What the Desert Is Thinking
The saguaros stand up and speak as one about the heat.
They tell the Gila woodpeckers to come in out of the sun.
They tell a man or a woman lost without water
to lie down in the column of shade they make.
The saguaros all hum together like Tibetan or Gregorian monks
one green chord that people hear when they drive
through Gates Pass and come to the place where they gasp.
Beauty does this though the nihilist will make a joke
about the note of surprise that has escaped from some place
in the throat where loneliness waits to be expelled.
The smile from the joke will cover for the smile for togetherness
with the green. That’s okay. Consciousness
is like the saguaro’s decision to wait half a century
before extending arms. Inevitable. No thought.
If it takes you a hundred years
to grow your first arm
for how long do you feel
the sensation of
craving something new?
Did you ever feel impatient
those years after someone
put his shirt over your head
and even with spines
cutting through denim
it took decades to grow
your way out of confinement?
Does it feel like greed or
self-actualization when rain
comes and you suck it up
as fast as you can
even if you starve the mesquite
that sheltered your youth?
Do you ever say to yourself
God it’s too f__in’ hot!
Or after the monsoon,
I feel so bloated.
I’m so-oo parched.
are thrilled to see you
spread out in disarray
like soldiers off-duty forever
in the contemplative desert.
Does anything thrill you?
A mountain lion scratching
its backside on your spines?
Growing taller than your nurse tree?
Flowers erupting from your head?
Your fruit packs seeds
that can move what
you’ve learned from
your one rooted spot
into new places
called the future. Does it feel like
release or satisfaction or nothing
when those time capsules
plummet to the ground?
Voca, the University of Arizona Poetry Center's audiovisual archive, features recordings from the Center's long-running Reading Series and other readings presented under the auspices of the Center. The earliest of these recordings is a Robert Creeley reading from 1963. Voca includes multiple recordings of poets who have read for the Poetry Center numerous times over the years. All recordings are made available with the permission of the reader. Images are from the Center's photographic archives.
Cybele Knowles reads Sacred Datura and Alison Hawthorne Deming reads Saguaro as part of this Voca recording: A Poetic Inventory of Saguaro National Park.
The saguaro lives in lowland desert and foothills up to about forty-five hundred feet.
A long green finger. An old-fashioned telephone pole if the pole were green, had thorns, and were pleated; in cross section, it looks like a multipointed star. If a human with many pleading arms were turned into a cactus, it would be the saguaro. This is what the Tohono O’odham tell us—that humans can be turned into saguaro. Perhaps metaphor is the only way to approach it.
The iconic plant of the Sonoran Desert, the saguaro is a succulent that thinks it’s a tree. Growing up to fifty feet high, it can be as wide as thirty inches and feature many clusters of spines on its arms. These plants can be two centuries old. They can weigh many tons; this is primarily water weight. A shallow root system reaches out up to fifty feet from the plant and absorbs tremendous amounts of moisture in sudden, heavy summer monsoons and longer-lived, gentler winter rains. This adaptive mechanism helps the plant survive extended droughts, but leaves it vulnerable to toppling in high winds. Blossoming in April, at the end of spring, and into early June, during the arid foresummer, a saguaro’s tips will be covered with thick white flowers, many corsages for courting desert pollinators. The flowers open two hours past sunset, and, like a good honky-tonk, stay open all night long and well into the following afternoon, when they close against the heat. The fruits are red and pulpy when ripe and taste like a nutty apple jelly, splitting open to reveal black seeds. You can approximate their age: saguaros don’t grow arms until they are about seventy-five years old or some sixteen feet high. When they are first growing, saguaro “pups” prefer the shade of a “nurse tree” such as a mesquite. Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers excavate holes in saguaros, and a thriving secondhand market for these cavities finds birds such as purple martins, elf owls, and finches nesting in them in subsequent years. More than one desert naturalist has seen a bobcat climb and perch on a saguaro. It is a keystone species of this biome: “Nearly every other organism in its range (including humans) can be ecologically connected to it in some way,” claims A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert.
“Saguaro” by Alison Hawthorne Deming from The Sonoran Desert, A Literary Field Guide edited by Eric Magrane, Christopher Cokinos, and Paul Mirocha. © 2016 the Arizona Board of Regents. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press.