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The Giant Cactus Forest and Its World

Paul Griswold Howes - (1954)


Smaller, much more compact, and bristling with armament also are the teddy bear cacti, O. bigelovii. . . . (16)

Scattered here and there is the low-growing silktassel, Garrya wrightii. . . . (25)

This ominous creature, which is the young or larval stage of a large fly, carried the appropriate scientific tag of Cuterebra emasculator! (63)

On the second of February one year, a flock of some two hundred Western robins, Turdus migratorius propinquus, appeared about six miles north of our location, in the valley at Florence. (147)

We crisscrossed miles of cactus lands afoot, on plains that were almost level, on high rugged rocks and knobs and sharp jagged ridges, in great bowls teeming with countless cacti, and far out into dry washes leading to the mountains. We hunted with guns and nets, trowels and cameras, binoculars and sketchbooks. We learned to be at home here, we learned to love it, but sometimes far above our sanctuary we heard the terrifying roar of jet engines, as objects which as often as not we could not even see raced across the blue arc above our desert and out of hearing again almost before we could turn around. These sounds withered something within us, for we felt that preparations for devastation must be going on again everywhere if such things had even taken over these peaceful skies, preparations for the destruction of much which man and nature had erected in a long, long struggle. (xiv)

There is still another specter which rises over the range of the giant cacti and their living associates, an ominous shadow which urged us on in the production of our roll call. The danger to which I refer lies in that magic yet destructive word oil. Possibly there may never be flowing oil wells in Arizona, but on the other hand the liquid gold may be discovered there by the time you read these lines. At least we know that millions are now being risked, much right in the heart of the saguaro habitat. Some forty wells have already been drilled in the state in a frantic search for riches, and it is saddening indeed to see pictures of oilmen examining core samples, against a background of stately giant cacti and overshadowed by gigantic drilling machinery. We know only too well that once oil is brought in here it will mean the end of the cacti and much of the other wildlife also.
There is one heartening fact, however, from the conservationist's point of view. This is that up to the writing of this paragraph all of the Arizona drilling has produced nothing but a series of dry and costly holes. (xv)

We all know also that the world needs more and more oil as the years speed by, and wherever there is the slightest chance of finding it, there you will sooner or later see the drilling machinery, the men and the trucks, and all the thoughtless destruction which inevitably follows in the wake of crews who care not a whit for plant and animal life or the irreplaceable features of an age-old natural biotic association. A recent picture in a national magazine gave a glimpse of what is actually going on. It illustrated very well the feverish activity in the Phoenix Land Office with bidding for drilling rights and land leases going on apace.
How sad it will be if even a part of the unprotected saguaro world is so destroyed, for there is absolutely nothing else like this living belt in all the world of nature. (xvi)

Wherever we were to settle for the work in hand, one requirement was uppermost in our minds and that was to locate our headquarters in the very midst of the best and most unmolested giant cactus stands which we could find. Not only was it mandatory that the saguaros should be there in large numbers, but in addition the locations for our work were to be selected with the assurance that the dominating giants would be surrounded by their original and normal living associates, both animal and vegetable.
Our first season's choice fell upon the vicinity of Florence, Arizona. Some six miles south of that pioneer town, on the extensive cactus plains around an elevation of sixteen hundred feet, we found working conditions in many ways ideal. Here, in the vicinity of Pete's Ranch, the cactus growth surrounding us was almost untouched, and we seemed to be in a great open, sloping plain with a wonderful array of distant buttes and mountains - the jagged Tortillas, Picacho, conelike Walker's Butte, "North and South Buttes," and the bulky masses of the Superstitions filling our far horizons (Plate I).
For the second season we felt that a more rugged terrain should be chosen, since many of the creatures and plants which would be absent from the plains would doubtless be encountered in the somewhat higher, sheltering warmth of the south side of ever changing Superstition Mountain itself. This was indeed a fortunate choice. Using King's Ranch as the hub of our desert cactus forest universe, we reaped a harvest of specimens and firsthand knowledge concerning them which quickly rounded out our volume. (3)

Many of the trees such as the palo verdes will be seen supporting large clumps of mistletoe, a species called Phoradendron californicum. The clumps are of all sizes, according to their age. . . .
This plant is of course parasitic. It is equipped with minute penetrating rootlets called haustoria, by means of which it takes water from the host tree. Mistletoe manufactures its own food, like other self-respecting and self-supporting chlorophyll-containing plants, but it steals desert water from others, a crime from the human point of view but unrecognized by nature as such, for there is no such thing as crime in a natural biological association. (29)

