(Published April 2008 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)
Isn’t the Sonoran desert grand?
It's not just big, having a range northward almost to Prescott and southward across the border to the tip of Mexico’s Baja California. I also mean fabulous and awesome.
Being one of you, a borderlands photographer, it’s a bit hard for me not to capture images common to the Sonoran desert. A venerated subject of nature photography, the Sonoran desert includes archetypal landscapes and the saguaro cactus. The iconic image of the Saguaro is clichéd, but for the purpose of my column this month, so what! The saguaro is grand, and enduringly popular.
That said, my photography often veers away from Sonoran images, dwelling instead on scenes in higher-elevation zones of the Santa Cruz river area, such as the mesquite-bosque, desert scrub, desert grassland, and riparian zones of this region. Sonoran images are well covered already by other photographers, and besides, our borderlands region offers so many diverse alternatives. However, the nearby Sonoran expanse begs my interpretation of it.
The village of Tubac lies on the eastern edge of the Sonoran desert, near a transitional grasslands area bordering the Chihuahuan desert farther east. I feel a bit sorry for points east since, by and large, they don’t have the saguaro and appear sparse without it!
Threats to the Sonoran desert are many and extreme. Ignorant and greedy development is foremost, and illegal border activity, off-road vehicle abuse and invasive species such as buffelgrass add to the crisis. Currently, freeway by-pass construction is a major threat in Pima county which must be fought vigorously.
But even with all the stress imposed by humans, the Sonoran desert still provides a world of unique photographic subjects, including vast open spaces with few scars yet, carpets of seasonal wildflowers and thousands of native American sites of photogenic rock art, most of which are still secret.
Among trackless open spaces nearby is the Tohono O’odham Nation. This native American land is a giant slab of southern Arizona which, in a way, is another Sonoran desert national park which will never be developed (except, of course, at the edges with casinos). You should go visit this vast place. If you do, and want to head into the back country, you will need a permit that’s available by calling tribal headquarters in the town of Sells. Here, your landscape photography should often feature the sky, especially during monsoon season. The desert's clear blue skies do actually become tiresome; the clouds of the brief stormy seasons create the most awesome skies available anywhere on the planet, providing the drama of color and texture to the sky.
Wildflowers are among nature’s most popular desert photo subjects, under the right conditions of moisture and temperature. February and March are the best times for Sonoran wildflowers and, locally, some of the best places to see them are Picacho Peak State Park, Ironwood Forest National Monument, and of course, Saguaro National Park, which is split into eastern and western districts. I often visit the eastern district’s southerly-facing Hope Camp Trail for a multitude of wild blossoms. Seasonal snow runoff provides an extra benefit: streams and waterfalls.
The big guy.
Another wildflower, the big one, is the Saguaro blossom which blooms later, peaking in late May. Also, saguaro oddities are a favorite photographic subject in the Sonoran desert. The strange and fantastic shapes of the arms of mature saguaro, including the rare crested saguaro, a mutation, have infinite variety. Once you’ve found something unusual, it’s best to work carefully on the angle of your photo to capture the odd shape in the best way, often upward with the sky in the background to provide clear contrast.
Rock art can be found in Ironwood Forest National Monument, but you must search for it, as sites are not officially marked in order to preserve them. If you discover pictographs or petroglyphs, never touch them or walk on them. Just take lots of photos from a short distance. When you do, make sure plenty of light exists to highlight the faded artwork, preferably in open sunlight or with flash. Rock art often creates fine black-and-white images and these can be improved by increasing contrast to elicit the patterns clearly.
The open Sonoran desert involve risks existing throughout this region, only more so. To paraphrase "Duke" Wayne, everything in this country either sticks you, stings you, or bites you. I never wear shorts while hiking even on the hottest days. The primary danger is rattlesnakes, and 80 percent of bites happen in the lower legs. You might consider buying gaiters, or lower leg chaps, designed to be snake-proof. The other 20 percent of bites are in the hands and arms, so always be careful where you reach. There’s no treatment for rattlesnake bites except anti-venom administered by medical personnel.