Tag Archives: Tucson

Tucson Monsoon Summer

Giant flying beetles have filled the world, each a buzzing bulk of iridescent green. Airborne in a blind flying pattern that ends only when they crash into something. Cling to it. Launch again. I swept our porch clear of its beetle apocalypse of shining carapaces, many already strangely fallen to pieces.

With the storms came a vain hope it might cool down enough to sit outside, you see.

I have seen these beetles before but never seen them in numbers like this.



A single dark smudge caught in buzzing flight just over the mesquite tree, others concealed in their lazy circling of it, perhaps because contact with its feathered leaves does not stun them:


They are fig beetles (cotinus mutabilis).

I love that beetles have their cycles, and the cycle of each species stretches through seasons but also years, connected to rains and temperature and deeper rhythms that most humans remain utterly ignorant of. I remember the year that tiny black clicking beetles filled the world, thousands of them, they got into everything. Just one year when I was little, and we never again saw such waves of tiny black clicking beetles. Still, we kept finding their exoskeletons for many years after. They sat in drawers, boxes and mum’s big chest, perfectly preserved. We pulled lengths of material from it and they would tumble out of the folds, a reminder of the uncomfortable time when they surrounded us, got into our hair and the folds of the couch and clustered in drifts along every edge and in every corner, and died and died and died.

Then there are the cicadas, their steady drone the accompaniment for some of my happiest times. I cannot hear them at my mum’s, but at Julie’s though, at Julie’s I can. At Julie’s it feels like I am in the desert more than that I am in the city, and I love that feeling.

I am house-sitting, taking care of chickens…look where they lay their eggs:


to be retrieved perilously using a rake


The ladies themselves, lovely Ameraucanas…



And the bantam! I only saw her once, but she’s so lovely:


Somehow she has remained invisible for a week in this small yard, not joining the others in their roosting or feasts on cracked corn and mealy worms, until she appeared without warning this morning with a series of small, impetuous clucks.

It has been beautiful since I arrived, monsoon season of stormy skies


Five days now of much needed rain, rumblings, lightenings, and rainbows


And the cat enjoying the cool shade beneath the palms


Finally a cat to play with, and Meli is the cutest thing ever…


All of us are feeling the heat, the unusual humidity, and helping Dan move today was no joke at all. But I did not see a single poisonous spider.

It is pouring now, another wave of fierce and pounding rain. Life fragrance. Happiness.








City Life, Tucson

Take this for a vernacular of place, of the relationship between land and city, the place of human beings in the desert, the ways we destroy what is mighty and beautiful, the temporary picturesque, the static mobility of urban dwellers, the many shades of brown, our curious mailboxes, and please god let it rain.

All in one.




Coming to America

The forces of nature were at work as I traveled. I’ve been reading so much about our relationship with nature, whether we are part of it or a devastating destructive force somehow outside of it. We flew into Chicago and I stared down. The city didn’t seem real. Didn’t seem within our powers to build, to transform the earth so. To leave such a mark.

How wondrous and terrible to be so high above it. In the sky.

This Chicago of skyscrapers — the bounding humanism of Louis Sullivan, the graft and corruption of the Monadnock, the early utopian ideals of Bertrand Goldberg, wondrous words and heartbreaks of working class communities, communities of colour written by Stuart Dybek, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry. Its early days and connections to the countryside and food production so described by Edna Ferber in one of the great American novels you have never read. Me sitting above all this, and millions of lives being lived.

I quite love it from here, but to get to O’Hare you keep flying, and flying. Miles of flat and sprawl.

The plane from Chicago to Tucson sat on the tarmac, and sat. And sat. ‘You gotta be kidding me, a storm?’ chided the six year old in the seat in front of me.

Natural forces. Lightening sheeting across the sky. We turned back to the gate. Frustrating, but gave me a few hours to see my brother and Sandy and my baby nephew, all of whom I love very much. I was one of the lucky ones, even without my luggage (medicine, face cream, special shampoo, a change of clothes, things I am shamefacedly so sad to do without). I had someone to call, and a bed for the night after stealing some hours of sleep from my poor brother.

Back in the air late the next afternoon, we came into Phoenix, 111 degrees. The plane sailed down for the landing and then abruptly banked back upwards. Fear. A cold front had come across, causing whirlwinds of dust, gusts of over 50 mph. We circled, the left engine grinding like the slight rise of panic in my stomach. I am slowly coming to hate flying for more than environmental reasons (the ones that maybe should be but aren’t strong enough to keep me from visiting my family). I am not ready to plummet to earth in a mass of metal.

‘You gotta be kidding me, a cold front?’ demanded a man somewhere behind me.

