Tucson, Arizona - If you let your imagination roam, the figure before you - a cactus in this case - becomes a character waiting to accept a dance partner, one arm ready to wrap around a waist and the other to place on a shoulder.
Sometimes you see the victim of a holdup, arms raised high in the air. And sometimes it's waving a lonely goodbye or transforming into an alien being, multiple arms reaching for the heavens.
The saguaro, perhaps the most recognizable variety of cactus, is native to southern Arizona and gives its name to Saguaro National Park, which flanks the city of Tucson. The park has the world's largest concentration of saguaros. They dot the desert landscape, sometimes singly and sometimes, like sentinels, covering a hillside in clusters, a sign of surprising fecundity in the arid landscape.
In the midst of a sometimes rolling vista of the western park, with its shades of taupe, brown, green, rust, sand and an amazing variety of greens, the desert plants provide life to a number of other creatures. Woodpeckers and other birds make nests in the stems of the saguaro, whose exterior is ribbed with accordion-style pleats, expandable to store water.
Once the woodpeckers have moved on - they only use a nest once - the hole becomes a residence for owls, mice, snakes and other critters that enjoy the water-cooled cactus interior.
The cactus, a slow grower, doesn't begin to develop those armed branches until it's more than half a century old. That's not so long, since the tree-like plant can live for 200 years and grow to 10 metres in height. More arms mean the cactus has more places to grow flowers and produce seeds for propagation. Despite the saguaro's height, the majority of its roots are only millimetres beneath the soil.
This isn't a place to vacation in the summer. Temperatures in the Sonoran Desert can reach over 40° Celsius, says our park guide, and there's not much relief from the heat and the sun. Even in spring, this is an area with no greys; you're either in bright light or deep shade.
Yet it is a unique desert region, for there are two rainy seasons during the year. Oxymoronically, he notes, it's the lushest desert in the world.
Though the saguaros are the main attention-getters, other varieties of cactus grow in the park. Some are flat-leafed and coppery in colour, while others, barrel-shaped and with small clusters of flowers on top, resemble oversized pineapples.
On this lazy April afternoon, a few hawks drift gracefully in the cloudless blue sky. A pale half-moon hangs over the distant umber hills.
There's been a decade-long drought in the state, and riverbeds are often hard earth. That doesn't seem to bother the velvet mesquite trees, which send their roots down 20 metres for moisture.
Aboriginal peoples have lived here for 11,000 years. The skeletons of mammoths and mastodons, killed by human weapons, have been found in the area.
Our guide takes us to Signal Hill, which is dotted with petroglyphs, light carvings on the dark granite rockface made by the Hohokam tribe. The hill contains over 400 images - bull's eyes, spirals, checkerboard patterns, rakes, suns, human figures. Some archaeologists argue that they're birthing symbols, others that they're astronomical markers.
Despite tourists tracking all over it, you can't escape the sense of presence on the hill, the feeling that you're standing on a sacred spot. There's a sense of stillness and age; even the air feels charged.
How ironic that the area is facing increasing pollution problems, especially since people came here to get clean air. But, of course, they brought their cars and industries with them, and the environment is paying the price.
It's shocking that so little use is made of solar energy in a region where the sun beats down almost every day of the year.