Botanical Reflections

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. Our neighbor mistakenly tied our two young goats near the plant one day which led to the demise of both bush and goats.

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.

((((((((((Ben Kamm))))))))))


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