Life as usual
Routines have changed and I’m evolving, shaped
by circumstance, wriggling into
new spaces, expanding into
unfamiliar realms, making it
Just short of four months ago I traveled deep into the Sonoran desert near Arizona’s border with Mexico with my partner. We explored Organ Pipe National Monument, part of a vast desert landscape that ranges through parts of California and Arizona, and into Mexico.
Cutting across this desert is an international border. It is ignored and crossed fairly easily by plants and animals – at least while there is no wall. People fight over this line and suffer deeply because of it. Many lose their lives. The evidence of this struggle is quite apparent. Between border conflicts and the difficult desert environment, it’s clear that here, the ability to adapt is crucial.
How people adapt or fail to adapt is a complicated story that I don’t feel equipped to tell, except to say that the signs I saw – the border fence and checkpoints, the helicopter that buzzed us when we went off trail, empty water jugs scattered across the sand, graves and roadside memorials – those signs of struggle were impossible to get away from. In retrospect it’s almost as if they were a portent of the life-threatening change that would throw us completely off balance within hours of returning to civilization, a change that forced us to adapt beyond what we would have imagined.
But as we walked and drove through the desert we were purely in the moment. I was focused on taking photographs. Needless to say, I took a lot.* Looking through them, an obvious category is plant life – the cacti and their allies, those brilliantly adapted, tough and prickly plants of the desert that tell their own stories of adaptation. Another group of photographs, maybe for another post, touches on the stark realities of the border and this desolate, unforgiving country. For now, the plants:
The familiar looking Englemann’s Prickly Pear cactus (similar cacti grow in many parts of the US) is found scattered throughout the park. I love the soft green color of this cactus but in black and white one’s attention is drawn to the contrast between its round shape and spiky spines, which I find compelling.
The large, multiple stem cactus for which the park is named is the Organ Pipe cactus. It’s more common in Mexico but inches onto the southern edge of the US map, here in the hot Sonoran desert. This cactus and others that are rare in the U.S. are the primary reason the land was set aside, way back in 1937.
I’m not big on interpretive signs, preferring to keep fresh eyes and form my own take on things. Once in a while I do read them. A sign along the winding, scenic road through the park informs visitors that wind blowing through an Organ Pipe cactus makes a strangely beautiful sound. It was a breezy day so we chose a huge old specimen and gingerly stuck our heads into the mass of spine-cloaked stems.
The sound was enchanting and otherworldly – a kind of breathy, ethereal melody perfectly suited to the spare, quiet landscape.
Another cactus more often seen Mexico than America is the Senita cactus, below. It has a similar growth habit to the Organ Pipe, but the details are different. Older specimens in the second photograph show the Senita’s distinctive hairy looking tops. A moth has co-evolved with the cactus, both species adapting to the environment and one another in a complex evolutionary dance. The moth larvae live on Senita cacti and eat the fruits; the moth itself pollinates Senita’s night-blooming flowers. This cactus can grow tall, to 13 feet.
Twenty-six species of cactus live at Organ Pipe; all have adapted to life at temperatures ranging over 100 F to below freezing, with scant, unpredictable rainfall. Below is a typical jumble of peculiar forms as Saguaro, Ocotillo, Senita, Cholla, Brittlebush, Palo Verde tree, and others vie for space in the arid environment. Organ Pipe National Monument is really a lush desert garden.
Perhaps the most common cactus is the Saguaro, seen here in the foreground and scattering up the hillside to the left.
An example of the rare cristate mutation on a Saguaro. The cause might be frost but no one is sure why the cactus sometimes grows in this ornate pattern.
Cacti can be seen at Organ Pipe in all stages of growth and decay. Both Organ Pipe and Saguaro cacti will often begin life hidden under a desert tree such as the Palo Verde, which provides just enough shelter for the cactus to get a good grip on life. Once we started looking for them, we saw many young cacti under trees and shrubs, like the Organ Pipe below. Look carefully and you can see a shorter stem in front of the main stem. Over time, it will grow many stems, and may live well over a hundred years.
Below is the skeleton and peeling “skin” of a fallen giant – in this case, an Occotillo.
The fallen Saguaro below pulled up the desert floor when it toppled, exposing the rough rock it grew in. Below it you can see the “skin” of a dead Saguaro.
This oddly beckoning skeleton is probably a Jumping Cholla cactus. Further down, you’ll see a live one.
