The Desert Year, by Joseph Wood Krutch (Tucson, Arizona : The University of Arizona Press, 1985)
"During the first year in any given place one is a visitor. As soon as things begin to come 'round again, one has begun to be a resident. And it was in order to become technically a resident that I settled here." -- from The Desert Year, by Joseph Wood Krutch
The Desert Year, by Joseph Wood Krutch, helps readers see and value the Sonoran Desert. Written over fifty years ago, its journey is timeless. Joseph Wood Krutch grew up in Tennessee, later moving to professorships in New York and Massachusetts. On vacations from academia, he spent time in the southwest and began to know some of the desert's flora and fauna. But, a desire for a deeper relationship with the landscape and its inhabitants brought him to a house on a "bajada" near Tucson during a 15-month sabbatical in the early 1950s. While there, he wrote The Desert Year, a beautifully written book that pulls readers into the pages and landscape.
Joseph Wood Krutch moves readers slowly into the landscape and his thoughts, first sharing the reasons "why [he] came" to the Sonoran Desert, "what it looks like," and "how to see it." He tells us that he has "come for the sixth time; but on this occasion to live for fifteen months in a world which will...lose the charm of the strange only to take on the more powerful charm of the familiar." He gives readers a general tour of where he is, the "house not ten miles from a medium-sized town but plump in the middle of hundreds of acres of desert." We meet a few of the cacti and animals that share the land and are told about water's role as the "limiting factor" for all who reside there. What Krutch wants most is to truly see the desert and he wants readers to see it with him. So, he shares his "homely technique:" when he feels "in danger of seeing nothing at all" he "simply...greet[s] each thing as it comes along, by name if [he] knows it." He remembers Thoreau and Wordsworth "who realized that the rare moment is not the moment when there is something worth looking at but the moment when we are capable of seeing." These early chapters prepare readers for moving deeper into the Sonoran Desert.
Krutch moves deeper into the landscape by paying attention to seasonal changes, beginning in summer when "only the night sky feels familiar." "If I look about me at the landscape," the newly arrived Krutch writes, "I seem to have traveled a long way and to be in a strange land. If I look above, I am still at home." We learn about summer weather, the continuous sun at summer's beginnings and the monsoons later in the season. He marvels at the ingenuity of the plants and animals that "manage to survive on a quantity of water which would soon bring death to those of any other climate." Krutch shares his amazement on a warm summer night after the "second rain" when the Sonoran spadefoot toad appears making "the whole desert...suddenly vocal," only to disappear again. The toad not only raises questions about the species for Krutch, but philosophical ones as well. Seeing the landscape from a mountaintop and the rescuing of a bat offer more questions and insights. As Krutch wonders, readers do too.
Chapter ten describes Krutch's "search for autumn." He'd been told that "this climate knows no fall," but he disagrees, thinking that autumn here "will slip quietly upon us, as the very earliest spring usually does in Connecticut." An anthill provides the first sign of fall, followed by others. By the end of October Krutch notices "a diminution in the brilliance of the light now that the sun does not come so close to the zenith as it did in early summer." He tells readers that this "diminished brilliance, rather than any change in the color of the landscape itself," is what "makes one aware that the color is, indeed, the color of October, not of July." There are other changes too. Like elsewhere, some birds migrate while others stay. Purple asters "bloom by the roadside" and "caltrops" burrs "clinging to...clothing" also signal change. A short journey into the nearby mountains is further proof of Fall's appearance; Krutch finds the cottonwoods and sycamores "as unmistakably autumnal as anything in New England." The night sky, too, indicates the earth's turning.
Winter in the Sonoran Desert, Krutch determines, will be more like a "doze" than a "real winter sleep." But, it is during the winter that the night sky surprises him as Canopus, "the brightest star of the Southern Hemisphere," is visible "just above the southern horizon." He takes readers on a journey during winter, away from his own "Lower Sonoran" and into the deserts nearby -- Mojave, Colorado -- returning with the certainty that he prefers the desert he has chosen, and his place on the "upper bajadas," "best of all."
Spring approaches "almost imperceptibly, through February and early March, the pulse of the happy season beat fuller and stronger." Butterflies appear and birds return. The "mesquite begins to call attention to itself by displaying its threadlike 'fairy dusters,' and the so-called desert marigold wave[s] its innumerable, curiously luminous yellow heads in the sun." Cottonwoods begin to leaf and lizards sun themselves. By mid-May there are blooms on the prickly pear cactus, the saguaros, and Krutch's favorite, the ocotillo, with its brilliant red flowers.
At the end of The Desert Year, Krutch anticipates summer's return. He is more familiar with the landscape now. He looks forward to summer's changes, including the return of the Sonoran spadefoot toad and the night or two of "the whole desert...suddenly vocal," bats swooping in "as night falls," and summer's night sky overhead.
The Desert Year, by Joseph Wood Krutch, is a gift to anyone who enters its pages. Whether resident, visitor, or a reader at home, Krutch gently teaches us about the uniqueness of the Sonoran Desert, how to see the landscape, and what it means to become a resident in the places we call home.
What I learned from my desert year was, first and most generally to be 'more sure of all I thought was true.' Specifically, I re-learned many platitudes, including some I have mentioned -- such as, for instance, that courage is admirable even in a cactus; that an abundance of some good things is perfectly compatible with a scarcity of others; that life is everywhere precarious, man everywhere small. -- from The Desert Year, by Joseph Wood Krutch
The Voice of the Desert : a Naturalist's Interpretations, by Joseph Wood Krutch
(Out of print, but easily found used.)
Written after Joseph Wood Krutch and his wife settled permanently on a bajada near Tucson, The Voice of the Desert delves deeper into the Sonoran Desert's natural history and lessons.
To me it seems...that this particular world has become increasingly too little, not too much, 'with us.' And to believe as I do, one does not need to believe that nature embodies any ideal rightness. It is equally true if one believes, instead, that she illustrates the fundamental contingencies of things-as-they-are and that those who forget to observe her are pretty sure to act with disastrous disregard of the contingencies which she illustrates. -- from The Desert Year, by Joseph Wood Krutch