Andrew stops the car and I look out into the wilderness of the desert through the window. The intricate landscape is practically threatening. All the mesmerizing facts I learned about this place prior to arrival had a mysterious spirit within them and as I step out to feel the sun blazing down on my skin, the eeriness becomes striking, almost graceful. The sense of risk gets fused with exquisiteness.
The heat of the Sonoran desert (which includes most of southwest Arizona, the southeast corner of California and much of the northwest of Mexico) hits me like a furnace as I open the door to step outside to walk into this ‘young’ desert – existing for perhaps 10 000 years. Two brief seasons of rainfall help support an immense diversity of life and also allow the infamous Saguoros cactus (only found in this part of the world) to slowly grow from seed, soak up rainwater, visibly expand and hold in the precious water to slowly consume it. Standing outside now, I begin to wonder if the water in my bottle will support me.
Still, I ignore the heat and walk deeper between the cacti which dot the landscape. Some stand as high as 20 meters tall. I remember reading that they may grow their first side arm anywhere from 75-100 years of age and that some never grow one at all. I marvel at these beings; some may already be more than 150 years of age.
“We are here at the perfect time. The white and yellow flowers appear only April through June. Those with flowers are at least 20 years old,” he says.
I hear him opening his water bottle and turn around to see him lifting his hat to wipe the sweat from his brow. “Late bloomers,” he says with a smile.
I smile back. These “late bloomers” appear to have doves and bees as their primary daytime pollinators. Even from a great distance I can see the winged friends flocking on each available flower.
Andrew informs me it’s illegal by state law in Arizona to harm a Saguaro in any manner and that when houses or highways are built, special permits must be obtained to move or destroy any saguaro potentially affected by development. Andrew looks into the distance. I know the desert is a special place for him and that this moment is like a gift to him. It’s his chance to experience the moods and textures of a delicate habitat – where plants and animals relate in ways that make life in this desert possible.
“Let’s get moving. I want to show you the visitor centre, we can learn more there,” he says.
The Saguaro National Park Visitor Centre is an attractive building. With spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and Saguaros visible from its back porch, I take a moment to sip my water and commit the imagery to memory. We walk though a cultural and natural history exhibit and sit down in the auditorium to see a 15 minute film called “Voices of the Desert”, giving a Native American perspective of the Sonoran Desert.
Narrarating the program, we hear the voice of Daniel Preston, Native American cultural consultant for the Tohono O’odham Nation – and while watching the images flicker on the screen, his words echo though my being.
“We, as O’odham people, know that we have to respect this earth that we walk upon because we, as the O’odham people, were made from this earth and when we pass away we go back to the earth. When you understand that your relatives are back into this earth, you understand that the earth is the same as your relative. My father and my mother are back into this earth, so if you throw trash on this earth, you are throwing trash on your relatives, your Hahajuni.”
From the film, I also learn that the O’odham people are taught that the Saguaro was a human being and that God put the Saguaro on the earth in the form of a cactus so that humans can begin to look at themselves and eventually learn to respect themselves. Seconds before the program fades to black, the screen rolls up, the dark room fills with light and the giant window reveals the desert, now no longer a captured image on the screen but rather a real live eco-system inviting us to explore the outside.
It’s dusk now and as I stare at the horizon, suddenly the saguaros begin to look like people. I begin to see beings in different forms, in different shapes, doing different things. I start to see whole families and the words of Daniel Preston echo in my head.
“If you understand that the desert is you and you are the desert, you can only ask yourself how would I want to be treated, so you treat the desert as you would treat any other human – with respect and dignity and care and love.”
The desert can speak to different people in different ways. Strange as it may sound, I encountered the Saguoros as if they were indeed human, as if the life that runs through my heart was not much different to the life that runs through theirs. I was introduced to intricate beings inviting me to meet them on their terms, with patience and imagination – beings who inspired me to discover and delight in the mysteries and revelations of the wilderness, to remind me to do one thing at a time and to do it slowly and deliberately and completely, to do less, to leave space between things, to think about what is really necessary and in turn live and delight in life’s simplicity.
Words: Daréll Lourens