The word is cholla. We pronounce it choya, because the double "l" is a letter in the Spanish alphabet, having the sound of "y." It is cactus of the prickliest kind, sometimes called "jumping" because of its facility for sticking you when you're not looking. Belonging to our Southwestern desert originally, it is widespread now, I am told, in Australia, South America, and other lands.
In dry and hard times, when I go out to burn chollas, loaded down with paraphernalia, I tramp the steep trails in the twilight to the rhythm of the lines from Stephen Vincent Benet: "Fire on the mountains--snakes in the grass. Satan's here a bilin'--Oh, Lordy, let him pass!"
Behind me, following in long, uneven columns, like the children after the Pied Piper, is a line of hungry cows, heifers, calves, and a few bulls. The cattle know I am going out to the only crop left on the place to prepare a meal for them, and they bring along good appetites for the singed cactus. Burning chollas is not easy labor. I do it simply to keep the cattle alive and functioning; and even so I do it only in the last extremity.
The last extremity means that the rains didn't come; there is nothing to eat on the range. The grass-what was left of it-has been scorched to pale, dry ash. The browse is tough and bitter. The desperate cattle are trying to eat the raw cholla-bundles of juicy, gray-green pods encased in masses of whitish inch-long spines as stiff and dangerous as fishhooks. Indeed, like fishhooks, they have little guards at the tip so that they are difficult to yank out of flesh.
When the cows have tried to eat the pods, they come in to water at the corrals unable to eat or drink, their mouths and noses pincushions of white stickers, inside and out. They twist their heads, trying to swig up water in spite of the torturous appendages. I take them on one at a time in a game of "dodge," springing around each critter to get a good swipe at the nose with a long piece of dried sahuaro rib, while she does her best to evade me. Those that have cholla spines inside the mouth, between the lips, or covering-sometimes even piercing-an eye, I must rope and tie to the snubbing post while I work on them with long-nosed pliers.
The cattle, of course, don't understand what is happening. They turn away stunned, perhaps as much with dumb surprise as with distress. All they had wanted was the "apple," the round juicy fruit of the cholla, of which they are very fond. I have eaten them myself when far from water on a hot day. They are watery with a lemon taste. You peel them carefully, minding the tiny stickers, then chew them up and spit out the seeds, which are practically indestructible-no seed ever had more protection.
When it becomes plain during a drought that my cows are reduced to a diet of cactus, I go out in the chollales (cholla thickets) and commence Operation Burn. Previously I will have gone to the village, stocked up on extra kerosene and matches, and on the way home stopped in the vast cholla flats to load the pickup with seasoned stalks of dead cholla knocked down years before by windstorms, or killed by grass fires. These stalks make excellent torches. I pick them long and well dried so they won't weigh much, for I must hold one as a lighted torch in my right hand while carrying a can of kerosene in my left. The innumerable perforations in the trunk of the cholla serve as built-in bellows, and provide perfect ventilation for the blaze. The fibrous wood is strong, yet almost as easy to fire as paper.
When I speak of burning cholla, I do not mean burning live cactus, which would be like trying to burn millions of capsules full of water. In fact I've often remarked that a good way to stop a big fire would be to dump tons of live cholla on it. Even though you can put a match to one and have it flare up like a rocket of flame, the cholla remains as good as ever, with plenty of unburned stickers. The method is to apply a strong blaze to the stubborn spines long enough to singe or soften them---count ten before you move your torch---so the cattle can eat the pods in comfort. To use a common expression, they are crazy about them, especially while they are hot.
In cold weather the burning can be done in daylight hours, if other chores are not too pressing. During the long hot summertime you can stand it only at night-when you have to be on the watch for snakes and red ants and the cactus all over the ground, just waiting for a chance to stab you on the ankles. While the drought was on in 1960-61, I personally burned cholla for over two hundred nights, not missing over half a dozen during all that time and then only because of drizzles of rain or snow. It's quite a sight to see a cholla "tree"-some are taller than a man on horseback-blazing skyward while snowflakes are falling, the huddling cows minding neither flame nor ice crystals, but chomping steadily away for dear life.
In my years of cowpunching in a tough country I have become a Jenny-of-all-trades, but expert in only two: driving a car uphill in deep sand, and burning cholla. This burning is no snap. As with all skills, it takes experience.
All right, Junior, here's your dry cholla stick. Dip the end in kerosene, put a match to it, touch it to that big fat cholla tree, and stand back. See the exploding fire rush through and around and up in a rising upside-down cascade of roaring flame. Watch the burning particles fall to the ground and spread like flaming gas through the rat's nest and other debris piled up under the cholla. Feel the heat! See how bright it is! But even as you look, the raging fire is gone-vanished in thirty seconds or less.
