The Dancers of the Desert

“I don’t suppose that saguaros mean to give comic relief to the otherwise solemn face of the desert, but the do. Standing on friable slopes they are quite persnickety about, saguaros mimic men as the salute, bow, dance, raise arms to wave, and grin with faces carved by woodpeckers. Older plants, having survived against their reaching maturity of sixty million to one, have every right to smile.”   

- William Least Heat Moon describing the saguaro cactus in Blue Highways

Cactus Envy?

Least Heat Moon’s description of the saguaros in his quintessential travel memoir is perhaps the only times his words fall short.

The mighty saguaros, pronounced “si-war-os,” not only dance and wave to tourists, but at heights reaching 50 feet, stand sentry over, the lesser, and seemingly more fragile, cactuses. Even the hearty ironwoods who once nurtured the same saguaros in their shade seem to defer to these aged, graceful dancers.

The odds against a saguaro reaching maturity from seed are nearly sixty-million to one, but, if they beat the odds, they can stand upright for nearly two centuries. When men are entering the winter of their life, the sturdiest saguaro finally begins to sprout arms which provide him even more opportunity to bring life to the desert.

Their high, night-blooming April flowers, which form on the underside of the arms, provide sustenance for insects, birds and especially bats, who rest light upon the sturdy plumage. High-rise hollows bored out by woodpeckers for luxury apartments, once abandoned, are used by elf owls and purple martins. When the saguaro falls, Native Americans used the calloused tissue surrounding the hollows for pouches and water jugs, while the cactus “spines” made durable building materials.

In respect to Mr. Least Heat Moon, words can only describe the saguaros so far, you must see the pictures.