The Stowaway with Promise
The package from Tesuque arrived in typical disrepair–oversized, thin-walled, bulging from inside with bags of heavy seeds, plastered with blocks of stamps, the address scrawled against the brown cardboard, barely readable, the whole wrapped around and around with thin strapping tape. Thank goodness for the tape. Plopping the box down on the yellow table in my office, I cut away the lid to reveal the contents, seeds glowing with life, dulled only by the opaque recycled plastic bags. No labels, no paperwork, no packing, barely fastened. By the grace of goodness the Tobacco and Nettle seeds had not spilled (the intermixing of these would have been a disaster!), but the Anasazi Cave Beans and the Hopi Black Dye Sunflower bags had both split apart, and the seeds were intermixed at the bottom of the box. I sighed. It would be a table separation effort, but it would be worth it. I was very glad to have the seed. Especially the sunflower, as I had not grown any myself! We sorted out the seeds, repackaged them properly, did our standard germ tests, found all the seeds to be very much alive, dispensed them into paper packets, and as is our custom, moved them out to the peeps. I held back a nice bag of the Sunflowers, planning on growing them out the next spring. But then, I got a call from Emygdio at Tesuque–he’d forgotten to keep any of the sunflower seeds for his own production and needed them back. So I sent him my bag, and by the time I got around to pulling a few packets for myself to plant, they were sold out! Once again, I sighed. I’d have no experience growing this cool Sunflower, no clambering up on a stepladder to stare into its smiling face, no photo for the website. Flash forward to June. I found myself squatting out in the field at the new gardens in downtown Williams, planting the Anasazi Cave Beans in a rich hill. Lo and behold there was something black in the bag, nestled in among the beans. It was a single seed of the Hopi Black Dye Sunflower! I held it on the end of my finger, jet black, pointed, with just the suggestion of plumpness that promised life, a small one that had slipped into the bean bag as we table separated, a stowaway, as it were, with promise. Reverently, I planted it right in the middle of the circle of beans, then firmed it in. OMMMM! I had to leave the rest of the planting of that garden in the able hands of “Chu” and his helpers. They would put in the corn, the tomatoes, the peppers. I had to hurry off to Memphis, and would miss the fun. Unbeknownst to me, they decided also to plant a long row of Fat Mama Sunflowers. Upon returning from Memphis, I hurried out to the new gardens. The black soil had been moistened by a cycle of late rains. The corn was up, the tomato and pepper plants were kicking in, the circles of beans were like hippies at a festival, hands held aloft, circling in the sun, faces glowing with light, sweating in the sun. And there, there in the center of one of the circles of beans, was a lovely sunflower, taller than the beans, thick stemmed, leaves engaged in glorious photosynthesis, smiling to me like the queen she was. I had to look twice. Yes, I recognized her. My heart jumped with newfound love. However, as seems to be the way of the really pretty woman, she immediately posed a quandary. She would certainly hybridize with the Fat Mama Sunflowers. This would be unacceptable. It took me about a week to get up the gumption to transplant her back up to my other farm, where there were no other Sunflowers growing. I had to prepare a bed, and truth be known I was procrastinating, as I didn’t want to disturb her. Plunging the spade deeply about 5 inches from her stout stalk, I pried back, and her roots came out in a large clump, intact. As gently as possible, nested in a flat of coir, I drove her back up the road and carefully introduced her to her new bed, watered her in, surrounded her with compost and love. Nonetheless, she sulked. The next day a group came out for a garden tour and I demonstrated what one does in this situation, snipping off the bigger, lower leaves that were already yellowing and withering, leaving the bright green, turgid leader to carry the life force of the plant on high. The crowd watched in concern as I snipped off more than I wanted to. I explained that it would be best, in the end. And it was. She recovered from that day forward and quickly asserted herself as the queen among the other plants that went into that bed–the Tulsi, the Spilanthes, the Onions, the Shiso. She ruled them all, and at the time of this photo, well, you can see how robust her bud. Time will only tell what the flower will look like, but it seemed time to tell this story, as I want to share the anticipation. It will keep us all awake, and awakening, my friends, is good!
