobcat. Gambel’s quail. Coyote. Black-tailed jackrabbit. Gila monster. Just reading the table of contents for The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide, edited by Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos, and I have already entered a poem lush with light, sound, color, scent, and life.
For many people, desert is desert – hot, empty, hot, and prickly – anything but lush. “But wait!” say those who live in the Sonoran Desert. “This desert is different!” The reasons are varied. "Yes, it’s hot – but it’s a dry heat – like a sauna not a steam room." "It is not empty but spacious – the sky surrounds you and the view is unobstructed." "You can breathe. Deep. Long. Just wear a hat and drink lots of water." "We have seasons, too," they’ll say – "hot, less hot, medium hot, humid, and cool. And bursts of storms that you can watch roll across the landscape just hoping they will come your way." These people are known as "Sonoran Desert rats."
I am one of those people. I lived in Tucson, Arizona for six years, and the desert’s rhythms entered my soul through the soles of my feet, my eyes, and my nose. For me, reading this book is like entering a time capsule – the memories come back so intensely that the humid heat, green grass, green trees of my Midwest home disappear out my window and I can see all the way across the continent.
If there is anything that exemplifies The Coordinates Society's vision of the intersection of art, geography, and the human experience, it is this book. The editors have created a new method for entering a landscape and meeting its non-human inhabitants. The 64 pieces in the collection represent a selection from, and an expansion of, the Poetic Inventory of Saguaro National Park. A poetic inventory is a creative accounting of biodiversity, including plants, invertebrates, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. This inventory coincided with the 2011 BioBlitz documenting the biodiversity of the park. Sponsored by the National Park Service and National Geographic Society, the BioBlitz was a 24-hour inventory of the plants, animals, birds, and insects that inhabit the park.
It was American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau who asked so long ago, “What kind of science was this which enriches the understanding but robs the imagination?” in his book Walden. By combining creative responses (poems, short essays, and short stories) with poetically written natural history alongside illustrations from Paul Mirocha, this collection answers Thoreau’s call to connect imagination and intellect. Furthermore, the book allows the reader to experience first hand the power of what the editors call a “biodiversity of thought.” For the editors, this biodiversity is essential to “reimagining how we live in place and among our neighbors of all species.” We need science and, yes, we need art.
I’ve selected excerpts on four species to share in this review. My own memories precede a paragraph about what I learned from the book's natural history section (both in italics), and these are followed by excerpts from the creative pieces.
I learned the creosote plant by its smell. A cross between rain, incense, and a fire pit, it is a smell so unique and so generous with is dispersion that I found myself missing it intensely when I left Tucson. I remember hiking and walking by the plants and casually rubbing some leaves and smelling my fingers – it was refreshing in the sun but came to its full glory after a rain when its scent emanated upwards, offering thanks to the sky on behalf of all the desert.
From the natural history section I learn that the plants can live to at least eleven thousand years old and they survive partly by the fact that their tiny leaves and stems are not good to eat. Their small yellow flowers, however, provide nectar to nearly a hundred types of bees. They are found in sandy, rocky, gravelly plains, slopes, mesas, and arroyos.
Ophelia Zepeda speaks to my heart with the first stanza of her poem. The words in line eight are Tohono O’odham words for creosote. The Tohono people, like Zepeda, are the indigenous inhabitants of the area and today a large part of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona is on their reservation.
Like a story that never ends,
a song stuck in your head.
A rainstorm disturbs the settled words.
They move in a breeze.
A waxy sheen glistens
and creates a passage.
Ṣeṣgei, s-ap u:w
The aroma of the story imbeds itself in
our memory like the pain of a broken heart.
A memory cut fresh by a summer rain.
During my last year in Tucson we lived in a house in the northwest part of the city. The animal life in our yard kept us constantly entertained. The Gambel’s quail were, without a doubt, always good for a smile. We kept a low bucket filled with fresh water at all times under the mesquite tree in our front yard. The morning rush of the quails was like clockwork. They came waddling warily from the scrub, darting their heads around ‘on alert’, which only made the topknot crests on their heads bobble even more. The crests are like those headbands with the springs and the balls on top that sometimes look like eyes or are colored for a holiday. Well, these birds wear a permanent unicorn bobble-head. They have huge families and we would regularly see parents herding anywhere from 9-13 baby bobble heads. Their legs were so tiny it sometimes looked like they were just floating puffballs.
A crisis of epic proportions happened one morning at the watering bucket. One of the babies had gone for a dip, but couldn’t get out of the bucket and up onto the lip. The parents herded the rest of the kids back to the bushes and kept running back to the frantically peeping baby. Knowing that a floating puffball could probably not tread water for long, I dashed out, scooped up the baby and set it away from the bucket – all the while both baby and mamma were peeping and peeping. I ran back inside and waited for them to move off before going back out to place a rock on the bucket so such trauma could never happen again!
In the natural history section I learn that the male’s topknot is larger than a female's and that quails prefer to scurry rather than fly (which they can do) as they are ground feeders and ground nesters. They are found everywhere.
