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The Literal Landscape
by Simmons B. Buntin, Editor/Publisher, Terrain.org

Spirit, Fallen

The year 1940 was significant for many reasons: France surrenders to Hitler’s Germany after relentless attacks, Winston Churchill becomes the British prime minister, and the Tripartite pact is signed by Germany, Italy, and Japan.

The year holds significance for the Davis-Monthan Air Field near the small Sonoran city of Tucson, Arizona, as well. The field expands in preparation for the coming war: B-18 Bolos and B-24 Liberators roar into the warm desert air as training grows into a frenzy. The surrounding desert—its creosote-nestled scarps and ironwood-lined arroyos—crackles with the resultant energy.

Saguaros and prickly pear on bajada. Photo courtesy Novak Environmental.On the dry bajadas of the cindered mountains west of the base, however, any idea of war in far-off places is drowned out not by the hum of low-flying bombers, but rather by the buzz of searching tarantula hawks or the quick scuttle of desert hares. And in one nameless and shallow ravine: a stand of saguaros—some towering over thirty feet, more than two-hundred years old—their white and waxy blossoms dropped weeks ago. In their place: the deep fuchsia fruit, its aroma calling Mexican bats and white-winged doves; then falling, splayed, to the rocky desert floor. Game now for javalinas, coyotes, kangaroo rats—and glistening with a thousand minute seeds—the fruit’s brilliance beckons, undeniable in its allure.

After its fill of the delicious fruit, a pack rat darts from saguaro’s long shadow to the sprawling mass of twigs beneath prickly pear. Nearly there, a blurred black shadow eclipses the sun and the rat is snatched, quick-dead, in the bright yellow talons of a Harris’ hawk. The hawk lifts—copper shoulders shining in the sharp morning light—and finds its nest among the highest of the sentinels. There, three soft chicks, gray and gasping for their mother’s catch, wait. Without hesitation the hawk tears her catch into pieces, feeding the chicks in turn. The last bit she saves for herself, then launches into the bright azure sky as the chicks tuck back into the nest, back into the wait.

Days later, as clouds mount the eastern sky, a nautical scarlet light reduces the cliffs across the ravine to a scene of fire, passion. Here, the hawk drops tight pellets that hit the uneven ground and roll into thorny scrub, settling near the base of a palo verde nearly indigo in the coming night.

Some weeks later now, the monsoon rains sweep in from the southeast, their torrents washing the landscape in violent waves. Beneath the palo verde, the pellet dissolves and, overnight, a single tiny saguaro seed takes root—is a spirit born.

Beside the elegantly winding path near our community’s center, a fat, four-foot saguaro grows beneath the filtered shade of a large velvet mesquite. The tree is the saguaro’s “nurse plant,” protecting the young cactus from hot summer days and cold winter nights, as well as the occasional gnawing jackrabbit. I admire these plants—their symbiotic relationship—every time I walk here, which is often.

Today, however, the site saddens me; not because of this particular cactus, but rather because the lone saguaro in our yard, the single sentinel we transplanted over five years ago, has fallen.

It looks like the object of a sudden military attack, but is not. Last night—a windy night when I was restless for no apparent reason—after battling for months with an incurable disease, its interior rotting long before its browning foot showed the slow coming of death, the regal saguaro fell.

Only six months ago it bloomed profusely. Now it seems as if it knew—as if, like agaves that send stalks franticly overloaded with flowers before finding a dry, brown death—it would die. Dozens of thick, cream-colored flowers with their rich yellow centers bloomed last May, each for just one day. My family and I were blessed, we knew, but thought the blessing would return every May, and then follow with the spectacular red fruit of June, the desert’s hottest month.

The task before me this morning is gruesome: weeks now since the eight-foot saguaro fell, it needs to be removed. In a more natural setting, the saguaro would slowly decompose, the remaining green skin wilting to brown and then falling between the wooden ribs that grow vertically within. Though it would no longer host cardinals and hawks, doves and sparrows, the desert’s ground-dwellers would move in: centipedes, millipedes, scorpions, snakes, pack rats, even coatis or ringtails.

In our front yard, however, it is time to sever my own symbiotic relationship with the cactus and start anew—perhaps with another saguaro, but more likely with a palo blanco, a spindly, white-barked acacia with little risk of death by the over-watering that may have, inadvertently, seeded the disease.

