Sunday, January 8, 2012

On Stewardship and Petunias

The Sonoran desert is a unique environment.  Many think of it as a place filled with things that are too-tough-to-die, a place with incredibly hardy flora and fauna -- wouldn't it have to be? -- and that there's little we could do to impact it. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Every native plant and animal is exactly where it has to be and this challenging environment is exactly what it needs.  If it rained more most of the life in this area of the Sonoran desert, the Arizona Uplands region, would be replaced by other vegetation and critters.
Home, sweet home

Well, except for humans.  We like to move into an area and turn it into our own personal idea of paradise, regardless of how it conflicts with the reality of a place.  It could be that we want our yards to look like they did back on the east coast with manicured lawns, rose bushes, and pest-free vegetable gardens.  Maybe our motivation is our recreation, like golf courses.  Humans seem to want what they want regardless of where they are, and so long as they can afford it, the reality of the environment in which they find themselves, fast disappearing resources and the needs of the native plants and animals fall off their radar.

Worth the cost?
Today we're saying goodbye to an old friend that I've spent a lot of time appreciating from my kitchen window and across my neighbor's fence.  The arms are being amputated one by one.  The body will be sectioned and removed in manageable hunks.  It's probably older than my grandmother's great-grandmother's great-grandmother, and should have lived until my daughter was a much older woman than myself.    In a few hours this stately saguaro, icon of the Sonoran desert, will be gone, apparent victim, in this climate, of the excessive amount of irrigation water required to keep the petunias at its base alive...petunias the appropriate color in the appropriate spot for feng shui garden in one of the most beautiful deserts on the planet.  In a climate where the plants are so good at storing and managing their resources (a hydrated saguaro is about 90% water), too much of what we like to think of as a good thing will kill a plant that is much easier on, and infinitely more critical to, this environment than we humans are.

Symbiotic relationship between the White-winged Dove and the saguaro...
food and a nesting site for pollination services rendered
Phyrrhuloxia at the feast
And so much more than this huge multi-armed saguaro will be lost.  There were probably close to 100 nest cavities in its flesh, providing wonderful safe temperature-regulated places for our desert birds to raise their young.  Gila Woodpeckers and Gilded Flickers excavated every one of those holes, but they were eventually occupied by many different birds as well, from Screech Owls and Pygmy Owls, Purple Martins, Ash-throated Flycatchers and Brown-crested Flycatchers, House Sparrows, and American Kestrels.  Many other birds, from doves to hawks, build nests in the crook of the saguaro's arms.

We felt so lucky to have such a magnificent "bird condo" so close to our yard and loved being part of the extended habitat (birds only care about fences for sitting on).  It is doubtful that our yard will any longer be the flight training ground of the Gila Woodpeckers youngsters, being called between our two younger, and cavity-less, saguaros by their diligent parents.  The screech owl that flew from that saguaro to our mesquite like clockwork every evening just minutes after the sun set behind the Tucson Mountains, coughing up a pellet of indigestibles from last night's hunt, pooping, and having a rouse to realign his feathers before silently flying off in the darkening evening to find dinner will be very missed.  We used to say that he lived next door and we were the outhouse.    

Nectar beyond the pollen is the lure
Of course it's not just about shelter.  That saguaro, with its many arms, bloomed magnificently and with regularity each spring, providing desperately needed nectar in the dryest part of the year for any bird or animal who could get to the blossoms, most importantly bats by night and White-winged Doves by day.  If these primary pollinators were successful, large juicy fruits would ripen a month later, once again providing sustenance to all animals, including humans, who could reach them.  Each fruit, filled with an average of 2,000 seeds, would have these chances at procreation scattered by the birds and mammals that ate them.  Of the four and a half million seeds the average saguaro will produce in its lifetime, it will be lucky to reproduce itself once or twice, though the seeds will not be wasted, but eaten before or after germinating by innumerable insects and animals.

A sad and premature end
Even after falling a saguaro can bloom for another year or two, relying on its store of water and its continued ability to produce energy through photosynthesis.  When the inevitable happens, these huge rotting plants provide food and shelter for millions of insects and many mammals, and return it's nutrients back to the environment.  Except, of course, when they are carted off to the landfill, the sad and wasteful fate of our neighboring saguaro.

I am more aligned with the Native American notion that we don't really "own" land, but are simply temporary stewards of it.  Unfortunately, I have little faith that we humans will recognize what we have before it is gone.  I'll take a saguaro over petunias any day.  And the senior saguaro next door will be greatly missed, though most importantly, perhaps least of all by me.

Goodbye, Old Friend