A ribbed gray-green sentinel stands guard over the Ballantine Trail north of Mesa, Arizona. One arm protrudes above the trail, thrust forward to bar the way. Could it speak, this twenty foot high saguaro would require a password: water. Why not? After all, water is the rare and cherished gold of the desert. Once uttered, the saguaro would sweep its arm to the side, and I would continue my merry way down the trail, the yellow rocky cliff to my left, the intermittent stream to my right.
But the saguaro remains motionless. Nearby mesquite boughs wave in a light breeze while the saguaro stands firm. I duck under the arm and walk through, an easy feat for a five-foot-four creature like myself.
What if saguaros could speak? What would they have to say? How are we to relate to these iconic giants of the southwest?
A child I know calls them the human cactus. Indeed, their upright stature and varied arms are easy to personify. Each saguaro has its own character, a unique arrangement of limbs and cavities. The peeping heads of Gila Woodpeckers and Elf Owls are framed in these holes, each occupying their own room in the saguaro hotel. At the top: a crown of white flowers upon which White-winged Doves perch, daintily sipping nectar as if it were tea.
The saguaro may not be able to speak, but, as Tucson artist Kimi Eisele can tell you, there are other ways to interact. In collaboration with Borderlands Theater and Saguaro National Park, Kimi spent the past year directing a participatory theater and dance experience to celebrate the saguaro cactus.
Standing with Saguaros is a three-act series of site-responsive performances and activities funded, in part, by the National Endowment of the Arts in celebration of the National Park Service Centennial. It culminates Nov. 11, 12, and 13 with “A Whisper Through the Spines”, an immersive theater experience performed in Saguaro National Park by an ensemble of nine actors, dancers, and musicians.
Eisele describes the production as a “moving performance”, meaning audiences will be led through areas of the Park and Visitor Center. “We’re creating an alternate ‘saguaro world’ where human and animal characters come to life to share the stories and feelings of the desert,” Eisele says.
Presented by Borderlands Theater in collaboration with Stories that Soar/Literacy Connects, “A Whisper Through the Spines” draws directly from experiences and stories shared during the project’s first two acts.
In Act 1, participants were invited to stand with a saguaro anywhere in Saguaro National Park for an hour. Over 220 people of all ages participated, sharing their comments and selfies online in a six-week campaign, #IStandwithSaguaros.
Act 2 involved gathering and listening to stories through The Saguaro Minute radio program on KXCI, which Eisele produced specifically for the project. “I wanted to understand the many relationships we have with the cactus—icon, ancestor, food source, shelter, ecological marker, friend,” Eisele says. “I figured the best way to share that with others was through radio.”
Eisele also hosted a saguaro fruit harvest in collaboration with Stella Tucker, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation whose family has been harvesting saguaro fruit in the area of Saguaro National Park since before it was a park. Tucker’s story will be shared through dance and dialogue in Act 3.
Other stories to appear in Act 3 include a dance by a tormented lover who realizes the object of her affection cannot be touched, a tribute to saguaros by a saxophone player, and a special funeral service for a fallen friend. Several Sonoran Desert creatures will also surprise and entertain audience members who happen to glimpse them.
Inside the Red Hills Visitor Center, audiences will also be able to watch a filmed version of the Saguaro Ball, a sunrise celebration in which 40 dancers gathered in Saguaro National Park to waltz in their finest attire with saguaros. The Saguaro Ball commemorated the centennial anniversary of the National Park System.
Eisele began Standing with Saguaros as a solo artist on Tumamoc Hill. A dancer and choreographer, Eisele asked, “How can I use my body in this place?” Her first dance encounters with the Tumamoc saguaros resulted in mimicry. Dissatisfied with the all-to-easy approach of “trying to be a saguaro”, Eisele posed a new question: How can I duet with a saguaro? She spent an hour at sunset meditating with a saguaro and invited others to join her. The result was an “odd and moving experience, part meditation, part performance.”
Eisele’s project expanded in scope and harnessed vibrant local support. Her connections have woven a web of diverse collaborations with various community members.
For The Saguaro Minute, Eisele interviewed Maribel Alvarez, executive director of the Southwest Folklife Alliance, about the dangers of one-dimensional icons, such as Pancho the Sleeping Mexican. Pancho came to life in the 1960s as a curio image of a man in a sombrero, sleeping against a saguaro. It has since become a clichéd image of the southwest, sometimes perpetuating a stereotype of the lazy Mexican.
The Sleeping Mexican appears in Act 3 to share his own story and reminds us that the southwest, its peoples, and its saguaros, are far more nuanced.
Saguaros, Eisele says, are “multi-dimensional plants, living beings.” Like humans, no two plants are alike. These desert sentinels are marked by their quirky limbs pointing every which way, though mostly up. They carry one-of-kind scars and stand in singular beauty.
Eisele hopes to transcend a hierarchical way of thinking about humans, plants, and animals. Standing with Saguaros asks us to consider how these plants can be primary, not secondary, members of community, and how we might take a moment to really appreciate them.
The words of James Wright in his Poem “To the Saguaro Cactus Tree in the Desert Rain” come to mind. May we stand before a saguaro and say:
You are not one of the gods.
Your green arms lower and gather me.
I am an elf owl’s shadow, a secret
Member of your family.
A Whisper through the Spines: Standing with Saguaros Act III
Nov. 11, 12, & 13, 2016 at 2:00pm
Red Hills Visitor Center
Saguaro National Park, West
2700 N. Kinney Rd., Tucson, AZ
Suggested donation of $10
Donate online, as we cannot accept donations in the Park.
Park fees apply.
Limited seating, reservations required.
Reserve seats and donate:
Or by phone: 520-882-8607