The Stowaway with Promise
Tetherow Road runs up past our downtown gardens and into the hills, a sleepy one-lane affair overarched by madrones and pillared by pines. Quite a few folks live along Tetherow, and I thought it would be fun to plant a roadside bed full of bright red “Empress of India” nasturtiums, to enliven people’s walk as they came down to the little complex of stores and country post office to get their mail, or an ice cream, or beer . So roundabout early spring I asked some of the guys to spread some readily available cow manure down next to the road and till it in and plant nasturtium seeds in three rows, about 4 inches deep. It works best to plant nasturtiums deeply, because they get a better root system that way, and I’ve found the fact that it takes them a few days longer to emerge from the soil can be significant protection against those sneaky, last minute spring frosts. Well, words are just so much air over vocal cords, and the way the guys interpreted my instructions was that they should make furrows and FILL them with the cow manure (it wasn’t really compost yet, still pretty green) and plant the nasturtium seeds in that. Thus began a frustrating time period for me, as the nasturtiums did not like being planted in cow manure, and when they emerged, many of them damped off or drooped and looked sickly, with misshapen leaves, compromised by too much muck, too many salts. At this point I took charge of the patch, and down on hands and knees, cleared out around the sick little seedlings, bringing in fresh dirt from the sides, pinching back the worst of them, thinking that they might re-emerge healthily in secondary sprouts from the deeply buried seeds. This did happen, more or less, and the little patch limped on, never dying out, but never looking very good. As the summer sun intensified, I ran a thin drip line out to the patch, and set up some microsprinklers. One bright, people-free morning as I weeded away down there by the road, I had a vision of an Empress Tree (Paulownia tomentosa) shading Tetherow Lane, something different for the people to marvel at, its quick growth, lavender flowers, and vigorous life force. It would be an Empress Tree planted among Empress of India! I hoped the two empresses would not fight. If they did, I wagered, the Empress Tree would definitely win out. I had just the right tree, a bigger one that I’d been taking care of for a couple of years, so the next day I lugged the big pot down from the main farm and planted the tree right in among the nasturtiums. From day one, it outshone them all! The nasties were now 6 inches tall or so, having regrown from the roots, but the leaves were all crinkly. Flea beetles were taking up residence (like fleas on a couch frequented by an aged Rottweiler), and nary a flower in sight. If it kept up this way, it’d be first frost before I had any color! As the summer rolled along, I kept weeding and watering, but as the plants kept limping and never really kicked in, I started to have second thoughts about the seeds. Could it be there was something wrong with the seeds? So, I planted another germ test, this time in a gallon pot (see picture). I wanted to make sure the nasties would not have crinkled, ugly leaves when they emerged. They didn’t. So, It wasn’t the seeds that were the problem. It was the ENVIRONMENT . Yesterday, I went back down to the nastie patch and found what I’d been waiting for all summer long. There she was, the first flower. In the dark of the night she’d applied her secret red lipstick, and now she smiled up at me out of the green. Brushing a flea beetle off of her bright red apron, she looked up at me as if to say, “Let that be a lesson to ya. Trust the seeds, and … hold the poop!”
My mom had warned me about Hannibal. “It’s probably been commercialized since the last time you were there.” Like advice from most mothers to most sons, I paid her words little heed and marked the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens (AKA Mark Twain, the prolific American satirist and author) on my map as a likely spot to stop for lunch. Travelling south from the Iowa heartland to Memphis, I was to give a talk at the Memphis Botanic Garden, christening a new section on medicinal herbs that was loaded with plants provided by the Horizon Herbs nursery. Driving my rented Toyota rav4, I rolled down the window to gulp in the oxygenated air, meandering my way down along lazy highways that followed the course of the cornfield bedecked Mississippi River. The obligatory Paul Simon song kept looping through my heat softened brain, “I’m goin’ to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee, but I’m goin to Graceland… doo deet de doot de doot de doot de doot, dah, da, dahhh…” This time, I really was going to Memphis!
Seas of corn fairly crackled in the sultry sunlight, armpit high, nary a weed in sight, combed over by spray tractors that looked as big as Boeing 747s, with wings that folded up to travel the highway, and down when in the field, where they applied their toxic nectar. Occupying my mind with a new concept, “Slow Agriculture,” and all that this might entail, I drove on and on until I found myself at the Hannibal exit. Here, the roadside had been planted out with a wildflower mix containing a significant amount of Echinacea pallida seed, which had taken nicely to the spot, plants now in full flower, an unexpected, blowsy display that compelled me to slow and gawk. It was the most E. pallida I’d ever seen in the wild or in cultivation. Had I had one to tip, I would have tipped my hat to the Missouri Highway Department. Then, an exasperated horn honk from behind startled me from my daydream, and so motivated, I speeded on into Hannibal.
