The Giant Saguaro Cactus
(Carnegia gigantea) (Ha:Sañ)
Pillar of Our Desert Home
by Alan Ruiz Berman, 2023
Exploring the natural and cultural history of unique ecosystems through art has been a theme that has fascinated me since I was a youth, and in particular the Mexican Muralists and American Museum Diorama tradition captivated my young imagination. Both art forms thrived in an era (1920’s – 1960’s) when it was difficult for urban dwellers to travel, let alone access remote areas of the natural world, and when high-quality, large-scale photography was yet unavailable.
It was bringing Mexico’s Indigenous history to the public that inspired Diego Rivera to paint my city of birth, Tenochtitlan, the legendary capital of the Aztec Empire, a mural made on the courtyard walls of Mexico’s National Palace, a colonial building built atop of the ruins of the Aztec Capital’s main temple. Meanwhile, near my second home in New York City, Fred F. Scherer was giving the layperson access to our planet’s most spectacular landscapes by painting epic dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History. Though I had long appreciated these murals as a youth, it was in an impactful after-hours art class that I learned the amazing story about how they were created. In the words of Stephen C. Quinn, this artform was based on ecological and mathematical data, but crucially, it also touched the heart of the viewer.” What I most admire about Rivera, Scherer, and their contemporaries is that, in addition to being world-class artists, they were also proficient naturalists, biologists, curators, historians, and mathematicians – renaissance men and women of their time and age.
Through my immersive experiences studying and living in New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, and the Desert Southwest, I have also gained inspiration from Indigenous art, which more often represents a deeply meaningful and specific visual language than a personal aesthetic or form of individual expression. As both an artist and scholar, a critical part of taking inspiration from Indigenous and other cultures is a strong commitment to avoid extraction, appropriation, and misrepresentation, for example by conducting careful research and providing citations and acknowledgments dutifully. I also practice reciprocity by sharing my art and seeking honest responses and conversations around my work, and by considering the art making process as an integral part of my working relationship with people and the environment. I have shared my Māori inspired art with Māori elders in New Zealand, my Seri inspired art with Comcaac elders in Sonora, Mexico, and explored my current art ideas with members of the Tohono O’odham nation here in Tucson, as well as with academics and non-Indigenous art professionals. I believe that making art can be a civic, collaborative process that brings people together around common goals, aiding in the sharing of values, culture, and ecological knowledge.
This Art, Science, and Awareness project combines creative writing, painting, photography, and video, with the aim of engaging diverse members of our Sonoran Desert Community here in Tucson, AZ, and beyond. I call this project, “The Giant Saguaro Cactus, Pillar of Our Desert Home.” So far, the project includes an 850 word poem entitled, “The Life of a Ha:Sañ, the Giant Saguaro Cactus (Carnegia gigantea),” and an interactive mural project entitled, “The Sonoran Desert Biodiversity Mural.” The mural, painted on canvas in the field at Saguaro National Park, will initiate my broad audience into the intimate world of the Sonoran Desert, allowing them to accompany the saguaro on its journey from seed to skyscraper, and will include a reference key of species names and terms of more than 50 species of Sonoran Desert fauna that coexist and interact with the saguaro during its 200 year-long life history – including Linnean names, common names in English, Spanish, & any available O’odham names (used with the permission of an Indigenous culture keeper). The final, still missing piece is a community engagement event and a platform to share my work with a larger audience. In the future stages of this project, I would also like to create a book that follows the saguaro through its life cycle, with simple wording and either photographs or woodcut illustrations based on my field photography.
1. An open-to-all Field Class (held at Tucson Mountain Park’s Painted Hills Loop Trail) that engages a local audience around saguaro stewardship and appreciation through an interactive art project. People of all ages and skill levels will participate in creating a cut-out and painted saguaro (~ 3ft tall by 2ft wide) using cardboard, scissors, an angle/calligraphy brush, and black ink. As a follow up to the class, participants will be invited to follow their chosen saguaro’s development over time by conducting regular visits. An alternative class would be a watercolor landscape class taught by myself and another local art teacher such as Ruthie Marchand of Pima Community College.
2. This field class would be followed by an Art Show at a relevant space, showcasing my mural along with the series of community-sourced portraits of local saguaros made with carboard cut-outs and black ink. On the opening night of the art show, I will read my original, chronological poem about the life-history of the giant saguaro cactus (Carnegia gigantea) – the Sonoran Desert’s most iconic species (see poem below). Then, an expert botanist and/or member of the Tohono O’odham community (can be the same person) will speak briefly about the lasting significance of the Saguaro to our region’s ecology and culture.
