The Man-Proof Fence
At first appearance there is nothing welcoming about the prickly pear. A free growing cactus can stand as tall as an imposing twenty feet and stretch as wide as ten feet. A thick, tough cuticle barricades its leaves and its broad, flat pads are covered in sharp spines. Even the bright and delicate flowers that blossom on the tips of its pads in summer will turn into fruit covered with fine (but equally sharp) needles by fall. Strong, hard roots twist deep into the soil so the plant can survive almost any hardship. New prickly pears will spring up to taunt farmers who hacked at it with machetes or set fire to its flesh. It is not unless the plant is approached cautiously and treated gently that the plant becomes kind. Delicately weaving a small hand between the leaves with a sharp blade can remove a pad or fruit in a quick, painless stroke and softly rolling the fleshly on a warm surface easily removes the spines from the fruit.
And it is a kind plant. Most people in the South West will serve the cactus to their families. Tourists will proudly take home preserves of its fruit to sit proudly on their shelves. Vitamins and clean water stream from its broad pads. Once the spines on the fruit have been pacified, its juices can be drunk, the flesh eaten, and jellies, syrups, and candies prepared. Heavily pigmented with indicaxathin and betathin, powerful antioxidants whose names are splashed across bottles juice, prickly pear also lines the shelves of health food stores. It looks a little like the “Bam!” and “Pop!” non-sequiturs that punctuate the fights in Batman comics except it’s “Fights hypertension!” and “Lowers blood sugar!” Even the slime that oozes from its thick, nobby roots seems to apologize for its rough exterior: a small amount of the mucilage will bind sediment and bacteria in drinking water and make it safe to drink. Yet, unless it is treated with respect and patience, the prickly pear cactus remains a nearly impenetrable mass that unforgivingly stabs at anyone who comes near.
Though it can be found in dry, semi-arid regions around the world, the people of the Southwest United States think of the plant as their own. Native to Mexico, a genetic analysis of local cacti places its origin in central Mexico specifically in the early fifteenth century. It is the state plant of Texas and is also featured on the Mexican Coat of Arms. In a time of contentious relations between the two countries, the prickly pear cactus seems like the only thing that Texas and Mexico share. The plant sprawls itself across a zone of contention between the two areas, spreading resentment and suspicion. Because of it’s share of the land in both countries, the cactus does not represent an ecological border. The prickly pear can come into Texas. It’s people they want to keep out.
The cacti grow around a small office for the United States Border Patrol that sits on the dry, ground in the south of Texas and its purple, pink, and yellow blooms dot the grey land around the building. A fine layer of dust, in equal amounts from the United States and Mexico, lines the outside of the station and settles in the border patrol officers’ coffee cups. The officers will still drink their dusty coffee while they wait for a scratchy voice over their radios to tell them about the illegal aliens, drug dealers, and criminals that approach the border. These men must be caught and it is the officers’ job to catch them. This, however, is a pursuit with more determination than is seen in a simple occupation. They will run to their white cars, greyed by the dust, and drive off. They will drive after the men until they reach a place where their cars cannot go any further: the thick tangles where the prickly pear cacti grow. Even though the thick rubber or the tires and the hard metal frame of the cruisers cannot go through the cacti, the chase will still go on for the officers and the men.
Neither officer nor wanted man will come to the prickly pear quietly, gently, or softly. No one that night will want to taste the warm, soft flesh in its leaves. They won’t want to the purple juice dribble down their chin while they slowly bite into the sweet fruit. To them, the cactus is not a medicine, a food, or just a simple plant. To them, the cactus is a barricade, an obstacle, a fence. So the prickly pear cactus will stab at any legs that try to untangle its needles. When the chase is over – whether the wanted man sits in the back of the officers’ car or escapes capture – all of the men will sit and begin to pull out the long spines that have pierced through their clothes and into their skin. They will dig through the flesh on their shin and pull the bloody barbs out one by one. And when they finish with one leg, they will start on the other.
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