Cultivating Creativity in the Sonoran Desert

Today I’m honored to provide a guest post by Melissa Crytzer Fry, whose blog What I Saw never fails to inspire. I was first drawn to her blog by her amazing photographs of the Sonoran Desert; it was there that I grew up, and Melissa’s blog allowed me to return. But what struck me was how she incorporated her setting and visual art into a broader discussion of creativity and writing. Enjoy.


When I sent my mom a photo of my latest backyard discovery – a long-nosed leopard lizard – she posed an excellent question, marveling at my knack for daily discovery:

How many people never ‘look’ when they go outside?

Plenty. And I confess to having been one of those people during my nine years residing in the heart of downtown Phoenix. I was wrapped in the silky momentum of the city, another car speeding and weaving in the ebb and flow of traffic toward my career, never stopping to look at much else.

In 2004 my ’Jersey-bred husband mentioned his desire to buy land in the “real” desert, his impulse a mirror to my unspoken rural cravings (I hail from a northwestern Pennsylvania farming community).

When we made the move south to our ranch, something magical happened. The lifestyle swap from cityscape to desertscape really became a metaphor for an unexpected creative metamorphosis. As I began exploring our neighborless property, along with wide stretches of the soft rolling Sonoran Desert hills, I started to consciously look at my surroundings.

The desert, I realized, was peppered with new discoveries that were mine for the making: plants, insects, birds and four-legged creatures that seemed to be indigenous to some other planet. Daily outings became scavenger hunts with camera in tow. The creative real estate in my mind expanded, following the same contours of the gently braided desert landscape.

My exploration – by foot, by Jeep, by helicopter – unlocked creative potential I wasn’t sure existed. It’s resulted in the completion of two novels and the emergence of a nature/writing/photography blog. But more importantly, it’s nurtured an appreciation for the natural world around me, a kind of creative muse that is at my disposal at all times if I just stop to look.

How does the nature-creativity connection work? I can’t really say, but I can share photos from a recent hike near Peppersauce Creek at the foot of Arizona’s Mt. Lemmon. You be the judge: do you consider this arid land fertile ground for creativity?

Look at the California Sister’s curly orange proboscis, zebra-striped body, her delicate legs. I marvel at her metamorphosis – from ugly green-horned caterpillar to this striking beauty.
The stalks of this Century Plant (agave parryi) seem to dance. Their twists and turns speak of movement and connection. Their environment – tethered as they are to unforgiving soil – tells a story of resilience as they thrive under the iron-fisted rays of the desert sun.
Even the prickly spines of this cane cholla teach creative lessons through vibrant colors and textures.
Perhaps mules are stubborn. This fella didn’t want to move from the middle of the road. But don’t you envy his pace, his carefree attitude as he roams amid grassy prairies laid at the base of the Santa Catalina’s granite-faced cliffs?

Maybe nature’s biggest gift to the artist is this: like hypnosis, it slows the mind, takes us outside of ourselves for a moment, providing a savory stillness that allows the seeds of creativity to grow. Why do you think so many find creative influence in the natural world? I would love to learn more about your personal experiences as well.


Melissa Crytzer Fry is a freelance writer and journalist living out her writing dream in southern Arizona, among wildlife ranging from javelina, bobcats and quail to mountain lions, coyotes and Gila Monsters. She pays tribute to Arizona’s natural world on her blog, What I Saw, sharing photography and asking questions that apply to writing in particular, and life in general. Her literary novel-in-progress, Bedside, was named a semi-finalist in the 2011 William Faulkner William Wisdom Writing Competition. She’s the owner of AZCommPro Communications, her freelance writing business. You can follow her on Twitter @CrytzerFry.

53 thoughts on “Cultivating Creativity in the Sonoran Desert

  1. Beautiful post. I had the pleasure of travelling to Albuquerque 4X a year for 4 years and found an unexpected beauty in the desert. it is now one of my favorite places. thanks for the reminder


  2. Goodness, it is all too easy to ignore nature because of busyness. When I slow down and notice, my creativity really does blossom. I live in an urban area, but we have many birds. Barn swallows on the front porch (even though my husband threatens them every spring) and hummingbirds in the backyard. God is good and sprinkles a little nature no matter where we reside. Thanks for another great post, Melissa!


  3. I love this: “Maybe nature’s biggest gift to the artist is this: like hypnosis, it slows the mind, takes us outside of ourselves for a moment..” Exactly how I feel. When I am feeling stuck in my writing — I go out and do some bird watching or sit on the beach, which really helps inspire creativity as it (as you say) takes me outside myself. p.s. great photos!


  4. Melissa, I was utterly fascinated by your story of how you switched from a city person with tunnel vision to a creative soul who now sees riches wherever she looks. And isn’t it wonderful what a domino effect it has? Once you start noticing the details of nature, it’s like you can’t even step outside your own front door without a myriad of fascinating and beautiful plants and creatures clamoring to be seen. A version of that even happens to me here in Mill Creek Park.

