Ahwatukee retiree Steve Ryan has a penchant for both photography and the ever-unique Sonoran Desert Saguaro cactus and combined the two passions into a coffee table book.
“Sassy Saguaros,” originally published in 2014, has recently been re-released by a new publisher and is available for purchase online.
Ryan, who lived in Ahwatukee in the 1980s, moved back to the village last year after a sojourn in Ocotillo.
He said he carefully curated the 22 saguaros that appear in his book.
“I spent hundreds of hours each year for three years searching the Sonoran desert for the saguaros that eventually ‘qualified’ for my book,” Ryan said.
“By that I mean that I was never willing to settle for any saguaro that wasn’t so unique that any person wouldn’t have to say ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a Saguaro that looks anything like the one before my eyes,’” he explained, adding:
“In other words, I never settled for a saguaro to which I could assign a usual description to. The saguaro had to be totally unique and unlike anything anyone had likely seen to make the book.”
He stated at least “90 percent of the time” he’d return home from his arduous trips through the desert without snapping a single photograph.
“I never lowered my standards just to get the book published,” he said. “Time didn’t matter, nor should it when you’re dealing with saguaros that are over 100 years old.”
Ryan said he went down “every trail or backroad from Wickenburg to the west, Saguaro Lake to the east, and Black Canyon City to the north.”
He got to those out-of-the-way places by hiking or biking on his trusty 25-year-old Gary Fisher mountain bike.
“I suffered more flat tires than I can count,” he laughed. “I often had to walk my bike miles back to my car.”
People often ask him why he chose to photograph saguaros for his first book.
“I’ve always loved the Sonoran Desert because it is so unique compared to the Midwest where I grew up,” he explained. “And I’ve loved mountain biking on all the trails surrounding Phoenix where I’d look at the Saguaros and note their individual and unique styles.
“So, one day I decided to start taking my camera with me on the trails and, as they say, the rest is history,” said Ryan.
His camera of choice is a Panasonic Lumix FZ35.
And as evinced by his years searching for the perfect photo of the saguaro cactus, the captions he chose to accompany them were not blithely brought about.
“I could never just look at a cactus and say to myself, ‘Okay, think of a funny caption for that one. Quite to the contrary, every saguaro featured in my book was selected because when I first saw it, the caption raced through my mind automatically,” he said.
“There was never any doubt or question what the saguaros were doing or saying.”
Ryan admitted that though he could have included “countless more photos” to make the book bigger, that was never his objective.
“My goal was to locate saguaros that were unique, one of a kind, and uniquely expressive as to the caption I assigned to the picture,” he said.
“As one good example, the photo in the book where the saguaro literally bends over at a 90-degree angle is a look I’ve never seen in my 45 years here in Arizona,” said Ryan. “What act of nature could possibly cause that saguaro to do that and still look totally healthy and otherwise normal?”
The fittingly captioned photo he referred to is humorously entitled “Man, I hate those Scottsdale height ordinances!”
“There are always one of two reactions when people see the photo. The photo and the caption either make you laugh out loud, such as ‘7,8,9,10. (cq) Ready or not, here I come!’ or make you sigh and go ‘Aww’ – like the ‘You are forgiven, my son’ photo.”
The latter photo he mentions is a towering beauty of a saguaro that appears to be blessing the smaller one below with a bowed head.
Other fan photo favorites include “United States Marine... in camouflage” and “Twin Girls,” each crowned with circlets of spring cactus blossoms – Arizona’s State Flower since 1931.
And you’ll not be finding any salacious saguaros among Ryan’s curated photos.
“I deliberately avoided using any pictures where the saguaro’s arms and ‘legs’ could lead to a sexually suggestive caption and I’m sure you’d know, there are saguaros out there who would fit that role,” he chuckled.
The saguaro’s scientific name – “Carnegiea gigantea” – was given in honor of Andrew Carnegie, who established Tucson’s Desert Botanical Laboratory in 1903.
It is found throughout the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, the Mexican state of Sonora, Southern California’s Whipple Mountains in eastern San Bernardino County and reportedly small pockets in Imperial County’s Palo Verde Mountains.
Saguaros are the largest cactus in the United States. Two of Arizona’s tallest saguaros on record – the 46-foot-high “Grand One” in Tonto National Forest and 40-foot ”Oro Valley Saguaro” have both died.
Another giant, once standing proud in Tucson’s Saguaro National Park, was estimated to be 300 years old when the 40-foot saguaro started dying in the 1990s.
It was said to be the oldest, biggest
and with 52 arms, the most thickly-limbed saguaro.
In its first printing, Ryan’s book found fans locally, many of whom purchased additional copies for friends who’d visited Arizona or were considering doing so.
“Not one person has ever not truly loved it, literally everyone who’s seen it,” said Ryan. “And nearly everybody in Arizona has family or friends living in the Midwest or Northeast, and the book makes a great gift as it shows how ‘fun’ Arizona is, and how great it is to live here.”
Rene Thompson of Gilbert is one of those who both saw and loved the “Sassy Saguaros” book, then purchased a copy for her family.
“I’ve looked through “Sassy Saguaros” several times over the years and I laugh out loud at the photos and captions every time,” said Thompson, a Realtor. “Laughing out loud at pictures you’ve seen many times before says it all.”
Thompson, who has lived in Arizona since 1978, said she and her children always enjoyed seeing the unique and diverse shapes of the saguaro.
“Our children always loved competing with each other to discover the most unusually shaped saguaro. This book playfully demonstrates precisely that, adding humorous quips to match. It’s a perfect coffee table addition; you can’t help but enjoy it over and over again. I think Steve’s book is a perfect souvenir of Arizona; it always makes me smile.”
“Sassy Saguaros” is available for purchase on Amazon and BarnesAndNoble.com.
To see more pictures and maybe have a laugh: sassysaguaros.com.