Now home in Tucson, happy to be back in heat that wraps round you like a blanket. Reeling a bit as always with the size. Everything is so huge here: cars, roads, empty lots, sprawling cities, people. We went to Target, and I thought perhaps a new phobia should be invented for fear of large stores, overwhelming choice, terrifying impossible demands on your capacity to consume. Even the shopping carts are bigger, and they have seats like little plastic cars for children. Bohemoths left blocking the massive shining white aisles while mom stares at rows of hairsprays. I don’t know why the carts bother me so much, far beyond her rudeness. The size I think, like the health food store with it’s giant canisters of super-food powder for $75.99 each.

I feel sometimes I see it all through post-peak-oil-globally-warmed-already-run-out-of-water-and-even-hotter-after-the-whimpering-apocalypse eyes. No one should possibly ask ‘why’ it has happened, but I imagine they will.

Tucson’s Everyday Architecture

Tucson’s everyday architecture sprawls across the desert in dusty houses and apartments, it feels utterly different from anything on East Coast or Midwest U.S.A. As much as it feels utterly different from anything in Europe.

When I go home now, I am ever more struck by just how sprawling it is, how much space lies between homes, how many empty lots there are, how much unused land. How small and boxy the houses are, yet how I like those better than newer developments — they are not pictured here because we only drove past them, tracts and tracts and tracts of them where houses never where before. Huge boxy houses that fill as much of the lot as they can manage.

I am struck by how in older neighbourhoods, so many of the newer houses look more like bunkers than anything. How much colour improves things, but can’t improve everything. How much I hate the fake look of expensive corrugated iron and false painted gaps in the plaster showing false adobe bricks. People trying desperately hard to make their boxes interesting, but doing it in a way that shares a terribly kitsch vision of the Southwest and a terrible sameness. Like the vigas that emerge from both sides of the house so you know half at least are false beams and carry no weight.

Everything false in its conformity to some southwestern idiom, a moving target from howling coyotes with neckerchiefs to kokopellis to the next culturally appropriated fashion that lies in wait. I don’t know what that means for us.

Strange too, just how many mobile homes will never again be mobile, despite the themes of wolves running wild, freedom. How lots with 5 to 20 of them have become housing integrated with all the other kinds of housing, a regular patchwork. I never much questioned mobile home parks further out in the desert where I used to live, or those lonely settlers perched in areas without services. But here in mid-city, how exactly did it happen here?

It struck me how streets look so much the same, one after the other. They are charmless really, and this is how we have chosen to build them. Charmless as a whole, but at the same time in my mother’s neighbourhood between Pima and Speedway, Swan and Columbus, there are some wonderful old houses you know people constructed themselves when this land was first subdivided, their uniqueness invisible unless you look hard. There are even a few lots here and there filled with almost natural desert where the old house is hidden somewhere back there behind it all. If you want the real, it is old faded wood with paint peeling, tiny houses with their big porches often screened in, dusty collections of assorted junk in the yard. Probably they were here before anyone else, definitely here before air conditioning. Back when porches were essential things. These lots stand as they were, refusing to believe the city has grown around them.

I love that kind of stubbornness.

I didn’t take pictures of all or even most of it, I didn’t quite know how. And some of these are from up along the Rillito where Columbus dead ends into it…the rich people’s homes conquering the hills, but an awesome old round stone house sits up there too. It’s not as fun taking pictures of what is resolutely non-picturesque, but I am going to try it more often, try harder. How else to capture the meaning of a place, this everyday dust and space that sits alongside all those beautiful things that people are proud of here, the gracious and historic buildings, the places we go to wonder or to relax. The desert. Yet none of this compares to the desert, and I am sad to think that this sprawl of wood and brick and purple-painted bunkers is what destroyed so much of it.

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Hiking the Tortalitas

[To get to the Tortalitas jump on the I-10 north to Tangerine, east to Dove Mountain Blvd and they’re happy for you to park in the Ritz Carlton Hotel — there is a map of the different trails at the trail head, and they are very well marked]

I’d never been up to the Tortalitas before, they are quite beautiful and not as busy as they could have been on the last sunny day of 2015. The trail starts off in the sandy wash bed full of winter-flowering chuparosas (justicia californica), the air full of the whir of hummingbird wings alli chupando, and the whistles and trills of their territories claimed.



We took the wild burro trail, climbed up past petroglyphs (the reason we came out here).



We passed more modern ruins too, an old cistern and poles of iron that of course were shot at. the collection of old bullet casings was unexpected, however.




Then a climb up to the point where you can see the lushness of the wash below.


