West of Eden

Arizona: Plow down, pave over, and turn on the AC

I’m visiting my sister in Arizona this week, having not seen her for nearly two years. Whenever I’m here, I’m always struck by how beautiful and complicated, how politically fraught and spiritually inspiring, Arizona is.

Today’s Cottage doesn't come from my garden. Instead, it comes from this garden:

Unlike my garden in Virginia, you can’t just wander in. Nearly everything in this particular garden pricks or pinches. As I ventured in to take this picture, a scorpion darted past my sandaled feet. You have to pay attention. Beauty still calls, but it can also bite. You need to learn to see differently in a garden here.

My parents moved to Arizona in 1972. They embraced the desert, wanting a rock garden and cactus yard and a view of the mountains. Big skies, long vistas. But, as the years went by, they grew increasingly disenchanted. Not by the place but by what people were doing to it. My mother moaned, “People from the East move here and try to make it like home.” She hated the lush golf courses, the green irrigated lawns, and the non-native trees and flowers.

Of course, they brought more than grass and trees. The open land brought visions of real estate wealth. And Phoenix was ruthlessly paved over and developed beyond recognition of what is was in the 1970s. Places change, yes. But few places in America have changed quite as thoughtlessly as the great desert southwest. Arizona faces several climate and environmental crises now - it is hot. Really hot. Much hotter than it used to be. Global climate change is exacerbated by poor urban planning, with tens and tens of thousands of people cramming into a once-wide open desert valley. Demands for water grow, cars increase, houses spread ever-further into the desert, fire-prone areas increase, the electrical grid strains, and air quality deteriorates. Back in the 1970s, even the hottest days were followed by blissfully cool evenings. If you grew up in Arizona, you knew the old adage, “the desert gets cold at night.” That never happens any more in the summer.

This isn’t an exercise in nostalgia, although it is a bit of a lament. I learned a lot from the desert when I was a teenager. Arizona taught me awe - the sunsets and the mountain ranges, the turquoise blue skies in the morning and scattered stars in a velvet midnight. It also taught me to remember the first peoples, to recognize their presence, their life and history in this place. It taught me to see differently, to know and respect beauty in even the harshest environment. It called me to adapt, to change, to understand the world from an unfamiliar perspective.

But the call to make the desert something it wasn’t proved an irresistible temptation. Newcomers, money-changers, and schemers all profited at the expense of the place. Rather than learning to live in an environment that invited awe - and certainly rather than living with the reality that beauty bites - they all sought to control and contain it. And contain it they have, with all its fences and walls and gated estates and epidemic development.

Arizona’s propensity toward containment, the reduction of awe to control, is also in its politics. Pretty much everyone is aware that Arizona politics is conservative - from Goldwater to Reagan to Trump. And yet, with the problems facing the state and with newly organized and energized immigrants and natives, the politics is shifting back toward something that seems to echo the cultures of the peoples who were first here. But the white people who have long controlled the state’s politics are in a nearly desperate attempt to contain those awakened political forces. The appropriation of Mexican and native cultures to drive tourist dollars is good, but the the idea of white conservative control giving way to building a genuinely pluralistic desert democracy is not something a culture of containment can stomach. Pretty much the solution to every problem in Arizona is plow down, pave over, and turn on the air-conditioner. That’s what is going on with the Trump vote re-count here. Plow down, pave over, and change the outcome. Shape the environment to “our” own desires and make the desert safe for us.

Less awe. Less possibility of getting stung. Postcard vistas for profit.

Being here reminds me of all of it. That awe actually hurts. That gardens can be prickly. And that having stolen someone else’s land has consequences.

I don’t know how this story ends. But it feels like Arizona is far West of Eden. We humans may have gone east of that fabled garden for much of history, but the western direction of humanity’s propensity to mess up the world doesn’t seem much better. Maybe westward expansion only proved that there’s no place to go to escape the worst of us.

In the meanwhile, I’m seeking shards of awe in the desert - and hoping some scrap of Eden survives.

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The border is a line that birds cannot see.
The border is a beautiful piece of paper folded carelessly in half.
The border is where flint first met steel, starting a century of fires.
The border is a belt that is too tight, holding things up but making it hard to breathe.
The border is a rusted hinge that does not bend.
The border is the blood clot in the river’s vein.
The border says stop to the wind, but the wind speaks another language, and keeps going.
The border is a brand, the “Double-X” of barbed wire scarred into the skin of so many.
The border has always been a welcome stopping place but is now a stop sign, always red.
The border is a jump rope still there even after the game is finished.
The border is a real crack in an imaginary dam.
The border used to be an actual place, but now, it is the act of a thousand imaginations.
The border, the word border, sounds like order, but in this place they do not rhyme.
The border is a handshake that becomes a squeezing contest.
— Alberto Rios, from “The Border: A Double Sonnet” (Rios was the first poet laureate of Arizona)

the gate is inside 
of me – I am holding it 
open with a rock
— TC Tolbert, from “Nine Haiku”
(Tolbert is the poet laureate of Tucson)