Columnar Characters: New book celebrates the symbolism of saguaros in Arizona and beyond

Illustration by Mary Eaton, featured on back of book

Driving into the Southwest from any direction, the first sight of a saguaro cactus waving on the horizon serves as a "welcome" for Arizona residents and tourists alike. But even more than a welcome sign, the saguaro is an icon of the American South, even for those who don't know what the Sonoran Desert is or pronounce saguaro with a hard G.

A new book, "In the Arms of Saguaros," tracks the iconography of the accordion-pleated colossi alongside the development of the Arizona territory. At first a food source for Native Americans, the saguaros came to be used in art, architecture, clothing and tourism — but it wasn't always that way. What was at first ignored by American developers gradually became critical.

Author William Bird followed the appropriation and influence of the saguaro through decades of American history. "In the Arms of Saguaros" serves as both a picture book rife with saguaro imagery, and a timeline of Arizona's growth.

Bird originally came to Tucson to earn his master's degree in history at the University of Arizona. Though he first lived here for fewer than two years in the mid-'70s, he says he was quickly enthralled by the desert landscape and flora, and research for this book served as a kind of "exercise in nostalgia."

"These photos of people posing in the arms of saguaros really suggest to me a kind of effort to become one with the plant, at one with botany, even at your own peril," Bird said. "It's become a kind of meme or regional identifier that has gone national, and even international."

"In the Arms of Saguaros" is published by the University of Arizona Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill.

Saguaros are easily recognizable, and can be enormous, but do you think there's something about their vaguely humanoid shape that people connect with?

Well, I always feel like they're waving at me. That's kind of a joke, but in every joke there's an element of the truth. That is always commented upon when people use it to promote the desert Southwest. It reflects the anthropomorphic moods of humankind. You'll have ballerinas mimicking saguaros, and everyone who writes about the Southwest poses with a saguaro. That pose is very telling. And you can't get close enough to them, clearly, with all the old photos of people climbing in them, hence the title of the book.

In all your research for the book, what is the most unique saguaro memorabilia or art you came across?

I'd have to say the Mary Eaton botanical illustration on the back of the book. That to me is one of the most compelling things featured in the book. But I also like the more modest things available to anyone. Like back in the day, the items made by saguaro rib crafters, those are charming and highly collectible... As a museum person, I'm into the materiality of it. The icon is always there, and people always riff on it and make it their own. But my job as a curator and author is to find things that are interesting to look at, and build the story around that.

I see that you're the curator emeritus of the political history collection at the National Museum of American History. During your research, did you see any fascinating ways the saguaro had political impacts?

Iconography is sort of an accumulative process, like getting on a slow-moving train. So I assumed quite naturally that this process was an arc that went from the lower left, and up in a steady climb. But it's more like a sawtooth. There was a great effort made around 1893 at the Chicago World's Fair to represent the Arizona territory with saguaros transplanted to the fairgrounds in Chicago... Oddly enough, there were people who complained that was not the appropriate symbol for the territory, because it suggested that was the only thing that could grow in Arizona's soil. So if you look through the territory and then state's iconography, there's actually a paucity of saguaro imagery. In fact, the state seal today has a dam, a lake, a miner, a cow, but no saguaro... It isn't until the '20s or '30s that you begin to see saguaros on the edge of the brochures, and gradually it moves to the center. So politically, it sort of begins as this fraught, problematic symbol for a lot of people... There's almost a reluctance or "desert denial," but they really come around to it by the '50s and are actually creating a botanical landscape for advertising purposes that has no basis in reality. They take a golf course brochure and add in saguaros to the background. I think they recognize people are curious about it. It's an attraction that is unique to the Sonoran Desert.

In your research, did you see any appropriation of the saguaro imagery by artists outside of the desert or around the world? If so, how was the saguaro iconography changed?

Well sometimes you'll even see it reproduced in this country and it's wrong. Or you'll see the Peruvian apple cactus in decorating magazines and they'll have arms that suggest it's a saguaro. But the ones I have seen are an English T-shirt with a saguaro outline, that was surprisingly accurate if you're just trying to show someone what a saguaro looks like. There are others that are completely abstract but still spot-on, like an artist who had a knit stocking over their head with two eye-holes that looks quite dramatic, if impractical.

For more information, visit

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly