When a Prickly Fruit Becomes the Heartbeat of a Community

Recollections, Lamentation and Reminiscence

Lamiae zeriouh


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My identity is all-embracing. It embraces my hometown trees rustling, the birds visiting my window each morning, and the prickly pear cactus picked, and served each summer late evenings. Once these constituents had become part and parcel of Me, I sorrowfully witnessed the gradual death of the prickly pear cactus.


The Symbolic Resonance

I always regard the natural landscape around us as part of us. The soil has an irresistible aromatic scent. It penetrates the soul, and gives a sense of ‘life-li-hood’. Every detail about nature serves to add a special meaning to our life. It even serves to strengthen the communal bonds between the members of the community. The way nature is unstoppably giving wonders to humans, and the way the latter take care of it in return matters. This reciprocal relationship signifies the intimate relationship existing between us (Humans) and our surroundings (Nature). The sweetly deliberate sense of living lies in the attachment to and identification with Nature. Such a sweet sense arises when we try to fully feel each moment spent near the soil, the plants, trees, and the land. The land is our very real home, for we are going to be buried under it or better to say sheltered by it at the end of the day. 

The homeness I feel whenever I visit certain NATURAL picturesque landscapes is ineffable. It is the only space where my soul becomes naked as well as reconciled with its blemishes and imperfections. I do meet many young people who advocate for the urbanization of rural life. I also meet some others who are proud of the cutting-edges of robotization. I do respect each one’s stand, but I would like to raise an ‘if’: If each rural space becomes urbanized, and each human feature becomes robotized, where is the uniqueness of civilization in this case, where is the land’s farmer in me and you in this case. Ostensibly, robotization has taken over every life domain of humanity. Nevertheless, a machine or robot cannot understand the land, nor have the pleasure to be sheltered beneath the land’s soil one day.

As Thoreau (1854) puts it in his Walden masterpiece, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived….I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…” This profound quotation epitomizes why our intimacy with nature is sine qua non. It is only through such intimate bond that we realize who we are, we explore the many layers of Living, and we make sense of the life symphony of living itself.

In my case, I was raised in a small rural town located in NADOR, near the village of ARKMAN, Morocco. Spending my childhood in that countryside has been a pleasure I carry in my heart wherever I move now in my adulthood. The small town, in the very north-eastern point of Morocco, is inhabited by an Amazigh community named ‘ISHBTHANEN’. Throughout my upbringing, I used to see a specific prickly fruit growing, and flourishing each summer. Though there is no irrigation means— scarce water sources in my hometown— this issue has not impeded, nor affected the growth and the flourishment of the prickly pear cactus. It just springs up each summer while the whole people waiting for that very moment, vehemently. It might seem that it is just a plant which is naturally prickly. However, its utility goes beyond such prickliness. It is a plant that equates the poor with the rich since it self-sustains its growth. It does not need irrigation or manure expenses to be productive. Instead, it draws its energy and productivity from the sun or from its soulmate season called summer. People In rural areas wait passionately for the summer season to enjoy the abundant fruitfulness of the prickly pear cactus. 

I used to witness the very jubilation my grandmother experienced when the harvesting of the fruit neared. I used to contemplate her picking up the fruits, asking her to peel them for me, and then relishing their irresistible flavor. Those very moments have signified communion, intimacy, and glory for the whole inhabitant of my hometown. At that juncture, casual conversations around the neighborhood have particularly been central to the non/productivity of the prickly fruit, whether there was such abundance or not. Some engaged in conversations about the lateness of the harvest (why is it so?). Others just exchanged talks about how much they picked per day, whether was it one pail two pails, or more.

Such conversations on an everyday basis by all means strengthen the communal bonds. The prickly pear cactus has then become not only an edible fruit, but a fertile subject for open talks as well as a symbol of communal euphoria and pride. In other words, a signifier which stands for many signified (s); conversations, bonds, intimacy, pride, community, jubilation, and so on. The signification of the prickly fruit has gone far beyond into symbolizing or signifying a whole socio-cultural identity. The rituals of picking it up each summer, engaging in inquiry-like about its yearly productivity, and serving it in familial or communal gatherings are profoundly suggestive. For some people, the prickly pear cactus is nothing, but a flavorful fruit. For some others, it is a giving and caring plant that fairly feeds both the poor and the rich. Still, some rely on its abundance, and market price to gain a sort of financial wherewithal to help themselves. The identifications with the prickly plant vary based on each one’s need or perspective. For me, it is all that is just considered in addition to a symbol of a communal aura, memory construction, and re-connection with the natural landscape.

