There is a tale told, from a time long ago when dogs and birds could speak (or rather, when man could still understand them). The tale is of a young Hohokam boy who lost his way in a desert forest of saguaro. The boy had set about gathering materials from the land, bunches of sticks, long grasses and other thatch, materials that his father needed to fix the roof of their dwelling. “Most important,” his father had said, “is that you bring back ten ribs from fallen saguaro, the longest and strongest that you can find.” You see, when the saguaro dies, it leaves behind a dry, gray skeleton of long, stick-like ribs that, among other uses, made sturdy rafters for Hohokam homes. So far, the boy had found eight, and these he toted, belted together with a lanyard, and slung over one shoulder. Grandmother had shown him a great many fun things to do with saguaro ribs, so he hoped to find one extra to keep for his free time.
It was hot, still tolerably but nearing terribly. The spring bloom was now three weeks behind and the long, fore-summer drought was just beginning to chafe at the land. The boy knew his way around this part of the desert very well for his age. Even though this morning he ventured farther from home than he had all year, he could still recognize many of the trees and rock outcroppings in the distance, and of course the towering green sentinels that made familiar shadow creatures on the hard pack. But his attention was beginning to wander, as it often did for boys of his age, and without knowing he began to get lost in thoughts of the games he would play later. His mother scolded him often for his absent-mindedness, warning that coyotes would surely take him before he reached manhood. To him this was not a warning, and he often fantasized about what an adventure it might be to get kidnapped by coyotes.
Not minding his feet, the boy hop-scotched over a rock and a small cholla cactus, towards the next carcass to be scavenged. As he landed, he was caught unaware by a swift wind that spun his makeshift fagot and sent him sprawling toward the ground.
He came down hard! With both arms extended forward, he felt the air push out of his lungs and the skin on the heels of his hands peel back on impact. A cloud of dust stung his bloodied hands and itched his eyes, which he rubbed and kept shut as he picked himself up off the dusty pack. Standing again, he looked around through watery eyes and immediately realized that he was lost.
Now to you or me, most saguaro look very much the same – at best we may be able to pick out and remember five or six of the most distinct cacti amongst a field of hundreds. We need only walk in this desert for a matter of minutes, in any direction, before becoming hopelessly lost in a mosaic of random uniformity. But to one who has spent each day of his life in a place where saguaro outnumber people, each saguaro is infinitely unique, more different than similar. Each crooked pleat, twisted arm, owl’s nook, and spot of brownish decay form a hundred different faces as recognizable as schoolmates. But at this moment, when the boy lifted himself from the ground and looked squinting into the space around him, he saw not one single feature that he knew.
Lacking even one simple point of reference to situate his perception, the great expanse of succulents seemed to mingle, conjoin, and overlap before his eyes. His mind and eyes groped in every direction for some pattern to gain hold of, but finding none he became overwhelmed by vertigo and despair. Reeling, he dropped to the ground and buried his eyes in his forearms. The familiar, mottled darkness of the inside of his eyelids settled his disorientation, but replaced it with a gruesome fear of what would happen when he once again opened his eyes.
He did, eventually. Standing, first, he lowered his hands to his mouth and with his face still towards the ground; he opened his eyes to the craggy, sage- and goldenrod-colored pack. As the world beneath him came into focus and the waves of light settled, he grew more confident. He knew these colors and textures, and they comforted him. Raising his eyes, he looked first to his bundle of sticks that lay to his left, now undone and scattered, and then to a small, young saguaro, in full flower, standing just beyond. As he continued to look upward and outward, he found that he still had no idea where he was. Yet, he was coming to tolerate the strange, fluid amalgam of green and gray cacti, white flowers, blue sky, black shadow, and beige ground, all of which seemed to collapse and expand dreamily in front of him, moving in and out of focus as he looked around. Instinct caused him to reach his hands and arms forward blindly, as if to feel his way past unseen obstacles in a lambent darkness.
Then, he heard a voice.
“Sit. I believe you will find it more comfortable.”
He held his breath. The words surprised him, not because he couldn’t identify the voice’s owner but because its tenor seemed unusual. The words were exceedingly clear, yet neither quiet nor loud, male nor female, near nor far away. In fact, they seemed to come from all directions and no directions simultaneously. He felt them vibrate up from the ground like a tension in his feet, legs and belly. He heard them in the rustle of the wind stirring up dust and in the tapping of a woodpecker. The words filled his sinuses as the sweet melon of saguaro blossom, and they sparkled in the plays of light and color and glinting dust. He started to speak, but a frightening and unexpected pressure against his chest stole his words.
To his surprise, he sat down quickly, as if the inclination to sit had been there all along and that he could no longer comprehend standing. He crossed his legs and let both palms touch the ground next to his sit-bones, the way he often sat while Grandmother was telling a story. In anticipation of what might be said next, he gazed into the space in front of him, where the contours of color and shadow tinkered with his sense of space and perspective.
“You are lost,” the speaker repeated, “but not simply because you no longer recognize the signs of the land around you, or the traces of a path you left in coming. You are lost because you have not yet learned how to listen to the story that these signs and traces tell. At your home, you use many signs to orient yourself to your world, to recognize the setting of the story of your life. Yet you are not aware of the story these signs tell. Like a word without a verse, you see the tall saguaro near the favorite spot at home where you often sit and play, wearing its cluster of red flowers atop like a crooked hat, but you do not comprehend it. When you see it from afar, you use it to measure the paces home; it tethers you to the center of your story. But today you have traveled so far that you cannot see that saguaro, or any of the others you have come to know. This is, you think, why you feel lost. But no matter how many tall saguaros with crooked-flower hats you place in your story, you will always be at risk of stumbling beyond their range, and into places where you feel lost.
“However, if, you learn to listen to the story being told around you, learn to orient yourself within it instead of trying to orient the rest of the world to you and your story, you will never again be lost.”
The boy shifted slightly, intrigued, but was careful not to do anything that might disturb the wisdom being given by this mysterious speaker. He was no longer afraid, but excited. Surely he had been lost before, but it had never felt like this! And what was all this talk, about stories, words, and verses? As if responding to the boy’s thoughts, the world around him seemed to ebb and swirl into a new configuration, and the boy felt that all of his questions would eventually be answered. Then the voice resumed, in the same, organic tenor.
“The desert is a place of story. Stories flow through it like a river, with their beginnings, middles, and ends always on display. These are tales of tricksters and bandits, of betrayal and loneliness, and of lost children. These stories are told in the gossip of Coyote, the conspiracies of Raven, and the dances of Man-made-from-corn. They are told in the flight paths of Owl and the dust trails of Rattlesnake. These many stories are in fact all the same story, because there is only one Story. But that story is one with endless different tellings. It is a story about community, about the push and the pull between the one and the many. It is a story about a pattern that has repeated itself in this world and others far too many times to bother counting.
“We are Saguaro, tellers of this Story, speakers for the living and the dead. We have told our version of the Story, the Saguaro Story, for many millennia, though never twice in quite the same way. What you see in front of you, and all around you is our telling. Yet, you do not understand it, because you have not yet learned how. With this we will help.
This story is copyright 2015 Philip A. Loring.