FORUM: Sonoran Desert

I was in grade school in the 1960’s, living with my family in Sierra Vista, Arizona, about twenty miles from the Mexican border. A chain-link fence “separated” our backyard from the Sonoran Desert.

We kept a Japanese Fighting Hen in the backyard to repel venomous snakes. Our hen reflexively attacked any unrecognized living creature with murderous intent: she granted leeway to humans who left her alone and stayed away from her “home turf” on one side of the house.

My morning ritual was exploring part of the Desert that I hadn’t already seen. I returned in an hour to prepare for school. A few things made me “nervous,” in the sense that I did my best to avoid them when I was exploring the Desert alone.

One was Sidewinders, which move rapidly leaving a figure-S-shaped trail. I found it uncomfortably challenging to accurately aim a single-shot weapon at an undaunted poisonous creature moving quickly, nonlinearly, near-by.

Another was Crows. Early in the morning on some days an uncountable number of Crows, stretching to the horizon, would sit next to each other on high-power electric lines which cross the desert. I’d watched Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds, a film depicting Crows congregating near a small town and then attacking people—killing a boy my age and pecking out his eyes! I stayed away from electric lines to avoid Crows.

The other animals were not a problem, in my mind.

Resembling wild Boars, Javelina congregated in ravines. Social animals living in large families, they minded their own business if left alone—so I stayed out of ravines.

I never saw a Coral snake, or a Gila monster in the wild. Horned lizards were spotted occasionally and looked menacing—but in truth were the opposite.

Rattlesnakes were everywhere: they lay still, flicked their tongue, coiled and shook their rattle if alarmed. I stayed off rocky areas where they sunned.

The fastest, longest (six feet), most self-assured snake I ever came across in the Desert was a completely black nonvenomous Common Kingsnake, which eats Rattlesnakes.

I’d stopped momentarily to survey a grassy patch when the snake emerged, glanced at me, flicked its tongue and raced on it’s way, two feet to my left, without changing its speed or direction. This happened in a few seconds, half a century ago, and I can still feel my surprise in seeing the big snake, and my relief in watching it leave.

In the grassy patch was the only Desert Mule Deer I’ve ever seen: we briefly looked at each other and then we both disappeared into the Desert.

Coyotes avoided people. The few times I spotted some looking me over I lobbed an arrow in their direction and watched them vanish before it landed.

Ants, Scorpions, and Centipedes were out and about in the morning and evening. The combination of leather boots, incessant movement, and keeping a sharp look-out was ample protection against small slow-movers. I didn’t see many Spiders, but I stayed away from places offering them habitat opportunities.

Bats were potentially disease-bearing animals which congregated in unfathomable numbers. They lived in caves, emerged at sundown, and returned before dawn—the period of time when I typically stayed inside my home. The caves were in the sides of cliffs, so they were easy to avoid.

The Desert is a dangerous place for domestic animals. If a dog wandered into the Desert and became lost, death from thirst, predation or rabies was not uncommon.

However, in my mind the most dangerous aspect of the Desert is its susceptibility to flash flooding when rare powerful rainstorms occur.

Significant rains typically occur in the Monsoon Season, between July and September. The baked soil can’t absorb the rainwater, and the resulting flash floods are ferocious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twITTw2x9XA.

Rare, brief, significant rains trigger a metamorphosis which completely transforms the appearance, sound, smell, and texture of the Desert. I personally witnessed and explored three incredible events which happened after a significant rainfall, once per year, where and when I lived in the Sonoran Desert.

The first event was a multitude of frogs emerged from larger puddles having the surface area of a regulation basketball court (or larger), and holding up to eight-inches-deep (or deeper) water. There were many such puddles in the Desert. Soon after rain stopped an uncountable number of BB-sized tadpoles appeared in the puddle. With hard-to-fathom speed they grew large, lost their tails, and became frogs. Until the puddles dried up and the legions of frogs mysteriously vanished, days and evenings reverberated with the songs of communicating frogs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNu3m0bj5FM).

The second, concurrent event was that an abundance of flowers of an astounding variety of types and colors carpeted the Desert. Exquisite (copyright protected) photos of the Desert covered in wildflowers of all colors in the rainbow are available in Google Images by searching: “flowers after a monsoon rain in Sonoran desert.” Being there was hypnotic. I lamented that the greatest flower painters didn’t attempt to capture the Sonoran Desert in its flowering majesty…

Third, after flowers vanished, gourd vines emerged and covered the Desert. Kids had gourd battles for a week or two, until the gourds were gone.

EPILOGUE

In August of 1985, my beloved youngest brother, John C. Yarnold, Ph.D. (RIP)—a geologist from the University of Arizona, and I made a round-trip four-wheel drive from Phoenix, Arizona, to Cabo San Lucas, Baja, Mexico. We wanted to experience the journey before the paved road on the western coast was completed.

On the way to the Gulf of California we stopped to see the Desert where we once lived. We examined ravines which once held Javelina communities. We were horrified and saddened to discover that ravines we examined were uniformly filled to a four-foot depth with suitcases, backpacks and garbage abandoned by people entering the US. The cornucopia of plants and animals in the Sonoran ecosystem once there—was gone.

There is only one Earth!

Sonoran Desert

Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.

January 27, 2021

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