An Argument for Art and National Parks

One of the many beautiful things about spending time with a saguaro cactus is that while you’re doing it, you’re not thinking at all about money. Who needs money when you have Carnegie gigantea and all its resilience before you, when you can access the entirety of the Sonoran Desert just by standing still, next to a saguaro, for a good 60 minutes, though 10 will do?

I know this from personal experience and from the nearly 300 people who stood with saguaros in 2016 as part of a performance project I directed called “Standing with Saguaros.” The yearlong project combined storytelling and performances in Saguaro National Park, just outside of Tucson, Arizona. Its introductory act invited people to stand for up to an hour with the cactus in observation or meditation or performance or just because the saguaros are worthy of your time. These multi-armed cactus live as long as 200 years and serve as a keystone species in the ecosystem, offering shelter and food for bees, bats, birds, and small mammals.

Even in death, they are generous. Their decay feeds insects and lizards and nourishes the soil for young mesquite or palo verde trees, which then grow up to “nurse” new generations of saguaros. The saguaros are considered people to the Tohono O’odham, who also harvest the cactus’ fruit every summer in a traditional cultural practice to summon the monsoon rains.

Sometimes works of art — like national parks — invite new experiences that can deepen or change our understanding of the “other.” My project was made possible, in part, by a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. It was one of 84 “Imagine Your Parks” works commemorating the National Park Service Centennial.

If you’re an American taxpayer, you paid .003 cents for it. Thank you. I leveraged your funds to raise additional money.

Not everyone believes taxpayers should pay for art, or for national parks and monuments. The Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts entirely. Recently, one critic lambasted the agency in the Wall Street Journal, singling out my project, among others. He called the idea of standing with a saguaro “inane.”

No one who stood with the cactus described it that way. Instead, their responses relayed the “joy of connecting,” feeling “welcomed and humbled,” and meeting “my new friend.” There is no lack of studies confirming that time spent in nature is good for you.

The saguaro offered a portal to the many stories of a community. Stories from scientists, culture-bearers, artists and others about the cactus were broadcast on a radio program, The Saguaro Minute, reaching 30,000 local listeners and three times that online. Those stories were also woven into theater pieces performed live in the park. Though the stories focused on the non-human, they illuminated many truths about our humanity — what awes us, what we fear and cherish, how we give and grieve and heal.

Critics of the National Endowment for the Arts say we should let the market decide and make people pay for the art they want. But that dangerously limits the kind of art that gets made, where it’s made, and by whom, as well as who gets to experience it. Public funding for the arts ideally allows for pluralism and variation, which, the last time I checked, are deeply American virtues.

At just a tiny fraction of a single penny, the experience of standing and appreciating a noble desert species seems like a worthwhile expenditure, one with arguably more public value than, say, a golf trip to Mar-a-Lago.

On July 19 the U.S. House of Representatives voted to fund the NEA in 2018 at $145 million, which is more or less the cost of 40 of those golf trips. Approval now awaits a vote in the Senate.

Meanwhile, we artists will go back to making art on a dime — however far we can stretch it — taking inspiration from the world around us. Those who have never spent time with one may think there’s nothing to be learned from a saguaro, but they’re wrong. Resilience, generosity and beauty are enduring virtues.

Kimi Eisele is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. Photo by Lars Hammar

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