Demise of a cactus

It is always sad when a living being dies, especially a tree or a cactus, but it’s even worse if a person that has lived with it for a while has to be the facilitator. That’s what happened to my husband and me when we found out our big lovely saguaro cactus was diseased – and had to come down.

The end began a couple of weeks ago when my brother-in-law, who lives with us, noticed that the cactus was leaning toward the west. The cactus, which was about 30 feet high, had been there for about 25 years; in fact, my brother-in-law had planted it when he moved into this house. He owned it before my husband and I did, and planted the cactus after he’d lived here about six months. When you buy a cactus in this state, you have to have tags for it to prove that you didn’t steal it from the desert. We’ve had the tags all these years. We’ve also watched it grow and flourish, from about three feet high when Pat planted it, to around 30 feet high when it started to lean. It had also grown several stubby “arms.” I was delighted when it looked like the arms appeared; usually it takes many long years before a cactus develops them.

I’d also noticed, over the years, that birds had made a hole in it on the west side. Cactus wrens, and other birds, too, make nests inside these cacti. Don’t ask me how they get around the long, sharp needles on its sides, but they do.

Neither my husband nor I had noticed the cactus beginning to lean, but recently, Pat did. We did not know the cause of it, so we called someone knowledgeable about cacti to diagnose the problem. We were also afraid it was going to fall over. Saguaro cacti that are the size of the one in the yard can weigh tons. If it did fall over, it would seriously damage the wall near it, and maybe the vehicles parked near it.

On the last morning:

The cactus was diagnosed with a disease that makes it mushy on the inside; in other words, it was starting to be destroyed from the inside out. With heavy hearts, we knew that it was going to have to come down, and we got a quote for that to happen. It was going to cost about $700, but that was less than having to repair or replace anything the cactus might fall on. I was also afraid that it was going to somehow fall onto our beloved dog who is sometimes near the cactus. It would be our bad luck that she would happen to be under it when it went.

After trying to contact the “cactus extractor” for a few days, we were able to make an appointment for the following Monday. I was glad I’d shot many images of the cactus in IR, and also in color. Just to make sure I had some, I went out on Monday morning to shoot more before I left for work. It was very sad to know that I was seeing it standing upright for the last time, that it would be gone when I got home in the evening. I made my husband promise to take photos as it was being cut down, but in a way, I felt that was a little morbid. It was watching and photographing the death of a living thing, but at the same time I thought it was chronicling something that was happening in our lives.

After I went to work, the crew arrived to take down the cactus. I later saw the photos. They had a cherry picker, and they went up in the basket to use a chain saw to take off the small “arms” of the cactus.

Next, they cut off the top of it, the part that looks like a fingertip.

You can just see the top falling off, in the bottom left of the photo:

They also put a rope around the main part of the body of the cactus, then cut into it at the bottom. This was the point where the cactus would break off and fall to the ground.

Then a couple of the guys started pulling on the rope, encouraging the cactus to fall harmlessly onto the grass near the pool.

This happened fairly precisely, and soon the large mass of the cactus’ body lay on the ground. Then the workers started to cut it into sections so the sections could be moved. They also had a four-tined “pitchfork” to help them move the pieces. Much like a tree trunk, the cross sections of the cactus told a story.

I never knew the woody “skeleton” was so far inside a cactus, and so relatively thin. The thick mealy material that makes up the rest of the insides is heavy and dense. When it was lying on the ground, it looked like a big cucumber.

After the cactus was down, the workers moved the pieces into a dumpster we had rented for a couple of weeks. It saved them a lot of time, money, and effort to do it this way, and they took some money off the total bill because of it.

When I got home from work that evening, I took several photos of the cross sections as they lay in the dumpster. Upon examination, I could see several areas where the disease had caused damage to the cactus. It was mushy and dark-colored in those areas.

This was the piece that the top was attached to:

The bottom of the cactus, which had begun to have vertical cracks in it:

Also, one of the smallest bumps on the cactus, the things that become “arms” later, was very black and mushy where it had joined the main body.

It was very sad to see it in pieces in the dumpster, a once proud living being, reduced to almost nothing. I thought of it as a tragedy, similar to how I feel whenever I go to the wildfire-ravaged forest and see the many charred dead branches of what were once living trees.

I never thought that big saguaro cacti belong in people’s yards, to be honest. Many people who move to Arizona want them in their yards, they have this “thing” about trying to own something that is part of the Sonoran desert – until they realize that the cacti are somewhat risky to have in an enclosed area where people and their belongings are. The saguaro cactus belongs out in the desert where it can live and bloom, and fall over naturally when it dies. They are beautiful plants in a strange and unique way, but are one of those types of living things that are meant to be out in the wild.

As for our yard, the stump was ground and removed, just like on a regular tree. Now the area has been smoothed over, and it will soon become a small garden for me to plant. Any flowers that will get planted there will become a living memorial to the tall proud cactus that once flourished there.

In remembrance, I can at least think that it was “happy” here, as it grew rapidly and eagerly when it was not diseased. Now the yard looks like something is missing, and it will take some getting used to. Soon, we will be able to gaze wistfully on the flowers of the new garden, and remember the cactus that made an impression there.


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