Art by Carol McCoy Watercolor
Read more about McCoy on the Contributors page
The Sonoran Desert, although one of the wettest deserts in the world, has an incredibly harsh climate. The heat in the summer easily exceeds a hundred degrees most days; in the winter, nighttime temperatures drop below freezing. Despite these extremes, many plants have adapted to thrive in this capricious environment. It’s the only part of the world where saguaro cacti grow in the wild—those amazing spined plants that can shoot straight up at heights of over forty feet. With an underground system as complex as the desert itself, the saguaro cactus has three different kinds of roots. A single taproot plunges a few feet into the ground, staking claim to its space; there are also two sets of radial roots, one thick and one thin. These radial roots go only a few inches deep, spreading horizontally instead of vertically, with the thinner set growing as long as the cactus is tall.
I was born in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. For eighteen years, my own roots stretched across Pima County, grew underneath the Santa Catalina Mountains, and dug into the ground in eastern Tucson.
Heat precedes the sun. The asphalt burns during the day, radiating heat underneath my feet. A rattlesnake lies in wait under the shade of a mesquite tree, conserving energy for his hunt later on. A quail scurries across the road to join her babies in a bush in my front yard.
Then the sun begins to set, with oranges and pinks streaking across the sky; the mountains trap in the heat so that even when the sun is gone, the warmth still lingers. Once night falls, the desert comes alive. The rattlesnake comes out of hiding to begin looking for food. Coyote travel through alleyways, yipping and howling so close they sound like they could be in the backyard. Packs of javelina, the desert’s wild pig, scavenge garbage cans unbeknownst to the rest of the neighbors sleeping soundly in their beds.
These are the details I remember. These are the parts of the desert that live in me.
In the desert, water feels like a gift.
The one time of year the Sonoran Desert is guaranteed to get rain is during monsoon season, a period that is considered a minor season along with spring and fall. From July until September, we wait as the humidity rises in the air until late afternoon. Dark, gray clouds quickly roll in, charging the sky like wild horses on stampede. Thick and swollen, they burst, tearing through the Southwest. Lightning shoots across the sky, illuminating the vast expanse of the Old Pueblo. Thunder follows, ricocheting off the Catalina Mountains to the north and Rincons to the east. Heavy rains last an hour, maybe more, and then, as though it were all just a dream, the clouds are gone. The air afterward has such a lightness to it, that cathartic feeling one has after a good cry, as though the sky is relieved of its burden.
Animals and plants alike are thankful for the water. The special hairs on the roots of a saguaro can help the cactus collect up to 200 gallons during a single rainfall. An adult saguaro can weigh upwards of six tons with all that water weight. Supported by a skeletal system of woody ribs, the plant breathes in water like we breathe in oxygen, its ribcage expanding slowly as its roots drink from the ground, filling its veins with life.
Even though the rains are necessary for the survival of life, something so powerful can be dangerous. Washes and alleyways will flood, the ground unable to soak up all the water inundating the earth. Thinking they are masters over nature, people will try to drive through these rains, only to be stranded while the rushing water rises to carry them away.
In the beginning of 1990, my mother was going to leave my father, but then she learned she was pregnant. A New Year’s surprise. She decided to marry my father in early February at the courthouse. The last thing she remembers of her wedding day is the taste of alcohol on my father’s breath.
That year was one of the wettest monsoon seasons on record, but it didn’t rain at all the week that I was born. Despite heavy rains early in the summer, the monsoons seem to have tapered off by that afternoon in late August when my mother finally went into labor almost two weeks late. My brother would be born just over four years later after a devastating drought. The cycles of the desert are swift and severe.
I wonder how my mother, a newlywed, felt looking out of her hospital window, holding me in her arms, seeing sunshine. Was she thinking most of the storms had passed?
The house where I grew up didn’t have any saguaro cactus, but our neighbors had one in their yard. It was only a few feet tall, but saguaros are slow-growing plants; it was probably already between thirty and forty years old.
The rest of our neighborhood looked slightly out of place. The old couple that lived across the street from us had two palm trees in their yard. Our house had pine trees: two out front and one in the backyard. No matter what time of year, pine needles fell and covered the ground. My mother would spend hours on the weekends raking up the needles, filling endless trash bags trying to keep the yard neat and clean. But there was no stopping them.
