We have cacti planted around the house. My friend and I dug and broke them out of her yard when she left in the rainy winter. We dragged them, muddy and spiny, to my place and propped them up with rocks and sticks. Now, having faced months of neglect, they are growing. Slender little paddles covered densely in long sharp spikes show me that they have found their place in the soft red sand.
The big paddles — they’re leaves really — on the cactus are thick and smooth. The needles on the mature leaves are small and widely spaced. You can pick them easily and peel the skin off and cook them. If you get one little hair-like spine in you, though, it can stay there for weeks bothering you. The defensive spines of the mature cactus paddles are almost impossible to see.
We all need defensive spines, don’t we? Our young people, especially, still small and tender, newly sprouted and inexperienced, might benefit from some protection. Some of the young ones intuit this. They might protect themselves with a certain appearance. Whether slim and brown, pale and gothic or covered in overdeveloped muscles, nerdy glasses or gold jewellery, young people need to find a way to identify themselves, to the extent they know themselves. In mainstream society, we have nebulous rites of passage for our young people — getting a driver’s license, travelling with friends, drinking alcohol ’til you’re sick. They push against and push towards. Usually, they push against their parents and push towards the peers they see as powerful. If their major influence is commercial, their sense of forming identity is exploited and manipulated. Teenagers and young adults are a great market for useless cosmetics and sickeningly sweet alcoholic or ‘energy’ drinks.
Like many urban youth I was a bit spiky myself. Travelling in Asia, which was more affordable than traveling at home, helped me grow a shell as tough as a durian. Some people might say I smelled like one, too, for a while. I’d like to think I was as sweet inside.
There are places where youth don’t need their spikes. In many Indigenous cultures children are treasured and indulged beyond the imagining of those of us from industrialised economies. In Bali, babies barely touch the ground until they are a year old. In the communities near where I live in the Central Australian desert, children have great freedom. Much of their growing up happens roaming with older siblings and friends. But the transition to adulthood can be brutal. The Balinese youth have their canine teeth filed flat. Teeth filing and even knocking teeth out was part of the transition to adulthood in many Australian Aboriginal cultures, too.
The cacti around our house are prickly pear plants. Older Australians have seen documentary footage of the prickly pear cacti covering Australia’s arid interior — all in black and white like an infinite carpet of horror in a graphic novel. The prickly pear plant was introduced here misguidedly, exploding into nightmarish, unburnable forests. In the 1920’s, over 24 million hectares of Australia was covered in prickly pear cacti.
The problem was eventually solved by the introduction of a moth, the appropriately named Cactoblastis. It was introduced from Argentina in 1926 and had cleared most of the land by 1933. There is a monument and a museum to the Cactoblastis in Queensland, perhaps the world’s only honourable commemoration of an insect.
The little, drab-brown moth is still around and the cacti are no longer a threat. They grow slowly but surely here and I love them for their brilliant neon flowers, designed to attract bees from as far away as 20 miles away. Online research tells me you can eat them. I’m not sure I have the patience or the thick gloves needed to peel them. As long as they keep drunken revellers from falling into our yard and knocking out their teeth, I am happy.
Thumbnail pic of young people with fireworks by Sloane Smith