Our first Arizona morning as we hopped out of our tents, the Catalina Mountains loomed 7,000 feet above. The North West side of the range that we were nestled up to is heavily decorated with big granite walls and long meandering ridge lines that spread out like an octopus guarding deep mysterious ravines. The morning was very cold, unlike the mid 40s that Tucson was promised, we were 400 feet higher in elevation and it was more like low 20s. The camp ground we were in was in the middle of a cold air sink that drained all night from the high mountains. Hands were cold as I prepared coffee for Michelle which we enjoyed in the tent as we did in the Chihuahua. But we were no longer in the windy desert and we knew that once the sun popped up above the mountain it would be warm. We were now in the Sonoran Desert, the warm desert.
If anyone has spent quality time in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert they know that it’s not just the warm winters, or the endless panorama of mountain landscapes or the stellar sunsets that make it so alluring, granted, those are big selling points, but one of the most interesting details lie with the crazy flora and fauna. The biggest and coolest is the Saguaro. You’ve seen Saguaros in cartoons or in pop culture featured typically in Monument Valley landscapes (which is in the Great Basin Desert and not where they actually exist). Usually they are portrayed with only a few Saguaros standing around with a couple of arms sticking up. They’re not like that though, they are much crazier and a lot of the time bigger with anywhere from no arms to lots of arms sticking out in every which way. Unlike a tree they seem to have drastically different characters from one another. Actually all cactus are a bit like that. The Sonoran Desert has a literal forest of different types of cactus. Prickly Pear are everywhere of course but then there are Barrel Cactus, Hedge Hog Cactus, Organ Pipe Cactus and then Cholla.
Cholla (pronounced choy-a) and what Ila calls “Cholla O-boya” after a few unfortunate run-ins, are constructed with a main trunk that comes up out of the ground and then branches out; each individual subspecies takes on a different way of branching out to survive in the extreme heat and lack of water. There are the Chollas that look like a tinker toy project gone crazy, such as the Staghorn and the Buckhorn Cholla, there are the Cholla that resemble the structure of trees a little bit more such as Chain Fruit Cholla, then there’s the skinny links and sparse needles of the Pencil Cholla, the Teddy Bear Cholla with so many needles it looks soft and fuzzy. But the craziest Cholla of all is the Jumping Cholla. Jacob, Elias and Ila decided to test the rumor that the links actually jump off of the main body. At one point in camp I heard Jacob yell, “Dad help.” And there they were, all three of them looking dumbfounded with Cholla links stuck all over them after an unfortunate soccer ball rescue. It was almost funny but pulling it out of Ila’s foot was nasty as they are definitely barbed. They seemed to have learned their lesson as I have not seen anyone get stuck by a cactus again.
The desert is not just choked full of cool variations in Cactus, the plants that have adapted here to cope with the extremes are fascinating. Agaves, Yuccas and Ocotillos are like nothing you see anywhere else. The Yuccas and Agaves are both in the Agave family with the Yuccas usually possessing softer flexible leaves, although they still cut your skin if you don’t watch yourself. Most Yuccas are on the ground but there’s the Soap Tree Yucca which grows tall with it’s sprout of spiky Yucca leaves at the top and a strange single branch coming out of the top. It would look like a palm tree except for the fact it looks nothing like a palm tree. More like a Truffula tree from the Lorax.
The Agave, with its sphere of spikes that protrude from the ground provide the desert visitor with one of the most lethal pointy sharp things out there. Actually, not much isn’t spiked here in the warm desert including many of the trees, and there are quite a few trees. They average 10 to 15 feet tall and they’re spread out usually just enough to remind the visitor that, yes they are in the desert. There is the Cat Claw Acacia with its nasty spikes and the Arizona Mesquite, which makes for some great carving wood and fire wood for that matter. Then there’s Iron Wood, which is illegal to harvest on any scale because it is so coveted for it’s “iron” like wood. You actually need diamond tipped blades to carve it and is suppose to last forever. All of these trees have sharp spikes but my favorite tree of all does not.
