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The Cardón Cactus and Factual Beauty


(above) Cardón trunk essentialist drawing, Chica Jo 2020


I’ve come to regard the cardón, or elephant cactus (Pachycereus pringlei) of Sonora and Baja as the ideal teacher of graceful aging. When my hubby, Paul, and I first met in our 30’s we spent a long evening shrouded by saguaro arms, stars and the calls of canyon tree frogs. He informed me that the fact of my beauty would not ever change, only the form of it. Yes, he “got lucky” that night in the canyon. (OK, his hypnotizing a tree lizard on my knee didn’t hurt his chances either!) Now I’m 50 and my form is certainly changing. Enter the giant columnar cacti of the Sonoran Desert. Unlike cardón, saguaro are all youthful, spindly spirit, reaching elegantly to the heavens. Their main trunks are obviously graceful, like living Greek columns that taper at not only the tops and arm tips but also at their bases. The cardón’s beauty, however, is more subtle yet factual in form.





A beloved old cardon friend - roadside

My shadow selfie on saguaro - photo negative San Carlos, Sonora




Cardón, on the other hand, are grounded by soul, as their thick trunks press assuredly back into Earth. As we sail around the Sea of Cortez I often rest in the wide shade of 20 meter-tall, ancient cardón. I sit there, humbly, in my half-century-old skin that is now toughening and sagging in wrinkle-rolls from gravity. I now appreciate the resilience of the increasingly stout-trunked (= pachy) cardón with its once supple, green skin turned mostly to rough, yet huggable grey bark. I take comfort in the objective beauty of the cardón’s elephant-leg-like wrinkles draping around trunks that are steadfast, even during tropical storms, in supporting the 25 tons of their many, girthy arms. Twenty five tons: that’s the weight of almost 4 African Elephants! I consider the still-verdant limbs that have held aloft that much water all while constantly photosynthesizing enough food to feed the whole gigantic plant for centuries. I look out to the ends of the arms where even in the most arid springs, flowers have opened, patiently yearning for their pollinators like long-nosed bats to gift them with fertility. I think of those many ripened ovaries, bursting with life-giving sweetness, nutrients, and medicine for all desert dwellers from insects and birds to the Seri people.


Embracing the fantastically morphed individual near Las Cocinas anchorage, Sonora, Mexico


I nestle back in awe among thigh-thick roots that, incredibly, were able to grow even on rock without soil, cooperating with their own seed-borne symbiotic bacteria plus fungus to mine those hard rocks for the minerals needed to grow into giants. From my root hug I look up to see cardón arms swaying a bit in the breeze and realize that to age gracefully requires strength of character paired with flexibility of mind and heart. There too, the cardón gives a sexy lesson that is rare in the world of plants. Cardón are trioecious; each individual cactus can be either all female, all male, or perfectly hermaphroditic. They have “learned” as a species the benefit of being sexually flexible, rather than close-minded and fixed. And, we can all agree that when environmental stressors like drought or pandemics occur and force us, cactus or human, to be physically and socially distant, it is really helpful to survival if you are able to pollinate yourself! J Speaking of “pollination” . . . When our human population is post-Covid and blind-dating again, Paul says you can use his line, but only if you know it to be true.


Cardon base and her/his/their shadow, Isla Esteban

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