Thursday, December 6, 2012

Native Texans



Native Texans
AE Reiff

Hedeoma was his epitaph. Huge thirty inch rains of the summer of '78 put Comfort under water and Bandera to flood. The next weeks of that month produced the greatest spread of Hedeoma anybody ever saw. Fields were covered with pink lemon-scented flowers.
    Epitaphs lie open on their backs in the limestone fells and dry caliche hills of the Sabinal, Nueces and Frio rivers, the unspoiled creeks, graves as honeycombed as Indian campgrounds, a place to find endemics on the ground. Civilization leaves its layers there, native Matelea edwardsensis with Anglo and Hispanic in the dust. Down in lost Sisterdale, near Twin Sisters Peak a spring begins, not that the town exists, the names are changed to protect the innocent. Gold of the Sisterdale run occupies the old stage stop with mounds and stone middens, ax heads, arrowheads, flint chips where prospectors got their feet wet. Up Hondo Creek four summers these occupied sites were mined. It takes a wheelbarrow, shovel and screen. When the site is sifted, the stones rolled away, you can come and watch the large flints glint in a gulch.
    Columbus found his Indians. They were "human beings." Discoverers thought this chiefly a barter for remains. Artifacts went home more lost than in the ground. Lost treasure made a wasteland found, it could not lie immortal with the storm. The modern prospector's machinery, expectant concrete mixers, steel road graders came to the place where all bulldozers come. Beneath the stage stop of the Sisters runs the escarpment, no more than fifty feet down, springs around rocks. Headwaters curl the hill, drop sharply off, roots crack rocks; dominion over flesh answered by stone protects the plateau. It is a fourteenth century oak, this anchoring Quercus, but thirty feet down in the dirt of a field was the hole dug by the seekers. Back in the '60's it was twenty feet deep, dug by a dentist from Kerrville. He told the rancher he was sinking test pilings for a dam.
    The next year that rancher and his oak were wiser; approached to excavate the stage stop, original outlines of its foundation were found. Quercus objected to its roots. Eupatorium with the putative gold grew a community of oak and Mexican Buckeye. The Buckeyes bloomed like a Redbud, last year's caps, this year's flower, leaves and fruit. It was not an election about the past, the umber, leathered, three-valved seed the color of indigo marbles excavated from the rock with vermillion mescal beans. Don't eat them, or do, what's the harm, they pass through, maybe get more orange. Trade under oak, campsites no longer used, three large mounds occupied an area the shade of a Pecan at noon,Ênight fires beneath oak with putative gold, flowers coincident with this year's leaf already begun to produce.
    In some such ground Carroll Abbott lies, but he said, "I am not nearly as scared as I was the first time. If you're tired of hearing about my cancer, let me tell you: I'm tired of telling you about it. I'm still able to work and I guess that's what it's all about." To pretend an intermittent dialogue, he continued on that last page, "I'll tell you the truth -- it sort of trashed out my mind for about a week. Then, I realized we've been here before: we know the way out. So troops, here we go again! I need your kind wishes, good thought and prayers."
    Carroll had asked me for articles for his Texas Wildflower Newsletter (1976-84) a half decade before, but none came till that night years later when he appeared in a dream, sitting ashen in a dark room, head down in a cloud of chemo. We had moved to Dallas, subscribed the Newsletter and had a copy of his book, How To Know and Grow Texas Wildflowers (1979), but hardly saw him. It made me want to make him laugh. I woke up, started to write.
    Many bags of old "rare" seed had been left in the building I occupied at the Experimental Drug and Herb Garden, founded the day pharmacy was vegetative. Germination trials of these seeds produced anomalies, a big single stemmed so called Texas Madrone. When I had opened my trunk to show it to Carroll, plantsman and publisher, at his home along the Guadalupe River, he said, "well, I don't know what it is, but it's not a Madrone." The next time we met both knew it for papaya!
