Before The Monsoon

During the oppressively dry summer weeks before the monsoon rains began to fall I was living out in the Sulphur Springs Valley. Looking north I could see mountains eighty miles away, and to the south, a bit closer, were mountains in Mexico. East and west, just a few miles away are the Swisshelm and Mule mountains. Over the past millions of years these mountains had shed alluvium which filled the valley a mile deep in sand and gravel. A vast sky — at any given time something meteorological was happening somewhere on the horizon, especially as evening shadows lengthened.

A fact of life out in the valley is that the rim mountains get twice as much rain as the valley does. It’s not fair, but since when has life been fair? The result is that during the dry weeks and months valley folks see more rain in the distance, over the mountains, than they directly experience.

One impressive sight, if a bit tantalizing, is a virga, a horse-tail-like plume of rain which evaporates in the dry atmosphere before it hits the ground. Here’s one I saw in May:


Here’s another impressive May sky scene, a band of rain falling over the Mule Mountains a few miles to the west. This was a rain that Bisbee was getting, while the valley saw nary a drop. Beautiful sight, though!


Cloudy tumult:


There should be a word or phrase for the dry pre-monsoon weeks. Perhaps we could borrow a term from the early Christians. Antediluvian means “before the flood”; the Latinate word was coined to describe the era before Noah’s flood. How about antepluvial, a word I cobbled together from Latin words for “before” and “rains”. The word monsoon is a Southeast Asian word which was (according to legend) brought back by Air Force pilots returning from the Viet Nam conflict.

Another portentously beautiful cloud scene which yielded no rain:


That central cloud mass intrigued me; it looked like a castle or spacecraft hovering above.

One cool morning in late April I was out wandering in the dry washes. The omnipresent mesquites were blooming and fungus-farming ants were busy snipping off mesquite flowers and leaves and conveying them to vast underground ant empires, where worker ants were chewing up the vegetative material for fungus compost.

On the bank of a wash not far from our cabin a tangled mass of greenery caught my eye. The vining plant bore flowers structurally reminding me of milkweed flowers. I eventually determined that the plant belonged to a genus related to Asclepias, the milkweed genus. The plant is called Twining Milkweed, or Fringed Twinevine, and its Latin name is Funastrum cyanthoides. The plant was growing lushly with no apparent source of water. The species must have a deep water-storing taproot!




I’ve walked for miles along washes in the valley, and that one patch of Twinevine was the only one I ever encountered!


5 comments on “Before The Monsoon

  1. bev says:

    Quite impressive photos, especially the second and the last in that series. The Twining Milkweed is fascinating. What a strange plant. The flower sure looks like milkweed, but the rest of it – whoa, not at all.

  2. Marian kay says:

    Hi Larry – Yes, it looks like the color of the milk weed flower- very pretty – marian

  3. Rain Trueax says:

    gorgeous sky shots and about the only good thing I can say about June in Arizona. It’s the toughest month to be there for me. The skies are fantastic but we keep waiting for the first real storms and it seems a long wait when it’s so humid.

  4. Wonderful cloud photos, Larry – and exquisite desert Milkweed!

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