The Most Beautiful Desert You’ve Never Seen

Maya L. Kapoor


Every shovelful of soil is damp and clumpy, thanks to yesterday’s downpour. These are good digging conditions. If we’d come on a drier week it would have been like excavating through concrete. Patsy rubs the velvety brown dirt with the toe of her black sneaker. “This is gonna be nice,” she says. “Sometimes you have to use a pickaxe to get into stuff.”

The Sonoran Desert is wintertime gorgeous. The air feels tangy and cool; remnants of white storm clouds feather blue sky. Palo verdes, saguaros, chollas, and prickly pears mingle in the sun, while bursage and barrel cacti lounge at their feet. I know some of these plants have been growing in this configuration for longer than I, my retiree companions, or even the State of Arizona have existed. But on my first cactus rescue trip, I’m not here to appreciate the desert. I’m here to disassemble it.

I’ve tagged along with the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society to the property of a church. The church plans to scrape the desert from 15 of its acres and raise solar panels in its place, expecting thereby to save millions of dollars in energy costs in the next two decades. Today, we will save as many plants as we can from half an acre. Whatever plants we don’t collect will be bulldozed. Then photovoltaic cells will go up and they, instead of plants, will harvest sunlight on this shining landscape a half-hour north of Tucson.

Shovel on shoulder and empty cardboard box in hand, I weave around vegetation to the back of an area cordoned off by rope. I’m scouting for pincushions, little Sonoran cacti that I love. Their scientific name is Mammillaria grahamii. In Spanish, the name for the plant I seek is cabeza de viejo, old man’s head. Only a few inches tall, shaggy with white spines, it’s a hoary-looking fuzzball that’s easy to miss when not wearing its summertime wreathe of pink flowers. In subtropical climates I have wandered below endless arboreal tangles of plants competing ferociously for sunlight, their canopies stretching far above me to form distant living ceilings. In this land of merciless sunshine plants rely on each other’s shade for survival. Pincushions nestle in the shadowy protection of bigger vegetation. And so as I walk I check under trees and shrubs, steadfast green islands battered by hot breezes.

In college I believed the get-out-of-jail-free characteristic of solar panels was that they were a source of power requiring no new development, because they were laid on top of already-existing structures. Humans could generate consequence-free electricity. Solar panels cost drastically less now than they did when I was in college in the late nineties. And with the help of a variety of economic incentives, solar has become enticing even where no buildings stand. I see stand-alone solar panels more and more in the desert. In commercial parking lots in Tucson, rows of solar panels shade cars. On curving highways, I pass distant acres of tilted black surfaces shimmering in the heat. Instead of feeling relieved, I feel unaccountably trapped by these sights.
The solar company hired by the church has asked the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society to help fulfill one development obligation under local law, which is to rescue a certain percentage of on-site cacti. Patsy and Joe, a married team of retirees, lead the rescue trip. Joe, profusely bearded, a bit hoary himself, tells me that the rescue group works with any landowners or project managers who extend invitations, removing select plants from the landscape by shovel, pickaxe, wheelbarrow, and thickly-gloved hand before construction begins. “We don’t judge the project,” Joe says. As the society’s cactus crew rescue coordinator, Joe has collected cacti on everything from future shopping center parking lots to high school properties to copper mines.

The rescuers do triage, skipping over plants that can’t be moved or are unlikely to survive transplanting. Joe shows me a monstrous fishhook barrel cactus on the church’s property. The other barrels are squat globes the size of ottomans with longitudinal ridges running from crown to base. This one, though, is a barrel cactus as Dalí might have painted it. It lists to one side, grows decumbent along the ground for about 3 feet, then twists up and sprouts out. Golden buds like apples bulge from its surface. Its skin is reptilian, rows swirled into cracked bumps and scales. Joe tells me that these strange redirections and regrowths are signs of the cactus’s recovering from trauma—beetles burrowing into it, a deep frost, perhaps an infection. The barrel cactus’s fantastical, ugly shape documents the desert-grown challenges it has survived. Plants record history in their forms. We won’t be rescuing this beast—it would be too heavy for us to move. Plus who would put it in her garden? This cactus will be cleared away by heavy machinery. I catch the hooked end of a spine with my fingernail and pull gently until I feel resistance. Of all the adaptations barrel cacti have evolved to survive, bulldozers are not on the list. I read later that this species of barrel lives to more than 100 years of age.