The fallen spirit, some sixty-five years old—just a seedling in 1940—is too bulky to move manually, at least in the one remaining piece. So with heavy garden saw in hand, I must slice through the years of its growth so it can be divided. I must slice through the years, starting at the top, at the newest growth.

Sixty-five years is not much in the geologic sense of time, but significant in our still-young American history; significant compared, especially, to the short lives of the plants around it. Saguaros can live to be over two-hundred fifty years old. Dying at sixty-five years is dying young, and that makes me think about my own mortality—about my own life, the short thirty-seven years of it.

I recall them as I sing the many-toothed saw back and forth: back and forth: back and forth through the years of the cactus, to its beginning as a single, black seed shining in the nurturing womb of the scarlet fruit.

Saguaro cross-section after cut.The first cut bites past row upon row of inch-long thorns: gray against the saguaro’s green and pleated skin. Last year—2005—the saguaro grew nearly ten inches higher, even with the wonderful May bloom. Ten inches when, in the wild, saguaros may grow only an inch a year. Our daughters grew too, more in wonder and inventiveness, perhaps, than in inches. Astonished by the summer flowers, they are just as mournful about the cactus’s winter collapse.

As the saw sinks into tough flesh and through the softer tissue of the column’s center, we are in 2004 and down to 2003. That year, a single bloom appears, as if a random act, as if the saguaro isn’t sure it wants to share this treasure. Later that summer, a pair of cactus wrens tries with all its comical might to construct a nest at the very crown of the armless cactus. The windy stretch of summer doesn’t at first perturb them; they simply regather the twigs and grass sheaths and begin twisting them around the top once again. After the fourth attempt is blown away, however, the wrens give up, finding another, less vulnerable base.

It is more and more work to keep the saw’s rhythm, lobbing off the saguaro’s top as we cut into 2002, 2001, and 2000. The turn of the millennium was a big turn in its own life, as well as ours. Salvaged from a sprawling development near the foot of the Tucson Mountains, the cactus is marked with fluorescent paint on its north side as earth-moving machines groan all around. It is fall, dry, and the five-and-a-half-foot saguaro trembles as the spades close around it. Suddenly it is lifted, its roots severed and wrapped in burlap. For days it leans upright against other saguaros, until it is moved and replanted, robed in old carpet to protect thin-gloved Mexican workers.

It is the masterpiece of our new yard, a gift to ourselves we hope to pass onto next generations. Saved, we tell ourselves, from a development in the west, we bring it to Tucson’s southeast, the spirit of our yard, the wise sage garnering our highest respects. It shall grow, we think, to be venerable, to host countless desert creatures. And when it falls, some two-hundred years from now, we all hope to be more enlightened—those of us still here.

That same year, we too were transplanted—from Colorado to Arizona, with a new career and a daughter on the way. For months we leaned upright, it seems, waiting for our house to be built, for the energy-efficient shelter and the indigenous architecture that called us—along with the landscape itself, the rigid cacti and curving Sonoran ridges—to the desert.

Deeper digs the saw, ever closer to the base, and I have to move, step over the fallen body, to gain leverage. Dryness gives way to moisture, for the first time revealing the saguaro’s rotten core, the terminus of the disease. In 1999, Easter Sunday brings over an inch of snow, a white and deceptively insulating cap, as the shallow slope adjacent to the ravine in which the saguaro stands sparkles in the afternoon light finally breaking through the clouds. A thousand miles north, the ground thick with snow, my wife and I contemplate a change, a rebirth of sorts.

From 1993 to 1997, monsoon rains are late and intermittent, the summers scorching—over 115 degrees on the saguaro’s slopes. By 1992 the palo verde shielding the saguaro is lifeless, no longer offering protection. At over fifty years old, the saguaro well tolerates the harsh desert seasons, even as diamondback rattlesnakes find slight shelter in its slim shadow.

In the clear Colorado autumn of 1997, we also welcome the seasons with expected tolerance, and too welcome our first daughter into the world. Unknowing but still vibrant, she finds shelter in our shadows as we find solace in her new life.

Back and forth: back and forth now and into a new section: through 1993—when my wife and I were married—through 1991—when I graduated from college—through 1987—when I graduated from high school and moved away from the subtropical forests of central Florida—through 1982—when my Swedish mother moved my sister and I once again back to Florida—through 1977—when I first saw the foothills and stunningly steep canyons of the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, where we had just moved.