3. A collaborative mural on the wall of a building in Tucson.
4. An illustrated / photography book about the lifecycle of the saguaro that leverages my poem and photographs.
5. A large-format (~ 4ft tall x 9ft long) landscape painting in watercolor of the sacred Sonoran Desert (Saguaro National Park West) that accurately portrays a wide range of (50-100) resident species, including all the most common and native birds. (see next section for details)* I would also like to maintain full copyrights to my work, along with full rights to future commercial and educational use.
> A final print/poster that provides, along with the artwork, a species Identification Key and my previously unpublished poem about the saguaro cactus’ critical role fostering biodiversity and marking the changing seasons. The Key will include common, scientific, and O’odham names (if granted permission and the blessing of an Indigenous culture keeper).
> At least four, ten-minute video tutorials that teach my process from start to finish.
6. A recorded interview with a Tohono O’odham culture keeper about the significance of the saguaro and its role as an ecological engineer (if granted).
The Sonoran Desert Biodiversity Mural (at Tucson Mountain – Saguaro National Park West)
Mural Overview & Statement of Purpose
The Sonoran Desert Biodiversity Mural is a plein-air mural on canvas being created in Tucson Mountain Park, near Saguaro National Park West – one of our planet’s most arid, unique, and biodiverse ecoregions. The severity of this landscape speaks to the vast Traditional Knowledge of Indigenous peoples, namely the Hohokam, Tohono O’odham, and Sobaipuri people, who not only survived here but thrived, harmoniously stewarding the Sonoran Desert for tens of thousands of years. Indeed, the Sonoran Desert is one of the longest known areas of continuous habitation, and agricultural cultivation in North America.
My purpose in painting The Sonoran Desert Biodiversity Mural is to spend long hours working outdoors absorbing the energy of sacred natural spaces, where I practice a leave no trace ethic and use eco-friendly products (watercolor & paint made from local materials vs. oils). By working outdoors, I am actively seeking a deep connection to the land, and often end up having conversations with other citizens who are there to commune with nature. I stand-up so I can use my body’s full range of motion and strive to stay attentive and mindful throughout the process, taking-in the landscape with all my senses and striving to unconsciously detect light, shadow, and shapes without taking my eyes from off the landscape.
I also strive to feel kinship with the flora and fauna, and find it a great privilege to be invited, mocked, rebuked, cheered, observed, chased, and welcomed by the desert animals and plants, especially the stately saguaros, whom the Tohono O’odham recognize as Ha:sañ, their sacred relatives. Among my favorite local creatures are the diverse birds that live in and among the desert plants, and on the ground the many lizards, especially the regal horned lizard (Phrynosoma solare), a sacred animal to the Comcaac of Sonora, and an ancient creature that makes use of a third eye to sense light and dark.
I believe that Indigenous peoples’ history and legacy of maintaining a sustainable and reciprocal relationship with the land can and should give us great hope and collective cause for stewardship of the land, its flora, and fauna. I hope my artwork will speak to the importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Indigenous Values, especially as they pertain to environmental stewardship, and as a non-Indigenous resident and recent arrival to this unique part of our planet, I do not attempt to be a representative of these values, but strive to be culturally and scientifically informed as I undertake this wide-reaching creative project with the goal of advocating for deeper engagement with the landscape and our sense of place within it.
§ Create an educational work of fine art that highlights the biological diversity of the Sonoran Desert with an emphasis on avian life & make a final print/poster that can be used to raise funds for Tucson Audubon (TA).
§ Help TA and its collaborators advance conservation targets and messages.
§ Advocate for the cultural, spiritual, and experiential value of nature.
§ Alleviate climate anxiety and depression by fostering social interaction around Sonoran Desert exploration, birdwatching, restoration, and research.
§ Make scientific knowledge relating to the Sonoran Desert ecosystem more widely accessible, shared, transferred, and applied, including the critical role of the giant saguaro cactus (Carnegia gigantea) hosting biodiversity and providing important cultural and socio-economic benefits.
§ Bring organizations (local to global, public to private) together with citizens around saving our last remaining desert ecosystems, their flora and fauna.
§ Introduce more people to the practice of nature journaling and landscape painting in the field.
