Photo by Michael Wilson
Tucsonans share their personal connections to the Saguaro
When I first moved to Tucson the first thing I noticed were the saguaros. It seemed like they were everywhere—in parks and yards, but also as logos, on stickers, and home decor! It was immediately clear to me that the saguaro is an important plant not only in the environment, but also as a source of pride to many people who live in Tucson. To highlight this joy, we have selected a few stories written by Tucsonans about the connections they have made with this iconic plant.
-Aya Pickett, Tucson Audubon Restoration project Manager
The saguaro: it’s the classic cactus. The prototypical poke plant. It’s what people around the world think of when they hear the word cactus. Green, tall, and with precisely two arms. One perhaps a little higher than the other, perhaps a little longer. You’ve seen it; drawn up as a cartoon, molded into a figurine, painted on postcards and pottery. One thing you realize when you move to the Sonoran Desert, though, is that most saguaros don’t look quite like that. Their arms aren’t always raised to the sky, aren’t always long and graceful. Maybe they have no arms, or maybe they have twenty. If they’re lucky, they might have a crown of flowers. When I moved to Arizona as a child, my siblings and I would play a game: find the perfect saguaro. That perfect saguaro with precisely two arms, one perhaps a little higher than the other, or a bit longer. We looked for that cactus for months. When we found the perfect saguaro, it was indeed a cause for celebration. I still remember it, standing tall over an urban Phoenix intersection. Maybe it’s just the same. Maybe people still see it and exclaim: “look—a perfect saguaro!”
The Saguaro They call you the people, spirits of ancestors standing as sentinels over this parched kingdom of sand and stone. Like ancient columns of Athens, a wisdom weathered and solid. So many are elders, born after Kino and de Anza and before Geronimo and Cochise. Two hundred years or more your thorny head crowned through a gravelly birth in the protective shadow of a wetnurse mesquite. Proudly like great sculpted arms of a sleeping giant you burst through from the grave, fingers spreading on hands clawing for the sun’s warmth and grasping for the monsoon’s thirst quenching rain. In spring lily-white morning blossoms soften your crown of thorns, in summer sweet fruits feed those winged tenants of your towering temple-the wren, woodpecker and owl. When your web of roots no longer provides nourishment and the heat and wind peel away your skin, exposing woody ribs, a quiet changing of the guard takes place—you fall out of ranks, back to the earth, and the next sentinel breaches through.
-Michael Edward Dunlavey
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a saguaro. They began dotting the rocky hills beyond my car’s windshield. Appearing and receding like a visual Doppler effect. Standing solemnly and sharing their prickly sense of humor with the surrounding desert. I didn’t know whether I should laugh or slam on the brakes, get out of the car, and drop to my knees in stunned reverence. Not being the prayerful sort, I gaped in wonder as I drove and waxed poetic, longing to get the inside joke:
Saguaro standing on the hill
Oversee us beyond our own limited inhalations Inform us of the serious comedy
Of scorched desert life.
My poem couldn’t help but turn into a prayer of sorts. The saguaro compelled me to chortle, yet they stood stately, regal, and knowing. Was my laughter born of the realization that I shared their depth and understanding? Was I tickled by our rooted connection to the lives we all share? My curious gaze followed curve and arm. Highlighted by setting sunset refractions through needlework corona, the beauty bore no judgment. The saguaro stretched into the sunset as the road unfolded before me. I had found home.
Our Rancho had many cholla cactus & saguaros on 160 acres. The ranch was founded in 1857 by my great-great grandfather Ramon Macias. As a young girl I traveled the footprints of his and my great grandfather Francisco. Early on his son Manuel my grandfather would tell me stories about life around the area. Two saguaros dear to me were on the north and south boundaries of the land where family members built homes. They stood tall and fat for over 100 years. One was a sentry on my Tia Carolina’s property and the other on grandfather’s land. They both started to change when each passed away. Grandfather first and Tia 20 years later. It made me sad to see the mighty saguaros going through the aging process. Yet it also gave me insight to think about my familia who had the pleasure of generations watching what each cactus brought daily. A variety of birds making nests, owls using the arms as lookout posts, and each year the magnificent flowers and fruit which great-grandmother would harvest for jam and side dishes.
