Resolution of the physical and biological realities of the desert lands surrounding the Gulf of California began in earnest on October 9, 1698. The iconic Jesuit padre Eusebio Francisco Kino ascended Pinacate Peak in northwestern Sonora, Mexico, to ascertain the true northern extent of the Gulf of California. From the high volcanic summit, the expansive lava fields gave way to the great sand dunes of the Gran Desierto. The waters of the Alto Golfo glistened in the distance and abruptly stopped in the vicinity of the Colorado River Delta. Baja California was clearly a peninsula and not an island (Burrus 1971). An era of formative knowledge based on exploration, careful notes, scientific collections, and collaboration with indigenous inhabitants began to lay the foundation that led to a robust and multifaceted understanding of the Sonoran Desert. It was just the beginning.
The physical locale of the Sonoran Desert and Gulf of California has captured the imagination of inquirers for centuries. We consider ourselves to be part of this fortunate group who has become fascinated with this landscape of spines and snakes, powerful monsoons, pulses of life, intense heat, brilliant light, and one of the world’s most diverse seas. It is a region that resonates in our hearts and captures our imagination. The common threads throughout this special issue of Journal of the Southwest are people and place. It is a celebration of collaboration under the auspices of the Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers (N-Gen) that aims to push the arc of desert research forward. This collection of articles and the efforts of N-Gen in general intend to forge new paths of interdisciplinary research while building upon and honoring the legacy of those who have come before.
All too often the factors that connect people in time and place are overlooked. The capacity of individuals united around a common theme is underestimated. Connections are taken for granted and a sense of community is lost. The focus of N-Gen is the network of researchers who work in the Sonoran Desert and the Gulf of California, as well as [End Page 163] the communities that live there. This region spans an international border, once a far more permeable frontier, where indigenous territories and a shared U.S.-Mexican culture lie. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there has been a redefinition of life along the U.S.-Mexico border. What was once an arbitrary line through a vast swath of desert terrain has become an increasingly fortified barrier. The border wall is an obstacle between communities and cultures, a chasm across a singular region that eclipses new ideas and discoveries. As a result, scientists, land managers, and artists, among others, from either side of the border are increasingly isolated from the work of their colleagues. The ability to work across la línea and the cultural connections that arise from these collaborations have been severely hampered. The Sonoran Desert community is in jeopardy of losing the cohesive fabric that has allowed it to flourish (Laird-Benner and Ingram 2011; B. Wilder et al. 2013).
The working premise of N-Gen is that a cohesive community of individuals with a shared passion yields limitless potential. The foundations for a vibrant community that were once strong were no longer in place. N-Gen strives to create the space and time to catalyze collaboration. Our observations, curiosity, and love for the Sonoran Desert unite us. Our individual stories and efforts are part of the larger continuum of desert research. This is certainly the case for us, the authors of this paper. Our two paths crossed for the first time in the center of Coyoacán, Mexico City, on the eve of Mexico’s bicentennial, in 2010. Yet, that meeting was set in motion over a hundred years prior to that fall evening.
The Roots of Desert Research
As the nineteenth century waned, the University of Arizona was getting into full gear as the state’s first land grant institution. The railroad connected the desert outpost of Tucson to the rest of the country...