Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

December 21, 2004. The South West Landscape

The south west really isnít anything like the rest of the US. Or at least the parts I know. The landscape out here is stark and dramatic, sometimes beautiful, sometimes oppressive in its openness and lack of vegetation. I thought of the desert as dry, but didnít appreciate that that meant there were no trees or other large plants to block the view. So you can see for miles and miles and miles. And because it doesnít often rain, the sky is rarely cloudy. So itís a landscape of vast open space, blue skies, and overpowering sun. From close up itís sometimes dreary, but from a distance it can be stunning, especially when the evening sun tints the mountains in a rosy glow.

Itís not always dreary from close up, though. To my eastern eyes accustomed to green hillsides and deciduous forests, the cactus can be fascinating. The saguaros are the best of course. Tall and stately, they seem to move gracefully across the landscape in a very sedate waltz, sometimes in pairs, but often by themselves. I can see them dipping at the knee and bowing their tall heads to each other as they pass in the dance, moving in measured steps and talking by rules when the music allows, like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy at a ball. Occasionally a cactus goes wild, twisting and waving its arms up and down in a frenzied effort to escape the upright rigidity of its species. Those must be the adolescents, or perhaps batty old ladies, desperately trying to break into wildness and frivolity. But more often they line up in neat columns, not even thinking of a different way of life.

Other plants are equally strange. The organ pipe cactus, found appropriately at Organ Pipes National Monument, grow in great clumps, from which they get their name. The teddy bear cholla looks lovely and cuddly from a distance, but from close up itís a nasty creature. Brush past it and small cactus buds snag your clothes and come off the plant, using you to transport them to a new spot where they will land on the ground and root. But reach to pull them off your clothes, and they plunge their barbed thorns into your fingers. And even once you find a way to get them off of you and onto the ground the barbs remain in your clothes and your skin and painfully resist your best efforts to extract them.

The ocotillos are gaunt scary creatures, which remind me of a skeletal drawing I once made of a potted plant, intended to illustrate communities dying instead of boldly flourishing. Then thereís another plant whose base is a spherical ball of leaves like the top of a pineapple, with a single four or five-foot stem stretching up to a clump of brown seed pods at the top. The yucca has narrow leaves that spread in a fan, with ragged strings at the edges that have been used by Indians for centuries to make thread or string. The bark of the palo verde trees is covered with a soft green-ish yellow fuzz that makes them look as if they live in a permanent world of early spring.

Iíve met people here who tell me with longing how beautiful Virginia is. Itís all relative Ė we see the beauty in what is different for us. So for me the cactus and the desert mountains at sunset are incredible, for them the rolling hills of Loudoun County are just as striking.

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