Once entering town, I became quickly confused. Where was the sleepy riverfront I so well remembered? Where the famous whitewashed fence, overhung perhaps by an apple tree volunteered from a seed out of a core carelessly tossed by Tom Sawyer? Where was–anything at all that was familiar! I pulled into a busy parking lot and found a space, trying to get my bearings. I was in the “Tom Sawyer” strip mall. Tom’s neighborhood had been eaten by a tanning salon, a coin-op laundry and a dollar store! Speaking of eating, I was hungry. The smoky odor of barbecue that ensued from a roadside stand awoke my inner carnivore, but barbecued pig was not for me. What I had promised myself, in between mental loops of Paul’s ditty, was a real life southern style catfish dinner. The crisp fillet would nestle in between a pile of peas and a large dollop of mashed potatoes smothered in a thick brown gravy made only of things I normally do not allow myself to eat. Then, a sign caught my eye, pointing down the street, heralding “Tom Sawyer’s boyhood home.” Even though I knew Tom Sawyer to be a fictional composite enlivened only by Clemens’ fertile mind and no seed of man, I nonetheless started the engine and pursued this impossibility down the road.
Soon I found the riverfront, and thankfully Paul Simon’s song was blown out of my mind by the reedy tooting of a steam calliope that issued from an ersatz riverboat tied up to a wooden dock anchored in the dark waters of “Old Muddy” himself. Crowds of tourists around the riverboat teemed like ants covering a piece of fallen melon. I turned my Toyota down along the main street, which was gaudily clad in banners of yellow and red, with signs boasting from every shop some kind of relationship to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” There was “Aunt Polly’s Bakery,” “Muff Potter’s Bar and Grill,” and a sign pointing up the road to “Judge Thatcher’s Mansion.”
Strolling down the street, I took my time to select just the right eatery, as there were several options, but in the end found catfish listed on a menu pasted into the front window of the “Becky Thatcher,” and that clinched it. I took a table by the front window.
“What’ll it be to drink?” asked the waitress, her lower body encased by Levis of impossible tightness, her upper half squeezed into a tank top which clung to the outlines of her brassiere, designed to augment what she had, and increase tips. She was further shrouded in a spider-web like accoutrement made of bright green polyester that stopped just above her waist. This must have been “the Becky Thatcher look,” because the other waitress wore the same thing. They had each pulled their hair straight back into pony tails.
“I’ll have tea,” I said automatically, to which she replied, “One sweet tea, got it!”
Not bothering to explain that I actually wanted hot tea, English style, I inquired “Do you have catfish today?”
“I think so,” she said, “I’ll ask,” and turned pertly back toward the kitchen to address the cook, who was just then shaking potato chips out of a bag onto a plate. Somehow, none of this struck me as particularly promising. Seated at the next table over, two men with dark beards wearing green “hybrid corn” hats gnashed their way through large pieces of meat slapped between slabs of soft bread that dripped with red sauce. Seated right in the middle of the room, an overweight lady in diaphanous pink vocalized her indecision as to whether she should have pie or cake.
My waitress soon returned. She plunked down a jingling glass of iced tea and said “He says we do have catfish.”
“OK,” I said, taking a brain numbing sip of insipid tea, “I’ll have the catfish dinner,” then leaned back to peruse the scene. I had a corner table, and could see the waitresses, all the tables, the cook over the counter, the pies in the glass case, the fishing poles and antique tackle displayed on the walls, and through the front window, I could observe the tourists passing by, skin glistening with sweat.
If ever I thought I might again get lost in Hannibal, I now knew that I would not, because my placemat was a map of the town, and I had time to study it quite thoroughly. After that, I leaned back and closed my eyes. It all came back to me, how 30 years in the past I’d visited this town, a budding archaeologist accompanied by a carful of friends, how we’d strolled the main drag looking for a cheese sandwich. I had purchased, at that time, a bright red 3 volume set entitled “The Works of Mark Twain,” and this was still in my bookshelf at home. Dusting off my brain, I envisioned the candle in the cave, Injun Joe, Aunt Polly, Tom, and his sniveling half-brother Sid, who frequently lied to Aunt Polly in hopes that Tom would get “switched” with a willow stick.
“I don’t know what’s taking him so long,” said the waitress as she unnecessarily topped off my sweet tea. I knew she didn’t want to hear my opinions, but I had already figured out exactly what was going on. The cook had ducked out the back door, whistled a special low whistle, lit a cigarette, brushed potato chip crumbs off his apron, and waited until Huck Finn showed up. Moving fleetingly from shadow to shadow and traveling only in alleyways, Huck eventually reached the rear door of the “Becky Thatcher.” The cook smashed out his cigarette and drew the boy closer to him. “There’s a fellow in there needs some catfish,” he growled, his breath burning hot in the boy’s unwashed ear. He pressed a dirty dime into Huck’s outstretched palm. Huck bit the dime, smiled a half smile, slid it into the only sound pocket of his handed down, oversized overalls, and hurried off toward the river, where he had a long trot line stretched out into the muddy waters. He’d haul it in and see what the river had to offer, and regardless of whether it wiggled or floated, he’d bring it back to the cook. It was their arrangement.
