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FIRST DAYS IN TUCSON
WHAT is more fickle than New England weather? Nothing, perhaps, or nothing inanimate, unless it be the weather of some Southern winter resort, say in Florida or Arizona.
I reached Tucson in the evening of January 31, a stop at El Paso having saved me from participation in a railroad accident, as a result of which many passengers (nobody knows how many) were burned to death. The first of February was bright and warm; so that in a long forenoon jaunt over the desert a very light overcoat quickly became burdensome. The next morning, therefore, it was left at home.
My course this time was into the valley of the Santa Cruz, where farmers live by irrigation and barley fields are already green. I had crossed the river, pausing on the bridge to enjoy the sight of my first black phoebe, — a handsome, highly presentable fellow with a jet-black waistcoat, — when all at once the dusty road before me was seen to be fast becoming inundated. Beside the fence, wading in mud and water, the owner of the fields, having taken up arms — a long-handled spade — against this sea of troubles, appeared to have been working hard to repair the mischief. At that moment, however, he had given over the attempt in despair and was lifting his boots, first one, then the other, out of the mire and scraping them, rather ineffectually, with the spade.
I ought to have known better, but it is easy to see the comical side of other people’s misfortunes, and I remarked in a cheerful tone:
“Well, well, you seem to have water to burn.”
Thereupon other floodgates were opened, and out poured a stream of language, the greater part of it too “colloquial” for print. The substance of it all was that a Mexican (the opprobrious word being dwelt upon and forcibly qualified) had come in the night and let on the water, without giving him, the farmer, any notice of the unseasonable action. Now the water was all over the road, and all over the yard, and close up to the back door of the house. He had sent for a man to help him.
Seeing nothing better to do, I picked my steps among the dust-bounded streams as best I was able, and passed by on the other side. I had always understood irrigation to be a kind of predictable and controllable rain, but it appeared that, if this were the rule, the rule had exceptions.
The sight set me thinking that possibly if the general management of the weather were put into human hands, as the least presumptuous of us are more or less in the habit of wishing were possible, it might still be found difficult to escape an occasional fault of administration. As for my farmer’s emphatic language, I held it excusable. He certainly had provocation, and as the Scripture says, with commendable toleration, there is a time for everything under the sun.
The river valley is narrow, like the river itself, and on the farther side is bounded sharply by steep foothills, behind which are high mountains. I was barely beginning to climb the nearest hill, over its loose covering of small stones, when some bird broke into voice a little above me; one of those peculiar voices, I said to myself, that at a first hearing afford almost no indication as to the size of their owners.
My uncertainty lasted for some minutes, while I made my way cautiously upwards, a step or two at a time. The bird proved to be a small wren, — the rock wren, so called, — said to be “more or less abundant” in this region; “more” rather than “less,” I hope, for I fell in love with the creature immediately.
One of the birds, — for there were two, talking “back and forth,” as we say, — his fit of nervousness over, dropped into a lyrical mood, and regaled me with a very pleasing bit of simple music, all in brief phrases, but with a surprisingly wide range of pitch. Some of the measures had a peculiar vibrant quality suggestive of the finest work of our common Eastern snowbird. But withal, I received the impression that the musician was rather trying his instrument than aiming at a serious performance.
While I stood listening, a bunch of a dozen Mexican house finches, more than half the number in rosy plumage, happened along with the usual chorus of twitters, and alighted in a very peculiar and graceful shrub (ocotillo, I am told is its Mexican name), which grows in clusters of a dozen or so of slender, angular stems, leaning away from one another in all directions and covered sparsely with reddish leaves, which look for all the world like the autumnal foliage of the common barberry. The rosy finches, perched upon this group of slanting, wandlike, fountainlike stems,1 were exceedingly pretty to look at.
All about me stood tall, fluted columns of the giant cactus, fifteen or twenty feet in height, and large enough for telegraph poles. On the day before, my first day in the city, I had turned a field-glass in this direction, and to my surprise had seen the hills covered with verdure. “Why,” said I, noticing what I took for the trunks of trees amid the green, “those hills are forested.” Now I discovered that the greenness was mostly that of the desert-loving creosote bush (a low shrub, noticeable for being thornless, which covers thousands on thousands of acres hereabouts, and just now is putting forth small yellow blossoms), while the boles of trees were nothing but giant cacti.
