Desert Wisdom’s Great Reads

  7 Desert Wisdom’s Great Reads

For contemplatives living the connection between sacred desert places and the soul within, I offer a partial list of books on my shelf. Each is a great comfort and an invaluable resource for “homing” Art and Faith in the Desert. Every time I open one of these books, I find exact passages or quotes I am looking for: natural gleanings, like minerals in alluvial plains, placer gold in the black-sand bottoms of arroyos.

In the pages, I meet my intrepid peers: writers walking the margins, kindred spirits searching, seeking, questing… and I no longer feel alone. I settle into an easy chair and take my place in a chorus of voices speaking for the heart of the desert…

Note: Unless otherwise stated, all nonfiction selections include market descriptions. You can find many of these titles in used book stores, thrift stores, & garage sales. One of my favorite haunts is the all-volunteer “Friends of the Library” shops. If you can not find one in your community, start one!

Part 1 of the Series

1. A Beautiful, Cruel Country by Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce.

“Cruce’s book, rich with imagery and dialogue, brings Arivaca area to life in the early 1900’s. Her story of homesteading Arizona Territory, America’s last frontier, by Anglo and Mexican settlers alike, with Indian populations on the periphery, is built around the annual cycle of ranch life – its spring and fall roundups, planting and harvesting – and features a cavalcade of border characters, anecdotes about folk medicine, and recollections of events that were most meaningful in a young girl’s life.”

2. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes by Belden C. Lane

“In the tradition of Kathleen Norris, Terry Tempest Williams, and Thomas Merton, Belden Lane explores the impulse that has drawn seekers into the wilderness for centuries and offers eloquent testimony to the healing power of mountain silence and desert indifference….

Drawing upon the Wisdom of St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhardt, Simone Weil, Edward Abby, and many other Christian and non-Christian writers, Lane also demonstrates how those of us cut off from the wilderness might “make some desert in our lives.”

3. The Voice of the Desert; A Naturalist’s Interpretation by Joseph Wood Krutch

“This book explores the rich, intriguing, unexpected variety of life in the desert of America’s southwest. It is both for the lovers of natural history and for those who enjoy the ruminations of a wise mind. ‘A sound naturalist in the philosophical rather than the merely botanical and biological sense,’ Krutch’s adventure with the natural wonders of the desert is a joyful, wise and witty credo by a man who knows that the proper study of mankind extends to all of Nature.

4. Rain of Gold by Victor Villasenor

“Rain of Gold is a true-life saga of love, family, and destiny that pulses with bold vitality, sweeping from the war-ravaged Mexican mountains of Pancho Villa s revolution to the days of Prohibition in California.
An all-American story of struggle and success, Rain of Gold focuses on three generations of Villasenor s kin, their spiritual and cultural roots back in Mexico, their immigration to California and overcoming poverty, prejudice, and economic exploitation. It is the warm-hearted and spirited account of the wily, wary and persevering forebears of Victor Villasenor.”

4. The Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas Merton

 The Wisdom of the Desert was one of Thomas Merton’s favorites among his own books―surely because he had hoped to spend his last years as a hermit.

The personal tones of the translations, the blend of reverence and humor so characteristic of him, show how deeply Merton identified with the legendary authors of these sayings and parables, the fourth-century Christian Fathers who sought solitude and contemplation in the deserts of the Near East.

The hermits of Screte who turned their backs on a corrupt society remarkably like our own had much in common with the Zen masters of China and Japan, and Father Merton made his selection from them with an eye to the kind of impact produced by the Zen Mondo.

5. Desert Cantos, by Photographer Richard Misrach, (a favorite submitted by Tucson Photographer Stephanie Stayton.)

“…His desert pictures as part of a single great work, divided by smaller themes and stylistic treatments. When collected together, they become a monumental study constructed by wide-ranging explorations of many aspects of a complex subject with a long history and ultimately a rumination on self and identity. The American West is the landscape that defined the American psyche as we know it. Through his work, we come to understand that both may be stranger than we think.” http://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/blog/9107/a-lifes-work-richard-misrach/

7. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams

“In the early 80’s, The Great Salt Lake began to rise to record heights, threatening the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and the herons, owls, and snowy egrets that Williams, a poet, and naturalist, had come to gauge her life by. One event was nature at its most random, the other a by-product of rogue technology: Terry’s mother, and Terry herself had been exposed to the fallout of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s. As it interweaves these narratives of dying & accommodation, Refuge transforms tragedy into a document of renewal and spiritual grace, resulting in a work that has become a classic.”