Further up past limestone waves.


Past saguaro picture frames.


Up to Alamo Springs, remnants of an old damn from the ranch up here, and holes in the rock drilled by native peoples as water holes. There’s an informative sign even up here, it’s a little weird how much signage is here really, probably reflective of the hotel.


And then back along the…I have forgotten the other trail that you come to at Alamo Springs, but it makes a nice circle and takes you from view to view on your way back:



until you reach the wash again, full of grass and pebbly sand beneath your feet that you can follow back down to the parking lot.


And soon enough back to the hummingbirds.


We passed a little colony of rabbits as well, but sadly didn’t see any javelina or deer.


Sonoran Desert Easter

Easter was one of my favourite days, a day to celebrate Spring and Handel on KCET and Easter baskets full of candy. I didn’t even mind church, it would smell like wax and masses of Easter lilies and the sermon would be about love and joyfulness and life and the hymns would be some of my favourites. Then home and an ever more challenging hunt for Easter Eggs and later a feast of a dinner…

But early Easter morning was mine and clear and bright and full of promise and I would wander out in my shabby old robe to pick flowers for the table and Spring in the Sonoran Desert is extraordinary though I think many people never see it. I love England’s banks of daffodils and masses of bulbs, but miss the more secret, delicate beauty of flowers that bloom amongst the rocks and gravel.



And Phacelias, these do often grow in banks of glorious blue:


The queen of desert flowers because they are more rare and the colour of cobalt, larkspur:


Globemallows, these grow everywhere, especially in old lots throughout the city, thriving where nothing else seems to grow:


Fiddleneck — but those little hairs along the stems hurt your hands, so I often left them out:

butterfly and fiddleneck

Desert Sage:



California poppies:


There were other poppies, tall and pale yellow and also rare. Desert honeysuckle:

trumpet flowers

Eriatrum Difussum or miniature woolystar — these carpeted the hill behind my house along with monoptilon bellioides:

Eriastrum Diffusum or Miniature Woolystar

monoptilon bellioides or Mojave Desertstar

Erigeron divergens:

Erigeron Divergens or Spreading Fleabane

Wild onion:

wild onion

Desert lupins (but is that what we called them or what they really are?)




Not all of these went into the bouquets of course, clutched in my little hands and lovingly arranged. And there are a number that are missing from those recovered in this March expedition, like desert chicory. I took all of these pictures in the Spring of 2009, I can’t remember why I was in Tucson but it was the last Spring spent with my dad.

Funny that I was born on Easter Sunday, so I remember we used to treat it as more of a birthday than the day I was actually born, though I think that stopped when I was quite little. My dad died on Easter Sunday the year after I took these. I can’t decide now if it is a day too overburdened by significance, or good that life and death should all be wrapped up like this. It is not my decision anyway.



I am often sad, however, that I am not still running around the desert in my sandals and faded blue dress.


Seven Falls

Seven Falls, oasis in the desert.

IMG_0088You can see a person in the picture for scale if you look hard enough. There were a lot of people on the trail sadly, probably walking off immense dinners like us.

We escaped to Sabino Canyon all the time when I was little, a long drive and then a short enough walk you could (well, my mum and dad could) carry an ice chest, we’d bring food to barbecue and swim in the stream. We knew all the deepest holes, the best places to slide down rocks. I don’t think we made it up Bear Canyon until I was older, high school maybe. Plenty of hiking to do around our own house, though no waterfalls.

Still, it’s one of those places I have layers of memories for. Some aren’t even mine, like my brother’s friend getting airlifted out after casually reaching for a football they’d been throwing around in one of the pools and getting caught in the undertow and sucked over one of the falls.

My own fiercest memory is of hiking it after getting bitten on the thigh by something I never saw (never be lazy and leave your jeans on the floor, never, I know this). I hiked up here about three days after, when my leg was aching and the bruised area around the bite still expanding. With my flesh turning black and liquifying, it was definitely a spider. Not as bad as many I’ve seen, so I was lucky.  Still, I have memories of that ache, remembered a stretch or two where I had been sure I wouldn’t make it. I made it. I was a lot prouder and stupider in those days.

My favourite memory is walking along the banks beneath the mesquites, the air full of the smell of sage, my mum and dad hand in hand somewhere behind me.


This last trip was just beautiful, though so cold — snow on the Rincons, and ice on the puddles. The water was higher than I ever remember it, and I forgot just how many times the trail crosses it (seven), balanced precariously on stones. There was a bit of jumping. I loved it, loved seeing the desert so lush and knowing the wildflowers will be probably be absolutely gorgeous this spring, though I won’t be there to see them.

