The little red spiders
And the little gray horned toad.
Together they make the rain to fall;
They make the rain to fall.
– from a traditional O’odham rain poem
(Translated by Ruth Underhill, Singing for Power, 1938)
Just to be clear, this image is not art. It’s science. I recorded these stages of saguaro flowering as accurately as possible. Since I at present do not have a camera, except the point-and-shoot on the Gigapan robot, I’ve been using a scanner to make images. One has to make images, after all.
During the months of June and July, using reasonable restraint (I only picked one saguaro flower), I collected the different stages of saguaro flowering and fruit from a couple of the giant cacti growing in the Desert Lab patio garden. I scanned them at 1200 dpi, about 4 times actual size, so the resulting print from this image is four by 6 feet. That’s so you don’t need your spectacles or a microscope to appreciate the details.
Science can explain the monsoon rains, more or less. We have been in a drought for the past decade in southern Arizona so predicting the summer rainy season is a matter of maintaining life as we know it in the desert. But scientists have a hard time with the “more or less” part.
Last June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center gave this summer’s monsoon an equal chance of being below normal, normal, or above normal. That’s a prediction? They use 41 different types of analysis to model how wet we will get in a particular year. Among these are ocean surface temperatures in both the Atlantic and Pacific, amount of snow in the Rocky Mountains, weather in the Midwest, tropical storms brewing; and “El Niño”–whose behavior is as hard to predict as a toddler’s.
Recent computer models have added another possible explanation for the monsoon: huge, but still theoretical eddies in the global circulation of the atmosphere. These waves of unstable air may be 300 miles across and can change rapidly, one of the traits of a monsoon. You might as well just look out the window as try to predict one of these storms much a head of time.
Eddies are caused by turbulence, defined as stochastic and governed by chaos theory. Explaining turbulence has also been called one of the biggest unknowns in modern physics. Yet you can watch the process in many places, such as a waterfall or rapids in a river. Eddies and standing wave patterns looks chaotic, yet maintain an indefinable sense of structure if you watch long enough. The word stochastic comes from the ancient Greek for, “Take a wild guess” or “Your guess is as good as mine.” A stochastic system is non-deterministic, basically almost random. But not completely so.
Ancient cultures in the Tucson basin worried even more than we do about the monsoon season. The arrival of the sumer rains was so important that it was the beginning of their calendar year. If it didn’t come, there would be no coming year. But, like those desert people, I already knew there would be a hard rain falling on the desert this summer. Just by looking at the high number of saguaro flowers blooming last May, the densest blooms I can remember seeing. Flowers mean lots of fruit. Lots of fruit means lots of rain. It’s that simple.
Causation is multiple, and I’m sure that turbulent eddies in the tropical air circulation play a role. But traditional O’odham explanations for the rainy season are equally compelling and easier to proove. All through the month of May, I watched the saguaros bloom, new buds quietly opening every night, and slowly developing into fruit as I passed every morning along the road up to the Desert Lab. The doves feed on the ripe fruit and leave those shockingly bright red interior of the husks sit there, open to the empty sky for weeks during the painfully hot and dry month of June. The color of blood.
Yes, it takes a few weeks of that fruit sitting up there to have its effect. But anyone who has watched this year after year knows what is coming and that it will be dramatic. Sure as anything, the fruiting saguaros call in the storms.
Muffin Burgess told me recently how O’odham women prop up the spent husks of the saguaro fruit on the ground or in a bush, facing the sky, during the saguaro harvest so they can continue to help call even more rains.
Surely the “little red spiders” mentioned in O’odham rain poetry also help cause the rain to fall. They are the same color as the ripe saguaro fruit and only emerge from under the rocks after a big rain. To experience the results of their labor, it seems. One only has to notice these details and their timing. When you see one red velvet mite, you’ll see many more, as they emerge together to feed on winged termites emerging on their nuptial flights, also inspired by the rains.
Ancient O’odham anxiously watched the weather just as we do. But they didn’t just talk, they did something about it. They participated in the weather, rather than bluntly endure it. Through ceremonies, ritual speeches, songs, poems, sitting together and drinking of saguaro wine, they aided the natural processes that bring in the monsoons.
That’s why I like to wear red shirts during June and July. To help things along.
I also made a botanical plate of the different forms the fruit takes as it dries on the ground. Each fruit shrivels up in its own way. I collected the fruit in this image from under the same saguaro, just to be scientific about it.