This is my sixth year heading south for the winter. After we lost that wild and talented chef, Jimella Lucas; then my mother died; then my rascally Chihuahua Nibby died, I concluded that I needed a change of scene in November. “If this is going to be the dying season, I need to head for the sun,” I said to myself. So I threw some underwear into a suitcase and drove down to the Sonoran desert just around holiday time in 2013.
That first year I thought I’d stay for a couple weeks and ended up staying several months — mostly at Rancho Linda Vista in Oracle, Arizona, an artists community 34 miles from Tucson.
Talk about a “bookend” experience to contrast with our Pacific Northwest wet and stormy winters: everything about the desert is different. The landscape is dry grassy terrain with ranges of low, rocky mountains pushed up here and there out of the sandy soil. The only “trees” are scrubby mesquite, that seem more like bushes to this PNW native, or those noted giants, the saguaro cactus.
Desert pleasures are mixed. After seeing my first golden scorpion — the tiniest and most poisonous of the family — I still check my shoes every morning before slipping them on. Tarantula, though mostly benign, are still scary. Other desert creatures just seem strangely and comically animated: javelina arrive at night in families like crews of little bulldozers to finish up the birdseed — pushing each other, toppling bricks off the patio walls, and scuttling around on their skinny peg-legs and hooves.
By day the imperious roadrunner dashes into the brush, head held high. Same for the cactus wren, who dives death-defyingly into her nest in the middle of prickly cholla cactus, not bothered by the spikes which — if one is unfortunate enough to have brushed against them — are impossible to pull out of one’s arms, legs, or hands.
Some things are similar to our region in a desert sort of way: there is a vast array of amazing birds that frequent the seeds I put out every morning: cardinals, wrens, finches, jays, sparrows, some with beautiful unpronounceable names like the pyrrholoxia and the phainopepla. There are also owls of all varieties, hummingbirds, hawks, kestrels, woodpeckers, doves, and quail.
Coyotes wail at night, deer browse, and the desert rabbits are a constant source of temptation for Jackson, my miniature Doxie, who is, I’ve read, bred for rabbit hunting. He’s always nose-to-the-ground or bounding up and down through the grasses, ears flying.
Too hot! Too cold!
When I first arrived in Tucson to visit long-time friends, it was 88 degrees for a week running. While Tucsonans were breathing a collective sigh of relief that the hot weather had passed, I was complaining vociferously and accused of being a hothouse orchid. They all thought I was ridiculous. Checking temperatures back home in Nahcotta, I was longing for those lovely mid-60 and or low-70 degree days.
Back at the ranch after a week or so of, yes, mostly wonderful desert sun, the rains started. We had several days of a total deluge complete with thunder, lightning, and high winds. Water came down fast and furious, washing out the roads, tumbling rocks, and rutting all the driveways. The grasses loved it.
Then the weather turned again and the day after Thanksgiving I woke to three inches of snow that had fallen in big juicy flakes for hours, covering the mesquite, agave, and cactus in Christmas holiday dressing like a scene from the window of Santa’s workshop. When I called home, Peninsula friends just laughed: you all were having lovely 50-degree weather with clear sunny skies. What’s a snowbird to do?
Can we mention now that dastardly and divisive phrase? In a recent Pew poll a majority of U.S. adults believe that “efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change are not sufficient.” (This I would call an understatement of massive proportions.) An average of 67 percent of Americans fault the federal government for doing too little to counter climate change. But, no surprise, we are a vastly divided country on this issue. Overwhelmingly, 90 percent of Democrats agree that there is not enough action on this front, while only 39 percent of Republicans feel this way.
Meanwhile whole villages are having to make the decision to move because of climate change — like Shishmaref, a small Inuit Eskimo village off the western coast of Alaska. Ocean view homes in California are falling into the sea, while homes in their interurban interface areas are on fire. Miami is battling rising seas. The flooding in Venice is at its highest in years. And Greta Thunberg is still trying to get the world’s attention — this is the 68th week of school strikes that she has inspired.
It’s pretty apparent to more and more people that the climate is changing: longstanding weather patterns no longer hold. Optimistically, some feel that we are on the brink of major change — that perhaps a tipping point of real climate action is close as more people feel the effects. Some folks point to the reduced cost of solar and alternative energy sources as a sign of positive change; also the fact that more people are eating less meat; and there’s a growing awareness in our younger generation (of future voters) that radical change of some sort is needed.
Meanwhile, this snowbird has been surprised and dismayed by the changes to the weather in her Southwest retreat. I know that the privilege I have of traveling to other climes in winter months is no long-term solution; in fact it adds more carbon to the atmosphere! I recycle, a try to use less plastic, and I have decided to eat less meat, but these personal habits will be unlikely to have a discernible effect on Mother Earth’s weather.
Still, “the special report (https://www.ipcc.ch/report/srccl) on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes plant-based diets [among other possible changes] as a major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change — and includes a policy recommendation to reduce meat consumption.” As Hans-Otto Pörtner, an ecologist who co-chairs the IPCC’s working group, says, “It would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect.” But I wonder — what would those incentives, or disincentives, be? A tax on Big Macs? Or will those plant-based and lab-grown meats being developed suddenly become deliciously cool?
Having just finished one of the blowout meals of the holidays, this may not be the time to talk about “plant-based diets,” but, really folks, what should we be doing? And as concerned earthlings, what should we demand of our government representatives? Some changes must be made — but which ones can we accomplish that will make a real difference?
This year my snowbirding experience has reinforced that escaping to milder climes — even for those of us privileged enough to do so — is no answer. Like Nero, we are fiddling while our planet burns.