Saguaro in Tucson Mountains

Saguaros: A Family History

By Logan Phillips

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Science Stories: The Art of Scientific Storytelling

Series Introduction by Alison Hawthorne Deming

Science Stories showcases the impressive literary work done by graduate students who participated in the first run of “The Art of Scientific Storytelling,” a new course I taught in Spring 2020 at the University of Arizona. The course, developed in collaboration with my Creative Writing program colleague Christopher Cokinos, was eligible for credit in the new Graduate Certificate in Science Communications offered by the College of Science. Its aim was to inspire creative works that were science-smart, works that might enhance science literacy among readers. The class read contemporary writers who covet the perspectives of science and the personal stories of scientists who write for non-technical audiences. We read memoirs, essays, op-eds, and poetry. We read works inspired by chemistry, astronomy, paleobiology, traditional indigenous knowledge: Primo Levi, Hope Jahren, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Kathleen Jamie, Alan Lightman, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Maggie Nelson, among others. The students came from a range of disciplines including optical science, astronomy, geography, climate adaptation, hydrology, mathematics, speech pathology, and creative writing. The conversations were rich and the talent abundant. They surprised me each week with their inventive and insightful takes on writing assignments. We offer this showcase of our experiment in the meeting of art and science.

   
Bill Phillips came home from war, came west, no idea as to why to Arizona, except a brother had come out before him. In an era of cheap land he bought cheaper land, unirrigated land, above the Highline Canal. Built a house. Opened a corner store. There was no corner, just dirt roads intertwined. Above, skyward crags of South Mountain. Below, the canal: orange orchards, flower fields, roadside flower stands, downtown Phoenix distant. On either side of the house, saguaros. Did Bill choose Arizona for the saguaros or did the saguaros seduce Bill once in Arizona? Bill and Mary had a son, named him William too but not Junior. Everybody called him by his middle name, Timmy.

Tim Phillips came home from war, back to Phoenix. The city had metastasized. Bulldozers grazing free range throughout the desert. On either side of the house, piles of rotting cacti. Dirt lots molting into suburbia. Was it Bill’s idea or Tim’s? To shovel out saguaros, carry them in a red wagon. To place them back into earth, all around the house on South Mountain Avenue. Later later, after the subdivision had emerged with its new skin of stucco, Tim got a job with the Park Service. Grand Canyon. Then Saguaro National Monument in Tucson. Backcountry ranger, he took naps under palo verde. He knew where all the biggest saguaro were, last of the true giants. He visited them. He was told to bisect them with chainsaws when they fell across the road. The Park Service was militarizing then. Tim didn’t want to drive a truck with lights on it, didn’t want to bust hippies for glove boxes stuffed with pot. Tim didn’t want to carry the gun. Tim went for a promotion, didn’t get it. Got a new job at the old Courthouse Museum. So when Tim and Judy had a son, he was born in Tombstone not Tucson. They named the son Logan Timothy.

Logan Phillips never went to war because Tim and Judy worked their whole lives so that he didn’t have to. It was still the era of cheap land, and Logan grew up on two acres in the grasslands below the Huachuca Mountains. Holidays meant the three-hour drive up Interstate 10. Tim Phillips would point out the first saguaro. Davidson Canyon, north side of the freeway, near the Rincons. Then Phoenix, fields of violet, flowers still sold on Baseline Road. The orange trees were worn out, gnarled crowds of blackened skeletons along the canal. Christmas Day, South Mountain Avenue. The saguaros crowded around Bill and Mary’s, taller than the house. Mary, now grandma, was so Irish she managed to grow shamrocks on the east side of the house under the kitchen window. She took little Alison out to cut some for the vase. Bill was so Bill he was an enigma, standing at his tables under huge creosotes. Tin cans of cactus cuttings. Logan running through the saguaro. Logan with the spines in his legs.

Logan watching Bill take to his chair and never getting up again, legs outstretched. Logan reaching out to touch Bill’s body in the casket, ashamed at how his hand recoiled at the cold stiffness. Cleaning out the South Mountain house. Tim worrying the lot of cacti would be sold off to a nursery. Logan driving through the saguaros to Flagstaff. Logan leaving Flagstaff through the saguaros around Sky Harbor International Airport, flying to Mexico City for good, sick of war. Running like the generations before him.

Logan years later, back in Arizona no idea as to why. Heartsickness. Pulling off the freeway, lying under the saguaros among shattered glass. Life broken into shards. The desert. Tucson. Rented room at the back of a little adobe. Smell of cat piss. Building gardens from dirt lots. When Logan and Spring had twin daughters, they named them Isadora and Esmerelda.

Isa Phillips and Esme Phillips still don’t have any idea what war is. Judy, now Gram, comes to visit. Brings them tiny saguaros. Grown from seed. Isa and Esme kneeling with Logan in the garden, planting.

 

 

Logan PhillipsLogan Phillips is a bilingual poet and DJ. He is author of Sonoran Strange (West End Press / University of New Mexico Press, 2015) and has worked on a wide range of performance and education projects in the U.S., Mexico, and beyond. Currently he is a MFA candidate at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he lives with his family. More at his website: www.dirtyverbs.com.

Header photo by Simmons Buntin.

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