Living in mostly Alaska and Florida for my entire life I had never seen cactuses in person, so I was super excited to visit the Southwest at the very start of my Van Life journey. And in particular to visit Saguaro National Park, where the majestic Saguaros dot the sides of the mountains; as someone described to me, they look like marching soliders, and they really do, so I had to add that into my painting! Original painting is available here
I arrived in Tucson in the evening and looking at the forecast for the next day knew it was going to be too hot to linger for very long in the van. The high was around 90 degrees which is not comfortable for me, but especially not for my kitty Mikee. So, I scratched my plan to ride my bike through the Eastern Side of the park. I’ve been riding my bike in almost all of the National Parks I’ve visited so far and have absolutely loved it! I will go back and visit the East side of the park where I can ride my bike and explore further and maybe stay a day or two in the area next time.
I decided to drive the Bajada Loop, a dirt road that winds through the Western side, and just cruised through, stopping constantly to take photos and little walks on the trails scattered throughout. I got there early before the day heated up and it was perfect to take in all the beauty and natural wonder of the Saguaros and all the other cactus species I had never seen before. Ever since visiting Morrocco earlier this year with my daughter and visiting the cactus garden there, I have been obsessed with all desert type plants, they are so diverse and amazing. And, of course, the Saguaros are the Queen of them all! Towering up to 50 feet tall, they are incredibly majestic and awe inspiring. And then there is their lovely quirkiness, how they come in so many different shapes, I loved the whimsy of them, and was determined to capture the fun, uniqueness of them in my painting.
I pulled off the road, there was minimal traffic all the hours I was there, so it was a beautiful, sunny, peaceful drive, and cooked some lunch and just enjoyed the views out my windows. By this time it was already getting too hot to be in the van without it running and the AC on, so I bid farewell with the promise to come back and visit the Eastern side and ride my bike through the park. As soon as I left the official boundary of the park and got onto a paved road, there was a farm across the street and a burst of purple caught my eye, since that is my all time favorite color, and I had to do a double take as there was this stunning purple cactus, the likes of which I had never seen! It was underneath a mailbox and so I assumed it couldn’t be real, it was just too surreal looking, haha! Then I saw some more, and more, and was totally intrigued, giving myself a mental reminder to look up “purple cactuses” once I wasn’t driving. And sure enough, it is most definitely real, it’s the Purple Prickly Pear, and I KNEW I had to add this cactus into my painting, and ended up giving it a place front and center, and it’s probably my favorite part of the whole painting.
One other little detail I had to be sure to add to the painting, was the Gila Woodpecker (listed as endangered in California). I was hoping to see one while in the park, but alas, wasn’t to be…but, then, that night, I camped out at Saddle Mountain, surrounded by Saguaros and while gifted with a beautiful sunset…there was one perched atop a towering Saguaro! And I could see the holes left behind on the cactuses that the woodpeckers created for themselves, and used by other species once abandoned by the woodpecker, such a thrill! I was so enamored with having got to see one I knew it had to be included in the painting, can you spot it in the photo?
The Purple Prickly Pear Cactus is endemic/native to the Sonoran desert, found in the SouthWestern U.S. and parts of Mexico. Beacause they have a limited habitat it makes them much more susceptible to becoming endangered, or even extinct. This is also true of the Saguaros as they are almost only found in the Sonoran desert, all 1.6 million of them, the largest of it’s kind in the world. There is a smattering of the Saguaros in nearby areas, but they typically can only survive/thrive in the Sonoran desert. They are also limited to specific elevations, from sea level to 4,000 feet and found on mostly South facing slopes to avoid freezing temperatures. Thankfully both of these species of plants are protected in National Parks, Saguaro for the Saguaros and Big Bend in TX for the Purple Prickly Pears. But, even with these designated areas of protection, both species are at risk of becoming endangered due to climate change. Because they only exist in certain regions, and therefore climates, any changes in those climates can have a drastic effect on all the species in those areas. Due to increasing drought conditions in AZ, young Saguaros in particular are becoming more and more threatened. The older Saquaros, some of them upwards of 175 years, are more resilient and adapted to change, but the younger Saquaros are not able to adapt to these changes and are dying off at an alarming rate. In 2018 a study by the National Park of 10,000 Saguaros found that of those 10,000, only 70 were less than 15 years old. That’s a staggering number that tells a tale warning us of how the sudden changes in climate can adversely affect a species.
So, even though these cacti are protected from any actual physical change by humans, (there can be hefty fines, and even up to 25 years jail time for cutting them down, even on private property), they are still susceptible to Climate change. Excessive, and increasingly hotter fires have become the poster child for one of the most obvious signs of climate change, particularly in the West and Southwest as the drought conditions continue into each year, and temperatures rise and precipitation falls. In 2020 the Bighorn Fire killed thousands of Saguaros, and this is a trend that will continue until we fully address and conquer the realities, and dangers of rapidly changing climates.
I will be doing a new blog series soon on how we can all live more sustainable, eco-friendly lifestyles, even in the smallest of ways. I will give tips and ideas on how to do this, hopefully in ways that aren’t overwhelming, and make us all feel good about doing our part. I want my art to be a beacon of hope and inspiration that we CAN make changes to protect our planet; there are things we can each do, along with putting pressure on large corporations, and governments to do their part as well. We can all take part in protecting, preserving and conserving our planet so that all species have a chance to survive and thrive, including the majestic Saguaros and the perfect Purple Prickly Pear.
Every time I visit these nationally protected lands during my travels, I am taken aback by the raw beauty that nature affords us, and hope that we can all work together to preserve these places, and even create new protected areas and species that were once thought lost to the wild. Not only for ourselves, but for all future generations to enjoy and marvel at our planets beauty and life giving species of all kind.
1% ftp donated to Rewild from the proceeds of this painting
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