Yes, I have been working in the Garden of Pain, which surrounds the house, what I usually refer to as a cactus garden, though in fact it contains as many succulents as it does cacti, and of course a few plants that are neither. Botanists differ, but the current consensus is that all cacti are succulents but by no means are all succulents cacti. This is only a small help, and the layman — which I most certainly am — can have a hell of a job telling what’s a true cactus and what isn’t. (Clue: It’s largely about the areoles.)
More correctly, I suppose I should say I have a xerophile garden. Xerophile: From the Greek, xeros meaning dry and philos meaning loving. (The term refers not to people who love these plants but to the plants themselves, which love dryness.) My own interest in xerophiles started when I moved to Los Angeles, partly because I took seriously all those warnings about the evils or watering your own backyard in a time of drought and partly because, as a deracinated Englishman, a xerophile garden was about as far away from the traditional English garden as I could imagine. But chiefly I got hooked because there’s something so compelling about living things that have so thoroughly adapted to hostile environments, and because xerophiles look so beautifully strange and strangely beautiful.
When word gets around that you’re a cactus (and xerophile) enthusiast people have a tendency to give you cactus-related items of varying degrees of kitschiness. And so in the House of Pain you’ll find T-shirts, tea towels, socks, and hats, all bearing images of cacti. There are cactus-shaped coasters, cactus-shaped margarita glasses, and a cactus-shaped bottle opener. Nobody, as yet, has offered me anything from Cartier’s “Cactus de Cartier” range, perhaps because the basic bracelet goes for about $30,000, but it’s early days.
Of course I have books, a shelf that includes Edward Abbey’s Cactus Country from the Time Life “American Wilderness” series; What Kinda Cactus Izzat?, a cartoon “who’s who of desert plants” by Reg Manning; the photographer Lee Friedlander’s The Desert Seen; and for the title alone (though the jacket’s pretty amazing too) Naked in a Cactus Garden by Jesse L. Lasky Jr., “a novel of Hollywood” in which “character after character is stripped of every pretense.” I’m also very fond of an essay titled “Cactus Teaching” by Michael Crichton (yes, that Michael Crichton) in which he goes to seek enlightenment at a meditation conference in the desert. He’s told to find a rock or plant that “speaks” to him, and after much searching and soul-searching he finds a small, unspectacular, damaged cactus in the garden of the institute where the conference is taking place. “The cactus had equanimity; ants ran over its surface, and it didn’t seem to mind,” Crichton writes. “It was certainly very attractive, with red thorns and a green body; bees were attracted to it. The cactus had a formal aspect; its pattern of thorns gave it almost a herringbone look. This was an Ivy League cactus. I saw it as dignified, silent, stoic, and out of place.”
If all this might make you think that I’m obsessed with xerophiles, my response would be to proffer a copy of Xerophile: Cactus Photographs from Expeditions of the Obsessed and say, “You think I’m obsessed — get a load of this.” No author is named on the jacket or the title page, but we in the L.A. xerophile community know that it’s the effort of Jeff Kaplon, Max Martin, and Carlos Morera, the guys who run Cactus Store in Echo Park. Xerophile is an extraordinary book, a singular and single-minded volume. It contains 300 pages of photographs, preceded by a three-page preface and rounded off with a 30-page section containing interviews with eight xerophile enthusiasts (xerophile-philes?): not people like me, but the kind who go on expeditions that require being dropped in by helicopter. There’s also a short appendix on relevant topics that includes “off-roading,” “mirage,” and “oblivion.”
But, really, it’s all about the photographs, taken over a period of some 70 years, of xerophiles glimpsed in situ around the world. A few are in the United States, but the majority are from Mexico and South America, along with outliers from such gloriously “far away places” as Somalia, the Galápagos Islands, Madagascar, and Namibia. Twenty-five named photographers are credited, although one or two images are captioned “photographer unknown,” and in some cases the date isn’t known either. This might create some irritation for the more academic reader, and I think that kind of reader is going to be irritated by other parts of the book too. As far as I can see there’s no obvious, overarching organizing principle at work in the arrangement and selection of photographs — it’s simply what’s in the Cactus Store’s archive — and yet I can’t say that I particularly minded. The overall effect is more celebratory than scholarly, and that’s fine by me.
