When we first moved to Arizona and I started taking pictures in sunlight I struggled with what to do about my shadow. At first I’d try to compose the picture so my shadow didn’t fall in the image, and sometimes still do, but sometimes now I lean into it and deliberately put my shadow into the frame as a reminder that I’m documenting my life in the desert. On this occasion though as I photographed the damage in the saguaro on the left, as the sun sank low a giant behind me threw its shadow all the way up the hill, allowing me to sidle down the trail and hide within it. That’s not just me throwing up my arms pretending to be a saguaro, though I can’t say the thought has never crossed my mind.
When I first saw the pattern of damage in this saguaro I was reminded of the Shroud of Turin, only when I later looked at images of the real shroud I realized my remembrance of it was mistaken, it was far more detailed in actuality than memory. This section of damage reminded me of a head, a torso with crossed arms, and legs below, here shown in the seconds before the sun dipped below the mountains behind me. Perhaps the skin of the saguaro split after it ate too many donuts and it sealed the damage with resin to prevent water loss, but I’m not a biologist.
On Monday my wife texted me a picture of our snow-covered backyard. I was supporting a couple of urgent tasks at work and by the time I got home the snow was rapidly melting. I needed to log on to work so didn’t have time to run out for pictures, which was a shame as the mountains looked so lovely dusted in snow. I grabbed a few pictures from the front yard, up top is one of our saguaros and below a barrel cactus. The melt was so rapid that even in the few minutes I was taking pictures our short steep driveway went from a slick surface I had to walk slowly on to one I could descend without worry. I’m so thankful I got to see it before it melted, even if not in its full glory, snow is not exactly a common sight in the desert.
My favorite view of the Elephant is looking west but the best view of the recent damage to her arms is with a telephoto looking east. Everything about her is beautiful, even her scars, they remind me of grizzly carvings in the trees of Yellowstone. I’m not worried she’s going to die, I make all my favorite saguaros sign legally-binding contracts stating they’ll outlive me. I wouldn’t ordinarily, you can find yourself in a real monkey’s paw situation since there’s an obvious way for them to guarantee it, but a saguaro is one of those rare creatures you can trust unconditionally. If a day comes when she can’t keep her promise, if a day comes when she breaks my heart, I’ll be thankful for the times our paths crossed and how far I carried her in my heart when we parted.
Granite Mountain to the north in the soft light as New Year’s Eve dawned, even as clouds in the east and west began to catch fire. I have a fondness for the subtlety of this first shot of the day, the year ending meant my vacation soon would too, along with the daily hikes it afforded. These quiet moments never last long, the day always rushes in behind.
A couple of days ago I visited my favorite copse of ocotillos at sunrise, when I realized they were going to be partly in shadow for a while I started goofing around with self-portraits. The jacket is a holdover from my time in Portland where I was frequently a pedestrian, I have a small army of jackets and hoodies in bright orange to make me more visible. On this morning it was a little cool and windy so I put up the hood of my wool hoody to take the chill off. I have a wool cap on underneath, I’ve never liked the cold but after a couple of years in the desert I’ve lost any tolerance of it. The mask didn’t go unappreciated not just for a little warmth, and not just because I didn’t need to smile for the camera, but because it hid the tears streaming down my cheeks from being up so early.
I can’t tell the story of the Sonoran Desert, only my time in it. I’d love to revisit this shot when the ocotillos leaf out or bloom but this is their normal state, bare arms soaring into blue skies, and I hope in some sense it shows how beautiful the desert is even when it’s not trying to be spectacular.
For this shot I put myself at the edge of the large flat boulder, the plants are growing between this one and the next, so I could be as close as possible to the same plane as the two ocotillos in front to give some context as to their size. All of which is to say no optical tricks, they get pretty big.
Clouds were predicted the morning of Christmas Eve so I dithered when my alarm rang out as I wanted to sleep in if the sun was going to be snuffed out, but I also didn’t want to miss out on colorful skies if it wasn’t. My vacillation wasn’t helped by a certain orange tabby who repeatedly woke me in the wee hours as he had a grand old time snuggling up under my chin, I love when he does it as it’s where Scout slept every night, but his timing could have been better. Fortunately I dragged myself out of bed, even if a few minutes later than intended, as when my wife dropped me off at the preserve the most glorious color was already spreading across the eastern sky.
I hurried down the trail towards my favorite saguaro, the Green Elephant, kicking myself for being a little behind but still careful with my footing as faceplanting into the unforgiving desert floor was not on my list of Christmas wishes. In the cool morning air I regretted not putting on my gloves in the car but I didn’t want to stop now. I took a few shots of the eastern sky on the way but the shot I most hoped for was of the Elephant looking west, so I was tickled to arrive and find the entire desert bathed in pink light with pink skies behind. The light was beginning to fade even as I started taking pictures so I was thankful I got off a shot from my favorite view of her, with a more traditional saguaro visible in the gap behind her, before the light faded to it’s normal pre-sunrise blue.
The pink skies behind her remained a little while longer and I expect I’ll like those subtler shots too. The sun rose fifteen minutes later and cleared the mountains soon thereafter but the clouds held sway and the remainder of the hike stayed cool and windy. Even in the dim light the desert was lovely as always, with phainopepla cheering my steps along the path.
This shot makes me a little sad, I noticed in the fall she has extensive damage along the arm on the lower left and also on another not visible from this angle. She looked fine when I saw her in full bloom at the end of May, but perhaps so did I, it hasn’t been the easiest year. We’re still standing though and every sunrise I spend with her is a treat, no matter the light.
After taking the previous woodpecker picture I looked at the skies and thought I might be able to frame one of my favorite saguaros against the pink clouds of sunset. The problem was the saguaro was on the opposite side of the hill and to get to it I had to drop back down past the basketball courts and go up the other side of the trail. A part of me wanted to call it a night as the light was not likely to last that long but a part of me decided to try it, and that part won out and had me arriving just as the pink skies began to fade. I took a quick shot of the fading beauty, of the battered old giant with broken arms that sheltered so many birds during its long life, of the day fading into night.
On the way over I took a quick shot in a different direction of the orange clouds above the city and mountains of Scottsdale. I wanted to include more of the city, and could have if I climbed the hill, but I couldn’t do that and get to the saguaro, choices had to be made. And that’s just fine, the purpose of these sketches is to remind me in years to come of how fortunate we were that when the time came to leave the home we didn’t want to leave, we ended up in another land of wonders. And maybe to become actual sketches as I’d like to learn to draw (and maybe paint), but for now the camera will do.
With the light truly gone I made the short trip back to the parking lot where my hatchback awaited for the short drive home. It’s been everything I hoped for, a lovely little commuter car that is also easy to drive to the local trailheads and which has made the intense summers so much more tolerable (dare I say enjoyable? A part of me misses the summer).