The house also had flowerbeds: one in the walkway leading up to the front door, and some in the backyard lining the concrete wall around our property. Another one of my mother’s ongoing projects for the house was to keep these flowerbeds filled with plants. I don’t remember what kinds of flowers she would get, but I loved their vibrant colors, the blues and yellows, the oranges and purples. I would gently finger their silky petals before she planted them, aware of how delicate they were. Each time, I would be hopeful they would last more than a season, more than a few weeks. But the flowers always needed more than my mother could give: more time, more water, more nutrients. They would shrivel and die, and my mother would put on her gardening gloves and rip their fragile roots from the soil.
The saguaro produces flowers. They grow near the top of the cactus, as well as at the ends of its arms. Saguaros will not flower until they reach eight feet tall, when they are fully mature.
The blossom itself, the state flower of Arizona, has waxy-white pointed petals with a ring of yellow in the middle. The flower opens sometime during the night between May and June, and will only bloom for a short time. When the sun has set again the next day, the flower will be gone.
My parents fought just in the early hours of the morning, when only the coyote and javelina should have been awake. I could hear their arguments from my bedroom. I awoke to the sound of doors slamming as the sun began to rise on my father’s empty promises to stop drinking.
The storm eroded a marriage for eleven years. In the summer of 2001, my father would leave our house that no longer felt like a home. But until then, his voice rumbled through every room as my mother’s pleas flooded the hallways.
The year my father moved out, Tucson would have the tenth driest monsoon season on record. The flowers in the yard died. Meanwhile, the saguaro would carry on, storing its water in preparation.
Arizona law prohibits the destruction of the saguaro in any way, and special permits must be obtained to move or destroy any saguaro cactus when constructing highways and roadways.
Transplanting a saguaro can be a tricky business. The taller the cactus, the harder it is for the saguaro to re-establish its roots. The younger the cactus, the greater the chances are for survival.
Now my father spends his summers away from the desert, away from the monsoons. He passes his time out in the wilderness of Montana and Idaho, surrounded by forests and nothingness. He wakes up by the sun, not an alarm clock.
My father spends his day cooking in a tent, on his feet for hours at a time. He caters to firefighters, trying to serve those who serve our country. He cooks breakfast, eggs in bulk, seasoned potatoes, and pounds of bacon. As soon as one meal’s over, it’s on to the next. It’s like this for twelve hours a day, sometimes fifteen.
Though physically exhausting, this is what he looks forward to eight months out of the year, this season where he can escape. When he’s out there, he no longer needs a beer at the end of the day; his satisfaction in his job, in himself, is enough. How he must dread the sight of the saguaro when he comes back, knowing it’s all he’ll see until the next fire season. If only there were a way he could leave permanently, completely uproot and never look back.
I have not seen a saguaro cactus in months. I left Arizona six years ago, left to surround myself with giant redwoods, with thick trunks that shoot up hundreds of feet in the air. I do not get my fill of rain in the summer, but in the cold winter months, if I’m lucky, in a place where thunder and lightning are rarities.
Instead of javelina and coyote, these days I see deer and cows roaming the rolling hills of the East Bay. The Pacific Ocean is less than twenty miles away, the occasional sound of seagulls overhead in my neighborhood indicating the water’s presence. There are days when I see a pale sunset and miss the vibrant colors exclusive to the desert. But then I remember the desert is more than just a sunset, that it is more than the plants and animals that live there. The saguaro is lucky that it does not have memories.
The trees that used to be in front of my childhood home are now gone. The people who live there remodeled the outside to look more like a desert home, a house that belongs. They repainted the exterior a tan color, filled the yard with landscaping rock to match.
The pine trees have vanished, not even a stump or trace of roots remain. In their place, mesquite trees and other desert plants populate the yard. My mother’s flowers are gone.
I think about those flowers, and I think, maybe it wasn’t their fault that they didn’t survive. Maybe the desert just wasn’t where they belonged.
Krista Varela received her MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California, where she is now a lecturer. Varela is a contributing editor for The East Bay Review and occasionally writes for Booma: The Bookmapping Project. She was awarded first place in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal’s A Midsummer Tale narrative contest (2014).