Exploring Tucson, AZ provided two very different opportunities to experience nature–Saguaro National Park and Biosphere 2–with one generating more interest than the other.
We reserved a site at Catalina State Park’s campground…
to be equidistant between the two National Park districts: Rincon Mountain (RMD-east) and Tucson Mountain (TMD-west). Why two districts? In the 1960’s, concern over RMD’s cactus forest showing a decline in new growth, prompted conservationists to acquire a stand of ancient saguaros to the west of Tucson, separating the two districts by an hour’s drive.
Leah and I began our journey at TMD, at first, through a meandering exurban road that eventually led to an unpaved, rutted, and narrow scenic Bajada loop drive covering five miles of Tuscon Mountain foothills. A stop at the Desert Discovery Trail brought us within no touching distance of magnificent saguaro cacti measuring over thirty feet tall.
Each specimen appears unique, sprouting limbs in different places, and contorting in all directions,
giving relevance to Native American claims that these are people standing among the sand and rocks.
Their petroglyphs across Signal Hill are a testament to their long-standing occupation of the territory more than one thousand years ago.
A memorable hike along the Valley View Trail slowly ascends a ridge, offering dramatic views of Avra Valley’s saguaro-sprawl, with Picachu Peak in the distance.
With temperatures reaching into the high 90’s, we avoided all other trails–requiring a minimum of three to four hours of dedicated strain–in favor of cross-town traffic delays that minimized our allotted time to visit RMD.
Once at the eastern park gate, we roamed the paved eight-mile Cactus Forest Drive, switch-backing into higher elevations, with warm western sun casting a golden hue across the desert, turning a forbidding vista…
into an inviting playground,
protected by a standing legion of cactus totems.
The following day, we turned our attention to an experiment in the remote reaches of the Sonoran Desert,
originally conceived in 1984 to “research and develop self-sustaining space-colonization technology,” and leading to two highly publicized missions between 1991 and 1994–where teams of eight were sealed into a self-sustaining environment for two-year terms and monitored for their “survivability”. Scientists named it Biosphere 2.
Presently, the University of Arizona has assumed stewardship of the facility, turning its focus toward research on climate change–mimicking diverse ecosystems, such as the ocean,
and coastal fog desert,
all managed under controlled conditions.
Beneath nature’s museum lies the technosphere, a myriad of pipes and wiring,
channels and ducts, tubes and cables, and other facilities necessary for vital operation.
An ingenious dome-shaped lung…
connected to the glass enclosure by tunnels…
allows for air expansion caused by ever-changing pressures within the sealed structure.
The scope of the facility is a marvel, boasting double redundancy for all power and life support systems.
A common question on the tour, “Why is it called Biosphere 2? Was there another Biosphere before this one?”
The docent is keen to respond, “Yes. Another Biosphere exists, where random, haphazard and uncontrolled experiments called living are carried out on a daily basis, but we commonly refer to it as Earth.”