My first cactus proved to be a real toughie. By outliving most of its comrades (some of which were the old devils' offspring) and reaching somewhere up to an age of 12 human years it acquired in my life an air of permanence. An element of the grandiose. If cacti were more like humans and organised themselves into hierarchies like ours my first cactus would have been a well-respected elder statesman type. After all, this was the cactus that flowered so spectacularly and unexpectedly in the early summer of 1986, a feat matched by none of its peers. A photographic image was recorded in honour of this explosion of life's propagation and as proof (for posterity) that this newly-emerged appendage was impressive to the extent that it surpassed the scale of measurement I had at my disposal (a 20cm ruler). -But that such a stubby, twisted old gnarl of a plant could produce this robust, healthy, beautiful testament to life is representative of the will of cacti everywhere. That was my first cactus's greatest moment. Years later its struggle with non-existence was lost when my half-hearted attempts at preservation dried up. I was as cruel as the desert; it was mostly dead before I even noticed.
I left its carcass in the soil, watching the decomposition process over the weeks, months. A dead cactus remains shaped much as it was in life, only it is hollow; emptiness is all that fills the brittle, crumbling, dried-up semblance of existence, as if it were in memorial of itself.
Death for some is as valid as life and it seemed as if, spured on by their elder's transition into non-being, my other cacti friends decided to follow suit. Rather, I made their decision for them. Possibly with the old-timer gone I just couldn't connect with them anymore, but that hardly seems an excuse for neglect. It was no use; I had lost interest. My destruction had gained a momentum, spiralled: life was disposable and death was preferable- at least for others: self-absorption had possessed me. The dead plants were despatched to a compost-cum-rubbish heap in the garden where they faded from relevance. Nothing more.
The true environment of the cactus is the desert. Pretty potted miniatures in terracotta bowls on, say, an east-facing windowsill are really quite comic. I can understand the desirability of having, or owning these plants- they represent something holy. Wild cacti are deserving of a praise to which mere humans can only aspire: the cactus takes root in the hard, punishing, life-hating realms. Arid desert. Overbearing heat. The cactus thrives where others die. There is nothing picturesque about the cactus or its environment. It is a nihilist- it understands the nothingness around it, gnawing constantly at the presumptuousness of its very existence. The cactus is not threatened by rivals as a burgeoning oak may be in some sylvan scene rampant with teeming life-lust. The threat faced by the cactus is from nothingness itself: not survival of the fittest, only survival -or death.
Death menaces the cactus, its nemesis, for it is from this darkest of states, this unlikeliest of chances that the cactus stakes its claim to life. The very existence of the cactus in these hardest, cruellest of lands displays life's great victory over non-being. Something from nothing. The assertion of life versus the indifference of the void. Of course this demands celebration! Who wouldn't want a potted cactus on their windowsill? -the story of life in miniature in their own house as a keepsake? -This thing is so precious, so important, symbolic- but to nurse this...to deny the meaning of its struggle- this domesticity destroys its true magnificence- its resilience, its overcoming of its hopeless cause. Its capacity to fight and to not hope.
The cactus upon the windowsill before me reaches about 10 inches skyward with a marked lean where it has followed the sun every morning, yearning as if homesick for southern lands and the company of far-off and silent companions. It has never flowered, and I do not believe it will. -But its persistent struggle in fighting for my attention (I believe) keeps it alive.