Vegetal Descent and Cacti Offspring in Arizona Local Art

Guest Post by Christina Becher

When I was invited to contribute to the blog Ecological Imaginaries, I was pretty excited: Suddenly there was a chance to write about something I came cross during my time as a visiting scholar at the University of Arizona in Tucson (USA). One of my favorite things there are the ubiquitous and colorful murals that seem to compete with the faded colors of the desert in Southern Arizona. As a PhD candidate in German philology who is interested in vegetal-human hybridizations, I was especially intrigued by the vegetal motifs: Displaying different types of cacti, agaves, palm trees, and other plants mingling with human figures or body parts, several murals evoke the impression of a plant-based depiction of belonging, kinship, and caring. Beyond that, other kinds of local art proved that a lot of artists in Tucson have a particular sense for their surrounding vegetation. With this text, I want to introduce you to the vibrant and vegetal-aware art scene in Tucson and take a look at the murals, especially the recurring motifs of belonging and care.

My journey started in Cologne and once I arrived in Tucson, I was struck by the local flora that was new and somewhat strange to me. I experienced the opposite of plant blindness[i] which has broadly been discussed in the sciences and also in non-academic contexts since the term was coined by two US-American biologists in the late 1990s. Plant blindness is defined as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment.”[ii] In this light, it is not surprising that I spotted the unfamiliar flora as soon as I stepped out of the air-conditioned Tucson airport and into the heat—not only because my work engages with literary imaginations of plants, but because I left my ‘own environment’ and found myself within new surroundings full of plants I only knew from artificial stagings in hothouses, orangeries, palm houses, or from my windowsill. I was already familiar with cacti and co., but I was accustomed to their specific framing as exotic and somewhat alien in Germany’s temperate climate zone.

I had numerous encounters with interesting plants in front yards, on the roadside, or in parks. Yet, I also encountered vegetal life displayed in Tucson’s local art: For instance, I visited some markets where local artists offered their products. Some artisans offered soaps and body lotions with the creosote bush’s scent (Larrea tridentata). The creosote is an inconspicuous bush with tiny green leaves and small yellow flowers that grows in the Southwestern deserts of the US and in Mexico. It can survive months without any water and emits a recognizable scent after the few rainfalls in these arid regions. I was told that some people in Tucson automatically think of rain when they smell a creosote (actually, it is not the same as the petrichor you smell when rain hits dry ground) and some people even place a flowering twig in their bathroom to enjoy its scent in the humidity. The creosote is also very remarkable when it comes to procreation: Besides its option to reproduce sexually it is also able to create clones by vegetative propagation that reflects the creosote’s adaption to its extreme environment. However, desert plants are involved in a tough fight for water, and vegetative propagation would create rivalry close to the parental generation’s territory. In order to reduce the struggle for life for its own offspring, older branches and twigs in the center of the bush die while new ones are coming up in the outer regions. Ultimately, the bush transforms into a growing ring of new plants.

The creosote bush is depicted in Tucsonan local art alongside other plants: On the artisan markets, I discovered vegetal drawings by Marcy Ellis and Gina Beca. Both artists have a distinct way of connecting female bodies or body parts with various features of the Sonoran Desert. Gina Beca’s drawings, for example, play on topics like body awareness, female sexuality, and maternity. Her visual vocabulary includes species that are typical for Southern Arizona like the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea), which is the highest and most famous cactus in Arizona; prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica), whose pink fruits are part of the Mexican cuisine; and brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), whose yellow flowers light up in the desert. In addition, Gina Beca depicts plants that are not that common in the Sonoran Desert like Tephrocactus aoracanthus, with its long spikes, and the succulent Kalanchoe tomentosa. In her artwork (see fig. 2), the latter species is nestled into a pelvic bone, whereas the cactus’ spiked parts are sprouting upward. The drawing creates a tension between round shapes and long thorns, but also poses other oppositions like soft and spiky, dead and alive, rose and green.

