Lovably Prickly

Arizona's iconic cactus gets a thorough look in the wonderful 'All About Saguaros'

People love their saguaros.

Just ask the Arizona electric utility that was recently pilloried in the media and on the Web as the result of a YouTube video showing what's really involved in keeping the lights on. A big machine called a mower, used to manage overgrown vegetation in right-of-way corridors, is shown taking out a saguaro cactus under an electric transmission line. The machine looks just like a big juicer, spitting out a stream of green, mucilaginous slime.

The video went viral, and the resulting uproar caused the Arizona Corporation Commission to step in and decree that the utility must now transplant large numbers of saguaros instead of mowing them.

Notwithstanding the fact that—according to Leo W. Banks' great new Arizona Highways book, All About Saguaros: Facts, Lore, Photos—there are millions and millions of them out there, and transplants (especially those more than 6 feet tall) tend to not survive. Oh, and then there's the added cost to someone's electric bill (thank you, Arizona Corporation Commission), but whatever.

(For the record, the issue with big, juicy, electrolyte-filled saguaros under transmission lines is that if conditions are right, high-voltage electricity can potentially ground out through a nearby saguaro, frying anyone unfortunate enough to be hugging that particular cactus. Both a scientist in the current book and I say: Mow the damn saguaro, and plant some baby saguaros somewhere else. And before any of you crazies out there send me hate mail: I don't want to hear about it unless you're off the grid.)

But saguaros are a powerful symbol to Southern Arizonans, and they bring out all kinds of weird behavior in people.

All About Saguaros briefly recounts the true story of one David Grundman. Mr. Grundman, 24 and a yokel living in Phoenix, went out with a buddy of his in the desert west of town armed with alcohol and weapons—that potent combination favored by many Arizonans. The year was 1982, and they were hunting the wily saguaro cactus. Mr. Grundman managed to drop a saguaro—on himself, ironically snuffing out his own life. (If this isn't natural selection, I don't know what is.) The saguaro also died, but did so proudly in the service of its species.

The Austin Lounge Lizards memorialized the incident in a hilariously wonderful song called, you guessed it, "Saguaro." Banks quotes it in his book. (For a full-blown account of the Grundman incident, find Tucsonan Tom Miller's wonderful Jack Ruby's Kitchen Sink.)

Banks is a local scribe who for 30 years has been slinging words for rags like the Los Angeles Times Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated and (one of my favorites) the Tucson Weekly, among others. In his spare time, he's pounded out five books and contributed to a couple more.

Having once worked for the publisher of this book, the Arizona Department of Transportation (but please know that I didn't inhale), I was initially skeptical of yet another dreary Arizona Highways tome. However, this new book on saguaros is a wonder and a delight.

There's not a lot written out there about saguaros, and what there is often tends to be dull and sometimes even incorrect. Banks has done his homework, though, and touched base with a number of leading researchers on the big cacti. (My editor says I should tell you that I either know or am friends with some of these scientists. Please don't hold that against them. They are good people and fine scientists, every one of them.)

Banks, in just less than 100 pages, walks us through what saguaros mean to us and to the native Tohono O'odham folks; saguaro biology; saguaro ecology; saguaro myths, legends and lore; past worries about saguaro extinction; and the very real threats they face today. (Hint: Those threats have little to do with electric power lines. Try bulldozers and buffelgrass.)

It wouldn't be an Arizona Highways book without the photos. Most of the big photography guns in the Arizona Highways stable are represented. For you visual learners out there, the book is a feast of color and beauty. There is the saguaro Santa, the snow-covered saguaro, the saguaro skeleton, the saguaro in a lake, the saguaro at sunset, saguaro flowers, saguaro fruit, and my favorite, the saguaro surrounded by a blooming ironwood tree.

We are lucky to live in such an amazing place, and Leo W. Banks has done a fine job telling the story of one of the Sonoran Desert's most interesting residents.

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