That's right, dust breath. The world's eggheads know Arizona's greatest cultural icon (aside from Alice Cooper, of course) as Carnegiea gigantea. File that factoid away for the next time someone starts waxing too romantically over the fading embers of a mesquite campfire about "noble pillars of thorny verticality" or "blooming skyscrapers of the desert." Despite all the mythology inspired by the saguaro, it is merely a plant. It has its quirks, it has its obvious personality defects, it sometimes falls down and can't get up. Same as humans, it came from dirt and will return to dirt, although at a much slower pace. Among organisms, few things will outlive most saguaros, which can have as many as 150 birthdays. Saguaros may or may not be vanishing as a species (see story on page 38). Saguaros are used in advertising all over Texas, but don't grow there.
They grow in Arizona and in parts of Mexico. The heaviest concentrations of the plant can be found just east or just west of Tucson, a small town south of here. A few saguaros have managed to migrate across the California border, but then again, too few to mention. The cactus's popular name is generally spelled with a G (as in Scottsdale's Saguaro High School), though it's pronounced like a W (suh-WAR-oh) and was probably originally spelled with an H (as in Tucson's Sahuaro High School). This ages-old spelling dilemma is easily solved by counting how many times each is used in the Phoenix telephone book. Saguaro with a G is used by some 60 businesses. Sahuaro with an H is used by a mere 15.
Same as us, the saguaro's greatest enemy is man. Same as us, its second-greatest enemy is cold weather. In other words, the saguaro is here, it's weird, and it's not going skiing. We have our favorite local saguaros. In no particular order, here they are: @rule:
@body:The saguaros surrounding Tovrea Castle
We like these because of what they represent, which is, essentially, the artificiality of contemporary desert life. All of these saguaros were transplanted here from somewhere else, just like almost all of us. And there's a pretty wedding cake on the hill. (Bonus crypto-cactus footnote: Longtime saguaro watchers are suspicious of these particular specimens, noting that the saguaro population of Papago Park began to dwindle at about the same time Tovrea's mound was becoming a veritable saguaro forest.)
@body:The Arizona State Land Department branch office
Though not an exclusive saguaro-only community, the grounds of this state office (located at 2901 West Pinnacle Peak Road) are decorated with plants reclaimed from cactus poachers, who did the crime and are now, presumably, doing the time. Since cactus poachers tend to poach exotic or extravagant examples of cactus, the limbs of the plants on these grounds tend to be spectacularly gnarled. @rule:
@body:The saguaro behind the statue in front of the State Capitol
The statue of World War I flying ace Frank Luke is framed by a magnificent example of the cactus for whom Carnegie Hall is named, and may be the most photographed saguaro in town. It almost certainly is visited by more schoolchildren than any other. @rule:
@body:The saguaros atop the buttes at Sun Devil Stadium
Talk about exposure! These cactuses have framed many a superimposed score during Fiesta Bowl broadcasts. Most of the nation, when it thinks of Arizona, thinks of these things, in order: Evan Mecham, Barry Goldwater, a cowboy gunfight, chips, salsa, margaritas, golf, Lute Olson and Alice Cooper. Then it thinks about the time it saw these saguaros during a Fiesta Bowl ten years ago. @rule:
@body:The saguaro on the 15th fairway of the Pointe Hilton at Tapatio Cliffs golf course
This beautiful specimen of saguarohood just couldn't be transplanted out of bounds when the golf course was built a few years ago, so now it sits, surrounded by lush, green grass, as a hazard to grass-stained lushes from Green Bay. The cactus in question is clearly visible from Thunderbird Road.
@body:The saguaro on the 12th fairway of the Links course at Arizona Biltmore
As you already know, a saguaro on a golf course is no big deal. What's different and therefore notable about this particular cactus is that No. 12 was apparently designed so that a saguaro actually acts as a target for tee shots. If your ball goes much beyond the target succulent, located approximately in the center of the fairway, it goes into a pond. If it doesn't go at least as far as the cactus, odds are that your second shot could end up in the drink. So the ideal tee shot caroms off the cactus and onto a tuft of green grass, from where it can be lofted carefully over the pond and onto the green. The holes you see in this cactus are proof that not everybody is so good at lofting. @rule:
@body:Bil Keane's saguaro
Father of The Family Circus cartoon strip, Keane has been one of our leading local celebrities for decades. As is typical of persons of such social station (a group that includes Glen Campbell, Erma Bombeck, Hugh Downs and, of course, Alice Cooper), Keane has occasionally been called upon to support various civic campaigns. Keane's saguaro was invented for an anti-littering campaign the City of Phoenix cooked up in the early 1970s. A giant contest was held among schoolchildren to name the character--Wild Bill Pickup was the winning entry--and Keane was awarded the title "Very Outstanding Phoenician" for his contribution by then-mayor John Driggs. @rule:
@body:Reg Manning's saguaro
Reg Manning was cartoonist for the Arizona Republic for about 100 years, and he always included a cute little cactus--believed to be a saguaro--with his signature. We remember Reg for several reasons: 1) In addition to his duties as cartoonist, Reg also published a swell little cactus handbook titled What Kinda Cactus Izzat?, which is still carried by hipper local booksellers. 2) Reg won the Republic's only Pulitzer Prize ever. 3) New Times was founded by hippies who overreacted to one of Manning's anti-hippie cartoons. @rule:
@body:Kevin Berry's saguaro
This work, a crested saguaro rendered in rebar and roofing material, is currently on display at the Lisa Sette Gallery (4142 North Marshall Way) in Scottsdale. Titled "Mutation," Berry's scrap-heap saguaro is nine feet tall. Pop-culture critic Richard Nilsen calls it "surprisingly effective."
@body:The saguaros at Desert Botanical Garden
Also "surprisingly effective" is this stand of saguaros at the garden, especially during nighttime tours when naked docents jump out from behind them and go, "Booga-booga! Won't you join us in our cactus dance?" @rule:
@body:The Jaycees' saguaro on Seventh Street
No, indeed, the art world has not ignored the saguaro (see story on page 22). The Jaycees' majestic rendition can be visited by pulling into the parking lot at 4133 North Seventh Street (navigation tip for slobs: It's just north of the Cheetah 1 topless bar). Attached to the front of the Jaycees building--where a young Alice Cooper once performed, with his band the Spiders--it is tall and green and made out of sheet metal, and apparently exists to hold up a couple of big lamps. As far as we know, the Jaycees attach no secret ceremonial or ritualistic meaning to this sculpture. It's just there to brighten your day.