Sunday, November 10, 2013

Canal Convergence Bike Ride: This Sonorous Desert

Cyclist, Kevin Vaughan-Brubaker (ride leader), Alberto Rios (Arizona Poet-Laureate)

Slow flows the water beneath the generator house at Arizona Falls this noon. Before us stood the inaugural poet-laureate of Arizona*, Alberto Rios, reciting and discussing phrases from "Words Over Water" which are sandblasted into the pavement around us; behind us stood the Salt River Project representative explaining the history, engineering, hydrology, and operation of the electrical generating station we are standing on, over the canal at the Falls.

The poet suggests that the Sonoran Desert is sonorous when it rains, while the SRP representative says that the steel grate platform on which we're standing sometimes verily roars and mists when the waters run beneath it more energetically and higher (I've seen that), but present levels and flows result in a much more subdued, quieter soundscape. Punctuated by the grinding, the growling, the buzzing, the hum of the machinery of power generation.

Words over water: raindrops on hard dirt make the ghosts rise

Rios observed that rain just beginning to fall in this particular desert impacts the bean pods on the mesquite trees and makes a sound like maracas. These are words which you can hear without knowing the attached experience personally, but I do know it, and connect it with the perfume of creosote, the feel of trail dust washing off my skin, a rush of cool air just before a storm, the sudden darkening, the crack and peel of thunder, dust-wind, the first trickles of a deluge in a dry wash, the anticipatory hushed pause of every living thing just before the water goes ssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

He connected that observation with a thought which hooked me, that the etymology for the name of our desert, the Sonoran, is connected with the word "sonorous," at least in part due to the music of the cascade of beauty and relief which falls with rain and flow of water in the world's wettest desert (so the commonplace goes, although Antarctica gets more precipitation but in solid form).

I could not substantiate that etymology: according to Wikipedia, anyway, Sonoran comes from Senora, the northwestern Mexican state Estado Libre y Soberano de Sonora, which comes from (possibly) some speakers inability to pronounce the "ñ' in "Nuestra Señora", or alternatively, according to Father Cristóbal de Cañas in 1730, the name comes from the word for a natural water well, sonot. Or, as with many words coming to us from the dim, dark, misty past, who knows?

But look at this photo, and let these run over your tongue: Sonoran, sonorous, sonorant, sonoriferous, soniferous, sonot.

A tree grows in the flow beneath the generator house at Arizona Falls

An irresistible visual composition of circle, square, and water
The poet spoke words over water, while we got a rare view inside the generator house

Pedaling machines parked at Arizona Falls

We also visited the Shemer Art Center/Museum, where we wrote down strips of poems and briefly viewed the exhibit there.

Marlene Tays Wellard, "Lead Me, Guide Me" at the Shemer

One way that plants obtain water, by the Shemer

A watershed moment during the ride came for me, though, while we paused next to one of the concrete benches along the recently improved section of the Arizona Canal, and listened to Laurie Lundquist discussing the words and images inscribed on them, and the thoughts behind them.

These benches (although not this particular one)

The bench we stopped by portrayed the workers digging the Arizona Canal with shovels, using mules for hauling. I could hear the calls of the mule drivers, crack of whip, smell the dust they raised, see the sweat pouring off them and evaporating instantly in the desert sun. Then the discussion turned technical: the bench we were viewing was darker than the one in my photo above, explained Laurie Lundquist, because the anti-graffiti coating that had been applied darkened over time and with exposure, lowering the contrast between the image and background.

The number and variety of choices available in the marketplace for anti-graffiti coatings amazed and dismayed me, speaking as it does to the prevalence of defacement of art and other public surfaces out there. The technologies available include polyurethanes, nano-particles, fluoridated hydrocarbons, and siloxanes, pretreatments and post-treatments, sealers, surface characteristic alterations, and sacrificial surfaces. The last one lets you wash away graffiti with a power washer, then reapply another sacrificial layer in preparation for the next defacement. The fluorine-based treatments work like anti-stick coatings on pans, since fluorine is such an aggressive and greedy grabber of electrons, leaving nothing behind for paint (or food grease) to stick on. 

With the canal-builders and mule-drivers fresh in my mind, it was natural for me to make the following connection:

Workers who came here to build canals, channels for water directed from upstream sources, chasing dreams of a better life.

Artists who came here to build public art, channels for beauty and ideas directed from upstream sources, chasing dreams of a more human city.

From dirt, with shovels and mules.
From cement, and sand blasting, with sacrificial surfaces to wash away desperate scrawls.

I heard a power washer running in my mind. Loud as a generator at Arizona Falls, with an intake hose hanging into the canal, spraying a cleansing blast to wash away sacrificial surfaces, and with them the crass scrawls of anger and ignorance, leaving behind history, poetry, art, and thought. Words on water.

We rode back to Soleri Bridge, where we typed up wishes, folded them into boat-shapes, and left them in a canoe.

Free magnets!

*the actual fact that there is a poet-laureate of Arizona, and also that he appeared to read and discuss his poetry with bicyclists while standing on top of a generating plant in the middle of the Arizona Canal, seems altogether miraculous to me. 


  1. That looks like a very well-thought event. I think AZ Falls is fairly amazing and beautiful. Laurie is married to one of my former ASU art professors, she's very talented, successful, and forward-thinking.

  2. Thank you for going by the Shemer and seeing my painting. It is awesome that my work got to be a small part of your wonderful journey! - Marlene Tays Wellard

    1. The shepherdess/ballerina, the attending dog and pacified sheep, the papyrus-tinted light, a high-wheeler velocipede, the ribbon entwined and the decorated crook--like a dream, I fall into the paintings shadows and stare at the sky slow moving.


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