DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
Chapter 24: thorns, spines,
ecstasies, and itch
Some barrel cacti are completely covered by interlocking chain mail. The ones in Death Valley live in bunches armored with rosy pink; higher in the Mojave they stand alone but their spines are fiery red-yellow. Elsewhere the spines are gray. But they all have spines. And the younger they are the greater this protection is, only because the spine clusters are the same size all the cactus's life and what's right for a chunky adult looks immense on an infant. Whatever its size or age, the more the cactus dries out the more it concertinas together and the closer the clusters mesh, the long curved flattened spines fitting together like fingers interlocking in prayer, giving the greater protection the deeper the drought. Meanwhile, as another accident of form, the growing and flowering tip of the cactus -- the dome of its head, so to speak -- is always the most heavily defended part, that being the place where growth originates and only gradually spreads. The iron-hard spikes mesh so close there and lie so flat to the flesh as well as stick out that it's impossible even to winkle a finger through to touch the cactus skin.
When the barrel dies, its flesh softening to black crumbs and the waxy skin tearing and blowing away like flakes of paper, the clusters remain, scattering in the stones, darkening with time but sharp as ever, reminding me of minefields still active after a war has passed on.
Pincushion cacti and fishhooks and others of the nipple cactus clan have spines that make a kind of white fur. This works as modest chain mail and also reflects unwanted sunlight away, like a burnoose. Some of these tiny cacti are no bigger than Ping-Pong balls and are as pale as the rock in which they live, looking like puffs of linty cloth or knobs of lace. A tonsure of flower buds pushes out through the white spines somehow, in spring, without being punctured or scraped. The flower can be as large as or even larger than the stubby item it surmounts. The multi-petaled skirts of pink, red, white, yellow, or purple, with their sheaves of ecstatic stamens, come as compensation for those motionless, colorless months of endurance.
One way or another, cacti do seem to possess a kind of intelligence. Except for the night-blooming cereus that grow from perennial water-storing roots, and all those chollas and prickly pears, cacti are generally dome-shaped, like stolid homunculi; their growth centers in the tops of their heads, a fontanel that never heals. The mat of feltlike hairs at the crown of the saguaro prevents heat loss on cold winter nights, exactly like a hat, protecting the most frost-sensitive parts, the flower buds and the live cells of the growing stem.
For impishness and sheer spite nothing beats the teddy-bear cholla, also known as the Bigelow or jumping cholla. I put them in my notes as T-bears; their spine coat does look like fur and their colonies do have a familial cuteness. You can't miss them and it's likely that they won't miss you. The first time I saw a whole slope of them together on a pass above Death Valley I wrote that they "look like a landscape filled with dirty mops" and I remember stopping the car to stare, not believing at first that anything could be guilty of such appalling ugliness.
The heavy pelt of T-bear spines is straw-colored in the new growth and as the spine ages it darkens through gold to black. This spine coat works, as the nipple cactus's lace coats do, to reflect unwanted light and heat away from delicate flesh, but that's not all. Each spine is covered by a frail papery sheath. Under this, the shaft is hard as steel and sharp and barbed. It will stick into and hang onto anything. If it sticks in your sleeve or your shoe you jump, not it, and when you do an entire joint of cholla will come away with you and will follow you until you pick it off with a comb or a fork or a penknife or a stick, not, please, with your fingers. Once you are rid of it, it will lie there awhile before sending down roots and setting up housekeeping. The ease with which these joints break off and sprout means that T-bears tend to live in colonies, some of them covering acres, and that each mamma cholla is surrounded by a family of golden children, any one of which would love to grab hold of your pants.
Spines, spines, you never know when you'll stumble on or into a new one for the collection. One species of prickly pear down in the Texas borderlands has four-inch-long coal-black ones. Some prickly pears have no spines at all. Most pears and chollas have patches of tiny hairs, bristles, some of them barbed, called glochids. These patches look as innocent as tufts of brown velvet but you should never touch them. The glochids get, literally, under your skin. They itch and annoy and by the time you've scratched and cursed at them they're too far in to get out.
Glochids and spines grow from a spot on the cactus called an areole. Flowers and fruits also grow out of these, roots and branches, too. Areoles are borne on the flanks of prickly pear pads, the ribs of barrels, hedgehogs, and saguaros, the ends of the bumps -- nipples -- of the nipple cacti. Each is an orifice, like eyes or mouths. That is where spines come from. Of all the genera of plants in the world, only cacti have areoles.
Thorns are something else. Almost every desert tree and shrub that isn't packed with resins, or aromatic oils, or bitter salts, has thorns. There are endless variations on the theme: the wicked talons of the catclaw, the black hypodermics of the mesquite, the pencil cholla's needles. On the leafstalks of wild palms are red rows of blades as sharp as canine teeth. The ends of paloverde or blackbrush twigs jab like fork tines. Thorns grow in leaf axils or as part of a leaf cluster, as they do on the ocotillo, and when the leaf falls that's what's left. Several yuccas have been nicknamed "Spanish dagger" with good reason, but the agaves are worse; each agave leaf has the size and potential of a harpoon.
Whatever their size or source, hundreds of species and dozens of genera have reinvented this defensive wheel, basic equipment for desert exigencies, like a scowl or gritted grimace, a sharp passive resistance meaning: don't push me, don't bother me, don't touch, don't you dare, keep your mitts off, don't think of it, I'll teach you a lesson you won't for the life of you forget. It's a stubborn grim scrapper's stance.
You learn to keep your distance. Out here, there are plenty of distances to keep.
Cactus Wren and Cholla: The cactus wren is a big perky noisy cocky bird, curious about everything. At a roadside picnic spot one flew inside our parked car through an open window and foraged under the seats and along the dashboard for crumbs. Then it stayed close, flitting impatiently and cocking its head at us, making it clear that it was time for us to have lunch. They often make their nests in cholla cactus and they burst in and out, diving in somehow through the thorns and using the cholla's protection as their own. They use these nests for loafing in as well as for raising families. Unlike other species of wren, their songs are not limited to the mating season and are not melodious in the least, but are a kind of laugh, a raw salty commentary.