B Y G A R Y P A U L N A B H A N
SPRINGTIME IN THE desert came early this year, and has left me gasping for air. Our telephone at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has been ringing off the hook for the last several weeks. The reason? The desert in bloom. Word quickly got around that this might be a banner year for spring wildflowers in the arid Southwest.
Those of us who are incurable desert rats face a phenomenon similar to that known by ski bums holed up at a mountain lodge for the winter. As word gets out that the first fine powder may have dowsed the slopes somewhere in their area, friends from outside the region begin calling, asking the same hard-to-answer questions: "Is it best where you are, or some place else? How long is it going to last? If I come right away will I beat the mobs?"
You might not believe that our tiny bellyflowers attract mobs, but statistics prove otherwise. The dusty little town of Picacho, Arizona, has been receiving between 1,400 and 2,700 wildflower watchers daily, more than the total resident population of that desert haven. At our outdoor museum in the boonies beyond the city limits of Tucson, all attendance records have been broken. Thanks to a warm winter and an early flush of flowers, up to 7,000 tourists have come in a single day, many of them migrating in from Hibbing, Minnesota, Fargo, North Dakota, or Portland, Oregon. They arrive in steel-gray Airstream mobile homes, seeking color, warmth and exotic fragrances. They have heard that all three treasures can be found at this end of the rainbow, in the form of our spine-tingling flora.
You might guess that the few of us who have written desert wildflower guides would be thrilled that so many people are valuing our opinions and predictions. However, most of the field botanists around here are suffering severe pangs of self-doubt, wishing to relinquish their titles as "wildflower experts."
Take Mark, our curator of botany, for instance. He noticed very early that last autumn's rains were sufficient to trigger the germination of scads of wildflower seedlings. He grew ever more optimistic as the desert received additional rains at regular intervals through early March. These conditions were much like those he'd seen in 1979, the spring he'd witnessed patches of golden poppies and magenta owl's clover which stretched for miles on end. Mark and others finally worked up the nerve to predict that another bumper crop would come this spring--which it has, in a few select spots.
But just as the predictions hit The New York Times and other newspapers, it seemed as though the wildflowers went into hiding. Or moved a few miles to west of where we announced them to be. or changed from big blotches of gaudiness to a scatter of subtle tints and tones.
"This is unbelievably bad," Mark moaned. I sent him a giftpak of Alka-Seltzers to help him celebrate his new ulcer.
In fact, it hasn't been a lousy year for wildflowers. To the contrary, there are so many kinds blooming at once that they have become hard to photograph. They are behaving less like some well-endowed pin-up, and more like a show of fireworks--fantastic colors blinking on and off when and where we least expect them. Wildflowers simply do not respond to some computer-generated formula. As one wise man once recognized, "Nature is not only more complex than we think, it is more complex than we can think."
After those Alka-Seltzers have settled our stomachs, Mark and I might just recall what it was that attracted us to study desert wildflowers in the first place: their outrageous unpredictability. Two decades later, they are still surprising us.
So if you are interest in next spring's show, don't call ahead--just come out to the desert and join us, any place and any time. Be prepared to crawl around on your belly with Mark and me, humbly genuflecting to those true masters of suspense--the flowers which raise their flashy heads above the ground a few brief weeks every year. Or some years, anyway....
Gary Paul Nabhan is science advisor at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. His latest book of essays is called Desert Legends, Re-Storying the Sonoran Borderlands, and is a collaboration with photographer Mark Klett.
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