In the shadows of southern Arizona’s “sky islands,” a science writer has built a sustainable home that allows her to reconnect with nature as she begins a new chapter in life. Leigh Flayton pays a visit
Photography by Jennifer Boomer
The North American Cordillera mountain chain, which runs from Alaska through Mexico, fractures in southern Arizona, creating an archipelago of mountains known as “sky islands.” These heavenly mountaintop ecosystems vary radically from the desert sea that surrounds them.
“Biologically, it’s amazing,” says my friend Adelheid Fischer, a nature writer and assistant director of the Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University. “You get a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and [the wildlife] all live together in ways that are unusual because they are at this ecological crossroads.”
Fischer, 60, knows about crossroads. In 2005 her husband, ASU design professor Paul Rothstein, died suddenly at age 47. In the weeks that followed, Fischer presided over memorial services for family, students and faculty, but when they ended, she admits she couldn’t decide if she wanted to continue living.
Fischer and Rothstein spent more than 25 years together and, in addition to a happy marriage, they shared a deep love of the natural world. Years ago they discovered the town of Portal in southern Arizona. A popular destination for birders and astronomers, this “Disneyland for biologists,” as Fischer’s heard it described, is also home to the American Museum of Natural History Southwestern Research Station.
“It’s a center of gravity for some profound people and ideas,” Fischer says, and, after Rothstein’s death, she cobbled together the money to buy a double-wide trailer there, but quickly grew unhappy with it. She wanted something smaller and simpler, and with a “greater connection to the land around it.” When she found herself bemoaning this over dinner with her friend Darren Petrucci, an award-winning architect and ASU professor who was close with Rothstein, Petrucci offered to design her a house. But there was a catch: He wouldn’t accept any payment.
“I looked at her and said, ‘Heidi, you don’t need to get [another] double-wide. Let’s design a house for you,’” Petrucci recalls. “As an architect, I can’t let any of my friends buy a double-wide.”
Fischer sold the trailer, bought 4 acres and, together, she and Petrucci conceived the Diapause House, named for a term pertaining to animal dormancy or rest, particularly in adverse conditions. Fischer wanted an affordable place where she could go to write and make a personal investment in a community, where there were people who cared about light pollution and “value the fact that you can see all these stars and really take action to make sure that they keep their lights low or cover their windows.”
The Diapause House sits nestled in the San Simon Valley and is aligned with Cave Creek Canyon on the east side of the Chiricahua Mountains. Its sloped butterfly roof, sage-gray cement board sides, concrete base and floor-to-ceiling windows are unique to the valley, where the houses tend to be a hodgepodge of styles.
Fischer is a stalwart environmentalist, so the house had to be passively heated and cooled — there’s no manufactured heating or air conditioning. In summer, it capitalizes on the Venturi effect, the principle that airflow speeds up as it is constricted. Cool air from the high country flows through the constriction of the canyon into the valley, and Petrucci designed “nostril” windows near the ceiling that speed up airflow even more and clear hot air at night. Floor-to-ceiling windows face northeast and southwest, creating a “screen porch” at the center of the house that allows air to cross-ventilate and sweep heat away.
The house is powered by solar panels that nest on one “wing” of the butterfly roof, and the entire house is powered down when Fischer leaves — entering a resting, or diapause, stage — so it doesn’t draw any electricity while she’s gone. Soon, aluminum “veils” will be installed to cover the windows, allowing them to stay open on warm nights while keeping critters at bay. Perhaps the best part, though, is the cutaway deck in the roof where Fischer can stargaze without having to worry about rattlesnakes around her feet. And she can host dinner parties for up to six people up there as well.
“Whenever you’re trying to make architecture on a low budget, it requires an enormous amount of design work because you can’t afford to have anything that’s excess,” Petrucci says. “You can’t remove anything. If you take the roof deck off you don’t have the carport. If you take the butterfly out you don’t collect the rainwater and the solar doesn’t work. If you take the middle porch piece out, you don’t naturally heat and cool the house.”
“For a naturalist, it’s such incredible, continuous joy,” Fischer says of her life in Portal. “It’s the sense of enlarging how I define my community. For a lot of people, if there are no humanoids around, they’re alone. They feel lonely. But for me, I throw a very wide net around what I consider my community, and it really encompasses nonhumans.”
These days, Fischer spends as much time as possible at the Diapause House and often invites students, researchers and writers to stay with her, pro bono. It’s her way of giving back to the community that has given her so much — that broken place in the mountain chain that gave her a renewed sense of existence after her husband’s death. It is where she convalesced, then chose to build a home, and where she is writing her new book, The Ecology of Grief, a series of literary nonfiction essays examining catastrophic loss and change in natural systems, bringing to mind the timeless Ernest Hemingway quote from The Sun Also Rises: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
“Portal is a challenged landscape,” Fischer says, citing a long history of drought, overgrazing and fire suppression practices that have damaged the land, “but, at the same time, it’s incredibly rich. You can say that’s also true about our broken places. They’re incredibly rich places.”