December 2011

Rain

Big Rick stands beside the sixteenth green, thick hands pressed against hale thighs. He peers across the turf, examining dinner plate sized brown patches.

“It can happen overnight,” he says, then plunges the blade of his pocket knife into the grass to cut free a two-inch square. The turf is solid at least, no sign of grubs. But so dry that some of the patches are bare, the grass having simply blown away in the desert winds. Over his shoulder, thunderheads rim the Mule Mountains, but rain hasn’t fallen on the Turquoise Valley Golf Course in more than a week. Already, the greens seem to be enacting a sort of desert entropy, drying up, blowing away, heading back to their natural state. For Big Rick, the job is to fight the dry, to keep the grass alive until the late August heat of southern Arizona breaks, until monsoon thunderstorms reignite and flood the course with rain.

Part of the problem is the nature of the soil here, a desert mix of clay and sand officially called caliche. Others call it desert pavement, a name that better reflects the soil’s state, that it’s good for not much more than rattlesnakes and mesquite, that the limestone within the dirt mixes with water to make hard cement. Like pavement, caliche sheds water instead of soaking it up. Dry spells are particularly difficult, since the sun bakes hard all day.

Big Rick bends, folding his six-and-a-half foot frame into itself. He tweaks the brown spots with his fingers, feeling the depth of the damage. Silently, he returns to his golf cart and pulls out to survey the rest of the course. A hundred yards down the cart path, he slams the brakes, sliding the cart on the gravel.

“Lookit that,” he says.

In the caliche, under the shade of a brambling mesquite, a small volcano points out of the reddish dirt. It’s an anthill a foot across, eight inches high. Ants flood in and out.

“They think it’s gonna rain,” Big Rick says, citing the folk wisdom of ants, that they build high halls when rain approaches, to protect the nest. “Hope they’re right.”

He’s not taking chances, though. Big Rick plans to draw a rain turtle tonight, a trick he claims to have picked up from a Seminole while working a golf course in Florida. Draw one on a piece of paper, pin it under a rock on the course, and wait for the skies to open up.

“Gotta be careful, though,” he says. “I drew a big turtle in Florida once, and we got a tropical storm, eight inches of rain.”

 

Over the course of a career teaching biology and environmental conservation, my father ultimately settled on Aldo Leopold. Already wary at the prospect of a semester catching grasshoppers and surveying deer damage in the fields of Western Pennsylvania, his students no doubt grumbled when they saw a book, a real book, on the syllabus, Leopold’s classic Sand County Almanac. “There are two spiritual dangers to not owning a farm,” Leopold writes. “One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” More than anything else, these lines serve as philosophical mooring for my father.

To him Leopold’s suggestion is, on one level, quite literal. He bought a farm in mid-life, moved the family there, raised cattle and sheep and horses and chickens and goats and pigs. Every morning he changed from overalls to shirt and tie, then drove in to campus for class. Our food often came from the animals on the farm, in fact often came with a name. I raised a hog named Skywise from piglet to lumbering side of bacon. We were aware, then, of where it all came from. We were aware that the clinically shrink-wrapped steaks in the grocery cooler began life as wide-eyed calves. We were aware, too, that cutting and stacking wood takes effort, and that such effort is usually applied when cold November winds bite your hands, make your nose run.

Yet the essence of Leopold is, of course, not literal, even for those who seek the life of the gentleman farmer. Instead, his suggestion is akin to that of Scott Russell Sanders, who says we’re missing something if we don’t know where our weather comes from, if we don’t know which way the runoff flows. The point is to be aware, to inhabit the world in a more than tertiary way. He encourages us to understand the intersection of human life and natural life and to accept that our own lives are essentially natural. Without the farm, we can still understand the farm, can appreciate in an unsqueamish way that meat can only be the result of death.

 

Technically, it’s not desert in these parts, Turquoise Valley sitting in a narrow strip of grassland sandwiched between the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts. But grassland sounds more majestic than the reality of the landscape, a stretch of earth covered as much with spindly mesquite and barbed ocotillo as knee-high fields of grass. Yet there’s more water here than elsewhere, a gift from the nearby San Pedro River, a slender trickle that rambles northward in a corridor of cottonwood trees. Still, the valley depends on the weather patterns of the Arizona desert. In the summer, the winds shift to blow up from the south, across Mexico. With this wind comes heavy moisture from sources scientists can’t quite pinpoint, maybe the Gulf of Mexico, maybe the Gulf of California. Summer heat radiating from the desert mixes with the moisture blowing in, and the results are monsoon thunderstorms, brief, often strong late afternoon boomers that drench the desert. Most of the region’s annual twelve inches of rain come during three months of this wet monsoon.

