I talk fast. I think fast. Back in the day I moved relatively fast. But in the deepest days of summer in Tucson, I slow down. The intensity of the heat requires it. The sun wilts even the cactus pads. The arroyo’s cracks become wider and seemingly permanent. The birds cry in the darkest moments of the night - apparently because to be active at dawn risks too much. Water in bottles, in faucets, in eyes seems miraculous and so very tenuous - when the rains come (far too irregularly this year) they restore ephemeral hope that disappears too quickly down the storm drain. In this tense season, one could understand that I have a short temper, and I suspect that everyone is just about to snap like a dried and crispy fan belt in an old rusty car. Dogs seem bored and miserable. Feral cats are not even “in the mood,” and lizards scurry from bush to bush lest they spend too long on the hot, baked earth. There is nowhere else quite like it.
This is my least favorite time. I have a friend who argues that the heat should feel good - something about Chinese medicine and moving the humors and some such thinking. Things should rev up and move faster in heat, he claims. Another friend gleefully refers to the heat as “surreal” while other friends just grumble while sipping martinis in their pool. Chinle and I have no pool, and when you have a dog that is habituated to exercise, you walk - no matter what. Maybe we should move faster because of the warmth, but in this heat, we slow down. And while slowness is not my preferred pace, I am coming to appreciate all the gifts you gather when you meander.
There is a street that Chinle insists on traversing during every season. It’s my least favorite street in the whole neighborhood, and it’s worse in the beating summer sun. There isn’t a tree on the street and the lone growing things are a couple of dilapidated Saguaro, dehydrated Oleander, and 4 rather gaunt birds of paradise. When you are moving THIS slow, you have plenty of time to think and to notice things that walking in, say, Montana in August may not afford. It dawns on me that the yard that usually seems so barren as to be depressing is suddenly a miracle. It is monsoon season when the desert springs to unexpected life, so it must be a herculean task to keep that yard free from ANY living thing. Not a blade of Bermuda grass or sprig of goathead exists - someone is bravely persisting in maintaining the nothingness. The woman who owns the home proudly parks her 3/4ton, 4X4 pickup smack in the middle of the yard. The truck is always spotless, and I know her son comes over and washes it at least once a week. On this walk, as Chinle pauses to sniff whatever mysteries exist on the faded pavement, I see that the homeowner is sitting on her porch gazing lovingly at her dirt. I finally have the chance to ask her about the handicapped license plate and her relationship with that truck. She walks (barely) with a walker and must be at least 80 years old. She sees us and waves shyly. “Good morning!” I greet her with a sweaty smile, “Do you still drive this beauty?” Me pointing at the Ford. She thinks about being offended and then breaks into a grin, “You bet I do. And I still like to go off road every now and then.” #lifegoals
As we mosey (really there is no other word for it), it occurs to me that the lizards on the street are ubiquitous despite having no habitat to speak of. Maybe the lack of foliage and even topography is why they are so obvious or maybe it’s because we are keeping August pace rather than December pace that I see them more clearly. Maybe there are this many lizards on EVERY street. I feel a pang of hope when I see 3 fall hatchlings that aren’t longer than my thumb. That seems to be a sign that fall (or at least the season after summer) is coming. But we aren’t there yet, and I wonder if the heat is bothering them. Some studies suggest that the increasing temperatures of climate change will hurt reptiles more than other species because they live in “thermally challenging environments”. (1) That phrase makes me laugh. Thermally challenging environment, indeed.
As we bag the block in record slow time, I notice that the cicadas’ songs are increasing with the warmth of the morning. They conjure their voice by wobbling their abdomens, a mating call that must be very effective because the damn things are EVERYwhere. According to Peter Warren, the urban horticulture agent for the Pima County Cooperative Extension at the University of Arizona, Kokopelli, the Hopi god of fertility, was at least part cicada.(2) I grew up in western Colorado where Kokopelli is appropriated and fetishized by a lot of people, but in a way that oddly diminishes his vigor. The “clean” version of Anglo Kokopelli is of a romantic flute player, but in the explicit rock art version across the region, Kokopelli usually has an erect phallus that is impossible to ignore. A lot like that loud buzzing from his supposed descendants. I’ve been hit by one in mid-flight, and it felt more like a Cessna than a Cicada. This time of year, their exoskeletons are weirdly frozen on tree trunks impervious to wind or rain, but you have to move slowly to even know they are there.
As Chinle and I gasp and foam our way toward our house, we see our neighbors outside chatting in halting and beautifully accented English to a family of Hispanic landscape workers. I suspect that if this were during a cooler season, our faster pace would have pushed us right past the group. Our neighbors hail from Austria...he is a Nobel finalist in physics. He and his frail wife, who persistently and mystifyingly grows beautiful roses year round, have lived in the United States for over 60 years and in the house across from ours for 40. Their 1995 Crown Victoria has bumper stickers that read “America’s healthcare plan = don’t get sick” and “solar power is our savior”. Damn European socialists. The Hispanic family contains a father, his daughter and her son. The patriarch is grey and deeply tanned with sparkly eyes and fast English. The daughter leans on a shovel and is draped in a flowing white shirt that is somehow spotless despite the obvious hard work she’s just been doing. Chinle and I wave at the group. My neighbor says “we were just talking about the heat.” I roll my eyes and explain I have to get the black dog to water. Soon, though, I find myself engaged in conversation. The older men begin to discuss the immigration “policies” that are in our very midst. We all live about 4 blocks from a former monastery where refugees are being cared for as they await their destiny.(3) This town is a nation of immigrants. The two remember when they first arrived in the US and remark on the families and lives they have built here. One came just after World War II and spent much of his early years in New York, “a city that felt strangely familiar.” The other lived on a ranch whose lands stretched across the border until one day he just stayed on this side of the imaginary line. They both remember the day they became citizens. The daughter, born many years after her father “just stayed,” had been silent up until this point, politely listening. It soon became obvious that she just couldn’t remain silent any longer and said, almost in a whisper, “I just know if someone tried to take my baby, they’d have to kill me first.” I look at her son. He seems nonplussed. “Do you ever wish you did different work?” the Austrian-American asks. “Oh, no way,” replies the grandfather, “It’s a little hard sometimes, but we help make this place beautiful.” Just as I thought to myself that never was a truer statement uttered than the young boy groaned forcefully, “mom, abuelo, come on! Let’s go. It’s HOOOOTTT.” Chinle agree, and after saying a hasty goodbye, we quickly ducked into our 72 degree house with gratitude.
1)Buddhi Dayananda, “Hotter nests produce hatchling lizards with lower thermal tolerance,” Journal of Experimental Biology, https://jeb.biologists.org/content/220/12/2159.
2) Irene McKisson, “10 fascinating facts about Tucson’s cicadas,” This is Tucson, https://tucson.com/thisistucson/tucsonlife/fascinating-facts-about-tucson-s-cicadas/article_1e7422e0-0df9-11e4-a93c-0019bb2963f4.html.
3) Margaret Regan, “ A Temporary Respite, The Tucson Weekly, July 25, 2019, https://www.tucsonweekly.com/tucson/a-temporary-respite/Content?oid=26078302.