A Tribute

Who could imagine a Beaudelaire without a Paris? Or a Dostoevsky without a Russia? This is my (admittedly inadequate) little tribute to the beauty of the place where I am from. It, among obvious other things, has shaped who I am. Enjoy…

 

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Tucson is an old city. And I would venture to say, perhaps one of the oldest ones in the Continental United States. Formally speaking, they say, Tucson was founded in 1775, the year a man by the name of Hugh O’Conor, an Irishman serving within the Spanish military on the new continent (an interesting bit of history there in itself) decided to build a fort along the banks of the river Santa Cruz against Apache “incursions” on Spanish lands and trade routes. The walled fortress was named El Presidio San Agustín del Tucsón, and its crumbling adobe remnants still stand today beneath the shadow of the present Pima County Courthouse.

           But the area first became the subject of European interests and endeavors almost a hundred years before that, upon the landmark arrival of the very mythical and very missionary Jesuit Father, Eusebio Francisco Kino, in the year 1692, when he established the Mission San Xavier del Bac a mere10 miles south of present day downtown Tucson. It was forged as one link among many in a long chain of missions within the backwater reaches of Sonoran New Spain. The seed Fr. Kino planted there passed from one set of ecclesial hands to another and then another, and, eventually, over the course of the following century, it grew into a shining and resplendent example of Spanish architecture and cultural presence (The “white dove of the desert” it’s been called, after the radiance of its snow-white raiment of lime plaster).  

           Now fast-forward through the demise of continental New Spain and the emergence of an independent Republic of Mexico. Then speed through the for-some-reason-rarely-talked-about Mexican-American War and the Mexican Cession, until 1853, the year of the Gadsden Purchase, whereby Mexico sells the last scrap of its withering hold on what was formally the northern half of New Spain to the United States, and the settlement of Tucson finally becomes an acquisition of Anglo-American frontier ambitions. As part of the New Mexico, and later Arizona, Territories, Tucson is one of several stops along the way to California from the eastern half of the country. A railway eventually opens the village-town up to the settlement of American cattle drivers, ranchers, farmers and all manner of others in the same westward-moving migration that helped to define the mythos of so many other cities in the West.

            But long before all of this, Tucson was for centuries known as Chuck Son, the Tohono O’odham appellation for the place “at the base of the black hill.” And before that, even, the floodplain along the Santa Cruz was a vast network of irrigation canal systems constructed by the Hohokam, an extinct people revered today for their beautifully crafted red-on-brown pottery. And this, of course, isn’t to mention the succession of various prehistoric peoples who had populated this area, planting corn and beans, foraging for wild herbs, and hunting local species of game, for nearly two millennia before Christ. So that cursory black dot on the American map we’ve been pronouncing “Tu-son” for only about a century-and-a-half now has really been a millennia-long focal point of stories and experiences, a site where people of a dozen races and cultures have lived, died, known joy and tragedy, happiness and hardship, made love, have wept, seen beauty, and have witnessed the passage of time into memory…

…………………………..

            I like to imagine Tucson as an ancient tree growing out of the (now-dry) riverbed of the Santa Cruz, spreading its foliage out over the valley and up into the foothills of the surrounding amphitheater of mountains: anyone can see the present-day outgrowth, but its roots in time remain mysteriously invisible, its origins an obscure presence beyond the veil of the senses. To truly know the heart of this place, then, I believe that you have to not only have lived here for a good deal of time, but you have to have lived here deeply, and with an open heart. You have to have gotten lost here, wondered many times into old alleyways, alone and at night, here; gotten drunk here, made love here, known heartbreak, drudgery, and the pain of the ages here. Only then does the blood of this place begin to seep out of the rock and really flow into yours. Only then can you finally say something about it. But to the casual passerby, at best, it’s only the outgrowth, the foliage, and none of the roots. Human nature, being what it is, sees only the surface of things – and in Tucson’s case, I’ll admit, it’s nothing special: a more-or-less modern city-spread, fanning out laterally across the desert flat pan in a never-ending process of sprawl and population increase. And though certainly spared of the debauched suburbanization of her sister-city, Phoenix, Tucson would seem to anyone unfamiliar with her secrets – say, someone just driving through on their way to California by way of the I-10, that countrywide expressway that stretches like a concrete belt across the expansive gut of the nation – almost entirely forgettable. Fortunately, though (and I thank God for this every day), Tucson is a city of relatively limited industry; she’s not a “boom-town,” like, say, Phoenix is. Tucson grows, yes, but reluctantly, lazily, sloppily. And she will most likely keep on growing, but never in the clean, programmed way of other cities. Having lived here my whole life, I can say that Tucson stubbornly refuses, under the duress of her own implacable inertia, out-and-out submission to the gospel of empire culture in a way that other cities have not; she has never been a true believer. Despite all of the recent pretensions of some inhabitants to the contrary, Tucson will always be a little jumbled, clumsy, and unkempt. Starbucks locations may have spread like a rash across her face, but her best parts will always persevere, somehow maintain their pristine, irreproducible core through all her afflictions and changes, present as much as future ones.

