Cactus Spirit

Posted on June 22, 2013

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I recently returned from a very eventful visit to the United States, which included, among family visits and presentations, a meeting with the wonderful environmentalist, writer and local foods pioneer, Gary Paul Nabhan.  Several years ago, I read his seminal book, “Coming Home to Eat”, and his description of a visit to extended family in a village in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon has always stayed with me. The hospitality he experienced and the local foods he was served seemed so familiar. After all, the border between Northern Israel and Southern Lebanon is a line drawn in the sand (so to speak), and the indigenous foods and foodways among the Arab populations on either side of that line are very similar.

Gary gave me a book he wrote, called “The Desert Smells like Rain”, in which he documents his explorations of the foodways of the Tohono O’odham (Papago) Indians of Southern Arizona.  Once again, in an entirely different context, the descriptions of dry agriculture, the sacred relationship between farmers and always-scant rain, the exquisite balance of sustenance between cultivated and wild edible plants, and the eclipsing of traditional foodways by modern farming, all rang true to the agricultural landscape I have come to know here in the Galilee.

One story in the book stood out in particular, about how the Papago relate to the saguaro cactus – those monumental succulents that raise their bristly arms skyward across the Southwestern horizon.  According to Papago tradition, these cacti are actually members of the community, with human spirits that should be treated with utmost respect.

I couldn’t help but think of our local, ubiquitous sabra cactus, which bears its own symbolic legacy.  Well-known tradition has it that the sabra symbolizes native Israelis, who, like the cactus fruit, are “prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside”.  In Arabic, the sabra is also charged with significance, where its name is associated with the word “saber”, Arabic for patience or long-suffering, i.e. enduring the relentless heat of countless dry summer days.

Ironically, the sabra is actually indigenous to the American Southwest, and a relatively recent transplant to the Middle East.  One could only wish that the Native reverence for the human spirit, in whatever form it may take, could so successfully set down roots in this land as well.

sabra cropped