You can watch humidity levels rise and fall in the newspaper or on weather apps, but the approach of the monsoon is showing up outdoors in mysterious and magical ways. These first-hand discoveries initiate the watchful into a confederacy with the turning seasons. Just by looking around we begin to share in the secret handshakes of nature.
The first monsoon sign I noticed was the Apache cicada husks, clinging on vertical surfaces, like elaborate vessels wrought by elves. The cicada nymphs wait in the soil for three to five years and then dig their way to the surface. Above ground, the nymphs climb. In a perfect world that would mean a tree, but in our back yard the cicadas climb the water tank, the house and the outdoor furniture.
Each glowing husk I see tells of a dramatic moment when the nymph burst from the back of its exoskeleton and unfolded brand new wings. The male adult cicadas produce the unrelenting buzzing sound so evocative of the desert. This mating call reverberates from their hollow bodies, but the females fly silently, guarding the eggs that fill their abdomens.
Flowers turn to fruit on the saguaro cacti in another miraculous transformation that seems ho-hum in our techno wonder world. And dry, ripe pods drape from mesquite, paloverde, ironwood and acacia trees. These seeds represent a cram packed warehouse that will feed many growing families of wild desert critters.
Increased humidity also brings out the bugs. Birds snatch insects from the air and raise their young on the protein rich prey. Lizards lap up all manner of bugs. When I walk in a sandy wash near South Mountain, the pits and crosshatching of tiny footprints are countless. I picture a sand highway lit by stars, carrying nocturnal traffic of rodents, rabbits and hunting owls. In the dawn hours doves and quail, reptiles and cottontail leave their mark.
Most surprising of all is the elephant tree. Busera microphyllia, one of my favorites, passed into a dormant stage in early spring. The leaves shrived and dropped away and the fragrant elephant trees have appeared for months as dark, skeletal forms.
I hike up Cabrillo Canyon where the big buseras grow. The soil is bone dry. Other desert plants give up or fold up their leaves in an effort to conserve water. Yet for the non-conforming elephant tree, a blip in humidity brings forth renewal. It’s as if the summer solstice cast a sparkly spell of frail green leaves and tight pointed buds on the twisted purple branches.
A couple of days later, the buds open into tiny blossoms. Now translucent white flowers decorate the sprawling trees. Cicadas whine on, announcing more monsoon drama is coming our way!