Thursday, February 11, 2010


My brother Herby and I flew into Phoenix last Friday. He from Wisconsin, and I from Seattle. They call us “ Snowbirds” there not because of our pallid complexions but because we’re part of a huge flock of Northerners that come by the jet-loads to the Sonoran Desert each winter.
We were actually going to celebrate my sister Peggy’s birthday. Nothing auspicious, just her 61st . We missed her 60th. It’s hard to believe that she’s that old already, she’s so lively and happy and full of energy as always. And still somehow mysteriously blond, though I thought she had brown hair in her youth.
My brother and sister, although they are my siblings, are also my oldest friends. Our rivalous natures have calmed down over the years, and we focus less on what we disagree about and more on what we have in common. One of those things is a walk in the woods. So we took a walk last week in Spur Creek State Park on the edge of Tonto National Forest.
I’ve been coming to the Sonoran Desert regularly for almost 30 years now. As the planet’s wettest desert it receives 3-16 inches of rain a year, which supports nearly 2000 species plants and many animals. Still it is hard to image it as forest, though there are trees, like the yellow palo verde ( Parkinsonia microphylla) and honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa). This forest is really more famous for the emblematic saguaro cactus (Carnegeia gigantea) which towers above everything else. They lend a grandeur to the desert like conifers do to the Northwest forests.

For many years I imagined I’d become a desert denizen like my sister who fled Wisconsin as soon as she had a chance. Why I chose the absolute opposite, the rainy Pacific Northwest I begin to wonder more with age. How quickly all the little aches and pains vanished after a few days in the desert. But the sun does not always shine there either, one day during my visit the skies were absolutely leaden. It made all the plants shine. And a hard rain fell, sweetening the air, bringing flowers into bloom in mere hours. Over my 30 years of visiting the desert I have grown so familiar with this place it is like a home away from home, partly due to my sister’s generous hospitality. And partly due to my insistent curiosity they wants to get to know the desert. I take every chance I can to get out into the desert even if it is just to walk the dog through the washes dissecting the subdivision where my sister and her husband live. Pale faced and blond I feel strangely out of place there, as strange as the agaves and cactus and aloes cluttering our kitchen window sill in the grave cold north. There is a desert inside me like a little twin that never developed and when I go to the desert he lives, but briefly.
I often dream of gardening there, I can’t help but wander my sister’s subdivision re-imagining the gardens. What they can grow! I remember my first visit back in 1980, I was stunned by the palms and orange trees, and bougainvilleas. Now they all seem boring to me like rhododendrons do here. As I got deeper into the native flora I started to develop a love for jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis) and Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). A few years ago Michael and I visited after a very wet winter and were wowed by the desert ephemerals.

But after years of developing an amateur botanist’s appreciation of the intricate and amazing Sonoran flora, I still get floored by the exotics, especially the aloes. On the last day my sister, my brother and I went to the Phoenix Zoo. Zoos make me feel a bit queasy at times. My own claustrophobia gasping for breath at seeing animals in confinement. Certainly zoos are more sensitive than when I was a child and gorillas were behind glass in a tiled cubicle. But I noticed I began focusing on the wild birds that flew in and out of cages robbing the caged animals of their food. I also couldn’t help staring at the aloes, dramatically in bloom far from their African home. It seems less cruel to displace a plant than an animal. That’s what I like about gardening, plants are so willing to please. Though I doubt I’ll ever plant an aloe in my garden here.

With my brother now retired and my sister close to retirement, life seems as fleeting as this desert weekend. Some things like our sibling rivalries are easy to let fly in the winds of time, giving room for our love to grow. As we walked quietly, well not really, through the desert remembering our youth and teasing each other about getting old, my appreciation for our decades long relationship which endured cloudy days and sunny ones became stronger.
He said, "Even the desert will bloom."
I think he was speaking metaphorically, but I believe the desert blooms for those with their hearts open.
I'm working on it.
Happy Valentine's Day.