I love the summer heat the way Finns love jumping into an ice hole in the middle of their arctic winter. I enjoy the purge of a good walk when Tucson becomes a giant outdoor sweat lodge. Only mad dogs, Englishmen and Tucsonans go out in the noonday sun, Camelback full of water, please.
By late June we refer to the front door of our airtight casita as the air lock, imagining ourselves to be colonists on a desert planet, a Tatooine, in a galaxy far, far, far away.
By July we’re feral animals.
To kickoff summer I painted my roof to prep it for the monsoons and I then rented a 40-yard long rolloff so I could spend late afternoons filling it with 3 acres of prickly pear. I cleaned out every packrat den surrounding our hacienda.
I recommend it as a therapeutic crossfit workout. I never got fit but I’m still cross. About the thorns, scratches and sprains.
For this workout you’ll need a wheelbarrow, a pitchfork, a machete, a shovel, an axe, a pruning saw, a lopper, a chainsaw, a garden rake and a World War II-era functioning bazooka.
My conscripted family and I swept across the land like General Sherman, slashing and burning our way to Atlanta, destroying every prickly pear and packrat den in our path. UUnder a merciless sun we emptied countless wheelbarrows of detritus into the rolloff, the steel beast in our drive way, as a parade of neighbors gawked from their air-conditioned cars.
There’s an art to dissembling a prickly pear.
First, hack away at the outer pads with your machete while shouting, “Take that, you (Insert name of person who irritated you recently here).”
After a visit from a deputy on the first day I decided to lower my volume.
Next chop the prickly beasts into segments with an axe while shouting, “Take that, you (Insert name of government entity that irritates you here)!”
After a visit from the FBI on Tuesday I decided to lower my volume further.
Lastly, hack the base of the trunk and its thirsty roots out of the soil with a shovel while shouting, “I’m digging your grave, you (Insert name of company that annoys you here)!”
After anger management therapy, I decided to work in silence.
Prickly pear, known as nopal, or opuntia, are related to pancakes and porcupines. They typically have more barbs than a Comedy Central roast. Coincidentally, marriage counselors often refer to their clients as a “Prickly Pair.”
After the mayhem comes the joy of the pitchfork, used to stab and pitch the pads into the wheelbarrow. After three days my skin turned lobster scarlet and I grew horns. Heaving my pitchfork about like Hellboy this sunscreen-sotted sinner imagined himself a cackling denizen of Hell, or worse, a prisoner condemned to the eighth level of Hell — Bullhead City.
High in fiber, antioxidants, carotenoids and packrat poop the prickly pear cactus is a popular food in many parts of the world, like Latin America, and Warner Brothers Roadrunner cartoons.
By day four I hallucinated a delightful conversation with a javelina who suggested, “To dine on nopal it helps to have tusks like a warthog.” Prickly pear cactus can be grilled and its fruit made into jellies that tourists regret buying. A desert rat most of my life, I prefer Chicken Cordon Bleu, with a sprig of rosemary, to roasted pincushions.
As my teenager was heaving prickly pear pads into our wheelbarrow with the relish of a video game assassin I asked him what he thought of our project.
“Makes the place look less hostile.”
“That’s the plan. We’re going to replace these devils with mesquites, ocotillo and a lot more brittlebushes. Did you know brittlebushes are related to daisies? Next spring our yard will be filled, filled, filled with golden flowers.”
The day they picked up the rolloff our saguaros bloomed! Soon the fruit will come and then the monsoons. A fine time to plant native wildlfowers, agaves, and desert spoons.
Our efforts reminded me of all the manual labor jobs I had as a kid. Farmhand. Motel maintenance man. Landscaper. Pool cleaner. Swamp box scraper. The healthy life that became my sedentary adulthood.
I found archaeological artifacts like ancient baseballs and disintegrating toys the kids lost to the desert when they were little. I found three nests of quail eggs and left them undisturbed. I watched jackrabbits spar. I was barked at by cactus wrens. But nothing could match the warm feeling I got when I saw packrats scamper away like frantic residents fleeing Tokyo as I, the Godzilla of the Garden, razed their homes.
Bring on the heat.