Sunday, March 23, 2008

Cacti, and other dangers of the desert

They say plants don't feel, but that's not entirely true. They do not bleed or express pain with yelps of surprise and wonder, and they love without keening for love, but their system of growth and preservation, of leaning ever so towards desire and away from aversion, is as sophisticated as any in the natural world.

Vascular plants rely on a pair of transport tissues -- the xylem and phloem -- to carry the essentials of life through their anatomy. While these tissues don't exactly function like axons and dendrites in mammalian bipeds -- which relay messages of hurt, throb and burn -- they evoke our nervous system. Axons carry messages from one dendrite to another until they get to the brain, completing the conversion of sensation to perception. Xylem pulls water from the root up to the leaves, where the conversion of raw resources -- water, carbon dioxide, light energy -- into glucose yields particles of oxygen. It also might be worth noting that the most well recognized xylem tissue is wood (the rings that expand outwards are xylem growth charts), while the etymology of "dendrite" is from the Greek dendron, meaning "tree." The interconnectedness of things speaks to us all.

But also, the extent to which plants hurt -- the equivalent of an axon lighting up after an epidermic cell has been singed out of existence by the hot stove -- is the extent to which they go without water. As no species -- not even plants -- can exist in pain, those that live in arid environments -- succulents, they're called -- must adapt... and if anything, plants are adaptable (take grass, for instance, which is "the heart of all things," according to Planet Earth, having spread to a quarter of the planet's land). The cactus is the ultimate example of an organism that survives despite the odds. Existing in an environment that sees as little as three inches of rain a year, it hordes what water it gets, with fewer stomata -- openings in the leaf that let water escape -- and a canopy of spines, which provides shade and protects it against thirsty animals.

And injures baseball players.

From the Kansas City Star, in a story that could only be written about baseball:

Jimmy Cactoe is, of course, the nickname pinned on Royals pitcher Jimmy Gobble by manager Trey Hillman after Gobble walked into a cactus shrub while playing golf following an early February workout.

A big needle jammed its way through the shoe and under the nail of Gobble’s big right toe. Want to talk pain? Jam something under one of your nails.

“It hurt like the dickens,” he recalled, “and we couldn’t even tell if there was something still in there or not.”

Cactus injury in baseball -- anyone heard of such a thing?

The question not asked, of course, not found in any news story nor hinted at in any blog, is the one we'll pose here: How must the cactus have felt, brave sentinel alone watching the coming of light, that source of life, losing a spine to the foot of Jimmy Cactoe? Think about that next time you're laughing over this with buddies.

POSTSCRIPT: Other dangers of the desert:
Precipitous temperature changes
UFOs (apocryphal)

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