six weeks in the desert: green valley, arizona

by nikki meredith

desert museum landscape

At home above my desk I have posted this poem by Mary Oliver:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

Oliver calls the poem “instructions for living a life” and it’s advice I try implementing every day of the year — every day except for the six weeks between Memorial Day and the 4th of July.   I don’t have to work on it then because I spend that time in the southern part of the Sonoran Desert and paying attention is a matter of survival. If I don’t I might find myself with the fangs of a rattlesnake sunk into my foot, swarmed by Africanized bees, or charged by a Javelina – to name but a few of the perils I have encountered. One night when I wasn’t paying attention my husband and I, after dinner at a local restaurant, took a walk under a full moon and an ink black sky. I was wearing sandals and stepped on a hive of harvester ants.  Man, were they pissed-off! I spent the better part of that night dabbing toothpaste on multiple stings to relieve the pain. (It helped!)

Most people who can, leave the area in June because of  triple digit temperatures — many days it’s 110 and above — but initially I came because of the heat. If you’re looking for a place to write, the conditions are ideal. There is nothing else to do for most of the day but stay planted in front of a computer in an air-conditioned house.  If I’m not on the trail, by 7 a.m., my morning walk feels more like a death march.

Rattle-SnakeI may have come for the heat, but I’ve stayed for so much more and that brings me back to Mary Oliver: every day, this desert astonishes me. Most of the year I live in a redwood forest and as lovely as it is, the dense woods and the canopy hide much of the wildlife. There is no such cover here so it isn’t only the dangers that  alert me to my surroundings.

Every morning a clutch of Gambel’s quail march along my patio wall – a dandy of a dad with his rust-red crown, black face outlined in white accompanied by his dowdy gray-feathered wife (she’s no beauty but he’s loyal…they’re  monogamous) trailed by their chicks — a dozen fluff balls with tiny topknots.  They are sometimes chased by road runners whose comical, head-forward gait belies the efficient predators they are (rattle snakes are no match for them. If you google road runners you will find a photo of more than one with the business end of a pit viper down it’s throat and the rattling end dangling from its mouth.) There’s a band of coyotes who regularly gather out outside my bedroom window, emitting eerie howls at 2 a.m. (I definitely pay attention when I take the dog out to pee at midnight.)

roadrunnerThe dangers may keep me on my toes, but I’m in awe of the beauty.  As I write this I’m looking out at the Santa Rita mountains, part of the sky island range, so called because the mountains jut out of the flat “seas” of desert and grasslands.  My friend Melinda who knows more about this desert than I, tells me that at the mid-range of altitudes of the Sonoran Desert – I’m at about 3,000 feet — the vegetation is the most diverse of any desert in the world.  Best known are the giant Saguaros that grow nowhere else on earth, but the other varieties of cacti are mind blowingly abundant as are the desert flowers. My Audubon Field Guide lists 45 pages of wildflowers.

mountainsThere is something both elemental and exhilarating about the beauty and the perils – I joke that I don’t need to drink coffee when I’m here — and that brings me to Mary Oliver’s decree to tell about it. I tell everyone and anyone who will listen about my wildlife encounters and when I tell my stories, other people tell theirs. The first couple of years I talked about rattle snakes constantly and whenever I brought up the topic in a group of three or more, someone had a story about a friend or acquaintance who had not only been bitten but had suffered the consequences of the bites for years.

When I talked to the local librarian here about rattlesnakes she brought me a book on pit vipers. I learned that there are more varieties of rattlesnakes here than anywhere else in the world and at least one of those varieties only defecates once a year.  Apparently, all that hoarded poop makes excellent ballast, a good anchor when striking.  (The book didn’t explain what the snake uses for ballast in the days and weeks following his one big poop.)

