the heart of a cactus
Here’s where I break the rules again, as promised. If the terrain you travel and the landscapes you wander don’t make you think of music then you haven’t been listening to any good music. Now it’s a music blog. I’m not sorry.
When Roberta Joan Anderson arrived in America in 1965 from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I think it’s very unlikely she ever saw a cactus other than in a window box garden. When Joni Mitchell (as she was later known) entered Sunset Sound in Hollywood in 1967, it would be to record her debut album “Song to a Seagull”. By this time she likely saw a cactus or two in California. Of the acres of standout songs on this underappreciated classic is the melancholy “Cactus Tree,” written by the performer.
The five achingly beautiful stanzas in this song-poem are a story told of a woman who traded the certitude of a conventionally described life for an existence pursuing her soul’s work. I may have that nearly correct–this is only an interpretation. By the final stanza, she speaks of both the price and the profits of her self-determined independence. Only in the final stanza do we encounter the magical metaphor of the song’s title: “And her heart is full and hollow. Like a cactus tree.” I interpret this as nature providing a moment of clarity to the protaganist. Call it the voice of the cactus, were it to declare: “You see, nature provides a model for a state that is neither full of what you think you must have to be happy nor regret in not having it.” You already have ‘it.’ That’s the Lorax-ian metaphysics, now on to the botany.
I don’t know if she was contemplating the “cactus trees” of Galapagos with their tree-like trunks and crowns of prickly pear at their crests, the zig-zag gait of the Joshua Trees of California’s Mojave desert, or the Tree Aloes you can see in the cultivated sections of Balboa Park. But, it turns out that aside from the poetic sensibility of the phrase, she was also botanically correct. Cacti are often hollow if not full of highly porous pulp. But they are also full of water. They collect and store water while their durable outer skin allows the water to enrich their extremeties before evaporating. There is something poetic about that as well. Like the “she” in Mitchell’s song, who “was busy being free,” the cactus tree independently establishes and is nourished by her own life energy.
By the way, I read in the Purdue Agricultural News (geek alert), something that supports the application of either pronoun to describing cacti. I had this same question when I sat down the write this post: can cacti be described in varieties of male and female? Responding to a reader’s question, the author B. Rosie Lerner offerd that the answer is “yes,” however she added: “Lack of flowering is not a gender issue” with cacti. She goes on to say that all cacti may flower. Although a scientific response, this also contains a poetic confirmation that we live in what could be described as wholly rational and egalitarian natural world.
Photographs by Vincent Hostak. Joshua Tree from a visit in 2016; Tree Aloe, Balboa Park, 2019; Prickly Pear, Florida Canyon, CA, 2019
*B. Rosie Lerner, Purdue Extension-In the Grow, March 2012