La Otra Arizona: Of Saguaros and Tumbleweeds

Originally published in The Noise, 2012.

In the Sonoran Desert, no calendar is needed to know that May has turned to June, and that we face a long dry stretch before we can count on tasting the delicious monsoon rains. Across central and southern Arizona the season is marked by the blooming of the saguaro cactus, the plants covered with thousands of the white pedals of our state flower. While many other species such as the palo verde tree have already finished flowering and are set on conserving energy during the dry spell, others such as the saguaro and mesquite defy the conditions through intense displays of their libidos. In fact, the mesquite tree is known to bloom even more intensely during years of drought––creating extra seeds in case the adult plants die of thirst.

It is during their bloom that saguaros have the best chance of catching the attention of the jaded urbanites that live in their midst. Despite its willingness to pose for tourist cameras and to be used as the catch-all symbol of Arizona and indeed the entire southwestern United States, carnegiea gigantea is seldom considered by those who live with it everyday in Tucson and Phoenix.

This is the common fate of many plants-turned-symbols of our area. Consider also the tumbleweed, also known as russian thistle. Despite its ubiquitous appearances as an extra in Hollywood Westerns, the origin story and context of salsola tragus itself is rarely told. First a stowaway on ships carrying grain from eurasia, tragus appeared relatively recently on our continent, being first noticed in South Dakota in the 1880’s.

Though linked in our collective imagination, the saguaro and the tumbleweed are fundamentally different plants. Everything about the saguaro speaks to a certain permanence. Fifty-five years passed before the saguaros in the Tucson Mountains bloomed for the first time, and few sprouted arms before the age of 75. The oldest of these cacti are thought to be over 250 years old––though we wouldn’t know, since our number-counting science hasn’t been here that long.

And though there is no example of absolute permanence, the saguaro certainly lives on a timescale that is other than human. It is curious, then, that we so commonly anthropomorphize them, even at the most basic level: we call the stems arms, and the woody inner structure skeletons that are made of ribs. Across Tucson, every December, many cacti are seen wearing Santa Claus hats.

Even our poets frequently examine the saguaro as if it were human. Consider this excerpt from the poem “Saguaro” by Alison Hawthorne Deming:

If it takes you a hundred years to grow your first arm for how long do your feel the sensation of craving something new?

The Tohono O’odham––those humans who have known the saguaro the longest––know the plant as hash’an and also tell a story of its once being human. They hold the plant at the center of their culture, considering a new year to begin with the “Saguaro Harvest Moon” of late June or early July, when they traditionally live in temporary camps in the saguaro forests, gathering the ripened fruit with long poles fashioned from saguaro ribs.

Meanwhile the tumbleweed is a lesson in mobility, impermanence and rootlessness. Often growing two to four feet in a single season, the plants wait until their seeds are fully formed, and then purposely detach from their taproot, allowing the wind to roll their skeletons and distribute their seeds. Thus the plant is known as chamizo volador in Spanish and also as wind witch in English.

As European Americans moved into the Southwest, so did the tumbleweed. The relationship between “development” and the tumbleweed runs deep, since the plant’s seeds require disturbed ground in order to take root. And so they are most commonly seen in agricultural fields and along road shoulders. While the saguaro’s primary enemy today is real estate development, the tumbleweed must rejoice at the rumble of a bulldozer.

The thermometers jump and linger above 105º, the saguaro flowers ripen into fruit, and the tumbleweeds and backhoes roll on––another summer in Arizona. But which Arizona?  The land of tradition and myth symbolized by the saguaro, or the cheap land deals and boom-bust economic cycles where the tumbleweed thrives?

Though often presented side-by-side, these two symbols represent two differing visions for our state’s next 100 years––visions that will continue to be explored in future editions of La Otra Arizona. Until then, watch the blossoms burst and for Salsola Tragus, that

tierra-tragante, disturbante, compadre of dust.
Circle seed-spitter, tumbling thistle.
Salsola, que solo sale, sal sol que le quiere ver.

Stow-away in grain crop seeds.
Unsettling settler, wagon wheel automaton.

Gluttonous globalizer, coat-tailer of developer,
carpetbag colonializer, hugger of highway shoulder.
Plaque of bulldozer teeth, pubes of pavement.

Allergen, argonaut,
continental heir, thorned air,
wind witch, chamizo volador,
terreno violador, conquistador.

Eurasian mar-andante, noxious navigator,
Bering Strait shooter, Russian random thistle,
stock trope exploding across freeway grill.

Wagon trains, steamboats, railroads,
interstates, bus lines, sky harbors.

Telegraph, heliograph, telephone,
radio, broadband, satellite.

Salsola tragus, drifting along,
I know when night has gone
that a new world’s born at dawn.

––excerpted from The Sonoran Strange.

For further reading:

Phillips, Steven J., Wentworth Comus, Patricia, eds. A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press: Tucson. University of California Press: Berkeley. 2000.

Turner, Frederick. Of Chiles, Cacti, and Fighting Cocks: Notes on the American West. Fulcrum Publishing: Golden, Colorado. 1990, 2004.