Updated: Sep 13, 2020
This post is about an object that tells a story, the artistic inspiration inherent in the natural world, the value of relationships with other writers, and much, much more. But before we get into all that, just read this exquisite essay, written by my friend Nancy Gage, a writer and dollmaker who lives in New Mexico. Rather than comment on it here, I will leave you in its spell. To be continued . . .
The Saguaro Doll, by Nancy Gage
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.