Thursday, December 29, 2011


This little alien graces the retaining wall just outside my back door. He (or she) is a fairly recent addition to the landscape, still vividly drawn and commanding in the surrounding cement. Yet how long will this image survive? Months? Years? Weather will undoubtedly wash away the paint if the city doesn't take care of it first.

The longevity of the Hohokam artists clearly outranks that of my neighborhood graffiti artist. An ancient culture centered in the Phoenix basin, the Hohokam built canals and irrigation systems across the desert to support ambitious agricultural pursuits. When they weren't growing maize, beans and squash (otherwise known as the Three Sisters) they were carving pictures in rock. (It seems the Hohokam appreciated a challenge. If it had been up to me, I would have grown my corn in the Midwest and carved my pictures in oak trees.*)

One of their artscapes, the Hieroglyphic Canyon Trail, has a bit of a misnomer. Petroglyphs are pictures, hieroglyphs are words. The Hohokam didn't have a written language, a condition which prevents them from being a "true" archaeological civilization like the hieroglyphically-inclined Mayans and Egyptians. Wordlessness aside, the trail and its ancient petroglyphs offer a glimpse of life in the ancient American southwest, pre-stucco villas and urban sprawl. It went something like this:

I was fairly certain the animals in these drawings were deer but I didn't immediately realize that the box-like objects were people. Truth be told, they don't look all that different from my retaining wall alien.

I've yet to see a real snake while hiking, which I consider a good thing. This squamate (or scaled reptile) is awfully cute though. Maybe all snakes should look like this? And maybe we can start calling them squamates, which sounds a lot more innocuous than snake.

Most humans aren't prickly enough to thrive in the desert. Somehow, the Hohokam and their ancient neighbors did anyway.

*This is, in fact, exactly what I grew up doing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

It's Always Sunny in PHX

The desert seems intent upon discouraging life in all but its most prickly forms. Water, the precursor to life, is a foggy concept. Rivers contain dirt, not water. (True story: In 1944 25 German prisoners of war interned in Phoenix's Papago Park tried to escape by boating down the Gila and Colorado Rivers to Mexico. They were easily apprehended when their boat failed to float down the dry riverbed.)

Outside of the faux green lawns and non-native palm trees of Phoenix the skyline disappears into a swath of burnt sienna and spiny cacti. Actually, much of the city looks like that too but the neon In-N-Out Burger signs lend a different air of desolation to the cityscape.

After so much brown, a field of sunflowers in downtown Phoenix served as a jolt to the senses. Such a vibrant yellow is missing in the earthen, rusted desert color wheel. Planted as a sign of life and regeneration in what has become a derelict downtown, the field was abuzz with bees.