MORE SAGUARO INFO
Learn more at tucsonaudubon.org/saguaro, including:
- Sponsor a Saguaro Hotel – Your support will help keep old-growth saguaros safe and open for bird business
- Adopt a Seedling – Create a fundraising page to adopt a saguaro seedling
- Volunteer Opportunities – Plant saguaros!
Save Our Saguaros Month: February. desertmuseum.org/buffelgrass
Running through the Desert on a starry night,
Running from the pain that tends to weigh me down.
Crying tears that heal a weary broken heart,
Finding home is hard when the river is dry.
But you guide me through the night with your arms held high,
Your presence makes my life make sense. I let go of pride.
You are the breath of fresh air,
My soul needed to thrive.
My volunteering with Tucson Audubon took me to the Mason Center in the early 2000s, training volunteers to lead groups on the desert trails. One day we noticed tiny arms emerging from a saguaro alongside the trail. I snapped a photo and one of the trainees said, somewhat jokingly, “You should come back every year and take a photo.” This was midmorning in November 2006, and every year since I return at the same time, walk the trail to my old friend and take one more photo. What a surprise to see how quickly the arms grew those first years and note how the main stem inches its way upward. It has now been seventeen years and I feel a close kinship with this saguaro. Each November it’s a special day as I trek out to the Mason Center and visit my buddy, still standing tall along the trail, take a few minutes to visit with it, snap my photo, and add it to my Saguaro Growth chart which I post on Facebook and Flickr each year and use in my “Life of a Saguaro” program I present to groups. Folks now look forward to the annual addition to the chart to see the progress. What a fun and enlightening project this has been.
The saguaro’s spines are not a defense, but an advertisement. We had moved into an old West University house—creaky floors, faded wallpaper, all the usual complications of an annual lease and swamp cooler. In the backyard was a saguaro. “There’s a bird living in it,” she said. She leaned against me and we looked up. Forty feet high, a circle was gouged into the saguaro’s pulp. Spines lined either side like battlements, protecting the wrens flitting about its several spiky arms raised in obscure vegetable triumph. The wrens came for the protection offered by the spines and in return they spread the saguaro’s seeds and ate the insects that threatened it. This arrangement had existed for hundreds of years. We moved in together because it felt grown-up and exciting, the next chapter of our lives begun, and besides that just the practical thing to do after dating someone for a certain length of time. The moment passed and she broke away to the UHaul. I watched the birds spar and dip among the arms for a moment more. A desert fortress bristling with defenses, alone in inhospitable terrain, sending one message from heat-flattened summer to water-whelped monsoon to cold winter night: Come to me as you are. Take me as I am, and build your home in my heart. “Am I going to unload this entire truck myself?” she yelled from inside. We had a good time, but I never quite realized that about her.
Back in the 60’s, my parents discovered a small, volunteer saguaro on their midtown property. Excitedly, they took pictures of it next to a yardstick—I still have that photo. Now, 50 years later, this beautiful thing stands proudly, lifting its 6 arms high, as if in benediction to the shrinking desert around it. Birds make it their home, and people stop and admire its solitary majesty.
-Karen A Matsushino
Slow, Slow Saguaro
I wave at the sunset with one arm held high. Standing on top of a mountain, I am a silhouette in the distance. Prickly sometimes, I accept myself as such. I need very little to be happy. Patience, I think. The sun will rise again and again. I’ll take the light in as I wait and wonder. Tomorrow, or when? When will I bloom? It may be a while. It may be soon. I’ll take my time–as much time as I need. Like a slow, slow saguaro, I am content here.