My plate finally arrived. It was a white hoagie bun sandwiching a very darkly deep fried fillet, with 2 pickle slices and a sprinkling of potato chips. That was it. The waitress wanted to know, “Will you be needin’ anything else?” “Well,” I ventured, “how about some ketchup?” She flounced off. I dubiously opened the soft white bread and laid the pickles on top of the fillet, then closed it up again, raised the affair to my lips, and took a bite. I couldn’t believe it, it tasted TERRIBLE! All my expectations crashed about me, and I looked up, half expecting everyone to have been startled by the noise. But they were ignoring me. The waitress had her back turned, the pink lady, pinkie slightly raised, was relishing her cake, and the two men were conversing. “There’s just two things I can tell you about Hannibal,” said one. “What’s that?” inquired the other. “First thing, the river’s fine for lookin’ at, but don’t eat anything out of it.” “What’s the other thing?” I was curious, too, and ignoring the jumping sensation in my stomach, I trained my ears to get the answer. The fellow looked up from his plate, pulled a piece of gristle out of his teeth, then wiping his mouth on a red-stained napkin, he said “Don’t swim in the river.”
I tried another bite of the sandwich. Surely my taste buds had been misled by some errant flavor. The second bite was pretty bad. I used the fork to separate the crust from the fillet and examined it. Yes, it had the dark hatching of a fish fillet all right. I was really hungry, you know. I took a third bite and retched. Looking around with some desperation, I saw that the waitress still had her back turned. Having forgotten the ketchup, she was sorting forks. Pulling a 20 out of my pocket, I tossed it next to the pathetic plate and ran out of the place. “That guy was weird,” said the waitress as she cleared the table and pocketed her tip.
On the way out of town, the Echinacea pallida waved a jaunty farewell, as if to say, “We told you so, we’re the only real thing in Hannibal!” I laughed, remembering again what my mom had said. For once, a son agreed with his mom. As usual, I also agreed with the flowers.
Richard A (Richo) Cech, June 2012
Dusk found me hunkered in my office, sorting Wasabi seeds again, moving the plump, bright green “keepers” into a little pile at my elbow, sweeping duds and bits of chaff into my lap, listening all the while to “The Incredible String Band,” humming along in the moment. Perhaps called out by the far off cry of a bird half heard, or lured outside by the chortling of Munger’s Creek as it swelled between its verdant banks, I abandoned my little pile half sorted and stepped out for a breather. I’d irrigated that day, the first irrigation of the season, and the plants and trees glowed, thankfully turgid. Heavenly fragrance greeted me, and then overpowered my other senses. Breathing deeply with delight, I cast about for what flowers might be responsible for such an Elysian aroma. Was it coming from the Hawthorn tree, all decked in white from toe to top? Not likely, they are actually kinda stinky. Perhaps it was the Cramp Bark emanating this heady aroma? She had been thinned last year and was feeling mighty perky as a result. Was it the Paulownia, buzzing with the activity of a million bees? They couldn’t all be wrong. Was it the Black Elderberry, with her flowers like cream? Was it the Wisteria hanging so invitingly at shoulder height, grapelike clusters beckoning a kiss? Or, maybe it was one of a dozen other flowers, from the lowly Wild Calendula that begged attention at my knee, to the Lilacs that leaned heavenly on the fence line, to the exotic Belladonna, her dark purple flowers beckoning from shadows where frogs now tuned up their nightly concert? My eyesight then followed a swirling moth as she made her way up into the tree canopy, and I noticed that a Honey Locust, a wayward volunteer that had managed somehow to survive lawnmower and windstorm to grow taller than all the other trees in the garden, had gifted us with cloudlike garlands of leguminous inflorescences, now glowing brightly against a darker backdrop of evening skies. I sighed. Yes, the scent of Honey Locust was definitely palpable. I then realized that there was no one tree or flower responsible for this enticing fragrance–it was all of them combined, and it was–the smell of spring!
We escaped the depredations of frost this spring. Cold showers came daily in April, and kept the frost away. We had a price to pay (shivering in our rubber boots!) for the undamaged Devil’s Club flowers, for the complete floral set on the Apple trees and for the Asphodel flowers, which developed completely and normally for the first time in my recollection. Now, in seasonal retrospect, it was a price worth paying. There will be Devil’s Club berries for the bears, apple cider in season, and plenty of Asphodel seed for the first time ever. The sun has reappeared and dried those cold tears away. We’re getting yang, and looking forward to planting Corn and Beans. Great nature has propped open the planting window for summer crops, and now that the soil has warmed, well, let the fun begin!
