September 7 - September 13, 1995

B y  K e v i n  F r a n k l i n

Out There

CABIN FEVER ATTACKS people in hot climates, just as it does the folks up in Fairbanks.

Take a look at any sidewalk around here in the middle of the day and you'll notice a distinct absence of humans. Fortunately, we get some reprieve when the sun sinks below the horizon.

With heat- weary Tucsonans in mind, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum extended its hours until 10 p.m. on Saturday nights starting back in July. The experimental Saturday Summer Evenings program has been a big success, says special events coordinator Mary Erickson. A lot of the logistical bugs have been worked out of the program and, since September is the last month for the extended hours, now is the time to enjoy a cool evening walk along the museum grounds.

The ideal way to enjoy the Saturday Summer Evenings program, says Erickson, is to arrive at least an hour before sunset. (Sunset will be 6:38 p.m. this Saturday.) A lot of people have the misunderstanding that the entire museum is open after dark. Because it takes a lot of time to put the large animals (like mountain lions) into their nighttime holding areas, those sections of the museum close at sunset. In order to maintain the highest standard of safety for both animals and keepers, this process can't be rushed, says Erickson. The bears, lions and other large mammals are brought inside so their cages can be cleaned, and to provide greater security for the animals. The aviaries also close so the birds have an opportunity to roost.

During the twilight hours visitors can explore the rest of the museum, experiencing the fragrant smells of night-blooming plants and the behaviors of animals as they come alive in the cool evening air. At dusk the majority of the museum closes. What remains open are the special programs areas; the reptile, invertebrate, fish and amphibian buildings; the riparian area; the restaurants and the galleries.

Docents, using natural history kits and live animals at special stations in the museum, interpret everything from tarantulas to great horned owls to fluorescent minerals. The docent interpretations vary from week to week, but a wide variety of topics are available for visitors to investigate on any given Saturday night.

"What really makes this whole thing possible is our docents," says Erickson. "Not only are they giving their regular four hours during the week, but these Saturdays are in addition to that."

Around 20 docents volunteer their evenings each Saturday, says Erickson.

Folks other than the regular corps of talented docents are also showing up for these evening programs. One of the most intriguing special programs is Gerard Tsonakwa's Abenaki Indian storytelling. Tsonakwa grew up in the Algonquin region of Canada. After many years of involvement with Native American politics, he began focusing on his artwork and now has begun telling the stories he heard growing up in his small village of Abitibei.

It's pretty much a ghost town now, Tsonakwa says, but he remembers it as it was 40 years ago. Retelling the stories he heard as a child keeps those stories alive and, in fact, they grow stronger as more people hear them and tell them again.

"Storytelling," Tsonakwa says "brings the life of a past time to people living now. Even the old topics are still viable today. They show a way of living and thinking about the world. They are an art for daily living. Today, we need these skills, more than ever.

"Storytelling is a very powerful and dramatic tool. I didn't realize how much it was as a kid, but as an adult I can look back and see what effect it had on me."

I sit and listen to Tsonakwa tell one of his stories in the museum's amphitheater. The glow from a red light at his feet casts a campfire-like ambiance and the darkened, open desert surrounds us. He tells of how Manito, the Great Spirit, planned to create an orderly pattern out of the stars and was foiled by coyote. As he tells his story, the audience sits transfixed, moving from their concrete seats into the world of the Abenaki creation.

Just hearing Tsonakwa himself makes the trip worthwhile, but there is even more going on under cover of darkness at the museum.

The local residents often pop in for a look-see. On any given night tarantulas, bats, assorted insects and even a ring tail cat might wander onto or over or near one of the museum trails. The docents are always eager to introduce the guest and explain something about its natural history.

"If Tucson people come out during the busy winters," says Erickson, "it's always crowded. This Summer Evenings Program is directed primarily at the local community. This is a chance for the Tucson community to experience the desert museum for themselves."

The program's over at the end of September, but will be coming back next year, says Erickson. She is pretty sure it will run longer next year, but those dates are in flux.

One can only hope this program continues to grow. It will be one thing we locals can look forward to during the burning hell we so blandly label summer.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is open from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays through September 30. Admission is $8.95 for adults, $1.75 children ages 6 to 12 and free for children under six. Admission is the same whether you come for the day or just after dark. The museum is 14 miles west of downtown Tucson. Take Speedway Boulevard west over Gates Pass to the intersection at Kinney Road. Turn right here, follow the signs and look for the Desert Museum on your left. Call 883-1380 for more information.

Gerard Tsonakwa will be telling his stories at 7:30 p.m. September 9 and 16, and during the day on October 21. For more information on Tsonakwa's books or tapes, visit Old Pueblo Coin Exchange, 4420 E. Speedway, where they're available for purchase.

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September 7 - September 13, 1995

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