We had a beautiful cristate saguaro on our property that was surrounded by a mesquite tree and another saguaro that was not a cristate. A number of years ago the Tucson Hiking Club had a talk on cristates around AZ with pictures. The speaker came out to our house and photographed that cristate and added it to his list. Two years later, in the summer when we were at our summer residence in the southern part of the state, something happened to that cristate. It just disintegrated within about a month and became a heap of black decaying smelly goo. The ribs stood but they are now fallen. We were devastated and still do not know how this could have happened so fast because it was not in any way apparently diseased before this short span of time in which it died.
I do not recall how we discovered Tucson. It was about 5 years ago and happened, perhaps, heading east from Southern California. Although from New Mexico, my husband and I have lived in London, England for most of the last 45 years. London is our home. After retirement we decided to explore the world and started with the Southwest USA. We have not ventured further! Something calls us back every year. With family and friends in New Mexico, we annually find ourselves driving west on Interstate 10, making yet another pilgrimage to Tucson. Landmarks are now familiar: a cafe in Truth or Consequences, a gas station in Deming, the salt flats west of Lordsburg, Willcox’s espresso bar, “The Thing” billboards, the Texas Canyon Rest Area. As we approach Benson we look north, up every canyon and wash which I 10 crosses. In one of these depressions stands a lone saguaro cactus, its arms striking the classic pose. This solitary, majestic, columnar cactus is our “portal” to another month of exploring the Tucson area. Saguaros have featured so prominently: visiting the National Parks, watching cavity nesting birds, spotting the rare crested specimen, learning about the its importance to the indigenous peoples of the area. However, it is that solo specimen along Interstate 10 that give us the most joy. It ushers in a world of possibilities and adventures.
-Nancy Bilderbeck, London, England / New Mexico / Tucson
Many say that saguaros are the souls of our ancestors. And I have respected them like so. My husband and I built a house on 3 acres of our own desert oasis. We have approximately 100 saguaros, and they remain my favorite part our land. They’re a constant reminder to remain strong throughout life, all while remembering those left behind. While enduring the death of my mother at 19, saguaros always bring me peace, and strength in my own journey.
The little green sentries stood guard in the pale light of the dawn, waving up at me as I felt our plane descend closer to the dusty earth I’d only stood on once before. Small, alien things from above, I only fully took them in upon exiting the airport. Their presence hit me at the same time as the dry heat of the desert. I drug my bag behind me as I eyed the cacti, still numb to the shift of moving from New York. I watched them pass by the taxi window, standing tall among the mountains and the homes of the city. An ever present reminder of the Sonoran Desert scored by the hum of cicadas–a sound of home. I paid the driver and trudged along the driveway of my new apartment, suddenly coming face to face with another saguaro as I rounded the side of the home. I craned my head upwards, slowly finding the top of its body and meeting its many arms. Arms that represented decades of survival, not just in the desert, but of urbanization. A small family of woodpeckers greeted me. New neighbors with kind words in a strange land.
Saguaros Okay. Saguaros are really nice, really smooth – through the glochids
The green, reminds me of grass, leaves
They smell like saguaro fruit – when they’re open of course
Seeds. There really are so many. Just like a strawberry when I tasted it
It’s a dream, they are so gentle. They are plants and they don’t even hurt us
I hope they like their families of other saguaros
They’re standing tall. Their roots growing down low. Sometimes, monsoon rains
They drink all the water. Sometimes too much, and they fall over
Fall over. Fall over.
But. Then they grow back.
Softness. The softness.
And they’re taller than our roof.
When I am with them all, I feel love. Just love. And cozy. And happy.
They keep me safe, and I keep them safe.
Squirrels, rabbits, me, dogs. White-winged Doves. A whole family. It lives forever.
And we love everything.