In the spirit of ecofeminism, the drawing depicts what Prudence Gibson, a plant studies scholar, calls “plants as becoming-woman.” In the “emergent state of radical reinterpretation of vegetal life,” the growth of plants allows for becoming-woman being seen as “both an independent and a collective state of being.”[iii] Traditionally, Western cultural history depicts flowers as symbols for women and femininity. However, artists like Gina Beca and Marcy Ellis apply rough and prickly plants like cacti and agaves, that are native to their home region instead of employing delicate and soft flowers in order to merge them with (female) body parts.

Figure 2: Gina Beca: Pelvic Crest (2019)

The drawing Pelvic Crest (fig. 2) offers an interpretation that is two-fold: For one thing, it shows the cactus being nestled into the pelvic bone like a baby, imagining a female body being pregnant with the desert that is symbolized by the local plants. On the other hand, we see a pale pelvic bone, that is reminiscent of life and death at once: The desert with its plants takes over once a human dies and absorbs the body in its motherly womb again. Outlining a lifespan from birth to death, the drawing presents the desert both as mother and child at the same time. A mother, that cares for her children and provides them with a space to live until they die, and a child, that needs attention and that has to be taken care of.

Besides the drawings and paintings, I also came cross another medium that displays human-vegetal entanglements: Tucson has hundreds of large-sized murals all over the place. A lot of them picture Tucsonan sights, Southwestern folklore, local vegetation, famous people, animals, or a mix of all of them. The combinations of humans and plants intrigued me the most: Some walls are graced by a desert heart or a green lung (both by Lalo Cota). Each of these murals depict a human organ that is essential to the body’s vital functions. Where one would expect the heart’s veins and aorta, several saguaro arms grow upwards, accompanied by some prickly pears, whereas the lung is provided with oxygen by a tree that grows between its lobes. Other murals feature female heads that are brought together with prickly plants like in the paintings of the famous agave lady and the crested saguaro lady (both by Rock Martinez). A very detailed mural is located within the neighborhood where I lived during my stay in Tucson: Compass to the Southwest (fig. 3) was painted in 1989 by the Mexican-American artist David Tineo and it intricately combines a lot of natural elements mentioned above.

Figure 3: Compass to the Southwest by David Tineo (1989) at the intersection of N. Park and Helen Street at the former building of University of Arizona Press. Photograph taken by Christina Becher, CC BY 4.0

The mural is divided into three parts: The sky forms the background, showing celestial bodies and maybe a comet. The middle contains cultivated fields with green crops, human figures such as a woman with a child, and a wide road that leads to the iconic building of Mission San Xavier del Bac (located ca. 10 miles South of Tucson within the “San Xavier Indian Reservation” of the Tohono O’odham Nation). The church of this Spanish Catholic mission with its two white towers and the opulently decorated entrance portal forms the center of the mural. Also known as “The White Dove of the Desert,” it was built in late 18th century by O’odham laborers, though the mission was established a century before that. It was part of the Spanish missioners’ ambition to convert the natives to Catholicism. Between 1822, when Mexico gained independence from Spain, and 1848, when the Mexican-American war ended, Arizona belonged to Mexico. Hence, elements of Mexican and Chicano legends and folk art are all over the mural. Plants, animals, and human figures inhabit the foreground that shows the earth’s surface as well as a subterranean view. In the mural’s center is a single cactus plant that looks either like a Ferocactus pilosus or perhaps like a saguaro, although the first one often grows in groups and its yellow or red flowers appear as a circle around the top. It is more likely that the depicted plant is a young saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), the iconic plant of the Sonoran Desert that only grows in this region. This cactus can reach a high of 40 feet and develops several upward-pointing arms that create its typical shape, familiar from Wild West visuals. However, it takes decades until the slow-growing plants develop their first arm, and some columns never do. The pale orange flowers in the mural, admittedly, do not fit in either: Saguaro flowers are white and known as Arizona’s state flower.