Small wonder that more and more people are learning to love the desert regions; harsh, hot and uncompromising as they may be at times, they exert a peculiar charm which grows and grows. To be able to walk in any direction for miles, always dry shod, free from crowds and congested habitations, signboards and refuse, is a joy in itself, and such freedoms nowadays are to be fondly cherished. (34-5)

Tranquillity of a profound nature seemed to pervade the scene when as a total stranger I first sat cautiously down upon the sands and looked at the world of giant cacti. This was an illusion, for two reasons. In the first place, like any newcomer I had not become adjusted to these new surroundings and what they meant, and secondly, I had by chance arrived during one of those frequent lulls when not a single living thing may be heard. I soon learned how frequently these profound silences or "dead spots" were to be encountered. They did not indicate that this wonderful plant community was not well populated with living animal forms; quite the contrary. But sometimes one needs patience in a cactus forest.
As I looked and listened, I was aware of a very slight hum or whirring noise. It increased gradually to a distinct wind-through-the-shrouds noise, and suddenly I realized that it was the desert breeze tuning itself against myriad cactus spines! This and other sounds of the wind will be with every visitor a good portion of his time in the forest, especially during the winter months. It is part of the desert scene and one soon becomes accustomed to it.
When louder and more familiar sounds and vibrations reached my ears, I began to be conscious of a questioning as to the true nature of things in this region. I began to see how far from tranquil the place could be. For living things to have adapted themselves to such an environment back in the beginning must have been very difficult at best; for them to live and propagate and continue successfully is even more difficult now, and fraught with dangers and harsh conditions. I had simply stuck my nose in during one of those short pauses in a struggle which had been going on for centuries. (36-7)

Gazing upon the thick, heavy saguaro trunks, I realized that these cacti were trees of a sort, yet if I cut into one with a hunting knife or a hatchet, the going was as easy as if I were scooping into the rind of an unripe melon. There were no growth rings by which to tell the giants' ages, and so they seemed to be trees that were not trees after all, but rather organisms quite out of my normal world. (37)

I watched day after day and many times at night, and realized how continuous is this stream of squirming animal fuel into the fireboxes of other living things, how necessary in keeping the avid organic engines endlessly turning. To see lizards consuming other lizards, just as dinosaurs once ate other dinosaurs in terrific spectacles, or to witness that horribly fascinating process whereby a whole rodent or a brightly feathered bird disappears into the gullet of a hungry snake in outrageous zigzag motions, is never exactly calming to the desert wanderer, common as such events may be. The little killing engines of today are as perfect for their purposes as were the great Tyrannosaurus lizards of old, and so things will continue endlessly. (46)

Decidedly we are all living engines of destruction and we might just as well admit it. (47)

With all this, the road runner does more good than harm, for insects are important in its diet. The birds are always hungry, so hungry that even when they were crossing the road in front of the car and in danger of their lives, on more than one occasion we observed them turning in their flight to pick up a morsel as they passed. One came to the cottage, attracted by the carcasses of the animals which I was skinning, and picked up the tidbits which I dropped in the process. Others were seen eating dead horses and cattle along the road to Coolidge. They were always, it would seem, in the act of gulping something. They are strange and entertaining creatures. (50)

Most of the animals and plants fitted, upon close observation, into a food ring, a death ring actually, which took the form of an endless belt, a conveyer which led into the mouth of a mill which ground endlessly, and which through the contributions of all, kept the living world of the desert living. (64)

The desert is full of life at every season. Much of it is overlooked because it is nocturnal, but a great deal of it is passed by because it is small. (65)

Like the fireman who smashes a harmless door or window in an already ruined house for no exact reason, I was strangely tempted to split this cactus with my axe and let the water run out upon the desert, but an instant later I was condemning myself for the thought. I had almost dislodged a whole world because of an absurd whim. It was bad enough to have uselessly washed thousands of living things down the sink when I cleaned the micro live box. (72-3)

Strange that among the lower social animal forms like the ants instinctive obedience to the nest, the hive, the clan or the tribe, as the case may be, has brought about habits and activities which in some cases parallel, or converge with, the intelligent, controlled actions of man. Parallels are to be found in the armies of man and those of insects, in their slaves and queens, and as often in their greed and violence as in their community spirit and service. It is remarkable that two animals so far apart mentally should so often act like blood brothers, but their social lives do certainly have similar characteristics. (83)