Project Statement of Purpose
The purpose of this project is to help lift a dark cloud from off the saguaro’s horizon. Sonoran Desert ecologists, including those from Tucson’s own Desert Laboratory, which hosts the longest running studies of desert flora in the US, have determined that, given their highly delimited habitat and biophysical range, the Sonoran Desert’s remaining saguaro populations are extremely vulnerable to climate change, drought, invasive species like buffelgrass, plant-poaching, and other compounding, and burgeoning pressures. Only by raising civic awareness about the plight of the saguaro and the many pressures facing our desert ecosystem can we hope to save it. In just a few years of living in the Sonoran Desert, I have come to love and respect our saguaros, or Ha:Sañ, the term used by the Indigenous Tohono O’odham, and I am eager and grateful to add my voice to the many calling to help safeguard this enchanting ancestor and living heritage of all humanity.
The traditional ecological knowledge of Indigenous people offers a nuanced and wholistic understanding of the vast complexity of the Sonoran Desert ecosystem, which one can safely say that we will never fully understand. Meanwhile, our ever-evolving scientific methods and technology are helping shine light onto food webs and other intricate symbioses that comprise ecosystems like the Sonoran Desert. In contrast, science and western environmental education tends to focus on individual species and their unique adaptations to the habitats in which they live and to overlook the nuanced relationships between both living and non-living constituents that collectively comprise the functioning and productive ecosystem.
In some ecosystems, like coral reefs and deserts, biophysical resources such as water, nutrients, shelter, and shade can be highly limited, and having a wide net of relationships cast across the landscape serves to extend and recycle needed resources. It is also the case that some species foster more interactions than others, taking on more than their share of responsibility to support the workings of a much wider ecological community. These vital species are sometimes called “ecosystem engineers” or “keystone species.” In southern Arizona and northern Mexico, desert ecologists have identified the giant saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) as a keystone species and ecosystem engineer of the Sonoran Desert. Indigenous peoples of the region, meanwhile, namely the Tohono O’odham, or “Desert People,” have long understood that the saguaro, or Ha:Sañ as it is known to them, helps build the framework that supports their diverse biome, and indeed their entire way of life.
The Tohono O’odham consider Ha:Sañ to be an organism with personhood, as the O’odham understand it, and a sacred ancestor of their people. For millennia, the saguaro has provided desert dwellers with food in the form of sweet cactus fruit, of which a traditional wine is made in summertime, together with the tool used to harvest the fruit, which is made of the saguaro’s long ribs tied together into a hefty pole with a loose cross branch tied across the top. Ha:Sañ takes his/her central place as the protagonist of the O’odham creation story, and in the O’odham lunar calendar, the saguaro’s fruiting, which occurs just before the first summer rains in July, is the most celebrated indicator of each new year (Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum).
This art, science, and cultural awareness project is intended to highlight knowledge systems pertaining to traditional and Indigenous cultures and is rooted in my life-changing experience learning directly from the Māori in New Zealand, Quandamooka in Australia, Afro-Taíno islanders in the Dominican Republic, Comcáac in Mexico, and Tohono O’odham in Southern Arizona, among other lasting and resilient cultures. In the light of these relatively sustainable world views, I think it is beyond time that we seriously challenge our society’s dominant, consumer-driven paradigm, which despite its many benefits is evidently bringing our species and biosphere to the brink of collapse.
To pose this redress, we must first address the philosophical supposition that nature exists only as a commodity to be dominated by man, who supposedly stands outside of nature. The idea that only through maximum exploitation of the natural world can we improve quality of life is clearly false, as it is not a lack of nature’s abundance that has created our current social, economic, spiritual, and environmental crisis, but our desire for relentless growth – both in our population and economy – a hegemonic idea that could not be more removed from reality if it were the stock market. The solution to our problems, in my view, lies in the re-integration of nature into our daily lives and in the restoration of values held by Indigenous societies for millennia – namely recognizing the personhood of the natural world and moving towards a sustainably limited population and economy in which human and ecological wellbeing is the paramount goal, both for the good of future generations and for the sake of the intrinsic and unmeasurable value of the lifeforms with which we share this Earth.
Full Poem: “The Life of a Ha:Sañ, the Giant Saguaro Cactus (Carnegia gigantea)”
Indigenous Names for the Saguaro:
Ha:Sañ (Tohono O’odham) | a’a (Mojave, Quechan) | PPa (Yavapai) | PaPa (Cocopah)
| ‘a (Maricopa) | naanolzeegé (Apache) | Mojepe (Comcaac/Seri) | Saguo (Opata, Mayo) | Saugo (Yaqui)
For thousands of generations
On their ancestral land,
Desert People observed everything
that lives and grows among the rocks and sand.
Like their cousins – in our nation’s heart,
The People look forward seven generations –
Lifespan of Ha:Sañ, the ancient ones,
Person-like trees of the Sonoran Desert,
Living spirits, at the feet of whom,
The maternal organ, Indigenous mothers would bury,
Sacred to the Hohokam, O’odham, Sobaipuri,
Apache, Yaqui, and the Seri.
