by Kris Neri
“It was a nice late April morning, if you care for that sort of thing.”
— Raymond Chandler, “Pearls are a Nuisance”
Spring has been slow in coming to Northern Arizona. Both March and April were cooler than usual, and rainy. But now the pleasant days are finally just beginning here, and they were worth waiting for. Not too cold, not too hot. With gentle breezes and a warm and welcoming sun.
For those unfamiliar with the high desert, you might imagine that we wouldn’t see much in the way of color. The arid, rocky soil does seem unfit to grow anything other than some rugged cacti willing to wait eons for a few drops of water. But if you think that, you’d be wrong.
Every spring, whether wet or dry, high desert or low, the wildflowers return. In rainy years, the carpets of color are absolutely staggering. Rich yellows, pinks, purples, oranges and other tones stretch as far as you can see under an imaginably clear blue sky. They’re a bit more restrained in drier years, but I actually like those better. Instead of blanketing vast acreage, wildflower plants seemed to have been placed more selectively in perfect harmony, by what you’d think to be the world’s most talented landscape designer. Every year I’m continually amazed that this brilliant placement could possibly happen on its own.
Wildflowers aren’t our only gift from Mother Nature. Delightful little white flowers fill the huge cottonwood trees that proliferate here and other parts of the West. At a certain point in spring, those trees shed their petals. In neighborhoods heavy with cottonwoods, winds carry those petals, tossing them at windshields in a show that looks remarkably similar to a winter blizzard. But instead of snow, they’re truly a shower of flowers. In some spring weeks, I’ve been treated to that flower shower for days on end. Magical!
Spring desert days aren’t all perfect, though. With flowers come allergies for many of us. Some desert plants produce staggering pollen levels. Juniper trees are especially bad. If you’re unfamiliar with them, the junipers we have in Northern Arizona aren’t anywhere near as showy as the wildflowers. They’re small, slow-growth trees that produce tiny berries. Varieties of juniper trees and bushes show up in lots of places around the globe, but this is my first encounter with them. If you’re a gin drinker, you’d probably welcome them, because those berries produce your gin. Since I’ve never liked gin, I don’t have to.
But I do admire junipers. With their rugged bark and rough dull green needles, with their sometimes misshapen growth patterns, they make a much more lasting statement about high desert conditions than the gaiety of our seasonal wildflowers. Some Native Americans respectfully refer to them as “Grandfathers,” because many Southwestern junipers can easily be six to eight hundred, or even a thousand years old. A thousand years! They were here before us, and they’ll be here after. Perhaps the levels and particular virulence of the pollen they produce is their reminder to us of that.
Thankfully, they don’t kill me. I’m able to control my reaction to them with OTC antihistamines. But I know people who, despite every possible prescriptive prevention, can count on at least one trip to the emergency room each spring, where they beg for help from punitive sinus headaches and the sinus infections that invariably result.
There’s probably something where you live that’s just as much a mixed blessing. Doctors say that, throughout the world, allergies are getting worse. Some blame climate change because it has brought about new growth patterns, and even new plant life in areas that were never hospitable to those varieties before.
Okay, so nothing’s perfect. But spring comes pretty close. It was cold yesterday, and it’ll be hot tomorrow. But for now, even if it means keeping the Claritan close at hand, it makes me wish I could play hooky everyday.
What’s your favorite season where you live?