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Know the West

Pilot finds a soft spot for a hard land


Under the Sun: A Sonoran Desert Odyssey, by Adriel Heisey. Treasure Chest Books, P.O. Box 5250, Tucson, AZ 85703 (520/623-9558). Hardcover: $40. 114 pages.

Flying his ultralight airplane high above the Sonoran Desert, Adriel Heisey found an appreciation for an alien landscape. A former commercial pilot, Heisey moved to Tucson on a whim, and at first the desert did nothing to inspire him. Setting off in his homemade Kolb Twinstar, which looks like little more than a seat with wings, changed that.

"I see nuance where I once saw bleakness," he writes in one of the essays that accompany the photos in his book Under the Sun: A Sonoran Desert Odyssey. "I see fragility where I once saw harshness."

But where Heisey's prose often chases the Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, landscape with heavy breaths, his photos capture it effortlessly. The images often fix on patterns discernable only from the air: Branching erosion along the Rio Boquillas; the puzzle of saguaro cacti's long evening shadows; the curving crests of sand dunes in Gran Desierto.

Yet Heisey isn't content with soothing natural images. Some of his photos are challenging: A lone palo verde tree blooms in the middle of a golf course under construction; orange-suited inmates stand in a Tucson prison yard.

"Flying over the desert, I see scenes that are pristine, but then I turn my head and see something intrusive and appalling," he says. Heisey admits, however, that a beauty exists in the human-changed landscape of dams, mines and superhighways. "Looking down on these things," he says, "I feel like I'm looking down on the mind of the human species."