LIFE OF HA:SAÑ, THE GIANT SAGUARO CACTUS (Carnegia gigantea) Ha:Sañ (Tohono O’odham) | a’a (Mojave, Quechan) | PPa (Yavapai) | PaPa (Cocopah) | ‘a (Maricopa) | naanolzeegé (Apache) | Mojepe (Comcaac/Seri) | Saguo (Opata, Mayo) | Saugo (Yaqui)
For thousands of generations On their ancestral land, Desert People observed everything that lives and grows among the rocks and sand. Like their cousins – in our nation’s heart, The People look forward seven generations – Lifespan of Ha:Sañ, the ancient ones, Person-like trees of the Sonoran Desert, Living spirits, at the feet of whom, The maternal organ, Indigenous mothers would bury, Sacred to the Hohokam, O’odham, Sobaipuri, Apache, Yaqui, and the Seri. We begin our timeless story In the Month of the Ripening Moon, Of marriage, fertility, and hormonal rage, When Saguaro’s reproductive organs take the stage. Every rippled tower carries white and yellow funnel flowers Like ceramic vases twirled high into the air, Balanced by a street performer Standing on a tilted chair. Every blossom is a nectarivore’s white napkin, It’s golden sun-like center an irresistible invitation, Providing a sugary snack in exchange for gamete transportation. Pollinators include diverse species of desert bees, Hummingbirds, orioles, and tits at that, But largest of all is the long nose bat! A female fertilizer that fitly flits about, Floating from column to column, Stalking silently through the night, Moonlight glinting off her fangs like twin blades, She is a Samurai assassin taking flight! Sonic senses and sensitive whiskers Guide her delicate lips as she dips, Into the fertile flower, her life-giving prize. Her long, nectar-loving tongue probes deep into the cone, Without her buffed-up breast, This August plant would die alone. Caesar’s month brings white winged doves, That flock from further South in great migration, Thirty and seven days after the blissful bloom, The blossom’s base turns to fruit, In late summer’s scorching station. Through thick-skinned, bursting pods, A dark-magenta pulp passionately bleeds, But more nutritious to the doves, Are, in each one, two thousand tiny seeds! Cooperating and cooing, The desert damsels dine. But their gizzards are as merciless As their blue-ringed, beady eyes, And when they pass each seed, it dies. The seed dispersers are instead The desert kangaroo rats, Bouncing along on whip-like tails, Sharing fallen cactus pears With ringtails, ants, wasps, and little snails. Coyotes too join in on the feast, And many another bird and beast. Blood-beaked finches, cooperating ants, Cautious quails, and tortoises too, Spiny lizards, Gila monsters. And other desert folk with scales. Having each had their fill of freshly fallen fruit, The roaming residents will relinquish the germ nearby. Some on a southern slope In the shade of a hardy, native tree, Perhaps a yellow flowered paloverde, Or a purple blossomed ironwood, Or a deeply rooted mesquite, With a prickly pear or chain-fruit-cholla Nestled snuggly at its feet. To protect the nascent cactus, The nurse tree takes great pains, While she eagerly awaits the summer’s monsoon rains. And amidst the rich decay and perched birds’ droppings, In the micro-climate fostered by her arms, The tiny obsidian seed is sheltered From the frost and more of life’s immediate harms. Sky Father patiently watches for the first signals of life, Maintaining a somber sense of reservation, For only one percent of seeds will live to see germination. Then, sending a single tap root down to quench its thirst. From the dry desert soil a saguaro will burst, Growing quickly at first, then unhurriedly, Like a young man still reveling in his youth. When Ha:Sañ is a little taller than the average man, Mistletoe and old age will overcome his doting nurse, And as Saguaro steals her water, her love becomes her curse. His woody beams give rise, like rings of rebar Giving structure to biological cement, Then base roots sprawl so he can reach up to the sky, Undaunted and unbent. Grey spines guard his crown, while desert-encrusting termites nurture the soil at his base, And upward, ever upward shines his spiral face, As if he is trying to touch the very circle of the sun. Nearly a century must pass Before Saguaro can grow an arm, And it will be on centenarian limbs, That a red tail hawk will one day roost, And at dusk’s behest, A majestic great-horned owl Will stop to rest High atop Saguaro’s outstretched arms, Which will grow ever longer, ever more A caracara, a bald eagle, or an osprey, Perchance even a brave bobcat, May stop above the desert floor. And in Ha:Sañ’s ribs, a Gila woodpecker Will peck out a boot – her perfect nest, And by the time the Nawait (saguaro fruit wine) Has been fermented, and every drop has been drunk, Saguaro will have many mouths and eyes along his trunk, Myriad homes will be these varied holes, For pygmy elf owls, cactus wrens, Purple martins, thrashers, gnatcatchers, orioles, Centipedes, spiders, scorpions, Beetles, packrats, and voles. And by the time my future grandson’s hair turns grey And two hundred ju:kı̂ (monsoon rains) have fallen, An apartment building will have been raised, From just a single grain of pollen.
