Monthly Archives: April 2015

Cactus lingerie

Staghorn-cholla-cylindropuntia-versicolor-Saguaro-National-Park-Arizona-by-Betsey-Crawford

Staghorn cholla (Cycylindropuntia versicolor) Saguaro National Park, Arizona

I had never been a fan of cactus. Prickly, tough-skinned, ungainly. Leaves so attenuated they’ve become sharp-tipped spines. Interesting shapes, perhaps. Fascinating as examples of environmental adaptation, but nothing to love.

Things have changed. I first came to the desert in 2012, and there, in the spare open spaces, living with sand, rock, spindly, dark-leaved, creosote, and spiny ocotillo, cacti began to make sense. The first to woo me was the teddy bear cholla, somewhat endearing despite it’s dangerous, bristling spines, the outermost ones virtually invisible. But those translucent outer spines, however treacherous to skin, catch the sun and make chollas a blaze of glory.

Ganders-cholla-cylindropuntia-ganderii-Anza-Borrego-Desert-California-by-Betsey-Crawford

Gander’s cholla (Cylindropuntia ganderii) Anza Borrego Desert, California

There were prickly pears, slightly less lethal, spine-wise. Their small ‘jumping’ spines are easier to see and harder to brush against, since their longer spines will discourage you. Set among the rocks, they began to seem interesting and handsome. Barrel cactus, too, it’s broad ribs creating a deeply pleated surface, with long, curving, colorful spines, fit well among the boulders and sand. The less obtrusive, even hard-to-find fish hook cactus were almost pretty, with a delicate network of curved spines.

 

Barrel-cactus-ferocactus-cylindraceus-Anza-Borrego-Desert-California-by-Betsey-Crawford

Barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) Anza Borrego Desert, California

But nothing reconciled me to cactus the way their flowers did, when they showed up on a longer visit in 2013. First come buds that look like they’re plated with armor. The bud then opens into a wrinkled mess that looks like the flower has already shriveled up. And, then, from this daunting start, a flower so lovely, so delicate, so translucent unfurls that you can hardly believe your eyes. It’s as if your tough-talking, cigarette-dragging, hard-as-nails but intriguing neighbor suddenly answered the door in the softest, silkiest lingerie, floating gorgeous colors.

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Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmannii) Saguarro National Park West

Startled, you forget you came to borrow her chain saw, and you’re dying to ask whom she’s expecting. Cacti use those beautiful, filmy colors and textures for the same reason we do: allurement. They expect bees, mainly, though some expect bats and hummingbirds. They produce a profusion of pollen, and need their creatures to share it as widely as possible, since they aren’t self pollinating.

Prickly-pear-cactus-Opuntia-engelmanii-Saguaro-National-Park-Arizona-by-Betsey-Crawford copy

Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmanii) Saguaro National Park Arizona

Just as you will never look at your neighbor in the same way, having seen that side of her, it became impossible for me to look at cactus and not know what they are capable of, come spring. So that went a long way toward learning to love them. But there’s something else that fostered the change. When you see them where they are supposed to be, where they have grown and adapted for millions of years, they fit into the landscape in a way they don’t anywhere else.

Barrel-cactus-ferocactus-cylindraceus-Anza-Borrego-Desert-California-by-Betsey-Crawford

Barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) n the Anza Borrego Desert, California

I love most flowers. I have a passion for them. But my greatest passion is for flowers in their native place, which is why I love wildflowers so much. There is a deep ecological and historical connection between a plant and the place it grows naturally. Cacti evolved to be tough and prickly so they can fend off predators and conserve water in an arid environment, where temperatures can be freezing at night and 115 degrees during the day. In wetter, cooler places they would have full-blown leaves, deep roots, more delicate skin. They wouldn’t need the waxiness that can give their skin a silver-blue hue, a desert color, or the spines that create an air buffer against the drying heat.

Fish-hook-cactus-mammillaria-dioica-Anza-Borrego-Desert-by-Betsey-Crawford

Fishhook cactus (Mammillaria dioica) Anza Borrego Desert, California

As a landscape designer, I planted wonderful plants that originated far from the northeast coast of the U.S. They were gorgeous and sturdy. But I loved most the native plants of Long Island, the ones I could find on long walks in the woods, or that showed up in summer meadows, or held the shifting sand dunes together. On my travels I don’t tend to go to botanical gardens, though I like them. I would rather climb the hills around town, finding the wild flowers.

