Welcome to the holidays in the desert, where the trees change color in December, the ground is as dry as a cow skull against a cactus, and the temperature doesn’t get much lower than 50 degrees Fahrenheit on any given night. This is my favorite time of year. I am from a colder climate, and even though I’ve lived in Arizona most of my life, there’s just something about stepping out into cooler weather that lifts my soul. I live for communion with nature! It is a part of my spirit that I cannot deny. So, on the winter solstice this year, I found myself with a few extra hours alone, and decided that instead of doing laundry and sitting in front of the television, I was going to make good use of it.
There was one place I had on my mind. In the heart of Phoenix, there is an escape from the suburbs and the concrete. There is no manicured grass. Everything is wild and tangled. And, even though most of the scenery is brown and grey, there is something about the variations in the colors that make it seem more vibrant, as if even the rocks breathed life. This special place I took myself to was the Salt River, or Rio Salado Preserve to be exact. This little gem hides in a small section of the “river” that runs through the Valley of the Sun. This same river is just north of my little home in Laveen, but it is so dry, not much can be seen. (Although I have spotted a great horned owl there!) For the most part, my little slice of the river is barren. Yet, here, in downtown Phoenix, it is alive and wet!
I spent 2 hours roaming the “secret” pathways along the river. I explored every nook I could. I spotted ducks, quail, cottontails, cactus wrens, lizards, and monarch butterflies. But the creature that brought me the most joy and surprise was a pure white egret. She appeared like a ghost in the trees, quiet as the flow of the water she admired, and as pure as snow that never falls in this corner of the desert. I had taken a path that seemed derelict and so secret that I held my breath as I made my way through the brambles. It was no surprise then that I gasped to see the white figure, a glistening shadow through the foliage. At first she ignored me. I was nothing to her, just another human to gawk at, but as I walked slowly around the trees to get a better look at her, she took off like a snowflake on the wind.
My heart sank. Any photographer, amateur or otherwise, laments the loss of that perfect shot. The one that was almost taken. The one that perfectly catches the wonder, the memory etched in your mind, that you can no longer share with others. I decided I wasn’t going to let the shyness of my subject deter me from trying. I now had a better grasp of the pathways around the river, so I made my way back and hurried to the other side where I had watched her escape.
I wanted to be as quiet as possible, and to obey all the rules of the trails as I could. This is a preserve after all. I had no right to go stomping through this egret’s home. But, it was slow going to finally reach the edge of the little oasis the egret had finally rested in.
She was even more beautiful in the light!
I could tell the beep of my camera annoyed her, but she seemed to take a passing interest in me as long as I stayed on the other side. Thank goodness I had found a spot well outside of her personal bubble. Unfortunately, there was someone who had not. A gorgeous black and white cat had found its way up the river bank. The egret was clearly agitated by its presence, but the cat seemed to treat Miss Egret as Miss Egret treated me. It really just wanted a drink of water. The great white bird reacted true to her nature though and took off in glorious flight again. This time, I watched her float up into the air, as if invisible steam were holding her aloft. She glided over to another edge of the pond, silent and free.
On that first day of winter, my faith in the bounty of God’s nature was renewed. I felt honored to be a small part of this desert and I wanted nothing more than to keep exploring, but there were children to pick up from daycare and a holiday to prepare for. It was a bittersweet feeling climbing back into my car, but I was too excited by my adventures to be sad. I will come back. The river is imprinted on me now. I got some great practice with my camera and I now know more about the strengths and limitations of my lenses. More importantly, I now know a bit more about my own strengths and limitations. I guess you can say this little outing helped me get all of my ducks in a row.
Merry Christmas everyone!