Thanksgiving Day, Phoenix, Arizona

(I have not yet located the photo that accompanied this article.)

Someone else was tending the turkey, setting the table, and fixing the feast. So I set out on Thanksgiving morning with camera in hand.

Thunderbird Park stood out on the map at the northern boundary of Phoenix as a destination close enough to permit me time to get back for dinner at 2:30. I knew nothing about the park so wasn’t sure what to expect, but it looked large enough to ensure plenty of photographic possibilities.

I have never been one to take a lot of pictures preferring the images imprinted in my memory to the ones recorded on film. But recently I have been lured to try my hand at recording scenes that reach beyond the “trip to Phoenix” shots—ones that capture the rhythm, the beauty, the essence of a place and distill it into a few shapes, colors, or faces that reflect an inner pulse. I have found this is not easy.

The Park turned out to be a perfect example of the low desert peaks that punctuate Phoenix and radiate out from it in all directions. I parked the car and set out on foot across the desert toward the base of a rocky compound ridge dotted with cholla, sage, and stunted palo verde. The slope sported an occasional saguaro, the unwavering symbol of the low Arizona-Sonora desert. Jumbled outcroppings of blackened lava, a few splotched with vivid orange and chartreuse lichens, testified to volcanic disturbances in former times.

I stopped, considered photographic possibilities, clicked, chronicled, clicked some more and lost myself in time and space.

A few people materialized hiking down a well-camouflaged trail on the rocky slope. Never having been able to resist a trail leading out of sight, I began climbing.

The going was rough. This cone materializing from the desert floor was a gigantic pile of mid-size rocks. Without watching every step even a mountain goat would trip and fall. Back and forth the rough path led up the slope with the ridge always beckoning, always just a little farther away than it looked. I climbed and climbed up the north side of this heap, one eye on my watch wondering if I would reach the top before I needed to turn back to meet the dinner deadline.

At last the path leveled. I had reached the ridge. There to the south beneath me Phoenix stretched for miles, the air as clear as it was when it lured the first immigrants to its stunning vastness.

The trail continued, promising even more if I followed it; but I turned back knowing I would try to return. What is there about a path that compels me to follow it? Whether it’s a path up a mountain or into a forest, or a path to learning a camera’s magic or how to make words say exactly what I mean, I am always seduced by the promise that there is more just beyond the bend, just behind the lense, in the blank page ahead.

The trick is to get back in time for Thanksgiving.

The Seed of an Idea

We all know about seeds. They are a metaphor for our existence. You put them in the ground, water them a little, and they sprout into flowers, trees, vegetables, weeds. Ah, that life was so simple.

If you are a gardener, you know that soaking certain seeds prior to planting can make them sprout faster and more reliably. The hard coating that protects the life inside softens and splits as moisture causes the cells to swell and start the exponential splitting that is the definition of life. But some plants, like humans, live in less than ideal circumstances, and they, like humans, have learned to adapt.

Take manzanita, that stunning California chaparral native with its lovely white bell-shaped flowers that give rise to leathery berries. The rains can come and go without so much as a sign of life from the seed inside until a deer or passing bird eats it. The coating protecting the life inside is dissolved by the acid of digestion. Nourishment is the animal’s reward, but the seed passes on, ready to sprout in the next rainy season to adorn a California hillside.

The Southwest’s stately saguaros, spaced out in sweeping desert vistas at intervals ordained by rainfall, grow at a pace that would try the most patient gardener. No easy task to get one of these beauties, so dependent on infinitesimal amounts of rainfall, to sprout. No sense wasting the precious seeds on hot, dry conditions doomed to cause failure. Birds eat the fleshy seed-laden fruit. The seeds are dropped close to plants on which the birds alight. Shade for many summers is needed to nurse these towering pillars until they are large enough to survive in the relentless sun.

The billowy smoke tree and the picturesque palo verde that festoon desert washes need a true desert gully-washer in order for the living embryo inside their iron-clad seeds to stir. The seeds, carried along by turbulent water are nicked and scarred by sand and rock, to open them to the life-giving effects of the rain. As the water rapidly disappears into the loose desert scree, they come to rest in low-lying spots that hold water the longest. Then, and only then, is there enough moisture for them to sprout and become the next generation of desert sentinels so amazingly adapted to life in the searing heat.

The seeds of mountain pines and maples must be moist and cool for several months to arouse the life inside, and the seeds of the giant Sequoia need fire. No amount of tumbling through a warm desert wash would stir them to awaken to an early death in inhospitable territory. Only a chilly promise of long cool winters or a piercing tongue of flame will lure them to life.

And so it is. All life manages, sometimes flourishing, sometimes struggling. But under the harshest conditions, blossoms occur. And with each comes a seed and a chance, just a chance, of new life.