    In pondering your question, it came to me that connecting with the energies of nature takes us out of our yada-yada brain (“Agh, I’m feeling blocked today!” “Where’s my muse when I need her?!” “That whole chapter I just wrote SUCKS.”) and into our primal brain where we’re hooked up with pure creativity, minus the angst. Nature is such an amazing resource for us. And it’s when we bring our awareness to it that makes the magic happen. I love that feeling of being in partnership with nature, where I bring part of the formula to the table. End result = creativity.

    Patrick, thanks for another awesome guest. You have fantastic taste in guest bloggers. 🙂


    1. Well, let’s just say this: I have NEVER been a city person, which became quite apparent after living in Phoenix. I grew up in NW PA among cow pastures and corn fields, then moved to rural Ohio, then back to PA. It wasn’t until we’d moved to our current location in the desert that I realized just how unhappy I was in a city setting; I was oblivious about it (oddly) until the day the realtor showed us this property. I felt alive and energized after a single visit and the HOPE that a remote, nature-inspired setting could become my home again.

      You are SPOT ON about the domino effect (and I agree that you have access to GREAT beauty at Mill Creek Park. No doubt! As you know, I’m familiar with it).

      You need to market the terms “yada-yada brain” and “primal brain.” Yes! Yes! Yes! You have described the phenomenon perfectly! Thanks for your ultra-thoughtful response, Milli.


      1. I totally hear you, Melissa. Have never been a city girl myself. The times I had to live in a city I was miserable … but didn’t necessarily have the awareness that it was a *lack of connection with nature.* Just knew I hated the traffic, constant noise, dehumanizing aspects, etc. And yet I could kind of be drunk on parts of it too. In my sometimes-wiser older years, however, I’m in no doubt. Must have my nature in order to thrive!


  5. It’s so great to see Melissa here on your blog, Patrick. And I love this post. It really got me thinking about inspiration and creativity and where it comes from. For me, it’s about freedom, and that comes when I am relaxed enough to let go and write without worrying about whether what I write is any good. Getting outdoors, even in a bustling city like Phoenix (where I live and where I first met Melissa), helps me do that. Sometimes after swimming laps in my backyard pool, I’ll float on my raft for a few minutes, catching my breath and staring up into the endless, cloudless blue sky of the desert. It reminds me just how vast the universe is and how tiny I am. It may seem silly, but it really takes the pressure off to write something monumental and allows me to just write and make my tiny contribution to the universe.


    1. So well-said, Jessica. Not silly at all. Getting in touch with our smallness in the world makes everything else seem rather inconsequential, doesn’t it? Taking the pressure off is the key to creativity, isn’t it?

      P.S. I recall those float-in-the-water days in Phoenix, too (I DO miss that. A pool out here would equate to a watery catacomb for snakes, insects, lizards, rats – and would attract big wild cats, coyotes and javelina for SURE).


    2. Thanks, Jessica. Nothing silly about taking a moment to enjoy the “endless, cloudless blue sky of the desert.” I say this as someone who has stared at a gray snow globe sky for too many years.


  6. Thanks, Patrick & Melissa! Great post and OH, how I miss the desert! Seattle is about as opposite as can be, but I’m grateful for the sunny days when I can open the windows wide and enjoy the pink rhododendrons and bright orange poppies – a welcome break from gray skies. M – you’ve written TWO books?! You’re my hero. My wip is the proverbial molasses run on a glacier.


    1. But if you come to the Wranglin’ with Writing Conference, you’ll get your desert fix!

      And, to be fair – the first novel that I finished in 2010 was started YEARS before (but it WAS completed once we made the move to the boonies). I’m definitely not a fast fiction writer! So I’m just another glacier.


  7. Melissa, what a wonderful post. I love your photos too!

    I was raised a city girl and growing up we never even went camping. But a few years after living on my own as a young adult (working in a big, metropolitan city), I started feeling the urge to spend time in nature…and instantly and totally felt at home. I’ve now lived in small towns and/or rural areas since the mid-90s and being in close proximity to the natural world just a step outside my door gives me a sense of belonging, renewal, and stability I couldn’t live without now.

    The privilege of sitting out on the back verandah hearing nothing but the soul-filling swell of the wind in the trees, or the occasional twitter of a bird close by, or the snort of a horse as he trots by our house with an avid weekend equestrian astride, certainly gives my creative soul room to breathe and deeply ‘notice’, and gives my imagination wings to fly as well.


  8. Beautiful post, Melissa! I’ve never been to the desert but I’ve never been more inspired to go than after I see your pictures. For me, nature has always been my first muse; when I was little, my first poems were about the rain and the trees and the wind, and even in high school, when we had to do an entire book of poems and stories for English, I dedicated mine to Gaia. I earned the nickname “nature girl” somewhere along the way (I’m not complaining!) but admit I haven’t been quite as connected to it lately. This is a beautiful reminder.