Xerophile is somewhere between a coffee-table book and a slightly chaotic field guide. I know from extensive personal experience that it’s very easy to take dull pictures of cacti. And although some of the pictures in the book are incredibly dramatic, very few have the gloss and stylishness of professional photographs. The preface describes the images as “evidence.” A few are a bit blurry, either because of faltering focus or because of the low quality of the camera and lens, but this somehow only adds to the sense of authenticity. When you’re halfway up a mountain in Chile you may not have time for sophisticated and considered aesthetic choices. We’re not in National Geographic territory here. The plants are the stars, and the photographers are the adoring fans, perhaps in some cases the paparazzi, snapping what they can on the fly.
The fact is you can forgive quite a lot of technical and compositional failings in order to see things you’ve never seen before, like an Adenium in Namibia that looks like a long-dead tree but is bearing extraordinary white flowers at the tips of its branches. Or Peruvian Haageocereus plants growing in a foggy habitat and consequently covered in bright yellow lichen. Or cacti growing out of rock faces, poking up through broad stretches of sand or lava fields.
Human beings appear in some of the photographs. At the very least this is useful to give a sense of scale. We all know that cacti grow to spectacular heights, but when we see a picture that shows a full grown man looking utterly insignificant at the base of a 70-foot-tall Pachycereus pringlei, the sense of surprise and amazement is brought home with incredible force. Other pictures show botanists at work in the field, usually but not always in the desert, taking measurements or collecting seeds. One of my favorite photographs, dated 1952, shows George Lindsay, former director of the California Academy of Science, standing next to a Ferocactus that’s a good head taller than he is and much wider in girth. He’s khaki-clad, wearing sunglasses and a solar topee, has a camera and light meter slung around his neck, and he’s smoking a fat cigar. One’s sense of nostalgia (today’s desert rats just don’t look anything like that), along with the inevitable phallic resonance of a certain kind of cactus, are elegantly and wittily confirmed.
The most tantalizing, and to some extent frustrating, part of the book is the section of interviews with xerophile obsessives, frustrating only in the sense that it leaves you wanting much more. In there you’ll find tales of near-death experience from Joël Lodé, who suffered severe heatstroke on his first trip to the Mojave desert in 1984, and survived to risk his life in much the same way in New Mexico and Baja. He also went to Yemen at the height of the civil war to “photograph a plant.” I’m not sure what kind of plant that was, but I hope it was the Euphorbia abdelkuri discussed in a different interview with John Jacob Lavranos who hitched a ride with the British navy, across pirate-infested waters, to the island of Abd al-Kuri in 1967. (It’s part of Yemen, but closer to Somalia, hence the pirates.) Lavranos says that seeing the Euphorbia abdelkuri “was one of the highlights of my life. I’ll never forget it — coming up over the mountain and seeing those tall green candles, which, of course were Euphorbias that were centuries old.” Asked if he collected plants on the trip he replies, “Yes, of course. Every single Euphorbia abdelkuri in circulation came from that trip.” A little research reveals that they’re now extremely rare, both in collections and on the island.
Others are less interested in collecting than taxonomy, a fascinating and ultimately mind-boggling field that increasingly relies on molecular analysis. There’s an interview with a married couple, both botanists, named Giovanna Anceschi and Alberto Magli who say they have no desire for possession. Magli says,
For me, there’s nothing further from nature than a greenhouse. People put plants next to each other that would never, ever be seen together in nature. That’s fine for a fan. But not for a researcher, and I would venture to say that it’s part of the reason people continue to have confused ideas about the taxonomy of these plants.
The old wisdom was that there were about 175 genera and 2,000 species of cacti but the current thinking is that many of these are the same basic plant, achieving different forms because of different environments. Most of us amateurs would indeed welcome some clarification on the subject, and advice on how to identify obscure genera and species (the people who work in nurseries are seldom much help), but this pair really don’t put your mind at rest: “We eventually realized that many of the species you see in books don’t exist.”
If you want more detail, without an absolute guarantee of clarification, may I direct you to the activities of the International Cactaceae Systematics Group, a working party of the International Organization for Succulent Plant Study, which has been contemplating these matters since the mid-1980s? In fact there are many online cactus and succulent websites and groups. Few of them are quite as interesting or as obsessive as Xerophile, though I did come across the website for The Cactus Store which currently lists a Haageocereus tenuis for sale, yours for a cool quarter of a million dollars. They warn gravely, “This is not a statement piece, a collectors item, or a center piece for your garden. This is a critically endangered specimen plant for those familiar with ex-situ conservation who have a proper greenhouse setup.” Even in matters of obsession it’s good to know your limits.
Geoff Nicholson is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. His latest novel is The Miranda.