The Trauma of the Decline: Coping with the Loss

None, I surmise, has ever thought that the prickly fruit which resisted the yearly scorching heat in long summer days would be afflicted by a fatal disease, including me. I have never imagined such a plague and calamity happening to the dear prickly fruit. However, the unimaginable catastrophe turned at certain juncture to be imaginable, painfully unfathomable, unbearable, and even unerasable. 

The outbreak of the plague on the prickly pear cactus fields in my hometown, and other urban areas across Morrocco occurred in 2021. It was reported that the plague was caused by a Cochineal insect which spread a cochineal dye upon the whole body of the cactus plant. An insect that sickens the cactus plant, and weakens its capacity to produce the fruits.  Whether the spread of this disease precipitated due to climate change or other environmental issues is still enigmatic. However, some studies have suggested that even the life of the cactus plant is endangered and prone to extinction because of the climate change (Zhong,2022). 

It is saddening to say that the spread of the disease has not only disfigured and defaced the flowery view of the plant, but also sterilized its production, and even demolished the bonds established throughout decades between the community and the natural landscape. I observed the trauma of the decline within my hometown. I saw the fruits withering away.  I witnessed the sorrowfully mourning eyes of my grandmother once conjuring up the disease afflicted the prickly fruit. I even noticed such unanswerable inquiries radiated from the eyes of the surrounding community members. The Why and the How behind the death of the cactus plant may be scientifically explicable, yet socio-culturally inexplicable. Though some of the old sagacious people tried to explain and pacify the atmosphere their own way, no explanation has seemed satisfactory since the strong attachment to and identification with the cactus plant has been rooted in the collective consciousness of the whole community. 

The disease inflicted upon the dear cactus plant has prolonged for a long time, nearly two years. The achingly step-by-step scenery of withering was unbearable. It was not only a physical withering per se, it was deep down a psychological withering. It was a loss of a significant recollection in ones’ complex identity, a loss of genuine smiles, intimate gatherings, and free conversations, in other words, ‘a loss of a momentum’: the momentum of urban lifestyle. Witnessing the many memories constructed and cherished with the cactus plant vaporizing was terribly bitter to swallow. Though the cactus plant was doubtlessly dying, there was a sort of ray of hope. The hope that the catastrophe might be just a transient plague wave, and it might be fixed with splashing chemical manure attempts. However, this pacifying probability was just believed in, and adopted by the collective consciousness of my community as to adapt with such agonizing loss. Because of the terrible proliferation of the Cochineal insect within my hometown, the situation became further unbearable.

Seeing the dear cactus plant dying due to the over-spread of the Cochineal insect was unendurable. The administrational decision was made then to eradicate the cactus plant, that is, to uproot it using machinery as to avoid such worse scenarios of deterioration or such human infection. The vivid space of the flowery plant turned to be a graveyard-like space. No sense of life was anymore outstanding, only wreckage. The prickly cactus plant just died, and the aura of the ‘life-li-hood’ emanating from its presence died too. No chemical manure has been useful in rescuing the physical presence of it. Only the recollection of such intimacy with the plant which has survived as well as remained present and viable within me till the moment.  

Such viable recollection is a part and parcel or a constituent of each member’s identity in my hometown.  It is the infant of a strong bond or an intimate rapport with the natural landscape. Be they individual recollections or collective ones, they are all suggestive and fueling.  The nostalgic sense fueled within my profound whenever I conjure up a talk about the prickly cactus plant is overwhelming. The extinction of the prickly cactus plant has been traumatic for each member alike. It has been traumatic for me to not have those sweet roundtable gatherings in which the abundance of the dear fruit engendered family union. It has been saddening for the old people, including my grandmother, to have no longer friendly conversations with their neighbors about the flowery view of the cactus. It has been even further agonizing for farmers to forget about any profitable trading made out of the abundant harvesting production of the cactus plant. These disparate traumas experienced because of the death of the prickly pear cactus signify the varyingly ramified identifications held with the natural landscape. It reveals how far our souls are deeply connected with what is around, and how far an extrinsic tragedy inflicted upon nature becomes an intrinsically collective and communal trauma. Such socio-cultural and psychological ramifications of the prickly pear cactus tragedy make it crystal clear that ‘our identities are all-embracing, for sure, all-embracing’.

Lamiae zeriouh

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Ad Meliora’ is my motto since I always strive to seek better things. The pivotal aspect of my life that has profoundly shaped my identity is my interest in and passion for writing. Since my early childhood, the pen and paper were my affable companions in times of joy and setbacks. The genre that holds me captive the most is poetry. I like to write about Nature, Life Experiences, Hope, Courage, and Spirituality.