Street Cacti

Street Cacti

WORDS & PHOTOS: Bethany Toews

Some people walk in LA. I know because I am one of them. And if you look, you will see them too. Sparse and spread out like the few determined stars that manage to shine in the Los Angeles night sky. I walk to stay sane. I walk to constantly remind myself that I have a body. I walk to connect as literally and directly as possible with the oft forgotten earth. Why the others walk I cannot say. But I imagine we share a certain kind of knowing that only comes with viewing the world at a slower pace.

Automobiles blur the landscape. They remove the smaller details of life. In your hurry to get to the taco truck, you miss seeing the kid laughing and peeing in his front yard with the flair of a fountain angel. Racing to get to the beach before rush hour, you go too fast to delight in the old man winking at you as he gingerly picks figs from the tree. You had nowhere to be, and yet your vehicular speed kept hidden from your gaze those mating butterflies in flight. We whiz by as the world waits to be seen.

Perhaps it is my early training in the vast and dusty plains where I developed a penchant for the pedestrian approach to life. Haskell County, the flattest county in Kansas. A few hundred people with nothing to do but mind everybody else’s business. No movie theater, no arcade. No usual childhood diversions available. Just fields of corn, long empty roads, and my two skinny legs taking me everywhere. No matter where you are, there is always something to look at. Looking is its own kind of doing.

And now in Los Angeles, legs longer, I still take my time. Hundreds of miles a year on foot. I marvel at the Seussian landscape that inspired the pages I once turned with smaller hands. Plants that look like asparagus monsters or friendly aliens. The familiar silhouettes of the cyprus and the faithful sway of the palm trees. And the cacti. Oh the cacti. As plentiful and varied as the humans that populate this desert city sandwiched between The Pacific and The San Gabriels.

There are the lone cacti holding it down on their own, autonomously soaking up all the sun juice Southern California so amply supplies. There are the carefully curated cacti families spread out in patches of gravel helping uninspired structures appear more alive, more intentional. Upping property values. And then there is the endless proliferation of wild cacti orgies. All types succulently intertwined in a fleshy embrace. Erect cacti pushed up against ones looking not at all unlike breasts with pink pokey nipples. Just one big hotbed of spiny 69s. It is hard to deny the way nature sings of sex, especially in the steamy peak of an Angeleno summer. Sweat pooling in places, sweat escaping down inner thigh. Walking. Melting. Taking it all in.

If you set out with the intention of finding them, you will soon realize that the whole metropolis is alive with these spiky friends. Steadfast, prickly faces pointed to the bright sky. Surviving. Thriving. Holding garbage for careless passersby. Adorning yards. Enveloping hillsides. Hugging stop signs. Acknowledging the persistence of nature to make the most of what is offered. To not fret about what is missing. To drink deeply when it rains. And to patiently observe the shifting daylight, the endless blue. To endure the unrelenting August heat. To sigh with the arrival of the cool California nights.

Walking around, eyes trained to find them, I found myself falling more deeply in love with their spirit. Their playfulness. Their sense of humor. The way humans embrace the precarious nature of their protective design. The way they require a careful approach to discover the truth of what they carry inside. They contain just what they need to keep going. Waiting. Holding water. They, like us, are just doing their best to keep growing.