My partner had a hard time calling this desert.

There was a sliver of silver moon above us the whole afternoon, and my camera mostly loved the contrasts between light and shadow. But for the falls themselves it made the pictures less than what I was hoping for…
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Flowers instead of leprechauns

I renewed one of my old traditions today, when I was little I would go searching for leprechauns in the desert on March 17th. I figured if there were any in the new country, they’d be out and about on St. Patrick’s day. I still believe in the little people, but of course, I have yet to find one in Arizona.

It was beautiful. I hiked through the heady smell of desert saje and another plant I know not, amidst the calling of birds and the mad fleeing of lizards.

Tiny baby lizards, most of them smaller than my pinky finger. Hundreds of them scuttled across the sand, waving their little tails wildly. The tail serves as a decoy, it is a striking white with black stripes underneath, and they whip it above them to invite attack. Once in a botched lizard capture, I ended up with a tail between my fingers. The amazing ability of lizards to regenerate their tail, however, is one of the most incredible abilities I know of, and lizards are some of my very favourite things. Regeneration and the ability to relax completely when flipped over and their bellies are stroked? I wouldn’t mind that myself.

I went West today, and it was such a difference. Just one more reason to stay away from the East side I suppose. All the flowers I remember, and more. Not many poppies of course, but in the wash where the water table is close to the surface, there were golden clumps of them.

and evidence that there had been more, I’m not sure if I missed the height of the season, but I did miss some blooms. The penstemons were in full display though, and glorious, from afar they look like a pink haze blowing back and forth

The sage filled the air. The plant itself secretes a kind of gum that was collected and used as incense in the old missions, and smells…er…divine. Looks it too

And the phacelia filled the grasses along the wash and beside the trails the way I remember

A couple of times I followed deer trails up into the hills and then back down to the wash, I missed the deer but judging from the trails, only just. And they were incredibly heavily traveled, the volume made me think that javelina must be using them as well, but I found no other evidence…nor could I smell them. I can’t say I was sorry about that. The hillsides are covered with the gold of grass, and fiddleneck and phacelia and wild onion

I also walked amidst the mad fluttering of butterflies

And found a couple of larkspur plants, they have always been the rarest, and one of my favourites

And there were globe mallows, some tiny lupins, jewel flowers, rattlesnake weed, and many others that I did not know.

I love springtime. It is already hot of course, I stopped at the Circle K on the way home and got a thirstbuster…that took me back, way back! I forgot how nice soda tastes after a long hike. And then my dad’s birthday dinner at La Indita followed by my mum’s chocolate cake…mm. I think it is very cool that my dad, Patrick Colum Gibbons, was born today. Of very immeditae Irish descent. And he was named after my grandad, not the day.


Sonoran Desert in the Springtime

This year there are no carpets of golden poppies or sunflowers, there are no giant swaths of color splashed across the Tucson desert, and part of me is disappointed of course. I love glorious abandon.

This is one of the years that requires a closer eye, a delight in the subtle, the ground-hugging, the tiny. I love that too. The desert is still full of flowers, they riot across the stones in perfect blooms the size of a fingernail.


Eriastrim Diffusum or Miniature Woolystar



Monoptilon bellioides, also known as Mojave Desert Star. I think. There’s something about seeing what is usually unseen. there were a couple of phacelias, though I remember years when they have filled the grasses alongside the washes in deep gorgeous blues unfurling.

The flowers have definitely seen better years, and the same goes for the prickly pear. While you’re looking for what is always missed, seeking out the small beauties and the things that are hidden, you also find these guys

The only thing that seemed to be blooming as normal were the mallows.

And when you look up the desert is still wide open, beautiful

You can’t even tell that tiny flowers blanket the hills, and that lizards crouch frozen in the mottled shade of bushes.

Dad and I found this off the beaten trail, beneath a mesquite tree where a small arroyo split into two

It could be a shrine, a joke, a memory. Plastic flowers in the desert almost always commemorate death, marking graves or the sites of accidents where flesh failed and souls left bodies. In the desert death is as present as life, they twine around each other, you see it and traces of it everywhere. Scattered bones, skin, remnants of bodies.

I love life even more beside death. Beauty hidden in an arid landscape and draped around cacti skeletons, or exploding after a good winter of rain in a riotous celebration of color. High arching skies and heat. The smell of creosote and dust. This I understand. I love. I leave it for the world of people and there is so much I don’t understand, though I love there too. I walk through the desert in sandals fearlessly, it is my place. It is a beautiful dangerous place, but I know where the danger lies. The human world? I walk through that in sandals too, but never fearlessly. It hurts much more.