And yet the triage is tinged with greed. The trip feels, at times, like a mix between battlefield hospital and fire sale. Over there, men bear fallen saguaros on gurneys of carpeting scraps. Over here, plants are arranged in new groupings that correspond to ownership. Cacti, which grow slowly, are much more expensive in nurseries than the few dollars they cost today. It’s not just about cost, though; these plants are marvelous. Searching for pincushions to rescue, I find scooped out rectangular depressions of soil—each one a cactus erased from the landscape. I notice a cholla, a purple-tinged arborescent cactus that’s 4 feet tall, narrow segments bristling with spines, lying on the ground. Picking it up by its roots, I hold the cholla carefully away from my hip as I approach the truck. The woman who dug up the cholla sees me and gets a tight expression. “Are you planning on keeping that?” she asks. No, I have no cholla ambitions. I am looking for ways to help. She takes her cholla away. Of all the chollas surrounding us, fifteen will be chosen for rescue today.

Caught up in the desire to claim, I choose a baby saguaro that is 6 inches tall and sprouting gangly roots. Lying on a piece of cardboard, it looks so forlorn I can’t help adopting it. I will give it to a friend for her garden in town. Maybe in 15 years it will be a taller than us—certainly taller than me. When planting the saguaro, we will have to use the white-out dot a volunteer painted on its south-facing side to orient it in the same direction it was growing here, so that it doesn’t sunburn. Saguaros, the rescuers tell me, have sensitive skin. They grow more spines on their more sun-exposed sides. Improperly re-planted, a saguaro can sunburn in a day.

In the back of the rescue area, hidden behind a spreading palo verde, a tired woman leans on her shovel. She looks up when I approach. She is tall and athletic, with grey hair in a ponytail under a baseball cap. The wheelbarrow beside her is full of pincushions. The largest are softball-sized.

“What do you think?” she asks.

“It’s a little sad.”

“You noticed that?” She looks past me into the green foliage of the palo verde. “It’s especially hard in the spring when there are all the birds singing and the wildflowers.” She has been on cactus rescues in breathtaking, hidden locations. Of places she has gone that are closed to public access, places slated for copper mining or development by utilities companies, she says, “It’s so beautiful, the most beautiful desert you’ve ever seen. And you know it’s never going to be like that again.” The woman, an ophthalmologist, tells me she’s from Wisconsin but fell in love with the desert and finally was able to retire out here. Volunteering for the cactus rescue group is a way to give back to the landscape she loves. She likes the work because she’s a loner. Sometimes on these trips she chooses to be with others. Often she chooses to work alone. “I just hate to think of the animals,” she says. Turning to me she adds, “It’s just that—we all use copper. There’s copper in everything.”

A few years ago, my coworkers at the University of Arizona’s Office of Sustainability and I passed around a mailer depicting a little girl in a flowery dress with long blonde braids, blue eyes, and a halo of sun shining on her flaxen head. She held a solar panel to her chest and gazed skyward. The advertisement came from a company intending to build in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson a copper mine 1 mile in diameter and 29 hundred feet deep. The intended message: Copper mining is an integral part of renewable energy. The message I saw: All technology comes with hidden costs. Now, watching Joe direct men toppling a distant saguaro, I consider how the church is clearing this land to erect solar panels only because elsewhere, land has been cleared already to pull copper from deep inside the earth. I have stood at the edge of an Arizona open pit copper mine and peered down. More than a mile across and deep enough to play tricks with my perception, the pit was an irregular bowl of exposed brown and white rock, scraped and terraced all the way down. Trucks with tires as tall as elephants appeared like ants tending sandy nests.

