Guard and Defend

Only the jumping chollas are out to get you.

Image shows a handful (ouch—wrong word, sorry) of densely prickled jumping cholla cactus fingers looming over you as you look up into a partly cloudy sky. Saguaro National Park, March 2023

Everything else just wants to be left alone.

Image shows a dense, geometric web of red and gold spines protecting the thick flesh of a Coville’s (?) barrel cactus. You can hardly see the flesh through the spines, but very few spines point outward, and even those are curved to cause minimum offense. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, February 2023

The jumping chollas want to use you first, and then be left alone. Their prickles will grab hold at the slightest touch and stick to socks, trousers, skin, fur, hide. They will cling so tightly that a stem segment breaks off from the parent cactus. Once you have freed yourself, with much cursing and yelling (pliers help, too), and hurled the stem away, it will root where it fell. It will water itself with its own flesh until the original segment shrivels.

Image shows a shrub-sized jumping cholla from a safe distance, surrounded by offspring growing from cast-off stem segments. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge

Amputation can’t be an easy way to reproduce, but there you are. Desert plants can’t afford half-hearted action. Having walked through fields of dead, dried, one-inch tall cholla seedlings, which sprouted the normal way via flowers, birds, and bees but didn’t outlast their first dry season, I see the chollas’ point(s).

Image shows a battalion of ferocious, long, star-shaped prickle clusters protecting the skinny fingers of pencil cholla. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge

You get used to desert plants being hurtful. People who crave the soft greenery of rainy climates are often uncomfortable here. They feel defensive; they weary of having to be on guard, of being injured when they meant no harm.

For all we know, desert plants experience you the same way. As the tongue-twister says, “A skunk sat on a stump. The stump thought the skunk stunk. The skunk thought the stump stunk.” It never hurts to remember that your perspective is a narrow one, and not necessarily the best because it’s yours.

The desert’s prickly and thorny plants have this edge on humans:

Image shows the edge of a tulip prickly pear pad, dotted with starlets of prickles with large, medium, and small spines pointing in every direction, so that if one point doesn’t get you, the others will. These pads (with the spines and glochids removed) are staples of traditional southwestern cooking. Ironwood National Monument, March 2023

They never set out to do harm. (Except for the jumping chollas. Obviously.) Their weapons are purely defensive. And what do they use them on? Not insects, bats, small rodents, birds, and the like. No. They use them against those who would mine their flesh for its life-giving waters. In other words, beings like you.

Image shows a beaver tail prickly pear with large, flat paddles. This species doesn’t have long spines, just the short (and plenty nasty) glochids. A ground squirrel has eaten away half a pad, laying bare the spring-green, succulent inner flesh. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge

You, my friend, are a pestilential threat. (It’s okay. ❤️ So am I.)

The problem is that desert plants interpret any contact as attack; they cannot discern peaceful intentions. Their defenses are structural, not voluntary, developed in infancy and maintained day and night their whole lives. They are hyper-vigilant even in death.

Image shows the desiccated, golden-brown flesh of a dead, fallen saguaro. About half the areolas are still radiating prickles. Gold Nugget BLM near Quartzsite, AZ, February 2022

The scarcity of a resource determines the intensity of defense. Harsh situations call for harsh measures, a ruthless prioritizing of energy. Going leafless altogether; blooming a handful of days a year or once a century; reproducing by amputation—those are all pretty harsh. (Are they any more extreme than a “normal” tree that loses leaves and goes dormant for six months a year?)

If you hang out with positive, cheerful, chirpy people, you have probably encountered the “abundance vs. scarcity” mentality: the idea that whether you have one or the other is a matter of perspective. Yes, our sense of enoughness can hinge on our attitude, especially when our needs are, in fact, met—when we take food, water, and shelter so deeply for granted that we forget they are there. We can sometimes point to people in dire circumstances who contrive through superheroic resourcefulness to meet their own and their communities’ needs.

Image shows a mature, multi-armed saguaro with three or four holes where birds once nested. A Gila woodpecker, flaunting a dapper outfit of black and white stripes, climbs the main trunk looking for food. To the left, a few palo verde branches can be seen; the tree may have been a nurse plant when the saguaro was a seedling. Ironwood National Monument

I’m a cheerful, chirpy person, by and large. But I’m also reasonably perceptive. To my eyes, dearth is sometimes a reality, and superheros are exceptions. If seeing your fellow humans living with unmet basic needs—whether that means food or the time or strength to prepare it—isn’t enough to show you the shape of scarcity, you might try spending a few months in the desert.

Sure, plants thrive here, in exciting, resourceful, vigorous ways. In this water-poor economy, they have abundance—as long as they sacrifice something else. As long as they are willing to lose a lot of their plant-hood in the process.

Image shows thorns radiating all around an ocotillo stem. The thorns are longer than the stem is wide. (Ocotillos aren’t cacti, just thorny plants because Desert.) The stem itself is greenish with chlorophyll. Ocotillos only sprout leaves briefly after rain, then lose them when the weather turns dry again. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge

In our personal economies, the three finite resources are time, money, and energy. Sometimes we just don’t have enough of these resources, whether because of workplaces that abuse our time, shrinking wages, mental or physical illness, or other circumstances largely beyond our control. In seasons of dearth, all our creative work-arounds can’t make up the deficit.

How do you avoid growing prickles to defend what is left? (Should you even try?) In your resourcefulness, how much normality can you sacrifice before you become twisted, grotesque? Before you lose some of your humanity?

I don’t know. I certainly haven’t managed it. Only a saint could deny that first instinct. (Saint: Another word for superhero.)

One thing I am learning, though, is that if someone turns prickly on you, it’s worth asking what scarce internal resource they’re protecting.

Image shows another ocotillo stem, this one with tiny green leaves. The thorns extend far beyond them. If I had sweet, baby leaves like that to protect, I’d be ferocious, too. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge

It’s worth asking: are you a pestilential threat?

Giving It All Away

Zeke stops by. “Hey, I’m cleaning out my rig. Could you use some leveling blocks?”

I hope my dismay doesn’t show. Those things are huge. They can’t be tucked into odd corners like the 2×4’s I use now. “Thanks, but I’m set.”

“Greg doesn’t want them, either,” Zeke mourns, and wanders back to his van.

We are camped in the Sonoran Desert, where Arizona, California, and Mexico meet, and even the landscape doesn’t want extra baggage. Volcanoes shaped this land, spewing shrapnel across hundreds of square miles. Bare, mineral-rich crags surround broad, flat stretches of crushed-stone “desert pavement.”

Image shows a backdrop of rusty, rocky hills with white patches where rockslides have exposed fresh earth. In the foreground a ribbon of greenery shows the darker green of ironwood and mesquite trees, the rusty green-brown of creosote bushes, and the pale spring-green of palo verdes. American Girl Mine Road near Winterhaven, CA, January, 2023

Threaded through this moonscape are sandy washes, or bajadas. They channel rain from higher, harder ground, and they sing with greenery—palo verde and ironwood trees draped with mistletoe, creosote bushes, brittlebush waving with cheery yellow flowers, the ivy-like desert star vine. On their verges, cholla and saguaros grow. Lairs large and small line their banks.

If you were to ask me whether the land were hospitable or barren, I would not give you the same answer two days running.

Rocks. So many rocks. Little rubbly heaps of them, big towering hills of them. They’re mostly dark gray. Very rocky. American Girl Mine, January, 2023

Meanwhile, I’m in a honey drama. Don, the most community-minded man I’ve ever met, likes to buy things in bulk to give away. He picked up six 1-gallon jugs of honey from a beekeeper in Montana, with a long story to boot, and he’s unloaded one of them on me.

“You can give it to people in the caravans,” he says before high-tailing it away. “You’ll meet people that way.”

Sure, I’ve met people. But they’re all nomads living in tiny spaces, and none of them keeps spare containers around just for fun. Eventually I buy some jars, divvy up the honey, and crank up the sales pitch, part forlorn waif, part carnival barker. After a couple of months, it’s all gone except one jar. Tess refuses it—again—and rolls her eyes.

“I’m just selfishly trying to give it away,” I confess.

“I know you are,” she says with a knowing grin. “And I’m not having it.”

A year later, Evan and Zeke still have their jars, completely full. What did I give them, really? This small thing required that they give up a greater resource—space. My gift to them really gave a resource I wanted back to me.

Bright, bare, spring-green palo verde branches against a blue sky with puffy clouds. These trees practically glow from within.

I’ve wondered since then about what gift-giving means. The desert has been a good companion, because plants here don’t want unnecessary things. Not even leaves. Leaves need too much water and offer too much surface area to sun and wind. They are luxuries that cost more than most desert plants have to give.

Many plants here are drought deciduous, dropping leaves during dry spells and photosynthesizing in other ways. The palo verde (or “green stick”) tree, for example, keeps chlorophyll in its branches. Leaves are just a nice perk after rain. The branches grow thickly. Those, too, can be discarded during drought, and the ground beneath an older tree is often littered with deadwood.

Palo verde branches provide a backdrop for one prodigal poof of leaflets at the very tip of one tiny twig in front.

Those dense branches, that deadwood—they matter. Palo verdes are nurse plants for saguaros. Only one in a thousand saguaro seeds will find the right conditions to sprout, and a seedling needs eight years to grow an inch tall. The first blossoms appear at age 35, the first arms at 50 or older. These are slow-growing giants, and to mature they need the water that lingers in shade, and shelter both from winter cold and summer sun. Palo verdes give them that.

Nurse trees die younger than their more “selfish” peers, as the growing saguaros develop a grown-up thirst and drink water the trees need. What did the palo verdes’ gift cost them?

And why, if sheltering a saguaro will kill them, do palo verdes do it? Trees have ingenious ways of defending themselves. They can produce repellant chemicals, drop leaves that smother rather than nurture, use the vast network of underground fungi to share nutrients only among their own kind. The palo verde protects its tender bark with thorns. Why not protect its most precious resource—water?

A dreary photo of a sickly palo verde and a sad saguaro. Dead branches lie thick on the ground, and from the browning limbs on the tree, more will follow soon. The saguaro is about 3 feet tall, but the bottom third has no flesh around it. (I don’t know why.) Apparently, even a nurse tree isn’t always enough. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, AZ, February, 2023

Since Darwin, we assume all species compete. I wonder if that assumption says more about humans. Our perspective on ecosystems and how they thrive is perhaps too modeled on our economies. We have no way of knowing what a tree “knows,” or what decisions it makes. What if a palo verde likes to cooperate?

The saguaro is a “keystone” species of the Sonoran Desert—a plant that carries the health of the entire desert on its shoulders. Between its fruit, flowers, and spines, it provides water, food, shelter, and nesting sites for a disproportionate number of species. The bees and bats that pollinate its flowers also pollinate the palo verde’s. Maybe the palo verde perceives and values the desert as a whole more than we humans perceive and value even our own kind. Maybe it is willing to share a truly precious resource for the greater good—even to the point of death. Is that a selfless gift? Enlightened self-interest?

A happier ménage. A gnarled, twisty palo verde cuddles a 7 foot tall saguaro that has two heads. The desert is nothing if not creative. (The photo angle isn’t great, alas, but a cactus stood in the way, and I’m not a dedicated photographer.) Kofa NWR, March, 2023

Dee got the wrong water. Instead of the filtered, salt-free water we all buy for drinking, she tried the free well water. It’s potable, but acrid with minerals. “It tastes so bad even the dog won’t drink it,” she says in disgust.

My eyes light up. “I planned too much water when I built my rig and was thinking of getting rid of a jug. Do you want it?”


I return gleefully with a 2 1/2-gallon container. Dee takes it with pleasure. “Let me empty this into my own jug, and I’ll give yours back.”

“No need,” I say, backing away. “Just keep it.”

Later, I’m ashamed. Dee lives in a minivan, for crying out loud. The next time I see her, I apologize. “What did you ever do to me, to deserve me foisting that container on you?”

She laughs. “It actually fits better in the space I have. I’ll take my old one to Goodwill. Hey, you couldn’t use some towels, could you? I have too many.”

“No! Thanks, though!” I back away again. Fast.

If you ever want to see selfish gift-giving in action, hang out with a nomad who’s cleaning house. In other ways we give freely—dog-sitting, watching over a campsite, picking up a few groceries in town. But you can tell where we consider ourselves rich and poor, because we do not give things from full and generous hearts, wanting nothing in return. Noooo. We give in desperation. We want to free up a scarce resource. If we help someone in the meantime, well, isn’t that a nice win-win?

Saguaros and palo verdes all hanging out happily together in a wash at the base of a hill. Also: rocks. Near Quartzsite, AZ, February 2022.

So I wonder more largely, in this landscape of dearth and plenty, where do we consider ourselves rich or poor? When are our gifts gifts—true hospitality of the heart, from a place of plenty? When are they selfish gifts of dearth—the need to receive something in return, whether a resource or a pat on the back, the feeling of being a good person, of being needed or thanked?

To me, the palo verde symbolizes gift-giving as pure celebration of life: The desert is good, so let’s keep it going. The gain to the desert—and all palo verdes—is worth the loss of one life, because Life is good.

I don’t know that such drastic measures are called for from us. But I don’t know that they’re not. Where are we willing to give beyond our resources of time, energy, capacity—from dearth and generosity? What will we let giving cost us?

When, in the ecosystems of our lives, is that cost worthwhile?

A forest of magnificent, many-armed saguaros towering maybe 40 feet above the desert floor in late evening light. Near Marano, AZ, November, 2021