Like many people, the saguaro cactus was always the first thing I thought of when I thought about the desert. It’s the epitome of the desert, proud, distinct, and vaguely humanoid. But have you ever thought about the life of a cactus? Go up to a big one around midnight in the desert, and the hair on your arm just might rise a little. They loom there, stark dark silhouettes against a speckled sky, full of silent stories. Consider: for almost a century, it huddled in the shade of an ironwood nurse against the harsh desert summers as it began its life. An inch a year. It began growing arms; it grew into its role as the giver of life in the desert. Quiet centuries are spent keeping sentry over a forbidding landscape, the long shadows of its arms the last to unfold its embrace each sunset. Spend some time walking in the Arizona sun, and you’ll appreciate water. Spend some time walking in the Arizona moonlight, and you’ll understand mysticism.
The creatures that thrive here depend on it, from the woodpeckers and doves, to the bats, javelinas, and coyotes. Its flowers and fruit feed an entire ecosystem. Its growth may be nearly imperceptible, but its fleeting flowering season erupts in a riot of blossoms that each last only 24 hours and crown these majestic giants with creamy little floral hats.
I have been captivated by saguaros as a painting subject for as long as I’ve come to the Sonoran Desert. One of the most enormous ones I’d ever seen lived not far from my RV. A friend with a lot of desert horticultural experience said this big boy (Harry, as I liked to call him) was probably at least 300 years old, judging by the number of arms and height. With the moon rising behind him and the Superstition Mountains looming to the east and dusky in the distance, I took to sitting quietly at sunset and just marveling at the color changes. I began to capture moments with Harry: a black and white sketch, a color study. A landscape began to take place; as an artist who has specialized for years in minute details, the vastness of a landscape was foreign. The desert required me to expand my perception; I went for feeling, rather than exactitude. Harry silently oversaw those first splashes of line and color. One afternoon, I sketched his swirling lines and went inside to start a finished piece. Somewhere around sunset, as light was fading, I stepped outside to check the changing colors. I was puzzled, then alarmed. Harry was gone. I seriously considered that I had had a minor stroke, or that I had accidentally ingested a drug and that I was hallucinating. How in the blue hell does a fifty-foot tall cactus just vanish from the landscape? I pounded up the ladder to the roof of my RV, and my jaw fell. There, lying along the side of Scottsdale Road, were the broken remains of Harry. Had he been hit by a car? I hadn’t heard anything. There was no way any vehicle could have crashed into him without having sustained serious damage. In the dying light, I picked my way through the mesquite and brittle brush to look at the shattered pieces in the arroyo and saw a four foot stump that was swirling with bees.
The next morning, Christine and I puzzled out Harry’s sudden collapse: of the many creatures that find a home in a saguaro cactus, it was the tiniest that led to his fall. Bees had bored into the lower trunk, and over time, it rotted out from the inside. A full grown saguaro like Harry could weigh five tons, and his compromised trunk could stand no more. I had missed his demise by at most an hour.
I like to think that Harry had survived the centuries, grown to be a magnificent cactus, and when someone had at last immortalized him and acknowledged his quiet grandeur, he finally returned to the earth. Noble and enduring, he sustained life for a multitude of species: a mighty saguaro contributes far more to the earth than we do. I was honored to have captured the spirit of this saguaro and bear witness to his last reach towards a sunset. It was good to know you, Harry.