From the eyes of the saguaro:
Head. Two young boys yearning for manhood run past, Their freedom leaving me in awe.
One Arm. A cowboy shot his lover, A ringing that scared the rain for days. Fruit. Animals crowd around me, Waiting for any sudden movements.
A Woodpecker Hole. Night falls, the moon reflecting off a stone, Enough to blind any, from birdwatchers to conquistadors. The stone is riddled with holes some credit to erosion.
Only I know. I know young women walked down giggling about womanhood, Crushing acorns from the not so distant woods.
Crown. A royal crest forms upon me. As vehicles drive, crash, and skid by, I know, that the sticks are bones, the holes a product of culture, And that manhood and womanhood are what children dream of.
Arizona is known for its notoriously hot summers and its raging monsoons. Almost every drop of rain is absorbed by plants nearby. Cacti especially take advantage of the amounts of water spewing during the rainiest months of the year. The leftover water becomes the next living things water source. Animals and insects benefit from monsoon season since the amount of water that is left over is abundant but unfortunately not for long. The Arizona heat drys everything up and quite quickly. Temperatures usually reach high nineties in the summer. We are heading towards reaching record breaking numbers within the next upcoming years. Temperatures are rising and wildlife is getting impacted the most. Truth be said I think everyone suffers from the az heat. Although We are fortunate to have a stable supply of running water. Wild Animals have to fend for themselves and constantly look for water. Thankfully we have are saguaros to help those little critters who struggle a little bit more than others. Saguaros absorb as much water as possible. Their root system allows them to hold water and they use that to hydrate themselves for however long they possibly can. These cacti are the main reason a lot of our desert friends are still around. Saguaros help those in need and seeking for help with open arms.
– Yuli Ramos
I recall when a saguaro surprised me – I had just moved into a new neighborhood with a really nice walking path and was enjoying a morning walk one day in the fall. Doing some birdwatching, I saw all kinds of new friends in the palo verdes, bushes and mesquites but when I saw the saguaro, I had to look twice. In the crook of an arm was a little prickly pear cactus! I’d never seen such a thing before and figured one of the many birds I’d seen making homes nearby must’ve dropped the seed that would become that sneaky little guy one day. Now I check on him every walk and even saw him flower once.
– Andrew Sievert
In the Embrace of a Saguaro
After a monsoon storm in late July, I was walking my street in Marana (Gladden Farms Community). I always check the lone saguaro on my street in hopes of finding a woodpecker or cactus wren peeking out of holes in its top section. I never thought there would be a nest in the crux of its arms. Noticing twigs in disarray, I looked closer and a bird hopping in the saguaro’s midsection. It was the bird’s head that intrigued me. A roadrunner was nearby, skimming the cinderblock fence with a lizard in its beak. I rushed home to grab my 35mm camera with its 300 mm lens and captured the head of the bird peeking out. I enlarged the photo and detected a roadrunner! The distinctive eye pattern and feathering confirmed it. I showed the image to Luke Safford from Tucson Audubon during the weekend of the Birding Festival. He thought it could be a baby roadrunner. Imagine! In the arms of a spiny saguaro, a place of rest for a fledgling.
