Technology and Cactus Management

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A few years ago, when he was Sun Microsystems’ Chief Engineer, Mike Splain gave a talk about his job. (We at Sun often heard from our remarkable technical leaders – see one talk I caught on tape: Ivan Sutherland Speaking On Leadership.) On this occasion, I remember Mike asking us to imagine that he had a spray bottle in each hand: one contained fertilizer, and the other weed killer. His job as Chief Engineer was to know which bottle to use and how much to spray. That is, to know which technical projects to encourage and which to kill.

I was thinking of Mike and his job yesterday when my husband John and I took apart a huge prickly pear cactus (Opuntia). Long ago, there was a prickly pear farm in our area of Willow Glen (San Jose, California). There are still many of these massive spiny plants along the bank of the Guadalupe River where we live. Three had grown up next to John’s workshop and model train room. In fact, they grew so large and heavy that they damaged the roof and threatened anyone walking on that side of the building. John wanted them dead. He generously consented to allow me to save the parts furthest from the walkway.

My cactus management tools are three:

  • A long serrated bread knife
  • Barbecue tongs
  • A bow saw (for big branches)

Add to these good gloves and a big bucket and you too can deconstruct a cactus twice as big and older than you are.

Like a technical project, prickly pears have some tender shoots which can either be left or easily cut off with a bread knife (depending on what direction they are headed). There are also huge fibrous trunks, more than a hand-width wide – like projects that have been growing and gathering resources for years that need a sharp-toothed bow saw to cut them out. The tongs are to keep the cactus manager from being skewered too often by her work.

Taking one section at a time, John and I removed all of the cactus parts headed toward the house.  What remains can grow for a few years before needing further attention.  Several hundred pounds of prunings went down the bank where they will in time root and build up my cactus fence.

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Images Copyright 2012 by Katy Dickinson

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