When a Cactus Blooms

For more than 50 years, Byrd Baylor, beloved children’s book author and essayist, has captured the beauty, solitude, and politics of the desert.

July 10, 2017

FeaturesIssue 25: July/August 2017

In the very early morning in May, just as the heat begins to build, the dark lifts earlier and we desert people wake to feel the cool on our shoulders. On my Tucson street, there is the scratch of straw brooms sweeping mesquite flowers from pavement—chh, chh, chh—as the sun comes up. By afternoon, it is nearly 100 degrees, and I bake inside my car as I drive across town to meet Byrd Baylor, perhaps southern Arizona’s most beloved children’s book author. At 93 years old, Byrd is the author of nearly 30 children’s books, including The Desert Is Theirs, The Other Way to Listen, and I’m In Charge of Celebrations, and one novel, Yes Is Better Than No.

We sit at a patio table in the side yard of the midtown house she shares with her grandson Jesse. In front of her is a cup of coffee, a pack of Crowns cigarettes, a lighter. Her cane is propped against the table; her button-up shirt is covered with a repeating floral print; her lips, adorned with bright pink lipstick. As she lights a cigarette, her shoulder-length white hair glints in the sunlight.

She says, “I’ve always liked to have some pretty good outdoors around me, but I’ve also liked to be where I could cause a little political problem.”

As a child, Byrd was Elizabeth Byrd Baylor, called Betty, but early on, she began to be called Byrd—her mother’s maiden name. Her love of words and writing was also passed down from her mother, who recited the poetry of Shelley, Keats, and Byron to her children. “She believed in memorization and in good poetry,” says Byrd, explaining that she had little patience for the singsong rhyming so pervasive in the world of children’s literature.

Before Byrd could write or read, she would try to “make a poem” out loud to her mother, who would scribe it and then read it back to her. These first poems were a collaboration, a negotiation of art between mother and daughter. “Take that word out,” little Byrd would instruct her mother. “Put this one in instead.” And then she would close her eyes and listen to her mother read the poem again.

Byrd’s early years were spent on her grandparent’s ranch outside of San Antonio, Texas. There, she would hunker in the hayloft of the barn to read and write, her grandfather rearranging the bales so she could climb the stack. These were her first quiet pockets of space, and she found exhilaration in being alone with her thoughts, the light catching pieces of hay in the air all around her.

In a 1987 essay in City Magazine, Byrd wrote about seeing a pig slaughtered for the first time as a child on the ranch. “When the knife was drawn and the pig screamed and blood flowed on the ground, I stood there with the others, not saying a word, not even turning my head away. Up to that morning, I had been secure (as only an 8-year-old can be) in the knowledge that I was a good person in a good world.” The pig’s death became a seed for her belief that all creatures, both human and animal, are equally entitled to life. Byrd would go on to become a committed vegetarian in adulthood. At her home in Arivaca, rattlesnakes slithered inside the door to pause on the cold floor, and she would simply go about her business; packrats and mice grew trusting and tame. During the driest times of year, she would put water out for the coyotes.

In 1963, Byrd published her first children’s book, Amigo, about a lonely desert boy who tries to tame a prairie dog. When she was pitching the manuscript, one New York publisher asked her to remove the desert landscape. They said, “I like the way you write and all that, but nobody’s ever heard of a prairie dog. If you could change your whole concept just enough to make it a squirrel at a city park, we would probably be interested.”

“I don’t write about squirrels in city parks,” she told the publisher. Eventually, the book was purchased by Scribner, which later became an imprint of Simon & Schuster, launching her children’s book career.

Byrd has lived several lives—she attended the University of Arizona for creative writing; just after World War II, she married a Navy engineer, and they moved to pre-Beat Generation San Francisco for a couple of years before having two sons, Dennis and Tony, and eventually divorcing; her second marriage took her to Virginia, where her then-husband Richard Schweitzer worked for Stewart Udall, the Secretary of Interior under President John F. Kennedy. Byrd tried to get used to the East Coast, decorated her house with remnants of the desert, but she never felt at home in all of the green. While in Virginia, she marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and became active in the civil rights movement, but when Kennedy was assassinated, Byrd returned to Tucson. She and Schweitzer eventually divorced.