The Palo Verde is a beautiful tree. It grows tiny leaves so that it does not have to use water for the costly leaf building process. Instead the branches all the way down through the trunk are a beautiful shiny green. This green is due to a layer of chlorophyll throughout the entire tree. This allows it to photosynthesis without traditional leaves. On these very green trees there are curious bushes of another plant that you see occasionally growing out from its branches called Mistletoe. I don’t know the story of how mistletoe become the fabled kissing plant but I do know that it is planted by a bird’s behind. The Phainopepla, a smallish black perching bird with a crest above it’s head, eats the plant’s fruit. When the bird has to poop the digested seeds cause the birds butt to itch so it lands on the branches of the Palo Verde for a much needed scratch and presto, it plants and fertilizes the seed.
Elias is the ultimate dude for noticing all of the little things the desert is up to. In a home schooling assignment where we asked him to write about and research what he saw in the desert near our camp site, he writes “The Saguaro cactus had holes made by Gila Woodpeckers. Then Elf Owls and Cactus Wrens live in the holes.” His skill has already helped keep him out of trouble in this land of prickly things. One night as he was going to bed he called out to me nonchalantly and said “um dad, there’s a scorpion on my shoe and it’s now crawling up the side of the tent. What should I do?” Sure enough there was a scorpion right on the zipper. He was the best of our 3 kids to have spotted it…he did not grab it or freak out (Ila may have grabbed it, Jacob may have freaked out). He and I shooed it away and he was off to sleep. He drew this picture and wrote a story about it to mail to his class in Bellingham.
After a few days of hiking and rock climbing in the Catalinas and at Mt Lemmon as well as taking advantage of the close proximity to Tucson for laundry and the things that are boring to talk about but feel so good when you finally get them done, we picked up camp and moved to another campground next to the Sonoran Desert Museum. Here we could finally sooth our overwhelming curiosities over our new environment. We were met with one of the most fun and enriching learning environments I’ve experienced from any museum. We held pieces of rock from asteroids, watched Harris Hawks duke it out together and hunt for food and learned about the desert around us on a deeper level than we expected. Jacob and Elias learned to identify the difference in skull structure between the Javalina, Coyote and Cougar and what identifies one as a carnivore or omnivore and not as an herbivore. We learned how the world’s lushest desert, with only 10 inches of rain a year has developed so many fascinating plants that are able to make the most out of every drop of water that falls which in turn allows for life to flourish beyond what most deserts would allow.
Here in the Sonoran Desert the wildlife is abundant and especially well, wild. The animals are rambunctious. I know coyotes live everywhere but did you know that they will not attack people? We need to remind ourselves of this when we hear them going crazy every night, all night, crazier than you think they can get. A few nights ago a bunch of them traveled right through our camp. You could hear them on either side of our tent. There are more than just coyotes roaming around. Big cats are at their best in the USA down here in this cactus jungle. Bobcats for sure and Mountain Lions….the lion just may eat you by the way. But the beautiful and shy Occilot lives here as well and the biggest secret of all is the Jaguar who lives in southern Arizona…..they’ll eat you for sure.
Every dusk the desert landscape hands the show over to a heaven full of stars. Brilliant skies. When we “learn” we think of storing information between our ears, here all the input easily and quickly travels down our spines and into our solar plexus allowing the world to be relevant on a more personal level. The mixing of the desert and the stars, learning and living has made every day a constant flow of contextual and experiential learning. What we learn next just may blow our mind all over again. Our neighbor and campground host invited us one night to watch the Universe through one of his powerful telescopes. We saw Orion’s Nebula, the most heavily studied and scrutinized nebula in the sky which is an intense sea of celestial matter making up Orion’s Scabbard just below Orion’s Belt. We saw Jupiter and it’s four moons: Europa, Io, Ganymede and Callisto. We looked at the moon and all of it’s craters for a long time. Even Ila got a peak. We walked back to our tent, all of us quiet and in wonder…
The following day in Saguaro National Park Jacob wrote a Saguaro inspired Haiku as part of his main lesson work:
In Blistering Heat
The Sonoran Sentinel