Russell is a dear friend of mine from back home… the desert in New Mexico.
He has captured the landscape of my memories in way that helps me be away from it- every sentence rings true, every word is poignant and representative of where I’m from. Funny enough, what happened to the desert this summer is reminiscent of what’s happened in life.
Good things keep happening – and it’s getting easier to read the warning signs.
A Green Summer
by Russell Pyle
Living in the desert has its obvious challenges, not least of all is the constant search for water.
All living things residing in desert climes face this similar fate; for a creature can exist for quite
some time without food, but water is the stuff of life. It would seem that nothing can survive long
without it. The desert, that ever changing and surprising landscape, holds so many secrets of
survival that nothing is ever as it seems.
New Mexico, like much of the great southwest, depends on monsoon rains during July and
August to buoy yearly rainfall totals. Rainfall throughout the rest of the year is lackluster at best,
and there have been many late spring months where residents of Albuquerque and beyond
have felt the emotional toll that a dry fall and winter can have on a body and mind. Not only do
the rains hold the key for physical life to continue and flourish, they provide a vital service to the
mind and spirit; invigorating, revitalizing.
So it is with great anticipation that the desert awaits its drink. The months of April and May,
casually letting loose the clouds on much of the rest of the country, deny the southwest their
respite from up to 6 months with less than an inch of precipitation. June comes in with a deeply
draining sense of hopelessness, until the last weeks, when a cold breeze begins applying itself
to the west. Then, sometime in early July, late in the afternoon, big bellied clouds roll in off the
volcanoes in the west, catching against the Jemez, Sandia, and Manzano mountains, and piling
up in great towers of darkened cotton. All at once they drop their payload, often for 45 minutes
at a time, then breaking away allowing the sun one last glimpse of the earth before clocking out
from it’s shift. Not to worry, the great cumulus clouds will return tomorrow, and they are
The desert that greets the sun the morning following the first monsoon rains is not the same as
the one from the day before. Small green ground cover begins to appear in what was only one
day ago a great brown ocean, the cholla and prickly pear cacti start showing the faint traces of
flower, and blue gramma and buffalo grasses begin the short journey towards shedding their
seeds and perpetuating their survival. As the days pass with their daily downpours late in the
afternoon, the burnt landscape begins its seasonal transformation. And the desert knows
exactly what it needs: summer rainfall late in the day or overnight is far more beneficial than the
late morning or afternoon. During the peak heat times of the day the rain can evaporate so
quickly that it won’t make a difference if it makes it to the ground, and often won’t make it to the
ground at all. Rain late in the day and at night allows for the rain to hit the desert floor and soak
in, nurturing the soil for as long as it can.
Watching the walls of water spread out in the distance is a captivating experience. As the
thunderheads migrate eastward, great sheets of rain paint the horizon below the clouds different
shades of slate, gray, and charcoal, based upon the intensity of the downpour. These screens
stretch for miles and miles, blanketing the distance but inching ever closer towards the
volcanoes on the edge of Albuquerque where I bear witness to their unfurling. The volcanoes
are the best place in Albuquerque to watch a storm: they provide a complete panorama of the
city edged against the great Sandia Mountains to the east as well as the vast expanse of
nowhere reaching North, South, and West. The city in the valley below sparkles in the twilight as
lights turn on to greet the coming night. Why are you people in your homes? Why are you not
outside to catch some of the life that will soon be spilling out of the skies?
Water hitting hot, dry ground has always produced one of the most aromatherapeutic smells in
the natural, or unnatural world. As a child I remember the smell of the first rain drops hitting the
dark macadam of the city streets where I grew up. A sweet, slightly metallic odor rises as the
water mixes with the oils on the blacktop. The heat causing the cold drops to create small
geysers of steam that dissipate about a foot off the ground, releasing the familiar, long-awaited
smell before soaking the earth and morphing into something a little more sickly-sweet, losing the
metallic layers in the process. I never thought there was a better smell until I experienced the
rain hitting dry dust instead of the tar of industry – sage, rosemary, and desert willow instead
of grass and the old mulch of far-fallen leaves from the previous autumn. Equally earthy, but
much more natural, pure, cleansing. The ground of my youth was polluted by an overabundance
of smells that overwhelmed the olfactory system. In contrast, the desert smells mix menthol and
camphor, clearing the nasal passages and calming frazzled nerves quickly. The air is thick with
a dusty scent in accompaniment as the parched sand and dirt fly into the air with each new
strike of the raindrops.
While this process repeats itself for two weeks every summer, every ten years or so an anomaly
may arise like the cumulonimbus clouds towering the horizon. During this type of year the
monsoons stay not for two weeks, but stretch from the end of June till the middle of August,
enveloping most of the summer in a perpetual forecast of moisture. The year I arrived in the
southwest, 2006, was one such year. This year, 2015, has been another. In fact, the rains began
in the beginning of May and have not quit. Rain has not shown its face every day, but more days
than not have been marked by puddled gutters and wonderfully smelling desert plant life. When
looking west towards the volcanoes a great green country greets the eye, beckoning. Driving
through the region, north through Colorado and west through northern Arizona, the same site is
present. Ten-year water numbers are vastly improving due to the amount of water falling from
the sky. Rivers rise above their banks throughout the area and the Rio Grande, running mere
blocks from my home, and is high and muddy on a consistent basis; a tell-tale sign of extreme
runoff. The desert has changed before my eyes: once a barren, desolate patch, promising a
harsh and unforgiving existence is now a healing factor, stitching the wounds of my year and
applying a needed salve.
The desert is analogous to life in many ways. St. John had his long dark night of the soul, but I
feel like what he was describing is better termed as a long walk through the desert. Periods of
extreme drought followed by an outpouring of growth and beauty. Creatures that have adapted
to the harsh life offered by the desert have one constant instinct: get water, stay alive. Again,
this is analogous to what humans need throughout their lives. There must be a constant search
for that which gives life, that which sustains. When I am parched from these things I dry up and
become emotionally dormant, unable to grow and show the world the beauty that is my true
identity. On the converse, when I find and drink the water of life I flourish and bloom, my
winsome nature becoming apparent not only to the world around me, but also to myself.
Finding the well can be difficult, and from time to time the water dries up, leaving me to search
for a new drought. Fortunate for me there are dowsers as a guide: exercise, connecting with
nature, exploring spirituality. Unfortunate for me, there are also springs that promise to quench
thirst, and seem to do exactly that at first, only to reveal themselves to be a poison. Or they are
actually feeding the side of me that takes away life.
Consider the Cherokee legend of the two wolves: A grandfather explains to his grandchild that
he has two wolves fighting within him. One wolf is malice, anger, shame, and pain. The other is
love, compassion, peace, and contentment. The child asks, “Which will win?” The grandfather
replies, “The one I feed.”
I see that there is water that will feed my beauty, and there is water that will feed my pain. There
aren’t always clear signs hanging from those wells that hold poison, but I have always felt that
there are signs on the wells that give life. So I continue to search through the desert, drinking
greedily when I come to the latter.
A western hike through the volcanoes this week shows the signs of the dry season to come:
gold-brown patches have appeared amongst the green, and the walls of water that once
dominated the sky are no longer. It will be a while before desperation creeps back over these
lands, but it is inevitable. Like the amazing Rose of Jericho, the desert will crawl into its dusty
brown turmoil, looking dead until the next season of monsoons hit, allowing it to bloom for only
Thanks Russell, for your words.
It’s pretty amazing that your arrival to Albuquerque brought the rain… while my departure did the same, ten years later.
Cheers to the change and growth- and to finding our healing water, always.
Lou (who has the desert in her veins)