There's a man who's been out sailing
In a decade full of dreams
And he takes her to a schooner
And he treats her like a queen
Bearing beads from California
With their amber stones and green
He has called her from the harbor
He has kissed her with his freedom
He has heard her off to starboard
In the breaking and the breathing
Of the water weeds
While she was busy being free

There's a man who's climbed a mountain
And he's calling out her name
And he hopes her heart can hear three thousand miles
He calls again
He can think her there beside him
He can miss her just the same
He has missed her in the forest
While he showed her all the flowers
And the branches sang the chorus
As he climbed the scaley towers
Of a forest tree
While she was somewhere being free

There's a man who's sent a letter
And he's waiting for reply
He has asked her of her travels
Since the day they said goodbye
He writes "Wish you were beside me
We can make it if we try"
He has seen her at the office
With her name on all his papers
Through the sharing of the profits
He will find it hard to shake her
From his memory
And she's so busy being free

There's a lady in the city
And she thinks she loves them all
There's the one who's thinking of her
There's the one who sometimes calls
There's the one who writes her letters
With his facts and figures scrawl
She has brought them to her senses
They have laughed inside her laughter
Now she rallies her defenses
For she fears that one will ask her
For eternity
And she's so busy being free

There's a man who sends her medals
He is bleeding from the war
There's a jouster and a jester and a man who owns a store
There's a drummer and a dreamer
And you know there may be more
She will love them when she sees them
They will lose her if they follow
And she only means to please them
And her heart is full and hollow
Like a cactus tree
While she's so busy being free


Lyrics submitted by Nelly

Cactus Tree Lyrics as written by Joni Mitchell

Lyrics © RESERVOIR MEDIA MANAGEMENT INC

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Cactus Tree song meanings
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11 Comments

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  • +2
    General Comment
    I can't believe there aren't more comments on this song; This is my favourite Joni song, and really does describe Joni's internal conflict which fuelled so much of her early material. 'And she's so busy being free...' - Joni always felt she 'needed' to travel, and this compulsion made it hard for her to hold down relationships, as she was too 'busy being free'. 'And her heart is full and hollow, like a cactus tree' - this beautiful metaphor seems to describe the frustration she felt at herself for being so closed off to others (like a cactus, which is not a hollow plant). The people she mentions in this song may well have been real people. The alternative is that I am totally wrong, and this song is a purely allegorical take on the follies of youth and young love. This would be consistent with other songs from the 'Song to A Seagull' album, where her writing was more imaginative and allegorical (Nathan La Franeer, Marcie, Pirates of Penance). This was before her songwriting became more confessional in 'Ladies of the Canyon' and 'Blue'. So yeah...I'm confused.
    funkadelic101on July 27, 2005   Link
  • +1
    My Opinion
    It's interesting that this Song that is all about taking off and wandering is echoed almost a decade later on the Album 1976, "Hejira" which is mostly songs about leaving behind past entanglements to follow a new road, these Lyrics pop-Up: "I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel/ to wash off the dust/ and slept on the strange pillows of my Wanderlust..." I doubt she'll ever stop being busy being Free!
    pen64on September 18, 2011   Link
  • 0
    General Comment
    This is one of my favorite Joni songs. i think she captures young love so perfectly. the feeling that you want to love yet you are so busy living life that you dont want to comprimise what you have and settle down. Whenever i listen to this song i realize that love will find you while you are just living life, being free.
    hippyathearton April 22, 2003   Link
  • 0
    General Comment
    There's a lady in the city And she THINKS she loves them all what is love but the strongest poision and medicne of them all. Now she rallies her defenses For she fears that one will ask her For eternity And she's so busy being free freedom is a lonely road.
    GirlOnLSDon April 10, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General Comment
    amazing, beautiful song.
    noyeson May 15, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General Comment
    I think this song is about being so in love but also not being able to compromise oneself in the name of this love. Joni states, "And she's so busy being free" to note that she is too involved in her own life and is unsure of how to open up completely. Her love for him is seen as restrictive and a barrier to her own mind and freedom. I think that the key point that Joni makes in this song is that love involves the freeing of self with another person and being able to feel freedom while still attached to another. Love should not be a barrier. She is unable to feel the depth of this love as her heart is dull and hollow like a cactus tree. She is putting up yet another barrier by feeling this love for him when really she needs to learn how to be free with another person. This is the truest of love as well as freedom - it is the undoing of one another that reaches the deepest emotions and states of being: love and freedom and how to reconcile the two seeming extremes.
    beforeromancedieson July 23, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General Comment
    I think she speaks about freedom, and in certain way you are right. Being a woman, a musician and a painter... Joni had to live every angle of that word. I think that the song is a kind of confession and a picture of a harmfull loneliness, the sad part of been free. It's about her and not at same time. Joni lived as she preached, the cactus woman on the song lived her freedom hurting the people that loved her... I don't know, but everytime I listen to that song I realize how difficult is life and love... I even shoot a short film inspired on that song-
    astridronderoon August 08, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General Comment
    I listen to this song when I feel angry at this certain woman I know, who loved me and was loved by so many, but broke so many hearts because she just could not settle for an ordinary life. No one is right and no one is wrong, but love so often hurts. Still, one wonders all that she missed, being so busy being free.
    altbobon July 22, 2008   Link
  • 0
    My Opinion
    I really think this is one of the best poems to come out of popular music. I suspect this song was inspired by the newfound sexual and general freedom experienced by women in the USA from the early 60's through effective contraception becoming available and onset of more liberal attitudes. This young woman now has the freedom to experience multiple relationships without being tied down to marriage "for eternity". The poor guys did not get it: they long for a more permanent (posessive?) relationship, and they suffer. This dichotomy of expectations make this lyric so haunting and emotive. The conclusive metaphor of her heart being "full and hollow like the cactus tree" can be interpreted variously: e.g. (1) (positively) she had a full social/sexual life, but not static; in fact fluid and mobile (2) (negative) her life seems full, but ultimately without substance.
    jakiewieton September 07, 2009   Link
  • 0
    General Comment
    An excerpt from this song was used in the rough draft of Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, before it was replaced by a Richard Nixon quote.
    JohnnyLurgon July 20, 2011   Link

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