Desert Notes: When the Desert is Most Itself

By Robin Patten

A leopard lizard sunbathing. Photo by Robin Patten.

It was hot. There’s no other way to say it. Just plain hot. Summer hot. Desert hot.

Tucked into the air-conditioned house, I felt alienated from the land just outside the door. The swamp cooler hummed, keeping the temperature at a comfortable 77 degrees. I tapped at the computer… and began to feel positively disconnected from anything. Cabin fever, desert style. Water bottle and journal in hand I fled into the heat, choosing the hottest point of the day to escape the climate-controlled interior, heading into the desert at the time this environment is most itself – at least according to naturalist Joseph Krutch, who wrote, “On the brightest and warmest days my desert is most itself because sunshine and warmth are the very essence of its character.”

That sentence begins Krutch’s essay “The What and the Why of Desert Country,” the first essay in The Voice of the Desert (1955). A man devoted to the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, Krutch believed that to appreciate the desert’s true character, one must embrace the heat and sun and immerse in the crucible of its summer; only then can one begin to understand this complex environment.

I carried Krutch’s words with me down to the San Juan River, passing the thermometer in the yard that declared it was 100 degrees in the shade, admittedly not so hot for some deserts or even as hot as it was in July, but to me it felt just plain hot. Mid-afternoon and I chose to walk across the open land to sit by the water. In this, my first August in Bluff, it seemed a way to better know the high desert environs.

Even on such days, the water’s emanating coolness and a modicum of shade allow time to sit with the river. The water flowed like cocoa, thick with slow ripples and gurgles. On the opposite bank, a group of geese lumbered off their sand bar to paddle upstream, drifting away and gone. A striped lizard scuttled under my legs – a plateau striped whiptail? From the tree behind me came a towhee call, toe-toe-tweee. In that blaze of a day, those creatures of the desert brought life to the river and its banks, a sort of gentleness amidst the heat.

The San Juan River in August. Photo by Robin Patten.

As a mountain person for most of my life, I’ve hit that cabin fever point and done a similar thing in the midst of the snowy winters, wrapping myself in layers and setting out into subzero temperatures. I do not make these plunges into the extremes—hot or cold—lightly, holding great respect for the elements. Too extreme and conditions can turn deadly, so I remain inside. But when possible, to venture out into the bite of the season is to step into the “essence” of a place.

Over the decades, I’ve come to know the mountains throughout their cycles: the slow blooming springs, glorious summers, the soft fade of autumn, and that bitter bite of winter. There in my Montana homeland, we ask people who decide to move to those mountains: “have you spent a winter here?”

Now, choosing to make the high desert my home I am confronted by the question: “have you spent a summer here?” And I have to admit, no. I have rented September to May. I’ve missed that defining season. This year, when again my rental isn’t available until September and my new Bluff house won’t be constructed until much later, a house-sitting opportunity came up. So I came in August to better know this high desert environment, to be with its summer when the elemental forces concentrate, the sun bearing down, the earth drying up, the torrents that occasionally gush from the heavens streaming away while the puddles quickly evaporate into the sky.

I came to know the desert for what it is – though perhaps not what it has been, for it must be noted, the desert is heating up and drying out. Krutch doesn’t say the desert is most itself at its “hottest.” As average temperatures rise, the sun sears the valley, and a long-standing drought carries forward, is the desert no longer itself? Or more itself? We can retreat to our air-conditioned houses, but can the life of this place carry on within the change?

Still, the annual cycles continue, and the desert holds all seasons, including the chill of winter. Consider the Bluff region on a January morning, when all heat has dissipated in the night’s clear dry air and the temperature hovers in the low teens or less. Any living thing that will survive in this place must make it through that freeze.

“Winter is winter even in the desert,” Krutch reminds us. But then states, “You can’t become acquainted with the desert at that time of year.” It’s not the crucial season.

I arrived in the heat and questioned my sanity as friends departed for the mountains. It took some adjusting, but I began to find the desert’s delights, even in the doldrums of the hottest times. As it turns out, the desert is a lively place in summer.

The desert mammals were out and about at cooler times, from rock-hopping chipmunks to chirping rock squirrels. On several morning walks, I crossed paths with long-eared black-tailed jackrabbits, watching them bound over the slick rock at speeds that can reach up to 40 miles per hour. The hares (for that is what they really are) made me think how the year-round inhabitants of an area reveal the season of significance. The desert-dwelling jackrabbit’s primary characteristics didn’t evolve to meet winter conditions; this is an animal forged by desert heat and stone, with 6-inch ears to shed heat, lanky legs to race across rocky land, and a coat that meshes with bare-earth tones. In contrast, the mountain dwelling snowshoe hare is adorned with small heat-conserving ears and a winter coat of white, its hind feet adapted to carry it over snow in the mountain’s toughest season.

As August unfolded, the diversity of lizards provided my naturalist eye with intrigue and joy. Leopard lizards, whiptail lizards, spiny lizards, reptiles that relish the summer warmth and are tucked away in hibernation or torpor when temperatures drop. In the cooler seasons, the side-splotched lizards had become a familiar, a species known for emerging on sunny winter days. But to sit with a multi-colored spotted leopard lizard or chat with the spiny lizard whose territory I am living in—Clayton is his name—has opened up a new realm of reptilian wonder.

Of course, there are always birds, most active in morning and evening. In the yard were the usual companions: scrub jay, towhee, finches, and various sparrows. Western tanagers came through in numbers, while blue grosbeaks and a covey of quail made an occasional appearance. Hummingbirds perched by my head while I sat by the river, even as falcons soared along the cliffs across the way. Meandering in the canyons, for the first time in years I heard the cascading call of the canyon wren, while the abundant rock wrens were usually there to add their bouncy energy to my walks.  

Rock wren. Photo by Robin Patten.

I came to know the way of the summer monsoon rains that will push the temperature down by 20 degrees in a few minutes, that will wash the land with sheets of water and follow with a rinse of gentle drops. I inhaled the intoxicating scent of the desert after such rains, when parched goes to soaked and the aromatics of leaf and stone are released. I’ve witnessed the water’s work, seeing the dry washes change shape within the span of a storm.

The desert lands are sculpted by such storms, making processes of erosion and deposition seasonal in arid regions. With sparse vegetation and poor soil development, intense rains and flash floods can wash sediments away quickly. Geologic layers resistant to such erosion create cap rocks, and water combined with gravity work around the edges, creating the bluffs, buttes, and mesas of Utah’s canyonlands. All is a function of the arid climate in general, yet the erosional process is related to seasonal cycles. And this August, the power of water to shape the earth became a lived experience rather than textbook knowledge.

Photo by Paul Martini.

The desert summer molds a place, its life, its terrain. It is a crunch point, the test of resilience, the challenge of the environment. So to be truly “acquainted” with the desert, one must know the summer.

But a caveat. It seems to intimately “know” any place—desert, mountain, forest, plain—one need experience all the seasons and the cycling of the year. One could not, would not, celebrate the return of the Bluff vultures in spring if one did not know they were gone in winter.

In this first immersion in the high desert summer, I’ve watched the sun break over the horizon and felt the heat seep over the land, wandered the canyons in the cool of the morning, returned to the river many afternoons, and listened to the buzz of insects in the dark of the night. I keep open, keep watching, but know the desert is its own place, its ways and mysteries far beyond what I might know even if I had a lifetime within it. It is a place where even the rock holds animacy, and those who dwell here have an allure that intrigues, for as Krutch notes, “there is no doubt about the fact that desert life has character. Plants and animals are so obviously and visibly what they are because of the problems they have solved. They are part of some whole. They belong.”