I don’t normally read or review “nature books.” I prefer experiencing the outdoors to reading about it. However, John Alcock’s “When the Rains Come: A Naturalist’s Year in the Sonoran Desert” deserves to be an exception. This book is not only pleasant reading, but also lets the reader in on some Sonoran Desert secrets.
An emeritus professor at Arizona State University who specializes in insect behavior, the author has intimate knowledge about his subjects. Alcock has been visiting and studying the plants and animals of the Usery Mountains for 30 years. Although the book is said to concentrate on one year’s visits to one small mountain range, its scope and breadth encompass much more.
Alcock’s experiences in the Userys are merely stepping-stones to his examination of other studies elsewhere. Thus, the death of a single saguaro in the Userys expands to a study of saguaro mortality on Tumamoc Hill west of Tucson, and a paloverde tree’s presence on a ridge leads to a discussion on the species’ longevity and why one rarely sees dead paloverdes.
This 335-page book is divided into 12 chapters, each representing a month coupled with a seasonal theme. A good storyteller, Alcock produces prose that possesses neither the poetry of Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac,” nor the emotional impact of Terry Tempest Williams’ “Refuge.” Instead, we are treated to an informative lecture on the comings and goings of an array of desert denizens — many of them new to you and me. Although plinkers, off-road vehicles, cows and urban sprawl earn deserved scoldings, his most evocative experience involves the uncertainty of having left the lights of his car on while hiking in the Eagletail Mountains.
There is much that is new. We discover, for example, that the Sonoran Desert has not four seasons, but five: spring, fore-summer, monsoon summer, fall and winter. One fascinating tidbit of knowledge revolves around the importance of hilltops to a variety of mate-seeking insects. To them, the old adage explaining why one climbs mountains is not “because they are there,” but because being there is in their genes.
The book’s easy-to-understand content is much helped by the author’s 125 nicely done color photos, each illustrating a subject presented in the text. Published by the University of Arizona Press, the book comes with an invaluable set of references and a user-friendly index.
I recommend that you read “When the Rains Come” one chapter at a time, preferably on a hike during the appropriate month. Do so, and I guarantee you will not only learn something new for your next trip into the Sonoran Desert, but your venture there will be much more worthwhile.
–David E. Brown
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