Curated by Valarie lee James

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* Add your own favorite Great Reads about the desert to the comments Section to be included on the next list in Desert Wisdom’s Great Reads. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wildflowers of Art Jump the Border Wall

Most U.S. citizens will never venture south to spend time with these images so let me take you along as I scout the margins of culture, my eye in my camera. Unless we get to know our neighbor’s cultural landscape, we are foreigners; “us and them,” unforgivable on this benevolent planet filled with Art and wildflowers.

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‘Someone Waiting for You and Thinking about You”

Wildflowers along the border thrive in the poorest of soils. Tenuous but tough, they prove to be some of the most resilient species on the planet.

Like wildflowers, street art flourishes in the bleakest of conditions. Art by the people and for the people: Graffiti, one-off posters, pop-up installations… wild, spontaneous, renegade art mirroring culture’s political truths and spiritual yearnings.

Our instinct as human beings, our unstoppable drive to “make marks” leads one to wonder if indigenous rock art, petroglyphs, and pictographs, were, in fact, the visual wildflowers of the Ancients.

Symbols stenciled on rock faces and laid out in line, shape, and form on the earth itself, gave human beings a pictorial language, a way to communicate pre-dating the written word.

Long before and after our small band of border artists in Amado and Arivaca, AZ., laid down our tools, other artists from the Americas, alone and in groups, have gathered at the Arizona – Mexico wall. Magnetized by a collective ache in the soul, wielding brushes and spray cans like a warrior army of creativity, artists manage to surmount the border wall time and again.

I believe artists of the future will be less lauded for singular genius and more noted for collaborating with other artists (and non-artists) in collective work that fosters community.

If there is any upside at all to our current Administration’s political climate, it is that more people recognize how essential the role of Art is in uplifting hearts and minds.  Artists carry a necessary role in inspiring, educating and healing the planet.

Outsider Art (who is the “outsider” here really?), like all natural phenomenon relegated to the margins, will always find its way to the center. Marginalized Imagery, walled away unseen and unimagined, eventually seizes the Commons with a new irrefutable language of the eye.

Unsigned and sometimes unschooled, created with no obvious economic incentive, and often scrawled furtively in the dark of night, Art on the margins carries a prescient message to the dominant culture. Fresh ‘Outsider’ – there’s that word again –  perspective roots and spreads like weeds, takes over and becomes the norm.

Here and now in the Sonoran Desert in early summer, the wild white Southwestern Prickly Poppy takes over. I think of it as the flower of June.

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All along the highways of Southeastern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, and coming up through the cracks in the sidewalks, stands of Southwestern Prickly Poppy rise as high as four feet tall. Known locally as “Cowboy’s Fried Egg,” (Cardo or Chicalote in Spanish), the flower is as showy as it is prickly.

I think of another prominent summer flower, the Sacred Datura, as the flower of the monsoon season. As surely as the upward thrust of Sacred Datura and other desert wildflowers after the rains, Art of the people rises in response to the U.S.’s current anti-immigrant, anti-human regime especially here on the streets of border communities in Mexico.

I first saw the permanent ten-foot ft. high painting of 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, gunned down by U.S. Border Patrol, this Spring at Jose Antonio’s annual vigil in Nogales, Sonora, MX.

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The frontal portrait, boldly executed in afterlife blue, mounted on steel and footed with rebar, was painted by a Tucson artist and donated to the family unsigned. Jose’s prominent and compelling face preserves history and guarantees that Jose Antonio will not soon be forgotten.

And in May, at the Mothers across Borders Unity Celebration held at the primary school nearby, we faced the border wall in front of us. Art executed by and for the people covered the wall’s concrete abutment. Eye level, it was all we could see.

The slatted 18 ft. high border wall loomed above us, jutting up from a concrete reinforced bank, itself 20 ft. high in some places. An alien thing, the metallic snake of a wall undulates up and over the hills of Nogales, disappearing over the horizon.

