The voice spoke the next few words slowly. “There have been, and there will again be, the rare Saguaro or Coyote or even Man-made-from-corn who choose to not participate in the telling of this story. They turn away from it, and deny its relevance to their lives. Instead, they choose to pursue a life to and for only themselves, and of course, there is nothing to stop them from doing so. We mourn for these souls, who despite spending their lives within and surrounded by and because of the telling, are not themselves moved to participate. How lonely and insecure they must feel!
“Yet, the telling continues despite them.
“And sometimes it happens that one such lonely soul begets two, and two beget four, and so on. With numbers comes a kind of shared ignorance that can grow until a tipping point is reached, and it becomes more and more likely that the next generation will not participate in the telling simply because they do not know the story, having witnessed only small fragments of the story from afar.
“The times when this happens are unfortunate, tragic even, because they impact not just these few souls who turn away but the entire community around them and the generations that follow. Yet, this cannot continue forever. It is possible for one or a few souls to turn away, but it is impossible to every truly live outside of the story. Each of us exists only because our ancestors lived the story, and unless we live the story ourselves, there cannot continue to be future generations. A community of Saguaro can continue for maybe two or three or five generations without participating in the Story, but their numbers will inevitably fade, and some other soul will take their place once they are gone. For if the Saguaro do not open their flowers to Long-nosed bat, or perhaps grow no flowers at all, how can there be any young? Or if they grow so many defensive spines that they refuse hospitality to Woodpecker or Owl or Beetle, how can there be a community to help return food to the soil so that they and others may continue to live?
“Some saguaro choose to tell the story of these fated few, by standing our entire lives, without arms, as obelisks to loneliness and self-imposed exile.
“You have seen some of your people living in this way. Can you remember?”
Ata'halne' did, but not entirely of his own will. A memory flooded into his mind, old images forming behind his eyes, of the foreigners from the south. The hoarders, his father called them. Many of his cousins and uncles and mates who lived in the big village nearby grew corn to trade with these foreigners, and had become very comfortable from the constant patronage. Ata'halne' saw how they had such fine blankets from the east, shell toys from the west, and baskets from the north, and he had been covetous of this. He recalled one day in particular when he had demanded of his father, “Why don’t we trade with the foreigners?”
His father replied, “Because the others are not just trading their corn. They are trading their land and their water and their will away as well.” Father had seen that Ata'halne' didn’t understand, so he put down his work and said, “Come with me.” They climbed up to the top of a nearby mesa from which they could view the large settlement in the distance, its geometric contours casting deep angular shadows that cut anachronistically into the orange hillside. They ate a late lunch of wild carrot and cactus apple that they picked along the way. Father pointed to the network of acequia, rays of long jagged tracks in the ground that trailed off into the horizon.
“Look how far they must move the water now. As we speak they are building new ones. Think of all the time they give away to the hoarders. How do they spend time with their children as I am now if they’re always building?” Next, father had pointed to the adjacent fields of crops. “Look how large their fields have become, and how so many of them must live in such small spaces.”
“Maybe things are changing, father! They must have a reason.”
“There’s nothing wrong with change, my son. Change is how we live. But not change for its own sake. We change so that we can keep the parts of our lives that we hold dear. Like lunches with our sons. It seems to me that they’re changing to give up these things, and I simply cannot comprehend why.”
Ata'halne' was puzzled, so he asked the voice the same question of the Saguaro that he had asked their father.
“Are they mad?” Only after speaking did he realize that he had broken his silence, but the voice suggested no insult.
“In a way," the voice responded, "but not by nature. They’re simply confused. They have come to believe that the only way they can be safe and secure is to take their fates into their own hands. And there is always the chance, however, an opportunity no matter how slim, that the deniers may abandon their self-imposed exile and once again bear the mantle of citizenship in this living community. Their redemption lies not in their ability to craft a new story for themselves, for after all there is only one story to be lived, and it can be lived by any and all, as long as they are willing to listen and learn and let go. The world, after all, holds no grudge. In the one story there is plenty for all if all do their part.”
“Then why not tell them?” He felt more comfortable asking questions now.
“Remember when your father showed you how to make a blade? He showed you with the soft rock, because it is easier. Only later did you learn to make them with the hard stone from the hills to the north. If you had both to choose from, which would you choose? Surely the latter. But what if you had to walk a day for the harder stone, while the soft rock already lay at your feet?”
“Well it depends!” Ata'halne' exclaimed, frustrated now. “What am I cutting?”
The voice smiled, or rather the boy felt it smile, and he smiled too despite himself. “Yes. But what if you’d been told all of your life that using the soft rock was somehow beneath you, or that it would make you a sick and evil person? In that case you would keep using the hard rock. And when the one quarry was emptied of it, you’d search farther and farther still.”
“What will become of the people in the village?" the boy asked, “Have they truly forgotten the story? How do we convince them to go back?”
The voice smiled again. “There is no back. Life is a movement. It is about potential, not position. You’ll never convince people to sacrifice something they truly believe to be better for something they truly believe to be worse. The only answer, is to help show them that something even better is possible if they can learn to trust the story as much as they trust themselves.”
With these words the voice ceased, and the boy felt awake with understanding. He found that he could see the world around him more clearly than before, though he had not noticed the precise moment that the strange ebb and flow of imagery and color had reverted to the landscape which he knew well. He found that he could hardly even recall the feelings of absence and disconnection and disorientation that had crippled him so severely when he had fallen. Newly initiated, he was greeted by a beetle, who he watched be eaten by a warbler, who then sang to a brief song before fluttering away perhaps to feed his young. He spent the rest of the hour in this way, looking closely at the ground, the trees, the birds, and saguaros, realizing that if you look closely enough you will find different examples of life and death linked by the same story.
Eventually the boy set back about his task of collection. By the sun he saw that very little time had actually passed. Easily seeing the way home, he ventured back with eleven strong saguaro ribs slung by his side. Once home, he set silently about fixing the sagging, north portion of their roof with his father. When they were finished, he spent time playing with a small lizard in the shade cast by the saguaro with the tilted red hat. He thought about telling his father about what had happened, but as the next few days and months passed, he found as he watched his parents that he did not need to share with them the Saguaro’s story. They clearly already knew and lived by the tale, and he felt embarrassed that he had never noticed this before.
So in this way the boy too chose to live his life, and his parents were happy to have such an able child, who was not, after all, taken by coyotes before reaching manhood or tempted by the tastes of the villagers to the west. And in living an able life, the boy eventually taught his children the story, who themselves grew to live in this way, though each living and each telling of the story was as unique as a Saguaro’s. And years later, he watched with a smile as the villagers to the west seemed to rediscover the story, walking away family by family from the new social experiment to a more familiar and secure life in which each person knew their role in the world, and as such, each was fulfilled.
And so too continued the Saguaro, watching the world change and telling the story even to this day, to anyone ready to listen.
Cover photo by Fredlyfish4.