Thursday, August 12, 2010

The life of a cactus.

Today was another day in my rock garden. It has become my daily obsession, or perhaps therapy is the more appropriate word. When I first arrived at this house that I am renting, I wasn't sure if I was going to get into my usual gardening routine. After all, this isn't my house, I didn't know if I should invest too much time and money, and I wasn't familiar with rock gardens and succulents. What I have found is that I love the work. I find myself moving things around quite a bit. The owners had recently put in some plants before I arrived. One in particular just didn't feel right where it was placed. I hope they don't mind, but I decided today that I would uproot it, and move it across to the side of the yard. In it's place I put this spindly cactus, and the beautiful coral colored succulent. I'm sorry that I don't have their names, which I usually try to research after purchasing, but I didn't get around to it today.

I'm not quite sure how it happened, but I became quite friendly with this cactus today. I was doing my daily walking up and down the isles of Home Depot's garden center, looking for something to put in the place of the plant that I relocated. This particular cactus caught my eye. I loved that it was so green, and seemed full of life. Growing up, we always had some of the typical desert cactus around, which my mother loved to cut up and cook. I could never see the beauty in the cactus, and completely disliked it's taste. Some things are definitely not for me. But this cactus looked a kindred spirit of sorts.

By all appearances it looked like something different. A quick glance at it, and one might confuse it with some kind of fern. It had such a delicate shape, almost perfect in it's spread of pointed shoots. It made me want to get close to it, and to reach for it with my hands. It seemed safe enough. Yet, as I moved in closer, and reached for it, I was struck by such pain. Every beautifully shaped sprout, ended with a sharp needle. Ouch! Try to get too close, and you will be hurt.

As I took a second look at the cactus, I began to wonder what use it found in it's sharp needles. Were these needles there to keep people out? Don't get too close to me or you will feel my pain. Maybe the needles were just a defense mechanism. I can't let you too close to me, something bad might happen. Deep inside, I am too vulnerable, so I wear this armor to protect myself.

In some ways, the life of a cactus can seem so lonely. Just by it's nature, it doesn't seem to need much from anyone. It is quite capable of storing what it needs, and can survive on it's own for quite some time. Yes, it has it's place in the garden, but pretty much keeps to itself. It has done a good job of keeping others away. I'm not sure if it is waiting for that right plant, be it another cactus or not, to come along, and not feel intimidated by it's thorns. And although some might be put off by it's sharp edges, it must be respected for it's ability to adapt to extreme situations.

If I were a cactus, I would likely just keep to myself. I would position myself in a nice spot in the garden, so that I could occasionally benefit from being around other plants. The problem, of course, would be living with the reality that should I allow another cactus to get close to me, I would definitely be opening myself up to pain. Theirs, and mine.


  1. Me again - I just read your response to yesterday's show of support via comments and I was reminded that you have not really 'settled' yet after your move. Then I reflected on how much change you have just gone through - you and your children. Moving is a big upheaval at the best of times. You haven't just moved house, you've changed cities. This is a big adjustment for you and your family; especially on top of your loss of Michael. Be good to yourself, Dan, your world has been shaken on several levels.

  2. I can't quite see the plant well enough, but looks like either a type of yucca, it could be one of the thin-leaved Agave plants. Here's a link to a photo of one type. If it's an Agave, the needle at the end of the leaf was used by native peoples to sew. When you bend the leaf to break loose a needle and then pull on it, it comes away with a couple of long filaments that can be used as thread for sewing. All of these plants have multiple uses in the desert. They also bloom once after several years of growing, and then they die - perhaps a useful metaphor for how we feel sometimes. The nice thing about Agave and Yucca is that, even if they might be solitary plants - having armor to keep others away - they provide a home to many creatures that live on or among their leaves - birds, bees, spiders, and other creatures. They both come in many different forms - thin leaves, thick leaves, variegated, some with spines on just the tips, others with many teeth along the leaves. I love the look of them in xeriscaped garden. Technically, although both are often referred to as cactus, they belong to a different plant group (just mentioning this for the purpose of plant knowledge as I know you are interested in increasing your expertise).

    I understand what you mean about about allowing another person to get close to you. Although I sometimes like to be around people for a little while, these days, I am happiest being alone. I feel as though I have been hurt enough by life and as though I can't take much more pain. For myself, I suspect that it may be better to avoid exposing myself to anything more. Of course, that also means being lonely sometimes. Also, I'm the kind of person who likes to do things for other people - it's in my nature - so I have this missing element to my life. This winter, and next spring, I'm thinking of looking into volunteering at stables in Arizona and here in Nova Scotia, that provide therapeutic riding programs - for war vets in AZ, and for people with various disabilities up here in NS. That would allow me the opportunity to help people and have a little contact, be around horses - which I miss very much since selling ours - but I would not be compromising my need for the stability of solitude. Of course, I don't know what will happen next in my life, but I'm trying to shape it in a way that seems habitable.

  3. Vwey interesting and so true. You are so insightful, to think of life metaphors while gardening. All I've been thinking when gardening over the past two days is "damn I hate weeds!" . When I finally get rid of the weeds, I'll pay more attention to my plants. Jeez, maybe there's my life lesson right there! I learn from your blog even when I'm just making a random comment! Thank you! And happy gardening today!

  4. hey bev - volunteering in stables is what I tried to do in the months after too. We don't have a tx equine program for vets, which bums me out - had one, but they closed. Anyhoo.

    Reading bev's comments about the spines on cacti providing safe places for other creatures reminded me of a previous bev comment about protecting the baby soul we all have now, small and vulnerable and really needing protection and care. Perfect plants, really. Not so much a "get away from me!" but more of a "hey! back off! I am protecting something here."

  5. Bev, thanks for leading me in the right direction regarding this plant. You are right, it is an alpine yucca. Chalk up the confusion to Home Depot placing this plant in the catcus section of the garden center.

  6. Dan - the house I rent in Arizona is at about 6000 feet and surrounded by manzanita, live oak, yucca, agave and opuntia. I've noticed several species of birds that (rather amazingly) can perch on those sharp tipped leaves -- Curved-bill Thrashers, Cactus Wrens, and some of the other desert birds. The yucca provide wonderful habitat for many insects and spiders too.

  7. Hi Dan I am a succulent enthusiast. I have a really large extensive garden of them and I have been growing and collecting for about 8 years now. Your Yucca plant was actually in the right place in Home Depot. But the sign should have said succulents. This may sound confusing but this is a general rule: All cactus are succulents but not all succulents are cactus. Check out my blog if you would like. I am going to need to explain this. The plant with the red tips in the back is called a Euphorbia tirucalli or Pencil Plant!