And through these many years the slow and steady cancer of concrete, glass, stucco, and tile creep toward the bajada on which this saguaro grows. Creeping too are invasive non-native plant species: buffelgrass and tamarisk. Along the saguaro’s shallow ravine, disturbed areas caused by foot trails and, farther to the south, a snaking road unwittingly invite the mounding and feathery clumps of buffelgrass. Native to Africa and the Middle East, it is a greedy visitor with no intentions of leaving—out-drinking native shrubs like brittlebush and desert senna. And at the bottom of the ravine, dense tamarisk slowly choke out cottonwood and even mesquite, leaving fewer and fewer bean pods cached so ravenously by kangaroo rats and curved-bill thrashers alike.

The white eye of the sun nears its zenith as I withdraw the heated saw and move again toward the saguaro’s base. Moving backward in time is hard work, recounting the years as I avoid the spines, thin and drying like my own bones on these long days. I push the silver saw once again, though, as it is easier to continue this sad work than to watch the too-slow dismantling and even sadder body, broken and angled awkwardly in the yard.

With each sweep of the toothy blade I peel back a year: 1973—the driest year on recent record, only two inches of rain during the summer monsoon, and the two-foot saguaro becomes so pleated and waterless that it is like a barely living vacuum, sucking in any possible moisture from ground or air. 1970—the year my wife is born: ninety miles north, in Phoenix. 1969—the year I am born: twenty-two-hundred miles east in Miami. 1967—to the east in downtown Tucson, bulldozers raze the city’s core: its irregularly shaped street network and entire neighborhoods of historic adobe homes. Administrators defend their heinous actions in the name of urban renewal, though displace more than a thousand native Tucsonans. The ramifications are felt miles west, on the slope of this very ravine, as land speculators eagerly eye vermillion vistas, delight in new suburbs still decades away. 1964—the wettest year on record, when the ravine brims with flash floods and lightning scars many of the taller saguaros. 1960—when wide swaths of desert in the Catalina foothills are shaved clean and planted green, smooth, and low for new golf courses and a certain boost in Tucson tourism.

Another segment drops from the saguaro. Most of the green, moist cactus is now divided, ready to remove. As we approach 1956, however, the handsaw chinks off the dry and diseased scab of the plant’s base. This was our only indication that the cactus was sick, and it was only a few short months from when we noticed the brown stain inking its way up—in September—until the saguaro succumbed, falling, at the end of December.

Open fruit on the saguaro.At fifteen years old the saguaro is only a foot tall, clothed in the brambly, hanging branches of the palo verde, whose flowers this 1954 spring are golden-yellow and buzzing with pollinating bees. This year the cactus shares the nurse tree with a pack of javelinas, their musk intense and—for a mountain lion trekking the ravine—provocative. They hunch together, stamp and grunt fiercely as they sense their danger. The largest male lowers his large, brown head to reveal sharp and crooked tusks, ready. But the lion is too hungry to fear this display, and rushes madly in, sliding around the three-pronged trunk and swiping wildly at a piglet’s rump. He scores and the young javelina screams as his father hurls himself at the beast. But it is too late, the cougar is too quick: the small javelina is gone, leaving only a lick of blood fanned indecently across the scene.

Half-sawing, half-chopping now through the hardened mass—cracked like washrock, like granite—it is 1950, the year a massive and many-armed saguaro collapses nearby, exploding with sparrows and sphinx moths as it lands with a sudden crash. It is 1947, and the faraway hum of airplanes from the air field has lessened. It is 1943, and the saguaro is but an inch tall, desert ants crawling around and atop in their ever-search for nutrients.

It is 1940, after the monsoon, as September sets in and the nights are longer and cooler. Great hawks ride the currents of the autumn sky, unaware of distant wars. Buzzards drop beneath the scarp, then sail on high once again, safe from raids in the utter darkness of the night. Gila woodpeckers oar sleek-feathered wings through the forest of cacti and trees, nests hidden from spies. And beneath the detritus of shed palo verde leaves, the bleached and empty husks of bean pods: a saguaro seedling waits and grows: is a desert spirit—not yet fallen.

View standing and fallen saguaro images:   
>> Launch Spirit, Fallen gallery now.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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