  9. So nice to see a familiar face on a familiar blog. =) Melissa, your nature photos have always been gorgeous and inspiring. The desert seems to call to you the way beaches or the mountains in Colorado call to me. I wonder if every person has creativity hidden in some specific part of the natural world? It seems like it’d be worth a lifetime to look for it.


  10. Oh, this post is s beautifully written, Melissa. I especially love ‘savory stillness’. That’s just perfect!

    When one first arrives here in Arizona, especially if we are coming from somewhere where the natural life seems so obvious in its presence and abundance, it can seem as if there’s not much going on in the desert. I think that’s one of the main reasons I love your blog, Melissa, (besides the great writing) you point out just how truly FULL of life the natural world around us is here. Your photos show your readers the Sonoran Desert close up and personal. And they make me want to look closely when an opportunity presents, even if it’s just my own big backyard in the city, but especially when I get the chance to escape the ‘silky momentum’ (loved that too!) to some hiking or camping.

    Wonderful guest post, lady.


    1. You are SO right, Cynthia. I have many family members who have said, “But everything’s dead in the desert. So brown. No life. ” On the contrary… I find it so fascinating that animals and plants have adapted in such a way that they thrive in these harsh surroundings. And, ah yes … camping and hiking – so good for soul-restoration, too! Thank you SO much for the lovely compliments.


  11. I used to be one of those non-noticers, too. I grew up in suburban NJ and it wasn’t until I was 17 and introduced to birdwatching in the Youth Conservation Corps that I suddenly started seeing all the wildlife that had been around me all along. Then once I started noticing things in nature, I started noticing other stuff too, indoors and out. And, of course, it’s noticing stuff that is the basis of all art and science.


  12. Hello Melissa and hello Patrick! Patrick, I too am such a fan of Melissa’s blog, her incredible photos and equally beautiful insights about the natural world. Melissa, I love the theme of this post. As you know, my husband is a biologist so we spend so much of our free time as a family exploring the outdoors and encouraging our children to be observers of their landscape–it is a treasure we must never take for granted, isn’t it?


    1. I love, love, love that, as a family, you explore — and that you’re teaching your children about the wonder of nature. I’m afraid so many kids are more interested in electronics, video games, etc. than the natural world! What a loss… makes me sad. It is a treasure, indeed.


  13. Suzie Ivy

    You learned to stop and smell the roses at an earlier age than I. Now, I look back and realized what I missed. I’ve always loved nature but for too long passed it by. I’m always inspired by your work. You are such a gem with words and photographs. {hugs}


  14. Pingback: Cultivating Creativity in the Sonoran Desert « The Artist's Road | Random Creativity |

  15. In our yard this morning I saw two deer nibbling the leftover hay that hadn’t been rolled into bales. It was such a reminder that the simple country life (at least for me) is the best one there is. Thank you for reiterating this in your usual beautiful way, Melissa, and with your gorgeous photos!


  16. “like hypnosis, it slows the mind, takes us outside of ourselves for a moment, providing a savory stillness that allows the seeds of creativity to grow”

    So true!. Or like meditation. I begin to see my connection with things … smaller and larger… which, of course, feeds the creative process. Nature is so laden with metaphor … and metaphor is my religion.


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  19. Whatever creativity I may have, the twin wellsprings are the continuing loving absorption in my husband, and the privilege of living in our Longleaf pine preserve. It’s a hundred acre wood near Pensacola, FL where I walk, photograph the wild flowers and the riot of life, and have learned to appreciate tiny mysteries (ants, moss spores) and grand magnificence (the hawks, the wild turkeys, the owls), as well as the sweetness of does raising their fawns in the clearing that is our front “yard.” Even the violent hunger of coyotes.

    Thanks for your beautiful reflections, Melissa.


    1. I am SO jealous — living in a pine preserve. Sounds beyond beautiful (and I can smell the pines!). I would LOVE to stroll with you through those hundred acres! Heading to your blog, Beth. SO happy to meet you. (Does your area have the Florida panthers — is that what the mountain-lion-like big cats are called in Fla.?)


      1. Come on down, Melissa! The Longleaf Bar & Grill is open 24/7 to authors such as yourself. Walking, talking, strange critters and excellent whiskey. If you stop by the blog, click on Categories, then scroll down to Longleaf Preserve. There you can click on spiders, reptiles, turkeys, even wildflowers and fungi. (I mention this because of your lizard photo — it’s clear we would gee haw.)


      2. I forgot to answer your question about Florida panthers (they scream like a wuh-mon). Maybe, but the only wild cats I’ve seen around here are bobcats. I unfortunately got a close up view of one that had been shot a bunch of times, then run over, then flung by our gate, right by the morning paper.


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