University of the Desert

John Alcock delightfully details a year in the life of our rain-loving Sonoran habitat

John Alcock has watched saguaros sprout arms. He has a first-name relationship with several palo verde trees, and he can smell the rain coming for days. He's a scientist, but he may as well be a holy man.

If this were a suitably romantic world, Alcock would be found sitting atop a ridge in the Usery Mountains near Phoenix, dressed in a loincloth and talking to wasps, flies and grasshoppers. Desert-lovers would make the pilgrimage to that unassuming, urban-adjacent stretch of the Sonoran Desert and sit at his feet while he chomped on saguaro fruit and talked about the desert's internal life.

But this is not a suitably romantic world, so Alcock lives in a house in Tempe and drives out to his little study plot in the Userys (as well as other places in the desert) several times a month and hikes up to a ridge he's been visiting for some 30 years. He wears pants, a hat and a long-sleeved shirt, and he always carries a camera.

And instead of profound utterings, we have Alcock's clear, precise prose and the benefit of a lifetime spent enraptured by a unique and deceptively complex landscape. He has watched one small patch of desert burst and retreat for decades, revealing everything from how much a saguaro grows in a season to how certain desert insects mate to the mysterious variations of palo verde reproduction. His conclusion after all this work, all those hikes and all that time spent in the 100-plus-degree temperatures is a simple one, but one that desert dwellers always forget, or ignore: It's all about the rain.

"The Userys and their animals and plants are my University of the Desert," Alcock writes in his latest book, When the Rains Come: A Naturalist's Year in the Sonoran Desert, out now from the University of Arizona Press.

In the book, each month corresponds to an essay or two about the unique conditions of that time of year, usually some change in plant growth or insect behavior that only an expert like Alcock would notice. The desert's changes, Alcock makes clear, are all related to and stimulated by the presence or absence of rain. This is a truth that we all know, but Alcock drives it home by showing in great detail just how interrelated every living thing is in the desert.

When the Rains Come is every bit as good as Alcock's well-known volumes Sonoran Desert Spring and Sonoran Desert Summer, both of which reveal the intricacies of the desert's finest hours. Alcock, a regents' professor emeritus at Arizona State University, also wrote the John Burroughs Medal winner In a Desert Garden.

When the Rain Comes—generously illustrated with Alcock's photographs, many of them showing side-by-side versions of the same area 10 or 20 years apart—reads like a summary of all that the 60-something scientist has learned and seen in the desert, organized month by month to emphasize that, contrary to popular belief, the Sonoran is subject to more seasonal change than most landscapes on Earth.

"We Arizonans occupy a land with a glorious history, both natural and unnatural, a rocky, Spartan, often bone-dry desert that happens to be one of the richest deserts in the world biologically speaking, a desert that still has the feeling of wilderness about it, even in the mountains within sight of Greater Phoenix," Alcock writes in the introduction. "For this I am grateful, even during a drought when the palo verdes, the desert insects, and I are anxiously waiting for rain."

Ideally, one would take a year to finish this enchanting book. A worthy experiment would be to head out to the Tucson Mountains or some other patch of accessible desert similar to the Userys, and choose a small plot containing a few Saguaros and other keystone Sonoran flora. One could return a few times each month (Alcock visited his plot in the Userys more than 80 times in 2006, the year he documents), carrying the book and a camera along. I can't think of any better way to become lost and in love with the desert—short of the aforementioned holy-man scenario.

In other words, we should all find our own "island of naturalness ... a million miles from the less appealing urban environment below," as Alcock writes—a place where we can all attend our own University of the Desert, with Alcock's books, especially his latest, as our dog-eared texts, and the fickle, life-giving rain as our ultimate teacher.

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