Sunday, June 05, 2016


According to the National Weather Service, yesterday at 5 pm it was 114 degrees, with four percent relative humidity, at Sky Harbor International Airport.

This is considerably hotter than normal, though not unusual. If a maximum temperature record in Phoenix is going to fall, it is often going to fall in June, typically the hottest and driest month of our Sonoran Desert summer.

Every year, sometime after mid-May, a dome of high pressure settles over the Southwest, pushing away inflows of cooler air and moisture. The sky stays relentlessly clear, the desert floor heats up, and the sidewalks and pavements of Phoenix grow incandescent.

There is little water vapor in the air -- humidity at four percent! It is too hot to move, too dry to sweat.

We hunker down in our air-conditioned homes, cars, malls, and workplaces to wait it out, unless we are landscapers, electrical linemen or women, airport baggage handlers, or UPS drivers, whose stamina in this searing month is remarkable and, unfortunately, underappreciated.

The quail families and desert cottontail rabbits that have been visiting my backyard now retreat somewhere during the day. Even the big creosote bush outside my window -- that stalwart of poor soil and extreme aridity -- seems to fold in upon itself, harboring inner resources while waiting for the shift in air flow that will eventually pump moisture from the Sea of Cortez into Arizona.

It is a quiet time. We are waiting.

The people of Arizona and Sonora who once lived in close concert with the rhythms of the desert regarded the day of San Juan Bautista, June 24th, as the first day on which it was reasonable to begin scanning the horizon for thunderheads. Saint John the Baptist, who stood in water, who poured water for salvation, by happy coincidence lends his day to our early hope for water in the desert.

As the dome of high pressure begins to break down, moisture begins to enter the desert, first touching off intense rainstorms in the northern Sierra Madre of Sonora, then working its way over the "sky island" mountains that rise like terrestrial atolls above the seas of grass and prickly-pear of southeastern Arizona, then creeping into the low deserts around Phoenix, and at last arriving over the highlands of central and northern Arizona and New Mexico.

The first rain clouds may indeed appear over distant mountains as early as el Día de San Juan, though in some years the high pressure keeps them in abeyance until well into July. Carefully kept weather records going back to 1896 tell us that the moister air arrives in Phoenix, on average, on July 7th.

We may have a month or more to go!

Gary Paul Nabhan, in his book Gathering the Desert, says that the O'Odham people of southern Arizona and northern Sonora once scanned the horizon, and when members of a community saw distant rain, would throw spades and a sack of tepary beans into the bed of a truck and dash off to find where the rain had fallen. If a downpour had been sufficient to briefly flood a patch of desert, the beans would be quickly planted there.

Tepary beans -- an ancient food of the inhabitants -- sprout, grow, and set pods rapidly, characteristics they have developed in the course of a long evolutionary contest with the environment in which they arose. They need only the initial deep rain. In a short time, planters can return to harvest a crop.

I do not know if the Americanized O'Odham of 2016 still do this. I hope some do. And if they do, they, like me and other Phoenicians on this early June day, are waiting.

Now is the time to hunker down, stay in the shade, and fall silent. To conserve inner resources. To dream and to not talk.

Promise of Desert Rain, by Ken Bosma, ©2013.

On June 24th we can start looking for the clouds as well as begin listening for the song of the heralds of the desert's summer rainy season -- the Apache cicadas.

These loud and strident insects are waiting now too, their nymphs under the ground on the roots of palo verde trees. They too sense the change when it comes. They emerge with the first hints of higher humidity. The desert grows raucous, even ear-splitting; clouds appear. Just enough rain will fall among the hot days of July, August, and September to get us by. The cicadas will sing, as they always do.

Today it may be 113 in Phoenix. Again the air will be so dry that if someone were so careless of his or her hydration as to actually spit, and so unwise as to be out in the heat of the day, the spittle might evaporate upon contact with the ground.

It is a dry heat. We dream of el Día de San Juan, of the promise of rain.

We wait.

No comments:

Post a Comment