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Saguaro Standing

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The saguaro – standing sentinel and watching over every creature that moved among them – is the symbol of the desert. They are soldiers who have survived all sorts of meteorological battles and even, sometimes, literal wars. They stretched back 150 years, and have seen more time than any human being could see in their lifespan – more sunrises and sunsets, more moons and more stars, more life than we can ever hope to witness. It is a daunting comfort. We were not here first, we would not be here last.

The saguaro is one of the most interesting and notable landscape specimens. They have developed an artillery of weapons in dealing with the harshness of the desert climate. Their tough shell was designed in accordion fashion, slightly pleated so as to allow room for expansion when the ground is soaked with water. They can store the vital substance for months, which is exactly what is needed during the months without rain.

On their outside, there are rows of stiff spines to deter would-be attackers – either animals or humankind. Within, there are stiff ribs to hold them upright and support their immensity, achieved gradually over decades of slow growth. They can soar to over fifty feet and weigh several tons. It’s impossible to translate in pictures or words – it must be seen up close to fully resonate. There, standing next to them, it’s possible to feel the greatness of our natural world. It cannot be replicated, not even in a painting or a book, and there’s something supremely humbling about that. I wanted that from the desert, more than I could have imagined.

Everything about the saguaro is a lesson in life, starting with its slow and monotonous growth rate. In ten years, they may reach a few inches. In thirty years they might be two feet high. There is no rush to get anywhere – they are where they will always be. After a couple of decades, they may deign to bloom in white with creamy centers. The flowers soon shrivel and become seed pods, containing the possibility of thousands of baby saguaro – only a few of which might survive, if they are lucky, if there is rain at all the right times, if there is shelter, if a confluence of events conspire to set a new saguaro on its way. After a few more decades, the saguaro may develop its iconic arm structure, starting out as little bulbous growths that eventually rise and reach toward the sun and sky. It takes time to become a saguaro. They are one of the least-rushed species in the world, and I want them to share their secret.

On all the earth, there is only a relatively small climate area and location in which they can survive. The elevation line of survival on the mountains is distinct – where frosts and freezing temperatures hover, they cannot live. Yet in the right spot, with a bit of sacrificial protection early on in its life, the saguaro lives far longer than any human. (As stalwart and sturdy as they may appear, it’s interesting to note that even the saguaro needs a little help in infancy. They require a protector plant beside them, to shield them from the harshness of the climate and make head-way into the cruel world; as they get older and larger, they will eventually take over the nutrients and water from the surrounding soil, usually killing their childhood caretaker. Some serious circle of life shit.)

They give a little back, too, providing shade for certain creatures, and shelter for various birds who carve out holes in the limbs and nest there. On my brief walks into the desert, when the sun was beating down and I needed a break, I could stand in the shadow of a towering saguaro and find a bit of relief.

The ghostly skeleton of a felled saguaro stares up at me from the ground. An eerie echo of what once stood tall and mighty, only its ribs remain in the vague outline of its branching structure. Once upon a time this saguaro was standing monumentally erect, holding its head high above the desert floor. It could survey the lay of the land and see what might be coming from miles in the distance. Now, its fallen stature was a little sad, apparent only when one looked down and took the time to trace the faded remnants of former glory.

There isn’t much time to mourn such things in the desert, not that it would accomplish anything anyway. Survival depended on letting go and taking care of the pressing issues of the present moment. Another lesson, and a tough one, impressed upon me by the wilderness of this tempestuous landscape.

Other saguaro stand tall amid the wreckage of their ancestors. That’s what a saguaro does. There is nobility here. I am humbled by such grace, and I reach out to carefully feel the skin behind the spines. Each saguaro is different. Each is distinct. Each has its own personality and quirks. I smile at the infinite individuality of the world.

I wonder what early settlers must have thought as they made their way west and first set eyes upon these magnificent beings. Did they encounter them in the dimming of the day, eerily standing in the fading light like an army of stoic soldiers? Did they see them first in the bright relentless sunlight of high noon, beckoning like green aliens, climbing just so far up the surrounding mountains? Then I wonder what the saguaro have seen. So much more…

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