Chacos and tacos: Exploring the Landscape and Culture of Arizona by Joshua Pil

“But it’s a dry heat,” my friend, a native to Arizona, said “it’s so much better than North Carolina’s weather.” These are the words that convinced me, with a body comparable to that of a well-insulated penguin, to spend my summer in the deserts of southern Arizona.

(From left to right) Vivian, Mary Rose and I removing invasive periwinkle from stream banks in Aravaipa Canyon. We had competitions to see who could pull the longest root as they grew to be several meters long.

I was presented with the opportunity to work with the Sky Island Alliance (SIA) located in Tucson, Arizona through the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program, a national program with the mission of diversifying the field of conservation by providing undergraduates with valuable experiences through research and internships. I realized upon entering college that my perspective on the environmental issues we face was narrow, and if I were to be relevant in the field of conservation, I would have to take advantage of my being in college and leave my comfort zone, also known as the east coast, which I have called home my entire life.

The Madrean Sky Islands, named after the Sierra Madre Occidental, encompass southwestern America and northwestern Mexico. The term “Sky Island” refers to the unique plants, animals and habitats located on the tops of each mountain, isolated by grassland and desert environments, which creates an effect similar to islands surrounded by water. The deserts and grasslands are barriers to many endemic species and relict populations. The 57 mountains in this region range from 3,000 to over 10,000 feet in elevation and connect northern temperate and southern neotropical biomes, allowing for interactions between jaguars and black bears, and bromeliads and maple trees. The Sky Islands, being an ecological hotspot, is especially at risk in the face of climate change, desertification, and political relations. The Sky Island Alliance is a small non-profit organization providing leadership in conservation for this vulnerable area. Although there were only 10 employees at the time of my internship, they had no problem inspiring volunteers to join their cause. It was a privilege to work with the Sky Island Alliance (SIA) and serve their mission of restoring land and water, protecting open space, connecting wildlife, and advancing science. That said, this was undoubtedly the most challenging field work I have ever been a part of.

Surveying saguaro cacti on ‘A’ Mountain in Tucson after a fire caused by Fourth of July fireworks. We would wake up at 5 am to beat the heat and work until 12. I could never pack enough water.

I arrived in Arizona on the evening of May 20th. I remember exiting the airport and seeing my first saguaro cactus. Its height, about 20 feet, amazed me at the time but is laughable compared to the 30 to 40 footers I would see on a daily basis. The night sky hid the distant mountains that surrounded Tucson, as if it were building suspense for the grand reveal the following morning. The evening air was in the 60s and, according to the locals, unseasonably cool, I took it as a warning to prepare myself for what was to come.

My first weekend of work with SIA took me, two other Doris Duke interns, and a group of volunteers to a hidden gem of Arizona known as Aravaipa canyon. Having already been in Arizona for a week, my only exposure to this area was miles upon miles of barren rock, accompanied by several species of cactus, which I had gotten to know a little too well (I still have scars!). The bottom of the canyon looked more like home to me, with a lush forest around a stream which miraculously spawned from groundwater. We were tasked with removing invasive ​Vinca major​, or periwinkle, from the stream banks. It was introduced from Africa as a means of groundcover and, like most invasives, offers little ecological services and spread to be a nuisance. Removing periwinkle from stream banks only prevents spreading, the expansive fields it has conquered are treated with herbicides. Working with a group of volunteers of diverse backgrounds and aspirations was an absolute pleasure. Campfire talks taught me more about the environmental and political issues these people face on their side of the country than any news article could.

Pima County Nursery grew native plants for projects around Tucson. Whenever there was construction they would rescue saguaro and cholla cacti to be replanted elsewhere. In the meantime, they were to be stored in pots. Gloves and tongs could only help so much in this painful process

A few weeks into my internship, I was well acquainted with temperatures over a hundred degrees. My fellow interns and I were sent to a nursery an hour away from Tucson in the small town of Patagonia next a tourist attraction that we would call a lake in Raleigh. The town was home to the Borderlands Restoration Network, a nursery that grew native plants critical for the fragile desert ecosystem. The nursery was in the process of restoring wild populations of agave, whose flowers feed pollinators such as bats and hummingbirds. After a drive into a wilderness haven, we hiked several hills to accomodate for the altitude-loving agave species we were given and chipped away at the rocky ground to make homes worthy of our precious agaves. There is nothing that has taught me to value water more than farmer-carrying 5-gallon buckets of water up and down hills of loose rock from our pickup truck to feed our agave. Losing footing and helplessly watching a full bucket roll down a hill was nothing short of a tragedy, although hornets were excited to get their fill before it evaporated in minutes.

A desert tortoise outside a research lab in Tucson keeping cool in the middle of the day. We knew better than to feed it water and food, but it was so tempting.

My time in Tucson made me realize how wildly different the world can be, and how much beauty can be seen once you understand where to look. The desert may seem unfriendly and harsh, but the native plants and animals still flourish against all odds. Palo verde trees, as the name suggests, has green stems that allow for photosynthesis while reducing transpiration. The elusive Gila monster, among many other animals, spends most of its time in burrows conserving its energy for when necessary. Working to restore the natural beauty of the desert with SIA has inspired me to seek a career in restoration ecology with solutions that empower the community. I realized that it wasn’t the land that was broken, but our relationship with the land. Restoring land with the help of those that use it establish lasting solutions that addresses the real issue.

I have a fascination and deep respect for desert ecology and the people that work there. I aspire to learn more about the world and experience it in its fullest, but I still hope the weather in the next job I take is not as extreme.