Dick Wiedhopf, a 78-year-old resident of Tucson, Arizona, and former university pharmacist, orders 144 pairs of welding gloves at a time. He’s the manufacturer’s biggest customer, but the gloves aren’t all for him—actually, they’re not for any welders.
The gloves are for the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society, which Wiedhopf has been president of for the past 17 years. The 1,300-plus member club needs these gloves when they venture into the Sonoran Desert to rescue cacti and succulents from construction. Their collective, enthusiastic experience is summed up best by Jessie Byrd, the Pima County native plant nursery manager and society member. “It’s dumbfounding how much cool shit we’ve dug out of deserts,” she says.
In 2019, the club will likely celebrate its 100,000th rescued plant. This accomplishment is especially meaningful in Tucson, a city that has been split for decades over how to best preserve the desert. As urban development encroaches on an adored ecosystem, the cactus society mediates conflicting Arizonian desires: to see the economy and the desert thrive. Given the local enthusiasm for succulents, though, the only surprise about the club’s rescue efforts is that they didn’t start sooner.