EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 15: INTERIOR FRAMING

Munching 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.

"Does 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.

"Sometimes 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."

I 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 asleep.
(photo: Carolyn Roberts)
Saguaro with strawbales --
a house waiting to happen.

The 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 saguaro.I 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.

"This 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! ... 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.

"Wow!" 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!"

"Can 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 alive."

"No way," Rudy said. "That's dead. You're just lucky it didn't fall over onto the house last night."

"It 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.

Jon 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.

On 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.
(photo: Carolyn Roberts)
My noble guardian saguaro stands armless
after being struck by lightning.
The skeleton still stands by the house.
Jon 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. Eagerly, 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. I 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?

(Photo: Carolyn Roberts)
The kitchen with cupboard doors made from
the (other) saguaro that died during construction.

The 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.

"Sure," 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."

"Great! 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."

"Sure, that would be interesting."

"We 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."

"I hadn't thought of that. I won't touch a thing."

Rudy 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. Deciding 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.

This 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.

(photo: Carolyn Roberts)
House of Straw at final inspection with the saguaro skeleton.