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On the wall of a storefront between the primary school and the spot Jose Antonio was killed, you can still stick your finger in the holes in the plaster left by the bullets that cut that boy down.

A ghosted Banksy-like stencil of Jose Antonio is flanked by posters glued with a patina of decomposition. At the vigil, the wall provided support for posters of other victims of U.S. Border Patrol.

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Walking along the wall, I see another equally large painting affixed to the base of the wall. Imfoculla Inocencia en la frontera, depicts a young boy carrying a backpack astride a burro, looking over his shoulder, his eyes wide with fear. The shadowy figure of death waits implacably in front of him. The painting is signed by the artist Ruben Daniels and dated Dec. 2014.

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Down the line, the concrete abutment to the wall is tattooed with graffiti. Universal symbols – A white dove, hearts, tears, bullets – share the concrete along with the powerful text: No Mas Muertos and Chinga la Migra plus the artist’s own street tags e.g. “We are as Free as the Paper.”

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Wooden crosses, in every color, span the length of the wall and lean against its metal base. I wonder if they are the same crosses (once white, maybe now repainted) I saw there in the early 2000’s or if they are wholly new. Probably, new. So many more have died since then. There will never be enough crosses to mark the dead.

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White palm prints climb the rusted metal slats leading to the words: Migrando Al La Libertad Sondeh – Migrating to Liberty. And: Volemos sin Rumba Sigamos Al Viento – Let’s fly without a Party, Let’s go to the wind. Here the palm prints change shape. Fingers turn to feathers.

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Down the wall, images of candles painted in dusky gold flame on every post, inviting one to go through, lit by hope. Each wayfarer can’t help but feel the presence of all the souls who passed this way, though their hopes may have been forever extinguished.

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Lastly, free-standing painted metal figures appear to be growing in number over time. Paseo de Humanidad, the Parade of Humanity, created by Nogales artists Guadalupe Serrano and the late Alberto Morackis are symbolic human figures combined with Aztec and Mayan codices and painted with contemporary border symbology.

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Apparently, when it was first installed on the Mexican side of the border the compelling piece became a shrine for families of migrants who placed candles and small offerings at the base of the sculpture.

I invite you, dear reader, to look closely at each figure. Paseo de Humanidad is a 3-D mural in the historical tradition of Mexico’s famous painted murals. Paseo de Humanidad instructs, inspires and in this case, memorializes thousands who have died crossing the border.

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One set of figures includes a skeletal human bent to the ground. Carried overhead: a mummy wrapped in cloth and tied with rope. A mariachi musician carries a sack of musical instruments, a mother holds a child, even narco saint Jesus Malverde joins the line. One human figure sports a volcano erupting from its chest, another is a human bomb, one is coiled with snakes, and one laborer shoulders giant screws and a washing machine.

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Large corn husks, prickly pear cactus pads, giant chilies and tropical flowers, all symbols of the earth are part of the figures themselves.

The iconic symbols continue through the next set of three figures chased by the dark green figure of a Border Patrol agent wielding a club. One orange humanoid has a retablo-like image: a carved soldier with a table-top cross on his chest. Another figure is covered with hand symbols and the next has eyes in his appendages while his internal organs have migrated to the outside of his torso.

Running over the heads of each figure are graphic iconic-like shapes, multiple Mesoamerican mask motifs, wild birds and a huge fish breathing water like air, along with plants, grasses, and shoes endemic to the migrant path.

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Over the years, Artwork, especially Graffiti fades in the harsh sun but is inevitably retagged and replaced by more. Each season of repression gives rise to another generation of artists. The degraded soil sprouts Spring and Summer wildflowers and year after year, Mothers bear children… children who pick wildflowers, make art, and dream of freedom.

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*Note to the reader: Please extend a necessary grace to this post with regards to translations. The visual language of the people’s Art just south of the border wall has much to teach us. As a writer, I celebrate words, but as an artist, I hope my words don’t get in the way. *Also, I would like to see the Graffiti artists in this post be credited. Message me… 

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Mothers Across Borders

Groups of smiling mothers, young and old, spilled out of their children’s primary school and into the street that faces the border wall in Nogales, Sonora. Just paces away on this same street is the spot where young Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez was inexplicably shot dead through the slats in the wall by U. S. Border Patrol in 2012.