Like the Tohono O’odham people, who have lived here for many generations, cacti have adapted well to desert extremes. Shallow root systems and flexible “skins” allow cacti to quickly gulp down rain that falls as unpredictably as a cat’s meanderings. Pale colors reflect away the over-abundant light. Spines provide protection from thirsty animals, guide raindrops towards the cactus flesh, and create slender threads of shade on sweltering days. Many cacti can put their metabolism into idle mode to wait out the calendar’s rough spots.
Below, a roadside scene at Organ Pipe where Cholla cacti and Saguaros are set against the Ajo Range. On the other side is the 4,340 square mile Tohono O’odham (‘Desert People’) reservation, the second largest in the country.
Where there’s water, plant life adapts and changes gears. At Quitobaquito Springs near the border, trees and a wild tangle of grasses edge a pond.
This harsh land has a strange beauty. The image below is an Ocotillo plant with the Ajo Mountains in the background. The Ocotillo’s peculiar spindly form is an odd favorite of mine. I was introduced to them silhouettes at Joshua Tree in California. It was good to see the Ocotillo’s eccentric scribbles punctuating the landscape again in southern Arizona.
Some Ocotillos sport striped branches that contrast with new leaves, others don’t.
Another adaptation? Maybe. The small, tough leaves can appear a few days after a good rain and then fall off in dry spells, the plant going dormant, for years if necessary.
This is Jumping cholla, or Chain fruit cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida). This specimen, with its balanced, formal symmetry, reminds me of Victorian decoration.
Below is another Cholla cactus, the Teddy Bear Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigloveii). Its tiny, backward hooked spines are like little velcro magnets – get anywhere near them and they’ll detach and seem to jump onto you. Good luck removing them! At Joshua Tree in California I saw a discarded T shirt by a Cholla patch – picking out the spines just wasn’t worth the effort (it would have been nice if they’d packed it out). This cactus is also known for the way its spines catch light, glowing into dusk.
We were too early to see cactus flowers, except for a few. Below, the bud of a cactus, possibly a species of Mammillaria. Many species of Mammillaria cactus grow in Mexico but only a few thrive in the US, at least in the wild. They’re actually popular as cultivated cacti. Below that is a barrel cactus with last year’s fruit, well protected behind a thick ring of sharp spines.
Below, a rare Elephant tree (Bursera microphylla) wedges its water-swollen trunk and lower branches into the poor soil on a rocky hillside. I would have inhaled deeply if I’d known the tree has a wonderfully pungent fragrance, which I learned later online (no interpretive sign for that!). With all the moisture it can store, this tree can go a year without rain. Very susceptible to cold, it doesn’t get very tall here. It has tiny leaves (so it won’t lose too much water to respiration) arrayed on delicate branches, which contrast with the tough-barked swollen trunk. The leaves’ pores open at night, further conserving water.
Certain indigenous people cautioned that its reddish sap, used medicinally, must be kept out of sight. I was drawn to this mysterious tree and would have liked to sit under it for an hour, but I don’t usually have that luxury when traveling.
Lessons for my next trip:
- Read up more before you go, if possible.
- Work in time to just sit and take it all in.
Another intriguing adaptation is the relationship between the Phainopepla, a medium sized, crested bird and the Desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum). When the bird eats mistletoe berries, they’re digested and the seeds are left behind, typically in a perfect spot for future germination. The mistletoe is a hemiparasite that grows on desert trees and shrubs, and the Phainopepla naturally deposits the seeds onto a branch as it perches, looking for the next meal. Below you can see the berries growing close up, Desert mistletoe in a Palo Verde tree, and berries left on a branch – they don’t appear to have gone through anyone’s stomach, but the desert’s mysteries are many…
Maybe that’s a Phainopepla feather caught on that mistletoe branch…
Our own adaptations to changing circumstances – physical, emotional, intellectual – may be a little harder to see than those of the plants at Organ Pipe, but are just as interesting if you think about them. Let’s hope we can be as successful, and can evolve with rather than against our surroundings.
* Taking travel photographs is challenging. Every time I travel to a new place, excitement takes over. When I get home I realize all the things I forgot to do: I should have used a different aperture, I shouldn’t have left the polarizing filter on, I should have composed more carefully, held the camera steady, checked the exposure, etc. Maybe I should tape a small sign on my camera the next time I travel that says, “Stop. Think.” The most successful photos above are thanks to a practiced eye and the miracles of digital cameras and software, in spite of an over-excited mind. The less successful ones are lessons for me.