There’s something different about their spirit, their connection to place, their adaptations of color, size, leaf shape. They have a sense of belonging to the landscape, the texture of the air, the life of that particular soil. It’s not just about the way they look, although I love that part, but about the way they feel, up there on their dry escarpments, or in the shade of tall trees, or flowing down a hillside toward the ocean, filling the air with their spicy scent. These are the plants most connected to the magic and mystery of the powers that created them. They are my direct connection to the soul of the earth.

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Strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus stramineus) Cross Canyon, Colorado

Mysteries at my feet

lines3The lines showed up one morning, on a section of my walk where the sand, driven over by the owner’s tractor, is unusually soft, and shows an imprint easily. Lizard tails, I thought. I checked carefully for any sign of tiny lizard feet, but didn’t see any indentations along the lines.

About a mile on, they showed up again, this time in the dry desert sand. So it had to be something with enough weight to mark that crustier sand. Still no footprints. Snakes, I thought, and, when I saw that several lines converged at a hole in the desert floor, I took that as confirmation.

lines-hole2More lines showed up each day. They kept converging on holes. They often led to the base of bushes. They hadn’t shown up until it was pretty hot. All that pointed to snakes, who like the warm weather, though coil themselves in the shade of desert shrubs when it’s too hot. They live in holes in the desert floor, protection from both too much heat and too much cold.

Then I remembered that snakes move in curves. I checked. They can move in straight lines, by straightening their scales and scooping themselves forward. That sounded exhausting; something a snake would only occasionally do. Then I was back to lizards. I took my pictures to a ranger at the State Park office, and she went through the same line of reasoning I did: lizards, then snakes, then back to lizards. Except where were the feet? The cluster of lines around the hole made her think it might be a family of snakes.

birdfeet2-5610I showed her other lines. Ravens walking in the same soft sand. Something with small, round footprints that, she said, might be a young coyote.

pawprints5627I don’t see a large variety of creatures on those acres. Tiny lizards occasionally zip by. I hear coyotes calling and yipping at night. There were a couple of vultures sailing overhead for most of Easter, which was intriguing.

ant2There are lots of roomy ant hills, with armies of industrious ants, like this one, who, with a dozen compatriots, was taking seed heads from one place to another. I’ve seen one rattlesnake, but would have missed it if it hadn’t given me a mild rattle to keep me in my place. I’ve only seen one lizard big enough to make these lines — a handsome white one, eighteen inches long, with a sculpted head and back, regally crossing the street one hot afternoon.

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White winged doves coo and forage, two ravens perch on a telephone pole on a semi-permanent basis, hummingbirds routinely buzz the back of the trailer and then disappear. Speckled beetles move swiftly in varied directions.

These are profound energies that I walk among — lizard, coyote, raven, snake, hummingbird — acknowledged by their long and deeply held roots in many cultures’ lore. Though I don’t often see them, I see the lines they leave as they weave their lives with mine, our song lines intersecting.line-footprints4

We are woven together by more than our interlacing footprints. Evolution holds us all in its patient embrace. I share 85% of my DNA with the coyote whose call heralds the desert night. Though my ancestors and the lizards’ ancestors parted evolutionary ways a few hundred million years ago, we are still tied by many strands of DNA, governing the most basic elements of our mingled lives.

When I was looking at pictures to include with this post, I found this one of a desert thoroughfare: Siegfried’s tractor, my footprints, Splash’s paw prints, some other small round footprint on the lower right. Lots of lines. thorofare3And I realized that the lines on the mid and upper right do look like they have feet on either side of them. So now I’m back to lizards. But they are the only ones that look like that, so snakes are still a possibility. Or both. Or something I haven’t thought of yet. It’s a mystery.

And will remain so. I went out on my last morning to check again for footprints along the lines. But another profound energy had swept in — a 35 mile-an-hour wind — and all lines and footprints had been softened into gentle undulations in the sand, all distinctions erased.