The Barrel Cactus


I was visiting San Diego, and walking along a cliffside nature trail in a protected area of the coastline with my partner. It was gorgeous; there was a salt breeze. The coastal scrub smelled herbal and sharp; my senses were awake. We came upon a small sign.

It was one of those ground-mounted labels designed to educate people walking along the trail– various plants were marked, and their attributes, relation to their habitat, and protected status were discussed. I like this kind of thing; I like that we, as a species, take the time to care.

The sign we approached was for a barrel cactus. Barrel cactuses, you’re probably familiar with. They’re often used in high-end landscaping, but in the wild, they’re more rare. They’re big, round, plump balls of juicy succulent covered in spines– exactly what they sound like. I believe this particular sign was for a San Diego Barrel Cactus– endangered in California now, though common elsewhere.

When I came upon the sign I looked around for the cactus– I couldn’t immediately see it, so I assumed it must be smaller, or maybe hidden behind other brush that had grown up. As one often does with these signs, I spent some time scanning the bush for the thing the label referred to.

I came to the slow and painful realization that the barrel cactus was not there. 

This sign referred to a barrel cactus that had once been there, but was now gone. Maybe there were others in the area (I didn’t see any), but this particular barrel cactus, the one that had inspired the little label on the ground, had vanished. The label was there by itself.

I immediately became very sad. It was a deeper, more immediate, and more painful sadness than I have experienced in a long time. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. I think my partner rubbed my shoulder; I can’t remember.

It used to be that when I heard the word “biodiversity,” it was an abstract concept to me. It sounded like a word scientists used, that referred to some kind of technical and quantifiable aspect of the natural environment– ”the level of biodiversity,” et cetera. But as I was struggling to come up with language to describe how I felt about encountering this nonexistent barrel cactus, that word kept coming up.

As I explored the world in the following months, I started noticing it everywhere. One of my favorite things in the world to do is to drive up the California coast with music on– to just absorb the impossible wonder as one moves through Big Sur, then Marin, then the Lost Coast. I was taking a road trip north with my partner and I started to realize that so many of the things I loved about that experience were a result of this thing, this “biodiversity.”

The cliffs, the redwoods, the underbrush, the vultures, the dolphins– it was all working together to create this incredible movie that I got to live inside. It all unfolded and rippled around me; it all heaved with life and change and it created these amazing places and things that I got to experience, these hikes and drives and visions.

During that trip we visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is just an extraordinary human achievement. When I went there as a kid, with my family, I really didn’t fully appreciate it. I hadn’t the mental equipment; the context. It’s a former fish cannery (located on Cannery Row, naturally), that’s been converted into a center for education and conservation. A place that used to chew through sea life by the metric ton is now a church dedicated to preserving biodiversity and teaching us how important it is.


I stood in front of the movie-screen-sized aquarium wall and I watched a vast flock silvery mackerel swoop and dive and part and re-merge around an enormous ocean sunfish. The complexity was breathtaking, the beauty was otherworldly. It was like watching living light. And I was shaken by how, nested inside that, was the complexity of each creature– not just the dance of the fish but the dance of the blood and cells inside the fish; the whole dance of evolutionary history that allowed me to be standing there, witnessing this beauty– just like on the Pacific Coast Highway.

It’s incredibly delicate. And it can go away. Just like that barrel cactus did.

Wallace Stegner once said, about American National Parks:

“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."

After these experiences I tend to agree with him. We are primates; we live inside nature. So it takes a special kind of extraordinary primate to poke his head up and say, “look at all this– this is special. I must not only look after my own survival; I must look after the survival of this whole system. I see the beauty in this and I must preserve it.”

But this is what we have done. It is god-like, or maybe just godly. We write poetry about nature in an attempt to capture the whole thing. We photograph sunsets at the beach, beautiful birds, redwood trees. We really do care; we feel such strong emotions in these settings, and our inner emotional lives and the emotional and creative lives of the entire history of our civilization are informed by these images and feelings. We speak in terms of mighty rivers, of gentle lambs, of strong and green trees and of deep oceans filled with warm life. This language arises from our blood, but we are aware of it, we value it, we try to save it.

This may be the thing that makes the human race most worthwhile. It may be that life produced a species such as us so that it could consciously and deliberately preserve and care for itself.


