The Existential Questions Of A Cactus


One afternoon in a desert full of Joshua trees…

A vulture makes lazy circles in the warm air, riding the thermals and keeping an eye on the slow-moving Bighorn sheep, hoping in his vulture heart that the animal was sick and would soon die in the maze of weathered rocks far below

A rattlesnake moved slowly between the shade of a split rock, keeping a close eye on a desert rat.  One quick strike was all he needed and a meal would be secure.

And, about twenty feet from a trail, a California Red Barrel cactus had an original  thought for the very first time…

I want to be touched, caressed…maybe even given a little water…maybe a little attention.  But, I know that can never be.  I’m aware of how I look.  I know I can hurt anything that comes too close.  I’ve seen others like me on the far hillside.  They’re never touched either.  No one dares come close because I have defenses that will severely injure anything trying to eat me.


I have thorns that can measure seven inches.  My thorns are as unforgiving as the July heat or the lack of water on any given day.  I could probably kill anyone who approaches.  But, I can’t strike out and inject venom like a viper.  I can’t bite an artery to end the life of a mountain goat.  I am destined to stay where I sent down roots.  I am immobile.  I can only grow my slow way toward the blue sky.  I can’t do anything else.  My tender core of green flesh is protected by a nest of these thorns as sharp as anything can be.  The tip of my spike ends at nothing…it just ends, waiting to puncture a finger, a lip, a paw or a thin slice of flesh.

red barrel cactus

[Source: Wikipedia]

Which makes me wonder why I am here at all?  What is my role in life?  When I bloom in early summer, a few buds of my flowers may feed a small animal.  Beyond that, I am food for no living thing.  I simply take a little bit of moisture and a few minerals from the sand…and I just exist.  My purpose in existing is to protect myself.  I can’t do anything to attract a mate for reproduction.  The most I can contribute is to allow a desert rat to nibble on a tiny flower bud and pass my seed with its feces.  My seed will be deposited somewhere and my children will take root…never knowing their ancestors.

I see humans walk past me on the nearby trail.  Sometimes they are holding hands and then they stop and put their mouths together.  Sometimes, they walk well away from the trail and lay together.

Sometimes a human walks past me…alone.  I know what alone means.  I wonder if their aloneness is by choice or are they wondering what happened to the one they once loved and thought they were loved in return?

I wonder if I can ever be loved?  Why would any living thing love me…I who have put up so many defenses?

What’s there to love?  Can I be loved for just being?  Just existing?  Just being a part of a beautiful landscape?

For all my spines, sometimes I am the only color to be seen in a land of brown rocks.  Wait!  I can’t forget the intense blue sky above me.  And, I can’t forget the billions of stars at night.

I can’t forget the bright moon or the dust of the rock crystals I am rooted in.

I can’t forget the rare raindrops that land on me and are pierced through by my spines.

Maybe the drop of rain loves me and that’s how I get touched by something?


The Tree Of Death



SONY DSC [Source: Wikipedia]

The little apple of death hangs from the branches of the tree of death.

On a hot July day in 1521, Ponce de Leon, his body ravaged by agony, rolled his eyes toward heaven and, most likely, screamed his way into the hands of his God.  The man who searched for the Fountain of Youth in Florida,  found the Well of Death in Havana, Cuba.

He had battled the Calusa indians near the Calossahatchee River, not far from present day Fort Myers.  An arrow struck him in the thigh.  Normally, a soldier would survive such a wound–and he did, the wound was not the cause of his death.  It was a coating of sap on the arrowhead, the essence of the manchineel tree that killed him.

It could not have been a peaceful or graceful death.

After the battle, his army took him to Havana where he succumbed to the poison.

The Spanish called the tree the Arbol de la muerte, the tree of death.

The manchineel tree (Hippomane manchinella) is (according to the Guinness Book of World Records) the most dangerous tree on the planet.  To stand under it in the rain will cause your flesh to blister and fester.  If you stand in the smoke of a burning manchineel, you will likely go blind.  If you ate the little apple-like fruit from the tree, you would most likely die a painful death caused by your stomach lining being dissolved, like a salt crystal in warm water.

The indians of Meso-America, who knew of the trees potency, would sometimes tie their enemies to the trunk–ensuring an agonizing demise.

The toxins of the tree are complicated and hard to pronounce, but are spectacularly effective.

I sat on a tour boat in the Buttonwood Canal in the Everglades National Park and snapped a photo of the tree not twenty feet from where I stood.  To even brush against the leaves will cause a painful eruption of fistulas.  From the description of the effects, I thought that this tree would make poison ivy seem like a mosquito bite.

Manchinell Tree

[The Manchineel Tree]

For over ninety minutes, I heard about alligators, crocodiles, water moccasins, rattle-snakes, coral snakes and vultures.  This is a landscape of death–these Everglades.

But hearing about the dangers that lurked and slithered around the roots of the mangrove trees, I still found profound beauty and nature in its most elemental form.  I only regretted that the Everglades were so plundered, assaulted and raped by the developers and agribusinesses that only a fraction of the original ‘glades exist today.

Objects of beauty often come with lethal attachments.

Buttonwood Canal

[The Buttonwood Canal]