“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.” ~Emily Dickinson
I am writing this week from Tucson, Arizona. My journey here was undertaken to visit two friends – one a 50-something African American gay man named Raven, the other a 26-year-old female adventure travel guide named Joy – both of whom have taken time from their busy lives to show me around this remarkable region and shared equally vital wisdom about life, love, spirit and survival in the desert. Just as these two friends look vastly different when placed side by side, so this journey has presented itself as a study in contrasts – and in learning to exist with balance among them.
The trip was timed around an annual celebration here, the All Souls Procession, which honors the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. The signature procession through the streets of downtown Tucson, which anyone can join, attracts roughly 20,000 people, about half of which are costumed in elaborate face paint and colorful skeletal garb reminiscent of Grateful Dead iconography. Joy and I walked in this mile-and-a-half-long procession together, at times somberly, at times with gleeful elation. This was, after all, a celebration – but a celebration of death! We, along with thousands of others, were there to honor and remember those who had passed away – or even passed out of our lives, for one reason of another. We were there saying, along with Kurt Vonnegut’s protagonist Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse Five: “Farewell, Hello, Farewell, Hello.” This was an event so compelling that I would like to make it an annual pilgrimage, returning each year to the desert, where life can be a struggle for all beings.
The day after the procession, I visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a wonderful fixture of this arid region, where visitors and natives alike can learn about the flora and fauna that have miraculously learned to thrive throughout the centuries under harsh, inhospitable and unforgiving conditions. At once a peaceful outdoor area with hiking trails, a natural history museum, a botanical garden and a zoo – albeit in the very best sense – this amazing attraction allows guests to see local mammals like the coyote, javelina (collared peccary) and bobcat; birds such as Gila Woodpeckers, Gilded Flickers, road runners, owls, hawks, falcons and hummingbirds; as well as butterflies and a host of reptiles and amphibians. Gracing the beautiful desert landscape here are a myriad of desert plants, shrubs and trees, among them the Saguaro Cactus – state flower of Arizona and symbol of the desert southwest – found only in the Sonoran Desert.
Much has been documented about the efficient way the saguaro stores and utilizes water to keep itself and the ecosystem that depends on it alive. “The saguaro has a thick waxy skin that restricts loss of moisture. The outer surface is covered with pleats, which allow the stem to expand during water uptake, preventing the cactus from bursting. A mature saguaro can soak up 200 gallons of water during a single rain storm. A saguaro is typically more than 90% water. Water is needed for survival, but also plays an important role in heat regulation. The water within the cactus heats slowly throughout the day (preventing the cactus from cooking), then releases its heat at night, keeping the cactus warm.” Source: Todd’s Desert Hiking Guide. Like all life in the desert, the saguaro has to be efficient in every way in order to survive.
And survival can be an issue here for any living creature. Tucson is only 60 miles from the border with Mexico, where new immigration policy is taking its toll. “These walls being erected have their consequences on the environment,” said Joey Burns of the Tucson-based alternative country-rock band Calexico. “Regardless of the human border, the local wildlife has to be able to travel back and forth; it’s important for their survival. But they’re also having a hard time because of all the traffic that goes through there: drug smugglers, immigration, border patrols, vigilantes, humanitarian aid-workers trying to prevent these immigrants from dying of dehydration in the middle of the desert… Putting up a massive wall isn’t the solution to any of these problems. It’s certainly not going to stop desperate people from trying to cross, and it sure doesn’t help the relations between the United States and Mexico.” Source: Anthony Carew at About.com.
Border issues notwithstanding, one of the most compelling aspects of Tucson, known to locals as the Old Pueblo, is that, unlike so many homogenized geographical regions in the Unites States, it retains a palpable and dynamic culture, an authentic sense of place! This is brought out in traditions like the Day of the Dead, where Mexicans and Americans come together for a communal celebration of both life and death. And it is also reflected in the Latino influenced musical traditions that have naturally emerged in border regions such as this one. Calexico – whose concerts now traditionally close out the annual Day of the Dead festivities – represents that blend of cultures and musical genres perhaps better than any other border band in the southwest. The concert they gave as the finale to the All Souls Procession at the historic Rialto Theatre, the locus of Tucson cultural history since 1920, benefited the non-profit organization Many Mouths One Stomach, a Tucson-based collective of artists, teachers and community activists who support “festal culture,” the fulfillment of human needs through public celebration, ceremony and ritual. The performance not only fused many world genres, especially those that inspire the southwest, but also brought together in celebration many cultures in one uplifted community spirit. Calexico’s music, which has been called “desert noir,” and described as “a melting pot for country, indie rock, various Spanish rooted sub-genres, jazz, and many other musical styles,” will be the subject of an upcoming interview I’ll post here in the coming weeks.
I started this entry with a quote about hope, for hope represents one of the greatest mechanisms of balance we can employ in times of challenge. No matter where we may live, like creatures in the desert, at times each of us is faced with the perils that threaten our survival in a harsh climate. And yet, hope is the thing that keeps us moving on, traveling to new places, alive and celebrating life, even in the face of difficulty and loss, each and every day. The yin and yang of coexisting cultures and of death and survival in the desert are nothing if not testimonials to hope.