I have kept many kangaroo rats in captivity, and it is a curious fact that they quickly lose all fear and then come forth quite regularly in the daylight when food is placed in the cages. That a traditionally hunted species should in most cases lose its instinctive fear so rapidly is remarkable. The majority of these rodents seem to forget their leaping and bounding ability altogether in a short time after capture, yet it must have required ages for them to evolve limbs capable of such actions. (87)

When this was being written in 1953, I had sixteen of these rodents of two species living happily in captivity, some of which were at least three years old, as they were captured in 1950! A few are temperamental, but most of them are tame and easily handled. Contrary to statements I have read declaring that community life is unknown to them, as many as twelve have lived together in my cages for periods of years! They sleep all piled on top of one another, right side up or upon their backs, coming out at dusk to feed and scuffle and run their exercise wheel with tremendous energy. (88)

When several were placed together, they slept, as I have said, in a mass, but specimens which were kept separate for observation often dozed while resting upon the big hind feet, with head bowed and the little hands doubled up into minute fists under the chin, while the long balancing tail might be curled around the hind feet also. When the weather became very hot they stretched out upon the sand, sometimes upon their sides with legs stretched out full length in front of them as a dog lies upon its side. At other times they would be flat upon their backs with their beautiful white fur fully exposed. In their sleep they stretched and twitched like larger mammals and the curious upturned shape of their mouths made them appear as happy looking as any Mickey Mouse I have ever seen. (89-90)

Every sort of weather is possible in the Southwestern desert regions. One morning we left our cabin for a shopping trip in a heavy downpour. The low black clouds hung heavy on the upper half of Superstition Mountain. Heavy wind blew at intervals, then suddenly the car was deluged with yellow mud as the rain brought down dust which had traveled aloft, perhaps for days, from some dry and remote part of the country.
As we neared Phoenix, an arm of dark cloud reached earthward from a still darker mass, and we could see that it was whirling rapidly, a small nascent tornado directly in front of us. Now it curled upward again and disappeared altogether, much to our relief, and when an hour or so later the sun came out brilliantly, the mountain chain to the east lay blanketed in dazzling white snow! (104)

Another strange habit of the coyote is that of the victor's sometimes urinating upon a fallen foe. Again they will treat in the same manner traps which have failed to catch them, to denote, as Ernest Thompson Seton once interpreted it, "hate with superiority," or in other words, just plain scorn! However, I do not believe such actions are based on reason. It is simply the instinctive nature of these animals to urinate on a thing when they have finished with it. (119)

Let us not forget that here again we are dealing with one of nature's efficient inventions which is not at all uncommon in other forms of life than mammals like the coyotes. Even such dainty birds as the doves which in February swarmed into the valley near Coolidge, a few miles from our 1948 headquarters, resort to regurgitation when feeding their young. (123)

One hot day a coyote ambled across the road some distance in front of our car. This was on the well-traveled highway between Florence and Tucson. He walked nonchalantly into the cactus forest on the other side, then stopped, and turned and stared at us. We of course wished very much to observe him and perhaps get a telephoto movie of him, but in less time than it takes to write about it, three other cars which had been coming toward us stopped, and from each one men jumped out with shotguns and rifles and advanced in the direction of their intended victim. Was it the spirit of the hunter or the lure of the five-dollar bounty?
Wise to the slow ways of men in a cactus forest, the coyote cunningly evaporated into his surroundings, as he is so well able to do. He was completely out of sight before these excited human beings could make ready to shoot. Doubtless the interval had seemed like plenty of time to the knowing animal. Doubtless when he was a few hundred feet in from the highway he stopped and urinated, thus characteristically showing his utter scorn for two-legged hunters who travel the country in automobiles! (124-5)

Wherever the visitor looks with reasonable care in the cactus forest, he will soon find amazingly interesting bird life enlivening the scene. The unobservant traveler might not agree, rushing along the highways as he so often does at a speed too great to form any sort of accurate idea of the country and its inhabitants, but stop awhile, look around or sit down somewhere, after looking for stray cactus spines first, and birds are almost sure to be encountered. Now try that old bird student's trick of "squeaking"—kissing the back of the hand as shrilly and extendedly as possible, and watch results. Birds mistake this for one of their kind in trouble, perhaps a young bird, and being collectively brotherly, as far as the common defense is concerned, individuals will usually appear, almost at once, to scold, observe, and voice their respective protests. (126)