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It is two days before Mother’s Day held in Mexico on Wednesday, May 10. We, mostly gray-haired Gringas, are waiting to meet the mothers of Mexico with bunches of flowers and cards in hand. I carry a homemade sign painted with an image of our Lady of Guadalupe with butterflies on one side of the sign and on the other: a painting of a migrant mother lettered with the message: “Bring Guadalupe Home.”

I imagine against hope that I might see Guadalupe Garcia de Reyos, one of the first undocumented immigrants deported in 2017.  But her children are not here at this school in Nogales, Sonora. They are in school in Phoenix, no doubt acutely missing their mother, especially this week.  This year and into the foreseeable future, they will endure two Mother’s days in two separate countries.

The Mothers here in Nogales, Sonora had been called to the school for a Mother’s Day Celebration. They had no idea until that very moment that women from the other side of the line had shown up with gifts.  Taken by complete surprise, they chattered excitedly, kissed and hugged us and each other.

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The air was fresh and surprisingly cool for May in the Desert and I felt lifted up by a breezy righteousness rippling through the air.

We joined voices in a chant, tentative at first and then louder, – “Madres Unidas Sin Frontera!, Mothers United without Borders!”https://youtu.be/HmxA78rtlxU – loud enough to reach the U. S. women organizers on the other side of the wall, who were now pressed up against the metal slats, like moths drawn to the light streaming through.

Women from the street scaled the concrete abutment up to the wall to personally give thanks to the women on the U.S. side. They claimed their right to unify as women and mothers, even as they faced the slippery concrete topped by the 18-foot wall: a slatted metal monstrosity that splits this border community right down the middle, an achingly unnatural bifurcation.

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Lead by a large handmade banner that reads “Madres Unidas de la Frontera,” their Arizona neighbors reached out, hands and fingers through the slats, to touch the mothers from Mexico. On the U.S. side, they played acoustic instruments for the mothers below.  Homespun music carried on the wind like birdsong.

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In response, Mothers in Mexico threw their heads back and sang “Las Mananitas,” –https://youtu.be/HmxA78rtlxU – a traditional melody one hears on special days: Birthdays, Saint’s Days and on Mother’s Day. Loosely translated:

Wake up my darling, wake up &

see that the morning’s here.

All the little birds are singing,

The moon has now disappeared.

VoicesfromtheBorder, www.facebook.com/Voicesfromtheborder/, a grassroots alliance of women from rural southeastern Arizona border communities – Sonoita, Elgin, and Patagonia – aims to transcend fear and build “bridges across borders with compassion.” Hosting a Mother’s Day Unity Celebration on the Border was born out of the women’s participation in the Women’s March in Tucson.

Rural Arizona women ask us to “Celebrate our shared plight as mothers and caretakers of our families, our communities, our Earth, and build a brave new world of peace and prosperity for all.

No more wasting time, energy, and resources to “Defend.” It’s time for mothers to rise. Time to tend, befriend, and join together for the good of all beings on the planet.

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Photos by Antonia Gallegos

Eastertide: Out of the Church and Into the Trees

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A family of Lesser Goldfinches Nesting in the Arizona Ash Tree overhead

I could not wait, anticipation climbing with each step up and into the Catalina mountains in the Coronado National Forest near Tucson. Like a growing number of naturalist Christians, I am tracking God in nature these days, not in church, even on Easter.

My hunger for the great outdoors has become acute and commanding. The place I am most reliably replenished waits for me around the next bend. I come away from my encounters with the natural world feeling as if a thirst I didn’t know I possessed has been utterly quenched.

Nature is no substitution for church you could claim and I may agree. I am a Benedictine Oblate accustomed to solo devotions yet church holds the promise of communion and sanctuary.

But oh, wandering the firmament! Pitch-perfect bird song surrounds me on this day, rivaling the best church choir. Spring breezes rustle through an amen of cottonwood trees shading the banks of the arroyo and the air is as sweet and redolent as I feel the Holy Spirit to be. I stride like a resident bobcat, smooth and instinctual, reveling in the God-given power of my able body.

Walking the trail along an arroyo is like walking down the aisle at a wedding with giant bouquets of bright wildflowers as tall as church pews on each side. I am mad for wildflowers, simply overcome by the diversity of shape and runaway migrant color.