Now take your torch and examine a few hundred of the myriad pods on that cholla. Find one whose stickers are entirely burned away so that a cow can put it into her mouth. You see? Not one!
Now, let's get to work. You take that side of the tree and I'll take this. Let us move slowly over each branch, burning away all the spines that escaped the first fire. Take particular care with the very ends of each cholla pod. They have extra moisture which makes them fire-resistant and able to root wherever they hit the ground. It is at this point that the cow's lips and tongue first touch the reached-for morsel.
As with most interesting cookery, this cannot be done in a hurry. One night two wetbacks lodged at the ranch, and went out to the chollas with us just as railroad hoboes used to go to the woodpile. Inexperienced, they used up the best torchsticks and inordinate amounts of kerosene and energy, while running swiftly over the ridge-side firing up a storm. They made a great show. Next morning after they had left I spent hours-after shutting the cows in the corral until I had finished preparing their repast-reburning the big area they had only half done.
Years ago there was a movement afoot to import a bug from Australia that would destroy cholla and nothing else. Cowmen had tried various methods to eradicate them from the ranges. A wealthy land owner hired two tractors to travel through his cholla flats side by side with a heavy chain between, to knock down the plants. (I don't know what he did to keep every joint that hit the ground from taking root. They do.) The agricultural scientists experimented with injecting poison---probably arsenic---into the plants, which of course killed the plants and also killed every creature that fed on them. Cattlemen have tried letting the grass grow high, and when frost and drought have dehydrated it, setting it on fire. On a windy day, that will burn the chollas enough to give them a few years' setback. It will also burn all the yucca and mesquite, palo verde, and nopal, leaving parched earth wide open to erosion.
A neighbor gave me a scare with one of these disaster measures. About midday in a high wind some friends from the village drove excitedly into my yard yelling: "A forest fire is headed this way!" Forest? We are miles from any forest. Nevertheless I knew what they meant: a range fire, sending smoke billowing high into the sky above the enclosing ridges.
The Vaquero, who had seen everything in his fifty-odd years on the range, happened to be here at the time. Under his direction, we grabbed shovels and wet gunnysacks, and canteens of water for ourselves, and rushed off to fight the fire. It had started on a promontory-like ridge jutting out between two deep canyons, bristling with cholla so thick you couldn't ride through them; but it had ridden the wind off that ridge and started up the slope of the road ridge, which had no cholla on that side but was covered with dry grass, yucca, bushes, and prickly pear-all good forage. It was a hot fire and traveling fast. The villagers and I, watching the Vaquero, threw down our shovels and wet sacks and copied his method, cutting a branch from a mesquite and using it as a broom to sweep the flames back into the blackened area. In two hours of furious labor we surrounded the fire, stopping it a few hundred yards before it reached my fence. I took pride in the big favor we had done my neighbor.
Later, of course, I learned he had purposely set the fire, since the wind was right, to burn down the cactus jungle.
He gave me another good fright when he dropped matches into a cholla thicket on his side of the fence near the boundary line. I topped the western rim of the wide, deep valley on my way home from the city and looked across to the foothills to see a column of gray smoke coming from the exact direction of my house. Needless to say, I split the breeze for home, breaking a spring on the pickup in my haste, and was relieved to find the fire burning itself out on the ridge above the house!
Considering these efforts to rid the range of cholla, one might think we'd all be glad to have the government import the Australian bugs to eat it up. But the organized cattle growers' vote was negative. Too many ranchers had been reduced to feeding cholla in hard times.
Be that as it is, feeding cactus is strictly a drought meaure to be resorted to when other resources are exhausted. As has been said, it is tedious and hazardous work. But there are compensations. It is heartening to see the cattle contentedly and comfortably chomping their suppers. And fire, controlled, is always fascinating. In the spring the pink cholla blossoms look beautiful in the glowing flames. They do not burn when the stickers do, and the smart cows grab for them first. The night air is refreshing after the day's heat. The stars are in their glory. We take recesses to drink cold lemonade and watch for airplanes and satellites moving across the sky. If there are young people present, I show them the constellations and teach them the zodiac.
City folks, incidentally, like cholla wood. They like to gather the dried trunks and branches, and bleach, polish, and varnish them to make table lamps and picture frames to sell to tourists who are intrigued by the peculiar wood. A young German geologist who once came to the ranch was fascinated by the stored pile of cholla sticks, and even begged a piece to send back to Germany. Personally, I can't see the appeal. Cholla plants have caused me too much misery, and I wouldn't have a scrap of the stuff in my house.
Copyright © 1967. The Arizona Board of Regents.