Official definitions hold weak in the hearts of humans. And so Sardinians are discordant and talkative about what is and is not actually Sardinian. The palm tree, embroidery, square buildings - each proud, true native argues passionately for and against their inclusion. So what does it take to earn that certificate of belonging? Survival? Insistence? Only time? I, for my part, know that my children will continue to be “the Americans” all of their lives, but most definitely also their children, and most probably even their grandchildren and, perhaps, even a new name will be created - the Atzori americanusu? - to distinguish them from the other (native) family trees.
Perhaps the prickly pear does not reflect on its own particular status quite so much as I do on mine. It’s known that it was brought from the west on one of the many, romantic bounty ships that were sent back by the colonizers. Ships full of today’s indispensable coffee beans, sweet tobacco leaves, deep indigo, tomato seeds, perfumed allspice, cocoa beans, wild rice. The differences between the prickly pear cactus and any Old World plant in its aspect, structure and growing pattern assured its early success as a marvel in botanical gardens. But surely the prickly pear’s hardiness was its saving grace - wherever it drops, it grows - and it quickly spread from Spain to Italy through to the Middle East.
Most probably the plant arrived on the shores of Sardinia thanks to migrating birds who ate the fruits of the spiny plants and then nonchalantly dribbled their seed-filled droppings up and down this island. The large green pads are not actually leaves, but a sort of branch from which tiny leaves are dropped early on, circling the spot where the decisive white spines will eventually grow. The springtime flowers sprout red and yellow, perching conspicuously on the simplistic, clumsy structure like little ruffled birds. Underneath the flower, the fruit begins to swell bulbous and spiny. It grows throughout the summer, turning into a deeper, burnished orangish-red as it ripens. The days begin to shorten and the relentless heat of summertime fades. And the day after the first big storm has washed away the majority of its infinite minuscule spines, the fruit is ready to be picked.
A mediocre prickly pear is a useless fruit. The seeds are large and hard and tightly packed together, so that it’s a fruit that you mash in your mouth rather than chew. It takes care to peel them without being stuck with the spines. The taste of even an excellent fruit is subtle and, though uniquely flowery and sweet, is no sort of juicy explosion. It is quite a bit of work for a quiet reward, which could be the reason that so few families grow them. There are Sardinian sweets that call for the prickly pear (the Moorish fig, directly translated from Sardinian), and some people crave them as a sensorial reminder of their youth. But it's easy for the season to pass without much fuss.
Regardless, it is impossible to go very far on the island without seeing the plant, because its most popular recent use in Sardinia had nothing at all to do with edibility. In 1390, Eleonora D’Arborea - the one and only Sardinian ruler in the island’s written history - wrote a long legal code, the Carta de Logu, in which she proclaimed that any person who fenced in a piece of land would be recognized as its legal owner. The island had, by then, been ravaged and divided for centuries and the noble aim of the Carta de Logu was to unite the many different factions and strengthen the island’s economy under one arm of law. (Over six hundred years later, this is still the aim of many an independence movement.) The Carta de Logu had many fascinating passages, including an extremely avant-garde section dedicated to the protection of women, however this particular law succeeded mainly in consolidating land-ownership among the few that had the means to quickly build stone walls and enclose the best pieces of farmland. Fortunately, stone walls are stunning little pieces of manual labor, because they are, to this day, a fixture of the Sardinian countryside.
With the arrival of the prickly pear, most probably in the 1600’s, the Sardinians began to use them on top of lower stone walls, halving the work involved and letting nature keep man and beast out of their fields. In less urgent situations, the pads were planted directly into the ground. Even today, many property lines are marked solely by the ubiquitous prickly pear which, left alone, quickly transforms into a spiny sculpture of grotesque dimensions.
It is a worthy lesson to us new arrivals. The prickly pear, a gnarled and under-appreciated thing, after all, has found its place. It has remained stubbornly itself in form and in substance. It has adapted a little. But with tenacity and perseverance, it has made itself a part of the landscape; it has found its happy home.