About a week ago I went to Almeria in the south of Spain to visit my pal, Rafa. He picked me up at night, and so I didn’t see what had happened until the next morning. Then I set out for a walk up the hill to the old ruined Moorish castle, as you do. And I encountered this:
You’re looking at a forest of dead nopal cactus. What the gringos call prickly pear, and the Spanish call la chumbera. Fried to dessicated chunks of black or brown. It’s as if a wildfire had torn up the hillside, and burned only the cactus.
Years ago, when I lived in Tabernas, Malcolm McLaren came to visit: he and his wife were staying in the beautiful hotel in the Alhambra, and Charley Braun and I had driven over to meet him and extol the virtues of the Tabernas desert, where we had a little office supposedly dedicated to the production of feature films. We took McLaren on a tour, which included a scramble up the side of that hill, back when it was thickly garlanded by clusters of spine-covered nopales.
Now Malcolm was a very intelligent and knowledgeable person. He had managed the Sex Pistols, and had just released a wonderful album of his own –Madam Butterfly. But he was not worldly in a desert-oriented sense. As our little party neared the castle walls, I looked back down and saw Malcolm pulling himself up the hill by holding onto the cactus bushes… Mrs. McLaren spent the rest of the afternoon extracting spines from her husband’s hands, as the rest of us marvelled at how many of them there were.
Not any more. The “cactus plague” has blasted all spines and living tissue away.
The disaster began to unfold in Murcia in 2012. Apparently a company making lipstick dyes had imported a large number of cochinilla insects from the Canary Islands; the bugs escaped and immediately swarmed the province’s nopal cactus, planting eggs and killing them. When I visited Tabernas in 2013 the town and the hillside were still verdant with nopales. They are all dead now. Over the last five years the bugs have swept across Andalucia, wiping out nopal populations in Valencia, Albacete, Almeria and Granada.
I saw some stands, sick-looking but surviving, near the coast in Almeria, and from the train north of Guadix. But it is a disaster both ecological and aesthetic. The nopales were an invasive species, brought back by the Conquistadores, but they produced outstanding fruit (and rajas) and were a vision of green beauty in an arid land.
As you can see, the colour version of this history is even sadder than the infrared.