FROM CHAPTER 15: INTERIOR FRAMING
on my black bean taco, I watched the lightning transform
into huge veins as it continued west across the mountains,
heading toward the area of my straw bale house. These
were not little flashes any longer; they were huge,
glowing tentacles darting from menacing black clouds.
They viciously clung to their prey, injecting it with
gazillions of deadly volts before retracting into
the dark sky.
lightning always hit something?" I asked Jon, apprehensively.
I was well aware that my house was the tallest structure
within many miles and covered with a metal roof.
it just hits the open desert," he assured me. "Sometimes,
if you know where lightning has struck, you can go
see the sand fused together."
felt a little better, though I silently visualized protective
light around the house and the trailer. Telling myself
not to slip into worry mode, I drove with Jon to a movie
and returned home after dark. The storm had dissipated
by then, though the wet desert had a wonderful musty
aroma that told me rain had passed through the area.
We needed it. Despite all the summer lightning, August
had been a very dry month. The
straw bale house was standing majestically and securely
on its foundation. Checking for messages, I noticed
the dial tone was gone on one phone. After checking
each connection in the lines, I found that the surge
suppressor, which sat between the phone line and my
computer modem, had blown. Lightning must have hit.
The suppressor had done its job. Jon
had placed a stronger surge suppressor on our electric
panel and it had probably blocked the lightning from
blowing out anything else. The suppressor wasn't attached
to the phone lines. After rerouting the phone lines
and making sure the computer still worked, I fell soundly
with strawbales --
a house waiting to happen.
following morning, with a mug of green tea, I strolled
over to the house to admire the latest progress. I
loved starting the day that way, and with a few stretches
in the fresh morning air. Today was exciting because
now I could really visualize the rooms. The curved
wall around the stairway would be a wonderful touch.Returning
toward the trailer, my steps froze. Before me, barely
ten feet from the west end of the straw bale house,
the arms of the sole remaining guardian saguaro lay
scattered at its feet. I had walked right by it on
my way to the house, without even noticing! Rushing
over to the arms, which must weigh hundreds of pounds
each, I also noticed a large gash in the base of the
couldn't imagine what might have happened. Some disease
might have attacked it, weakening the arm joints,
or some vandal might have slashed it with a machete.
In complete shock, my mind froze and my jaw dropped.
looks like a lightning strike," Jon surmised, walking
up behind me. "Look at the top. It's black and the
spines are burnt off." We examined the core of one
arm, which was also burnt.
... Oh! ... Oh!" was all I could exclaim, over and
over. My intuitions had been accurate; that lightning
had my name on it and the house had been protected.
Like a true guardian, this desert giant had taken
the hit for us; it had saved the house. Visions of
rebuilding and redoing all the work on my house flooded
through my mind, making me weak.
I heard Rudy's voice behind us." I saw that last night!
It was like a bomb went off. It shook my house and
it was so bright, like the sun came out. I thought
it was closer, because it was so loud. Good thing
you weren't home; it probably would have knocked your
eardrums out. I looked over here and saw flames and
smoke coming out of that saguaro. I told my kids,
but they didn't believe me. It really got hit! Whoa!"
we save it?" Jon asked. "Why don't you call your
saguaro man and ask him if we can cover the holes
from the arms with something and somehow keep it
way," Rudy said. "That's dead. You're just lucky
it didn't fall over onto the house last night."
does lean toward the house a little," I added. "That
man who cut down the other saguaro told me to look
out for this one. If it dies, we'll have to pull
it away from the house." I
phoned over to Tohono Chul Park, but the man who
cut down my other saguaro would not be in for two
days. That might be too long. On closer examination
of the saguaro, I could see the top bending to the
south, rot forming along the burn lines, and ooze
coming from the gash at its base. No,
there was no way this saguaro would survive any
explosion that blew its arms off. It was probably
charred at its core. Poor thing. From deep in my
heart, I silently saluted and thanked this beautiful
creature for protecting us. My second guardian would
have to come down. Still
stunned and saddened, I got out a long tow rope
and the A-frame ladder. Jon didn't want us to rest
any extension ladder against the saguaro, because
its balance was probably very tenuous from the loss
of its arms. A push in the wrong direction might
topple it. Climbing
the rungs, I wrapped the rope around the trunk about
eight feet up, then triangulated it out to two stakes,
to the northwest and the southwest. We estimated
that the top of the cactus wasn't more than five
feet above the ridge of the roof -- about twenty-five
feet in height. The distance from the saguaro to
the straw bale house was only about ten feet, but
the distance to the west, from the cactus's trunk
to the trailer, was thirty seven feet, so we could
safely let it fall to the west.
didn't have his chain saw with him, so we left the
cactus staked. We would take it down another day.
