As I spend time in the desert Southwest, a climate and terrain very different from where I live, I find myself drawn to the Saguaro (Sah-wah-ro) cactus, the symbol of this landscape. You will only find these plants in Southern Arizona and Baja, Mexico.

A symbol is different from metaphor; it is not like something else, it is the literal thing. However, its inner meaning goes beyond what it is. So, the saguaro cactus is a symbol of the American Southwest and its inner meaning expresses the idea of standing tall, adapting to the environment, and providing shelter and nourishment for others. It has stature and authority and holds a grandfatherly type of wisdom.

Saguaro cacti
Stand like sentinels, rooted
in the desert landscape

Saguaro cacti are the defining plant of the Sonoran desert. They stand tall among the low-lying brush, like sentinels in the landscape. They can live up to 200 years and their branches (called arms) develop only when they are well into life.

This desert plant is also a personal symbol for me at this moment. A sentinel stands guard and watches. It points to a higher wisdom. This reminds me to look for the sentinels in my life and to hear what they have to say. Or, to be a sentinel myself.

They point to the moon
Retain water in dry times
And spread their roots wide

The saguaro have learned to adapt and even thrive in the dry, desert environment. They begin their life under existing plants as a form of protection. As they grow larger, they’re able to retain large amounts of water when the monsoon rains come to prepare for times of drought. Their roots are not deep, but spread wide in all directions. When the time is right, they bloom and bear fruit.

They endure wounds to
provide places for birds to nest
And wood after death

While their hard, prickly, exterior serves as a form of protection, woodpeckers and other birds break this exterior with their beaks, leaving deep holes. These wounds quickly scar over and the remaining holes provide perfect nesting places for other birds. Wounds can be the very places from which we have the most to offer.

I’m going to miss seeing the saguaro cacti dotting the landscape when I return home. But, their message will stay with me forever.

We explore symbols in our photography in the visual journaling workshop, Once Upon a Time: Photographs have Stories to Tell. We even try our hand at writing haiku poems, a favourite exercise for many. This online experience starts next Monday, February 27th. We have 10 spots left. Please join us. Learn more and register here.

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