The Human/Non-Human Interface in the Desert

When your swim meet goes a lot faster than planned, and you find yourself with a handful of free bright and sunny afternoon hours in Phoenix, AZ, what do you do with yourself?

If you’re me, and you have no interest in returning to snowy Flagstaff before sundown, you head to the Desert Botanical Garden.  Apparently, if you’re a regular old Phoenix resident with a Sunday off, you do the same, I thought, as I pulled into an overflow lot a half mile from the entrance and waited in a line ten bodies deep to pay the entrance fee.

Luckily, the place has 140 acres of property (55 of which is “cultivated”) set amidst the stunning backdrop of the reddish sandstone Papago Buttes, so it absorbs crowds fairly well.  After passing the Dale Chihuly glass display and walking through the gates, I found myself facing several beds of cactus that occupied a space somewhere along an aesthetic spectrum between “natural” to “arranged.”  In retrospect, it’s fair to say the whole Desert Botanical Garden straddles this nebulous zone.

There are 50,000 plants on display in the Desert Botanical Garden, a living museum founded in 1939 to “advance excellence in education, research, exhibition, and conservation of desert plants of the world.”  Of the roughly 4500 species represented there, about a third are native to the Sonoran Desert.  Three-hundred seventy-nine of those are threatened or endangered.

Of these plants, some are presented in a more “natural” setting.  Each of the five trails that wind through the property showcase cacti that are nestled into native bushes and flowering plants. Other plants, however, are growing in ways that show the workings of a distinctively human hand.  There were barrel cacti in linear rows, organ pipe cacti arranged in configurations that represent their namesakes, and carefully chosen prickly pears and hedgehogs separated by meticulously uniform pebbled areas.  There’s been a clear attempt to integrate the architecture of the place with the plants it serves to display, and, seeing as cacti sometimes look more like architectural pieces than like plants, this works really well.

The most cultivated display in the Desert Botanic Garden is not a plant display, however; it’s a butterfly display.  It was also the most popular spot to visit, and I had to wait for about ten minutes before the docent let me into the covered butterfly house, part of a group of six at a time. Thankfully, they didn’t work to keep us moving through efficiently, because I must have spent an hour in there, watching the eleven species of butterflies present and trying to memorize their markings.

There were cloudless and orange-barred sulphurs, which looked a little like yellow moths.  There were red admirals, question marks, and buckeyes, all of which have various red and brown markings.  And there were painted ladies—the species that has gotten a lot of press recently for having had a banner population year.

While there are no monarchs in southern Arizona, there is another species of the Danaus genus there—the queen.  Still, by far the two most dominant species in the house were swallowtails (both pipevines and giants) and zebra longwings.  They were everywhere—flitting from flower to flower to finger to photographer’s lens.  They seemed completely unphased by the human beings packed into the pavilion, even though the human beings all seemed quite affected by the density of winged creatures in their midst.

As I left the butterfly house, I heard music playing.  A concert had started in a far section of the property.  The Desert Botanical Garden hosts events ranging from performances to weddings, and there is even a light show going on after dark these days—one that shines neon colors onto the cacti.

I admire the intersection of the natural and human worlds that occurs in places like this.  Despite having spent a good chunk of my adult life wandering around designated Wilderness Areas—tracts of land that are set aside to be removed from human influence—I am working hard to move away from any belief in a nature/culture binary, this idea that “natural” and “human” worlds are separate at all.  I don’t think it serves the planet to set us and our actions apart from other living things, sentient or not.  In fact, I think this separation is at the root of a great deal of our current climate crisis.  All living things affect their environments; of course, we happen to do so far, far more than any other species, particularly in the last couple hundred years.  If we can recognize, acknowledge, and own this responsibility, we are more likely to look at our actions with greater consideration of their consequences.

Clearly the Desert Botanical Garden is not making an overt attempt to change human beings’ environmental ethic.  However, the way in which the site encourages appreciation of plants through human-friendly arrangements holds potential to shift our relationships with our non-human companions—or at least our ideas about them.

On my way out, a road runner popped on top of a rock right next to the restroom.  Everyone in the area stopped, and I heard multiple exclamations along the lines of, “Wow, I’ve never seen one of them live before.”  I also heard several people remark that their only exposure to road runners was through cartoons—a distinctly human construct.  Here was a creature that managed to occupy both the human and non-human spaces of the spectrum.  It hopped from rock to rock, pecked at a cactus, ran across the asphalt in front of a family of five, and then dipped behind a building, into the shade.

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