Sonoran Desert wildflowers straddle the Arizona-Mexico border. This year, I think of them as Guadalupe’s Wildflowers in honor of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, a mother from Phoenix, deported this year to Mexico. The wildflower’s ephemeral flowers mirror Guadalupe’s fragile beauty, the night I.C.E. took her away.

Wildflowers: an Easter Resurrection, the annual triumph of life over death. The first to catch my eye on the path were spiky lavender Thistles and Miniature pale blue Wooley Stars. Then, dark blue Arroyo Lupines deepening in color and spreading to a carpet of purple Owl’s Clovers.

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Miniature pale blue Woolley Stars

Halfway into the hike, we stopped at cool water meandering down the arroyo, maybe the last water we’d see until late summer monsoons. As we ducked into a spot of shade under an Arizona Ash tree just greening out, a small commotion erupted in the branches overhead. A streak of yellow shot past us, landing on top of a snag on the other side of the creek bed. With binoculars, we identified a Lesser Goldfinch, one of a pair.

The couple’s nest, tucked into the tree canopy over our heads, brimmed with four big-headed chicks. Later, I learned that the seeds of the lavender thistles spotted along the path, are the favorite food of the Lesser Goldfinch and thistledown: the favorite lining material for their nests. Landscape connectivity provides all the conditions to support life: food, water, and shelter.

There is life everywhere here. The key to opening the wonder hidden in plain sight is patience; the quintessential contemplative practice. I sat as still as possible on a smooth boulder in the center of the stream, adjusted the zoom on my camera, and caught the baby birds in the nest, craning towards their mother’s return, mouths stretched open as wide as their heads.

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The Lesser Goldfinch Father of the nested chicks

Many minutes later, my companion pointed out a gray Canyon Treefrog, perfectly camouflaged next to me on the boulder. Down the stream, a healthy foot-long desert lizard sunned itself on another boulder. White, gold and black butterflies dotted the corners of my vision and bizarre looking insects skimmed the top of the stream. The air felt soft, blurred with winged things.

I dug a copy of the New Testament out of my daypack. Opening it to John 20.11, I read and wept with Mary at the loss of her son and then wept some more, this time with joy as I imagined Mary discovering him alive. Cupping my hands, I scooped up cool water from the stream, poured it over my scalp, and cooled the hot skin on my face with wet palms. My tears melded with the waters from the stream and I was refreshed and made calm.

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Still Waters

Hiking back, we noticed the white flowers first. Daisy-like Fleabane and Tufted Evening-Primrose. Then, pale yellow Paper Daisies and orange Arizona Honeysuckles.  Loveliest were snapdragon-like pink Desert Penstemons, a favorite of hummingbirds and bumblebees.

The Catalina mountain’s high desert plant species, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals are protected by sturdy American Environmental laws that manage our borderlands. Organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity implement those laws, especially critical now with a border wall in the making that would split all biological connectivity.

I believe, the urgent wilderness call I hear is no accident, but part of a greater calling. I’m reminded of Frederick Buechner’s oft-quoted “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Over the Easter weekend, faith leaders from a whole host of religions spilled out of churches and into the streets, linking arms in front of a Detention Center in Los Angeles to pray for our broken immigration system and stand for those who have been silenced. Recognizing that God has no Borders underscores a larger truth: To desecrate any one thing – the land, the animals, or the people – is to desecrate all god’s creation.

Church is everywhere these days, the scent of sacred activism perfuming the air like wildflowers, drawing us closer. It’s up to us now… we who love the land, the animals and the people, to link arms and stand for the most vulnerable among us.

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Transcending the Wall; Guadalupe’s Wildflowers

Spring 2017

Published April 8, 2017

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.”  Pablo Neruda

To Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos and all displaced peoples everywhere we say:  You belong among the wildflowers. You have the right to be free.

Each girl grabs a handful of wildflower seeds from a bowl of Bosque del Bac Habitat Restoration Wildflower Mix. The sisters, a five-year-old and a three-year-old, twirl in the wind, arms outstretched, open their palms and broadcast the seeds across the clay flat. It’s Spring in the Sonoran Desert and I am visiting my old homestead, a small ranch this young family now inhabits, located next to a Border Patrol checkpoint.

