On the art of writing short.
Once a week, I get together with an old friend to talk about writing. Nancy lives in New Mexico and I'm in France, so we meet by phone. Sometimes I get so excited during our rambling conversations that I leap out of my mother-in-law's tomato-red fauteuil and begin pacing around our flat in Butte Montceau. I scribble little notes on odd pieces of paper, and gesture wildly, even though Nancy can't see me. (Not because she's blind or anything but because our phones are the old-fashioned kind.)
Recently she mentioned that she intended to write . . . someday . . . about some of the objects that occupy her work space—artifacts she's collected over the years, each one of which contains a special meaning.
"Do it now!" I yelped. Then I began pacing.
Objects are often my way into a story, and I use them in my writing workshops.The book I've been working on begins with a little story about a spoon. The same book contains stories about a French passport issued in 1923 and a wooden stool with a secret hidey-hole. For years, I've been wanting to do an entire book of little essays about objects that tell stories, complete with photos or drawings of the objects. I asked Nancy to please, please send me an essay. So she did.
I was hoping for one essay, but she sent two, on the same subject, one long and one short. I read the short one first, loved it, and then read the longer one—and loved it, too. I've posted them both here.
The shorter of Nancy's essays is 219 words. Do you know how hard it is to squeeze an essay into 219 words? Most professionals, given such an assignment, would roll their eyes and go"You gotta be kidding me."
Read the two essays and decide for yourself, but if you ask me, they are equally effective. Both delve into the connection between human beings and the natural world. Both navigate between the ephemeral and the eternal. Both evoke the mystery and austerity of the desert. Both address the companion themes of loss and renewal.
At a cursory glance, you might mistake this doll for Native American or African art, or for an art doll made intentionally to appear primitive, or for an expensive piece of contemporary art. She is none of these things. She was created by a saguaro cactus.
Something—a gila woodpecker or perhaps a tunneling caterpillar of the cactus moth—made a hole in the soft skin. The giant cactus sealed and healed that wound with a tough scab of dried mucilage and woody scar tissue called callus. When the saguaro came to the end of its long life and fell to the desert floor, this patch, this tough growth survived after its green flesh had returned to earth.
The particular cactus that created this doll lived and died on property that belonged to a friend of mine in Cave Creek, Arizona. She discovered the doll in its desiccated remains, among its woody ribs. Several years ago she gave it to me.
My friend died a year ago on her patch of Sonoran Desert. Her ashes are there.
This doll, made of scar tissue, remains with me, a strange and beautiful gift of the natural world. From time to time, in some mysterious way, and for just a moment, she brings my cherished friend back to me.
The Saguaro Doll
Anyone can see that this is a doll.
It, or she, as I prefer, could be mistaken for Native American or African art. She could be mistaken for an art doll made intentionally to appear primitive. She could be mistaken for an expensive piece of contemporary art. She is none of these things. This doll was created by a saguaro cactus—with a little help from its friends.
The Tohono O’odham people and the saguaro cactus have lived together for centuries in the Sonoran Desert of North America. Traditionally, the Tohono O’odham view the majestic giant cactus not as a plant, but as another form of humanity. Indeed, anyone in the presence of the saguaro can feel its mystery and grandeur. Its spirit, if you will.
Here is how she came to be:
The saguaro is not simply a plant; it is an ecosystem. It provides food, shade, shelter, and moisture to birds such as the Gila woodpecker, the gilded flicker, the elf owl, the cactus wren, finches, flycatchers, doves, and purple martins; to bats and rodents; to bees, wasps, ants, termites, and a variety of beetles, flies, and other insects in the various stages of their lives; to spiders and scorpions, and to microscopic life as well.
All of this life creates a variety of holes in the saguaro, from the nest-sized holes made by woodpeckers to the smaller ones made by the tunneling caterpillars of the cactus moth. The saguaro heals and seals these holes with a tough scab of dried mucilage and woody scar tissue called callus. All saguaros bear these scars, internal and external, in a multitude of gnarled, unique and fanciful shapes and sizes.
When a saguaro dies, falls to earth, and decomposes, this tough scar tissue survives much longer than the cactus’s softer tissue.
This spirit doll was created by an ancient saguaro—probably between 100 and 200 years old—which grew on the property of a friend of mine in Cave Creek, Arizona. It died, as all things do, and fell to the desert floor. This was several years ago.
Here is how she came to me:
My friend was the steward of her small patch of Sonoran Desert. She loved, nurtured, and defended all that grew upon it. She prayed and said blessings over the remains of the fallen saguaro. When some time had passed and flesh of the cactus dried and returned to the earth, she discovered this doll in its desiccated remains. She took it into her house and hung it on the wall. Later, she gave it to me. My beloved friend died a year ago on her patch of desert; we spread her ashes there.
Some who see this doll hanging on my wall may think she is a bizarre bo-ho decoration, something an elderly hippie like me would have scavenged from somewhere. Or maybe she looks scary, a crazy bit of curse-casting voo-doo.
She embodies the enormous power, beauty, and mystery of the natural world. She reminds me of the power of scar tissue. And from time to time, in some mysterious way, and for just a moment, she brings my cherished friend back to me.
Exercise: Write about an object that means something to you. Set yourself a limit of, say, 30 minutes, or 500 words. See how much you can say in that amount of space/time. Post your essay here (scroll down to the Comments section) or send it to me in an email, along with a photo or a drawing of the object. —S.T.