Walking on sand. What do you want to see here? You want to see a road runner. Javelina. A saguaro in bloom. Coyote. But the desert is full of rumors. Rumors and cartoons—neither of which is thirst-quenching. The reality is your feet ache. The sand presses too hard on the arch. It isn’t just the heat or the dry air that want you out of here. Even the sand tries to convince you to go home. But you step on. It’s morning. It should be cool but you can still feel the heat of yesterday still permeating from the ground. Looking down, you hope sand is at least interesting. Specks of blue and green and red. Once upon a time there was a mountain here that fell down under the hammer of the sun. Or, once upon a time, there was an ocean here piling up crystal gifts, blue and green and red and then abandoning. The water ran off with the clouds and left nothing but the lonely sun which is already stitching up your back. You wonder if you put enough sunscreen on. You wonder if there is enough sunscreen in the world.
There are saguaros here. Chollas too. Foreign cactus. Prickly pear, which you are familiar with, thanks to T.S. Eliot, thanks to Southern Utah, thanks to regular cactus that are paddles and close to the ground and act like plants, not trees. Saguaros in cartoons always have hats on them. One of their arms is always waving. Saguaros should not read human. They should be their own thing. You try to approach one, to see its ownness. Seams underpin thorns. There could be a person in there, hiding out from the sun, waiting to pop out and harass the coyote or the road runner. They look meaty. An investment of water and time. Saguaros can live up to 150 years. It can take 75 years to grow a side arm. They are native nowhere except to Arizona and Sonora, Baja California and a tiny part of US California. Other states that boast them are pretenders, their Saguros as contrived as a blue bird that says beep beep and a coyote that tumbles over canyon cliffs and lives to chase that blue bird one more time.
The road to the desert from Flagstaff is a steep one with changes in scenery as severe as the changes in temperature. In a few more miles, I know that if I look to my right, on a little hill in the median between the lanes of I-17 going up and the ones going down, the first saguaro asserts itself. My husband Erik tells our daughter Zoe saguaros look like people, but I hate to reduce them to Road Runner cartoons and Taco Time advertisements. Still, the saguaro does look like he’s the ambassador of the Sonora. These taller-than-human cacti are alien. I could use an invitation to plunge further into the valley. My friend Samantha calls it the Valley of the Shadow of Death, except no one makes a shadow. There is no shade.
Past that first saguaro, what had been occasional outpostings of ranches or occasional groupings of houses that could be compounds—militant, polygamist, communes—places where no infrastructure invited them, where septic tanks and generators dominate, become instead finger-reaches of settlements, growing from the palm of Phoenix’s hand. Ex-urbs that were on their way to becoming suburbs until the recession hit. Now, cul-de-sacs, complete with gutters and sidewalks, await developers to build houses there. Or worse, houses on cul-de-sacs, with roads and gutters and sidewalks awaiting people who are never coming to buy them. It’s a ghost town with no ghosts because there were never any humans to haunt them.
And yet, in Phoenix’s East Valley, on the other side from where I’m coming down, on the side that I’m hoping to get to without traffic jam or car accident on my way to visit in Tucson, they’re still building. I’m coming to look for burrowing owls anyway.
“They used to be along every canal bank and vacant lot in Chandler, Gilbert and Queen Creek,” said Randy Babb, a biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “Of course, now you can’t find a vacant lot or canal in those areas. All of those habitats are gone. … I don’t think we have the fear that they will disappear, but like other animals, they’ve suffered in the face of land abuse.”
Burrowing owls burrow here. Native to this part of the desert, they’ve survived drought and heat and dust storm. They’re not surviving development. Even though there are empty subdivisions all over Phoenix, the hope that this new construction, in this part of town, will lure the buyers over. If the owls love it there, won’t the people? Although burrowing owls are protected by federal law, they’re not endangered in Arizona. Developers say that they call in wildlife control to move them before they bulldoze, but they see so many of them—it must be hard to take their protected-status seriously. But of course they see so many of them. Where they’re bulldozing is the last place they live.
Queen Creek spokesman Marnie Schubert said the town’s street and public-works crews have not had construction delays due to owl sightings. “We have had staff run into them while doing general work on washes or roadways,” Schubert said. “When that happens, we’ll have some experts come out and remove them. There has been little impact.”
I don’t think I can believe her. The impact statements always come from people who like to smooth things over. Where bumps in the roads and owls in the burrows can’t be felt by steamrolling impact-statement machines.
I don’t know what I’m looking for when I look for owls. In the forest, where I believe that the owls I would see live in trees, I know to look for owl pellets, the bones and hair of disgorged mice. But burrowing owls, do they keep their disgorgement in their burrows? Do they fly up, out of the ground?
Microblast: A small nucleated red blood cell.
Where I live, miles upon square miles of forest surround me. If I took a wrong turn on a forest path, I could end up wandering into Walnut Canyon, beyond where the Sinagua Indians lived, into the depths where only wild bears roam. A bear could maul me, leave me to bleed to death. No one would hear a sound.
Except for this: From where I sit, I am at the edge of some funnel into which the city of 60,000 speaks loudly to me. I can hear the crane chipping into the forest some five miles away. At night, I hear the train. The air spins the horn up this hill, pours the blast into my ear.
I get mad at the train and crane. I would like to maintain the myth of idyllic mountain village. But when I hear the squirrels upon my roof, I get up, go outside to yell at them. When I realize it is just big, fat rain drops scampering across my asphalt tiles, I yell at them anyway. Standing there, banana in hand, brought to me by train and crane, I look at the cloudburst and wonder what part of no water did the Spanish have in mind when they named the Sinagua that. I reach out to catch a single drop. The drop roams across my hand, magnifying veins. There is so much liquid. Meanwhile, the gutters amplify sound and me and my banana are at the top of the world. No one can get lost from here.
