I am seeing cacti everywhere these days: an Instagram feed, foregrounding the frames of the TV show, Breaking Bad – and finally, in a sunlit glasshouse at the Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh. I should perhaps now amend my statement; it was after my memorable encounter with them at Phipps that I have begun to notice them everywhere.
Having explored room after room of luxuriant, almost obscenely green, tropical bushes and trees, it was somewhat a relief to encounter the cacti's austere beauty in the Conservatory's Cactus Room. And even though I had wholeheartedly admired the bonsai trees' micro perfection, the iridescent orchids, and the cocoa tree with its fat gold pods, embryonic chocolate bars nestled within them, I could not help thinking afterwards that the Cactus Room was undoubtedly my favorite one.
I wonder if it is because it appeals to my inner desert girl. Until recently, I grew up and lived in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman; the majority of its terrain is indeed a textbook dune desert, although I happened to live upon the fringes of its gravel desert. There are no cacti in Oman, but the flora is similar: minimal leaves, spare sculpted bodies, and a tenacious will to survive. Incidentally, desert also inhabits my bloodline: I belong to Rajasthan, India, which too is a desert and whose landscape does happen to be dotted with spiny, gray-green cacti. This combination of genes and happenstance probably explains my simultaneous inclination for both maximalism and minimalism; having been surrounded by minimalist landscapes, I naturally gravitate towards a pared down beauty and - yet, also occasionally and intensely crave fertile, lush bursts of color and texture.
As I roamed through the Cactus Room, I could not help but think about my first encounter with them when I was thirteen years old. It was during a pan-American trip, involving a detour through Arizona. After weeks of witnessing the glorious summer green, I felt as if I was meeting a familiar friend as the coach trundled through the desert: I thirstily absorbed the arid, fantastical wind-eroded rocks, the cerulean blue skies, and the garden of cacti. Even if the cacti themselves were unfamiliar, they looked familiar simply by the virtue of inhabiting a similar looking landscape. And in the Cactus Room, as I examined with interest this desert in miniature, admiring a succulent cheekily masquerading as a flower in bloom, I realized that these transplanted cacti had transplanted me back home...once again.
As I photographed the cacti – round and spiny, long and tapering - I idly imagined I had wandered into a fossilized ocean, the water long having receded and left behind these specimens in its wake. When I was a child, I would often go rock collecting in Oman, which is widely recognised to be a vast geological garden of sorts. As I sorted through the rocks, I would often discover ones bearing imprints of fossilized shells or plants or marine organisms: I realized that I was literally standing on an ancient sea-bed, the ocean having vanished millions of years ago as a result of plate tectonics choreography. For years, the rocks I collected accumulated in my backyard corner, becoming a pyramid of sorts; however, although even when my rock mania died and the pyramid disintegrated, I never forgot about those submarine fossils.
A few weeks ago, I had gone snorkeling for the first time in the waters of Florida Keys. I had swum just beneath the surface of its brilliant blue waters, cobalt blue and yellow-hued fish inches away from my face and peering down at the fecund coral garden blooming below. Growing up in Oman and regularly haunting its numerous beaches, the sea and the beach had always called out to me, defining me in a way that no landscape ever could. Even if I lived in the desert, I yearned for the sea. And yet, for all those years of frequenting the ocean, this was the first time that I had actually explored the depths of its interiors, seen and swam with its creatures and – understood it. The essence of the ocean was ultimately this submarine theater. And it was an ocean continents away that taught me that.
Standing in the Cactus Room, I felt a similar sensation to that of snorkeling beneath the ocean. After years of living in the desert, I had merely begun to see it as the desert, rather than composed of a mosaic of eccentric, intriguing characters and elements. But this is the thing about leaving home: you can only begin to define home once you have left it. Reflecting on the multiple homes that I had inhabited: Australia, India, Oman, United Kingdom and America, by way of birth or heritage or education or marriage, each journey and the subsequent new place I called home led to constantly recalibrating what home represented to me. Home, I learnt, was no longer just a set of coordinates on a map: it was a sensation, elusive and ephemeral as a scent but just as palpable and memorable.
Here, in a doll-house desert transplanted in a glasshouse surrounded by an arctic Pittsburgh winter, I was conjuring up home: the desert as the ocean or vice versa. As I saw and experienced it, the two landscapes most familiar and dear to me had perfectly mashed in the cactus room at the Phipps Conservatory. As I walked around, soaking in this submarine and subterranean theater, I felt at home.
My wanderings in the Cactus Room brought me to an enormous yellow and green striped succulent and vibrantly hued, spiny cacti surrounding it. In my vision, it metamorphosed into a mutated octopus reigning over the ocean-floor: it looked as if it was in deep slumber with its sea-urchins and coral courtiers protectively guarding it. I knelt down, took its picture, and then left - lest it woke.
This piece was originally published in 1for1000; the idea is to produce a thousand word narrative inspired by a single image. In my case, the cacti that I saw at the Phipps Conservatory had greatly fascinated me and this image in particular found me re-imagining it as a group of submarine creatures....and so this essay was born! In fact, cacti have intrigued me so much that I won't be surprised if they weave themselves into more of my future writings...
What has dramatically captured your attention and become an enduring inspiration? I would love to hear!