Between her two marriages, she worked as a reporter with the Tucson Citizen, where she was hired to write obituaries and art stories, and was one of two women in an otherwise male office. She would go on to write essays—dozens of them, printed in a regular column called Byrd’s Nest in the now-defunct City Magazine, and then later in the Arivaca Connection. In her essays, Byrd took strong stands on a variety of subjects ranging from old trucks (“I highly recommend owning a truck without a motor, because you have no unreasonable expectations, such as that it might run for three weeks without breaking down. You expect absolutely nothing of it except to sit there looking sky blue, and there is very little chance of being disappointed”) to the aerial hunting of coyotes by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“They were shooting coyotes from helicopters out at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, and I thought at least one person who loves coyotes ought to be there, too”).

In the late 1970s, Byrd purchased 20 acres of desert in Arivaca. She began building an adobe house and moved there permanently in 1982. “We started living there sooner than most people probably would have,” says Byrd, laughing at the long building process—the starts and stops, the many friends who descended for work days, helping to build the adobe walls, the single open room, sleeping loft, and attached greenhouse.

Byrd cooked on a wood stove, pulled water by windmill from a well, and used kerosene lamps for light at night. Eventually, a single solar panel brought dim light to one part of the house, and a wood-fired hot water heater brought the luxury of warm showers. “If you’re in bed at night, stay up in the loft. To get out to the bathroom, you have to go downstairs through the greenhouse, and then eventually you get to the composting toilet.” She laughs. “I love every inch of it.”

Byrd wrote a slew of books in Arivaca—outside on a manual typewriter so she could be surrounded by the desert, or perched in an arroyo, writing longhand on a yellow legal pad, which she carried in her hiking backpack. She received numerous awards for her work, including the Texas Bluebonnet Award, Caldecott honors for four of her titles, and the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Local Genius Award.

In the 1990s, as militarization increased along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Clinton-era Border Patrol embraced a philosophy of “prevention through deterrence.” Migrants were squeezed like thumbs through a ripe fruit, pushed to the very center, the Arizona desert becoming the only corridor. Out her front door, migrant traffic increased—men, women, children crossing through Byrd’s property, dehydrated, unacclimated to the desert, nursing wounds.

“An old Yaqui man told me once that there is always one best way to cross a mountain,” says Byrd. “And that best way happened to be close to my home.” She posted a Border Patrol Keep Out sign in the driveway and provided water, food and respite to exhausted desert crossers. On July 4, 2003, Byrd came upon the body of a young man. Three weeks later, she wrote about the experience in the Arivaca Connection. “Face up to the early morning sun, he lay only a foot or so from the road, his few belongings rolled up in a bundle beside him. He had taken off his shirt. His ribs showed, and he was covered with scratches from cat’s claw and mesquite.

“Remember,” Byrd wrote, “all this happened on the Fourth of July, the great American holiday. It’s one of those times—between the cookouts and the fireworks and the beer—when we like to give a moment’s thought to the founding of our nation … We know our ancestors were not casual or careful in seeking better lives. They thought that it might be their only chance. I suppose the young man lying by the road was doing the same thing.”

In 2004, Byrd began hosting the humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths on a piece of her property, an arrangement that continues to this day. The organization set up a camp, which they named Byrd Camp, from which to stock water drops and patrol for migrants in distress.

When Byrd was a child, her father would travel to Mexico to mine for gold. During breaks from school, the family would travel to visit him in the mining camp. Byrd and her brother, David, were each given a burro. “Ride as far as you want, because the burro knows the way home,” their father told them, “When you’re ready to come home, just turn him around and loosen the reins and he’ll take you home.” From the back of the burro, Byrd rode through tiny towns and over hills, the desert landscape stretching out before them.

In her children’s books, Byrd’s main characters wander the desert, usually alone. Byrd says she has always valued space to wander, and solitude to think and observe. “We think a little bit differently when we’re alone. It’s a different feeling,” she says.

As a parent, she allowed her two sons the freedom to wander and claim those solitary spaces in nature, a value that was also passed to her grandchildren. “A lot of people think that a child should never be alone,” she says to me, “As a parent, you think you need to be with them every second, and I think that sometimes, just wandering around in beautiful desert as a little kid—it becomes so magical, and you’re looking so carefully, [listening] to the sounds.”

“Do you have a rock?” I ask, and she laughs as though it is a ridiculous question. “I have a million.”

