Sunday, November 3, 2013

Autumn in the Arizona Desert


In most places in the United States, folks are wearing coats and watching the leaves turn colors. But we live in Phoenix, Arizona, which is in the Sonoran desert; we have an entirely different climate. Our leaves are still green and still firmly attached to the trees--they don't fall until late November or December. And we are still wearing our shorts. Instead, Autumn for us simply means that the summer's scorching heat finally breaks. This happens in October. Instead of 110+ degrees, we get to enjoy temperatures in the 80s and 90s. Cool breezes begin to blow across the desert. It's something of a celebratory time. Folks emerge from their air-conditioned homes, where they've largely been trapped for the past 5-6 months. Suddenly children are playing in the streets, riding bikes and scooters, playing ball and flying kites. Parks are busy again. Windows are open to admit the fresh air, and people sit outside on their porches and patios in the crisp evenings.

Now that the searing heat has passed, it's also time for the fall growing season. The garden centers and nurseries are busy places. We plant our veggies and herbs in September and October, and it's time to sow the rich green winter rye grass. And backyard barbecues are a delicious change.

Nature study time

For us homeschoolers, it's field trip time. The zoos, botanical garden, hiking trails, historical sites, farms, and pioneer town are places we can actually visit now. Outdoor nature study is possible again. I like to take my kids to some of the nature parks around town. It's a great (and free) place to get up close and personal with the desert wildlife. We have seen quail, roadrunners, jackrabbits, huge black millipedes, lots of lizards, and even a baby rattlesnake. The famous saguaro cacti are interesting to examine, with their accordion sides that expand and contract depending on how much water they are storing. Other desert trees and plants have their own ways of surviving through the dry periods, and we can look and learn about them. Birds are migrating to our southern clime during this time as well, and we can see species that we never normally see. There are lots of pretty hummingbirds about, too.

Halloween is an exciting holiday for the kids. After many months indoors, it's fun to dress up in costume and enjoy the cool evening, going from house to house and getting candy. Another tradition you will see around here is celebrations for Dia de los Muertos (day of the dead).

Since Arizona borders Mexico, and a lot of people here are from Mexico, we have adopted this interesting and colorful Mexican holiday. It is a celebration in memory of loved ones who have passed on. People set up lovely decorated altars with photos of deceased family members, candles, gifts of food and drink, and beautiful skull and skeleton figures. At Dia de los Muertos celebrations around town you can find skull jewelry and skeleton decorations to purchase. Our church celebrates this holiday with several altars set up in the sanctuary. People bring their photos, and the sermon is devoted to the memory of those who have passed. It is a healing moment for those who grieve for someone.

Coloring calavera (skull) masks

Mexican families visit the cemetery during this time. I like to go there too, together with my children. It is a good time to remember those in our family who are no longer with us, and to recognize that death is part of life. Sometimes I see Mexican families at the cemetery who bring flowers and gifts for their loved one, and light candles. Sometimes they even bring folding chairs and a picnic, and sit near their loved one, telling stories, playing guitar and singing songs.

When we go to the cemeteries we visit the graves of my maternal grandparents and a great-grandfather I discovered while researching my father's family history. I want my children to know their names, and when they lived, and know some stories about them. I think family history is an important part of homeschool history. My 6-year-old likes to investigate the oldest part of the cemetery, with headstones and mausoleums going back 100 years or more. A lot of Arizona history is resting there. I tell him how they lived here back then, sleeping out on the porch or roof during summer nights, wrapped in wet sheets because they had no air conditioning. We cannot imagine it!

I would say for those of us living in the desert, Autumn is our happiest time. Even though we don't have beautiful fall colors to enjoy, we have the most wonderful weather. It's a lot like Spring for those who live in snowy climes. After many months of remaining indoors, we can finally go outside and experience the wonders of our desert home.

So have you ever been to the Sonoran desert? What's autumn like where you live?