On Being a Cactus

Have you been to the desert for real?
Cactuses don’t feel pain when the quills stick out. They don’t poke through the skin from the inside, they grow outward slowly from the surface, and then connect in. And the cactus is completely unharmed by them. They are protective. Yet, many animals are perfectly modified to live among those ‘dangerous’ spikes. We videotaped the sunset on the desert hill where we scattered her ashes, and didn’t notice until we got home the tarantula climbing gracefully atop a tall spiky cactus, completely unharmed by it. At home, in fact. Animals know how to get to the sweet juicy flesh, and how to find shelter in the shade, and how to dig without disturbing the roots. If the cactus didn’t hold all that water for all those months, stand as tall and steady as it does, no life in the desert would survive.

Quills are actually modified leaves, they look and feel different from the outside for sure, but from the inside, the cactus probably feels quills the same way the pine feels needles and the oak feels leaves. They are just a part of who they are; well adapted to their environment and surrounded by an ecosystem for which they are an integral component.

I’ve been to the desert for real. It is a breathtaking, resilient place. It is a place of extremes. Deep bone chilling cold at night. Exceptional heat during the day. Wind and stillness and the biggest sky you can imagine. There are people who can’t leave the desert once they’ve really felt it.

The Saguaro (pronounced “soW ar O”) cactuses that you see in the movies, the tall ones with the arms sticking up and down, those are so so old. If you see a “young” one, the kind that is about 6 feet tall with no arms, it took 100 years to get that way. Slow, steady, careful and mindful growth. It doesn’t even start to reach out to the sides until it has stood for a century. There is a big blackmarket trade in the Southwest of stealing and reselling the older ones, because that kind of story is valuable.

And the bones. Have you seen Saguaro bones? After the cactus dies, slowly the flesh leaves and what is left is a tall stand of reed-like bones. It may stay in that same place for decades, marking the memorial of the hundred plus years of life it represents. The wind blows through the bones constantly as they play this steady mournful and deep song that sounds like a spanish lullaby.  There is ancient wisdom in those bones.

Now, if you were a cactus and you were trying to hang out with the palm trees in the tropics, or the ancient tall pines of a colder climate, or the sunflowers in a moist temperate field, then you would certainly be a lost soul, out of place and time and environment and you might seem terribly ill suited for anything at all. You wouldn’t probably survive for long. And the animals unaccustomed to your nature would find you deeply disturbing. Because that’s not where you belong.

Every thing on earth, every person on earth, every feeling, action, gesture, and desire, belongs somewhere.
Harmony will come to you, my darling friend, when you stop trying to fit yourself into an environment where you don’t belong.
Find your place. Stand still for a while.
And then for a long while more.
Accept the gifts of the sun and rain.
Feel the creatures scurrying about you faster than you can go.
Adapt to the challenges of the wind and the temperature.
And grow slowly.
Then just be.

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