– Paula Palotay
“The significance of the saguaro is that, in our songs, our ceremonies and our stories, the saguaros, we consider them people. We believe that they are our ancestors, so they are pretty much like our brothers and sisters”
— Tanisha Tucker.
I have lived in Arizona my entire life and even though my ancestors came from Europe and I grew up in a sterile, suburban concrete hellscape, I came to revere the Saguaro and the Sonoran desert. There is a deep and crushing feeling in my soul when I see our desert lands being cleared for development. It becomes more bearable to me if I take action and this is why I joined the cactus rescue crew within the Tucson Cactus and Succulent society. We go to development sites and rescue as many plants as we can. One day, I rescued two Saguaros and replanted them at my mother’s home. I later asked an expert — what can I do to ensure these plants survive? “They live slowly and they die slowly,” he said. “You may not know any time soon.” Months later, my heart sang months after a monsoon rain. The Saguaros I had rescued looked ever so slightly different — they were growing! They had survived.
– Michael Hailey
I repositioned my body, which was still adjusting to the heat, as we rounded a curve on the SR 69, some odd miles south of Prescott Valley. All of the windows in my car were nearly halfway down. I greatly enjoyed the circulating warm March air of the low desert. Coming from Kentucky, it was a sharp and pleasant contrast as it had been snowing when my fiancé and I had left home. As my eyes adjusted to the bright desert sun, beside the road I had seen something I hadn’t seen anywhere before. I could tell it likely was a cactus of some kind, but that was all I could assess. Even that much was only because my grandma had always kept cacti in her home, which according to her was to ward off sickness. But this one was something special. It was massive. Its bent horseshoe-like arms emerging from its stout, thick body looked like the plant was waving proudly at passersby. It was a joyous site and somehow seeing it made me feel welcomed here. I asked my fiancé, who grew up in Phoenix, what kind of cactus it was. She answered that it was a saguaro cactus and then told me that they were very special in Arizona. She said that they could live to be quite old and that they were a protected species. It was truly beautiful, and I grew to appreciate them more the longer I lived in the state.
A couple of months later, after coming home from work I couldn’t help but overhear an evening news story on television about potential water shortages in the area. Due to the massive influx of people to the valley, coupled with a severe drought that had run for several years at that time. Because of these factors, the water sources for Phoenix residents were the lowest they had been per the news broadcaster. Soon after, I began paying attention to the poor air quality notices on the radio and how often they would occur in the metro areas of Arizona due to the amount of vehicular and other emissions. Although unintentional, I couldn’t help but feel saddened and even guilty because of the damage we humans had caused to the environment. Just a couple of days later, I had seen a social media post about a driver in Tucson who had wrecked his car into a quite large saguaro cactus. The driver was unhurt, and I was grateful for that. But seeing the beautiful cactus broken in half from the impact, with its upper body protruding through the windshield, affected me deeply. Based on its size and from what I had read on the national park service website, I estimated it to be around 70 to 80 years old. Although I wasn’t personally responsible, I felt more remorse than I ever had in my life as I looked at the marvel of nature pointlessly damaged beyond repair. Afterward, to help appease my sadness, I began contributing to saguaro cactus preservation organizations. In fact, I recently read on AZ Central that there is a nonprofit organization that is working to plant 14,000 saguaro cacti in previously burned areas. An excellent way to help ensure there are more friendly yet spiny waving arms for decades to come.
