In the Sonoran Desert, the hot and dry month of June and the very beginning of July are called the "foresummer" or "dry summer." Around July 4 begins the second of our five seasons, the monsoon season, or "wet summer." Characteristics of this unusual season are spectacular, often-daily rainstorms, high humidity and electric storms. Monsoon storms bring flooding and havoc to some roads, but it also nourishes thirsty desert flora and fauna and gives Tucson's bipedal residents a break from the relentless heat.
The monsoon has always been celebrated by indigenous and modern cultures, and Tohono Chul Park is continuing the tradition in fine form. The park's annual family fun night, known as Park After Dark, is themed "Monsoon!" Just as the monsoon brings a new season, "Monsoon!" introduces several new things at Tohono Chul Park.
One of the highlights is the opening of the park's new art exhibit, also called "Monsoon!" The art pays homage to the dramatic, life-giving season via contemporary and Native American expressions of rain, water, lightning and the creatures who rely on the season's moisture. The show includes sky and lightning photographs by Adriel Heisey and John Ey, Charlotte Bender's oil painting of a cactus-laden canyon during a storm, Debbie Jensen's clay javelina telling stories under a prickly pad umbrella, Lynn Taber's monsoon depicted in pastel, and wildlife by Fran Odum, Donna Gaylord, Wendy Timm, Ed Davenport and Kim Duffek.
Local galleries have contributed items such as Native American pottery, jewelry, carvings and other folk art objects highlighting rain and water symbols to the exhibit. In addition, a kids' corner offers young folks a fun way to learn about how important rain is to the desert ecosystem.
"We like to take a theme and explore it with lots of different kinds of art," said Peggy Hazard, assistant exhibit curator at the park. "We're very inclusive. ... We frequently show folk art as well as what people might consider 'fine art.'"
Also opening that night is Seasons of the Saguaro, gouache paintings by Michael Chiago. The artist was commissioned by Tohono Chul Park to create illustrations for a new trail, and the original works are on display in the gallery. The images include views of the Southern Arizona desert, a bat pollinating a saguaro flower, saguaro fruit being picked, the saguaro wine ceremony and a dramatic monsoon storm.
Attendees at Park After Dark 2004 will have an opportunity to take an inaugural tour of the new Saguaro Discovery Trail. The quarter-mile loop trail leads into a previously undeveloped area of the park grounds and features bridges over natural washes, benches and nearly a dozen interpretive signs that tell the tale of a saguaro from both a cultural and natural history perspective, featuring Chiago's illustrations as well as the photographic work of several local artists.
"We created a very simple loop trail with minimal impact," says Jo Falls, director of public programs at Tohono Chul Park. "We basically took out only enough vegetation to actually make the trail."
The park's press release said the story of the magnificent cactus will be described "both through its cultural connections to the Tohono O'odham and through its botanical connections to the natural history of the Sonoran Desert." The trail's information and specially trained docents will dispel myths about the saguaro, answer frequently asked questions and offer insights into the saguaro's relationship with early desert dwellers.
"One of the things that we wanted to do was to continue to illustrate to people that we are a part of the desert," says Falls. "The way to do that is to show people the connection between plants and people."
For the kids, there will be a new docent-performed puppet show, "These Are Our Saguaros," plus special activities at local libraries. The whole family can enjoy the Pablo Family Waila Band and Tohono O'odham Dancers, traditional cultural dancers from communities in the Tohono O'odham Nation. There will also be live appearances by real bats, a bobcat, various interesting bugs, lizards, snakes and owls.
"The monsoon is related to the idea of the desert at night," says Hazard, "and we'll have some nocturnal animals that people can actually see, and some they can handle. Not the bobcat," she chuckles, "but the snake."