The young boy was called Ata'halne', "he interrupts," a name that first belonged to an unknown great uncle. His grandmother, who named him, had told him this uncle died while quarreling with a coyote over the rules of a bet they had made about the weather. "You think too quickly, just like him. Those who think quickly learn little." Now, he had a mouthful of questions, but this memory of her helped him keep them from spilling onto the ground and breaking the spell that held him. He thought a word of thanks to his grandmother for this lesson. And with that the voice continued.
"A very long time ago, there were none of us in this place. Our distant ancestors were not like us, though they too lived their version of the Story and told it in their own fashion. The land and the weather were very different then, but that changed, as it continues to change today, and the plants and the animals changed with it. After a while those distant ancestors and many other plants and animals moved northward and eastward with the weather. We Saguaro, who have a keenness for the dryer lands, came to live here, as did an entire new configuration of life.
“We found the vast open spaces of this place perfect for our kind of storytelling. You see, each of us tells only a very small part of the Saguaro Story. One word of many verses. We spend a long, long time learning the story from others, many decades in fact, standing silently while we watch the story unfold, participating in it ourselves, and watching it be told by our Elders. Each of us learns it as best we can, until a time when we find the story so compelling and so beautiful, the urge to tell it too great to resist, that we select a part of the story to tell ourselves.
On that day we begin to change, growing our arms. No Saguaro, and therefore no telling, is ever the same. Some choose to stand as a warrior or goddess, stretching their arms into the sky in hope and aspiration. Others reach back toward the ground in thanks and reverence. Others still stretch to embrace one another in love. There is no right or wrong way. Each twist and turn reflects the teachings of the whole, and together, we tell our story in a way that is both complete and entirely unique.
“See to the South, on the hillside at the edge of this valley? The Saguaro there tells the story, but differently than we tell it here because it learned the story from its Elders, not our own. Nevertheless, it remains the same story. And see where some very young Saguaro have begun to push through the ground in the strip of land that separates the group on the hill from our group here? As they grow they will develop an entirely new telling of the story, influenced by the tellings of the Elders on the hill and by those of us here in the valley. Nevertheless, it remains the same story. And as the Elders of the hill and the Elders of the valley pass, they will leave behind an empty space that also changes the telling forever, for those blank spaces will come, eventually, to be filled by new tellings, tellings learned both in the absence of elders passed and in the presence of the future Elders still growing. Nevertheless, it remains the same story.
“It is this beautiful multiplicity of tellings, this unending continuum of change on which the survival of our story rests, not merely the tellings of one or two or five individuals. I tell the Saguaro Story in the manner I know it best, and though my telling is an important part of the story, it is no more or less important to the survival of our story than the telling of another. Is any one beat of a drum more or less important to a rhythm, or any one note of song more or less important to a melody or harmony? Imagine a chorus of song that never ends but also never repeats in precisely the same way. That is our story. You will always recognize the melody being sung and the rhythm beating behind it, but will never hear the same fleeting verse twice. Do you understand?”
With this, the boy listened to the chorus of life that the saguaro sang before him, and he tried to understand. Once again his head filled with many questions that he wanted to call out. But he recalled his father's voice, "You will wear out your great-uncle's name boy", words he had been scolded with many times. And he thought of that strange force upon his chest that had stolen his words earlier. A warning. No, an admonition. Just like from his father. “Don’t think that you know better than others what you need to hear, my son, You are not old enough to ask questions.” So Ata'halne' waited, and silently wished for the Saguaro to continue his lesson, while also trying to hide the fear of being so lost, of missing dinner, of his father angry for his tardiness.
Eventually, the Saguaro resumed.
“For the Saguaro, the steps from youth to adulthood are long and slow. Each day along this path brings them new signs of the Saguaro Story, both through their own developing lives and in their witness of the lives of others around them. Like you, however, the young do not at first recognize these signs of story, or their role in it. As they grow slowly from seedling to sapling, for instance, they do not understand why so many of their siblings must die, eaten perhaps by Beetle or Javelina, or trampled by Roadrunner or Coyote or Man-made-from-corn. A great many of our young will never make it to adulthood, and those that do cannot yet understand how all that death makes so much life possible.
“Our young may never appreciate the care given them by rugged old Ironwood and Mesquite, whose roots nurse them, capturing a rare pool of water to quench their thirst. Nor do they recognize the shelter that their foliage gives them from the scorching rays of the sun. A great many years later, when they have grown tall and verdant, and the old tree besides them begins to die, they may still not recognize or comprehend this final act of stewardship from their longest friend and most constant tutor.
“They watch, but do not see why the Elder Saguaro tolerate the painful pecking and prodding of Gila Woodpecker and Gilded Flicker, who nest in the fresh, wound-like hollows, or the burrowings of Horned Beetle, who come to live beneath the fresh scars as these wounds slowly heal. Nor do they understand why, once these seemingly disrespectful squatters finally depart, some elders will allow yet another uninvited tenant, Elf Owl, to nest in their wound. But as the seasons and the years pass, they begin to understand.
“Each season and year does pass, and the young saguaro grows, they encounter a great variety of desert creatures whose company they learn to enjoy. As they flower for the first time in late spring, they meet Long-nosed bat, Honeybee, and a great variety of birds, to whom they open their flowers briefly during the sunrise hours, so that one or two lucky ones may have a taste. Around the same time, the saguaro are at first surprised by, but soon also come to enjoy, the tickling of Sap Beetle and its larvae, who hatch in their flower’s base. And year by year, as these flowers fall and are replaced by red fruit, the young saguaro become entangled in a fleeting affair with White-winged Dove, who visit only briefly, and to whom they offer their sweet, water-swollen fruit as if it were their beating heart.
“Inevitably, and necessarily, a few Saguaro will begin the last chapter of their lives during this time hot and dry time of the year. It is a long epilogue, especially for the eldest. Yet it is beautiful, and each passing brings such a festival of activity, that one cannot help but see more life than death. Desert life abandons all subtlety during this time. Saguaro’s flesh becomes an oasis for Bacterium, Fungus, Maggot and Mite, making lush accommodations in Spartan land. Even Water Beetle, a rare desert tourist indeed, comes to swim in the muck and mire of the ephemeral pools of Saguaro rot.
And with all of these also comes an entire community of predators, like blood-red Hister beetle, stinger-less Pseudoscorpion, and its fully-equipped and extremely virile namesake, each in their own right mighty terrors of the insect world, who stalk prey through the damp terrain. The feast goes on and on; nothing is wasted, until all that remains of the Saguaro-that-was are the tall, skeletal ribs, which as you know, also do not lie in waste for long.
“When the late-summer rains finally come, always abruptly and unexpectedly, we Saguaro are reborn. The sweeping tide of rainwater cleans the grounds of the spring and fore-summer activity, returning vital nutrition to the soil. We swell with each thirsty drink and once again begin to grow. Nearly invisible, White Termite armies, who live in the mud that the rains and winds have splashed up upon our trunks, tirelessly clean away the marks and wear of the hard year’s passing, recycling even our calloused, dry skin back into the ground as food for the next hard seasons to come.”
Now, the voice seemed to hesitate, and Ata'halne', who had been feeling a rush of freshness and renewal that mirrored the words of the story, was suddenly gripped with a different, darker feeling that he couldn't place at first. Disapproval? No. Pity? No.
Tears started to form in the corners of Ata'halne's eyes, accompanied by a sorrow like none other he had ever felt.
...To be concluded
Banner photo by Ehiris.