The effect of these storms is sudden and dramatic. The saturation of the ground releases the scent of sagebrush and soil, a loamy must that resonates within the nostrils. This is a smell of freshness, of renewal and release. For plants and animals, too, the rain rejuvenates, and a land that looked dried, cracked, dead emerges green and lush. Golf courses thrive as well, and men like Big Rick don’t have to worry about loss of grass or job.

Right now it’s dry, though, the monsoon thunderstorms scooting along the peaks of the tall Huachuca Mountains and the shorter Mules, puffy clouds teasing the dry plains below. In these moments, it’s easy to wonder why anyone bothers building golf courses in the desert. The weather’s perfect — blue skies and sunshine nearly every day — but grass needs water, and golf courses need grass.

 

Arizona has its charms, celebrated graphically on the state flag as a blue field dominated by a blazing, stylized sun. Simply enough, it’s sunny in Arizona, and that alone is the draw for millions of Easterners who have tired of winter slop, and gray spring skies, and washed-out summer picnics. For more or less the entire state, a resident can depend on the sun shining more than 300 days a year. Yet the oddity of that sunshine is the excitement with which real Arizonans face rain. Unbroken blue skies gets boring. Sometimes, you need the gloom, if only to appreciate how nice it is to avoid.

I grew up in the gloom, in a small Western Pennsylvania town tucked unfortunately between mountains and three coal-fired power plants. From the top of my parents’ farm, I could look out across the rolling landscape and watch the nearest generating station churn plumes of white vapor into the air. Weather stuck between the mountains, mixed with the stations’ exhausts, and it rained often. In the winter, gray clouds rolled in low, capping the area with a claustrophobic ceiling that hardly lifted from November to April.

But I was used to it. It wasn’t until I moved to Arizona that I began to feel weather, to react on a subconscious level to atmospheric change. A day or so before the occasional gray periods rolled into our Arizona mountain town, I got grumpy, tough to live with. I’d quickly grown accustomed to Arizona’s typical high pressure, the conditions that brought wispy high clouds, sunshine, and blue. When weather fronts pushed the barometer lower, my internal mood dropped too.

This may seem like a reaction of the spoiled; only the insufferable white about a rare cloudy. Yet the reaction was at least partly natural, a body’s response to the atmosphere we live in but typically ignore. I felt the drop deep inside. I grew antsy, irritable, wary of coming storms. Once I realized the source of the shift, I came to at least appreciate the sensation. It offered a reminder that weather doesn’t function as a mere backdrop to life. Indeed, weather is life, a fact that a desert confirms better than most other locales. Without the pressure drop, storms had no chance to enter the state, and without the storms, even the drought-hardy plants of the desert had no chance of survival. Feeling crummy, then, connected me to life-renewing weather.

Certainly, the rain offered its own reward. I used to ride my bicycle around town often, and the best rides were those that came just after the summer storms. The hot air had been doused and replaced by the coolness that follows thunderheads. Puddles filled the gutters, and rare standing water reflected the variegated light of the sky: sunshine streamers ducking between lingering gray clouds, halos and shafts and luminous spots in a place that was typically, boringly blue. Beauty is often best revealed in quick glimpses. It’s too much all at once. Thus the beauty of the sky deepened when shrouded by these clouds. Thus the beauty of the Huachuca Mountains heightened when mist obscured the peak. In those precious hours after the rain, when the barometer lifted along with my mood, the desert danced in light and shadow, showed itself capable of nuance and awe.

 

From a distance, the San Pedro river looks like a mighty flow. Its path can be traced from miles away, as the moisture it offers creates a dramatic change in the landscape. In gentle summer winds, dry grasses wave on the western side of the river, flatland hemmed in by the San Pedro and the craggy Huachucas. On the eastern side, the land climbs out of the river into rolling scrub, and here the spindles of mesquite, creosote bush, and ocotillo take over. Along the river, there are trees, and greenness, relief from the muted ochre and olive that dominate elsewhere.

To the south of Highway 92, the gorge of Greenbush Draw ushers water from Bisbee, and from the golf course, toward the river. Much of the year, the draw runs dry, or barely runs at all. During the monsoon, it often gurgles as heavy waves of chocolate water sling toward the river. On mornings after heavy rains, muddy streaks five feet wide cut across the golf course, residue from the water that rushed from Mexico into the draw, from there to the San Pedro and on north.

