Learning to Be a Desert


Growing up, I felt most at home in the desert. In our neighborhood in the foothills of Tucson, there were undeveloped tracts of Sonoran Desert around each house. I viewed all that land as my backyard and became as familiar with its thorny inhabitants as I was familiar with my bookshelves. There was the hook-headed saguaro by our garage, across the street, the Christmas cactus whose skeletal fingers bore red berries, the barrel cactuses with fruit like miniaturized pineapples, and the teddy bear cholla in our lot, whose needle-sharp pelt looked inviting only from far away.

Do all children grow up learning nature can kill you? In school, we learned survival skills. Everyone knows you can die of thirst in a desert (pro tip: split open a cactus and eat its flesh for moisture) but did you realize that the biggest danger is hypothermia at night? Turn a garbage bag into a DIY poncho, they told us, and carry a whistle.

I’d find scorpions in my bedroom, tarantulas in an enclosed porch. Rattlesnakes drifted past our sliding glass doors. Once, walking home from school, my friend and I spooked a horny toad. We ran, assuming it was poisonous, since practically everything else was.

I was scared of everything as a child—bees, roller-coasters, heights—but oddly enough, the desert did not frighten me. I felt respect for its deadliness, but I did not avoid its territory. Case in point: I liked sticking my fingers between the rows of needles on a saguaro or prickly pear. If you were steady, you could run a finger along the smooth olive-green flesh without ever getting poked, its skin smooth as a pear.

This harsh place accepted my play like a sharp-tongued grandmother teaches a beloved child to knit. I loved it, and the love was deeper because other people did not value its spare beauty. In the children’s books I read, everything took place in forest or prairie, surrounded by robins-song. No one painted pictures of cardinals perched atop ocotillo, or roadrunners dashing across the asphalt like earth-bound comets. No one described the creosote smell of desert rain.

In cartoons, a “desert” was just a strip of brown sand under an unrelenting sun. The cartoons lied; the desert was anything but boring.

We moved away to San Diego when I was thirteen. After a brief flush of awe for its tropical beauty, I began to feel disdain. Its plants were flashy but knew no stories except the latest remodel project—hawthorns and palm trees, hibiscus and grass lawns, plants that belonged everywhere and nowhere.

I knew from a class assignment that San Diego is drier than Tucson. So why did my new city pretend otherwise? The native plants of Arizona and SoCal are kissing cousins: mesquite, buckwheat, sage, yucca—but no one I knew planted them.

I wondered why this city tried to be something it was not. What was wrong with dryness?

Much later, I realized that I, too, pretended to be lusher than I actually was. In faith, in family, in my cheerful disposition, I tried to have the endlessly sunny days of a desert and the green foliage of a wetland. I did not want to answer thorny questions or question poisonous dynamics. I did not want to name my anger or dig deep enough to touch tap roots. I did not want to work so hard to stay alive.

I made a life that needed irrigation—water shipped from worlds away just to put up blooms.

When I finally acknowledged the arid temperature of my life, when I grew a few thorns and did not give up moisture so easily, the hot sun turned from scourge to friend.

Desert territory forces hard choices. I wonder: what if we all admitted what territory we live in? Not just physically, in desert, or grassland, or the nightless summer of the Arctic, but the territory of our history, of the simmering dynamics of blood-feud and race, of oppression and genocide, of misogyny and abuseand dreams deferred?

What if instead of trying to force our fertile dreams onto a foreign landscape, we submitted them to the ruthless, loving constraints of reality? What if we took stock and adjusted our way of inhabiting the world?

What if, instead of an ethic of extreme makeover, we let the earth teach us where we are?