Sensory Nature of Spring

An essay from the March 2018 issue of Arizona Highways. | By Kelly Vaughn | Photograph by George Stocking

Sensory Nature of Spring

The change comes quickly sometimes — a warm breeze one day where a cold one went the day before. Spring.

But the birds sense the shift before the weather knows it. Their songs start earlier, last longer into the pink haze of sunset.

In the city, where the cars and the concrete and the minutiae of everyday life drown out the transition, people have to search in fits and starts for birdsong.

In the desert, though, spring touches all the senses.

In a lucky winter, this place is ripe with rain. It greens and grows and sleeps under alternating blankets of blue and cloud, and the stars seem so close you start to think maybe you could scoop them from the sky.

As the desert drinks, the flowers wake, and come March or April, the washes and hillsides and grasses bloom with pink and orange and gold and purple. People in the city go to the mountains, drive long distances to watch the poppies wake.

In one memory from my childhood, I can remember seeing another desert plant, globemallow, for the first time. Sphaeralcea ambigua. There were so many quail nearby, I thought the plant itself was cooing. Really, though, it just burst with color. Orange creamsicle blooms on a branch tinted okra.

We were visiting the desert from Dallas — a place from where I cannot recall a single spring. Where exactly we were is lost to me now, but I remember the name coming from my grandmother. She smelled like gardenia when she answered my questions about the plant and its color and how it grew in a place like this. She always smelled like gardenia.

Globemallow. It seemed a make-believe name, and I wanted to taste the word.

Because that’s the way spring goes in the Sonoran Desert.    

Near my parents’ house — we moved there a few years after the globemallow found me — a trail runs around and under and near the highway. There, behind the saguaros and chollas and inside the trail’s hidden caves, spring sounds like birth.

The yip and howl of coyotes in their dens.

As the sun takes its dive, the barks get louder. There is movement. Waiting. The hunt.

As a teenager, I’d wake often in the middle of the night or in those first few hours of early morning and listen, wondering how far away the packs were and if the owl that sometimes landed in the tree outside my bedroom could see them. In a sense, I suppose that the coyote call sounds to me a lot like home.

It’s funny how sound has roots in memory.

Memory has roots in sound.

I am writing this on New Year’s Day, and a Joan Didion quote is pounding in my head. It is the one about how life changes in an instant.

If you look long enough at it, a desert spring is a whole life cycle. The infant buds, the growth, the slow wither, death. Summer.

Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. A poppy loses its petals. The desert goes dry.

Each spring, a gardenia plant blooms outside my front door. I should take better care of it, but I am not the gardener my mother is, or that my grandmother was. To be honest, I didn’t even know what the bush was until a certain spring, when I smelled its blooms and went back to that place in the desert with my grandmother, with the globemallow.

I’ll leave here in March. To a new house on a new piece of desert. The gardenia will stay. But somewhere, there will be birdsong and the senses and the remnants of so many springs.