by Debbie Weingarten
The harvester ants in my parent’s Tucson backyard make a trail of flowers in an act of early morning performance art. When the sun turns the ground to a hot iron, the ants temporarily abandon their task. The flowers wilt in a purple vein beneath the mesquites.
The desert body begins the march toward summer before the brain catches on. It’s a matter of what’s happening around the body, of course—the flowering cactus, the honey scent of catclaw, the saguaros gone to fruit, the earlier sunrise. The desert body adjusts right along with these things, begins to anticipate the heat.
I’m an early riser to begin with, but as summer approaches, my eyes snap open even earlier. I can’t help it. I’m filled with a frenetic energy, a nesting that feels part-ritual and part-instinct. I pull weeds, sweep the porch, scrub the floor. I prepare. A friend calls this time of year “the last gasp” before the heat descends.
June crescendos into a relentless swell, builds to a fever. It is stamped in the eyes of the people buying beer in Safeway at 9PM. It lives in the panting of my old dog, her tongue lolling with fatigue. It collects in sweat down the spine and the skyrocketing electric bill, the living room transformed into a play fort by my housebound, stir-crazy children.
We are advised to become animal: Stretch across the tile floor, burrow in a dark room, press a cheek to the cool plaster wall. Slow down the breath. Lower expectations of productivity. Acclimate to the crepuscular, the rhythm of dawn and dusk. Embrace the nocturnal. Reintroduce the body to the dark.
“June is that particular kind of heat which has a physical touch,” the desert-dwelling children’s book author Byrd Baylor once wrote in an essay. “You feel it pressed against you, a solid being, as real as a hand against your face.”
I interviewed Byrd two Mays ago, when she was 93. She had moved from her home in Arivaca—where javelina traveled the arroyos like highways and rattlesnakes slithered inside to rest on her cool floor—to a house in central Tucson, which she now shares with her grandson Jesse. Instead of coyotes howling and a boundless star-filled sky, there were honking horns and lit-up signs over convenience stores.
But anyone who reads Byrd knows that she has rituals for all sorts of things, urban or not—seasons and celebrations and finding rocks in the desert. In The Way to Start a Day, she wrote:
and face the East
and greet the sun
with some kind of blessing
that you made yourself
and keep for early morning
After nearly fifteen years in the desert, I’ve learned to heed her advice. I’d be a fool not to go outside in early morning and cover myself in soil and tuck seeds into the ground in preparation for the monsoons. If I slept in, I would not know that the dawn sky is a candy-stripe of periwinkle and blush. Or that baby tumbleweed glows an ethereal sage-blue before the sun rises. Or that life flutters and hunts and screams in a different pitch at 5 a.m.—fat-tailed lizards, perching hawks, insects scuttling past the tines of the rake. “A morning needs to be sung to,” wrote Byrd. “A new day needs to be honored.”
There are tasks to be completed before the afternoon: The dog and I must take our morning walk before the pavement is too hot for her paws. I must complete any necessary errands, park the car in the shade, gather the plastic toys strewn about the yard. The sun will have its way with all of it. Anything left outside will be made into a ghost of itself. Left long enough, and it will crack in half like an old rib.
June is for sending wishes of good health and shade and a bit of rain for those without cooling, for the medically vulnerable, for the residents of gleaming trailers that heat up like ovens. It is wishing safe travels for those who find themselves out in the desert, with or without a map. The sun dry-rots the highway crosses and fades the adorning plastic flowers. Without rain, the patchy summer grass stands brittle and golden.
When it comes to making peace with the summer heat, we might look to those who do it well.
“Byrd can handle the heat like a champ,” Jesse said of his grandmother.
From where she sat in a plastic chair against a backdrop of prickly pear, Byrd nodded. “The hottest summer is divine at six o’clock in the morning,” she said. “But I’m the only early riser here. I say to Jesse, you don’t know what you’re missing. The sunrise is so beautiful. And he says, ‘I see it lots of times before I go to bed.’”
She chuckled and lit a cigarette.
One morning Byrd went out to the backyard, she told me, and tilted her face to the sun like a teacup. Eyes closed, she had stretched her arms up to the sky and breathed in the new day. Upon opening her eyes, she was surprised by the startled face of a construction worker. He was perched on a neighbor’s roof, himself surprised to discover an old woman in her nightgown, greeting the sunrise.
Our laughter rose into the air right along with the smoke, and Byrd’s lips stamped a bright pink circle of lipstick around one end of the cigarette. The promise of heat hovered around us.
Near the end of June, purslane crawls across the dry earth, and the forecast is a blur of 100-plus degree days.
One morning, as I am gathering the odds-and-ends from the yard, a woman and her dog approach breathlessly. They’ve run out of water and are too far from home for the elderly dog to go without overheating. We stand in the shade of the porch, while the dog rehydrates from the hose spigot.
In the desert, it may be that the thing we curse the most has the most to teach us about surrender. Those of us who stay through the summer heat—whether willingly or without choice—learn to keep in step with the rhythms around us. We learn to inhale the final gasp of spring, to greet the sunrise on the longest days of the year, and to humble ourselves when we can no longer bear the heat. To stay is to know our place in sequence of degrees—101, 105, 110ºF and climbing.
“You’re a miracle,” the woman says to me, her dog still lapping. “I wasn’t sure anyone would help us. You never know these days. People are so nervous.”
The sun has turned the ground a washed-out shade of white, and the trees around us vibrate with humming cicadas. There in the driveway, we talk about kindness, about the world we’d like to live in, how the heat makes friends of perfect strangers.
Debbie Weingarten is a Tucson-based freelance writer and a writing fellow for Community Change. She’s currently working on a book in the dark and waiting for rain.