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It hasn’t rained much this spring, but it has rained enough to green up our corner of the world for that brief season before Texas gets insanely hot and mostly brown. And it’s early enough in that season (even though the season arrived a month late this year) that the mowers are still in storage, and you get to see the full flowering of the unlikely life that takes root in the untended margins of the city. Black-eyed-susans and firewheels at the base of the onramp, delicate purple dots of verbena at the edge of the pavement, Gaura in the desire path, prairie coneflower along the side of the road. Thursday morning I came upon this little patch of beeblossom in bloom behind the abandoned lighting factory, hiding the old tires beneath an explosion of native wildflowers mixed in with the invasive grasses, right by the gate where the big fat trucks come and go with their loads of new motor oil.
The Easter Bunny was nearby, sleeping it off in his car.
The snapdragon has already overgrown the hitch of the old trailer I use as my home office, and the passion vine is crawling back up the chainlink at the front of our place. Friday I saw the first flower hiding behind those lush green leaves, tempting you with the wondrous trip you would take if you dared to eat it.
The Internet would have you believe that you really can eat it, even if you are not a Gulf fritillary caterpillar who can eat nothing else. Every part of the plant has some medicinal value, if you believe the ethnobotanists. The Cherokee and Houma people had their uses, and the populist medical practitioners of antebellum America adopted them and explored their own. One site, noting the contemporary usefulness of the mandala-like flower as a remedy for circular thinking, cites Felter and Lloyd’s discussion of the subject in King’s American Dispensatory, an herbal medicine guide first published in 1854 :
Passiflora was introduced into medicine in 1839 or 1840 by Dr. L. Phares, of Mississippi, who, in the New Orleans Medical Journal, records some trials of the drug made by Dr. W. B. Lindsay, of Bayou Gros Tete, La. The use of the remedy has been revived within recent years, Prof. I. J. M. Goss, M. D., of Georgia, having introduced it into Eclectic practice. Prof. Goss, who introduced it to the Eclectic profession, employed the root and its preparations. We know of physicians who prefer the tincture of the leaves, and others still, who desire the root with a few inches of the stem attached.
I had never heard of Eclectic medicine, which turns out to have been a populist school of American practice that began in the early 19th century and lasted into the early 20th, focused on herbalism informed by Native American traditions as an alternative to the more prevalent use of mercury purges and bloodletting. The term was coined by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, a self-educated botanist on the faculty of Transylvania University who advocated an approach to medical care that focused on whatever seemed to work for the patient. Among Rafinesque’s other claims to fame was that fellow naturalist John James Audubon pranked him with fantastical invented species.
In the 1600s, Spanish missionaries in the Americas used the passion flower as a metaphorical aide to teach the story of the crucifixion: the purple flower as the color of Lent, the five sepals and petals as the ten apostles except for Peter and Judas, the three stigma symbolizing the three nails that held Jesus to the cross, the five anthers as the five wounds to the crucified body, the filaments as the crown of thorns, the vine symbolizing God’s attachment to the earth, and the three-pointed leaves as the Holy Trinity.
I had not read this curious tying of the passion flower to the Passion until after Easter. On Good Friday, visiting family in Iowa, I did channel surf my way after dinner into Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which was playing on continuous loop for Easter weekend, Aramaic dialogue and all, apparently because it is one of the ways contemporary consumer culture teaches the same story. To my surprise it was much more like a Rocky movie than I would have expected, if they made one in which Rocky doesn’t hit back.
The next morning my mom and my son and I walked the site of an old pioneer homestead on my parents’ farm. I hadn’t even known it was there, near the spot where they have lived for two decades. We found all sorts of relics—fragments of kitchen china, green and blue glass, the rusted tag that marked some animal as human property. And in the midst of that mosaic of rural ruin, the tiny skull of a rodent, mouse or vole, along with half a mandible and one thick little bone. No wonder Audubon liked to invent variants of such species.
That afternoon my son and I walked the creek that runs through the acreage. It’s always a little creepy how dead Midwestern waterways seem. Seventy percent of the surface area of Iowa is dedicated to farming, much of the land is tiled, and almost all of it is bathed in chemicals intended to boost short-term agricultural productivity. The creeks are all muddy, and rarely does one witness any marine life. We found one spot in that particular creek where whatever had drained off the field on the other side was dammed by an old log, the water turned the ruddy color of alien plasma and bubbling over despite the cold. At least there were plenty of tracks of the creatures of the field across the sandy banks, including coyote, raccoons, and deer. And we did see one big bald eagle, lifting off right before we left the creek bed and picked up the old road again.
