Cactus

Señor Saguaro leans into his companion, before losing a couple of arms.

Not really “our” saguaro. Our close neighbor’s saguaro. She had to pay for it.

I had never been within touching distance of a saguaro until six years ago, when my husband and I moved here from Minnesota, a pair of winter chickens fleeing the cold. An amazing sight, this saguaro towered over the back patio, leaning slightly to the south, with three Herculean arms upraised. He was rugged with black scars and long spines, and I addressed it as if male, Señor Geraldo  (“one who rules with spears”) Saguaro. His female companion, a huge mesquite, had probably sheltered him in their infancy, centuries ago. What history they have witnessed! She seemed to hover protectively still.

I was so smitten by Geraldo, I wrote a poem, “A Minnesotan Talks to a Saguaro,” published in Arizona Highways online magazine. (I would include it here, but my take on his not being an oak drew sneers from some readers who did not get the reluctant love I expressed so poetically.) Señor Saguaro brought joy, with his generous crown of flowers in the spring, his welcome-to-all-birds cavities and stance. Every fall he greeted us on our return to Arizona.

A year ago we were shocked by his sharp incline, a shift from slight to gravity-defying — to us, it signaled decline, and we wondered if Geraldo would make it through the winter, and where would he finally land? On our patio? The neighbor’s? The desert area behind us, or upon a trusting hiker? Would he take out the gas meters a yard away? Not to mention our hearing, when his tons fell? We called our HOA, we called the county, we looked around for saguaro saviors.

We called the nearby fire department. Meetings were held. Measurements were taken. On whose property did the saguaro stand? Our neighbor wasn’t present for the meetings, but let it be known, “I’m not paying for that thing.” We argued, unsuccessfully, that the giant lived on county property, not private. No one wanted to take responsibility ($$$$).More measurements were taken, plat and land survey maps produced.

It is amazing how love for a creature can diminish when it might cost thousands to save it. (Our cats haven’t tested us yet.) We hoped the saguaro could be salvaged, or at least his demise made less destructive.

The fire chief, respectful of our concerns, listened patiently, and declared that the saguaro could fall overnight or sometime in the next century. But the angle was definitely precarious. We debated, would the mother mesquite hold, once he collapsed against her, or would she go down with him?

When we left for Minnesota last spring, Geraldo was still standing, or rather, listing, and a tentative judgment had been made: he was on our neighbor’s property, just inches from the county line. She would protest the decision, we thought.

Our summer in Minnesota went fast, as all summers do, at least in the north, and we returned to Green Valley last month with our usual relief and gratitude, even though it was rainy and cool. No packrats inhabited the car. A package delivered in May lay unopened by the front door — friends in Minnesota marveled that we feel so safe, but our home away from home is watched over by the HOA and the Sheriff’s Auxiliary Volunteers, in an area where honesty is still a virtue and not a sign of naiveté.

The patio garden was thriving, including basil and onion plants left in the ground. The geraniums had fried in the sun, but our Texas ranger and bougainvillea were nearly trees.

That other tree, Señor Geraldo Saguaro, had almost disappeared into the arms of Madre Mesquite. He looked doomed, but we cheered his survival so far.

On closer inspection, two of his arms were missing. Had they fallen off, weight, rot, wind and rain taking their toll? One arm rested outside our neighbor’s patio wall. The other was gone. Clean smooth scars showed no necrosis. The weightier southern arms had been sawed off. Señor Saguaro, wounded but proud, had survived.

He appeared to be making a statement, with his one remaining arm pointing north: “But first, let me say this...” —reminding me a little of Bernie Sanders. He had been saved, and so were we, from his demise.

Our neighbor had paid. She didn’t say how much. She just smiled a Mona Lisa smile. The arm by her wall would become valuable, once its flesh withered away to reveal the ribs. The other arm, weighing over a thousand pounds, had been hauled off, perhaps to be sold and reestablished elsewhere. The cost had been mainly for its removal, not for the strategic surgery. She laughed about the future value of the arm by her wall.

“Not in our lifetimes!” Señor Geraldo Saguaro, in great health, will outlast us all.   

Sherry Machen lives in Green Valley with a beautiful cactus out back.

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