This poem by Geraldine Connolly captures both the spirit of the quail and our secret human desire to see them just fly already.
One by One: Gambel’s Quail
One by one they cross, the quail mother
and her thirteen trembling offspring.
One by one they hustle and scatter
and stop our car in its tracks.
They jump the curb and disappear
among the saguaro, into the thorny wash.
One by one they are eaten by coyote,
or saved, or they step into the Rillito
and sip the ribbon of water, nibble
seeds along the dry wash creed bed.
One by one they parade like squat
drunks with pompadours and crests.
They scuttle and peck, short-sighted,
short-tailed, short-lived. When I look
at them I want them to stop fluttering
like the pages of a windblown book.
I want them to stop quailing,
to step from behind agave shields
and make a high and sudden flight.
Cracks of monsoon thunder
would come from their wingbeats.
They would wear battle dress
with a conquistador brandish,
helmets with plumage lifted,
faces painted with stripes, as
lightening branches crackled and flashed.
Most of the time the only way to reliably see a tortoise in Tucson was to visit the Desert Museum – a zoo housing only species native to the area. They would be in their corrals facing random directions and meditating or, if you were lucky, they might be slowly chewing some food left from feeding time. The only time in all my years in Tucson that I saw a wild tortoise was on a spring day when I had decided to hike east of the city. Driving down a miserable washboard road for miles to the trail-head was dampening my enthusiasm until I saw something moving ahead of me. I slowed and realized it was a tortoise crossing the road – or what they called a road anyway. S/he studied my car for a few moments and then made the slow and steady lumber into the scrub. Such luck renewed my enthusiasm and I bounced on down the road with a smile and a nod of thanks.
I learn they are vegetarian and have no teeth. Their main causes of death are cars and being eaten by mountain lions. “The youngest individuals have been called ‘Oreos of the desert’ for how tasty they are to so many animals, according to ecologist Kevin Bonine” (p. 158). You should also never pick one up. They are able to hold a three-month supply of water in their bladders – picking them up makes them pee – which (a) is gross to get all over you and (b) may cause them to dehydrate and possibly die.
Poet Wendy Burk incorporates the page to help us enter the tortoise life:
sometimes the one still point in the center of the landscape is moving
I am an animal person, but above all I am a cat person. Just knowing there are wild cats like bobcats around me is happiness enough. I’d heard lots of contact stories from friends over the years, but this stealthy magical being eluded me until that last spring of my last year in Tucson. It was my wedding and my mother had come out early to help with all the last-minute panic. We were standing in the kitchen talking and waiting for something to happen out the front window at the watering bucket under the mesquite tree when suddenly this shadow appeared and began moving across the front yard. Our brains were processing as quickly as possible but we could both only manage to get out “is that a… cat?” And, yes, yes it was – a luxuriously tawny cat with ear tufts and no tail! It was taller than our pitbull, but clearly much more svelte than our boxy-headed rhinoceros-boy. “Oh my God!” “It’s a bobcat!” “That’s so cool!” I think these were the things we were saying along with, “Where's a camera?” We ran from the kitchen to the study trying, with one eye, to find a camera and keeping the other on the BOBCAT in my yard. One of us finally found a camera (we can’t even remember who now in the rush) and snapped one photo. We got one photo of the bobcat’s nubby butt slinking into the creosote and cactus. No one was impressed with our butt photo, but we both still love that special memory and we both know how big the cat was and how gracefully s/he strolled to the water, had some sips, and strolled off into the rest of its bobcat day.
From the natural history section I learn that bobcats are the most widespread wildcat in North America and can be found anywhere from the desert to fields, farms, parks, backyards, and forests going up elevation. “Secretive, curious, hard to detect, and mostly nocturnal, the bobcat is usually found via its most common sign: tracks about as wide as a golf ball, featuring four front toes without claw marks splayed above a pad that resembles a squat mound” (p. 127).
Writer Wynne Brown captures perfectly the way most of us encounter these gorgeous creatures in this excerpt from her story.
…As we fall silent, wrapped in the Rincon Mountain vista and memories of shared hikes and backcountry trips, a lanky form with black tufted ear tips and stubby tail emerges from the trash-entangled desert, prickly pears festooned in grocery bags, gravel strewn with old carpet pieces, fast-food cups, a discarded pail. As it ambles across the driveway, some hapless rodent swinging from is jowls, the bobcat doesn’t deign to look our way. It strolls between parked cars, then nestles in among the lantana, its blotches blending in to the building’s drab beige walls – and disappears.
As Paul Mirocha writes in his Illustrator’s Note: “With constant curiosity and careful looking, the world lives inside you, as you live inside the world.” My time in the Sonoran Desert has profoundly shaped my own life, and the pieces in this collection provide much more artistic explanations than I ever could as to why.
Even if you have never been to this part of the United States, this book will make you not only want to go, but it will let you in and challenge you to rethink the desert and, additionally, to look anew at your own nonhuman neighbors in your own spot of the world.