I had a chance recently to wander a bit in the Sonoran desert outside of Tucson, Ariz. As a farmer accustomed to the lush green fields and thick woods of the well-watered Midwest, I was unprepared for the surprising beauty of the rocks, sand, mountains and valleys of this semi-arid land. Unlike the gentle, mostly tamed landscape of my home, however, the desert’s beauty is fierce, wild and frighteningly indifferent. And while not barren, the desert’s fecundity is spare, stark and lean. Survival in the desert plays out on the margins of sufficiency: it provides manna just enough.
On my hikes I found myself fascinated by the saguaro, those tall, emblematic, almost anthropomorphic cacti that proliferate across the Sonoran desert. Remembering that the most elegant and sustainable agricultural systems are patterned on the ecosystems native to their locale, like forest cover or prairie grasses, I wondered what I might learn from the saguaro about how to survive—and even thrive—in desert times.
The saguaro is uniquely suited for a harsh environment, as its two-century lifespan attests. A central taproot and wide radial roots help it both to remain stable and to catch the sparse desert rainfall. These roots also anchor the saguaro to the possibilities and limits of a particular place. It manages the best it can where it is, with almost unimaginably patient fortitude, growing just an inch and a half in its first eight years and waiting over five decades before putting out its first branch or arm. Sometimes reaching 40 feet in height and often weighing over six tons, the saguaro depends on a strong interior core of interconnected, woody ribs. Its tough, thick skin and two-inch spines protect its soft interior from heat, sun and animals.
The saguaro has evolved to embrace the rhythms of feasting and fasting that must govern any life lived in harmony with the cycles of the natural world. In flush times, the cactus drinks up a storm, its pleated exterior expanding like an accordion to accommodate heavy rainfall. In drought, it conserves moisture by growing slowly and transpiring little.
The saguaro might seem to suggest an ideal of a strong, stingy, rugged individualist. In truth, however, its life is rooted—literally—in community, hospitality and generosity. In its early years, a saguaro can survive only under the shaded protection of a “nurse tree,” like a palo verde, ironwood or mesquite. Though it eventually supplants its host, the saguaro practices its own form of hospitality, as gilded flickers, gila woodpeckers and other birds bore into its sides and create cavities in its interior to shelter themselves from the elements. And beyond allowing its body to be perforated, even amid a life of great scarcity the saguaro finds a way to share generously: the native Tohono O’odham tribes and others have long used its fruits for food and its strong internal ribs for building materials and various other purposes.
When Jesus dwelt 40 days in the desert, he gave himself over to divine care instead of grasping for the food, protection, possessions and power with which he was tempted. In the current period of uncertainty, it is likewise tempting to grasp for these, for much of the order, security and wealth of the modern period has turned out to be far less tenable than we had assumed. With an age of economic and ecological consequences now clearly upon us, an era of desert living has begun that will extend far beyond the 40 days of Lent. Like the saguaro, we can survive in the desert—but only by embracing its gifts, demands and limitations.
With every report of the stock market’s latest plunge or news of an acquaintance’s lost job, I confess that I feel a strong temptation simply to hunker down amid earthly concern. But even in desert times, mere survival is not the vocation of Christians who follow a raised savior.
Intrigued as I was by the saguaro’s various adaptations for life in the unforgiving desert, even more was I moved by how, so firmly rooted in place and so long accustomed to suffering and deprivation, it still embodied beauty and transcendence in its very form. Given its difficult circumstances, one might expect the saguaro to be short, squat and self-contained, like a barrel cactus. Instead, its long trunk and arms stretch insistently heavenward, and its spine-covered body seems electrified with excited and almost childlike anticipation: “Look to the sky! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!”