Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.
—T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
4:00 a.m. Alarm goes off.
4:30 a.m. Drive to the Stater Bros parking lot to meet up with Lydia Vassar.
5:00 a.m. At five o’clock in the morning, we drive off toward Palm Desert to meet up with a group of folks to gather prickly pear cactus tunas, and then process them for their delicious and healthful juice. By the end of the day, Leslie Mouriquand’s kitchen looks like the scene of a very bloody crime. We’re exhausted but have blanched, blended, pressed, and strained the tunas to make the richest magenta colored nectar I have ever seen.
I make it sound easy. But I should add that earlier in the afternoon, the top of Leslie’s brand new 10-speed Oster blender separated from the bottom, and the just-boiled magenta tuna mixture splattered all over Lydia, who was blending the recently boiled tuna mixture, as well as the walls, cupboards, counters, stove, and floor of Leslie’s once clean kitchen. We help Lydia get the hot tunas off her legs, but luckily most went on the kitchen. I put down my camera to help the clean-up crew. Later I had the realization what a terrible photojournalist I would make; just when the blood starts flowing, I stop photographing. Reminds me of a scene in Under Fire where the Nick Nolte character, a war photographer, puts down his camera and picks up a rifle after one of the mercenaries shoots a young (and charismatic) Sandinista rebel. Nolte tells the Joanna Cassidy character, a war correspondent, that something’s happening to both of them. It seems that they’ve lost their so-called objectivity. They’re siding with the rebels instead of the U.S trained Contras . . . (About time!).
So in a much less dramatic context, I put down my camera and pick up sponge, paper towels and rags, and Lydia, Leslie, Barbara and I begin to sop up what will be a deep magenta dye if we don’t. Fifteen or so minutes later, we’re ready to start processing tuna juice once again. I pick up my camera again, but too late to photograph the mess. Perhaps it’s better not to show everyone what happens when things don’t go as planned. But who doesn’t already know what that looks like.
Barbara Drake straining the seeds from the prickly pear juice. Barbara is a Tongva elder and co-founder of the Preserving Our Heritage: Native Foods Bank and Restoration Project, an intertribal collaborative project to promote the gathering, harvesting, preparation, and distribution of native foods, seeds, and plants. The goals for the project are to help to connect Native people to the plants and habitats that have sustained their ancestors for thousands of years, foster intergenerational ties, offer an opportunity to be of service to elders in Native communities, and revitalize cultural practices and traditions. I recently wrote a small grant for the project, which was funded by Maren Peterson and Bryan Endress, conservation folks at the Wild Animal Park, who will help the project use these renewed gathering traditions to promote plant conservation and restoration to sustain both cultural traditions and native plant conservation. In addition, the project will advocate traditional management as a viable conservation and restoration strategy.