The Desert Lab on Tumamoc Hill at sunset

A Room with a View

View of the historic  Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill at sunset
During the Spring, light from the setting sun creates a spotlight effect on the Desert Lab buildings on Tumamoc. Photo by Paul Mirocha. (click to enlarge)

LIKE EVERYONE ELSE on the Hill, I like to stand and watch the last rays of the sunset play over the landscape. At the right time of year, there’s a beautiful view of that light hitting the Tumamoc Desert Laboratory and the Santa Catalina Mountains.? It took some exploring to capture this photograph. There were some failures involved; a few times I missed the timing, or the clouds covered the setting sun. I took this photo in March, and when I went back to my special spot in April the effect was gone?during the winter, before the sunset moves north on the horizon, it goes behind a ridge on the west side of the Hill, creating this “sun dagger” that lights up the buildings.

It’s part of a super-sized landscape project I am doing to convey some of the huge views of the land and sky seen from the Hill. This image took about 15 individual frames, merged together in 3 rows to get the right perspective as the eye would see it, without lens distortion.

I’m inspired by the heroic, romantic paintings of some of the Hudson River School landscape painters. But using photography for a more observational approach. Like them, I go large? this photograph could be printed 12 feet wide if I could afford the printing costs. Despite this limitation, I make these digital images anyway, just because the landscapes and the light are there.

Many of these mid-19th Century landscape artists, especially Frederick Church, were inspired by science, specifically the writings of Alexander von Humboldt, the German scientist, explorer, sometimes called the “Einstein of the 19th Century,” and the “Second Discoverer of America.” Humboldt was a unique blend of scientist and artist, not that uncommon for his day, and he influenced both: scientists with his rigorous data-collecting methods, and artists with his vivid descriptions of wild places.

When Humboldt visited a study site, he would take every bit of scientific data he could measure, write a detailed description of the place, including his own emotions and impressions, then draw it in his sketch book. He excelled at descriptions of scenic viewpoints. Consequently, his books combined long data tables and charts, along with? descriptions that read like a prose poem, and beautiful detailed illustrations?items you would not likely find side-by-side in the same book today. Today, science does not want to be seen as influenced by scenic views. Humboldt’s life work, Kosmos, popularized the science of his day and was a best seller for 50 years. Besides scientists and artists, Kosmos influenced American “transcendantalist” nature-writers like Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau.


Location, Location, and Location

F. Coville and D. MacDougal at Tumamoc, 1907
F. Coville and D. MacDougal at Tumamoc, 1907

THE FOUNDERS of the Carnegie Desert Botanical Laboratory in 1903, Daniel MacDougal and Frederick Coville were Humboldtian scientists. Everyone was still influenced by that approach at the time. They applied that sense of aesthetics mixed with scientific pragmatism in choosing the site for the new buildings on Tumamoc Hill. In 1902, on a mission for the Carnegie Institution of Washington to choose a site for the new field station, MacDougal and Coville traveled around the Southwest, through Texas and New Mexico, Arizona, California, south as far Guaymas, Sonora, and north to the Grand Canyon. In their trip report they stated their reasons for choosing Tucson for the site:

  • A plant diversity as rich and varied as possible, yet still having a true desert character.
  • Not too close to an urban environment, eg. Phoenix,? where irrigation projects might compromise the natural desert state they wanted to study. Not too hot like the Mojave desert, which besides being unlikely to attract researchers, had fewer plant species.
  • Yet not too far from civilization. They noted that Tucson, at the time had a population of 10,000, a University, and a railroad line that could connect to New York in four days. Downtown Tucson was two miles away by dirt road?not too close, not too far.

Tucson was centrally located between the deserts of California, Sonora, New Mexico, and Chihuahua. Not least of their considerations was the enthusiastic reception they received from the Tucson Chamber of Commerce. In short, they were impressed.

MacDougal and Coville were also decisive about building the laboratory as near as possible to the study site instead of bringing samples to a laboratory in town to study. The surrounding 860 acres were the laboratory. The buildings were to be constructed on the hill, in the wild middle of nowhere.

When the main laboratory building was finished the following year, 1903, MacDougal, then Director of the New York Botanical Gardens, was sent photographs of the site to approve. He wrote back in praise of the way the workers placed the building with a minimum of disturbance to the surrounding vegetation.

Every plant on the mountain ought to be regarded as if (it) had been placed there for some special purpose and should not be destroyed without good cause.

The visiting scientists enjoyed the scenic views. One of the first staff member at the new laboratory, botanist Francis Lloyd wrote enthusiastically? about the location:

the abundant northern illumination, with the magnificent range of the Santa Catalina Mountains stretching out before the eye…with the vegetation at the door.

It’s still like that.


(There’s more to come on the history of the Carnegie Desert Botanical Laboratory.)

For further reading:
Debt to the Future, by Janice E. Bowers



One thought on “A Room with a View

  1. Lovely information for those of us who relish the history of explorers sent out to explore “exotic” nature. Often the Hudson River Valley Luminists included tiny human figures to show perspective both physical and symbolic about our small place in the grand scheme. I have a particular fondness for Mr. Church, his home Olana, and that he came up with the idea to charge people 25 cents to view his huge painting of a South American jungle.

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