Giant saguaros--vegetable pillars rising over the Sonoran Desert.
You might see them as admired brethren. Like us, they can be poetic, grotesque and wacky. Like us, they stand upright, seemingly alien survivors on the parched landscape.

But, of course, looks are deceiving. Without canals and freon and air conditioning, we wouldn't be here. Nearly anyplace but here.

Saguaros, on the other hand, grow and prosper in this place only. They don't so much belong to the Sonoran Desert as it belongs to them.

They are hardy and long-lived. It's conceivable that Arizona possesses a saguaro whose immediate progenitor beheld the expedition of Vsquez de Coronado. Another might hold the secret of the Hohokam.

Native Americans believe that saguaros are beings. Recent interlopers see them more as resources, playthings, decorations, targets, pets, symbols.

Especially symbols. More than any other icon--including the Airstream Trailer and the golf tee--the giant saguaro cactus conjures this land to the rest of the world. The saguaro speaks to romantics around the globe. "Desert," it says to Filipinos, New Mexicans and Russians, Israeli and Palestinian alike. "Cactus. Arizona."

We "own" them, live near them and drive past them, occasionally traffic in them, scarcely acknowledging their magnanimity in sharing their space.

Even while we contemplate or chronicle the saguaros--as we do in this issue--we take them for granted.

As native and territorial cultures evolve further into a convolution of stucco and strip malls and overpasses and liver spots, the saguaros stand firmly to testify to what this place once was: theirs alone.

Theirs and the gila monster's, anyway.