It’s almost 20 years since I visited Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a once beautiful expanse of desert by the Mexican border in southern Arizona. The area was established as a national monument in 1937, under one of the US’s great interior secretaries, Harold LeClair Ickes, and is named for its distinctive outcrops of massed Stenocereus cacti, elaborate pipe-like structures reminiscent of the great organs of American concert halls and north European cathedrals.
This is the only place in the US where Organ Pipe Cacti grow wild, but they are not this region’s only natural attraction. The ubiquitous cactus wren nests amid the thorns of the succulent flora, and other birds – silky flycatchers, vireos, black phoebes – flit by, singly, or in long flocks of song. Several rattlesnake species, including the western diamondback, deadly and elaborately beautiful, can be found sunning themselves, sometimes right in the middle of the trail. It is not, perhaps, the kindest of terrains, but once upon a time it was very well worth a day’s hike.
I say “once upon a time” because things have changed a good deal in this part of the west. Organ Pipe Cacti are not only beautiful and mysterious (especially when seen at dusk or dawn), they are also rare and their vital native terrain needs to be carefully conserved. Sadly, this stretch of desert happens to sit right in the path of Donald Trump’s Magical Border Wall and, though most of that will never be constructed, an apparent loathing for all that is grand or awe-inspiring in the environment has caused him to begin work right next to the monument, in the middle of a long stretch of nowhere. The dynamiting has begun, the bulldozers have moved in and the land is being irrevocably degraded, despite its designation as a sacred site of the great (and long-suffering) Tohono O’odham, the Native American people of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.
This site is also the place where a young ranger, Kris Eggle, was murdered in August 2002 (just a few months before I got there) while trying to protect the monument from what he initially thought was an off-road vandal, tearing up the precious land in a SUV, as persons of little wit are occasionally wont to do.
The drug dealers he eventually caught up with shot him dead with an automatic weapon. The people I spoke to during my brief visit described him as a dedicated young man who would do anything to conserve a unique stretch of American terrain. His sacrifice is memorialised at the entrance to the monument to this day – and will continue to be, unless Trump decides to bulldoze that as well.
Writing in the Baltimore Sun in 1920, HL Mencken observed that in national elections: “all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre […] The presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” This prophecy seems now to be amply fulfilled, but not every moron is as malevolent and petty as this one is. If he were here today, even Mencken would be dismayed by the lasting damage that a single moron can do in a matter of three years.
Next week: Stefan Buczacki on gardening
This article appears in the 25 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor