Summer Monsoon Series


Join us at the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill as we celebrate the science and art of our favorite desert season: monsoon summer.

In the sultry days of midsummer, anticipation builds...The winds carry the scent of damp earth. Prickly pear cactus fruit begins to turn from tourmaline pink to ripe, delicious ruby-red. Mesquites droop like weeping willows, their limbs weighted down with drying, ripe bean pods. Desert farmers begin to prepare their fields and plant seeds—relatives of wild beans, squash, corn, spinach, and chiles. They know that the searing heat and ripe saguaro fruits of June will tell you what the plants and animals also know: the rains are coming, it’s time to prepare. July is Jukiabig Mashath, the rainy season month, in the Tohono O’odham calendar.

Our teams of scientists, poets, ethnobotanists, farmers, chefs, and artists will be your guides as we explore the science and art of Sound, Sight, Smell and Taste of the monsoon summer.

Each sense-oriented online workshop is two hours long, on a Saturday morning from 10 am until noon (Arizona time), with a 50-minute science talk, an hour of art instruction and sharing, and a 10-minute Q&A. Two of the sessions—Sound and Sight—will include optional field trips on a separate day.


$45 each or $170 for all four—including access to all recordings for six months. Optional field trips are priced per session ($45–$55).

REGISTER NOW FOR ALL FOUR (field trips not included; you can add them then during checkout, or purchase later using the links below)

Student discounts (50%) are available; please email Art and Science Program Coordinator Roseann Hanson at with details of your school enrollment.

Sound: Thunderstorms Awaken the Desert 

Saturday, July 10 | 10 am to noon Arizona time 


With that first rumble of thunder, and the thudding patter-patter-patter of rain on the parched desert floor, the annual resurrection begins. Spadefoot toads, which have been entombed in the dry soil for many months, awaken and emerge to begin their short, frenzied, and loud mating cycles in ephemeral pools. Robert Anthony Villa, research associate and garden curator at the Desert Laboratory and president of the Tucson Herpetological Society, will share the natural history of our desert toads, as well as the most recent science behind what triggers the perfect timing of toad emergence: is it low-frequency sound? Or is it thunder, or a combination of other factors? Then, we’ll learn to make our own celebratory sounds through the art of spoken poetry with Logan Phillips, UArizona MFA Creative Writing / Poetry ’21 and published poet. Logan will introduce the word-vehicle of the “ode” poem, a traditional song of praise. Working as a group (or individually if you like), we will construct an ode to the monsoons focusing on the emotional tides of longing and mourning that desert dwellers experience with the coming of—or the delay of—the monsoon rains.


Field Trip

You can also sign up for an optional evening field trip with Robert Villa to search out storm water pools where toads are emerging; the date will be “on call” depending on rain events. We will meet at the base of Tumamoc and then self-drive in a convoy to other locations. $45 additional fee. You can add the Field Trip when you purchase the workshop above, or if you change your mind and want to order it later


Sight: Storm Photography

Saturday, July 17 | 10 am to noon Arizona time


The hallmark of monsoon season is the dramatic thunderstorms that sail across the desert floors, bringing high wind, sheets of rain, and localized flooding. How does the monsoon form and how is it changing? We will learn the dynamics of the monsoon from UA atmospheric scientist Dr. Christopher Castro. He will share his latest research on how storms are becoming less frequent and much more intense across much of the Sonoran Desert—an outcome of climate change. Beyond learning how the monsoon functions, we will focus on how to capture it. Storm photography is challenging and rewarding, and in this workshop Tucson photographer Tom Willett will teach tips and techniques for tracking storms and then creating the best exposures to capture the drama.


Field Trip

You can also sign up for an optional late afternoon / evening field trip on Sunday, July 18 with Tom Willett to find and photograph storms. We will start at Tumamoc, scope out nearby storms, and if needed, we will drive to other locations (self-drive, in convoy). $55 additional fee. You can add the Field Trip when you purchase the workshop above, or if you change your mind and want to order it later


Smell: Creosote

Saturday, July 24 | 10 am to noon Arizona time


When that much-anticipated rain finally falls, when the parched earth and plants are siphoning up life-giving moisture, the desert is imbued with a distinctive, transformative smell—a sharp, tangy, and brightly verdant scent that tickles our sinuses and brings great joy to desert dwellers. So when we say “the desert smells like rain,” what does that mean in science terms as well as cultural terms? In this workshop we’ll learn from a series of experts, Maegan Lopez, a member of the Tohono O’odham nation and staff at Ha:ṣañ Preparatory and Leadership School and at Mission Garden; Martha Burgess, a Desert Laboratory research associate and professor of Tohono O’odham Ethnobotany at Tohono O'odham Community College; and esteemed scientist Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra of the University of California Riverside. Dr. Ezcurra will share the natural history of creosote, and the science of the volatile organic compounds that comprise that signature desert smell—and much more. Maegan and Martha will share Traditional Ecological Knowledge about creosote from the Tohono O'odham people, and traditional and modern ways to extract these compounds and how they are used.


Taste: Cooking a Summer Bounty

Saturday, August 14 | 10 am to noon Arizona time


After a month or more of life-giving rain, the desert is starting to offer its bounty: the fruits of the cacti such as prickly pear and saguaro, the beans of the mesquites and palo verdes, and the verdulagas, the greens. Traditional gardens are also bursting with fruits and greens and flowers. In this unique workshop we will take you virtually to the farm fields of San Xavier Co-op Farm and Mission Gardens, where we will learn the natural history and cultural importance of desert food plants, including the science behind important nutrients. Then, Tucson chef and former board chairman of Native Seeds/SEARCH, Janos Wilder will cook up a feast with a selection of fresh monsoon-season desert foods, and we’ll have a live Q&A session with Janos and gardeners from Mission and San Xavier.