Our Friend the Mesquite

It will outlast storms, drought and even us.

"Oh for a muse of chlorophyll, that might ascend
The leafiest heaven of August. ..."
--Shakespeare, Henry V

It has been hot. Since I have a swamp cooler, this has been obvious inside as well as out. For weeks, the weather took on that dallying, dust-tinged yet Congo-esque quality that makes every living thing lean toward the clouds, willing them to let loose and rain.

The drought had broken everywhere but here, we felt, watching the big cumulus build and dissolve around edges of the basin. My Tucson-born son, who's back from school for the summer and intent on soaking up as much monsoon as he can before shipping back to Manhattan, was in and out the front door every afternoon, making restless forays out into the middle of the street and reporting on the latest wind shift. At one point he was yelling at the sky. Most of us just felt like doing it.

Since the fires brought the lack of rain to their attention, even the local news anchors were sending up televised prayers for a deluge. Of course as soon as it started raining--to the classic Tucson accompaniment of sirens, fried hard-drives and sideways precipitation--they got all frowny-faced and breathless about the "violence" of the storms. What can you expect from people so fanatically attached to the idea of the "average?" I can never decide whether they really think it means "God's Exact Promise," or whether they pretend to for dramatic purposes. The weather is only news in a very special sense--we all know what it's like outside and we don't believe anyone knows for sure what'll happen tomorrow--so the "Bob, it's actually two degrees above average, again?!" gambit helps fill air-space.

The normal early-July antsiness was worse than usual this year. It was hard not to notice that the quail pairs seemed to have no chicks, the June bugs never showed and the cicadas were nearly silent--but the start of the rains is always trying. A friend who grew up here used to say that he expected to read in the paper some morning that there had been an inch of rain everywhere except at his house.

Sometimes the rains are merciful, sometimes they aren't--not that this should be a comfort to any of us in our carbon-chain-addicted delirium. What will we do if the weather really does get 10 degrees hotter in the next 30 years and the rain pattern shifts? The seaboards will be largely under water, which could rule out moving to the coast. So, will we just crank up the AC and live a full-Blade Runner lifestyle until the lights go out and the wells dry up and it's Road Warrior time? There's no sign of our doing anything until climate change becomes an emergency.

(Some time back, Adbusters--a subversive publication fueled by the midnight antics of captive designers and copywriters--advocated an SUV-tagging campaign featuring a bumper-sticker that said, "I'm changing the climate! Ask me how!" Disgusting. The Constitution specifically gives each of us the right to burn every drop of fossil fuel we can buy from murdering madmen half a world away, and to do it without anybody making us feel like there's something wrong with that. Also, to pull our behemoths really far forward at intersections so that drivers of lesser vehicles can't see jack.)

But global and possibly irreversible climatic change be as it may, the mesquites, at least, have been perfectly comfortable, and will no doubt thrive right through Armageddon. Saguaros are lovable but fragile--we worry about them. The mesquite, by contrast, along with its weedy co-conspirators, the creosote and the prickly pear, is no trouble at all. It loves the heat and likes the dust. It likes drought; it likes rain; and it laughs at brushfire. Summer is its season. It feeds on light, spreading itself luxuriously to the sun through the long, shimmering afternoons.

Cattlemen have been fighting the trees' swaggering spread up and out from the deep, mostly disappeared bosques in the washes and floodplains to which they were largely confined when the first ranchers arrived. (Cattlemen don't like the trees because no grass grows in the shade of mesquite thickets.) According to the Desert Museum's indispensable The Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, however, the mesquite's conquest of the uplands in actually a re-taking: Chomping cattle scarify and dampen the hard beans of these difficult-to-germinate trees in the same way that now-extinct mastodons and ground sloths once did. The native megalofauna, as they call it, were hunted out by Native Americans about 10,000 years ago, and the mesquite, which had co-evolved with them, died out except in the floodplains. Enter the Hereford cow, and they'rrrrre back! Now the native species--the honey and velvet mesquites--are flagrantly cross-breeding with their plumey, fast-growing South American relatives (the ultimate low-attention span trees, and we love 'em), thereby defeating any attempt to get a fix on their DNA.

Will Homo sapiens do in the saguaro? Possibly. Will we outlast the mesquite? They'll shade our graves.