Mike Powell is the Daily’s newest correspondent. His column is about living in Arizona.
Shortly after my wife and I bought our house in Tucson, I noticed a strange growth on a paddle cactus in the yard. It was puffy and white and looked a little like wet mold. “A fungus,” one landscaper told me, adding that it would be expensive to get rid of.
Something about the generic phrase “a fungus” gave me pause. A man paid to understand plants should know more proper nouns.
One man’s fungus turns out to be another man’s cocoon for a small parasite called the cochineal, which burrows into cactus pads and, in great numbers and slow speeds, kills them. To the naked eye, male cochineal look like tiny ants, while females, which hang sessile in their cocoons, look like fat gray worms about half the length of my pinky nail.
I brushed the cocoon away with a stick, leaving a streak of dark-red liquid that looked like blood. I later learned that this liquid is carminic acid produced in the female’s abdomen and has been used as clothing dye and colorant since the Maya. In the late sixteenth century, ships carrying cochineal exports from Mexico were raided frequently enough by pirates to get a mention in a John Donne poem (Donne had probably done some raiding himself while at sea with the Earl of Essex). It’s also possible that Betsy Ross used cochineal during the Revolutionary War to color the flag that hung at Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Until around 2012, it was cochineal that gave Starbucks strawberries their pink blush. According to a paper in Proceedings of the Fourth International Congress on Cactus Pear and Cochineal, cochineal farmed for dye can be killed four ways, including asphyxiation in a sealed plastic bag. It takes, I have read, about seventy thousand cochineal to make a pound of dye.
What poetry this all was, to have the guts of some irrepressible bug produce a color this beautiful, and to think that under the silent heat of the desert these little worms were pumping away like hungry babies.
After I read about the cochineal, I felt like I saw them everywhere. Scraping them away became a kind of hobby. In stolen moments—Sunday morning with coffee or Wednesday night after my son had gone to sleep, coming in with groceries or walking out for work—I’d put in a few minutes, sometimes many more. Poor guy, I imagine my neighbors thinking. Him and his wife and that adorable crying child. He probably doesn’t get out much. And they’re right, time has made me a cartoon of my circumstances: young dad, in the yard with his stick and his little bugs.
There is something not just about the heat in Arizona but the dryness that can make it seem uninhabitable. Walking into a July afternoon is like opening an oven. It is frequently over a hundred degrees for months on end. And because there is no humidity, there is almost no sweat to signal that your body is reacting to the temperature. Not an August goes by without some visitor from Germany or Columbus passing out fifty yards from their car, short-circuited by dehydration. Some locals keep pot holders in their desks to open car doors after work.
Heat like this feels less like weather than an instrument of sterilization, capable of killing off all but the most highly evolved and/or those in possession of air-conditioning. There is something ancient about it, but also something chic and modern. Like the boxy glass houses you see out on Gates Pass, the aridity feels stark, disinfected, resistant to the kind of wet, molting life that breeds in more humid climates, under piles of leaves and in untended armpits. And yet here are the cochineal, this reminder of a more Biblical fecundity, plump and waxy and dripping from our cactus in weird shapes like Spanish moss.
I turned thirty-four last week and have made a project out of acclimating myself to situations over which I have no control. The cochineal come and the cochineal go, chipping away like bureaucrats. The other day, my son, who is just shy of two, joined me with his own little stick, whacking it against the pads. You dream you can protect your children from your obsessions; you can’t. A Phoenix-area blogger and gardener named Aiyana points out that cochineal are in fact prey to ladybugs, but you don’t see many ladybugs around here, and even if you bought some, “they usually just take off, and you just can’t herd ladybugs.”
Mike Powell has written for Grantland, Pitchfork, the Ringer, Rolling Stone, and other places in print and online. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.