Among the stones at my feet grew flowers of various unknown sorts, especially a large yellow one, apparently an evening primrose, rising no more than two inches from the ground, with a tuft of leaves at the base of the stem, or rather at the bottom of the calyx. The only flower of them all that I could certainly name was a pretty blue lupine, smaller than our New England species, both in blossom and leaf, but so exactly like it in other respects that for old acquaintance’ sake, though the lupine was never one of my particular favorites, I plucked it for my buttonhole. I believe it is the only natural-looking, familiar-looking wild plant that I have so far seen in this desert country.
The wrens having become silent, and the finches flown away, I descended the hill and took the road running along its base northward. It must lead, I thought, to another road across the valley, and would make a round of my forenoon’s walk. And so it did; but first it brought me to a large building which proved to be St. Mary’s Sanatorium, more commonly known as the Sisters’ Hospital. I had just passed this and turned the corner, facing the town, when all in a moment, so far at least as my perception of events was concerned, the sky was covered with black clouds, and an icy north wind changed the day from summer to winter as in the twinkling of an eye.
No more loitering by the way. I did at once what every other creature was already doing — I hurried. “Now if I only had that overcoat!” I thought; but speed also is an extra garment, and I put it on.
No more loitering, I said; but I did stop once. Halfway across the valley a flock of blackbirds were feeding beside a barn, and I turned into the yard to look at them.
“I want to see what kind of blackbirds these are,” I explained to the man of the house, who came out of the door at that moment.
“Oh, they’re the same kind that is all over the universe,” he answered, smiling.
But his generalization was hasty, as generalizations are apt to be. They were Brewer’s blackbirds — the handsomest of grackles; birds that I had seen for the first time, at Del Rio, only the week before. I did not stay to admire their iridescence, but declining an invitation to ride (it was too cold for that, though the man was just going to harness up, he said), I buttoned another button and hastened on. The two or three persons I met each had something to say about the weather, but nobody stopped for prolonged comment. Short speeches and quick steps, or another crack at the mule, were the order of the day. Even at the South a man will generally hurry a little rather than freeze to death.
Well, the experience was more amusing than uncomfortable, after all, and I reached the hotel door just as rain began falling. Before night snow was mingled with the rain, and the next morning I saw a small boy, his eyes dancing with brightness, making a tiny snow image to stand upon the front-yard fence, while the mountains — that fairly surround the city, as they do the Holy City in the Hebrew psalm — were dazzling white. The mud was beyond belief, the walking laborious; but as I paused now and then for breath or to recover my footing, and saw all that glory about me, I thanked my stars that I was here. I was glad to see that even in this arid zone (arida zona, as the Mexicans are supposed to have begun by calling it) it still knew how both to rain and to snow.
“Well, now, this was a surprise, wasn’t it?” I remarked to a German whom I met in the valley road.
“You bet,” he answered; and then, with a smile, he added: “but it won’t last only a couple of days; that’s all.”
His mastery of American idiom recalls what another German farmer said on the same forenoon. He had been living here and in California since ‘82, he told me.
“Which place do you like best?” I inquired.
“Oh, Arizona,” he answered, without hesitation. “Things are freer here,” he went on. “In Los Angeles, now, you have to dress up once in a while; but here, if you dress up, or if you don’t dress up, it don’t cut no ice.”
My first man’s confident “couple of days” was a trifle too confident. Twice two days have passed. In that time we have had summer weather (at noon), a pretty hard freeze (at night), and another rain and another snowfall, both heavier than the first.
The winter visitors, of whom there are many, the greater part, alas, ordered here for “lung trouble,” have naturally been put out, — the more recent arrivals among them greatly astonished; they thought they were coming to a dry climate; but the residents proper, if not jubilant, have seemed at least reasonably well contented with the turn of affairs. There has been a general agreement, to be sure (one heard it on all hands), that it was “pretty muddy;” the wayfaring man, though a fool, could not dispute the statement; but so far as the prosperity of Arizona is concerned, there is no probability of an excessive rainfall. The more the better. So much is evident, even to an itinerant ornithologist, who may stand, if you will, for the wayfaring man before mentioned. What is not so clear to his darkened understanding is why the weather, no matter where one goes, should be every season so strangely exceptional, so utterly different from everything that the oldest inhabitant can remember.________________
1 Botanically, if I am correctly informed, the plant is Fouquiera splendens, otherwise known as candlewood, Jacob’s staff, and coach-whip. Like the giant cactus it seems to be restricted to the foothills.