Both my body and mind need some time to shift gears and get up to speed when we arrive in the desert. But I never have to coax my spirit awake to the mystery and magic all-around me here. My soul reaches out to the giant saguaros who stand like sentries along the road and raise their arms in salute as we head into town. My heart skips a beat when I spot the dark, scissored peaks of Tucson’s mountains etched against the evening sky.
And the colors. . . the amazing natural colors that adorn this landscape wield their own power in me, perhaps more than in any other place I’ve been. The artist’s standard red, blue and green color wheel blends into cyan, magenta, yellow and beyond. (And when you mix them all together you get some amazing shades of brown.) I can come close to taking in this entire spectrum at a glance from our patio. Each color is evident in its own dramatic intensity. . . except for one.
Wallace Stegner nailed it, several decades ago. The esteemed “dean of Western writers,” Stanford professor, and life-long champion of wilderness preservation pulled no punches in his defense of and love for the Great Basin—this vast arid region that stretches from the Cascades and Sierras east to the Rockies and south from Central Oregon into Mexico. “To appreciate the West,” he admonished us, “you have to get over green. You have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns. . .”
I scoffed when I heard him say that during one of our earlier excursions into the desert. It was September, when gardens back home in Vancouver were ripe and flourishing. Everywhere I looked, trees and shrubs seemed to be withering, and what greenish plant life I saw was anything but friendly, with its spikes and barbs and bristles warning me off. I could see nothing growing—let alone thriving—in the ubiquitous pink gravel folks spread on the ground around their houses and called landscaping. And he was telling me to get over it?
But now I think I understand. I was looking for green in all the wrong places. Green isn’t plentiful or even normal throughout most of the real West, like it is in the rainy upper left-hand corner. It has to be carefully nurtured, even engineered, here—and often at great expense. There are, of course, some “natural” greens around, but we’re talking muted, dusty shades of olive and sage—not the lush emerald hues of damper, cooler climes.
So, Mr. Stegner, I’m not merely “over it”—I’m way past needing or expecting it, as the rest of the Sonoran palette saturates my view and fills my senses. I love the weathered grays and tans of the bark on the ancient eucalyptus trees along the street where we’re staying, and the earthy, essential reds of the urban landscape’s stucco walls and tile roofs. I see the rich browns—ranging from milk chocolate to cinnamon—in the hills surrounding us and in the ground I tred on the way to yoga class. When I toss in a flush of neon pink bouganvillea and finish with a splash of orange and yellow sunset, there’s no room left for green.