As I became familiar with the interrelations of the creatures of the complex, I saw, I believe, one cause of all this ill temper, for the woodpeckers and flickers were anything but the masters of their environment. They were actually the "goats," so to speak, of the whole saguaro complex. Like some human beings, they were ridiculously tolerant when it came to a question of a real fight and they remained securely welded to a neighborhood overrun with thieves and villainy. Their excavations in the saguaros represented tedious and careful effort, perhaps days or months of waiting for the cactus sap to harden into nest linings that would make tolerable abodes, yet it is very well known that the cavities are afterwards usurped by a host of waiting creatures. Winter or summer the cavities may be taken over by others. Elf owls and screech owls, sparrow hawks and flycatchers, bluebirds and cactus wrens, rats and mice, lizards and snakes, even scorpions and the defiant house sparrows to boot, all have been found inhabiting the woodpecker holes. Right under our noses, in the big saguaro near my tent, a pair of sparrows took a cavity away from a pair of Gilas and then stuffed it full of all sorts of litter.
On these grounds perhaps the Gilas should have been excused for their peevishness and their mistrust of others, but in view of the fact that they and the flickers had undoubtedly been taking it for generations without reacting more violently to such unfavorable conditions, I really felt no true sympathy for these birds at all, for they were just plain stupid.
We had in this list of usurpers an example of how little animals know of ethics. Moral principles, as far as the rights of others were concerned, did not enter into this picture at all. The code was, "Hurrah for me, survival's the key," the code which governs so many animal gatherings. The woodpeckers were actually stronger physically than the usurpers, yet they were the undoubted goons of the complex. They made hundreds of convenient homes and shelters which could be appropriated safely by the multitude with little effort and a little presumption, so why not take advantage of such excellent opportunities? The multitude did and moved in!
The woodpeckers had acquired nervous and irritable dispositions, but they had evolved only one remedy. That was to make so many cavities that there would be enough to go around. Why was it, however, that such fine birds did not move out for good, move to remote canyons where there were plenty of trees, plenty of water, and better conditions in general? Something held them chained to the cactus environment. It was not food, for there was better food elsewhere. They were just unable to cope with a situation which was not of their making and they were quite unconscious of any benefits to be derived from such a simple reaction as moving out. (132)

Long after the saguaros have died and rotted away, molds of the woodpeckers' nest cavities remain as hard, almost indestructible desert objects. We found many of these dish and bottle-shaped cavities during our rambles, and some of the finest ones are shown in Plate36. As a test I cut into a saguaro in mid-January. This was a hole in the giant specimen back of our cabin. After sixty days I removed the hardened lining of this hole, which the cactus had already built up in that short time. It averaged three sixty-fourths of an inch in thickness at its thickest part. Thereafter I searched all over the nearby desert lands for the most ancient casts which had fallen out of long-dead cacti. I found a number of these as time went on, and in the oldest and heaviest of these the thickest wall which I could discover measured thirty sixty-fourths of an inch. This would indicate, if the sap built up the lining at the rate shown by my experiment of two months, a period of at least a year and eight months and probably actually much longer, for a saguaro to manufacture such a protective layer in the oldest cavities. (133-4)

Not much is known regarding the breeding habits of this reptile, something which seems to be true regarding a great many desert animals. In fact there is a great deal to be learned about most of the lizards, and it is an open and interesting field to the student who has plenty of time and patience. (167)

The author's wife was stung by a small scorpion while hunting for insects and rashly turning over stones by hand. It stung her twice on one finger, about three o'clock in the afternoon. The sensation was like that of a severe wasp sting, continuing for about three hours, but there was hardly any swelling around the area of the wound. The pain gradually spread to the back of her hand and up her arm to the elbow, but as it went no farther we did not apply a tourniquet. When the pain began to decrease, a distinct pins and needles sensation, similar to the feeling when one's hand is "asleep," followed for some time, and as this in turn wore off, the finger remained quite numb. Even on the following day this numbness continued and was followed by soreness for a while also. There was no feeling of illness or fever and the victim walked a considerable distance to the car after being stung. Now when these notes were written, neither of us knew that the absence of swelling and the "asleep" sensation indicated that the scorpion which stung Mrs. Howes was of the "lethal" type. We did not learn this until long afterwards. Neither of us saw the culprit after the stinging for the reason that Mrs. Howes naturally flung it violently into the surroundings.
Our treatment consisted of placing the afflicted part in crushed ice obtained at the ranch where we were staying, and then in icewater baths until bedtime. Nothing else was done, and so it is encouraging to know that in some cases like this one an adult may not suffer any serious after-results. However, the moral is: Do not turn over rocks by hand. (181)

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