Ode to a Desert Yard
Spiny and Snorty
For the past 33 years, I have visited Tucson at least once a year. My wife and I go to her parent’s home, which they have lived in since 1970. Their yard covers a bit over an acre and has a typical, yet splendid, array of desert plants ranging from small Mammilaria cactus to cholla to palo verde to mesquite. I have been there in the heat of summer when the 100-degree-plus temperature crushed my moisture-loving PNWetness and in winter when the rare snowstorm capped saguaros in white yarmulkes. I have also found it to be a refuge, once retreating there to soak up the sun and aridity during a year when we suffered through a Boston winter in an apartment unaffectionately known as the “hell hole.”
As much as I enjoy the plants and their spininess, the range of temperatures, and the occasional thunderstorm (we once watched one in the distance at sunset, thrilled by the shards of light exploding within clouds), what I have enjoyed most over the years is the wildlife. A recent visit was typical. One morning going out in the dark to get the newspaper, I was startled by a snorting grunt. I knew it came from a javelina, a group of which likes to overnight in a hollow they excavated near the driveway. At night, they gather tightly with the adults surrounding the young.
Javelinas have been visiting the house for as long as I can remember. Generally benign, they look harmless, but will attack dogs. Their poor eyesight means that if they get into the garage, they might inadvertently run into the garage owner while trying to get away; no one enjoys being hit by a 40 pound, stiff haired, toothy, battering ram. On the plus side, their super cute babies—who resemble a snouted coconut with legs—can lead people to forgive the sins of elder javelinas.
I also enjoyed watching the mourning doves, who regularly nest in a flower pot outside the kitchen window. They were busy as ever, shuffling about and making pleasant sounds, I assume in preparation for egg laying, which will make many of the neighborhood residents happy. The sleekest of these is the common kingsnake, a beautiful black serpent with yellow to cream bands. They are rather adept at climbing the metal shelves that contain the flower pot and finding a tasty avian feast, a tactic generally cheered on by the house’s bipeds.
Snakes are not the only animal that like the doves. My wife’s mom told me that one time in the kitchen she was startled by a bobcat jumping on to the window screen, about a foot from her face. The cat clearly was seeking out the nest, she told me, with a distinct twinkle of approval in her voice. I didn’t see the bobcats on this trip, though they are regular visitors, and did make an appearance in the yard when I was away. One of my past yard highlights was a cool Christmas morning when we watched a mother and her four kittens romp around the shrubbery. Even cuter than baby javelinas, the kittens looked like house cats except for the ear tufts and very long legs.
The kitchen window also provided a home for a wolf spider, who had created a small burrow/nest in the corner between the screen and window. The spider seemed to prefer traveling around the edge of the window, periodically sticking out a leg or two. We debated whether the arachnid had found a haven or was trapped and whether to open the window to the inside or screen to the outside. Being a true desert dweller, my wife’s father’s biggest concern was that the spider might get too cold outside. Poor little arachnid. Yet, the occasional scorpion or snake found in the house gets ushered out with no such concern but still with no harm done to the animal.
I am pretty sure that the most appreciated visitor to the house are the bats, probably big browns (Eptesicus fuscus). They arrive in April and roost in a narrow gap between the porch roof and the house wall and leave in October. Each night around sunset they drop out of the crack and head out in search of food, returning toward dawn. The bats are relatively innocuous; the main evidence of their residence is their guano but that doesn’t bother anyone. Last May when we visited, we got to see the thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats that roost under a bridge near the house and head out at sunset. As they say, it was wicked, totally cool.
On my final morning walk to get the newspaper this year, I heard my favorite animal that I associate with the yard: coyotes. They were yipping and barking, a sound I often hear at night at the house. (Another vocalist I regularly hear also happens to be the one other desert dweller that I have seen in our backyard, Cooper’s hawks; it always pleases me that I can connect these two ecosystem via the wildlife I see.) The coyotes were probably in the nearby arroyo, which provides a travel corridor for the bobcats and javelinas, too. I suspect that that God’s Dog would also enjoy getting to know the doves.
It’s such a pleasure and privilege to go to the desert every year. I savor the doses of sunlight and warmth and family and I treasure the way the flora and fauna test my powers of observation, teach me about adaptations to place (desert spines vs PNW moss), and renew my curiosity. And, I haven’t even mentioned the rocks we saw at the Tucson Gem and Mineral show. Geo-nerd heaven.
In contrast, if you are interested in learning about Puget Sound, I will be talking about my book Homewaters for the Redmond Historical Society, Saturday, Feb 11, 10:30 AM. It’s free and in person and on Zoom.
And, if you want to hear a fun interview with me, I am on the Power of Place podcast. It’s the best produced recording of me I know of.
"snouted coconut with legs"!!!! As someone who is from the Arizona desert, I enjoyed the reminder of all the beauty and brawn that exists there.
I really miss our little 'Off Grid' North of Ash Fork. . . . . thanks for the memories.....