When Silence Speaks

Nothing much to do this morning…. I could watch several old episodes of the “Twilight Zone” or maybe I should take a hike in the desert. How best to heal my bruised soul? It has been a hard year for all of us. Meaningful experiences have become harder and trickier to find and define.

On this early Thursday morning in the second month of the year 2021, I reject watching TV and decide to take a hike. My new cane (arthritis you know) joins me as we come to visit the saguaro cacti in the Saguaro National Park outside Tucson, Arizona.

I love the desert. It reminds me to be still. It is as the early environmentalist and trail maker, John Muir, used to say: “Everyone is born with an inner bond to nature, drawing us away from civilization, an impulse over which we have little rational control.” One way Muir expressed the wellness he experienced in nature was to establish the Sierra Club.

Cane and I begin our stroll along the sand trail where beautiful saguaros stand proud and solemn in the early morning dawn. The saguaro cactus, wildflower of Arizona and symbol of the Southwest, only lives in the Sonoran Desert, covering southern Arizona, a touch of California, and northwest Mexico.

The National Park Service says it can take 10 years for the great cactus to reach one inch in height. By 70 years of age it can be 6.5 feet and by its hundredth birthday will reach 15-16 feet in height.    Most are 50-100 years old before they start growing arms. Most saguaros live 125 years and some reside on earth for over 200 years. It is not unusual to see old saguaros 45 feet tall. A mature saguaro can weigh two and one half tons and shrink or swell by 20-25% over a year depending on rainfall. The largest saguaro ever measured was 78 feet tall. It fell in an Arizona windstorm in 1986.

The saguaros provide food, shelter, and protections for hundreds of species. For example, the Gila woodpeckers carve nests in the plant. Those nests are later used by elf owls, purple martins, and house finches. Its sweet nectar attracts birds and many species of bats.

The Tohono O’Odham people in South Central Arizona do not consider saguaros to be plants but a different type of humanity and members of their tribe. For centuries they have harvested the ripe saguaro fruit in the spring to make wines, jams, and jellies which are ritually consumed during rain ceremonies.

In front of me stands a 45 foot tall saguaro. The trials and damage it has endured over the years are visible on its scarred skin.  There are holes where arms have fallen off and dryness from times of draught.  There are cuts of unknown origin where animals use the space for home and food. Today the great cactus asks for our help to ward off weeds that would steal their water and protection from the ever warming sun that creates an environment for fires seeking to destroy them. This cry takes place as the cactus continues to offer nectar, food and shelter to others. Its silence exudes peace.

As I examine the often gashed and healed cactus, suddenly a bunny scampers in front of me and my mind jumps to another thought, something it is prone to do with or without a bunny. I think of Margery William’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit, written in 1922 in which the toy Skin Horse says to the sawdust stuffed rabbit: “Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real….It doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out…”.  The aged saguaro is real. The wellness and integrity of the great cactus shine through both new and age-old scars.

I pause with my thoughts, balance myself precariously on a nearby rock, and contemplate how the saguaro finds its place and meaning through helping so many living creatures including human beings. It stores water in anticipation of draught, grows slowly not rushing to its adulthood, cares for others by providing home, food, and water. The cacti stand strong and remind us that in time anything can happen, even healing.

The saguaro and the velveteen rabbit teach that “us” verses “them”, “me” verses “you”, does nothing but separate…bruising the soul and desecrating wellness. The saguaro needs us now just as we need each other to help us in this wounded time.

I miss hugs, smiles of friends, the sharing of food and drink, being part of small and large groups, having personal eye contact with those I love and even strangers, laughing with others, going to the movies, and something I didn’t know I had lost but greatly miss is spontaneity.

And yet, the past year with its challenges has not been all loss. These days have brought to the fore experiences and new perspectives that have proved meaningful and healing. There has been more uninterrupted time with loved ones close by, longer more frequent walks, and time to think about the important things in life. I cook more, enjoy long hikes, find value in Zoom of all things, and have rediscovered the importance of humor. Dr. Anthony Fauci, sweatpants, a cell phone camera, the optimism of grandkids, quality masks that protect others, all enhanced our capacity to hope and focus on what truly is important and keeps us spiritually well.

The sun begins to warm the land as I trek back to my car.

Driving home I recognize the truth of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s late life insight: “To make life a little better for people less fortunate than you. That’s what I think a meaningful life is.”

The Skin Horse said, “Once you are real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” True wellbeing accompanies us when we are real.

The words of Horatio Spafford written in 1874 after great personal loss the year before still ring true: “It is well. It is well with my soul. It is well.” He found wellness in humanitarian efforts following the death of his five children.

John Muir, the saguaro, the Tohono O’Odham, and the velveteen rabbit, join Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Horatio Spafford in finding wellness through caring for others. It is a message often learned when silence speaks.

Written by: Hartzell Cobbs

Hartzell Cobbs is the retired CEO of Mountain States Group (now Jannus, Inc.), a diverse nonprofit human service organization.  He is the author of the recent book, RavenWind, that is available through outlets such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Archway Publishing. His first book, Thanatos and the Sage: A Spiritual Approach to Aging, is available through Amazon.

More about Dr. Cobbs’ latest book, Ravenwind…

From ancient lore, down millenniums, traveling through worldwide mythologies, legends, and folktales, the mythical raven is entwined in the history of mankind. Most researchers agree that about twenty thousand years ago the first Americans came from Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge to what is now North America. The Siberians and their shamans were accompanied by the mythical raven who mediated between the physical and spiritual worlds.

With the Siberian influence, Northwest Native American mythology speaks of the raven as creator, destroyer, and trickster. As in Siberia, raven soars on the wind between the great spirit/mystery and the physical world. Raven teaches respect for earth and the oneness of all that is.

In RavenWind, author Hartzell Cobbs offers at look at the raven’s role in world history and in Native American myths, legends, and folktales. He tells how the raven of folklore calls one to follow, to listen, and experience life with all its complexity, insight, ambiguity, contraction, and humor. With an emphasis on Native American tradition, Cobbs explores the presence of mythical raven in the mundane.