I’m not even sure I believe in these owls, since they’re said to live near “Queen Creek.” The only streaming water I’ve seen in Phoenix is the water put on display, canaled and championed by the Army Corps of Engineers who are so proud of their ability to make a 4 million-person city in the middle of the desert that they don’t even bury their Colorado River and Salt River re-directions out of the way of the sun’s evaporating rays.
But apparently the creek and owl both exist. They are amusing to watch, more than anything,” Fox said. “We’ve heard stories of people walking their dog, the dog gets a little too close to the burrow, and the owl will fly down and smack it on the head.”
These tiny owls, only ten inches tall, and even though they live below ground, lord over the landscape. When they’re not nesting underground, they perch on fence posts, eyeing the landscape with the same sense of ownership as a gigantic barn owl.
These owls are good for Sonora. They eat prickly pear and cholla cactus fruit, a behavior unique to burrowing owls. They also control the population of geckos and field mice. They line their burrows and make nests from mammal dung. According to Arizona Highways magazine writer Jodi Cisman, “Researchers believe the dung helps control the microclimate of the burrow and might even attract insects for the owls to feed on.” Not even waste goes to waste in the owl world. Burrowed in for the day, full on gecko and mice meat, thanks to mammal dung, the owl is cool even on this hundred-degree day. The Sonora suits her, or rather, she has become suited to the Sonora. She thanks the people for the cows they brought—that mammal dung is the best insulator.
But, she can’t thank the people for everything.
Of course, to not bulldoze over their burrows, you have to see the owls first. Here’s something even I know about owls. They’re nocturnal. So, in the morning, when the coffee’s mounted on the dash of your Caterpillar D-9 you can sit back in the fully thick-cushioned seat, look out through the wide panoramic window, crank the air-conditioning, tilt the blade forward and down into the reflection of the morning sun. Can you see any owls with that much sun in your eyes? The owls are asleep. Everything’s electronic nowadays on the Cat D9 anyway, even the ripper control. The tractor practically drives itself. Your job? To not spill the coffee and to make sure the ground is smooth, devoid of ridges and lifts, burrows and sinkholes. If the burrows become tombs, how is the bulldozer to know? Even if owls made noise, how could he hear them what with the comfortable operation stylings that include Standard isolation-mounted cab reduces noise and vibration. The cab is pre-wired for a 12-volt or 24-volt entertainment radio, equipped with two speakers, an antenna and a radio mount recessed in the headliner which is also pre-wired for a 12-volt communications radio. Breaker. Breaker.
We humans don’t live in Tucson like the burrowing owl lives in Tucson. We don’t make our homes underground. Most of the time, the houses look a lot like houses in the suburbs of Michigan, Indiana, California, Colorado. Two storied, many-windowed, carpeted houses built tall to reach the sun. Dark, asphalt shingles, bent and layered, praying to the sun to set in deep.
There are some adobe houses in Tucson. Houses built close to the ground, sand-colored and sun-resistant. But, for the most part, traditional ranch houses dominate the scene. Michiganders, coming from their cold and treed climate, need something to be familiar. We are used to stairways and gabled roofs. We are familiar with the thermostat. In Michigan, we turned it up to seventy on the minus fourteen degree days in the January. What is the difference in turning it down to seventy when it’s a hundred and fourteen degrees in July?
It is hard not to take the change in weather personally. It was so warm yesterday. Fully 70 degrees. Today, it won’t top forty-five. But it’s the wind that is trying to get me. I can put my hands in my pockets, zip up my jacket. But there is nothing I can do for my naked face. It confronts the wind. Or does the wind confront it. Either way, the face loses.
I want to tuck away into November—stay inside, always. I want to curl up against the warm bed on my back, lie my head on a flat pillow. I want to inhale and exhale without complaint. I want to feel ensconced as that orange cat that breathed all night—first deeply than more shallowly like he was emerging from some cold ocean making his way to shore. When he finally reached sand, the breath dried up. As did the cold. Nothing was moving that morning in November, not breath, not wind, not even the planet turned away from the sun. In the gap between breath and daylight, there was yellow—a crack in a leaf on an aspen that paused before falling off its sticky branch and into the mean naked wind.
In the Sonoran desert, there are houses above ground with pipes running to them from wastewater treatment plants where the water from the Salt River and the Verde River and the Colorado River and the aquifer are pumped and diverted and aerated and made as clean, even cleaner, as the Michigan water the one-time Michiganders are used to.
But should that water stop running, and at this rate it will, perhaps we can take a lesson from the owl. Dig deep under the desert sand to avoid the desert sun. Make a pact with the cactus and the prickly pear and learn to learn how delicious they are. If they don’t prick us, we promise to scatter their seed. Find a good recipe for gecko and mouse. And learn the insulating powers of cow dung. I saw a cow wandering through the empty neighborhoods one day, gnawing on dried stalk of landscaping. Even if the rivers stop running and the aquifer dries, the cows will still produce.
Cows are like humans—they create their own ecology. When it rains in the desert—which it does, sometimes more than you can imagine, monsoon, tropical-like rains that explain flowering cacti and buffalo grasses, cows still march up and down the sagebrush covered hills, tucking their noses under plants, trying to extract some calorie from the stubs of the gray-green plant. Their hooves dig deep ruts into the once-sand-now-mud. An hour later, the clouds move on, the sun comes out to bake the hoof-prints into place. If it rains again, the cows return and drink rainwater out of their hoof-made cups etched in the once-mud-now-glazed-pottery.
I look at the ground instead of in the trees for owls. I see cowpies as far as the eye can reach. But out of the cowpie, I see a flutter. Something unburrows. It is day time but whatever this fluttering creature is, its impact is as hard as ground.