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Visual Art

Essential Workers of the Sonoran Desert and Beyond

The Sonoran Desert is often perceived as a place of scarcity. In actuality, it is the most biodiverse desert on the planet, thanks to its topography and seasonal rainfall patterns, which create habitat for some 3500 plant species, 500 bird species, and 1000 bee species. I started thinking about some of these desert species as essential workers, as overlooked and uncelebrated as the human workers who were delivering the mail, reporting the news, tending to the sick in clinics and hospitals. The phrase “occupational folklife” refers to the culture of workers—what workers say, make, and do within given professions. Listening to workers grants dignity to labor of all kinds.

The coronavirus arrived in earnest in Tucson, where I live, as the spring cool temperatures were melting away to blazing summer days. Getting outside meant leaving the house at 5 a.m. to beat the heat, listening to bees and doves and trees in the warm winds. As temperatures rose into the hundreds, I hunkered down for a summer that would be the hottest on record. Meanwhile, all those workers were keeping the desert alive and glorious, keeping us safe and healthy.

These paintings first appeared in ANTI/body, a site-specific collaboration between the University of Arizona’s Art+Feminism Collective and artist Natalie Brewster Nguyen, involving installation events in multiple locations around Tucson. The installations were viewable from a distance, on foot, or via car and bike. All were accompanied by a soundtrack.

northern mockingbird with text that reads: Reporters, broadcasters, engineers, technicians, customer service staff, and other communications workers help us access critical health updates and stay connected with each other. In this time of physical distance, connecting via phone, internet, radio, television, and print feels life saving. The Northern Mockingbird is famous for its varied, repetitive, and loud songs. The birds were once kept as pets, diminishing their range. But now they are common again filling our days - and nights! - with melodious and (let's be honest) sometimes jarring sounds.
Communications workers Kimi Eisele, 2020
three bees with honeycomb with text that reads: Food workers of all kinds - agriculture, grocery, restaurant, packing plants - have continued working to ensure the rest of us have access to the food we need. Some of these workers are well cared for by loving bosses, but too many struggle to access PPE and hazard pay, risking their own health to feed us. Bees play critical roles as pollinators, ensuring the flowering and fruiting of desert plants that feed birds, reptiles, and mammals. They also pollinate nearly 30 percent of agricultural crops, meaning our lives truly depend on these busy, beautiful workers.
Food workers Kimi Eisele, 2020
palo verde tree with saguaro cacti with text that reads In this pandemic, so many nurses have risked their own lives, without proper PPE, to care for others. Often, they are the only ones present to accompany the dying, holding phones to connect families or play last musical requests. Palo verde and mesquite trees protect young, vulnerable saguaro cacti from the extremes of heat and frost, so they can grow and mature. For this, they are called "nurse trees".
Nurses Kimi Eisele, 2020
lesser long-nosed bat swooping towards flowering agave with text that reads: Shelter-in-place doesn't apply to these workers, who labor long hours - often for low wages and subpar benefits - to bring us the goods we order. Companies that employ these workers could learn from more equitable, symbiotic relationships... like that of the lesser long-nosed bat and flowering cacti and agave species. This migratory bat follows the plants' flowering cycles, benefitting from rich food sources of nectar and pollen, which it transports and delivers flower to flower, ensuring the continuation of the plants.
Packaging, shipping & delivery workers Kimi Eisele, 2020
turkey vulture with text that reads: These workers keep our homes, worksites, businesses, and public spaces clean, safe, and beautiful. Though they often go ignored, unseen, and certainly underpaid, their work is critical to our well being. Turkey vultures are often thought of as ugly or "gross" birds. Common across the country, they feed on carrion, eating remains and refuse slowly and thoroughly. They can smell food a mile away and have excellent vision. By foraging what's no longer alive, they clean the landscape of harmful decay and disease.
Janitors, cleaners & sanitation workers Kimi Eisele, 2020
brown desert coyote with text that reads: Not always considered front line workers, artists nonetheless are working hard to observe, document, respond to, and reflect on this pandemic. What would your days be like right now without books, music, dance, visual art, film, and cultural heritage practices that connect you to your friends, your family, your community, your best self? We turn to art to soothe, celebrate, commemorate, escape, mourn, and liberate. And there is no art without artists. Coyotes rule the desert with crafty intelligence, playful curiosity, and keen sensitivity. Highly adaptable, they live in every habitat and support each other through social groups. They appear and disappear when you least expect them... and they sing to communicate or just for fun.
Artists Kimi Eisele, 2020

Kimi Eisele makes things with words, images, bodies, light, nature, and you. She is the author of "The Lightest Object in the Universe" (Algonquin Books), a novel about loss and adaptation in a post-apocalyptic America. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, Longreads, Literary Hub, Orion,, and elsewhere. She holds a master’s degree in geography from the University of Arizona where in 1998 she founded you are here: the journal of creative geography. Her visual art—paintings, collage, photographs, papercuttings, and shadow puppet theater—focuses primarily on wildlife, landscapes, and the body.

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More from Issue 1: Fall 2020


On Time

by Liska Jacobs

large blue and white telescope

My Father’s Badge and Gun

by Natashia Deón

streetlight and security camera against a clear blue sky