I know, I know, I’ve not written a blog for a long time. We’ve been busy! There has been a lot of activity around our new land–planting comfrey and getting the big field up and going, watered and fenced. The first Dandelion seed head appeared, and according to my tradition the blessed seeds were blown across the land. Soon the Dandelions bloomed in concert and thousands of transient puffs had to be captured and bagged. There have been myriad seeds to send, robust and ready plants to wrap and ship, and “Queen Wasabi,” oh my, she still demands an undue amount of attention! What with a seed pick every evening, followed by the abovementioned seed sorting, it is now clear to us why Wasabi seed is so rare. In the process, we’ve learned a great deal. For one thing, the “fresh seed” requirement does not mean that the seeds should be kept completely fresh out of the follicle and undried. If this is done, the seed is likely to turn out too soft. Instead, the seeds need to be partially dried and thereby stabilized. Thus prepared, we know from experience that the seed remains viable for months. Seed such as this, planted during the spring or summer seasons and kept cool, moist and shaded, will germinate quite reliably the following spring. It was the Wasabi that finally encouraged me to write this. Signing off for now! May your dreams be rendered earth centered by the song of the frog.
December 31, 2011
December being the month of my birth, and when night casts its longest shadow, is also a time of introspection. I had recently been thinking about the unique ethnobotanical knowledge of children. Not usually one for extended nostalgic reverie, I now find myself pondering aspects of the first ten years of my life. Consider what follows a Solstice offering if you will, a nod to the past, a small sharing of self. Perchance you will find it entertaining or it will inspire your own cascade of recollections.
My early memories are a kaleidoscope of sensation, incandescent joys and virgin melancholies. This is still mirrored to me when I hear the early 70s music of Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Janis Ian. Like that music which wove itself through my initial years and in some way gave form to who I am, I’ve come to recognize that there was a whole panoply of plants that also infected me with their enchantments, infusing something potent, deep within the roots of my being. Bear with me as I meander through memories from my first decade that still exude an aura of magic, yet to be washed away by the cleansing flood of time…
Around the age of 3 we lived on a farm nestled in a valley south of the city of San Luis Obispo in Central California. It is here that my vegetal initiation began. I remember watching my mom transplant small seedlings from paper cups into mounds of sweet smelling freshly tilled dark earth. Becoming cognizant of how I could help, I carefully followed behind her pulling the tender young plants out of the soil. It wasn’t until she got to the end of the row and turned around that she discovered what I was doing and gently set me on the right track. Sometime later that year I recall the joy of struggling to pull the serpentine garden hose over to water sunflowers that were beginning to tower over my head, a feeling of gratitude emanating from their large leaves that waved to me in the warm summer breeze.
The next year in preschool I was introduced to the miracle of sprouting beans, inspecting them each day, snuggled warm and moist in a bed of paper towels on the windowsill. The timeless wonder of life’s spark as they swelled, their skin split and the roots emerged, then cotyledon leaves, pushing up, seeking light. The distinct earthy-sour aroma of this process. The excitement of filling cups with dirt and carefully planting the naked seedlings within. This was undoubtedly the single most valuable lesson I learned in school. Germinating seeds is still one of the great passions of my life.
Growing at the edges of the school playground was a lowly mallow plant with rounded leaves and small pinkish flowers. What all the children appreciated most was the little rounded immature seed clusters which inspired the name “cheeseweed”. We would collect these miniature rounds of green veggie-cheese and when enough were in hand we’d gobble them up, relishing the mucilaginous texture and vaguely cheesy flavor.
Around this time someone demonstrated to me how to select the tender young fennel stalks and peel the fibrous skin back to get to the crisp and juicy sweet flesh. The flavor was beguiling and I could spend many a happy moment peeling and crunching stalk after emerald stalk. This became one of my favored snacks, no patch was safe from my ardent ravishings.
When I was around the age of 5 my mom moved to an old sprawling house on a farm in the rolling hills south of Arroyo Grande, about 20 miles from San Luis Obispo. This we christened Ft. Avocado on account of the large avocado trees that ringed the property. It was something of a wonderland for my small self and I came under the almost tutelary influence of many plants there. The small purple-black skinned avocados were in excess much of the year, hundreds littering the ground, slowly decaying into a sugary smelling sticky mulch. As well as becoming projectiles for my reenactments of epic battles from Star Wars or Thundarr the Barbarian, they were a constant source of nourishment, most often sliced in half, dashed with balsamic vinegar and spooned into my eager mouth. My mom was continually churning out guacamole and more experimental but highly successful creations like avocado pie and chocolate sauce. In the diffused light of the kitchen windowsill we were perpetually sprouting avocado pits by piercing them with a few toothpicks to suspend them partway in a jar of water, gifting the resulting treelets to friends and family.
