The desert is forbidding, beautiful and unforgettable. It became burnished in my consciousness sometime in early childhood, and its image is as vivid and familiar to me as the face of my mother. I will be falling asleep, or reading a book, and suddenly the desert will materialize, streaks of white light and bald mountain ranges appearing in the front of my mind, clear as the images on a gas station postcard.
A saguaro at Saguaro National Park in Tucson. Photo: Saguaro National Park/NPS
Perhaps this is not a common experience, or maybe it is. But there’s something to be said for the overwhelming sensory experience of being inside the desert. I don’t mean driving through it – that is another kind of sensory experience – but wandering inside it by foot. The sun is big and hard, the shrubs silvery and tough, the horizon blurs and shimmers. You can practically hear atoms swirling in the air, ants rambling over stone.
In my mind’s eye, the open desert is a place of light and quiet. In the Sonoran Desert, where I live, the desert is also a place filled with symbols. The most famous of them is the Saguaro, whose image has been captured on postal stamps, T-shirts, baseball caps, and just about every object capable of bearing print. Like the Joshua Tree, the Saguaro is short-hand for desert. In movies or cartoons, the characters race through the desert by car, horse or train, and there will be Saguaros rolling by in an eternally-looping background. When I was a kid, this is how long car trips through the desert felt, a looping pan of desert shrubs and mountainscapes.
A rare crested Saguaro. Photo: jdeacon/desbiome
Saguaros aren’t only an emblem of the desert, but the West itself. In the 1940s, Hollywood film crews shooting Western movies on location in Arizona dragged plaster of paris Saguaros into the blushing-red canyons of Sedona and Monument Valley, where Saguaros don’t grow. You can’t have the West without a Saguaro, just like you can’t have New York without the Statue of Liberty, or Empire State Building.
And so, Saguaros show up in all kinds of unlikely movie geographies. In truth, even in Arizona, sometimes they can be hard to find. You have to know where to look: desert bajadas, where armies of Saguaros grow up and down the stony hillsides and mountains. They sprout from suburban lawns, decorating the circular driveways of grand desert manors in north Scottsdale. They stand at the edges of town, their appearance marking the frayed edges of suburbia. Sometimes you will see a group of them stranded in a traffic median, weary survivors of the flattening and paving of the desert. The Saguaros lean there under the ardor of sunlight, chug of car-smog, a sidelong reminder that, oh yes, this is still the desert.
Like the palm tree, the Saguaro suffers at times from cultural overexposure. It is a decoration, a salt shaker, a funny lawn ornament. The Saguaro as a novelty.
Thanks to its humanoid figure, it’s easy to fetishize. Like people, it can wear funny expressions, bear a prickly exterior. Perched from the passenger seat of a speeding automobile, a field of saguaros looks more like a gathering. The Saguaros seem to wave like a strange, jolly army of desert plant-creatures, and it is difficult not to call out to them, snap a picture, or describe them the way one might describe clouds. That one looks like a solider, that one’s a ballerina. Of course, like a human face, each one is strangely particular.
To call the Saguaro the sentinel of the desert is accurate, because a healthy Saguaro can and will outlive you. Saguaros grow very slowly; you plant them for your grandchildren. Fully grown, it can weigh, quite literally, a ton. It will guard over the desert bajadas for 200 years, although no one knows for sure the true age of the oldest trees. I just called the Saguaro a tree. This might seem suspicious to you, because it looks nothing like an Oak or Redwood. But, like an Oak or Redwood, the stately Saguaro (“stately” is a word that pops up a lot when you read about Saguaros) requires you to look up. It suggests the same vein of wonder, and demands admiration.
The West would not be the West without the Saguaro. It is a wonder, and wonders give way to intrigue and curiosity. The Saguaro has softened the hard desert, made it a bit more friendly and wondrous, even a little bit funny. Its arms, lifted, were once a westward-ho beckoning, saying Here you are in the desert, welcome to it.
A saguaro skeleton. Its semi-hard wood is used by some craftspeople to create one-of-a-kind furniture pieces.