Kino school at pima canyon


On January 9th, 2019, 10 students from Kino School went on an adventure to learn about the low Sonoran Desert environment. Together on a cloudy winter day, we hiked through Pima Canyon, a riparian area within the southwestern extent of the Santa Catalina Mountains. This being the first expedition of the semester, our goal was to begin getting to know the personality and character of the Sonoran Desert by simply observing all of its features, like its geology, flora, fauna, weather, and how all of it seems to interact. As well, we needed to get our hiking feet under us so that we can begin getting used to rugged outdoor education adventures. This task turned out to be an easy achievement for this very capable group. 

The sky looked ominous, and the chance of a winter shower seemed likely. The group was optimistic, even if there was rain they claimed they would not retreat. Without a surprise, cool drops fell from heavy clouds and bombarded us as we hiked. Suddenly the landscape became audible. There is always a moment of excitement when it begins to rain in the desert. It is regarded as a positive moment, and everything around is forced to pause as the entire desert collectively sighs with joy. For a day dedicated to learning about the personality of the Sonoran Desert, winter rains are a wonderful introduction. Southern Arizona and the Greater Sonoran Desert receives biannual rains. In the autumn, arctic storms bring cold moist air south, showering us for weeks with light delicate rains. Our desert relies on these rains, and their importance couldn’t be ignored. First, we stopped to smell the aromas that are stirred up by the rains, the pores of dozens of plants opening to greet their long-awaited wet friends. “Creosote! Lavender! The dirt?!” So many common and uncommon desert things suddenly became recognizable in a way that is unfamiliar to us. We observed the aromatic qualities, using our noses to lead us. We discussed desert adaptations specifically in relation to catching this type of rain, like shallow root systems and succulent water storage. We were just beginning to feel the effects of the shower, when suddenly as quick as it came, so it went. As is the personality of desert rains. 

The drumming of our boot steps shook clingy raindrops from the waxy cuticle of prickly pear skin onto the thirsty desert floor. Our hike took us along the creek edge, wedged in a near canyon valley. The views were spectacular up the canyon, as the sight of cottonwood canopies made it clear we were entering a riparian gallery forest. I was in front of the group moving at a nice pace when my eyes caught an abnormality. I stopped abruptly and peered over my right shoulder cautiously, looking for what I could not see. Suddenly as if a switch had been flipped, invisibility voluntarily turned off, a greater road runners head became visible between prickly pear pads high on the slope. The dense foliage of many types and colors made the landscape a blur, but unmistakably the black and white head of the roadrunner was peering back at me, its maneuverable crest pulsing up and down like a sail. The pulsing of its crest showed caution and curiosity. The group gathered around me, and I put my pointer finger to my lips “shhhh”, and in a whisper, I began to explain the what, why, and how of our precious moments. “Infront of us is a large greater roadrunner. Look there. Do not move a single inch, and don’t look at it directly, breath fully, and be as calm and relaxed as you can. Be patient and watch everything” I said with a soft seriousness. Roadrunners are notoriously curious and confident, incredibly fast and dexterously maneuverable in flight. It began to move out from behind the cactus and foliage, taking dinosaur-like steps toward us, each step made it seem heavier than reasonable for the animal. It would move toward us, then turn on a pin and retreat, moved closer than before, then retreat. It kept operating in this pattern, always getting a little closer than before. It moved to our left, then our right, testing us. “Don’t move, it is trying to see if we will react…” I said. The silent gasps made by the whole group were audible, a reaction to the road runners bold confidence as it strongly moved closer and closer to us, at this point it was fully visible and getting close. Leaping from rock to rock, it landed, then walked calmly onto the trail in the center of the entire group, moving its thick neck to turn its large head so it could make eye contact with us. It walked in between students, around, and back through the group, moving with ease and elegance inches from our bodies. Its body was plump, giving the impression that it had lived many years and this valley it calls home must be a comfortable place to live. Like its crest, its tail, nearly 6 inches long, was flicking up and down each time it stopped to look at one of us. Maybe it did so every time it was pondering something. We did not breath. It stayed so long, I thought we might be trapped here all day. Eventually the roadrunner must have thought it needed to get back to its hunting (prime time as the rains will of stirred up the insects and lizards),  because it went back to where it entered the trail, gave us one last look, and hopped down to the other side of the slope and made it way on. As is the personality of desert things. No words were needed, we took a breath and tried to make sense of things as we hiked forward. Our eyes now permanently scanning the unseen world around us.  

With winter rains come seasonal green grasses that turns canopy topped areas into perfect green carpets. One such carpet surrounded a pool of water, which seemed to be offering refuge to everything around. Dozens of plant species circled the pool, and birds, insects, and reptiles were all found in close proximity of the liquid life. Tracks of mammals were spotted, visitors of a different time. Sitting at this pool we discussed aquatic micro-ecosystems and their place in this desert-scape. I explained that each micro-ecosystem will behave and interact differently, and they can be found anywhere the clouds drag their precious water. I brought their attention back up to the canyon we had been in all day and asked them to see it from a different perspective. “Even this canyon, one of many, is an eco-system different and unique to others, even those close in proximity. It has a unique residence of both plants and animal, unique watershed, and unique exposure to the sun that demands each component behave differently.” It is important for students to observe nature as chaotic, complicated, yet understandable. Ignorant blanket thinking is dangerous to nature in its human relationship. Understanding an ecosystem involves basic understandings of natural orders and laws, plus the willingness to challenge contemporary rules and thinking. Students must think ‘Why is it behaving in this way? What is this reacting to? Why is this here?’ The answers might not be what they expect. We moved forward, each student knowing that what they experience here might be entirely unreplicable and special to this place.

Lunch was had in a small grassy clearing with a circle of mesquite and palo verde trees. When lunch was finished, I asked the students to go off and find something that reminded them of home, something that reminded them of themselves, and something that reminded them of someone or something that they loved. The students must have thought this was an odd activity because the looks on their faces were wrinkled with confusion. Yet they went off and explored. I watched students begin investigating things in a very different way. Some students were looking very closely at the ground, shuffling leaves and rocks and other limp things, putting their faces extremely close to flowers, cactus, and leaves. Soon the group returned and each student had items in their arms. One by one we began to discuss what we had and why it reminded us of home. It was sweet to hear the students speak of nice things, and tough to hear them speak of hard things. It seemed the students were able to do some reflecting outside looking for comparisons to their life. Each one was able to find something that brought them joy, a reminder of family, friends, and animals. Sometimes a student couldn’t bring the object to the group, because they found something so big, or far, they couldn’t carry it. 

After this, we began our hike back. On the way, we followed the creek, which ran across exposed bedrock, allowing us to move through the cactus-filled landscape with a bit more ease. The incredible view of Tucson sat through a pinhole left from the narrowing canyon. We spent a moment enjoying our present moment and place of being. Reflecting what we had experienced, what we had learned, and spending some genuine moments feeling gratitude for this wild and wonderful Sonoran Desert classroom.