Just outside the kitchen door was a shrub with large velvety leaves and huge, double trumpet, white flowers which exhaled an exquisite scent. This plant seemed to exert some spell over me. I recall many times staring at the shrub, enthralled by the scent of the flowers, sitting on the kitchen steps carefully peeling away the outer blossom to examine the convoluted one within, a heavenly pillowed landscape for hundreds of tiny insects. The plant seemed vaguely mammallian to me, associating the soft down of the leaves and blossoms with the fuzz on my slender arms or the skin of the pink babies that my pet rat, Rattie-Tat, had recently birthed (and soon devoured in a cannabilistic nightmare!) I now know this bewitching shrub to be the white angel’s trumpet, Brugmansia x candida, well respected by horticulturalists and shamans alike.
In the large open living room of the house there was a reproduction of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, which I found utterly fascinating and disturbing. I spent a good deal of time lost in the pleasures and horrors of that wondrous and deranged landscape. In the shady areas outside the house dwelled another plant that seemed an unmistakable hybrid of vegetal and animal. It evoked the same fascination as Bosch’s art, in fact looked like something right out of the painting, a confrontation with living ambivalence. An Arum species whose obscene fleshy purple flowers erupted from the ground to emit a noxious stench akin to rotting meat with delicate overtones of excrement. All manner of flies and beetles found this irresistible and performed curious dances upon the blossoms. As the vaginal spathe withered, the phallic spadix swelled lewdly into what looked to me to be a devilish bright-red corn cob. This I knew instinctually to be toxic.
Out back of the house in the shade of the avocado trees were a series of ornate shallow cement ponds with small cement bridges connecting them, probably the creation of someone’s faery-infested nostalgic Victorian longing. The bottom of the ponds had cracked many years before, so they never held water. Surrounding the ponds and often scrambling within was an extensive patch of nasturtium, their large round leaves providing shade for the various insects and toads that I was always on the hunt for. My mom showed me to eat the regal orange and red flowers whose spicy flavor was a strange delight. The rounded green seeds were a small treasure to me, a faery jewel, the way they rolled between my fingers, fit in the palm of my hand, filled the pockets of my overalls.
Scattered around the property were patches of Oxalis pes-caprae, which we knew as “sour grass”. The clover like leaves I identified with shamrocks, leprechauns and Irish ancestors. I thought that the bright yellow flowers were a clear signature of an affinity with citrus, the intense sour juice running through the stalks was surely the same juice that swelled the lemon. This ubiquitous weed was a refreshing snack that appeared to grow in every suburban backyard, even at school. All the kids around my age highly esteemed chewing the stems. I still ponder what it is about the sour flavor (oxalic acids) that children find so magnetic (my own son Shannon went through a phase of coveting an Andean species that is semi-weedy in our greenhouse). Most of us leave behind the craving for intensely sour flavors with adulthood, by my mid-teens it had lost its appeal.
There were several large Canary Island date palms on the land. I would imagine their massive columnar trunks to be the lumbering legs of a brontosaurus or wooly mammoth. The small yellow dates that showered the ground beneath the trees were mostly pit and no one paid them much attention, yet I found the thin stringy layer of sweet chewy flesh delectable and would squirrel them away for snacking.
There was a large castor bean bush that I found a little intimidating, the deep blood-red new growth, the spiky seed capsules, the veins of the huge palmate leaves radiating from a single point that appeared to gaze at me like the eye of the cyclops. My mom mistakenly tied our goat, Rosie, near the plant one day which led to the demise of both bush and goat.
I loved to accompany my mom on the short walk to check the mailbox because of the large honeysuckle vine that ran rampant all along the dilapidated, lichen-encrusted fence bordering the property. The small glistening drop of nectar to be found within each yellow and orange flower was an ecstatic lesson in sweetness.
There was a small shaded stream that ran through the lower part of the land, the cool domain of polywogs, waterbeetles and nettles. It was here as well as San Luis Creek that I first discovered the sharp biting kiss of nettles, bringing tears and a persistent sting, yet for some reason I was continually drawn to experience this, even long for it at times. A good satisfying pain.