“I am remembering Guadalupe,” I say, throwing great arcs of seeds into the wind.

“Who?” the 5-year-old asks.

“Guadalupe. She’s a mother who can not be with her children right now,” I say.

“Why not?” she asks.

“Well, that’s complicated but what’s important is she can’t be with her kids.”

“But why not?” the girl presses. Her three-year-old sister twirls in the wind, hay-colored seeds swirling around her like a little dust devil.

“Guadalupe is stuck in another country but her kids live here, near us in the United States. She must miss them very much.”

The 5-year-old squints in the sun and looks at me blankly. She’s never been without her mother. She’s never had to fear.

“When will the wildflowers come?” she asks.

“They might pop up at the end of this summer, after the monsoon rains or maybe they’ll wait until next year. You never know about wildflowers.”

“So, the wildflowers are coming?” she asks again.

“Yes, they always come back. Wildflowers are tough.”

“When we see the flowers with all their beautiful colors,” I added, “we’ll remember Guadalupe and all other mothers who could be separated from their children.”

We covered up the area with nearby plant litter to protect the seeds from hungry birds. Though it seemed like we had more rain than usual this winter, the desert was rocky and dry, no growth anywhere. I remind myself it’s still early in spring.

But walking back, we spotted wild honeysuckle growing next to the wash. Squealing with delight, the girls plucked the bright orange tubular flowers, one at a time and sucked out the nectar. The 3-foot tall shock of orange was a Justicia Desert Honeysuckle; specifically a Mexican Honeysuckle. Native to the Sonoran Desert and considered a botanical treasure, the wild perennial straddles the border of Arizona and Mexico.  In Spanish, it is known as Chuparosa, a nod to the hummingbirds that feed on its nectar.

I wondered if the wildflowers are out yet in Nogales, over the line in Mexico where Guadalupe stays at a shelter protected by nuns. I imagine she like me, is marveling at a wild flower’s off-handed elegance.

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The Chuparosa; a Botanical Treasure

I don’t think I will ever be able to shake how she looked, as I witnessed in real time on social media, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayo’s detainment in Phoenix and subsequent transport to Mexico, played out in front of her kids.

Debased and humiliated, behind a gridded glass window in an ICE transport van, Guadalupe’s eyes were downcast, circled by exhaustion, her beautiful round face dulled in a slap of finality.

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Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos; Family Treasure

I remember her teenage kids huddled together on the curb at one point. Their eyes were fixed on the strip of asphalt stretched between them and their apprehended mother, like a long gray desert they could not cross. Their young shoulders hunched from the sheer weight of such a thing.

Yes, Guadalupe broke the law. Years back, she made a choice. She chose to work without papers to feed her family. Could she have made a different choice? Did she have the power?

Guadalupe: the picture of an abused woman. ICE: Abuser of the first order. Denigrate, dehumanize, then deport. Build the wall, slap the face of beauty.

For me, Guadalupe’s abduction brought back nightmares. The first nightmare had me in a car at night, pulled over by men in uniform, then arrested. In the dream, I knew the men were coming for me and I felt oddly calm, until the terror began, slowly like a tarantula lock-stepping across my chest until it was all I could do not to scream.

And Just like that, I’m back at the ranch, almost a decade ago, my neighborhood under siege, a new Border Patrol checkpoint 300 paces from my place, ICE agents in desert camo gear roaming outside my bedroom window, weapons drawn, ready to shoot even my Golden retriever, should she accidentally get loose and run outside.

In my dream, I was not surprised by their quiet efficiency, the way the officers in their sand-colored uniforms looked past me into the distance as they slapped the handcuffs on, for I had colluded with the “enemy.” Men like that, they never look you in the eye.

Occupiers and nightmares share a stealthy patience. They wait for the calm dark and the unsuspecting. They wait for the ordinary nights, the pauses in the forward march of just people and just laws. You can not tell me that they don’t know… If you remove a wildflower from the soil where its’ gently rooted, you risk its very life.

To Guadalupe and to all displaced peoples everywhere I say,  You belong among the wildflowers. You have the right to be free.

Linking arms with my fellow artists and writers on the border, I say, along with Frida Kahlo, “I paint flowers so they will not die,” and then like Frida, I lay my brushes down, open my journal and write.

