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Eating Prickly Pear. Ow!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

So this amazing thing happened to me on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, unbidden and unexpected, as are most amazing things. 
I've written my column, "True Nature," for the Nov/Dec. issue of Bird Watcher's Digest, which actually comes out in mid-October, all about it.

So I'll save it until after our subscribers have had a chance to read about it. 

If you'd like to subscribe to this family-owned and operated magazine (one of the very last in the country), which also happens to be the best birding magazine going, please click here, or see the right sidebar of this blog, where it says True Nature. As more and more of the daily content we consume comes out of our computers and phones, print magazines everywhere are seeing drops in subscribers. If you'd like to help, please subscribe!

The amazing Pulitzer-nominated natural history writer Scott Weidensaul just signed on as our lead columnist, filling the enormous shoes of Kenn Kaufman, who's got book deadlines galore. I really enjoy writing my column, even though the deadlines creep up on me every time. It's good to have to put your experiences into readable form. Hence this blog...

Just FYI: This is Post #2015, since I started blogging in December, 2005. And now back to our regularly scheduled illustrated musings.

I drove back south to Sedona, dopily high from my incredible day and a stunning sunset on the Grand Canyon rim. I looked at my flight time out of Phoenix and decided to eke one more short hike out of flight day.

I'd go to the Airport Vortex site and hike the loop trail that goes along the flank of a mesa, atop which sits the Sedona Airport.

Scrub jays said YEaAAah!! Good choice! 

I looked at the trail map--it said it was a 4 mile loop. No problem. I wasn't flying out until 2 pm. Yeah, I had a 2 hour drive, but I can hike fast. Ain't skeert of miles. I love to cover ground, especially when it's new.

I love this little purple verbena that grows everywhere, defying the desert. Bloom where you're planted, it seems to say.
I try, every day.

A whiptail paused to consider me
(feel free to chip in on which whiptail; my reptile guide has me thoroughly bamboozled)

then, in a disarmingly birdlike motion, scratched its face with a hind leg.

I've never seen so much prickly pear in my life. The slopes were pale green with it. 
I tried to imagine going off trail and discarded the idea.

The ripening cactus fruits, called "tunas," were tantalizing. My parents gave me Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus when I was just a kid, and it sank in. I love trying new wild foods.

So do these bugs, apparently. They looked like they'd be sucking juice out of the cactus pears.

I twisted a tuna off a pad and immediately got dozens of tiny spines in my knuckles. It was as if they'd leapt off the fruit into my skin. Wow. That is really annoying. Will have to be more careful next time.

So after two tries in which I was thoroughly bespined, and having to sit down and pick each damn one out, some so tiny I had to use my teeth, I reverted to my primate roots and found a tool: my rental car key. I held the tuna down with a rock and used the key to dig some flesh out so I could taste it.

Sour and rather nice, with lots and lots of seeds. I suspected from its sour taste and color that this tuna was not dead ripe and decided to keep looking for some that were.

I didn't have to look long.

Ripeness! These, when keyed out, were tolerably sweet, and I could see how you could make a nice jelly from them. Lots of pecten. Not a jelly indulger, but I hear it's got a gorgeous wine-red color.

What a cool plant, but it's all about self-defense, protecting its juicy pads and fruit. 
Javelinas don't care. They eat 'em, spines and all. I wonder how that works. Just one tiny spine in a finger can preoccupy me until I work it out. I took a fishhook cactus spine from my greenhouse in the right index finger, and I wasn't able to get it out before we went on a snorkeling trip to Belize. I remember saying to Bill, "You know what you can do with an infected cactus spine in your right index finger?" 


Seriously, it impacted everything from typing to cooking to washing my hair. The salt water worked on the injury for several days and to my great joy it finally popped out when I surfaced, jubilant from having swum right over a giant spotted eagle ray, and decided to squeeze it (my finger, not the giant spotted eagle ray) one more time, just because I was feeling lucky.

Bloop! Pus, and the pressure it builds up, is a wonderful biomechanical operant. Aided by saltwater, it's magical.

Sometimes relief, just not feeling pain any more, is the best feeling of all.  

My hand, before the spine popped out...


I recall eating prickly pear in southern Africa in my youth. I do recall how we maneuvered around the pricklies. I most likely let the "grownups" do it.

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