As far as rivers go, the San Pedro hardly seems to deserve the name. In most spots, it looks like little more than a ditch, a flattish, slow-moving trickle that carries less water than the tiny unnamed stream in the backyard of my parents’ Pennsylvania home. Yet the San Pedro must be considered mighty. It remains one of the last free-flowing rivers in Arizona. This alone is praise worthy. Other, grander waterways have been dammed, hemmed, redirected to hydrate cotton fields north of Tucson or to provide drinking water for the millions who have come to call Phoenix home. No one has bothered to tinker with the San Pedro, perhaps because of its relative insignificance. In that, the river lives on, offering to the parched landscape between Sierra Vista and Bisbee what it can, a riparian zone of lush grass, turtles, snakes, frogs, trees, a year-long flow of water in a region that typically follows a drought-flood cycle. Above all else, the San Pedro is steady.

Water, of course, defines the desert. Or, rather, lack of water. The great distinction of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert is its abundance of rain, twelve inches a year that create a thorny desert tapestry of saguaro cactus, barrel cactus, cholla, ocotillo, creosote bush, palo verde, yucca, agave, mesquite. The saguaro, notably, drops away in the higher, cooler Chihuahuan Desert that most closely resembles the land around the golf course. But it is this scant amount of rainfall that creates lushness in the Sonoran Desert, a spring bloom of immense beauty and a year-round cover of vegetation that stands in contrast to the clinically arid and empty Mojave Desert of California and Nevada. There, only the Joshua Tree seems to suggest life. The rest of the land stretches on flat, dry, crusted.

It is surprising, then, that the WPA decided to build a golf course here, scraping Turquoise Valley out of the caliche. It is even more surprising that they chose to follow an Eastern template when doing so. The old front nine of the golf course could just as easily sit in wet Pennsylvania as dry Arizona, except for the views. Grass covers every possible inch of the nine, short in the fairways and longer in the rough. Mesquite and other desert scrub were eradicated, taller cottonwoods planted in a spot too far removed from the San Pedro to use its water. As a result, present day Turquoise Valley pumps 200,000 gallons a day in the winter and 800,000 gallons a day in the hot parts of the summer to keep the grass green, all of this drawn from fresh water wells that lie beneath the course. Nearby Bisbee has talked about building a new wastewater treatment plant and delivering reclaimed sewage to the course for irrigation, a notion in full practice in cities like Tucson and Phoenix. But this hasn’t happened yet, so the water that seeps through the fairways at Turquoise Valley could just as easily be used for drinking, could just as easily stay in its subterranean aquifer as it had for millions of years before the course was built. Aldo Leopold, I’m sure, would not be surprised to hear what the WPA wrought.

 

The locals played early in the summer, the old-timers gathering at the first tee each morning by 5:30. Doing so allowed them to play in the cool, when the overnight chilling of the desert left fresh mornings. I played occasionally with a retired banker and a former mayor, Gay and Lefty, a tall Georgian and a crusty old cowboy. They hurtled down the fairways in their personal golf carts, contraptions older than me, with retro styling and rebuilt motors. Gay did so with Hills Bros. coffee cans on the dash, each filled with snacks: peanuts mostly, fitting his Georgia upbringing. They played quickly, finishing by nine, when they retired to the bar for a quick beer, Gay pleased that he’d make it home in time for The Price is Right.

They played early partly because they couldn’t sleep, but mostly to avoid the sweat I usually relished in the summer. I often golfed at noon, the fool’s tee time. But I liked it for the solitude, the summer regulars having long since gone home for the day. In the mid-day heat, I listened to cactus wrens twitter in Greenbush Draw, and I enjoyed the relentless sunshine baking my neck leather brown. It wasn’t bad, as long as I kept drinking water, refilling a Gatorade bottle at the yellow jugs stationed every few holes. I rarely felt the sweat of the day on my body, only found it later as an uneven white line left on the front and back of my golf shirts. This is desert. This is dryness. This is where water goes in the hot Arizona day.

 

There are two spiritual dangers to damming a river. The first danger is assuming the water belongs to you, the other that the river ceases to be.

There are two spiritual dangers to building a golf course in the desert. The first danger is thinking that golf courses must be green, the other that water isn’t precious.

There are two spiritual dangers to moving to the desert. The first danger is thinking lawns must be green, the other that dryness cannot be beautiful.

 

Flying over Arizona, the view from an airplane window can be startling for those unfamiliar with the Southwest. There’s emptiness, miles of uninhabited desert stretching out in each direction. There’s starkness, rocks laid bare, the state appearing like a topographic map unshielded by the heavy vegetation of the East. And there’s water, a long ribbon of gray-blue stretching down the middle of the desert from Lake Pleasant through red dirt desert into Phoenix. This is the canal of the Central Arizona Project, a 336 mile aqueduct that diverts water from the Colorado River, dammed at the California border to make Lake Havasu, into central and southern Arizona. Pushed through by Barry Goldwater, the canal was meant to distribute the state’s negotiated share of Colorado River for municipal and agricultural use.

