Saguaro, Free of the Earth – Boyce Upholt | Emergence Magazine

by Boyce Upholt

Photos by Bear Guerra

In this essay from Boyce Upholt, a coalition of Indigenous voices speak on behalf of the rooted beings of the desert as legal protections for the saguaro cactus come up against the push to build a border wall.

The O’odham peoples of the Sonoran Desert have long revered the saguaro cactus as a being with personhood—a belief that is congruous with the recent rights-of-nature movement. As legal protections for the cactus come up against the push to build a wall through Organ Pipe Cactus National Park, Boyce Upholt travels to the US-Mexico border, where a coalition of Indigenous voices are speaking on behalf of the rooted beings of the desert.

“The saguaro can be understood as free of the earth, like human beings…”

—Jane H. Hill and Ofelia Zepeda

IN 1982, A MAN named David Grundman shot a twenty-seven-foot-tall saguaro cactus. His reason remains unarticulated in the Arizona Republic article that recounts the crime, but we know that Grundman managed to get off two blasts from his sixteen-gauge shotgun before the cactus enacted its revenge: twenty-three feet of its central column—thousands of pounds of cactus flesh—fell atop his body. According to witnesses, he had only gotten halfway through the word “timber!” Grundman was dead before authorities arrived on the scene, though he lives on now as the subject of a sardonic country ballad: “Saguaro / A menace to the west,” as the chorus goes.

Shooting is only one of the crimes perpetrated against this species, which can stand as high as fifty feet and weigh up to two tons. The saguaro is such a popular yard ornament that a good specimen can fetch a hundred dollars per foot on the black market. Theft is common enough that the National Park Service has installed microchips in a thousand cacti within the forests it manages outside of Tucson, Arizona. All but invisible, the microchips can be scanned to reveal if a cactus for sale in a plant shop has been taken from federal lands.

All saguaro in Arizona are protected; state law requires a permit before anyone can remove a cactus from the ground. This is, after all, the iconic symbol of the American desert—bent-armed, bright green, familiar from Sunday morning cartoons, and also from Arizona’s license plates, its scenic-highway road signs, plus countless postcards and neon saloon signs. Pottery Barn even sells a plastic saguaro for those who are “dreaming of the desert” but don’t want the hassle of maintaining a plant that might grow taller than their home.

The map of the saguaro’s range—which spans the width of Arizona and plunges south five hundred miles into Mexico—doubles as a rough delineation of the Sonoran Desert. The saguaro has been “a dominant presence” for millions of years in this region, in the words of the National Park Service. The dominant human presence, meanwhile, has been the O’odham—the People—who have wandered and hunted and farmed in this harsh landscape since, in their formulation, time immemorial. “The saguaro has always been a life-saving part of our culture,” Lorraine Eiler, a Hia-Ced O’odham woman and former member of the Tohono O’odham council, recently told me. It provides its fruit for sustenance; its ribs serve as material for constructing tools and houses. The cactus even teaches patience, Eiler noted, since to harvest its fruit is to commit to hard days working under a searing desert sun.

In 1853, in an effort to acquire the terrain most suitable for laying out a railroad, the United States purchased thirty thousand square miles of land from Mexico for $10 million. Thus, at least on paper, an invisible line severed the Sonoran Desert. Over the subsequent centuries, the line has hardened into an increasingly impervious barrier, one that splits O’odham families. Eiler told me that there is an ancient rite of passage in which young men run from their homes in the desert to the Sea of Cortez to collect salt. Today, this can be accomplished only by relay: one set of runners cross the desert in Arizona, stopping at a thirty-foot-tall wall of steel and concrete, where a second set of Mexican runners step in. To build the latest iteration of this barrier—the “big beautiful wall” that Donald Trump promised during his 2016 presidential campaign—contractors set explosives in desert soils where bodies were buried centuries ago. One Tohono O’odham politician has called this a “crime against humanity,” comparable to bombing Arlington Cemetery.

In early October 2019, many news outlets shared a cell phone video depicting the latest desecration: a bulldozer shoved aside a fallen saguaro at the border, on protected public land. The resulting outrage prompted the US Border Patrol to release a statement acknowledging that they were transplanting most cacti and using the bulldozers on specimens deemed unable to survive. Soon afterwards, residents reported that federal contractors were attempting to sell cacti at a market in Ajo, Arizona, a small town a few dozen miles north of the border. This was no small offense, since, as the Tohono O’odham have long understood—and the nation’s legislative council officially affirmed last year—saguaro cacti are people.[…]

Read/Listen: Saguaro, Free of the Earth – Boyce Upholt

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