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Desert Perfume

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When I arrived at the start of this stretch of desert, there had been a morning rain. It soaked the surroundings, then instantly evaporated, leaving only a memory of the water, and the pungent scent of something that I couldn’t initially place. I didn’t expect the desert to have a scent. Dryness is so often devoid of fragrance – if there’s no moisture in the air for scent molecules to cling to, it’s difficult to carry a perfume on the wind. After the rain, however, there was a distinct odor in the air. It was feral and untamed, raw and slightly resinous. Part of me searched for a body – an animal or fading flower – that might be the source of what was by turns strong and overpowering or subtle and faint. There was something musky and spicy about it, something cologne-like too. A certain chemical aspect was part of it, something slightly charred or burnt. It was intriguing, and it would come to signify my desert retreat as much as the saguaro.

I spent the morning seeking out the source, bending low to sniff the tiniest flower in the hopes of discovering the origin of the scent. It wasn’t in the spikes of any cactus, it wasn’t in the budding leaves of green bark of the Palo Verde trees, or the thorn-addled branches of the Ocotillo. Both were greening up in the aftermath of a wet stretch, but upon closer inspection and sniffing, it was neither. It didn’t seem to emanate from the ground, or some magical alchemy that elicits a pungency from damp sand. It was vegetal, it was alive. It would come from the most unassuming source, as such things often did. (The Linden tree is a wonderful example of how the most exquisite perfume can be hidden in the most common-appearing tree.)

I did not discover it that day. It was all around me, yet somehow I was still missing it.

Instead, I happened upon a pair of jackrabbits. These are a far cry from the bunnies of upstate New York. They are immense creatures, with ears that point straight up at all times. If I thought I’d gotten completely over the Easter Bunny trauma, these might send me back to therapy. I was transfixed by them, and they stood still long enough for a quick photo.

The sun deigned to peek out at that moment, and the change was immediate and palpable. Not only in the simple brightness, but in its intensity and immediate warming effect. The day was only in the upper 60’s, and I couldn’t imagine how harsh it would be at summer’s height. I thought of the jackrabbits and wondered how they kept cool.

The vast variety of life spread out in all directions. Accents of saguaro in the aptly named Saguaro National Park enlivened the landscape, with all sorts of prickly pear – some mottled with multi-hued veins of green, some purple, some almost gray – and chola.  It is here, a little way along a dirt path that would lead me to a strange land, where I am first struck by the magic of the desert. Pausing in my stride, I look around and listen. No secrets carry on the wind, at least none that care to be revealed. Waves of that pungent perfume roll around me, but I still cannot determine its origin. The day will close without giving up the source of such an aroma.

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