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Down on the Farm: Desert treasures

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The Sonoran Desert which surrounds Tucson and extends down into Mexico is hardly like the sandy Sahara Desert of elementary school lore. No endless sea of shifting dunes here.

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In fact, the Sonoran Desert is anything but deserted. It is crowded with life, and not just the lives of the thousands of snow birds like myself who migrate to bask in the warm winter sun.

It is hot. It is dry. At night in the winter, it can get cold. But the miracle of the desert is the incredible variety of life that has adapted to the hostile surroundings.

Two-thousand varieties of cactus, hundreds of bird species, trees, shrubs, sages, reptiles, cats, coyotes and rodents make the Arizona desert a lively and entertaining place for any nature lover.

The mesquite tree sends its roots down 100 feet in search of water. The mighty saguaro cactus sends surface roots out farther than than the giant plant is tall to gather in the fleeting dew. The palo verde tree's green bark photosynthesizes even after the tree has lost its leaves.

However, the desert, like any climate, isn't well-served by merely listing its species and conditions. Instead, the desert should be experienced.

I have long thought that the people who experience the north woods most intensely are the bow hunters who crawl in a tree stand in October and sit still for several hours, watching what comes by, staying still, listening to the sounds.

Some of them get so tied up in the experience that they forget to shoot the big buck when it ambles into the scene.

The desert requires the same patience.

Around the outskirts of Tucson are dozens of trails and parks. In fact, I have never seen a place where the local plant and animal life is so well-presented to the public.

During the weekends, the various parks fill up with walkers and tourists, but during the week you have the parks to yourself and can amble around undisturbed.

The very best of the desert can be experienced by finding a park bench--the Tucson equivalent of a deer stand--far from the crowd and just sitting there as still as you can be.

On a windless winter day, the Arizona sun is more a friend than an oppressor. It warms one to the bone. The novelty of sitting outside in mid-January feeling the sun's warmth never wears off.

Next to the sun, the most impressive part of the desert experience is the silence. It is almost complete. The desert floor, which is more cinder than sand, absorbs sound--as does the heavy cover of plant life.

The desert is so quiet that you can hear buzzes and hums in your ears of which you are never otherwise aware. You know its not the 'fridge, nor the well, nor the clock. It's in your ears.

After a few minutes of listening to things in your brain that you never otherwise hear, you become hypersensitive to any noise in the environment.

After five minutes of sitting last week, little birds crept into the scene, nibbling at mites on the mesquite tree. Other birds foraged in the rocks and gravel for seeds. A mere 10 minutes of sitting in a remote corner of Saguaro National Park last week earned me a more unusual reward.

I saw a little stick move.

It moved real quick, then it disappeared. Only five feet from my feet, I couldn't pick it out until it moved again.

Finally, I focused my bifocals on the little stick. It was a tiny multi-colored lizard, known as a skink. My hunting instincts kicked in and I started taking pictures.

As I stalked the skink, a vacationing couple with a heavy East Coast accent roared past. They were in a big hurry, even though they were both pushing walkers.

"We haven't seen any wildlife at all!" the man complained.

"Not a thing since we got here!" the wife chimed in.

"Yep, it's pretty quiet," I said, hoping not to disturb the skink at my feet.

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