A Sense of Place in Southeastern Arizona

by Kathleen Shull

An old Somalian adage says "if you don't know where you are going, go home." So I did.

For more than 20 years, I had been away from Cochise County in Southeastern Arizona; the place I call home.

While gone, I continually thought about wide open vistas interrupted only by a yucca sprouting it's creme-colored bloom at Easter time, as I tried to find a parking place in San Francisco, Muenchen or Paris.

In my dreams, I was under a velvet ceiling with big and small sparklers shining down on me like the neighborly smiles of friends. I rarely could see the constellations or any twitch from a twinkling star. Even during the day, gray clouds plugged up the skies or tried to cover it with a light, almost watered-down, blue tint. Clouds billowed out in thick sheets or strung out in wispy threads. Or they threatened those on earth like black cotton balls wadded up pushing down on anything below.

There, the ground was rich and dark brown or even almost black and I had a garden with deep Irish coastal greens. I had a wonderful pear tree and cherry tree and an extravagently lush Elderberry Bush with purple berries and off-white lacy blossoms every August.

The only sand was on a beach. The seasons were distinct, but I remembered the changes in a desert year. I missed the monsoon season that was a relief fom the scorching summer heat. I missed the ancient creosote bush which releases its resins after such a quick, penetrating desert rain. I never found that odor in any desert in Africa or arid part of Spain. And it reminded me of home. Dust smells different, too, here than there in northern Europe or northern California. There it can harbor horrible molds and bacteria and dust mites seem more dangerous than hanta disease.

While it is true the fungi in our dust can cause lung ailments, I never suffered from it but I did suffer from the headaches that northern Europeans blame on the low pressure systems or change in electrical current during the Foen or Mistral winds.

Photo Courtesy of Cochise County Historical Journal Spring/Summer 1998

The destruction was enormous when an impending storm, which they called orkans, ripped across a pine-covered forest often ripping out whole swatches of trees like God had mowed them down. It was frightening to be caught in such a storm, but I never was afraid in a desert rain because I knew not to hide in canyons or washes. I also know what to do when lightning hits. I don't take my baths then or yak on the telephone. There is hardly anything as beautiful as a lightning storm in the desert. I often turn off all the lights and just watch them on the porch.

How I longed for that high, distant horizon and the penetrating brightness lighting up the pale sand, which is often eroded from an ancient sea bed or the mountains, whose silhouettes resemble the spiny backs of gila monsters or other beautiful lizards.

The high Sonoran Desert reaches up to many mountain ranges, whose shades of blue depended on where the sun had moved that afternoon. I used to imagine Geronimo and his Chiricahua Apache brothers staring down from the tops of the Dragoons and Whetstones and Huachucas. I would find feathers and make up stories of talking birds and playful bugs. The bugs are so brightly painted. We have more bugs and other creatures here than almost anywhere on earth. They aren't always big nor do they move in great herds like in Africa, but they are majestic nonetheless. I only remember flies, mosquitos and cockroaches, huge rats, and a few birds.

You can tell that nature is empty there, quieter and not as diverse. The forests look like they were all planted by man, they have even edges and so much space between them and from above, in a plane, like the dots of a carefully prearranged 72 d.p.i. It was eerie to notice it wasn't natural.

Copyright by Thrilling Ranch Stories,

Vol. XLIV, No. 3

 I often felt like I was in a museum of what people planned the world to look like, but not what the world looked like.

It was as if a gigantic photo had been carefully placed on the landscape to give the impression of landscape, but it was all man-made. I rode my bike kilometer upon kilometer and in country after country and there was so much concrete.

There were often only those plants someone had hybridized and planted in a great, unnatural park, that each city possessed and was proud of, but did not relax or ease your mind to walk around in it like the desert or a mountain path in the Huachuca Mountains.

I had never seen industrial ruins, but almost every city has them in Europe and they have turned them into museums and art centers and places where they read poetry, because the great industries of the last century are largely gone. Everything is a musuem, catalogued and carefully conserved, but somehow empty.

Except for late summer, I had to sleep under a thick goose-downed coverlet and watched my breath constantly escape my body like steam. The cold was so oppresive. It robbed you of your senses. You had to have so many clothes for every season.

The wet seeped into your bones and made you ache and shutter from the unrelenting chill. I can't stand the cold of winter here either, but when the earth looses 20 or 30 degrees Fahrenheit every night it refreshes your mind after a hot day. The cooler weather after the sun retreats is not an inescapable sentence after the judgement of day. It is merely a respite after heat.

It is so quiet here. Rarely a plane interrupts your train of thought, though many trains pass through Benson, one every 15 minutes I believe. I don't notice them much any more. But in Europe, the noise! I think I have lost some ability to hear just as a reaction to the noise that batters your senses day and night and moment to moment and never stops there.

People shout to be heard. They argue because they are ignored, totally ignored. It is not uncommon for many people to think every and anyone else is too stupid to understand, to listen, to obey, to consider, to know, to believe, to do anything at all. The rules. Good God, they have rules and regulations about everything and everything's everything. Ah, the quiet of the desert.

Naturally, Southeastern Arizona is a largely still a rural place, where you can rarely get anything at a reasonable price because it has to be shipped in or no one wants to come to the hinterlands to increase their workload. But to live in a crowed place where even the sky looks cramped is no longer an option for me.

Why live with so little wildlife and only the memory of animals, when here hummingbirds light on my flowers and crazy June bugs attack my peach tree and their strange looking cousins spend a week here wrecking havoc on my persimmon bushes is heaven compared to the thought of a cookie-cutter neighborhood with biscuit-sized yards and not even a wave of kindness or consideration from those on your block.

Home is southeastern Arizona, a rural place.

Tucson Memories | Benson

Congressman Jim Kolbe | Kolbe Interview

2002. Entertainment Magazine/Kathleen Shull