I shared a booth with three other writers at the Tucson Festival of Books recently – an enormous and idiosyncratic celebration each year on the campus of the University of Arizona right in the heart of town. Between the four of us, we just about represented the main issues in life. There was Mary Paganelli, author of The Food Lover’s Guide to Tucson, and Terry Sterling, a heavy-hitter journalist and author of Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona’s Immigration War Zone. Sam Lowe’s book Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Arizona History magnetized passersby who invariably picked it up, said “this should be longer,” and ended up buying Mary’s food guide. Ted Danson, tanned and smoothly coiffed, sold his book on the ocean across the fairway from us.
I hung out some with Rick Brusca, a senior emeritus type of guy, whose book, A Natural History of the Santa Catalina Mountains, was written with entymologist Wendy Moore, and sold more than 50 copies at the festival. That’s right! Probably more than Danson sold. People in Arizona love where they live. They should. It’s amazingly beautiful, serene when you get two seconds out of town, and filled with still-vibrant wildlife. Half the bird species in North America hang out in the Sky Islands, unique forested mountains separated by desert and grassland “seas.” The landscape is so dry you shrivel a little more with each breath, yet the overall visual seems aqueous. It’s the desert light and the immense expanse of otherworldly horizon.
“Don’t go North though,” Brusca warned me. “That’s the dark hell hole of the universe,” confirmed Rod Mondt, a founder of the Sky Island Alliance who still works there. The SIA was hatched at about the same time as Wildlands Network with the same idea –to promote large landscape connectivity – and does a really great job of advocating for the southern portion of the Spine of the Continent, including issues around what many will say is the single most destructive act ever against wildlife, the border wall. They were referring to Phoenix, of course, home of jugular-popping gun-toters who sleep on red, white and blue pillows.
So much of the mountainous West bears a similar contradictory signature – groovy, earnest nature-loving enlightened types living side by side with those who are not. There is still a lot of space in the West, so people don’t really have to blend or compromise. The Sky Islands themselves can be similarly described. Each big “island,” or mountain, has a different profile, their endemic flora and fauna having been isolated from others of their kind over the millenia. Nature that exists here is found nowhere else – and in aggregate, is munificent. But here they coexist peacefully, as, you guessed it, we do not. (Click on the map and you can see it bigger — fascinating confluence of biotic influences create a singular mashup of fantastic species.)