Saguaro National Park, Arizona–Donny Preston is a native of southern Arizona, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, the people of the desert. “I don’t consider myself a medicine man or a shaman,” he told me shortly after he gave the official blessing at the start of the BioBlitz in the Saguaro National Park. “But the Creator gave me a gift that I use on people. I go to the hospitals a lot, I see a lot of people and a lot of people come see me.”
Preston is an award-winning artist, with a special focus on carving the skeletons of dead saguaro cactus. His work is on display in the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C.
Arizona is a very spiritual place. There are a lot things people see that are invisible to regular people, he told me in the video interview above. “People have lost their spirituality, and that’s something we have to get back … the bond we have with Earth, the mother who takes care of all of us.”
If we respected the Earth and respected each other, if we all worked with one another, maybe there wouldn’t be so many problems in the world, he added.
Is Saguaro National Park, the location of the 5th annual BioBlitz hosted by National Geographic and the National Park Service, a special place to feed the spirit, I wondered.
“The energy is here,” Preston agreed. There are some places nearby which Native Americans call the center of the universe. “The spirits still are living here. Certain people like me can feel these things.”
What blessing did Preston invoke at the opening of the BioBlitz today? “I used the greasewood [Sarcobatus] … it smells good, like the rain … It’s strong medicine we can use for different things,” he said, adding that he used it as he prayed.
The national park is named for the saguaro, an immensely tall and heavy cactus that marches across the landscape like an army of fantastic giants. I asked Preston what he could tell me about the traditional knowledge of the plant. “We see them as people, you know, people who have gone on but who have come back as saguaro. I make picture frames out of their dead ribs … so they’re very important to me.”
Our interview over, Preston took me by the hand and asked me to sit next to him. As his grip tightened I felt an exchange of energy between us until our arms started trembling. He placed a hand on my heart, and then my head, then he looked into my eyes and said, “you are thinking about something over and over again. You must stop. Let it go. You will be fine.”
Contact information for Donny Preston:
Saguaro rib frames and wood carving
Tucson, AZ 520-481-5426
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.