We have a fair amount of cactus at our place. The prickly pears are easy to spot and easy to stay away from, unlike the spindly, many-branched icicle cactus, which will break off in one-inch segments, transport itself telekinetically through the air, and adhere to your person if you so much as pass within three feet of it. But cactus of any kind is problematic. All the animals get into it; the horses get quills stuck in their mouths while grazing, and they are not real keen on letting you pull these out. So Greg declared that any cactus within our yard, horse paddock, garden, and future chicken enclosure would have to go.
You cannot simply plow this stuff under and expect it to go away. It will sprout and regenerate and multiply like the vengeful undead from any remaining tissue fragments, as we learned to our sorrow the first year we had a garden out here. Well do I remember the repeated painful shock of reaching into the soil to pull up a weed by the roots, only to wrap my hand around a mass of underground zombie quills with an ambitious new root system. The determination of these plants is wonderful, as is their abundance of unspecialized cells, but I would prefer to admire them theoretically and from afar.
A few days ago I noticed a small cactus plant not far from the back porch steps and decided to dig it up. It was a prickly pear cactus, with a total surface area less than that of my hand; I figured a small garden trowel would suffice to uproot it. The trowel sufficed, all right, but one of the fronds grazed the backs of my fingers, leaving about a dozen little quills. I dropped the cactus into a bucket, went inside, and tweezed the quills out of my fingers. Then I got a shovel from the shed and went back outside. I’d noticed another, larger cactus plant and thought I might as well dig it up too.
A shovel may not be the best tool for this job, but it worked for me. Daniel has been going at them with a pick-axe and, more recently, with Greg’s new Father’s Day hoe, which shears off the roots just below the surface of the soil.
I ended up filling four buckets with cactus. I kept seeing another little patch, and another, and another. It was satisfying work; even though I knew there was plenty more cactus eradication left to be done, the individual plants were easy to uproot. I used the shovel to pack them tight in the buckets. A black widow spider came crawling out of one displaced plant; I quickly dispatched it with the shovel’s blade.
I dug up all the cactus patches in the immediate area and emptied the buckets onto the burn pile. Last winter was nice and wet, good for burning, and I hope this winter will be too. Burn bans are solemn law, and we respect them. Nobody wants to be the moron that burns the county down. But on days when the ban is lifted, Greg makes a delightful blaze of all the mesquite limbs and old weed stalks and such, and there is much rejoicing. In the morning only a layer of ash remains where once was a pile of unsightly, clothes-snagging, tire-puncturing, skin-scratching vegetative debris. It feels so restful to walk freely through areas that used to be choked with tangles of brush and thorns.
After dumping the cactus, I put the shovel away in the shed, because that’s how you do it. And as I was walking back to the yard gate I saw a glint of blue in the dirt near the collapsed remains of the old barn, commonly called the Shack.
We have found all kinds of stuff near the Shack–bits of glass, scraps of wire, pieces of rusted metal. Sometimes we find nice things, like an old plowshare, usable hand tools, a weathervane topper shaped like a horse, and a random letter E. None of the rest of the alphabet has ever turned up, but the E is now adorning Emilie’s room, along with the little metal horse. Sometimes we find baffling or terrifying things, like disembodied dead-eyed doll heads (many of these). The various items just surface from time to time, especially after rain, like some bizarre volunteer crop. We never know what interesting/useless/creepy thing we’re going to find next.
What I found that day was a marble, clear and blue as a drop of June sky. I brought it inside, washed it up, and rubbed some oil on it to smooth out any surface imperfections. If I hadn’t dug up any cactus that day, maybe I never would have found it. Maybe a horse would have stepped on it and pushed it back into the ground, or knocked it over to the trash bin a few feet away.
And maybe God sent it to me as a bit of encouragement, a drop of sky in a broader sense. I tend to place great metaphysical significance in found objects–metaphysical in the sense of that which comes after the physical. That might be silly of me, but we are not strictly rational beings. And God knows the importance I place on my various rocks and sticks and bits of lichen and such, and I believe he has used them to gladden and encourage me before.
There’s a lot more cactus to be dug up, and a lot more mesquite to be chainsawed and weeds to be pulled and fence to be built. The work just goes on and on, and the land is constantly trying to take back what we’ve tamed. But we are making progress–good, substantial, satisfying progress. And the skydrop is in my study now, nestled against a white candle on a cut-glass saucer, reminding me of the gentian-colored bluebonnets we get at our place every spring and of the blue-eyed grass I loved in North Texas and still miss. There is disorder and sorrow and trouble in the world, but God has not abandoned his creation. He will restore all things beautifully in his time.
Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together; I the LORD have created it.