Scott and I play another game in the valley, a reading game. Whether on the road, or walking through a friendly stretch of land, our eyes interrogate the earth and its inhabitants for coded information. What has been touched, and why, or what left conspicuously untouched. What is the scale of things, what touched by machines or by hand, what an accident. This game, the single rule of which is that the landscape is legible, has revealed much to us, and directed us to the people, farms, ranches, and questions that made this journey possible. On the edge of Ramon's acre grew a kind of living fence of broad green paddle cactus. Cactus, because it can and will grow without water, is at worst a weed, I thought, or at best, decorative. The branches reached uneven heights and the top and sides of each paddle were heavily scarred-clear evidence of human knife work, of harvest.
“What's this?” I asked.
“I'll show you,” Ramon said, and unfolded his pocket knife. He carefully inspected the paddles, explaining his actions as he went along. This is too big, he'd say, or this is too small. “What you want is these soft bright green paddles, like this one,” Ramon cut off a pliant paddle at its base, deftly shaved the fur-like thorns off the face and edges of the plant, and cut Scott and me each a thin, glistening slice.
“They're just like green beans,” he said, and Scott and I put the oozing, gelatinous slices in our mouth and began to chew and make noises. They were nothing like green beans, but they were refreshingly sour, and we both reached for another slice. The curiosity was pleasant, and the taste and texture not unpleasant: more data was needed. I began to get a sense for their virtues, and imagined sauteeing them quick and hot with sliced serrano peppers and strips of skirt steak, or pureeing them and adding them to a soup of pinto beans and ham hock.
“What do you make with them?” Scott inquired, on a similar train of thought. Ramon seemed a bit lost by the question and talked about omelets and frying them in pans with the vagueness of a man who has been banned from the kitchen for several decades. This was our first encounter with the half-wild, half-cultivated nopales cactus. We would meet it again.
“Where does it grow?” I asked, wondering rather forlornly if it could survive a Kansas winter and ugly up a couple of hedge-apple cluttered ditches on my land back home, but Ramon's answer surprised me.
“It grows,” he said with unwavering eyes on mine, “wherever people are hungry.”