Desert and Descent

Today’s Principle: Pure Potentiality

The Principle of Potentiality instructs us to be open and responsive to what the world offers us. This means letting go of preconceptions and allowing ourselves to become students. Allowing everyone and everything to teach us something new. On Pure Potentiality days I will write about what I am learning.

I spent the week between Xmas and New Years in Arizona, a place I never considered lush or alluring. The landscape was a wasteland of sprawl to my rural sylvan leanings. I equated thriving with greenness, with water. Scottsdale is where my boyfriend’s family lives, and while we’re there we try to make a good go of liking it. This year, we took two tours of the natural world, which increased my overall understanding and appreciation for this region. I grew up on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Nova, Nature, and National Geographic TV specials. In this way, I had access to the greater world, learned a great deal, and developed a curiosity for the environment around me. Nature is one of my avenues to knowledge. Scottsdale is part of the Sonoran Desert, but I’d never bothered to read up about it.

[Glass Sculptures photo by Daniel W. Barlow]

The first tour was at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix. In a 45-minute showcase of five plants, our docent Tim was able to teach us about the adaptations plants made in order to survive the extreme desert conditions. Take the saguaro cactus for example. Like most cacti, the fierce-looking prickers are leaf adaptations which provide much needed shade against the sun, as opposed to protection from local critters, as I would have thought. The saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) has a sturdy wooden skeleton to keep it from toppling over in high winds. This wood is all that’s left after the saguaro dies, and provides fuel and building materials for those living off the land.

Photosynthesis occurs on the stalk (it has no leaves), which is ribbed to expand and contract like an accordion during periods of flood and drought. They grow their “arms” between 50 to 100 years of age, or never at all. They live to be about 200 yrs old and grow to 40 ft tall (about four stories). The saguaro blossom is Arizona’s state flower, and blooms “when the white-winged doves come home”, as Tim puts it.  Fascinating! I bought a “grow your own” kit and am currently nursing my own saguaro seedlings.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through the many paths in the garden and learned about agave, yucca, and the Native peoples. This was an afternoon well spent, and I highly recommend a trip there.

The second tour we took was to the Rotunda/Throne Room at Kratchner Caverns in Tucson. It is part of the Chihuahuan Desert, which stretches into Mexico. Kratchner Caverns was discovered by a pair of cavers in 1975, who with the help of the landowners kept it secret for 14 years, when they could convince the state of Arizona to turn it into a state park while maintaining the cave’s integrity. The organizers and engineers had learned from the mistakes of Carlsbad, and Mammoth. The only way for the public to go inside is on a tour, and the guides are very vigilant about its purity.

The cave is both museum and library. It is an immaculately preserved living research cave–one of the few that the public are allowed access to. It was glossy with water, which shone in the distance like stars in a distant galaxy. The soundtrack was a random scheme of droplets echoing as they fell, as they have done for a million years. Yet as nature ran its course (and the folks running the place would like to make sure it continues), every geologic shift and important ecological event was catalogued in the mineral deposits of the drapery, the columns, the plate shields. Data of a couple of millennia are stored within the walls. That itself was impressive.

The descent into the bowels of the mountain was like walking into a mastermind’s lair with the dark, echo-y passageways. Carol was our guide, and she pointed out how the cave formations were made, and what the multi-colored, wavy, matte, or glossy striations meant. Kratchner is a limestone, or salt water, cave. Turns out the desert above was once a sea floor, actually many times a sea floor.

The biggest lesson I received was the importance of passion and conservation. Neither place would have been as available nor informative if not for the hard work, dedication and foresight of everyone involved. The world is never as curious or as massive as when observed from the lens of geologic history. Time and evolution are poetic devices Nature uses to issue Her most elegant masterwork. I doubt I will live long enough to see it through.

[Cat and cacti photo by Daniel W. Barlow]

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