Thursday, October 21, 2010

Autumn at last, celebrating the desert

Seasons aren't quite the same in the desert as in other places - some of you will snicker at that understatement.  But it does finally feel like our version of autumn; in fact, I actually wore a sweater to work yesterday! It was a cardigan, and I took it off fairly soon after arriving, but still - a sweater!  And since today's predicted high is only 70 degrees, I'm going to do it again!
The last couple of months have been very hard on the garden and yard and now we're playing catch-up, trying to get things looking respectable again.  A few crops thrive in the heat, so we took most everything out except those - okra, chiles, and eggplant.  This year I planted a packet of mixed eggplant seeds from the Cook's Garden; certainly those on the dish earn the name of eggplant.  These white ones, and some of the long pale lavender Asian-type, were the best of the lot, lovely to look at, not too seedy, very tasty.  But I won't do that again.  The most prolific were a bush of round mottled green ones just bigger than a ping pong ball, lovely to look at but very seedy, though the flavor was okay.  I've had the best luck in the past with good old Black Beauty and Ichiban, and I think I'll stick with those and maybe one new variety next year.  And I'm going back to burgundy okra, which have always produced well and are gorgeous to look at.  Joe turned his nose up at okra when I first planted it years ago but was seduced by the beauty of the plant and has learned to like its fruit, though he likes it best breaded and fried, which is my least favorite way to fix it.

As I spread bags of manure on the gardens and turned them over I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the soil; it's come a long way from the dead, packed clay of ten years ago.  Our house was built in 1984, in a development that was scraped and denuded of all life to make it easy for the builders, and most of our neighbors yards are still pretty barren.  I don't blame them.  It takes a lot of effort to coax life out of soil that's been so brutalized.  There's only one small front lawn in the neighborhood and the front yards are generally landscaped in desert or desert-adapted plants, including ours.

When we first drove into Tucson, during rush hour on June 4, 1992, at 104 degrees (we'd come from Humboldt County in northern California, where it might reach the 70s on an especially warm day) I felt like crying. We had all our worldly possessions in a 22-foot Ryder rental truck, towing our car behind it, and had given up our apartment and our lives back in California so I could go to grad school at the University of Arizona - I had a teaching assistantship and we had enough money for the summer - and all I wanted to do was turn around and go home, back to where it was green and wet and cloudy most days and the wild blackberries threatened to engulf everything else, including roads and buildings.  But we stayed and soon learned to appreciate the beauty and variety of the desert.

Many people think the desert is brown and lifeless, but that's not true.  There are so many shades and shapes of green, you would quickly get tired trying to list them all, not to mention the flowers, like those buds ready to burst into bloom on the barrel cactus above.  The blue agave with its sharp, serrated, sword-like blades thrives in the thin soil and blazing heat.  We now have a mini-tequila plantation on one side of our driveway, at least half a dozen blue agaves, all offspring of one plant given to us by a friend about six years ago (and we've given away many more).

Here's an up close and personal look at a saguaro. Those spines are 1 1/2 to 2 inches long, and this particular plant, in a neighbor's front yard, is about 15 feet tall, truly majestic, but not at all unusual.  According to the mythology of the Tohono O'odham people of the area the saguaros are or were people, and it's easy to see how that belief developed, especially the way they often grow together in pairs or groups, sometimes with their arms intertwined like friends or lovers.
And we have many different trees, like this palo verde with its green bark - there must be over a dozen varieties of palo verde alone - fast growing with tiny leaves so as not to lose too much moisture to evaporation.

Just look at that intense blue sky behind the ocotillo.  In spring those ten-foot ocotillo branches will be tipped with blazing scarlet flowers.

I had a friend whose grandmother married a miner and moved to the Nevada desert.  She told Sally that if you lived in the desert long enough to wear out a pair of shoes, you'd never want to live anywhere else.  I've worn out a few pairs of shoes in the last eighteen years, and especially at this time of year, having once again survived the summer, as plants and animals (including us) are rejuvenated by the turning of the seasons, I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be.


  1. Thanks for your lovely reflections. I felt like I was back there, sitting in your kitchen and enjoying the warmth of our friendship! I love your pictures!!

  2. Thank you, Karen. I hope you make it out this way again soon - I so enjoyed our last visit!