It’s important also to recognize that the goal is “biodiversity”; this must frame the issue. Because it’s easy to say that nature is oblivious to us– that if we bomb ourselves back to the stone age, either new life (a cockroach civilization?) will arise in our place, or the universe will spin on, indifferent. I used to believe that the world didn’t care about us and that nature was invincible; that no matter how much we destroyed or polluted, life would find a way.

Maybe. But we can look around at the oceans or rainforests and we can observe incredibly complex, delicate ecosystems that, like the barrel cactus, might disappear. So it’s not a question of “ultimate” value– maybe the universe wouldn’t care if all these species died; if the earth fell into the sun. But do we? Could we live with ourselves if the glory of the Pacific Coast or the wonder of the humpback whale just didn’t exist anymore?

By way of illustration, the following is an XKCD comic compares all earth’s land mammals by weight. I find the results to be pretty shocking.


This makes the picture abundantly clear. We can talk all we want to about how invincible nature is, but unless the only kind of animal we value is the cow, we’re doing a pretty bad job of ensuring the biodiversity of the planet. And if we lose that, we lose the poetry too. Other people will come upon more empty signs; labels for things that no longer exist. When future generations write about the speed of the wolf or the majesty of the elephant, they will be referring to non-existent creatures as we now refer to the dinosaurs. The last remaining male northern white rhinoceros died in March of 2018.

Perhaps more shockingly, entire environments, like the jungle or the redwood forest, could go missing. Our fantasies, our imaginations, will lose their playgrounds of wonder. Even science fiction writers need tentacles and towering trees. Not to mention all the other resources or medicines we’ll lose; things we haven’t even discovered yet.

As we went walking through Cannery Row we came upon a dilapidated wooden building tucked away between the tourist-trap indoor malls. It was much older than the surrounding structures, and as we walked along the side alley we saw big, abandoned concrete bins out back. There were some plaques describing what the building was.


Apparently, it had been the seaside lab and specimen-harvesting facility of Ed Ricketts, a biologist local to Monterey, a friend of Steinbeck’s, and author of Between Pacific Tides, a pioneering study of intertidal ecology. Ricketts was particularly interested in interrelationships– ecology was a young field then, and he was one of the earlier researchers to view creatures within the context of their environment and their connection to the other organisms around them, rather than just as peculiar and isolated examples of life.

Rickets also had a broad philosophical view, sprung from this holistic perspective, that had a profound effect on the artists, writers, and thinkers he kept company with– a group that included Steinbeck, yes, but also people like Henry Miller and mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell said in an interview:

"I was five years without a job. I went out to California looking for one and settled down in Carmel, where I met John Steinbeck, who was also broke. That was an important moment for me, especially getting to know his collaborator, Ed Ricketts, who's the doctor in his novels.

Ricketts was an intertidal biologist and I had been interested in biology from my school days. Talking with Ricketts, I realized that between myth and biology there is a very close association. I think of mythology as a function of biology: it's a production of the human imagination, which is moved by the energy of the organs of the body operating against each other.”

Campbell understood through Ricketts that poetry, myth, and the human imagination are, at their root, products of nature. This is a truth that impacted profoundly upon me during the course of this trip and over the last year or so. I saw that it would be very difficult to draw inspiration in a world where these infinitely complex systems no longer existed. I looked at the tiny, colorful seahorse swimming through the aquarium’s water and saw a pulsating organ in my own creative body that I would be loathe to amputate.


Every part of the system is so complex, and so connected to other parts of the system, and it all took so long to develop, that we can’t do what we would with a machine and simply put in a replacement part. As Randall Munroe might say: our usual approach is useless here. Next time an ocean sunset or a bluejay or a tiger takes your breath away, I encourage you to contemplate this, and to consider where art comes from in the first place. Human diversity is not exempt from this– even the complexity of our inspiring, exciting, and diverse cities, at this point, require sustainable conservation in the face of massive inequality. Our vast culture cannot run on toxic fumes and homelessness.

It’s hard to write about ecology without steeping oneself in cliche and melodrama, I realize. But it will be even harder to write about barrel cacti when there are no more barrel cacti. Human beings can create many marvelous and complex things, but we are not yet wizards enough to refill that empty space next to that label.