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Bonding With the Desert

An affinity for nature may be something you’re born with; it certainly seems that way for me. Volunteering for the Desert Foothills Land Trust has been a terrific way for me to deepen my connection with the Sonoran Desert, to sense its seasonal rhythms, and to feel as though I’m helping to share the knowledge I’ve gained with others and help preserve land that can be enjoyed by this and future generations.

Growing up in Connecticut, where the four seasons are very pronounced, my initial experiences with nature were very different from Arizona. Winters are cold and largely lifeless. Leaves bud out in lime-green when the winds of March abate; they grow larger and deeper in color as spring marches into summer. You learn the differences between various trees and plants, how to recognize them by shapes and colors. Fall brings a new spectrum of colors – reds, yellows and oranges – that feed a sense of wonder.


The desert is a different animal – more feral, harsher. The comforting wall of green and the deep shade that covers much of the East in summer is nowhere to be found. Spines cover cacti, cholla and a host of other things. Since I came here a decade ago, I’ve turned my innate curiosity to the desert landscape and its multitude of flora, trying to soak up as much as possible. I can hike through a landscape and identify most of the plants – except for the array of yellow daisy-like flowers that exist in such variety and profusion. Is it a golden eye, or something else?

I’ll never be a Steve Jones – the botanical nonpareil who helps lead many of DFLT’s hikes – but I’ve felt comfortable with pointing out the trees and plants encountered during a group hike. A Christmas cholla growing on the path up Lone Mountain is a special friend that I check in on from time to time.

February and March can be amazing months in the desert, with an explosion of blooms in a good year, painting hillsides in brilliant yellow. As it’s become abundantly clear, this has not been a good year; the drought has deepened, sucking the moisture out of the land. The Lone Mountain hike this past March was the drabbest I can remember; the brittlebush and bursage were depressingly desiccated, and it’s hard to imagine what could revive them short of a near-biblical flood. But the desert, if anything, is resourceful.

In my working life in the East, I was a steady contributor to environmental nonprofits – and still am – but didn’t have the time to really dig in and get involved with a cause and a mission. I’ve found that with DFLT. It’s a cliché, but giving back is one of the most rewarding things anyone can do. Every time I see a new development rising in North Scottsdale, I’m reminded how precious open desert is and how quickly it can vanish.

Writers like John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey offer vivid testimony to the meditative and healing powers of nature. The desert doesn’t have the majestic solemnity of the redwoods or the chiseled profile of the Rockies, but it has varied terrain, azure skies and vistas open to the horizon.

The DFLT board is constantly thinking about ways to engage with the community, and especially with children, who will be the land’s stewards in the decades to come. That’s a major reason we started the highly successful Desert Discovery Day. But we need adult champions too: hikers, bike riders, bird-watchers, whatever. All but a handful of us are purely volunteers, and it’s with the engaging spirit of volunteerism that organizations like DFLT can survive and even flourish.

  • Jeffrey Marshall, board member since 2012

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