Just up the hill from the creek at the edge of the property was a hole in the fence where I could climb through to an open meadow and make tunnels in the aromatic green grass that towered over my head. In the middle of that field was my secret fort: a large poison oak bush with a hollowed cavity in the center of it. I remember laying in the embrace of its womb, feeling snug and content watching the dynamic play of sunshine amongst the leaves…it seems I was immune to the plant’s wrath, I never developed the rash, though others may have gotten it from me more than once…
During the school week I lived with my dad in suburban San Luis Obispo. From him I learned of the necessity for houseplants and how to care for them, mostly varieties of Pothos and Monstera and the small tree that inexplicably shared my name, Ficus benjamina. Occasionally, with my insistence, we’d venture into more exotic territory. The local Safeway periodically stocked those chlorophyll-deprived grafted cacti that were so popular in the 1980s: Gymnocalycium and Chaemaecereus mutants. How could a child resist the strange geometric forms and flourescent pinks, oranges, yellows and reds of these monstrosities? Appearing more akin to a grotesque pez dispenser than a living entity. They never survived more than year, the Hylocereus stock inevitably shriveling brown and the scion slowly losing its luster and turning to mush. The other houseplant I repeatedly convinced my dad to bring home only to perish were those amazing hybrid Begonia (Rex Cultorum group) with the crazy wrinkled and serrated leaves aswirl with exquisite color and patterns, disappointingly ephemeral in our hands.
My dad and I spent a good deal of time exploring the golden hills, granite capped mountains, oak filled valleys and expansive coastline of SLO County. We tried eating many feral foods: cattail rhizomes and flower stalks, miner’s lettuce, spicy wild mustard and salty salads of New Zealand spinach. Black sage (Salvia mellifera) and California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) provided the signature scent. Even today the smell of these aromatic plants invokes a wistful echo of my youthful wanderings. The dominant tree throughout much of the landscape was the coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia). There were so many of these charming noble trees that I spent time with, the gargantuan sprawling branches a welcoming playground, offering cool shade in the heat of summer, the architecture of their limbs and rough bark perfect for climbing and building tree houses, the leaf litter the abode of all sorts of interesting insects and the worm-like slender salamander. The acorns were always finding their way into my pockets. I tried eating the meat raw on numerous occasions, they looked so edible to me and I could never quite accept the astringency that greeted my tongue when I bit into a carefully peeled acorn. In the denser woodlands large colonies of pitcher sage, Salvia spathacea, carpetted the ground beneath the oaks, emitting a fruity smell when trampled. The hundreds of erect flower stalks with their large globose whorls of bright flowers hypnotized me. After observing the frenzied affairs of hummingbirds in their midst I was thrilled to discover that the magenta flowers secreted a delicious dollop of honey-nectar within.
Occuring throughout the foothills of San Luis Obispo were large patches of prickly pear cactus, Opuntia ficus-indica. These were most likely introduced from Mexico during the time of the Spanish missions, but may have also been part of Luther Burbank’s great “spineless cactus” debacle in the early 1900s. These colonies would often spread over several acres, the spiny pads forming a labrynthian fortress through which I would carefully traverse. The golden yellow flowers produced egg-sized red or orange fruit that I highly prized for their delicious flavor. Collecting and eating the fruit was a bit of a challenge. A small proportion of the plants were nearly spineless, but most were clothed in long vicious spines. I’d usually try to spear or knock off the fruits with a long stick. Once I had the fruits, I had to be especially cautious of the glochids, those miniscule barbed spines that armed the fruit. I did my best to avoid these by carefully slicing the fruit in half and scooping out the flesh, but many times I ended up with glochids in my hands or even my tongue and mouth. Because of this I had a strange relationship with the plant, and on several occasions, with a sturdy stick in hand for a sword, I waged war upon the cactus. Hacking and slashing the pads, the satisfaction of feeling the juicy innards splatter with my blows. Perhaps my later fascination with cactus was atonement for these violent acts or perhaps the plant had compelled me into what was ultimately a creative form of propagation rather than destruction… the pads I whacked to the ground would have simply rooted and grown more plants, like the severed heads of the mythical hydra.
When I was 8 my mom returned to the area after living in the mountains of Montana and Colorado for 2 years with my step dad and infant brother. For the next decade they lived in a house on 20 acres outside the small town of Nipomo, situated on a large sandy mesa about 40 minutes drive south of the city of San Luis Obispo. This is where I spent most weekends and stretches of summer. One of the most striking features there was the hundreds of acres of Eucalyptus globulus trees that surrounded their homestead. Of Australian origin, these trees were planted in 1908, perfect rows laid out in large grids. The tree denied the hopes and dreams of that era, they were not suitable for telephone poles or lumber in general, so the acres of planted trees became neglected and grew into the dense towering forests that I came to know. The large older trees with many side branches were superb for climbing. Big trees with younger saplings growing near them provided an opportunity for a unique experience. After climbing 15+ feet into the mother tree I could leap out through the air and grab hold of the sapling which would arch under my weight and rapidly lower me to the ground. I spent hours performing this joyous feat, feeling myself a primordial monkey-boy.