The cross section below the cactus offers a subterranean view. In addition to a plant that could be a local agave on the bottom right, it shows three human bodies, encapsuled in uterus-shaped bubbles that are connected to the columnar cactus via a root system. The three bodies are likely to be male on the left, female on the right, and a smaller child between and slightly above the two. They are depicted in the fetal position and appear embedded in the brown and ochre soil that surrounds them. The cactus above the earth’s surface appears to be nurturing them through the root system.

The mural evokes the impression of being rooted in Southern Arizona’s ground and being nurtured by the soil and local plants that figuratively parent the human figures—a parallel between the mural and the drawing Pelvic Crest (fig. 2). In Compass to the Southwest, ‘belonging’ is tied to a geographical area with its specific culture and folklore and to the environment’s particular vegetation that has an impact on everyone’s lives. The mural communicates a feeling of belonging that is strongly connected with an emphatic sense of place. The human position in this ecosystem is not dominating other species but intricately interwoven with non-human and more-than-human agents. Historian Alexander Demandt, who coined the term dendrogony in his cultural history of trees, derives this term from the Greek dendron for tree and gonos for offspring or progeny to describe the phenomenon of the ‘arboreal birth’ in ancient myths.[iv] Many of them bring together human birth and trees, for instance the origin story of Adonis, whose mother Myrrha gave birth to him while being metamorphosed into a myrrh tree, or the first humans in Norse mythology, Ask and Embla, who were made from driftwood of ash and elm trees. In analogy to dendrogony, Tucson’s art seems to imagine its descent from cacti, a kind of ‘cactogony.’ Certainly, local Arizona art shows that many people in the Sonoran Desert are well aware of and attuned to their environment and its particular flora.

[i]     I want to underline that I am aware of the problematic assumption that underlies the term plant blindness, that is to “assume that all people experience and sense the world in the same way, that abled bodies are the default, and that disabled bodies are lacking or less than.” It is important to acknowledge that plant blindness employs a disability metaphor, hence it is an ableist term. However, it sounded the bell for a greater interest in the vegetal kingdom and became popular even beyond the academic realm. This is why I employed the term in this context, but I also want to point out that there is a “call for a shift in the narrative.” Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie et al.: We do not want to ‘cure plant blindness’ we want to grow plant love. In: Plants People Planet 1.3 (2019), pp. 1–3, here pp. 1 and 2.

[ii]    James H. Wandersee and Elisabeth E. Schussler: Toward a Theory of Plant Blindness. In: Plant Science Bulletin 47.1 (2001), pp. 2–9, here p. 3.

[iii]    Prudence Gibson. The Plant Contract. Art’s Return to Vegetal Life. Boston: BRILL 2018 (=Critical Plant Studies 3), p. 123.

[iv]    Cf. Alexander Demandt: Der Baum. Eine Kulturgeschichte. 2nd, reviewed, and extended edition. Böhlau: Köln et al. 2014, pp. 103 a. 106.

Christina Becher is a doctoral student in German Philology and EUmanities Fellow at the a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities Cologne. Before beginning her doctoral work in April 2019, she studied at the University of Münster, where she completed her two MA degrees in German Philology and Cultural Poetics of Literatur and Media. Christina’s project on “Vegetal Empowerment” explores the various functions of vegetal-human hybrids in literature and visual arts. Interested in hybrids from the 20th century to present time, she focuses especially on their emergence in poetological, feminist, and ecological contexts.

Trees, Stories, and Academia, or: What Literature has to do with Anything

In the very first session of the introduction to Comparative Literature at Ruhr-Uni Bochum, we were taught how to justify picking this subject to our parents. While I have told this anecdote a number of times as a funny twist on how my mother might have been the only person in the entire world who was actually relieved that her daughter decided to go for literature as her subject, I never quite lost the feeling of that first contact with what is now my profession. The feeling is an almost paranoid fear of being called out on doing what is actually a hobby (reading), a weird but all encompassing doubt about both the seriousness and relevance of my work. In short, it is the gut feeling that the “just” in “just fiction” might reflect more that a person’s attempt to discredit the capacity of literature to actually do stuff. 

