monsoon melodies and maladies

This is the part of the Sonoran summer you don’t get to see unless you stick around. Hang tough through that hot dry heat. Though you can’t blame fellow desert dwellers for skipping out – it’s a good time to drive north and rest your eyes on some mountain views or head west to bask in ocean breezes.

But for the rest of us, July is a time when the heat builds and builds during the day while puffy clouds pile on top of one another, then start to darken. As the office hours wind down, a breeze kicks up – branches sway as the trees and tall bushes start their slow, bobbing rain dance. Then faster, their arms flail wildly and you hear a distant timpani roll of thunder. My heart speeds up. The sun hides, the desert waits breathlessly, the birds hop up and down, up and down. Our collective hope stretches up and out like a bubble blown from a wand. Aching for a drop. Just one drop, even if it sizzles to oblivion on impact with the dusty ground. And when that drop comes, the bubble of hope swells ever fatter – we urge the Universe for just one more. Then another. And the patter of the sky’s tears finally fall and the bubble bursts, adding even more to the downpour.

Yeah, I kinda dig this season.

In my backyard, there’s a new kind of urban animal drama in July that revolves around bathing. I haven’t seen the cardinals in a while, but the mourning doves, mockingbirds and sparrows are still in abundance. I put out a terra cotta saucer under the branches of the olive tree, filling it in the morning with fresh cool water from the hose. It barely holds an inch, but it’s a pleasure to watch the action around this tiny man-made pond. The doves and the mockingbirds, being the bigger kids on the block, will swoop down and nudge each other off, playing their version of chicken until the loser flits off, waiting until the winner’s back is turned to swoop back in and sneak a sip. The sparrows seem the most delighted though. As the sun sinks and takes his burning light away for a few hours, one by one the sparrows hop-hop-hop into the circle of dust not covered by gravel, disturbing a sweet verdin along the way. They flip and flutter and flap their wings, twirling around each other in a great promenade. One robust young fella scrunches down especially hard, creating his own little dust bowl in the ground, so you can barely see him. A fluttery feather pancake. He rolls and crows and delights in the dirt.

Then a couple at a time take the one inch plunge in the saucer and puff up into tawny feather balls , splashing their little puddle until it’s practically empty while I laugh silently behind my window.

The teenage sparrows are overstaying their welcome. You can tell when there are two birds of about the same size, but one is frantically fluttering its wings at the other: Feed Me, Feed Me! Even though frankly she looks quite able to feed herself. The annoyed Mama tries to dodge the mooch, but eventually shuts her up with a regurgitated insect or two.

It’s generally a happy yard full of song. Even with a predatory housecat on the premises. But then again, Massi is a pathetic hunter. He’s a beautiful sweet awesome boy, but he couldn’t hunt to save his life. The birds know it by now and just go about their business, even the few times he gets the ambition to stalk. Which suits me fine. I’m not a big fan of providing mercy killings to half-dead animals.

The Desert Spiny lizards are fascinating neighbors. Every now and then I find one – like a little iguana – clutched to the brick wall next to the front door light, feasting on green lacewings and moths. One little feller, beat up or old or sick, most of its tail missing, has attached himself to our carport. Jamie found him by the door while I was out of town and started leaving water and some bits of food. When I got back, he pointed out the dark, slightly deflated lizard hanging out quietly by the garbage can. I started adding some rocks, to make him feel at home. Jamie picked up some meal worms. The little guy gobbled them up so quickly, we dubbed him Marvin (short for Starvin Marvin). He seems to be getting stronger, but is still so small compared to the other big lizards. But when another male came to threaten him with pushups and a puffed out throat, little Marvin stood his ground and did his own shallow pushups. Luckily I was there to shoo away the challenger so Marvin could get his rest. We don’t know what will happen to him. Stories like his don’t usually end well in nature. But we can’t help trying to help him. In any case, he’s fascinating to observe. I really hope he makes it.

Well, it’s the next day and Marvin has gone to the great basking rock in the sky. We both knew this could happen, but it was very sad. Jamie gently buried him in our yard close to where he last looked for refuge. At least Jamie helped make Marvin’s last days a little more calm and comfortable. And I made my first connection with a reptile. A little rock marks his grave and we’ll miss him.

Within the hour, I looked up from my laptop to see a pile of feathers flailing in the back of the yard. A big bruiser of a mourning dove I’d been noticing lately seemed to be wailing on some other bird – slamming his wing down like some steroid-stuffed WWE wrestler. I rushed out the back door and shooed him away, then inched close enough to see it was a fledgling mockingbird – a small fluffy version with the telltale white bars on its little wings. I was sure it was dead, lying flat against the pink gravel. But it was still breathing, and then it slowly lifted up its head, fuzzily looking at me through one tiny black eye. I crept back and hoped for the best (keeping Massi inside since this is a bird he could actually catch). Sure enough next time I looked it had hopped to the bushes, calling for food, rustling those wings for all it was worth until mom and dad found it and started shoveling food into its beak again. The parents patrol the perimeter around their young, ready to dive-bomb that mean ol bully dove next time he shows his beak.

Individual life is never guaranteed in nature, and often sacrificed to keep the larger wheel of Life going. And as much beauty and peace and calm as she provides – Mother Nature can be a right stone cold bitch. There I said it. But it’s still right. It is the way our planet works, the way balance is maintained. As a human with our too big brain (name that book) and a tendency towards anthropomorphizing, it can burst your heart with joy and tear it apart – one after the other, back and forth. But I’m still glad to be a witness to it in my little corner of the world.

Another update. A happy one this time. The fledgeling made a full recovery and is now well on his or her way to flying high in the sky.

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