The Year of the Cactus

We took a bus and a train to Uyuni; my friend, her father and I. The salt flats spread out like a glassy, white sea. Traversing the reflective layer of rain in four wheel drive gave the sense the clouds swallowed us from above and below.

Like ancient petrified dinosaur backs frozen in time grow small islands in the expanse. As if the gigantic monsters dipped their heads below the surface and just at that moment a mysterious force trapped the lower portions of their bodies beneath the sea of salt, never to be seen again. Then on those stuck spines an ecosystem started to emerge. Rocks gathered. Scraggly brush sprouted. Bugs crept. Cactus seeds floating on the whispering wind obeyed the call of destiny and rested on their weary backs. Precipitation and dust and the heat of the sun worked their age old magic and those seeds put down roots. Spiny sprouts sprouted from the spines of these curved beasts.

The humans gave these islands names as they explored their crusty surfaces. Science and supposition spun legendary tales to explain this otherworldly spot. To plant foot on El Salar de Uyuni is to walk on what seems to be another planet.

My first expedition took me to this old island at the start of the rainy season in November of 2007. As we walked about we snapped our shutters to try and capture the beauty and strangeness. I craned my neck try as I stood by the oldest cactus there as I tried to see to the top. The glare of the sun and the sheer height impeded my attempts.

The translation of the sign: CACTUS 12.03 meters 1,203 YEARS / GIANT. GROWS 10 mm EVERY YEAR

Roughly the height of a house of three stories it extended itself the length of a child’s fingernail every year. For over a thousand years it changed. The elements stretched its spine. It conformed. It weathered the obliging seasons. It morphed from its original seed state to a tower of prickles. It outlasted all other pioneer plants which had come to rest in the midst of this desolation.

How could we have known we were witnessing the final weeks of this venerable life? I have fond memories of that trip.

Uyuni called me back. This time with my husband and a couple close friends we trekked across the islands of Uyuni at the end of the rainy season in March of 2009. Only 16 months had passed since my first wondrous visit. We took more pictures as we walked along the beaten path weaving through curvacious rocks and thorny growth. What a shock came upon me as I encountered a newish looking sign by my old cactus friend.

The sign reads: MILLENNIUM CACTUS / MEASURES 12 meters 3 cm / LIVED 1,203 YEARS / DIED (DECEMBER) 2007

I stood staring in disbelief for quite some time. I recollected whence I first laid eyes on this stout plant. I felt as though I stared at an open casket, on the lifeless form of an acquaintance. Again, subject to the elements and powers beyond its control, the cactus changed.I felt glad to have known it in its life. I felt sad to have to acknowledge its death.

Even in its era of death the cactus will morph some more. Change never stops.

Close by another gleaming sign caught me eye. As if looking upon my shocked frame, another stalwart post stood firm.

When Millennium Cactus had been doing its slow growing for about 300 years along came a friend. The seed of his life rooted near to its elder. For about 900 years they faced the brunt of the elements which forced them to change, together. Their stature differed from one year to the next and they remained silent companions.

Seeing this cactus camaraderie comforted me. It comforts me today.

I am not the me I used to be. Yearly changes forced on me by my surroundings morph me a millimeter at a time. Stack all those millimeters up and you have a different semblance than what you saw a few years back. My spine is stiffer. My prickles more numerous. Parts of me feel dried out yet important. The yellowed pokey parts of who I used to be are but a brittle memory. New green skin still attests to the ability to adjust. When I look down the line of my years I remember responding in a different way to similar surroundings. I am not the same as I used to be.

Do I like the new me? Do I have a choice? I’d like to think that I have a say in the changes that take place in me as a being. I might have a smidgeon more influence than my cactus buddy, but probably not as much as I imagine I do. The altered me wonders what stayed the same. Of course, all the parts of my life make up who I am now. But my contemporary likes and dislikes, interests and capabilities, thrills and bores, look different than the previous me.

Have you heard the phrase ’embrace change’? I have. It’s painful to embrace a cactus. Comparing who I used to be with what I see today feels similar to embracing a cactus. So maybe I won’t run into this change with arms wide for a warm, fuzzy hug. Maybe this change will be one I look at with reverent awe. Maybe I will crane my neck ever upwards to the Son as I accept the new the elements impose on me.

I feel honored to have been able to visit the timeworn cactus in its final days of life. Living one thousand two hundred three years is no small feat. I hope the nine hundred old cactus is still growing the next time I visit Uyuni.

If I have hopes for the cacti of Uyuni you can be assured I have hopes for who I am as well. I hope that the inevitable changes in my life make the lives of those around me better. I hope that those who knew me way-back-when will stick around to get to know the new me. I do hope I will like the new me. And I hope that the parts of the new me that I find unfavorable will somehow lead me to a change for the better. Since change never stops I hope this new realization of the changes in my life will help me to be gracious to the people in my life who are also changing.


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