A writer walks through a suburb of a desert city. He finds that art, souvenirs, tradition, memory, and dam-building and citrus trees have something to do with each other. This is the final of five essays.
Scottsdale is in the desert. This must be remembered.
In ancient practice the desert is where people were sent to wander. It is the land of exile. In three short hours it can prove how inhospitable it is to human life. Nightmarishly designed insects, cacti whose leaves are sharp thorns, searing, coarse surfaces. The place is opposed to identity. Mirages, impermanent dunes, and dust storms make form and orientation almost impossible.
These are places that sometimes we must travel through, “when the straightway path has been lost.” But going to the desert to plant and start a city stands against this ancient connection between the desert and exile. Perhaps out of an accidental wrong turn or dire necessity, yes, but going to the desert mindfully is a peculiar origin for any city. What farmer choses to relocate to the desert? Who choses exile? One is not lost in a desert only.
To be in a desert is to be lost.
This small town with an art district, tourism, and souvenir economy exists in a land of dangerous heat and dry soil. But Scottsdale, and the larger Phoenix metro, is about making the unlivable, comfortable. The West, in a time of expansion into uncultivated and unexplored place, a dangerous wilderness, becomes the best place to retire. The life threatening and the American dream have made an armistice in the valley of the sun.
Natives talk about the four “C”s to Phoenix: copper, cotton, cattle, and citrus. A fifth is climate. Three mountains rest together just north of Scottsdale: Camelback, Mummy, and McDowell. Around their rims, and climbing up rest the estates of “snow birds.” (A Snow Bird: moneyed individuals who choose to spend the winter in Phoenix to avoid the harsher qualities of cold.) The closer one travels towards the mountain, the pricier the cars. Neighborhoods begin to build brick walls with electronic gates. It grows quiet. The sky is closer. The flatness of the city is a separate, infinite geometric phenomenon to look down upon. Also, shocking to me when I first encountered it while I helped transplant a piano from a mountained home to a flatter one, there is a real population of scorpions and rabbits. More creases and crannies for all to burrow. Snow Birds are also burrowing creatures, with a population of some 300,000, counting by income and address.
The winter weather is mild. Winfield Scott, the founder himself, came here on physician’s recommendation. The climate would eventually help his asthma. Apart from the summer months, the weather is, from late October through winter to early March, between 45 and 75 degrees.
Similar to the Snow Birds, the citrus were brought here because they need the constant exposure to sun, no chance of frost, and the water of constant rain, which the canals would deliver. Plenty of sun and plenty of water aren’t contradictory requests. Usually, though, they are exclusive. The mystery was solved with a small clarification. To make the citrus economy possible, Jack Swilling was among the first to suggest building canals in the valley. They tapped a detouring vein from the nearby rivers and lakes. The Salt River alone supported the initial farming in the late 1800s.
Surrounding the 16,000 miles of the Phoenix metro are rivers and green forests snaking around and kept on the other side of the mountain range’s rim. The valley is lower in elevation. Flagstaff is 7,000 feet, Phoenix is 1,000 feet above sea level. A satellite view shows the Colorado River, the Salt River, Apache Lake, and Canyon Lake flowing toward then around the valley of Phoenix. Two hours out of Phoenix are coniferous forests, the Grande Canyon, snow in January. Real temperature and seasons. None of this, water- or temperature-wise, is in the valley.
It distorts the image of a desert to say that the Salt River Valley was made for farming, for ranching, for towns, cities, economy. The only thing that could have survived from the outset in the Sonoran desert would have been the Saguaro cacti and shrubs and succulents. Scott could not just have planed citrus. Swilling could not just have planted the town of Phoenix. None of the cotton would have grown or the cattle survived if the desert was left a desert. (Plausibly, the only other plant that could have survived is the olive tree, which needs little water anyway.) And, regardless of how many canals they built, they could not control water flow. In the summers, the canals dry up. Or if it rained too quickly, the canals could overflow. Most of the time a desert with canals is just a desert with dried up canals. Like The Veils’s “Sit Down by the Fire:”
My father’s singing in the fallin’ leaves
about the complicated beauty of a river run dry
Life and farming in this desert required dams. To build a dam, mountains are demolished, a large-enough paycheck is offered to workers to outweigh the chance of certain death, and, in the case of Phoenix, the import of concrete enough to make hundreds of miles of road. The Theodore Roosevelt dam was built by the request of Jack Swilling. The Reclamation Act was passed and provided funds. Twelve men died building it. Eventually, some eight dams were built. Collectively, they store up enough water for the summer months, and all water that runs down is transformed into hydroelectric energy. The lights of the city are lit by the water falling into the valley.
