Praising Arizona

Maybe the story of David Grundman - the man who, out of boredom, shotgunned a 125-year-old saguaro cactus only to be crushed to death under its 3,000 pound carcass - is a metaphor for man’s struggle against nature in the unforgiving Arizona desert. Maybe it’s just hilarious. Tucson travel writer Tom Miller seems to think the latter, and his essay “Revenge of the Saguaro” benefits greatly from it. “Revenge” is one of the easiest-reading, least substantial stories in the book by the same name, but Miller’s witty, well-considered telling, which begins when the saguaro seedling took root during the Buchanan administration and ends with a park manager’s gleefully graphic description of the crime scene (“The cactus popped his gums like they were little water balloons”), elevates a good anecdote into a great piece of writing.

Miller, who wrote most of the pieces anthologized in Revenge for Southwest alternative publications in the 1970s, isn’t always joking around, though, and chapters covering serious subjects - environmental activism, hate-crimes against hippies - are all the more inconsistent because of their weight, though they contain some of the book’s biggest payoffs. In his quest to understand his adopted territory, Miller, a D.C. transplant, examines the kitschy knickknacks, ethereally beautiful but nearly inhospitable terrain, and considers the sudden violence that characterizes the deserts of Arizona and New (and occasionally Old) Mexico with a local’s knowledge and an Easterner’s sarcasm. Describing the controversy regarding which region birthed black-velvet paintings, for example, Miller deadpans, “Black velvet art confirms the theory of independent but simultaneous evolution.” But, with the glaring exception of Grundman, he describes the people who, by choice or necessity, struggle to make a home in the Southwest with incredible empathy. When he’s taken for a tour of “a black-velvet factory” - a place where young artists paint Last Suppers assembly-line style for less than minimum wage - Miller’s only concern is for the artist’s working conditions and long hours, and he refrains from delivering self-important commentary on the bourgeois state of popular art: He’s happy to laugh off people’s taste for crap until it results, inevitably, in another way for the strong to exploit the disadvantaged.

For that reason, Miller has little sympathy for the types he calls the “briefcase buckaroos” who’ve infiltrated the region, the “recent generations of monied arrivistes `who` have adapted the traditional heritage of those they’ve displaced,” but he makes an effort to understand just about everyone else. His profile on novelist Ed Abbey and the Eco-Raiders, a group of militant environmental activists who, against the reclusive author’s wishes, have adopted Abbey as a sort of patron saint, is especially compelling for Miller’s ability to relate a subject’s point of view without judging it. Miller seems sympathetic to the Eco-Raiders’ cause, but dubious of their methods (sawing down billboards, sabotaging construction equipment, planning, per a plot point in one of Abbey’s novels, to blow up a dam) and the ambiguity leaves the reader to consider the costs of progress and conservation. His descriptions of cockfights and interviews with the men who breed roosters are similarly ambiguous: “Colonel Sanders keeps his chickens shoulder-to-shoulder indoors, and in six weeks, they’re slaughtered,” complains one breeder when a bill to make cockfighting illegal in Arizona comes up for vote. “Ours are better cared for. … They’re fed and watered twice a day. … Each bird is vaccinated.” Despite the bloody description of a rooster stabbing another to death with the sharp metal “spurs” tied to its legs, the piece comes close to being an apology.

“Cheerfully tolerating cockfights runs counter to everything civil I like to think I identify with,” Miller writes. “Still, the fact is that I’ve enjoyed the tackiness of the half-dozen cockfights I’ve attended.” He even places a few bets, but he concludes with an awesome bit of liberal guilt: “by the time I left … I had lost more money in a single day than I had pledged to my public radio station all year.” •

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