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75th Anniversary Highlights

Dr. Lattie F. Coor's Remarks on the occasion of the Desert Botanical Garden’s 75th Anniversary Luncheon

February 13, 2014

It is my pleasure to join you today for the Desert Botanical Garden’s 75th Anniversary luncheon. I appreciate Ken Schutz’s introduction of me as “a Phoenix native whose lifespan matches that of the Garden,” for I was two years old when the Garden was founded, and have treasured watching and experiencing its wonderful contributions to the richness of our lives in this community over the past 75 years. I especially want to salute the Garden’s current stewards here today who’ve taken up Gertrude Webster’s stirring challenge to protect, study and conserve the treasures of the desert by improving, over the past quarter century, every aspect of the Garden’s features from its impressive new facilities to its embrace of the arts — Chihuly, Topia, Jazz in the Desert — as increasing numbers of visitors come to experience the magnificent botanic treasures of the Garden’s collection. DBG has become a world class attraction, a “must see” for every visitor to Arizona.

But, beyond the wonders and experiences it has provided us to date, the Garden has given this community and this state something far more important: It has given us the Sonoran Desert. Not literally, of course, because the Sonoran Desert was here well before all of us; rather, it has given us the Sonoran Desert spiritually, conceptually, functionally in a visible and vibrant way that has enabled us to understand it and to embrace it as something that is central to our core identity as a place and a people. In addition to being where we live, it is who we are and, as the biologically most diverse desert in the world, it not only provides us a magnificent unique setting, it offers us a distinctive signature as our identity.

Curious as it may seem, our historic identity, certainly from the time of Statehood, did not feature or even mention the Sonoran Desert. A major early attraction of the Valley was farming and our rich alluvial soil and the access to water for irrigation provided by the Roosevelt Dam. Underscoring our identity as a place dominated by farming is The Great Seal of the State of Arizona, adopted at Statehood, which features a dam and reservoir, an irrigation canal serving crops in fields and orchards, a cow and a man with a shovel and a pick, the latter presumably as a nod to mining. There is not a succulent or a shrub to be seen on The Great Seal. In addition, the 5 Cs—Copper, Cattle, Citrus, Cotton and Climate—learned over the decades by Arizona school children overlooked the fact that cactus also starts with a C. Most of the communities in the Valley, Glendale, Peoria, Scottsdale, Tempe, and Mesa were farming communities with main streets that, into the 1950s, had farm implement dealers symptomatic of the Midwest. The desert was at the edges, not the center, of our lives.

We were known, from the very beginning of statehood, as well, for our sunshine and healthy winter climate as evidenced by the large number of people with tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases who came here seeking treatment.

In the 1950s and 60s, swimming pools in the back yard, golf courses, a relaxed lifestyle and retirement communities joined sunshine as signature features of the Valley. These attributes were the way we saw ourselves in that era, and the way we presented ourselves to the rest of the nation and the world.

Nevertheless, throughout those first 50 years of the Garden’s existence you were educating us, informing us, enticing us to experience and appreciate the flora of this magnificent desert and, as you increased the richness of the experience of visiting the Garden, visitors and residents began to recognize and embrace the distinctive features of the Sonoran Desert as the place we lived.

Then, in the 1970s and 80s, developers began to move into the desert, into the areas north of Shea, west to the White Tanks and the Estrellas, east to the Superstitions and in so doing began a whole new experience for residents and visitors of active contact with the desert, an experience that has continued to gain momentum to the present as an increasing number of our Valley residents and visitors have chosen to live in and with the desert.

Two other important developments have contributed to drawing us closer to the desert and its significance in our lives. The first is the emerging lifestyle of our young people. As attested by the crowds we see at our desert mountain trails throughout the Valley, our younger generations are hikers, cyclists, runners, people whose recreation draws them increasingly to the desert. We’re even seeing it in the boomers as they identify the features they want in the community to which they move in the mature years of their life. DMB has opened a new section at Verrado, called Victory, where the attributes featured are hiking and cycling trails featuring major opportunities to interact with the desert mountains. Elva and I built our home up against South Mountain 18 years ago near the trailhead for the Mormon Trail. For the first decade or so, we would see only a few hikers visit the trail on weekends. Today, not only is the trailhead parking lot filled every weekend, but so are the streets that radiate out from it in a fashion similar to Echo Canyon. And, interestingly, it is dominantly a young and diverse group of hikers.

Saguaro-Initiative-Lattie-Coor-speaking-web-250x277.jpgAn equally significant development in sharpening our sense of the desert as a central feature of our lives is the emergence of the Conservation Alliance, a collaboration of all the major desert parks and recreation areas in the Valley dedicated to protecting, preserving, and increasing the use of the desert areas by people of all ages and all walks of life. Based here in the Garden under the leadership of Dr. Kimberly McCue, the project is working to create local, national and world wide recognition of a model that demonstrates sustainable use of nature preserves within a major metropolitan area.

These developments have given me and others a growing sense that, thanks to the Desert Botanical Garden, we’re experiencing a sea change in the way we see ourselves as a desert community.

You talk, in the Saguaro Initiative we celebrate on this anniversary, about a pivot point to the next 75 years. I submit to you that you have found it. You’ve actually created it by enabling us to understand the centrality of the Sonoran Desert to our lives and to our future. I now encourage you to commit yourselves in the decades ahead to helping this whole community recognize that, as with our forebears, we are the people of the Sonoran Desert and, as such, we have an obligation to embrace, protect, preserve, nurture and sustain this magnificent desert, now and in the years ahead, facing and mastering whatever circumstances future urban growth and climate change will bring.

If and as you help us do this, we will not only fulfill our responsibility to make this wonderful place sustainable for future generations, but we will become a model for the growing number of arid and desert cities of the world.

In her PowerPoint presenting the Conservation Alliance to our Center for the Future of Arizona’s 5 Communities competition, Kim McCue noted that when you Google “The Great Barrier Reef,” you find it described rhapsodically as the greatest marine ecology setting in the world, home to over 400 different types of coral and over 1,500 different species of fish, including Angel fish, Butterfly fish, and Parrot fish. Overall it’s described as an absolutely beautiful and enticing place to visit.

Said Dr. McCue, when you Google the Sonoran Desert, you find an entry that says it is a desert that spans the Arizona/Mexico border, and is near Phoenix. A major goal of the Conservation Alliance, she said, is to help the world understand that the Sonoran Desert is the most biologically diverse desert in the world with an exotic array of over 450 plants, from the mighty Saguaro, Ocotillo, and Palo Verde to the flowering plants of the desert spring and a wide array of animals and birds ranging from Javelina, Sonoran Pronghorn, Gila Monsters and Kangaroo rats to the Cactus Wren, Gila Woodpecker and Pygmy Owl, making it overall also a beautiful and enticing place to visit.

And I would add as one who returned to Arizona after a decade and a half in the Northeast that a glorious Sonoran Desert spring is a match for the fall color of New England and, from the first sighting of the claret blossom of the Hedgehog Cholla to, weeks later, the soft lavender of the Iron Wood blossoms, it lasts longer.

In closing, I suggest it’s time all of us embrace the magnificent Sonoran Desert as our signature, affirming it’s where we live and who we are. As well, we should invite the rest of the world to join us in enjoying the most biologically diverse desert in the world. No one is better suited to help us do that than the Desert Botanical Garden. My very best as you enter your next 75 years. Thank you.

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