The house in Tucson sits well north of and high above the city center, in a quiet neighborhood served by a cul-de-sac road. The house has a large, spacious living and dining area and a very spacious kitchen with breakfast table, both looking out on a patio and swimming pool with a spectacular view of the Santa Catalina mountains nearby. I could see the saguaros marching up the foothills until, at a certain altitude, they would give way to conifers. The master bedroom has large windows with the same view, allowing us to be awakened by the sunrise over the mountain.
While eating breakfast we were entertained by the birds entering the yard, especially the Gambrel’s quail. Calling to each other they trot through the bars of a wrought-iron fence surrounding the patio to feed on a seed cake, many surrounding it and others waddling through the yard while one male keeps watch from the top of the wall. Mourning doves join the feeding frenzy and sometimes a squirrel, which the pack of quail may be able to chase away. After a short time the quail retreat to the scrub desert behind the neighborhood, which provides considerable cover among the mesquite and creosote bush. They seemed to have a routine, flying from their home in the scrub across the yard to a hill on the other side of the road and back, then stopping in the yard several times a day for a big feed.
In the mornings and late afternoon we would sit on the patio at a glass-topped table for breakfast, drinks, or snacks. While we were there the weather was mostly fair with a high about 70 cooling rapidly in the evening to a low of 40. Although we took a number of day trips around the area as planned, there was little need to do so. News of the world declined in importance as the days went by. At night we reclined in lawn chairs to observe the stars in a very dark sky, look for meteors, and listen to the coyotes. Usually the howls seemed ghostly from a great distance, but a couple of nights a pack of three or four were in the nearby desert, sending out an amazing melodious chorus which was answered faintly from a distance.
The neighborhood is quite new; a 1998 AAA map of the area has a blank space where the street now sits. Most of the residents appear to be retired, since traffic during commuter times was virtually nonexistent. The houses are sand-colored stucco and blend easily together and with the land contours. Our house is a single-story design with skylights in many of the rooms, providing a welcome sense of light every day. We learned that the neighborhood is located in a town, Oro Valley, whose original citizens petitioned Pima County for incorporation. The city of Tucson sprawls a certain distance, surrounded by unincorporated county territory. Incorporation allowed master planning to occur, enabling better directed growth than in the unincorporated areas.
The twenty-year master plan includes designated open lands along with bicycle and walking paths throughout the town. Those paths already built are well used by bicyclists and walkers all day. The desert behind our neighborhood is conservation land with a planned walking path along the ridge. It is said that town residents like their views and the master plan attempts to preserve this priceless benefit of living there.
Development so far seems very efficient. There is a major grocery store less than a mile away from our neighborhood. It is a short drive to the post office, town library, and town offices. One finds a pair of shopping centers on either side of the road only a little farther on. With a large elderly population, medical centers are not far behind. One is already built in the area and another is just opening. It’s less than an hour drive into Tucson with its museums, music and specialty shopping, and with the University of Arizona educational resources and specialty medical care. A short drive in the other direction allows one to spend a quiet day in the mountains, puzzling over the unfamiliar cacti and other vegetation, looking for lizards, and looking out for snakes.
Water, of course, is the achilles heel of human life in the Tucson area and Arizona in general. The average rainfall is 12 inches per year, but a five-year drought as of 2004 has seriously affected groundwater. The city recently approved a $140 million bond issue to assure additional water supplies from Colorado River sources. Ironically, the water companies are fighting over the wastewater which can be recycled. Our house has xeriscaping, or water conserving, drought tolerant landscaping; there is no lawn, only ground cover and stone beds. An underground drip watering system has been installed to assure the small amounts of water needed to nourish the plants in addition to the highly variable rainfall. This landscape design is standard for new developments in the area and appears to be used in the vast majority of housing. However, there are several golf courses in the area which must un-conserve much of the water being conserved by responsible homeowners.
While meditating on all this from the back yard, a natural question is, can people in general live like this, or in some manner approximating it? In 2000 according to the census 88% of the town population is white, non-Hispanic, and 23% of the people are 65 and older. One can guess that many are affluent including the retirees. One imagines the retired people being very laid back and pleasant neighbors, going out for regular games of golf and genial conversation at the clubhouse. Like the military officers who start opposing the militarist culture only after retirement, the retired men have traded the competitive jostling corporate world in urban centers like Chicago and New York for this island of beauty and civility.
Yes, this town is an island of privilege, but do not dismiss it lightly. The master plan includes creating a kind of village square amidst the library and town building complex where people can gather and socialize and have music and artistic events. There is something real and vital here. I see the possibility of revitalized community in the world where people would come to the village center to share in a sunset and later look at the stars under low lighting. This can happen only when we humans are freed from the materialistic desires that rob us now of the time to be most human together. It can happen only when the developed countries share the benefits of knowledge and technology so that the two billion people who are always hungry can recover their ability to create vital communities where they are. If we are too selfish to change, the house in Tucson will remain part of an isolated island that cannot long survive.