I am ensnared by a gleaming web of metallic thread. I used to believe that by the time I grew up we, whomever I might have thought we meant, would have found renewable energy—solar, wind, technologies I didn’t even know about—to save the plants and places I loved, to slow or even stop human-caused climate change. By now I’ve learned that everything, renewable energy sources included, has its own troubled stories. “Today’s economic and political shift toward renewable energy creates a strange dilemma for the environmentalists,” Bill Carter muses in “Boom Bust Boom.” “Wind and solar energy require massive amounts of copper, which means more open-pit mines.” Maybe this realization creates the feeling of being stuck: All construction requires materials. All energy requires conduction. I cannot separate what I want from the detriment of getting it.

Because I live in Arizona—which draws from its rugged earth close to 60 percent of my country’s annual copper yield—I think about copper’s ubiquity often and I struggle to perform certain cost-benefit analyses. Stretchy, malleable, corrosion resistant, a good conductor of heat and energy, copper is the fabric of my high-tech life. It’s in the smartphone I use to text my friend about planting the little saguaro in her garden; the voice recorder saving cactus rescuers’ words for me; the telecommunications networks with which I do research; the hulls of the ships that carried all my gadgets to me in sleek boxes; and all of the appliances, plumbing, and heating or cooling systems I use without thought during my days. Most of all, copper gleams in the bodies and hearts of Arizona’s mountains. To gather it mining companies blast and scoop canyon-sized mines that have been photographed by astronauts from the International Space Station. Ecological communities near copper pit mines in Arizona, including humans, contend with serious health threats from exposure to dangerous levels of heavy metals. I have hiked mountains with startling views of enormous mines, or driven close by mines’ edges, and been struck by how tailing ponds resemble modern-day pyramids rising from the parched earth on the edge of southwestern towns in their engineering, permanence, and sheer scale. Still, the owners of this half-acre where I gently prise pincushions from soil—or anyone installing alternative energy sources such as solar panels, or windmills, for that matter—need copper. In daily life, I need copper. This is not a conundrum that any number of wheelbarrows of cacti will solve. Simply put, I am paying for the technology of modern life in units of desert. Some of that technology is worth it, and some of it is not. When I am done avoiding the question of how many and what kinds of technology seem enough, I will sit down with this question: How much and which desert is enough?

Hoping to save something, I peer into shady hiding places. Scatterings of dry, round rabbit droppings remind me of animals who feed on cactus fruit: rabbits, birds, squirrels, deer, javelina. Flowers turn to fruit because of pollinators: bats, hummingbirds, moths, native bees. Ant piles glitter in the sun, reminding me that ants and cacti have evolved close relationships in the desert, because plant and insect have spent a very long time together here. Barrel cacti grow sweet nectaries at their crowns near where they fruit. Ants eat the nectar and seem to protect the cacti from cactus-devouring insects in return. Humans don’t entirely know the details of this mutualism between insect and plant. The desert still has its subtle, essential mysteries. This subtlety makes it easy not to miss the desert when it’s gone.

As the ophthalmologist speaks I look at the toes of our boots. The tiniest hedgehog cactus I’ve ever seen pokes up from the grass. I bend over and tug gently on the tip of the little cactus.

The ophthalmologist says, “Dig up some of the root. I think if you pull, you’ll leave too much behind.”

I push the blade of my shovel into the ground with the ball of my foot. “Is this enough?”

“Yeah, it’s enough.” This hedgehog is only one stem, not yet a cluster. She watches me carefully handle it. “We do the best we can, you know?”

For today, my best is rescuing what I can with fingers, arms, back. I appreciate that we are able to save any of these cacti at all. But I know that plant-by-plant is no long-term solution for the fast pace of desert development. I want to transplant this entire half-acre. I want to rescue the parts living and not—every scoop of damp soil, plants still waiting inside seeds, the ants that don’t stand a chance—and the relationships among them all. Not just the plants that laws, aesthetics, or physics have rendered salvageable.

Later, after I have purchased this little hedgehog, several pincushions, and the baby saguaro, I will sit in my car composing notes on the day. The warm, enclosed space will take on the mucilaginous smell of moist cactus and soil, a scent like unripe honeydew melon. My car contains almost a mile of copper wire.


Maya L. Kapoor writes about nature in the urbanizing West. Her work can be found in, Essay Daily, Territory, and “The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide,” among other places. Maya holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a master’s degree in biology from Arizona State University. She is an associate editor with High Country News.