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Senses of Place—y de Placer—in Baja Arizona Gary Paul Nabhan I am out before dawn on a late August morn, chaotically wandering around like a senile naturalist lost in the midst of a city. But Tucson doesn’t exactly seem like a metropolis to me; it feels more like a patchwork of neighborhoods, barrios and colonias packed tightly into the same desert valley like so many sardines jammed into a greasy tin. The more I walk the summer streets of Armory Park Neighborhood, Barrio Viejo and Barrio Anita—their quelites and Bermuda grass and verdolagas growing out of every sidewalk crack and every pothole—the more I feel like I am crawling around the aging, disheveled body of a former lover, a woman I have not seen since her youth, but whose exaggerated curves, dimples, and curls I vaguely remember. And yet it is not her shape so much as her fragrance that I remember more deeply than words can call forth. Even before I turn a corner onto a pathway I have not trod for decades, I inhale her aroma. There is a faint but lingering perfume emanating from a night-blooming cactus down the pathway, which I could smell even before I could see the thorny succulent itself, its limbs all akimbo from years of homeowners building fences of different heights to serve as its props. After spotting the source of the nearly spent fragrance, I stand on my tiptoes to take a good gaze at its still-withering blossom. It is luminously pale and at this hour, sort of ragged, like an old nightgown that has endured far too many midnight frolics. And yet it remains so sensuous—I dare say, erotic— that the whole lot of negligee designers working for Victoria’s Secret could never surpass its skimpy elegance. The mere sight of a night-blooming cereus flower is enough to send me off into those pollination dreams that punctuated four entire summers of my life nearly a decade ago. With a whiff of that blossom, I realize I am back living in a Sonoran Desert city for the first time in eight years, and that I am once again Gary Paul Nabhan, recently returned to Tucson, is research professor and research social scientist in the Southwest Center, University of Arizona. Journal of the Southwest 50, 4 (Winter 2008) : 465–470 466  ✜  Journal of the Southwest hopelessly in love with this place. I am older and crankier, mind you, so I am also aware that I am much more frequently irritated by Tucson’s tackiness than I was when I first arrived here more than thirty-five years ago. And yet, even my irritability does not last too long any more. I can forgive my lover for trying on an outfit or two that really doesn’t fit her. The difference between then and now is that back then, I was in love with Tucson as both an abstraction and as a physical entity; that is to say, I was enamored with the idea of being in love with a desert place. I don’t care much for abstractions any more. As poet-doctor William Carlos Williams famously scribbled in chalk in the bottom of his rusty, rain-soaked wheelbarrow, No ideas but in things. I have belatedly come to realize that all this talk about gaining a sense of place—as if such a thing were merely a concept—simply misses the mark. What I am feeling today is a deeply visceral yearning for—as well as a hedonistic pleasure from— the senses of place embodied in Tucson, which come to me through my sensory organs long before reaching the synapses in my brain. What I am saying is that you could blind-fold me, spin me around for a half day in a centrifuge, drive me to any one of dozen cities on the continent, and I could still tell you which one was Tucson solely by its aromas, or by its sounds, or by its textures and its flavors. In the least, I would know I was back in Baja Arizona. I would not have to read a sign or take...


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