– Richard C. Caudill
“Can I have your saguaro?”, our neighbor asked. My mother was surprised. Roy was pointing to the tall skeleton, still standing on our land, near the mesquite trees, its woody ribs bleached by desert summers. Decayed, yet determined– two arms splayed, like a secular cross. We hadn’t had much contact with Roy, who often showed up to neighborhood watch meetings with his shirt mostly unbuttoned, to show off his physique. Some of the other residents on Placita La Zarca had secretly nicknamed him “Nipples.” But, his request for the cactus seemed genuine. My mother easily agreed to the transfer. Instead of selling this sought-after giant, Roy recognized its beauty and displayed it as a work of art in his front yard. This prominent sculpture greets all who pass by. As a thank-you, Roy replaced our cactus with a live one– green, covered in white spines, no more than two feet tall. My mother planted it at the top of her driveway. Now the two saguaros face each other–bones vs. blooms. The history of the Tucson mountains resting and residing within them.
– Clare Cox
It’s a beautiful morning in Tucson. The kind of mid-November morning when your drive starts with the heater on high and ends with the window cracked open. There is a distant warmth in the sun and a crisp chill in the air. The sky is stone blue and the mountains look like they’re wearing an Instagram filter. Mornings like this are why I live in Tucson. On this particular morning as I head East on Grant Road and watch the city wake up, I’m thinking of Sara. And I’m thinking of Stan. Sara is a dear friend who I’ve known and loved since middle school. Stan is a cactus. Sara moved to Tucson temporarily a few years ago. Life had dealt her the kind of hand that is hard for a best friend to stomach. Loss and grief of the kind unexpected in one’s early twenties started there and followed her into her thirties. Sara had had a rough decade, to put it kindly. As a friend this was heart wrenching. It’s hard to know what to do when there’s only so much you can do. It’s even harder when you live thousands of miles apart. So, after years of flights, long emails, and care packages, it seemed like the right time for Sara to spend some time in my city. A place I learned firsthand was a safe space to pause, pivot, and, hopefully for Sara, to heal. Prior to her arrival, we agreed that it was a good idea for her to find her own friends without my influence to build the kind of community that Tucson is known for in a way that felt intentional and authentic to her. Of course, she would meet my friends, coworkers, and yoga community, but she’d also carve her own path. So, I was delighted to hear about new people she was meeting and friendships she was cultivating. What I wasn’t prepared for was Stan. In the pre-move research, Sara found a nice apartment near Sabino Canyon. It didn’t take her long to meander over to this local treasure and fall in love. As she settled into her Tucson routines, morning walks in Sabino became a non-negotiable. I’d wake up to wildlife photos and excited texts about roadrunners and tarantulas. The whimsy and wonder of the desert had a found a new admirer. And whimsy and wonder found a familiar home in someone who was ready to welcome them back to her. I met Sara in sixth grade band and knew she was cool when I heard her repeating the strange sounding Latin words printed among our music notes. But it wasn’t until middle school when I realized I had found one of my people. In biology, we joked about bizarre creatures like wombats and platypods. In health class, we’d fixate on words with unexpected spelling that stick in your head like “amoeba” and “chancre.” In Spanish 101, we were tasked with writing an essay about someone we admired. I don’t remember who I chose, but Sara wrote a beautifully detailed piece on one Desmond Jordan Van Rueden Heimer [last name redacted]. Also known as DJ. He was her cat. And he was a lawyer. It’s a rare and liberating feeling to meet someone who is your same brand of weird. When Sara and I first become friends, life was goofy details and limitless potential. We spoke a language unique to us and funny to approximately no one else. We fantasized about where we’d be at the age we are now and everything that life had to offer us. We were inventive, joyful, and as silly as they come. We were also 13. Life happened and somewhere along the way, the eccentricities of the world became muted by bigger deeper things. But here in the desert, there was space to open your heart back up to the weird and the wondrous. Which is why when Sara met Stan, the stars were aligned for a new friendship to bloom. It