Sitting on the patio in midtown Tucson, she sets down her cigarette and recites a poem, one that has been in the works for a decade, scrawled on a yellow legal pad, called Why I Don’t Have a Poem About Ravens. “I was sitting on a rock at the arroyo edge writing a poem about ravens. Six ravens were flying above me and I wanted to hear the flap of their wings in the lines of my poem. I wanted to play with windy sounding words in the same easy way the ravens were playing with wind. But when they saw that I was watching them, each raven loudly ridiculed my presence. They flew past me, all calling out insults going toward the hills. Of course, I closed my notebook and turned the other way, pretending I was just watching the rain clouds. That’s why I don’t have a poem about ravens.”

Her grandson, Jesse, has memories of being a child in Arivaca, unafraid to be alone in the desert. “I was 11, 12 years old and would go out camping overnight by myself,” he remembers. “There’s a black walnut tree that I’d keep a little container with a can of spaghetti or something that I could go and easily get if I wanted it.”

Byrd received dozens of letters from child readers every year. They told her about their class projects and their troubles at school. “Dear Arthur,” a child named Henry wrote, “Everybody has to write to an arthur. You are the arthur I have to write to. Please send a lot of interesting things to put on the bulletin board. If anything interesting ever happened to you, please tell what it was. If nothing happened that is okay just so it is two pages long. Send a lot of stuff right away because I only gots one more week to do my report. I forgot to write before.”

Byrd says she received countless letters from children after Everybody Needs a Rock was published in 1974. In the book, Byrd reveals 10 rules for finding a rock. “Not just any rock. I mean a special rock that you can find and keep for as long as you can—maybe forever.” One letter writer had followed Byrd’s 10 rules for finding a rock—named all of the colors, looked it straight in the eye, chose it when everything was quiet—and then he brought it to school with him. When he began to fidget with it in class, the teacher took it away.

“When a cactus blooms, you should be there to watch it because it might be a color you won’t see again any other day of your life.”

“He wanted to know would I please write to the teacher to tell her to give it back,” says Byrd, chuckling. “I wrote him back and said if I was listening to a teacher and you handed me a good rock, I’d play with the rock instead of listening to the teacher. And so we need to work out a way to have both things at the same time.”

In her 1988 essay Four Seasons, Byrd writes about responding to questions from Easterners about the desert’s lack of seasons. She polls her desert friends about the number of seasons of the Southwest and makes a list: Green Corn Tamale Season, White Saguaro Thorn Season, Summer Rainy Season, Wild Summer Storm Season. She describes the way winter coyotes howl in a different way from summer coyotes. “It’s lonelier, sadder, crazier. Now that I think of it, I’m lonelier, sadder, crazier in those months, too … It has to do with early evening darkness which causes a strange terror in the heart.” And the heat of late June—“It is entirely different from heat in late July. To lump them together as ‘summer’ would be an insult to heat. June is that particular kind of heat which has a physical touch. You feel it pressed against you, a solid being, as real as a hand against your face.”

On another day, a morning after the saguaros have begun to bloom, Byrd and I sit at the patio table again, and this time my toddler is balanced on my lap. He stares at her with big dark eyes, the way I imagine children have for decades—in awe. She is telling stories, perhaps the thing she knows best how to do. It is midmorning and we are in the shade beneath a big tree. Dangling precariously in the branches over Byrd’s head is—ironically, fittingly?—a bird’s nest. “Arizona golden-crowned warbler,” says Jesse.

Across the yard, a wall of prickly pear is blooming yellow-red-orange, and Jesse lifts my son up to see the flowers. I am thinking of Byrd’s words from The Table Where Rich People Sit. In the book, two parents are attempting to convince their children that money is not everything, that wealth might actually be determined by experiences and proximity to nature. They sit at their homemade wooden table over a plate of spicy ginger cookies, adding up numbers on yellow paper—what is it worth to be able to see the sky while working, to hear coyotes howling in the hills, to pile into a rattletrap truck and go panning for gold in the mountains? The father says, “When a cactus blooms, you should be there to watch it because it might be a color you won’t see again any other day of your life. How much would you say that color is worth?” ✜

Debbie Weingarten is a cofounder of the Farm Education Resource Network and a writing partner with the
Female Farmer Project. She loves coffee, nectarines, and monsoon season. Visit CactusWrenWriting.com.

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