Soon after the dam was built, consecutive rainstorms threatened to overflow the dams, the Roosevelt dam and two dams below. The government had plans for flooding, but three storms right after each other promised beyond their predictions. The storms did not rain as much as they could have. The dams held, this time.
Water is never truly under our control. It is elemental, transformative, basic. It is peaceful lightening.
In fact, the uncontrollability of water expresses itself in the valley. The irrigation of suburban lawns comes in two forms: drip irrigation and flooding. For flooding, the edge of the lawn is built up to keep the water in, making a mountain range the size of molehills. In the lawn is what looks like the stump of a cut down fire-hydrant. You twist it open. Water gushes out, floods the lawn, and by the end of the day, the water’s all sunk or sweated away. Orange trees are planted often in or around these man-made quarter-acre flood plains. Special grass is planted to survive the miniature floods.
The water is stored, but not mastered. What else is a dam but an always-imminent flood? Just the twist of a nozzle away. The desert lives on the edge of becoming a lake.
Walking among a grove of olive trees on an olive-gathering adventure, my friend explained the culinary difference between pickling and curing. Cucumbers, radishes, quail eggs, jalapeños, and pig feet are pickled, because they can (in theory) be eaten without the chemical change that curing effects. A raw olive is bitter and must be cured. The bitter compound oleuropein must be leeched out to make it edible. No cure, and the olive will make you vomit, he said with a grin, at the prospect, I supposed, of gathering fruit that is so repulsive and also a favorite dish.
The kitchen chemistry reminded me of an old theologian my dad once knew. He was explaining that the word baptizo in greek for baptize meant the same thing as ships sinking in a storm, or cucumbers dunked in vinegar. It’s not dying. The word implies that the drowned undergo a change in their nature. Drowning, is not passive.
There are a variety of mixes. If you’re brave there’s a lye-curing method, which is to deal with a semi-poisonous fruit with a really poisonous chemical; if you’ve got time, there’s a water and salt brine method; but then there’s the regular combination of vinegar and pickling salt, as opposed to kosher salt, which my friend prefers, adding garlic, onions, spices. Once the olives are submerged and the jar is sealed – my friend used an old salsa jar – we wait for six weeks to several months before we can open it again.
Not everything benefits from drowning in the same way. Olive trees need the desert, an arid clime, what to others is an utterly inhospitable formlessness. Little water is ideal. Certain creatures need the desert to live. This fact is puzzling: olives grows with in-hospitality. Too much moisture and temperate weather, the tree gets root rot, its wood grows brittle, it dies. Make sure you cure the olives, not the olive tree.
We take the olives from the tree by shaking the branches, laying a white cloth on the ground to catch the olives on. Go home with jars full of olives. Wash them and inspect. If there are holes or obvious rotten parts, throw the whole olive away. There are olive-specific bugs, worms, and beetles that do not cure well. They traveled with the olives when they were brought here from the Mediterranean (they are not indigenous to the Americas). Once washed, their skin needs to be cut into to allow the vinegar et al to soak into the soft tissue beneath and draw out the un-palatables. Once the curing mix is ready, the olives are submerged.
I took stock of what I had encountered. Scottsdale has made the best of a very-less-than-ideal place. It has cultivated forms of remembering (art, souvenirs, tourism, etc) the land we have only the memory of; It is the most western town, the most livable city. It has in many ways succeeded being in the desert remembering the garden. Slowly Art, (the-what-is-art Art) took up a definition. Whether what a piece of art represents is in the future, the past, planted in memory, art always comes after; art always “emerges from.” Art is the consequence, always, of what has happened, even when the event exists in the future. Representation is to have come up from baptism.
Say it’s possible that one day the desert is broken back into. The dams do not hold back; the place is drowned. The olive trees, the citrus, the flatness. The valley becomes the seabed, the mountains the sea level. The desert becomes aquatic.
The question upon which the whole project of memory and art rests is also overturned – How shall one remember the desert then? Someone could pick up a rock and say, “it was like this,” but that would be to remember by negation, and could not explain what happened to the desert, being drowned. The desert must give from itself some sign that captures what it was and has become, a sign that could come nowhere else but the desert, and only after a drowning.
Signs must always first be cured. They are all olives from the jar.