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Hiding in Plain Sight: Migrating Muses of the Sonoran Desert

“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Georgia O’Keeffe

There comes a time (usually later in life) and especially now given the rancorous affairs of men when one realizes that the most radical thing you can do is pay attention to wildflowers; small worlds of vivid wonder we are often oblivious to. There are essential lessons to be learned among them, and deep soul to imbibe in the spring in the Sonoran Desert.

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Wild Desert Marigold; hierba amarilla

On a recent hike in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, 100,000 plus acres of semi-desert grasslands, seasonal wetlands, and a mountain riparian canyon located between Tucson and the AZ/MX border, we found pockets of wildflowers half buried under winter deadfall and plant litter, bending up towards the light.

I suspected spring wildflowers were not going to make much of an appearance near the border this year. We haven’t had the field size blooms we have seen in the past. And wildflowers are wild after all, coming up when they want and where they want. Yet, there they were… right at our feet.

Spring wildflowers are native to a given region or they’re migrants, growing from seed cast by wind or water or carried in the bellies of birds or hitching a ride on a hiker’s boot. Wildflowers provide sustenance for other often weary migrants like butterflies and hummingbirds. Butterflies, especially Monarchs depend on wildflower nectar to survive. Restoring native grasslands, one of the ways the Wildlife Refuge protects vital habitat corridors, goes hand in hand with landscape connectivity. Migration + landscape connectivity = healthy secure populations.

When we first arrived at the refuge, we scanned the horizon with binoculars hoping to catch a glimpse of rare Pronghorn Antelope. Miles of desert grasses waved in the Spring breeze like a magic carpet, ferrying our gazes all the way to the sacred Baboquivera Mountain range. It was when we dropped our binoculars that we realized what we really came to see. Like most good things, bright blessings were there all along, humbly hidden in front of us.

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Wild Desert Hyacinth; cobena, coveria

One of the first wildflowers I saw sported tiny cupped petals, the color of fresh orange I could almost taste on my tongue. Luckily, I had with me local Arivaca resident Maggie Moe Milinovitch’s Wildflower Field Guide from the Refuge’s Visitors Center. It is considered the best Guide to identifying our border wildflowers and a book I’ve been looking forward to using for a long time. My first wildflower turned out to be a Desert Globemallow.

I was hooked. The next time we stopped the truck, I got out and walked through the wild grass to the top of a rise. I followed a trail of wildflowers, their colorful heads peeking out between the tall grasses. Respectful of snakes, particularly rattlers, I stepped carefully, but not unlike the Greek Goddess Persephone, enchanted in the spring, I foraged ahead.

“Oh my God,” I said out loud, “Look at this one and this one!”

Squatting at eye level, I could take in the whole hillside. Multiple varieties of wildflowers cathected together in clumps of naturally occurring diversity, communities of color, families of affinity.

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Wild Mexican Poppy w/ Fairy Dusters; amapolita del campo huajillo, pelo de angel

The most ubiquitous were the Mexican Poppy A.K.A. the Gold Poppy. The Mexican Poppy, usually the first wildflower to come up in the spring, was already closing its petals on the shady side of the hill in preparation for sunset. The poppies were tucked into a cloud of magenta and white fairy dusters, a perennial native shrub. An important feed for butterflies, hummingbirds, bees and cattle, the ephemeral fairy dusters are easily mistaken for wildflower.

In the blue pages of the color-coded field guide, I matched purple spikes to Owl’s Clover, and a single lavender-blue lily to a Desert Hyacinth, and bunches of pinkish-violet flowers to Stork’s Bill Filaree, a member of the geranium family. The most striking of the magenta group seen were the tall tubular flowered Parry’s Penstemon.

I discovered Desert Marigolds, a member of the Sunflower family, attracting pollinators – a good sign – and then the most spectacular find: The Desert Mariposa, an Arizona Protected plant. The Desert Mariposa, the most beautiful of desert wildflowers is also referred to as the Star Tulip.

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Desert Mariposa; cobena amarilla

 “In a rich moonlit garden, flowers open beneath the eyes of entire nations terrified to acknowledge the simplicity of the beauty of peace.” Aberjhani

© 2017 Valarie lee James