The desert is a place of sharp points. Ever plant is armored, armed, or defensive. We expect it of the Ocotillo and Cholla, but it’s surprising to find that lemon, orange, tangerine and lime trees have big spiky thorns. So do palo verde, mesquite and huisache.
The first time I rolled a bicycle down a gravel path I had to carry it back out–two flat tires, with huge thorns embedded in the rubber.
The first time I picked an orange from a tree, I pulled out an orange in a bleeding hand. Even standing by a shady palm tree, I noticed the bark was a series of sharp saw blades and the palm fronds were toothed and ready to bite.
When I first came to the desert, I stopped by a nursery, and stepped carefully through the aisles. A weathered arborist who worked at the nursery spotted me for a what I was–a refugee from New England. “So what do you think about the desert?” he asked, grinning. I looked balefully around the narrow aisle, rubbing my knuckle which was red from accidentally brushing something pointy, and said, “if all this were covered in bubble wrap and leather, I could walk through the place really easily,” I half joked, thinking that a lot of bubble wrap wasn’t such a bad idea.
The naturalist considered my answer for a few seconds before he said, “Instead
of 50 yards of bubble wrap and half a cow’s worth of leather, make it easy for yourself–wear shoes. Gloves, too, maybe. Costs less.”
I’ve given the piece of advice a lot of thought, and I see how it works on relationships, too. Instead of avoiding all confrontation, or shying away from thorny people, it may be worthwhile to protect yourself in the spots that are likely to be exposed in the encounter.
No doubt there are difficult, hurtful people. But you don’t have to hug them (literally or metaphorically). You can keep your distance emotionally. Be polite, but don’t try to impress or compete. That’s easier said than done, sure, but if you can spot someone with a cholla-character (cholla’s have thorns that attach easily and segments that break off and stick to your clothing or skin), you can learn to protect yourself. No volunteering to work on their committee, no thinking you can make them love you.
I’ll be happy to admit that challenging people attract me. I’ve also learned that the nursery man had a point–you can’t change the world, but you can protect yourself.
—Quinn McDonald is a book artist, writer and the author of Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art.