Forget the car for a minute.

Consider the mighty Saguaro cactus--symbol of Arizona, the Sonoran Desert, and, dare we say, the whole Southwest. Star of countless westerns and "Road Runner" cartoons; standard of the northernmost species of columnar cacti; key player in the desert ecosystem. Celebrated in Indian lore, its fruit harvested for centuries every June and July by local tribes, and made into syrup, seed meal, jam, and wine; sole supplier of the state flower; protected by state law; designated as a national monument by the National Park Service (Saguaro National Monument); beloved of tourists. Okay, so it KO'd the car--just throwing its weight around one day on the Apache Trail near Tortilla Flat (east of Phoenix). But before you make invidious comparisons with "The Eggplant that Ate Chicago" or "The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes," consider this: It was an accident. Notice those signs on the car's windshield--the guy probably had fair warning. What did he expect the cactus to do, anyway, yell "Timber!" And doesn't he look pretty illegally parked? He probably just marched right into the insurance agency (pictured in the background) afterwards, reported his car totalled by a five-ton cactus, and filed a claim under the acts of God and cactusclysm (cactaclysm?) binder.

There is one other recorded incident involving a Saguaro cactus. In February of 1982, says the "Arizona Handbook," "a man north of Phoenix shot a saguaro twice with a shotgun; a 23-foot section then broke off and crushed the gunman to death." Sounds like a clear case of self-defense.

In general, saguaros have always been upstanding members of the Arizona community. (This one just couldn't stand up anymore.)

What can you say in defense of a 10,000 pound cactus? That it had a tough life? You try standing around in the desert in 110 degree summer heat, 50 feet tall, carrying all that water weight and heavily armd, for as long as 200 years. That it just couldn't support itself anymore?

So few saguaros make it to begin with--of the 30 million seeds one saguaro drops in a lifetime, only one will make cactus. "Once germinated, they face formidable obstacles," says "Agave" magazine, the journal of the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Seventy percent are "browsed" by deer, rabbits, and other foragers. If they do make it to young spearhood, then come the awkward stages, including the "Club" (growing but still armless) and "Wine Bottle" (slowed growth and narrowing at the top) phases. Late bloomers, they don't even flower or get pollinated until they're at least 30--or grow arms till they're around 70 years of age. And then growth opportunities for an adult cactus outside of Arizona are pretty limited (with the exception of California--on the border with Arizona, at that--they don't grow anywhere else).

Maybe this sagauro just got sick of living, sick of being a tree in plants' clothing--of identity crisis? How many times in 200 years would you like to be called a candlebra, a pleated pickle, Gumby with spines, a thorny water tower, an elbowless right-turn signal? How long could you go on colonized (under and around in burrows) by rats and roadrunners, pollinated by bats, gawked at by tourists, wholly owned by the state, segregated to a national monument area?

How long before you'd want to take out the nearest Ford Fairlane?