This time of year, living in the desert offers two water temperatures: hot and hotter. Hot, being the more favorable choice, splashed across my face at 5:15 am. On the last day of June, I prepare for a morning of full immersion in the desert. Though my photography trips are less calculated and more spontaneous, I felt a need to spiritually prepare for the harvesting of Bahidaj, the Tohono O'Odham word for saguaro fruit. I begin my drive west of Tucson to Saguaro National park. The winding road through Gates Pass consistently steals my breath, despite the number of times I've driven it. I pulled over at the bottom of the Pass. Moments before and after a shoot often go undocumented, this one required attention.
The way the sun illuminates the saguaro from behind, gives it an ethereal glow. A glow I've witnessed with our sunsets, but rarely, our sunrises. I take note of the fruits that are already opening and still waiting to bloom on others.
I pull into the Visitor's Center at the Park and wait for staff to arrive. I greet my co-worker and friend Tina with a hug; I'm thankful she allowed me to participate and photograph the harvest. We pile into a government vehicle and she drives us to the site.
There is a ramada that serves as a sun shelter from the rising temperatures. Ramadas are often made of our deserts' plant ribs. It is effective in keeping out the sun but allowing wind to pass through nicely. We greet our O'Odham partners who have set up a camp under this ramada. Adjusting to the heat, I see the sea of wide-brimmed hats make their way onto heads. Tanisha, an extremely sweet woman and daughter of Stella (who provides the opportunity to harvest the fruit), explains the mechanics of harvesting the fruit with the kukuipad: the utility pole made from saguaro ribs, creosote plant, and the desert "cat claw".
We sold syrup from the saguaro in our Visitor's Center at the Park. But, it wasn't until we broke into groups and wandered into the desert that I had only begun to scratch the surface of the intensity of the process.
We discussed the spiritual sense of the saguaro: embodied loved ones, as humans we would care for. To harvest the fruit requires strength and patience. It requires teamwork and a strong awareness of your surroundings. Holding the kukuipad, as wobbly as you would assume a 15-foot pole is, demands sturdy attention as you decide which fruits are ready and which need more time to grow.
As one of us focuses on this task, our team members gather the fallen fruit. We use the dead flower rind to puncture the fruit like a knife. Bright red meat on the inside with thousands of tiny black seeds burst at the seam.
The juice stains our fingers as we carry the fruit to the bucket, inspecting for ants. One by one, we open the fruits and add to our filling bucket. We discussed the importance of placing each fruit peel at the base of the saguaro, face up, as a prayer for a strong monsoon season ahead.
The harvest was in full swing. We scouted the most fruitful saguaros, observing ratios of human height versus saguaro height. It's important to understand accessibility to a saguaro. They are often growing with a nurse plant underneath (a protective shrub or tree that aids in healthy development). Nonetheless, the elements have to be aligned for a saguaro to be successfully harvested.
The morning sun continued to beat down, sweat and nature's red dye coated our skin. As we wait for others to finish their harvest, we seek refuge under the ramada. Cold water, food, and laughter is shared with this small community. There is something about limited shade in the desert that brings humans together.
We were shown the process of boiling the fruits down into a syrup, how much water needed to be added to the fruit and how many buckets it takes to make only a small serving of syrup. Keeping in mind that this is the hottest time of year in the desert, saguaro harvesting requires an extremely tough work ethic.
Afterwards, we dipped our fingers into a jar of syrup to try and watched as the already picked fruit lay under the hot sun. At this stage, they are waiting to be boiled.
A constant rush of gratitude took over as I reflected on the opportunity provided by the O'Odham people and provided by our desert. I've never wanted a stronger, more healthy monsoon season as I do this year. With the numerous statewide wildfires and witnessing first-hand the importance of the Bahidaj to a community's life and tradition, water is forever an essential to life. May we never forget that.
Thank you Tina, Stella, and Tanisha.