Friday, May 27, 2011

Desert Oasis

Moving to Tucson from the north coast of California entailed both culture shock and climate shock. On June 4, 1992, shortly after 5 p.m. we turned off the interstate onto Speedway Boulevard, which Life magazine some years earlier had called the ugliest street in America. It was rush hour and 104 degrees. I didn't know then about Life's assessment of Speedway, but what I saw was so alien to me, after years of cool weather, listening to the sound of surf from my bedroom window, and seeing green wherever I looked, that I felt like bursting into tears and begging Joe to turn around and head home. Now Tucson is home and I love it, but as we are once more dropped into the blazing mouth of summer, we look for places where we can comfortably be outdoors, rather than staying huddled inside with the air conditioner cranked up.
One such place, which has been there many years but which we recently visited for the first time, is the Sweetwater Wetlands, on the northwest side of Tucson, just off I-10, past Aufmuth Motors, and nestled up against the Carpenters Union training facility. It's an amazing wildlife preserve designed in partnership with the wastewater treatment facility, much like the Arcata Marsh outside our old hometown, Arcata, California, in northern Humboldt County, which served as inspiration for its development. Both the north coast of California and southern Arizona are on important flyways (and are major destinations for birders), and so both these preserves are well-populated with wildlife.
These ducks were the first wild creatures we saw, just a few feet from the parking lot. A little further up the path we met a woman who'd just seen a bobcat, but then a tree-trimming crew drove up and they must have scared it off.  We see bobcats occasionally on our morning walks in the neighborhood, along with other wild creatures like javelina and coyotes, but it's a thrill I never tire of.

Scenes like this one are common in more temperate areas like the north coast or west-central Idaho, where I grew up. Back then I took tules and cattails for granted, though we didn't have pink-flowered tamarisks, a lovely but unwelcome and invasive non-native here. I also took for granted yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds, both of which can be found at Sweetwater. We didn't see any yellow-headed blackbirds - it must be too late to catch them in their spring migration - but red-wings abounded, even if they didn't want to sit still long enough for me to take their pictures. At least this fellow was temporarily cooperative!

Sweetwater seems smaller than the Arcata Marsh, but it hasn't been around as long, and perhaps it will expand, if developers don't snatch up all the surrounding land first. Some of the paths are paved but even those that aren't are smooth and flat enough to make them accessible to some people who might find many trails too challenging. Benches appear frequently, and as birders know, if you stop a while and sit quietly you're likely to see things you'd miss if you just kept pushing ahead.  The viewing platform below, extending out into one of the ponds, lets you get up close and personal with the frogs and toads.

I only wish there was some way to photograph the sounds the creatures who live here make, so as to share them. The amphibian voices vary in depth but all share a rich, wet, fleshy resonance, in counterpoint to the higher, sharper songs and speech of the birds, so that all together they create a piercingly lovely natural cantata. Of course there are CDs of nature sounds - I like to put one on when I have trouble getting to sleep - but nothing can duplicate the magic of being there, wherever "there" is.
When I was a graduate student teaching composition, one of my advisors observed that the art of writing is the art of paying attention, and I agree. I've also noticed that many people can only see what they expect to see. For example, if the car keys are on the table but two feet away from where their owner expects them to be, sometimes they might as well be in another room! In nature, I think it's especially important to approach our surroundings without expectations, to be childlike and open to wonder, so that we can see what is there, like the duck in the picture above, scooting through the water with his bill slightly open, sucking up not just water, but bugs and algae and whatever other nutritious goodies float in this pond.

For my part, I've been paying particularly close attention to reflections the past few years, perhaps because, living in the desert, I like to be mindful of all facets of the experience when I'm near water. After all, water makes up most of what we are, so it's hardly surprising that our bodies and spirits are drawn to it. And reflection is such a lovely, multi-faceted word. The surface of the water reflects the plants and topography around it, the birds who fly over it, the animals who come to drink from it; the mirror reflects back to us who we are, at least on the surface; and what we say and write reflects who we are beneath the surface. Within the privacy of our own minds and spirits, we can reflect upon our experiences, our place in the world, our relation to and inter-relatedness with the rest of that world.
Since we spend so much time indoors, it's especially important to be outside when we can, appreciating and reflecting upon the things we did not create, that continue to exist without us (or in spite of us), that were here before we arrived and will be here long after we are gone. That frog in the pond with his rich baritone voice is, I imagine, just as important to the world as any one of us, and since his life is less cluttered with complications of his own making, he may enjoy it more. I find that perspective comforting and liberating, since it helps me take myself and my (mostly self-made) problems less seriously. Mary Hunter Austin expressed this idea well in The Land of Little Rain (1903):

Wheeling to their stations in the sky, [the stars] 
make the poor world-fret of no account. 
Of no account you who lie out there watching, 
nor the lean coyote that stands off in the scrub from you 
and howls and howls.

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