HUMANS NATURALLY sympathize with the saguaro cactus. We even feel affection for them. Maybe it’s because they look sort of like us. Except they are giants and live much longer. We protect them. The National Park Service prosecutes saguaro vandals.
We use human anatomical terms to describe their parts: arms, skin, ribs, trunk, etc. Writers often ascribe human feelings to them, like “lonely,” or “stoic,” or “sentinels of the desert.” Saguaros seem to make human gestures with their arms, hugging each other, saying hello, or drooping down, tired and sagging. They lose arms and carry the marks of their mishaps for centuries. The battered old ones look wise after two or three centuries, experienced, even though they have stood in one place for their whole lifs. They must know that place so well that we can’t imagine that kind of knowledge, mostly gained by touch and feel. Like us, they stand upright, and fall down when they die
But they are still plants. And we are mammals. On the evolutionary tree of life mammals and plants went separate ways about 1.6 billion years ago.
Even so, given that plants and animals share the same basic building blocks of life, there are more similarities between us than meet the eye. In one experiment, jellyfish DNA was incorporated into a tomato plant which then produced glow-in-the-dark tomatoes. For reasons unknown to science, plants can make human psychoactive neurotransmitters like adrenaline, serotonin, dopamine, and morphine.
In the story-telling traditions of the Desert People, the Tohono O’odham, this intimacy between people and plants goes far deeper than anthropomorphic comparisons or shared biochemistry: Saguaros were actually once human.
The story or the first saguaro should be heard in person, in a group late at night around a fire, along with the songs that come in at several points. But I’ll paraphrase here because it still works even after losing all of that context. You can read the whole story in written form, as told by Susie Ignacio Enos, in The South Corner of Time, edited by Larry Evers. There is a version online here. (http://www.baboquivari.com/myth-legend-lore/tohono-oodham-legend-saguaro)
Briefly paraphrased, a lonely 10-year-old O’odham girl with a name, I can’t pronounce, goes in search of her mother. She meets a bird who guides her over the mountains to the village where her mother is working so they can have enough food to eat because her father died years earlier. Inexplicably, the young girl sinks into the ground just outside that village. The mother is summoned too late, yet she remembers her husband’s dying words: that their daughter would one day be a great being, different from all other women.
“She will live forever to the end of times. She will be known by races of people from far and near. She will be queen of the Taw haw naw Juwut (desert lands). Generations of Aw´awtam will be saved from starvation because of her and her family.”
Some time later, the first saguaro, a plant whose importance to the Desert People for food and ceremony can’t be overstated, grows from that spot. The mother cares for the strange new plant.
Giving human characteristics to non-human forms is a classic story-telling technique. See Aesop’s Fables for well-known examples. Yet, this story and others like it go deeper than simple moral advice, or a naive explanation for why things are as they are. Stories are powerful devices that carry cultural meanings from one generation to the next, which is essential in an oral culture. The human brain is wired for stories, we can’t resist them. Memory encodes stories better than it does memorized facts. Even paraphrased, or with parts lost or changed, the story and its symbols retain their essential content.
Images are powerful and can contain as much information as a book and can last even longer. Metaphors are intensely creative. Poets use them so often because they can communicate ideas and feelings that are not fully explainable in plain words.
I don’t view this story simply as an attempt to explain the origin of the saguaro in the sense that it might conflict with Darwin’s theory of evolution, or even scientific logic. On one level it does, but on a deeper level it is poetry. It shows a different kind of relationship with an object, one outside the world view of Western scientific thinking. Plants become human. Humans can become plants. But how?
In the story, nothing is really explained. There is a sort of cognitive gap as to how it all happened. That’s another device that keeps the listener’s mind occupied with wondering. There are parts that don’t fit together. But the main message is that there is some sort of kinship between saguaros and humans that transcends any explanation. The saguaros we see standing on desert hillsides are manifestations of the spirit of a young girl. The boundaries are blurred between ourselves and the other. Saguaros grow in our dreams, and affect our emotions, just as they grow out on a hillside, far on the other side of our skin.
It’s magical thinking. Most modern intellectuals would criticize me here. But isn’t all thinking magical? I don’t see a conflict between this story and empirical science. I believe them both. In Native American Philosophy, there seems to be no requirement for a single way to look at things. No dogmatic one world view that is true everywhere and for everybody. There are many, each culture creating a window into the ultimately unknown.
After reading this story, I have never looked at saguaros in quite the same way.
For the image above, which was part of the “Dreaming Down the Rain” exhibit, I combined photographs of a saguaro from Tumamoc and a portrait of my wife Christina. Her left arm is still paralyzed after she suffered a hemorrhagic stroke three years ago. Medical science could not explain why it happened. Somehow though, in a way that I can’t explain, saguaros might also sympathize with us.
The South Corner of Time. Larry Evers, ed., The University of Arizona Press, ©1980
Maidens and Mothers: An Analysis of Hopi Corn Metaphors. Mary E. Black, Ethnology, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Oct., 1984),