 But where were we? …

            Tucson, the city at the base of the black hill, possesses a spark of the eternal, and her beauty and mystery become immortal in the hearts of those who have seen her in the way she desires to be seen. Trouble is, she has an overweening tendency to not reveal herself all at once, in a fanfare of cinematic grandeur. Tucson can’t be named among the New Yorks, or Chicagoes, or Londons or Parises of the world. She is subtler than these; she is like the desert all around her, and of which she is inexorably a part. The issue of the “causal passerby” aside, there are scores of people who have grown up their entire lives under the shadow of the Santa Catalina mountains and who have never truly experienced Tucson. I was like that once. I grew up in the hermetic environs of one of her outer suburbs – that damnable aberration of postwar American progress – and until I was about eighteen, what I knew of my native city amounted to little more than the detritus of her outer layers (there’s our human nature again.). I saw nothing beyond the sanitary subdivisions and freshly stuccoed monstrosities of strip malls spreading endocytotically into the youngest portions of the city like the latest craze. It wasn’t until I moved into heart of the city proper, for college, that the real depths of Tucson’s life and essence begin to unravel for me. It’s difficult to describe how struck I was, for example, to behold the Sam Hughes neighborhood for the first time, that roughly square-mile little block of digs running North to South from Speedway to Broadway and then East to West from Campbell all the way to Country Club. Some would argue that Sam Hughes is thoroughly “yuppie” (and I would be the first to agree), but something in the rootedness and authenticity of the homes there – their history – irrespective of the cultural and ideological leanings of their inhabitants, along with the way they all blended together into a dappled tapestry of color and uniqueness, impressed upon me a deep sense of being connected with my surroundings – something I had never expected to encounter in Tucson. The drab malaise of my upbringing was over.

…………………

            So Tucson is patient. She does not arrogantly strut her stuff. She waits. And it’s obvious from my example that you can spend a good long while here and still never really get her. It’s all a desolation of the senses, an evaporation of feeling, until, upon some chance outing, something strikes you, as was the case with me and Sam Hughes. A place or thing you have perhaps passed by all your life suddenly despoils itself of its hidden beauty, will flare up under, say, the fading light of the evening sun and then hover there in its transfigured state for but a moment, before once again receding, like memory, into the vast and enduring and indomitable backdrop of the desert. In these moments, Tucson is like the cactus flower, blossoming amid thorns and harshness. And it is for these moments that one chooses to live and then remain here, all one’s life – opts for a life in most respects dominated by the heat and the sun and the dryness. And it’s worth it. Worth it just to catch a glimpse of something beautiful that’s all the more beautiful precisely because it is hidden and rare. And it’s these “something’s” for which I am most grateful in my life. They are what make up the bulk of what I call my best and truest experiences. They are not like seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time, or visiting Shakespeare’s home. These things are important, and good, but they are of a different order from what I am referring to. They are not the same as listening to the rain patter softly in the warm darkness atop your shoddy, leaking roof in Barrio Santa Rita, and then drifting into sleep under the ambrosial spell of creosote, knowing in the quiet depths of your heart that you are, unspeakably, indefinably, a part of a place like no other place in the world and that your blood and its will forever flow in the same dark rivers. It is a wonderful feeling.

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