Summer Comes to Phoenix

While the rest of the country is busy settling into a much-anticipated summer; Australia (along with parts of Africa, New Zealand, Brazil and Argentina) are heading toward winter. Phoenix, however, is set on “broil.” The local joke is that Phoenix is where hell spends the summer.

For the first time in five years, one of the cacti put out a bloom this year.

For the first time in five years, one of the cacti put out a bloom this year.

Snow birds (mostly Midwesterners, Canadians and Germans who bought houses here when the prices were in the dirt) head home. The huge RVs that are parked on residential streets and serve as winter in-law apartments vanish. Suddenly, those of us who stay can get a reservation at any restaurant. Movie lines are short enough so you have a chance at staying alive while you wait to buy a ticket to a cool place. Parking places open up.

The blossom lasts one night. Until it bloomed, I had no idea the cactus is an organ pipe cactus, dangerously far North for winter survival

The blossom lasts one night. Until it bloomed, I had no idea the cactus is an organ pipe cactus, dangerously far North for winter survival

And then, it is summer in Phoenix. So hot you bring a tote bag with you to carry your CDs, GPS units and anything plastic (handcream, phone chargers) into stores with you. They won’t last long if you leave them in the car. Windshields explode out of their frames, shattered by the temperature difference between air conditioning on high and the direct sun. Between the two of us, we’ve gone through five windshields in five years.

agave1My favorite plants to watch are the giant agaves that bloom just once in their lifetime, so they make it worth the effort.

agave2They start by sending up a long stalk, anywhere from 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 meters) tall. The stalk is nubby, and then, almost overnight, it is covered in yellow blossoms.

agave3And I do mean covered. In yellow blossoms.

agave4The stalk and blossoms stay beautifully in bloom for two to three weeks, feeding bees, hummingbirds, and fruit-eating bats at night. And then, before they die, they sprout the next generation up and down the enormous stalk. The tender shoots drop off, complete with the long “hairs” you see. Birds use the hairs as nesting material, and the agave goes with it, slowly growing. Other plantlets hitch a ride on coyotes or bobcats and are scattered into the ground, where they set root. Some just drop and tumble into a new home.

deadagaveThe original plant dies. Even that is an elegant sunburst of neutral colors. Here in the desert, there are few plants that bloom in summer. It’s our gray season, our stormy, humid seasons. We get Monsoon Rain storms that bring us half a year’s worth of rain in eight weeks. We get dust storms. Each summer several tourists die while hiking because they don’t believe the heat or the power of the heat. When it’s 117 degrees F (47 degrees C) you don’t want to be exerting yourself. So we estivate. Estivating is the summer version of hibernating.

We stay inside, we swim in too-hot pools, and we wait for September. At night, when you swim in the pool, your face can feel both the coolness of the night sky and the warmth of the heat radiating from the brick wall. A small gift in the hot season.

A full moon hangs in the palm tree

A full moon hangs in the palm tree

–Quinn McDonald waits for summer with a sadness she discovered only in this climate.


18 thoughts on “Summer Comes to Phoenix

  1. “Yeah, but its a DRY heat!” Pvt. Hudson in ‘Aliens’

    Thank you for the pictures of your gorgeous desert blooms.

    Here in the FAR North (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), where your snowbirds are returning (I can hear the honking of their motor-home herds) we are just enjoying our third week without snow. It has been raining on and off for the last two weeks. Things grow FAST here – they have to as the season is so compressed. Less than 4 months to thaw, sprout, grow like mad, bloom, go to seed and lapse or die into winter. By October we will have snow again. But at least the mid-September frost will kill the mosquitoes.

  2. Here in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon in particular we say we have webbed feet, because of all the rain we get. That’s more on the west side of the state. On the east side it’s drier and that’s where we grow wheat. That’s where I live. On a rare summer day our temps may reach 110 degrees…that’s HOT! It’s a humid kind of hot.
    In our community the harvest brings in those folks that pick fruit. it lasts from July to October. Just when you think it’s time to move, they all move on and life slows down. A perfect end to fall.
    I just returned from North Dakota yesterday where Fargo got 6″ of rain the night before. They are still cleaning up from the flooding of a winter gone by. The farmers aren’t complaining but it is soggy there.
    We all have our tolerances and weather affects our lives in some strange ways. It makes our world go round and teaches us where our boundaries are.
    Take it off or put it on…life goes on.

    • You make an excellent point. We try to dominate the weather in every way except the big ways–changing our relationship with it. And yes, while I dislike the skin-searing summer heat, I resented the tooth and bone-ache of hard winters more. Good thoughts, there.

  3. You need to move to Tucson, Quinn. Spent a morning making paper with Val. We did ocotillo flowers and cat tails. Great papers. She is terrific! We’ve been friends for a long time. We used to do the Tucson Museum of Art Show together until we no longer had husbands willing to put up the tent!

    • Val is amazing. I just did two-days of papermaking with her a few weeks ago. What a joy! Aren’t those cattail pages something? Both soft and prickly. And now I’m working on a book with those pages of handmade paper!

  4. Here in the reserved hills the trees enter their betweenness phase every year. For trees, at least the ones here, there is a betweenness phase when the leaves arrive and the trees are between us and the sun and between us and our neighbors. This boosts our sense of community, even here in the reserved hills (which are called reserved because of the way the people are) and more things are done together. The rest of the year, of course, the people who live here are surrounded by trees without leaves. In that phase the trees don’t come between us and the sun (such as it is at that time) and they don’t shelter us from our neighbors. Live here long enough and you start to think being around all those trees, standing as bare as we do, is almost the same as being around people. It’s just that they don’t talk…and after a while not talking feels as natural as frost. And so fewer things are done together with other people when the trees are in their amongness phase and our sense of community wanes again.

    Maybe it’s different elsewhere, but here in the reserved hills it’s not the air or the ice; it’s the trees and their phases.

  5. Here in Boston we too get shorter lines and more parking spaces open up! The students all leave! We hate September because they all come back…….and they never get any older. A huge problem for the rest of us who do! LOL! Enjoy the heat and I hope we can get some.

  6. Me too Quinn. At least we have bright sunny days but freezing winds off the mountains. So far no -7 nights – touch wood. Love the photos of the plantlife – amazing.

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