I remember seeing this canal for the first time, on a visit months prior to moving to the Southwest, and I remember wondering why someone would build an open canal through a hot desert. Evaporation alone must eliminate a hefty portion of the water. The canal’s existence, however, offers a poignant visual example of water usage in the desert Southwest. Certainly, the people living there need the water, at least if need is based on a right to grow a water-intensive crop like cotton, or a right to erect multi-million-person cities in an arid region with limited water supply. So it is that experts proclaim that the Southwest will run out of water at some point, that the high population and relative lack of water conservation will, eventually, catch up. Desert entropy again, the landscape working to reclaim itself for plants and animals better adapted to the natural cycles of the region.

I think, then, of the golf courses I’ve played in the area, acknowledging my own complicity in what could easily be called irresponsible resource management. Some get it as right as might be possible, limiting irrigated acreage to small islands of fairway, foregoing grass roughs for thatches of desert, prickly areas out of play that make a ball lost for all but the bravest of golfers. Plants and animals, both, bite in the desert. Some of these courses allow for hard fairways, too, accepting the limitations of the region. But others do not, instead dumping water on the desert until the fairways are soft, thick, lush. They grow trees that love water, and have lakes, and look both lovely and out of place.

Turquoise Valley, for its part, does both of these things in its design. The old nine follows the pattern of hubris, ignoring locale to make a golf course that could fit in rainy Scotland. The new nine limits grass, leaves the mesquite thickets, plays like a desert. And in many ways, the golf course seeks to limit its water use: the urinals in the clubhouse are high-tech jobbies that use no water at all.

Part of this, maybe most, comes from simple economics. Just running the pumps in the summer costs $3,000 a month in electricity, a hefty outlay of cash to pull water from the ground to the ponds and onto the fairways. If it works, Turquoise Valley is happy to get the reclaimed water from the proposed Bisbee plant. It would save money. And that, of course, is probably how environmental protection really needs to be seen. The planet, the desert, these things don’t exactly need saving. We can’t destroy them, only offer wounds deep enough to destroy ourselves. Running out of drinking water means little to the Sonoran Desert, but it means a lot to the people who live there. That is, the monsoon storms will return, rain turtles or no. Whether anyone remains to see them, to pull the heady aromas into their lungs, to feel the blessed cool of a thunderhead, to hear the frogs emerge from the mud, that’s something else altogether.

 

September and May are the hottest months. The sun is full, still high in its summer position, but the monsoon is not in effect. There are no thunderstorms to mitigate the temperature. For Tucson, late May usually marks the imaginary “breaking of the ice” on the Santa Cruz River, an annual rite that marks the first 100-degree day. There’s rarely water in the Santa Cruz, though, even when the ice breaks. Instead, like most of the rivers in the hot Sonoran Desert, the Santa Cruz traces a sandy, shrubby line through the city. Except for monsoon washouts, the river is usually home only to off-road motorcycles and four-wheelers.

On the other end of the monsoon, ripened September grass invites swarms of grasshoppers into the late summer heat. My last autumn at Turquoise Valley, the swarm arrived in Biblical numbers, a plague that covered the ground in bodies. Grasshoppers popped and burst beneath the tires of golf carts. The sheer numbers crawling the paths made it impossible to dodge the crushing. Within a few days, the back nine took on the stench of rot, a combination of decaying grasshopper bodies and grasshopper waste.

I always walked the course, and that September I did so with sudden flutters of grasshoppers erupting around me. They banged off my shoulders, my knees, my golf bag, hard impacts from insects as large as two inches. Among the swarm I found tiny neon green hoppers; two-inch brown hoppers; half-inch brown hoppers. I found large black horse lubbers, a variety the locals call Mexican Generals, stark black insects with neon-colored piping around the legs and abdomen. I found a single specimen of the aptly named painted grasshopper, a smallish animal with orange, blue, and yellow splotches startling in their brightness. I took that one home, put it in the freezer to show my biologist father on his next visit west.

For the course superintendent, the grasshoppers proved more troubling, since their presence equated to threat. They covered the course because of the grass, because it offered food that the surrounding scrub did not. That year’s inordinate hatch came as a surprise, and the super found himself unprepared to deal with the infestation. The hoppers found the grass he’d planted on mounds left of the fairway on number 12. “That’s like tenderloin to ‘em,” he said of the fresh shoots, then hurried off to order pesticides.

Unimpeded, the hoppers would have eaten away the irrigated grass and left behind the same brown desert that thrived outside the borders of the golf course. And maybe someday they’ll succeed. On the greens that autumn, large brown females dug their rear ends into the grass, ovipositors injecting eggs directly into the soil. The eggs will wait out the dry, watch the sky for gathering clouds, moisten and hatch alongside the cycles of desert rain.