Desert Spine

Artist Kimi Eisele leads Tucsonans into desert to quietly observe region’s signature cactus

An 8-year-old boy who visited Saguaro National Park last week paid close attention to the Sonoran desert's signature cactus.

"It's big. It's spikey," he wrote about the saguaro after his trip. "It has a whole bunch of arms...I heard sounds like you're playing guitar. It taught me that I could be quiet."

Likewise, a 13-year-old marveled that the "cactus is tall. So quiet. I heard birds."

That's exactly the kind of response artist Kimi Eisele was hoping for.

The kids had come out to the national park for a Standing with Saguaros event organized by Eisele, a multi-genre artist who's been leading Tucsonans out to the desert to commune with saguaros.

She asks participants to take one hour of their lives and to stand in silence, taking in a saguaro of their choosing.

"When you look at something so closely you see the choreography of insects and other plants, all depending on the saguaro," she says. "And the saguaro is depending on them."

Those revelations, she believes, "have the potential to expand into reverence for saguaros as a species and for the desert at large."

Funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Eisele has led more than 100 people over the last two months into saguaro forests in both the east and west sections of Saguaro National Park. This weekend, at sunset on Sunday, she'll conduct the final group outing, to the Sus Picnic Area in Saguaro National Park West. The event is free and all are welcome. To sign up, see the website.

"We meet and I give an introduction," Eisele says. "Then I take them to the saguaros and set them loose."

The schoolchildren, musicians, poets and the general public who've ventured with Eisele into the park's thick saguaro stands have learned that standing quietly in the desert is very different than hiking through it. In the quiet, cellist Mona Chambers "heard saguaro language," Eisele reports. Another women wrote that she loved "seeing the scale of my small humanness against the largeness of nature."

The sustained observation creates an "intimate environmentalism," Eisele says, focusing on a specific, local ecosystem.

"It's a simple way of getting at the crux of the issue—the separation we create between humans and nature, the idea that we are superior to nature. Boundaries dissolve. People who open themselves up to it get it."

In the process, Eisele has learned a few things herself. Last week, she supervised a pack of middle-schoolers in the desert.

"I stand with saguaros," she observed drily in a Facebook posting. "Seventh graders do not."

A native Pennsylvanian who grew up walking the state's rolling green hills with her birder father, Eisele headed west right after college. Early on, she worked as a volunteer in a student program at Canyonlands National Park in Utah, learning to be an interpretive ranger and giving campfire talks.

Most importantly, she says, "It got me among people who cared deeply about wilderness."

In Tucson, where Eisele earned a master's in geography at the UA, she's made a name for herself as a dancer, choreographer, writer, teacher and filmmaker. Specializing in making art in—and about—nature, she once led the dancers in the now-defunct troupe NEW ARTiculations into the dry Santa Cruz riverbed, where they performed Flow, a concert that reflected on the Southwest's water shortages.

Likewise, in a film she shot in the Santa Rita Mountains, Eisele had the NEW ART dancers perform among the trees and rocks, embodying the animals whose habitats would be destroyed by the proposed Rosemont Mine.

Yet she puzzled over how to use dance to portray the saguaro—that loveable, human-like cactus that she calls the region's "portal species."

"I was doing a solo project on Tumamoc Hill, a solo dance," she says. "I didn't want to just mimic saguaros. I was asking myself, `How do I create a duet with a saguaro?' It doesn't want to be touched."

Inspired by time-based performance artists such as Sarah Cameron Sunde, who stood for 13 hours in tidal waters in San Francisco to highlight rising sea levels, Eisele hit upon the idea of simply spending time with a saguaro. She picked out a likely specimen on Tumamoc and faced it for an hour.

"It was a profound experience," she remembers. "It was beautiful. I stopped thinking—I was accessing stillness and appreciation. I felt like part of the landscape. After that, I invited people to join me."

The Tumamoc project morphed into Standing with Saguaros when the NEA and the National Parks Service last year put out a call for "Imagine Your Parks" arts projects that would celebrate the parks' 2016 centennial anniversary. Conceiving of her project as theater without walls, Eisele invited Borderlands Theater to join her as the required institutional partner.

The ventures into the desert are only Act One of the project, and Act Two has already begun. Eisele's interviews with participant are being aired weekly as podcasts on KXCI 91.3 FM, and a saguaro fruit harvest is on the agenda in June.

Act Three will be a November dance-theater concert inspired by the experiences of the participants, who have been asked to contribute to social media.

"All three of these acts are equal," Eisele says. "The performance is not more valuable than people going out alone."

Tyler, a 30-something man who stood with a saguaro, found his solitary moments in nature profound.

"I feel like I noticed more and more and more and more, the longer I was there," he wrote afterward. "Heard wind and wrens...felt that I was in the presence of knowledge."

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