The Sonoran Desert which spans the United States and Mexico is a place of deadly extremes. It’s name comes from the word sonorous, which means sound. This soundful desert is one of the world’s hottest places, with temperatures spiking to 177 degrees Fahrenheit during the fire season in early summer when sweeping infernos char the landscape. Then, later in summer, mercy comes with the arrival of the monsoon rains, and the landscape turns into one of flash floods of churning mud.
Yet despite its desert reputation, the Sonoran desert is also full of vibrant life. Plants, animals, and even indigenous human groups such as the Hohokam have called it home for thousands of years, both of whom adapted in ingenious ways to the wiles of the desert, learning to live in truce with its dangers.
Below is a short video that offers a glimpse of the Sonoran’s desert’s surprising ecological richness. Narrating this is the prominent conservation biologist Jeff Corwin, host of Wildlife Nation. He is accompanied by the voice of the celebrated poet, Alberto Ríos who grew up in Nogales, Arizona, in the heart of the Sonoran Desert. At the end of this post is a full poem by Rios entitled “Rabbits and Fire”.
Video: Land of Extremes: Poetry of the Sonoran Desert
Rabbits and Fire
By Alberto Rios
Everything’s been said
But one last thing about the desert,
And it’s awful: During brush fires in the Sonoran desert,
Brush fires that happen before the monsoon and in the great,
Deep, wide, and smothering heat of the hottest months,
The longest months,
The hypnotic, immeasurable lulls of August and July—
During these summer fires, jackrabbits—
Jackrabbits and everything else
That lives in the brush of the rolling hills,
But jackrabbits especially—
Jackrabbits can get caught in the flames,
No matter how fast and big and strong and sleek they are.
And when they’re caught,
Cornered in and against the thick
Trunks and thin spines of the cactus,
When they can’t back up any more,
When they can’t move, the flame—
It touches them,
And their fur catches fire.
Of course, they run away from the flame,
Finding movement even when there is none to be found,
Jumping big and high over the wave of fire, or backing
Even harder through the impenetrable
Tangle of hardened saguaro
And prickly pear and cholla and barrel,
But whichever way they find,
What happens is what happens: They catch fire
And then bring the fire with them when they run.
They don’t know they’re on fire at first,
Running so fast as to make the fire
Shoot like rocket engines and smoke behind them,
But then the rabbits tire
And the fire catches up,
Stuck onto them like the needles of the cactus,
Which at first must be what they think they feel on their skins.
They’ve felt this before, every rabbit.
But this time the feeling keeps on.
And of course, they ignite the brush and dried weeds
All over again, making more fire, all around them.
I’m sorry for the rabbits.
And I’m sorry for us
To know this.
~ Alberto Ríos, “Rabbits and Fire” from The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, 2002.
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