These anthropogenic forests were a perpetual source of discovery. In the shade of the sickle-shaped leaves with their menthol aroma and underneath the bark that sloughed off the trunks in large sheets I would find a plethora of insects and their larval infants, spiders, scorpions, centipedes and millipedes, toads of impressive size, slender salamanders that curled themselves into tiny spirals, sundry snakes, bluebelly and alligator lizards, the rare and coveted blue tailed skink, kangaroo mice, savage shrews and fantastical fungi. Scattered between the trees during spring and early summer bloomed pink, yellow and red flowers I never encountered anywhere else, still a mystery to me. Further up in the embrace of the trees there’d be Pacific tree frogs hiding beneath the bark or occasionally the yellow speckled arboreal salamander that squeeked when discovered. Climbing even higher would reveal all manner of intricate woven nests that cradled delicate eggs or the freakish fledglings of a considerable variety of birds. A great many moths and butterflies were also to be found but none quite so impressive as the migratory monarch. This large butterfly, vibrant orange with bold black veination, would arrive in autumn at select trees by the thousands to perch in dangling masses and overwinter. It’s hard to capture with words the wonder and strangeness of this phenomenon, standing beneath a tree in exultation, half of the branches scaled in their overlapping orange and black wings. How they all periodically moved their wings in unison, as if to one heartbeat, the inhalation and exhalation of one organism. How I would feel this pulse manifest in my own body. Tree, butterfly and boy as one. Grace.
Eventually I heard the grumblings about how Eucalyptus didn’t belong here, the forests somehow harmful to other plants and wildlife. This contradicted so much of my experience, but it’s a complex issue and I’ll leave my thoughts on this to another time. The popular maligning of the tree led to the 10+ acres of forest adjacent to my mom’s property, where my younger brothers and I had spent countless hours in play and rapt discovery, being clear cut and bulldozed. I was deeply saddened, like the loss of a whole group of friends, a vital piece of my childhood suddenly, irrevocably, gone. The acreage lay fallow for many years, a few forlorn stumps the only reminder of what was. Eventually a monocrop of strawberries was planted, black plastic and poison covering the once fertile earth…
Peering into this reflecting pool of memory I glimpse myself in sensual dialogue with the world, not so much a language of words, but of emotions, touch, sounds, smells and tastes. An immediate intimacy with the flux of life. Perhaps it is our maturation into the world of words and the concepts they construct that blurs our recollection of those early years, diffusing a little our relation to life in all its myriad sensuous forms. Yet, paradoxically, words are what I now have to capture and share these echoes of childhood.
The Aymara peoples of the Andean Altiplano acknowledge that the past lays not behind us, but before us, our entire history stretching to the horizon, yet clearly visible, the future always to our back, just over our shoulder, only seen as a glimpse. Coming from a culture that turns its back on the past, chooses instead to look for what is yet-to-be, I find it useful, at least for a time, to reorient myself and view my history. Gazing out across the geography of myself it is evident how integral and present the botanical realm was in my childhood, though it wasn’t until my late teens that I became acutely fascinated with plants. In those early years what really captured my greatest attention were all the creeping, crawling, scurrying, slithering, hopping and flying creatures. The plants were more an aspect of the sustaining matrix of the world, known as distinct living entities, but almost background to ambulatory life. Yet it now appears, from my current vantage, that the plants were an even greater molding force for me than the fistful of toads or pockets of rolly-polly bugs. We inhabit a scandalously fecund planet, teeming with life of every imaginable form. The more I consider it, perhaps facing always to the future engenders a fevered dream state, a phantasmal farsightedness, a turning away from who we are, longing to be more. This has allowed our culture to overcome great obstacles and manifest unparalleled wonders, but often at great cost. In looking out to distant stars for life we miss much of what is right before us. Living is coexisting, children know this instinctually and recognize sentience all around them. We have much to discover from children and from our own childhoods.
Because I find this content both entertaining and enlightening, I have included these musings of my friend Ben Kamm here on “The Seed Screen.” Ben and his wonderful family run “Sacred Succulents,” a wonderful place to get seeds and starts of a really unusual selection of botanicals. Here’s the link
Big Love, Richo