saguaro_cactus_at_sunset__arizonaWhy do we keep things a long time? They display dimensions of identity (religious, socio-political)? They are repositories of memory? Anchors for selfhood? Danny Miller says ‘comfort’…

I’m not saying any of this is wrong, just that, in my experience, some items are just tenacious because they were presents, they fade into the background and  … because they are difficult to fit in a bin.

So, in my late teens I was given a collection of miniature cacti in a ceramic vessel decorated with two classic stereotypes of the North American South-West: the sleeping Mexican beneath a sombrero and a saguaro cactus. A really nice gift and somehow, more than many other things, it has stayed with me.

Dying cactus
Dying cactus

I never gave either much attention to the pot, but the cacti have had a long and cruel life of limited care and limited water for over two decades. Still, I finally grasped the nettle (or cactus) and decided to re-pot them. These are thriving now in their new pots, growing, feeling happy and serving through their prickles to keep my kids from climbing onto a precarious window sill.

I left one, lonely cactus in the original pot. It had never thrived in competition, and now, isolated and alone, it has withered despite attempts at care and attention.

It is not just that. I now have a Mexican friend; three years ago I actually visited Arizona. The sleeping Mexican motif is now, in my mind, more than tacky, it is mildly racist.

The taunting saguaro and the dodgy sleeping Mexican

And then there is the simplified motif of the saguaro – it once had no meaning to me, but seeing this withered micro-cactus, this motif is now mocking me, laughing at my naivety for thinking it would ever grow to the fantastical proportions of the monumental saguaro. This pot is taunting me!

So today has been a day for big decisions. Like Billy Liar…

Most of the cacti have survived and live on in my house. But today, I said adios dying cactus. I also say adios saguaro-that-never-was. And most importantly, I say adios awkwardly and mildly problematic sleeping Mexican! Off to join the ancestors you go.

And what are the ramifications for theories of death, mourning and remembrance for us archaeologists?