There were the friends who introduced us to their friends who lost their three dogs to an attack of Africanized bees. The coyote stories abound and apparently they aren’t all urban legends. According to a local sheriff, in 2006, in separate incidents over a one month period, eight people in Green Valley were attacked by coyotes when they were sitting on their porches minding their own businesses.

beautiful-bobcatMost of the time I talk about my wildlife encounters my friends reassure me.  They’ve seen it all and survived.  Yes, there are lots of scorpions – this came up recently when I found one crawling on the floor next to my head when I was doing sit-ups – but so far I haven’t found anyone who’s been stung.  Everyone sees rattlesnakes, everyone has bobcat encounters, a few have seen mountain lions on their morning walk – I’ve escaped that particular adventure, though one was seen on the patio of the house I was renting one year but not while I was in it.  I, however, have had one experience no other locals have had: two weeks ago, a little after midnight long-legged ants suddenly swarmed into the house, hundreds poured into the bedroom and living room through cracks under the sliding glass doors looking for I know not what.  (Solution: Windex and a vacuum cleaner.)

I’ve witnessed one miracle: one morning I was sitting on my patio and a bird, I think it was a barn swallow, crashed head first into the sliding glass door and plopped onto the hot bricks. I sat there trying to get up the courage to get the dust pan and broom so I could dispose of the body when another barn swallow landed next to the motionless body and flipped it over with such force that the limp little thing hit the bricks really hard.  The maneuver revived the bird and they both flew off together.  Did his mother teach him bird  CPR?

ocotillo plantThen, after weeks and weeks of triple digit heat, the Monsoon season arrives. There’s a boom, and another and another and the sky opens up. Everything changes. These thunderstorms traveling north from Mexico shift mother nature into high gear. The grassy smell of wet creosote fills the air and I swear you can see the desert lavender grow an inch and the scarlet flowers of the Ocotillo cactus bloom before your eyes.  The monsoon rains soften the ground and that signals the Sonoran toads who spend most of the year entombed in the earth, that it’s time to crawl out of their burrows.  These guys are kind of ugly-cute but they secrete a dangerous poison. If a dog licks one, she’s a goner.

The downpour and the runoff from these storms is so rapid that washes fill up in an instant. Apparently eight inches of depth is strong enough to push an SUV off the road. Every year people in their cars who miscalculate either drown or, if they are rescued, are featured on the evening news and fined under Arizona’s stupid motorist law.

One of the features of monsoon season is a dramatic lightning show every day.  Before I started coming to the desert I loved sitting outside on a porch watching such displays. I always assumed that as long as I wasn’t the tallest thing around, I’d be okay. Not true. Thanks to research I wish I hadn’t done, I now know that lightning can move sideways. Did you know that so many people have been struck by lightning and survived that there are enough to fill a hotel ballroom at their annual convention. When I first heard about these people, I thought it was cause for optimism. But then I learned that one of the reasons they convene is to share information about all of the terrible symptoms they have forever. Their bodies are never the same after being struck.  If you want to scare yourself, look up ball lightning and read accounts of people who were sitting in their houses when a ball of lightning slithered under a door or through a window, rolled down a hall until it reached its victim. Whenever I think of the recipients of ball lightning, I imagine them cozily reading a murder mystery in front of a fire in an Easy Boy recliner, listening to the patter of rain on the roof and believing they were sheltered from the storm.

On my walk yesterday morning I saw a Western Diamondback Rattler “snake” across the trail in front of me and then slither onto a pile of rocks. I froze and yanked the leash so the dog, who was tracking bunny turds, stopped too.  My first thought: “I want my money back.” The dog has been to rattlesnake school. This involved putting a shock collar on her, exposing her to a muzzled rattlesnake and shocking her when she approached the snake. One of the big selling points is that this aversion therapy will not only save the dog, it will save me.  The dog will smell the snake long before I see it and she will, Lassie-like, prevent me from going into harms way.  Yesterday, she didn’t smell it but I paid attention and saved us both.  I’d like to credit Mary Oliver but clearly my gratitude belongs to mother nature who hard-wired my flight-or-fight response. Next time I see the librarian, I must ask her why mother nature forgot to hard-wire the dog.Saguaro_Cactus