My wife and I live on the southwest side of Phoenix in the foothills of the Estrella Mountains. We love living there. It is quiet and dark at night, and we are surrounded by stunning natural beauty. We live just south of the Gila River, in an area that used to part of Mexico before the Gadsden Purchase transferred 29,670 square miles of Mexico to the United States in 1853 (for a payment of $10 million dollars, roughly $270 million dollars today). Most of that land became part of the Arizona Territory and nearly 60 years later, in 1912, Arizona became the last of the lower 48 states to be admitted to the Union – State 48.
We also live in what is called the Sonoran Desert, a unique ecosystem that covers 100,000 square miles of southern Arizona, a small part of southern California, and Sonora and Baja, Mexico. It is a remarkable place with an iconic, ever changing landscape. Principal among the things that make the Sonoran Desert so interesting is the saguaro cactus.
This cactus — pronounced “soh-WAHR-oh” —along with the American bison, has become the symbol of the American west. They grow slowly and they grow tall. They usually sprout arms, and have beautiful, white, trumpet bell shaped flowers in the spring. They live for many decades. And then they die.
Today, my wife and I enjoyed a very nice four mile hike in the desert just a few minutes from our home where we were surrounded by these great cacti. It occurred to me as we were hiking that we got to see saguaro cacti in nearly their whole life cycle. So I took a few photos to share with readers of The Last Trombone.
Like every plant, the saguaro cactus starts out small. This young saguaro, above, is about three feet high. If it sprouts arms, that won’t happen for many years. The growth cycle of the saguaro cactus isn’t fully understood and some saguaros will bud arms when they are about 60 years old while others stay tall and straight with no arms for their whole lives.
Pictured above is a saguaro cactus with three small buds that have just started to grow.
In time, those buds may grow to be very large, like arms, and create the iconic image (above) of a saguaro cactus. Arizona State University’s Alma Mater sings of this:
Where the bold Saguaros raise their arms on high,
Praying strength for brave tomorrows from the Western sky,
Where eternal mountains kneel at sunset’s gate,
Here we hail thee, Alma Mater, Arizona State.
Eventually a saguaro changes as it nears the end of its life. This process may take many years. At first, the cactus will begin losing its needles and outer pulp, exposing the hard, stiff skeleton that brings water up from the ground to the entire cactus. In the photo above, you can see that water in the wash in the foreground — yes, this would be full of raging water when it rains — has eroded the bottom of the cactus and it is from the bottom that these cacti have begun to rot. Two cacti have already fallen, one remains in good condition, and one is showing the evolution of decay.
Eventually the saguaro falls. They usually break near their base and fall to the ground in the same shape in which they were standing, as seen in the photo above.
When the saguaro falls in an orderly way, its “bones” eventually are left exposed on the ground in a straight line.
Sometimes, the saguaro falls in a chaotic way, uprooted by violent wind, with parts scattered around.
Other times, the cactus begins to die from its top and as it sheds its pulp, the bones begin to form beautiful shapes as they are pushed by the wind and their own weight.
On rare occasions, the saguaro falls from its top into an elegant arch. This always reminds me of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the gateway to the west. The beauty of these fallen saguaro arches is really something to behold.
Not all saguaros that fall in the desert decompose and go back to the earth. A few years ago, we purchased these saguaro bones (pictured above) that had been collected by a talented artist who did little more to them than saw the base so they could stand up. These bones — I think they look like organ pipes — stand in our living room. They remind us every day of the beauty and ever changing nature of God’s creation that is around us in this special place, the Sonoran Desert.
Photo in the header of this article: Estrella Mountains, Arizona.
Photo at the end of this article: Sign at Hermit’s Rest, Grand Canyon National Park:
O Lord, how manifold are thy works!
In wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of Thy riches.
And below, a prayer:
Father almighty, wonderful Lord, Wondrous Creator, be ever adored;
Wonders of nature sing praises to You, Wonder of wonders –
I may praise, too!