started with one of those photos from her morning walks. “Meet Stan,” it read under a photo of a massive saguaro. Not long after, I accompanied Sara on one of her walks where she pointed him out in the middle of her loop. He was big and easy to spot. Rooted firmly on a corner, he towered over his nursery plants, arms looping in every which way. Like Sara, he was taller than most and held the knowing beauty of wisdom and experience. “I feel like he’s seen some shit,” said Sara as I snapped a few photos. And so it was, every morning, Sara would set out to see Stan and regard him with the familiarity and appreciation one extends to a community member or relative helping them through a season of life. And while he was neither of those things, because he was a cactus, he was able to offer Sara things that she was ready to get back to- comfort, stability, routine, ease, and the courage and inspiration to find the creative, playful spirit she had stored away neatly somewhere on a shelf within her. Eventually, Sara found everything she needed in her time in the desert and moved on. She is now living in another country where, ironically, she actually can see wombats and platypods. Since her time spent in Tucson, Sara has acquired a husband, a new career, and a tattoo of, you guessed it— Stan. In the end, I think I needed Stan as much as Sara did. In Stan, I learned how to be a better friend. Sometimes, all you need to do to be a friend is to be there. Give them space to feel their feelings. Reflect what resilience looks like. Remind them that growth doesn’t have to be fast or linear, and yet it is still beautiful. I reach my destination, park the car, and roll up my window. As I look out at the desert before me, I text Sara, “It’s a beautiful morning in Tucson. Stan says hi.”
– Britt Nigon
Early, I sit on this cliff
The Sonoran Desert is all I see
Dawn, over the horizon the sun peeks at me
A forest of colossal green sentinels completes my view
Saguaro stories as old as time fill the air
I listen as one ancient tale is told with no words
A Gila woodpecker with its bright red cap
Glides in from the distance landing on a gargantuan arm
Belonging to a prideful saguaro nearby
We lock eyes, then gaze upon the land that we share
A hungry redtail swiftly darts in from the south
My red capped friend leaps into a hole
Lost in the 18 arms of its protector
The hawk misses its sparkling opportunity
Clipping its wing on the sword-like spines wielded by the large cactus
The threat gone, my friend pokes his head out
A family of chirps cheer behind him
The plant offers its fruit to the bird and his family
He accepts the love taking a piece and returning home to the loving arms of his guardian
Strong, wise, dangerous, beautiful
A tale as old as time I am the woodpecker
My mother the saguaro.
– Isaac Silva
Queen of the desert lands, your bones are showing. Light weaves through your ribs, patterning the sand in desert mosaic, as your little girl sahuaro arms splinter towards equinox. You’re the friend of birds, bearing gifts of sweet fruit, fleshy homes, and respite from heat. I stand in your shadow, momentarily seeking solace in the inky depths of your silent stature. My fingers smooth across your hardened cylindrical frame, searching divets of weathered skeleton, touching the many stories of your rising. I thank all of the moments that have aided you in growing to such great height. As “nonsoons,” buffelgrass kindling, and climate change threaten more of your kin, I pray for your resiliency; for the rain to swell your sister’s ribs into longstanding fullness. My love humbly offered on O’odham Jeweḍ & Akimel O’odham lands.
– Susan Wepking
The beat up, old, car makes a dusty trek up the mountainside. It is late September and we are racing the clock to look at the sunset. We make it to the peak of the mountain just in time. The sun is slowly descending behind the indigo mountains on the other side of the valley. We are surrounded by a sea of saguaros. Some of them with no arms, some with several. They are all different. Although we see them everyday, we are amazed as some of them tower above us with their colossal stature. As the sun continues to sink into the depth of the horizon, the sea of saguaros cast a shadow behind them in sync as if they are doing a dance. Two mockingbirds perch upon a saguaro gazing at the warm, orange sherbert colored sky. As the last sliver of the golden saucer dips below the eyeline, the deep purple sky of the east becomes sprinkled with stars. As the sky grows darker, the once golden saguaros turn into towering phantoms of the desert only lit by the celestial bodies in the sky.
– Mikki Larese