Southwestern Arizona is located in an area of the United States the geographers identify as the Basin and Range Province: vast plains dotted with relatively small mountain ranges. Here, for me, a pleasing geographical balance was struck between space and substance, mountain fashioning a buoyant space, and space lending individuality, dignity, and presence to mountain. (“Is it not true that bulk and breadth are primary and essential qualities of the sublime in landscape?” asked John C. Van Dyke, the original poet of North America’s deserts, in 1901.) In the stunning clarity of this arid land, the mountains were at once distant and weirdly intimate: I’d study an empty ridge, and sense that ridge studying me. The formations were as majestic as ships at sea, possessing in the clarity and stillness an almost dioramic perfection and unreality. To repeat, they were also the grimmest mountains I’d ever seen, their flanks steep, barren, and sun-blasted, their crests knife-edged and seemingly never lofty enough to escape the gnash of flames that began at their feet.
Yuma is located in the Lower Colorado River Valley subdivision of the Sonoran Desert. The leading author of my desert field guide notes that the “open valley floors of this region . . . can be quite monotonous,” dominated as they are by the creosote bush and white bur sage.
Monotonous? Some might describe the face of a Maine woods in summer as monotonous. Nonetheless, having once explored what is now known as Saguaro National Park, outside of Tucson, I was expecting a far greater variety of vegetation in Yuma, including and especially the iconic saguaro cactus. In fact, in the undeveloped deserts in and immediately around greater Yuma, the saguaros were strangely scarce. To view them, and then only in small numbers, I had to scan the rugged slopes of the nearby Gila Mountains. On the same slopes, the tall and tentacular ocotillo, also largely absent in Yuma’s city limits, were somewhat more ubiquitous. But I was content, there at the lower elevations, with the few trees and shrubs that I managed to identify: the mesquite and paloverde trees; the athel pines with their clouds of long, tough, pendant needles; and, humble lord of the hottest North American deserts, the creosote bush.
The creosote has a pungent, tarry odor, particularly evident after a rain. Some might describe the odor as sickening. Perhaps this explains why Native Americans used―and perhaps still use―creosote as an emetic. However, in moderate doses, I’m personally taken by the fragrance. It pleasantly recalls our most forbidding lands. It recalls, as well, my leisurely, dreamy, misspent youth, which was often spent walking railroad tracks the wooden ties of which were, and still are, preserved with the essence of creosote.
Meanwhile, I’m not troubled by desert “monotony.” Creosote bushes have been known to live for at least 9,000 years: the oldest living things on our planet. Imagine how monotonous our parade of puny life cycles must appear to them.
Like the mountains, Arizona’s desert florae are generously spaced, vibrantly individual. They are clever in their capture and assimilation of water and remarkable in their adaptability and resilience.