I felt relatively assured that if it hadn't fallen
on the house so far, it wasn't going to do that
now. However, my nerves were frayed; I was in no
mood to work. Since
Jon needed to do some plumbing at a beautiful straw
bale house in the foothills south of Tucson, I took
the day off and went for a drive with him. He had
built the house about five years ago and was anxious
to show it to me. Not only was the house an elegant
example of straw bale construction, but the artistic
women who owned the house had boldly painted their
walls with deep reds, purples, and blues. I was
trying to decide whether to be that brave.
Monday, Jon installed a lightning grounding system
on my house, consisting of a copper rod on the roof
and large copper lines that ran down each corner of
the house into thirty-foot trenches pointing away
from the walls. He had enough leftover materials from
his other jobs to do it at a minimal cost. Zej helped
him dig the trenches, but the copper rod installation
was still hot, grungy work in the desert heat -- back
up on the steep roof, again. I would be so glad to
be in the solid, grounded house by the following summer.
My nerves still felt raw.
noble guardian saguaro stands armless
after being struck by lightning.
The skeleton still stands by the house.
couldn't find his chain saw. He figured he must have
lent it to someone, but he wasn't sure to whom. That
was actually fine with me, because I hated to see
the second house guardian go down. Even dying, she
looked majestic next to the house and I could say
"thank you" every time I passed by. On
Wednesday, August 23, I arrived home from work with
a truckload of cement mix for the subfloors and a
group of University of Arizona lightning researchers
behind me. One of Jon's conversations had reached
the ears of a member, who immediately asked us not
to cut down the saguaro and let them come study it.
the three researchers climbed out of their white sedans,
marveling at the wonderful specimen of a cactus. My
life's limited experience with university professors
had led me to presume ignorantly that behind their
gray hair and pale skin was a regimented outlook on
life. But this evening, their excitement was contagious;
I couldn't help admiring how much they enjoyed their
work as they bustled around the base of the tall cactus,
examining every inch, taking notes, snapping photos,
and huddling to share their discoveries. Apparently
it was rare that they reached a saguaro right after
a strike, were able to document exactly when the lightning
had hit, and had a witness to tell them what happened.
interrupted Rudy's dinner to ask him to come over
and give a full report to the scientists, which he
did, describing the brilliant flash of light, the
shaking of the ground several acres away, and then
the flames running up and down the trunk, while smoke
(which he was told was actually steam) exploded from
the top of the cactus. He verified that it was about
7:30 in the evening that the strike took place --
just about exactly as I was eating my taco?
kitchen with cupboard doors made from
the (other) saguaro that died during construction.
top five feet of the saguaro had fallen off that
day and now lay on the ground amid the broken arms.
To my amazement, one of the researchers showed me
photos of the last strike they had documented. The
top had fallen off the cactus after five days (we
were at four days now) and on the sixth day, the
remaining stalk had dropped its skin in a matter
of hours, like a molting snake. Left standing, was
the graceful wooden skeleton of ribs. I
surveyed the growing gash at the eastern base of
the saguaro, which was still causing it to lean
toward the straw bale house. Then, I double checked
my stakes and lines that supported the massive,
but dying trunk toward the west. Inside me, I really
didn't want to cut down the saguaro and hoped this
was a message that I didn't have to.
I agreed. "I'll wait a few days and see what happens.
I'd love to have a standing skeleton here, to remember
the saguaro by."
And please don't touch any of the metal objects
around the base of the saguaro, here," added Leo,
the researcher who knew Jon. "Tomorrow we'd like
to bring out another member of our group who can
run a magnetic detector over the bits of rebar and
nails to tell us exactly how the lightning traveled."
that would be interesting."
think that the gash at the base of the saguaro was
from the lightning traveling over to this large
piece of rebar and then bouncing back to the saguaro.
It may have saved your power lines."
hadn't thought of that. I won't touch a thing."
told me that my neighbors to the north had lost
their power and their computer had been blown out
when the lightning hit. It was amazing that this
force had passed within thirty feet of our electric
box and only a couple of breakers had been thrown.
The little black box that Jon had put on our electric
panel had definitely done its job. The
skin didn't drop for two weeks. We worked in the
shadow of this dying monument, watching ooze pour
from its gashes as its skin became brittle and black.
On the second Sunday after the strike, it dropped
another section of its top and now was no threat
to the house. The lightning experts, who by now
were familiar faces at the job site, told me that
my staking rope was keeping the skin from falling.
that the house was no longer in danger, I removed
the rope carefully from the cactus's sides. There
was still something majestic and peaceful about
this creature, though it was merely a stiff carcass
by now. Within minutes, I heard the skin cracking
and falling in pieces, and by the end of the day
at least half of the skeleton was exposed. The wood
shone radiantly in the setting sunlight.
would be our Christmas tree each year, I decided.
We would decorate it with lights and make it a monument
of joy. Now, it held no danger of poking us with
its thorns, nor of falling on the house. It would
still be our guardian in its new form.
of Straw at final inspection with the saguaro skeleton.