By now I know that it is not just a feeling – it is the result of underfinanced humanities departments, expectations of “usefulness” and “applicability” that (being derived from engineering and, equally damaging for both cultures, from the natural sciences) have rarely anything to do with the work of a humanities scholar and almost never with the work of literary scholarship. It took me a while to get there, but the tip we were given in that introductory class followed those lines. While this is probably not the worst idea (even though I have doubts whether parents, who are not on board with you studying complit, will come around when the first thing you do is telling them about this French sociologist and cultural capital), I feel a growing sense of Bartleby-esque resistance to thinking of my work in these terms. So, if you came here to learn useful stuff about literature, I will disappoint you right away. This is not what I do. But what am I doing and why do I feel the need to do it despite constantly pointing out absurd conditions in academia and the need to tell people about it, who don’t even do what I do?

Looking for answers to these questions is part of the reason why I opened this blog. As with many things, there probably isn’t a straight response, but there might be more stories, and, as with many more things, for me, they have to do with trees. Not with roots, or branches, or leaves or all the single parts of a tree which lend themselves so well for (often all too heavy) metaphorization, but with the ways in which they require us to form words, stories and poetic texts in order to understand them. If I want answers to the question of why not only me but so many task themselves with writing about writing, talking about language and trying to find ways to put into text how texts become actors (many more meta-activities could be listed), then looking at trees, plants, symbioses and seemingly non-textual or -linguistic relationships might seem counterintuitive. But this is where – excuse the vegetal pun – the roots of the problem can be found.

A weed dinosaur, if you look (not too) closely, growing over human structures, not caring for what we think its species should be able to be

It would be all too easy to claim that it is literature’s job to make legible what otherwise remains incomprehensible. In novels, trees talk, in popular science, humans can read tree rings, in nature writing, humans follow tree roots everywhere – easy, isn’t it? Literary scholars, then, might be reproducing that job by making literature legible through analyzing, categorizing, historicizing. Too easy, indeed – what literary scholars do instead, or rather on top of that, is making things more complicated: Wohlleben tells you trees are friends and help each other? Here’s Johannes Wankhammer researching the different forms of Anthropomorphization and their pitfalls (Wankhammer). Ever heard of forest bathing? Here is Elisabeth Heyne showing you the different modes of perception (rain) forests induce (spoiler, not all are pleasant). And one more: You ask how trees become theme and motive in a text? Here am I telling you, they don’t, instead humans have to become tree-like to even see the giant plants. All of these texts and more are examples for how literary and cultural scholarship is much more than an explaining and archiving device. “We” don’t “just” communicate literature or other discipline’s results. Instead (or, again, on top of that) we find stories and keep telling them. We Reader poems and connect them to more poems, trees, (hi)stories. We excavate layers as much as we add new ones. The kind of knowledge this produces is actually very tree-like, because you can barely access it without becoming a little like it in the process. There is no writing about trees that isn’t making you a little bit arboreal while you’re reading. This might be special for the humanities and especially the Disziplinen dealing with literature. With us, you can see how we alienate ourselves from ourselves in order to melt into someone else and something else’s world (more on the barely hidden reference to hermeneutics and “Horizontverschmelzung” another time…).

In order to ‘see’ (read, hear, understand) the stories trees tell, you need to be able to connect them to other stories. This is what we do (I hereby claim): connect stories and provide a kind of guided tour through a jungle of texts and actors and things and more text, all the while leaving traces, changing the shrubs and producing more text. It sounds a little mysterious, doesn’t it? Well, it is and it is not. There is of course a way of learning how to do this, there are numerous ways of finding the benefit in studying literature…this is mine. Making things more complicated but also more exciting, making you understand less and being more adventurous with how you look around. Here’s to hoping you’ll join me…

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