    Symbol of the soon defunct Herb Garden, this foundling stood for the book I was about to write on the teachings of plants to make Abbott smile. The progress of his cancer's remission and unremission, the piety he must have suffered in those years founding the wildflower lobby and all the pity that came with the disease piled into those entries in disbelief: "the reeds do not resemble the tail of a horse, neither will they whinny if picked." "If a writer says Equisetum is an irritant and can be used on small cuts and abrasions to stop bleeding, why would anyone put an irritant on a cut?" "If the reed is a diuretic, why does the folklorist tell us the Kickapoo used it in a tea to prevent bedwetting?" "If you're the type who loves to eat Hackberry nuts, then Equisetum could be Number One in your book -- just as it is in Marshall Johnston's (Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas). Horsetails are just about the simplest of plants." He put it in the next issue.
    "Croton As Medicine" followed. "You may be standing on some Croton right now! Be careful. It looks like a miniature maypole round which the faeries of middle earth might dance. The Wee People used it as a tea before the settlers drove them out." "It is not the loco weed made popular by fiction writers." "Mrs. Alta Niebuhr of Austin writes she first met this plant by mail. 'It was sent me by a frantic Texan who had drunk the tea all of her life and had just been told by a veterinarian that it was poison!'" So, "check with your postman before being alarmed at what your vet says about herbs." I was half drunk with thirty plants by then, mockingly confided, "motor oil is said to have been taken in small amounts to induce vomiting and as a laxative!" He was spared later confidences that croton is desirable for seasoning Orc meat, that "the western Orc first started its predacious colonies in sandpits along rivers lined with horsetail reeds. Orcs would ply the hollow reed between the joints" (Herbal Cures of Orc Tongue).
    The last issue of Newsletter printed "Croton," but he revealed: "here we go again: In mid-March, I had my semi-annual check-up and. . . the knot in my neck is a malignant tumor and there are suspicious shadows in my right lung and abdomen," so I visited him in the dark room of that dream with this query: "Texas Croton was used by Indians. They claim the Hopi took it for vomiting. The powdered herb in water was urged as a strong laxative. Do you ever wonder what it was Indians ate so much of that they either had to throw it back up or were always needing a laxative for?"
    These barbs about the mushroom farmers of Bastrop, suspicious uses of cilantro and psychedelic prospects of cloverleafs drifted about in small printings. The cover was blue vinyl with a bumper sticker on it. He did not see the completion. It was buried in little hillsides like "The World's Longest Continuous Row of Horehound," printed by Geoffrey Stanford in the Friends of Greenhills Newsletter (Dallas), or "Milkweed," "why must we be bothered by every little plant that grows beside the road?" The Heard Natural Science Museum Newsletter of McKinney, TX urged, "ladies, stand up for mullein and forbid your husbands to mow it." "Hedeoma" appeared in the Texas Native Plant Society News (March/April 1985) with the announcement of plans for the Carroll Abbott Memorial Symposium:
    "If you were to take one plant with your immortal soul into the afterlife, then Hedeoma (Hedeoma Drummondii) would meet Amaranth. Medina County is starting a Hedeoma Dude Ranch. Aristophanes wanted thyme planted on his grave, but if you can get yourself planted in some Hill Country field you can have the superior Hedeoma. Albertus Magus claims drowned bees can be revived by the fragrance of the inferior pennyroyal, M. Pulegium, and that if you rub it on the "belly of any beast it shall be with birth." The use of Hedeoma in this way would shortly make so many beekeepers and mothers of us all that we would soon be overflowing in milk and honey."
    So it was his epitaph, Native Texans, written to entertain. Alta Dodds Niebuhr forwarded a letter from Brother Daniel Lynch of St. Edward's (Plants of Austin, Texas, 1968) who said, "it humanizes botany in a way I never dreamed of." Another, Dr. Mathis Blackstock, could have said, "it reads like a shovel."
[Carroll Abbott (1926-1984) was sometime founder of The Native Plant Society of Texas and of "Texas Wildflower Day" celebrated the fourth Saturday of April. He was publisher of the Texas Wildflower Newsletter and did much lobbying for wildflowers and their cause, being honored in 1983 by a joint session of the legislature and Lady Bird Johnson. His memorial must be the plants he loved, the miles he drove collecting seed, the articles he published in his Newsletter and the courage and charm he displayed to all.]

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