On the way back the next day, I could see the Tesla factory from the air as we approached the Austin airport. And with the airport also in view, you could see how many copies of the main terminal building would fit into that 4.2 million square foot barn that purports to be the path to greener future.
You could also see how green it still is in the narrow floodplain of the Colorado River that winds through Austin’s eastern quarters. On Thursday morning the edgeland cur and I walked the riparian woods behind the smaller factories upriver. It’s crazy beautiful down in there now, at peak green as the trees fully leaf out and the forest floor is overtaken with fresh inland sea oats and wild rye, overstory and understory momentarily singing the same tune.
Back at the house, my wife got our first good pic of the wayward road runner who has been hunting lizards and bugs on our patio and in our yard this spring. I have seen plenty of road runners traveling through west Texas, but it’s very unusual to see one in these parts, even as you witness how easily the animal adapts to and even seems to thrive in our particular environment, a sliver of urban wild with plenty of food. An opportunistic omnivore, just like us.
The Native American cultures of the Southwest considered the roadrunner an omen of good fortune and protection of the family. Their footprints are in the shape of an “X,” confounding the efforts of trackers to ascertain where they went, and their feathers were used as sympathetic talismans to protect young children in their beds. I wonder if this one can hold the developers at bay.
On Earth Day I found myself intervening after being alerted by a neighbor to a guy cutting trees around a lot down the street where an old warehouse structure has just been demolished to make room for a planned boutique hotel. When I went to see, the guy was clearing everything but the tagged trees in the public land behind the site along the river, near the heron rookery I wrote about earlier this year. The landowner claimed ignorance, saying he was just trying to clean up the trash. The herons were visibly agitated in their nests by the sound and energy of the chainsaw, even after the work stopped, and you could see how unlikely it is they will be able to stay in that spot much longer. Maybe they, like we, are already thinking about where else they could go.
I generally avoid sharing family pictures on the public Internet, especially of children, but will make an exception this week for the below image that ran in our local paper over Easter weekend:
The story of Eclectic medicine in America is quite the rabbit hole, with stories of eccentric personalities, strange colleges, body-snatching and mob riots. Thanks to Juliet Blankenspoor of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in Asheville for the passion flower post that led me there. For more on how Audubon pranked Eclectic practitioner Constantine Rafinesque with fake rodents and fish, this Smithsonian article is a good start.
My road trip Easter weekend had me reading back issues of the London Review of Books, most notably this wonderful 2008 piece by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie reviewing The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, who since then has become perhaps the best known of contemporary English-language nature writers, a master of the lexicographical art of learning all the names we give objects in nature. Jamie trenchantly takes on the very idea of wild places:
There’s nothing wild in this country: every square inch of it is ‘owned’, much has seen centuries of bitter dispute; the whole landscape is man-made, deforested, drained, burned for grouse moor, long cleared of its peasants or abandoned by them. It’s turned into prairie, or designated by this or that acronym; it’s subject to planning regulations and management plans. It’s shot over by royalty, flown over by the RAF, or trampled underfoot in the wind-farm gold-rush. Of course there are animals and birds, which look wild and free, but you may be sure they’ve been counted, ringed maybe, even radio-tagged, and all for good scientific reasons. And if we do find a Wild Place, we can prance about there knowing that no bears or wolves will appear over the bluff, because we disposed of the top predators centuries ago, and if we do come unstuck there’s a fair chance that, like the man on Ben Nevis, we’ll get a mobile signal, and be rescued.
She goes on to interrogate the view from nowhere that dominates most nature writing of any era, from the particular perspective of a native of the land north of Hadrian’s wall:
[W]hen a bright, healthy and highly educated young man jumps on the sleeper train and heads this way, with the declared intention of seeking ‘wild places’, my first reaction is to groan. It brings out in me a horrible mix of class, gender and ethnic tension. What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, ‘discovering’, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words. When he compounds this by declaring that ‘to reach a wild place was, for me, to step outside human history,’ I’m not just groaning but banging my head on the table.
After this admission of prejudice, she acknowledges the great things about Macfarlane, and other works in that vein. But the privilege she so hilariously calls out hiding in plain sight is present in most nature writing, a presence both writer and reader should work to be mindful of. And the exercise she advocates of vigilantly policing our proclivity for landscape romanticism is an important one, especially if we want writing that will help us see the natural world and our place in it with honest eyes, and maybe even find a way out of our climate predicament.
Kathleen Jamie, “A Lone Enraptured Male,” London Review of Books, 6 March 2008.
Thanks for reading, and have an enraptured week.