We begin our timeless story
In the Month of the Ripening Moon,
Of marriage, fertility, and hormonal rage,
When Saguaro’s reproductive organs take the stage.
Every rippled tower carries white and yellow funnel flowers
Like ceramic vases twirled high into the air,
Balanced by a street performer
Standing on a tilted chair.
Every blossom is a nectarivore’s white napkin,
It’s golden sun-like center an irresistible invitation,
Providing a sugary snack in exchange for gamete transportation.
Pollinators include diverse species of desert bees,
Hummingbirds, orioles, and tits at that,
But largest of all is the long nose bat!
A female fertilizer that fitly flits about,
Floating from column to column,
Stalking silently through the night,
Moonlight glinting off her fangs like twin blades,
She is a Samurai assassin taking flight!
Sonic senses and sensitive whiskers
Guide her delicate lips as she dips,
Into the fertile flower, her life-giving prize.
Her long, nectar-loving tongue probes deep into the cone,
Without her buffed-up breast,
This August plant would die alone.
Caesar’s month brings white winged doves,
That flock from further South in great migration,
Thirty and seven days after the blissful bloom,
The blossom’s base turns to fruit,
In late summer’s scorching station.
Through thick-skinned, bursting pods,
A dark-magenta pulp passionately bleeds,
But more nutritious to the doves,
Are, in each one, two thousand tiny seeds!
Cooperating and cooing,
The desert damsels dine.
But their gizzards are as merciless
As their blue-ringed, beady eyes,
And when they pass each seed, it dies.
The seed dispersers are instead
The desert kangaroo rats,
Bouncing along on whip-like tails,
Sharing fallen cactus pears
With ringtails, ants, wasps, and little snails.
Coyotes too join in on the feast,
And many another bird and beast.
Blood-beaked finches, cooperating ants,
Cautious quails, and tortoises too,
Spiny lizards, Gila monsters.
And other desert folk with scales.
Having each had their fill of freshly fallen fruit,
The roaming residents will relinquish the germ nearby.
Some on a southern slope
In the shade of a hardy, native tree,
Perhaps a yellow flowered paloverde,
Or a purple blossomed ironwood,
Or a deeply rooted mesquite,
With a prickly pear or chain-fruit-cholla
Nestled snuggly at its feet.
To protect the nascent cactus,
The nurse tree takes great pains,
While she eagerly awaits the summer’s monsoon rains.
And amidst the rich decay and perched birds’ droppings,
In the micro-climate fostered by her arms,
The tiny obsidian seed is sheltered
From the frost and more of life’s immediate harms.
Sky Father patiently watches for the first signals of life,
Maintaining a somber sense of reservation,
For only one percent of seeds will live to see germination.
Then, sending a single tap root down to quench its thirst.
From the dry desert soil a saguaro will burst,
Growing quickly at first, then unhurriedly,
Like a young man still reveling in his youth.
When Ha:Sañ is a little taller than the average man,
Mistletoe and old age will overcome his doting nurse,
And as Saguaro steals her water, her love becomes her curse.
His woody beams give rise, like rings of rebar
Giving structure to biological cement,
Then base roots sprawl so he can reach up to the sky,
Undaunted and unbent.
Grey spines guard his crown,
while desert-encrusting termites nurture the soil at his base,
And upward, ever upward shines his spiral face,
As if he is trying to touch the very circle of the sun.
Nearly a century must pass
Before Saguaro can grow an arm,
And it will be on centenarian limbs,
That a red tail hawk will one day roost,
And at dusk’s behest,
A majestic great-horned owl
Will stop to rest
High atop Saguaro’s outstretched arms,
Which will grow ever longer, ever more
A caracara, a bald eagle, or an osprey,
Perchance even a brave bobcat,
May stop above the desert floor.
And in Ha:Sañ’s ribs, a Gila woodpecker
Will peck out a boot – her perfect nest,
And by the time the Nawait (saguaro fruit wine)
Has been fermented, and every drop has been drunk,
Saguaro will have many mouths and eyes along his trunk,
Myriad homes will be these varied holes,
For pygmy elf owls, cactus wrens,
Purple martins, thrashers, gnatcatchers, orioles,
Centipedes, spiders, scorpions,
Beetles, packrats, and voles.
And by the time my future grandson’s hair turns grey
And two hundred ju:kı̂ (monsoon rains) have fallen,
An apartment building will have been raised,
From just a single grain of pollen.