Wild-crafting the Hedgehog and a brief reflection on Motherhood

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Early last spring while walking in the desert in a rocky area with mineral rich soil I discovered a clump of two very small cacti amongst many other similar clumps. Delighted by the diminutive size of the cacti I dug two along with native soil to pot at home. I noticed two tiny bumps on the sides of each inch tall cactus that were cylindrical in shape and both had short spines that were ridged in burgundy.

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About a month later I was on a rock hunt with my friend Iren, when we discovered another bigger clump of what looked like the same kind of cactus, although the ridges on these were not quite the color of red wine. This clump had more rose red buds. I couldn’t resist bringing this cluster home too along with plenty of chert/flint rich soil. Before I dug up either clump I made certain that others grew in the same area. Whenever anyone digs plants in their native habitat (wild -crafting) it is important to make certain that others of the same kind grow nearby.

After re-potting each in its native soil and placing stones around the periphery of each pot (that I found in the rocky soil around the plants), I placed the two cactus clumps next to each other on a bench right next to my door. The second clump also had buds. Each time I went outside the little cacti greeted me. There was something about finding these cacti growing so naturally and happily in the wild that really appealed to me. I wonder now why I couldn’t leave them there.

I soon learned that Echinocerus viridiflora was a hedgehog cactus that was different from most other hedgehog species. For one thing the cactus is very frost tolerant, and it grows much further north (I found both clumps at about 7000 – 8000 feet in the mountains of Northern New Mexico). The species is native to the central and south central United States and in Northern Mexico where it can be found in varied habitats including mountains, desert scrub, woodlands, and dry grasslands.It also has small flowers along the stem rather than near the tip of the cactus. Plants are globular and can grow 12 inches tall and 1 to 3 inches in diameter but most are much smaller. Stems either remain single or form clumps like some of the ones I had seen. Some clumps could become quite large with a dozen or more individuals. The spines might be variable in color, ranging from red, white, yellow or purple and were short and quite numerous. The flowers could be greenish yellow, pink, orange, brown, or even red. I wondered if elevation or mineral content of the soil helped determine the color of the spines and the flowers.

With so much variation within one species I now suspected that the little cactus I had dug up down the road from my house might also be another Echinocereus v. hedgehog cactus; this one is covered in white spines. The problem for me is that visually they look so different although this one is very small and round too…

Further research on the species as a whole answered one of my questions. One variety of this plant sometimes called Echinocereus davisii is listed as an endangered species and is limited to Brewster County in Texas where it grows in a specific mineral substrate. I couldn’t find any information about the variation in flower color but I suspect that colors also vary with the type of rocky soil and/or the elevation the cacti grow in.

To my great surprise I also discovered that many of these cacti are scented.

I did not know until it was too late that (according to one source) that Echinocereus v. was considered to be “at risk.” Please learn from my mistake. I believed that I was being responsible. I would never knowingly dig up a cactus (or any other plant) that was threatened, unless I knew it was going to be destroyed. All around me as I dug the plants in different locations there were groups of the same cacti. What I failed to take into account is that I found these cacti in diverse, but consistently rocky areas, each having it’s own microclimate and mineral content. I learned the hard way that I should have let them be.

I know one thing for sure. I will treasure these little cacti always, because it would be almost impossible to return them to their original surroundings.

Today is Mother’s Day. My little hedgehog cacti are covered with buds and lemony yellow blooms with a greenish tint. They are stunning and the bees love them!

Nature has gifted me with these exquisite flowers on the one day of the year that celebrates motherhood albeit in a sentimental way. Cactus blooms remind me that the goddess is present in Everywoman as a mother and that she also has thorns! The sharp spines of the cactus that sting like bees also remind me of how difficult motherhood really is, or has been for any woman, not just for me.

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Bufo americanus

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I recognized him at once

as he limped, one mangled leg,

one eye bleeding,

dragging himself across a dirt road

in search of a place to die.

 

The day went black

with sorrow.

 

Oh no, I keened,

stopping in front of him.

His mouth was open and closing,

– gasping –

with each labored breath.

Did he know how much

it mattered to me that he was hurt

so badly that there was no way

I could save him?

 

Bearing witness never seems to be enough.

 

It was hot – too hot.

Fierce sun dehydrates even

the toughest skin of toad or frog.

I couldn’t bear that he would die

of injuries compounded by thirst.

 

I ran back to get the car.

My intention was to

run him over, to

end his suffering.

But when I drove the car

down the dirt road

he was gone.

 

If only I could glimpse a toad

basking in the desert sand,

I thought until today.

Never imagining this…

 

I was going to a local seed exchange.

Seeds are about beginnings

but I was mourning a dying toad.

What salt – bush sheltered him?

Even purple seed corn kernels

left me joyless.

My soul was with that toad.

 

I was tired – too tired.

I left early, driving down

the winding red dirt road.

My only hope

was that by now

death had claimed the toad.

 

He would never know

that for the last month

I spent each night listening

for amphibious musical trills.

 

Later in the afternoon

I walked to the place

where I had last seen the toad.

And there he was,

quite still, squashed flat

by the only car

that could have hit him –

my own.

 

I buried him in the sand

that once warmed his flesh.

I closed his golden eye.

Sprinkled cornmeal…

How does one ever say goodbye?

 

Although we’d barely met,

I loved him.

Even in death

his life mattered

to one who would

have mothered him,

healing his wounds,

if only she had the chance.

 

Postscript:

Ever since coming to the high desert last August I have been hoping to catch sight of a toad or frog. I missed the early monsoon season when in one night the frogs emerged from hiding, sang love songs, and laid their eggs. I never met a toad. Last summer I lived back in the hills so perhaps toads don’t like it much up there. However, now that I am staying in this riparian sanctuary, situated near a flooded acequia and raging river, I believed toads and frogs must be around somewhere, and yet until today I never met either.

Bufo americanus, or the western toad looks exactly like his northern cousin in the east. In the spring toads are diurnal hunting during the day; in summer they become nocturnal. This was a large toad, probably 3 inches long. And he was actually a she because females are larger than males.

There is a small lily pond on this property that may eventually harbor black toad eggs laid in a double string of jelly below the surface of the water. However, this toad may not have had a chance to become a mother…I say this because the musical trills of this particular toad are very familiar to me, and I have not heard them during the day or at night. (Trilling occurs primarily at mating time and before and during egg laying).

To meet my first toad in the desert under these circumstances was very difficult for me because I have loved these amphibians since I was a small child, and in Maine, where my home is, I created a vernal pool for the toads that is situated next to the brook. Above on the hill in my flower garden, there is also a small lily pond for frogs and toads.

The synchronicity involved in this incident was also startling. The toad was initially run over by a friend of mine, who would be deeply upset if he knew. When I went back to get the car to kill the toad quickly to put him out of his misery, he simply wasn’t there. Unable to think about anything but the dying toad at the seed exchange, I returned home early and I must have been the one that finally ended the toad’s suffering without knowing it by running him over because this is a private road. Discovering the flattened toad helped me deal with my sorrow because the animal was no longer suffering.

It is also strange that I called the toad a male in the poem since I know large toads are all females and potential “mothers.”

To have this incident occur the day before “Mother’s Day” seems particularly poignant because I have spent a lot of time rehabilitating wounded animals etc., and there was nothing I could do to save this toad’s life.

With that much said, I am honoring Nature as the primal “Mother of All” on the eve of Mother’s Day.

I also honor myself.

I am also grieving with all mothers, who have lost “children,” human, or otherwise.