Our Cactus Amigos Can Teach us a Lesson or Two!

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By Mary Anne Harmer

Cactus, Cactus everywhere!   I’m from the Pacific Northwest, a forest and woods gal, but since moving to La Paz, I have learned to admire the majesty of the desert. The stark and quiet beauty creates an awe that defines “mindfulness.” A potent experience of stillness and balance between the mountains and sea.  And the regal cactus reigns over all.  With lessons about survival and resilience.  When hiking I often love nothing more than wandering among the cactus, each one a little different, with their own unique characteristics.

But have you ever thought about the cactus and its ability
to survive?

There are many legends and stories about the cactus plant–often revered within the desert ecosystem. It is a tree that survives with little water in a dry and hot environment, providing sustenance and shelter to many desert animals and insects.  

Like many of Nature’s wonders, which teach us about balance and inter-connected-ness, cacti have adapted and thrived over time. Here are a few fun facts from Science and Kids:

  • Cactus thorns are highly modified plant leaves. The sharp spines and the thick tough skin of the stem protect the cactus from animals that would otherwise have easy access to the liquid inside.
  • The cactus collects water using a large root system. Small thin roots grow near the surface of the soil and collect rainwater as quickly as possible during the few times it rains. A taproot, which grows much deeper, reaches underground water supplies when the topsoil is dry.
  • Cacti can gather and hold water in their stems. The water is not pure or clear, but viscous. The fluid is drinkable, however, and has saved people’s lives in the desert.

The bottom line: the cactus is resilient, which is defined by Websters dictionary as, “The ability to recover from or adjust easily to change, misfortune, adversity or stress.”

Luckily for those who reside part or full time in La Paz, just 45 minutes south of the city, is the Cactus Sanctuary,  (Santuario de los Cactus)located on the mountain road near El Triunfo.  The park is over 124 acres and is divided into 50 distinct areas to preserve cacti and other indigenous plants found only in this part of the world.

Despite its beauty, the sanctuary has been mostly forgotten, and the sanctuary isn’t regularly or properly maintained, yet it an important heritage site, given the number of plant species found here and only here.   According to one visitor, who visited over the past year,

This place is about 5km off the main road. You will have to travel on a dirt road. But…
If you are into “off-the-beaten-path” stuff then this is for you. Sadly the sanctuary was hit by Hurricane Odile in Sept 2014 and knocked out some of the taller cacti. The caretaker may not be there, so it may be an adventure as some of the signage is gone, but consider it a fascinating hike”

If you are driving out towards La Ventana, there is also another cactus forest with hiking and mountain biking trails.  It is a lesser-known place, explored by my photographer friend and fellow explorer, Tim Walsh.  It is called Cordon Corridor” and on Google Maps it is found as “Calle Tuna” — just a little south of La Ventana. There are no guides – but hiking it self-guided provides some great opportunities to capture some amazing photos.  Each cactus is labeled with the name and use for each plant.

Closer to town, if you visit the museum of Anthropology/ Natural History of La Paz, a few blocks from the Cathedral, on the grounds you will find a number of different varieties of cactus with placards of their names.  It’s a quick and easy orientation to the cactus we see in the region.

The Cordon Cactus is the most common species of cactus in La Paz and on Isla Espiritu Santo.   It is the world’s largest cactus and can reach up to 60 feet. Cardon fruit was an important food for some indigenous Indians who call the cactus xaasj.  The flesh of this cactus contains alkaloids and may have been used as a psychoactive plant in Mexico.

Cactus are not only stark and exotic in their beauty but a tribute to survival and resilience.  Here are a few tips to help us become more resilient in life.

1. Don’t take things so personally. It’s not always about “me.” That is the ego.

2. Develop a “thicker skin” like the cactus. Throw off negative challenges with positive energy and action.

3. When challenged by major change, think of the long- term bigger picture, not just the short-term impact.

4. Find ways to make lemonade out of lemons.

5. Use your energy to be proactive vs spending time being defensive and trying to maintain the status quo.

6. Find an internal space of strength – that you can tap into with confidence – and remember that feeling when confronted – a “bank” of positive feelings and successes that you can draw from when faced with negativity.

7. Create an ecosystem of support among your peers and colleagues that creates a buffer against adversity.

8. Counter stress by giving and kindness—an antidote to anxiety, that ultimately makes you stronger.

9. Take accountability and ownership for the situation and mistakes, and then move on with action.

A few things to build resilience and create opportunities to thrive.

Just like our friend, the cactus.

Mary Anne brings passion and energy towards improving the physical, emotional and spiritual health of ALL individuals, families and communities across the spectrum of economics and cultures.  She is the co-author of the book, 25 Building Blocks to Create a Conscientious Organization and the recently released book Putting Soul Into Business: How the Benefit Corporation is Transforming American Business.  She lives part-time in La Paz.