Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Flowers That Made Us

The magnificent spring umbel of the cow parsnip
It has officially begun, this new obsession with the stories and voices and forms of the flowering leafing seeding fruiting world. One dip into the realm of herbalism, and the world has blossomed astoundingly around me. We interact with plants daily, breathing the oxygen they release, trailing our eyes over them, and maybe our hands if we are walking, as we pass street trees, grassy hills, forests, even freeway center strips. Eating of them, oh yes, everywhere, everyway, everyday.

I've long loved to be amidst them, but subconsciously, like breathing, not in this new and deeper way, this longing to know them all, like friends, like mentors or brothers, who have great and deep knowing and medicine in them that we have evolved, with them (and more so all of our older hot-blooded mammalian and avian ancestors), to learn and to use.

 Since I was a tiny girl my mother grew and tended beautiful, tangled gardens full of sunflowers, string beans, roses. I remember being maybe three or four, and, in summertime, standing with my feet deep in wet mud in the garden, rooted down so I felt very solid in the ground. I remember wondering to myself if this was what it felt like to be a sunflower... and wouldn't it be nice to try, for an hour or two, standing very still, hands reached up to the sun? At all the three houses I grew up in, at different ends of the same small town at the base of Mount Tamalpais called Mill Valley, my mother grew such gardens, in a way that seemed effortless to me, the roses wild and tangled enough to make caves, the summer annuals blooming in such color-riots it almost made you want to weep, just looking at them— how can there be such beauty in the world? Thank goodness there is this beauty in the world!

My whole life, they have been there, they have been here, and I am so grateful for my mother and her green thumb.

In the midst of my recent excitement, every plant new all over again to me—the redwood tips, the false solomon's seal all over the hillside, the elderberries, dandelions, plaintain, California poppy, manzanita, all singing out the things they've always held that I've only just begun to ask— I read a magnificent piece of writing by Loren Eiseley, called "How Flowers Changed the World." It is an excerpt from his longer book, The Immense Journey. In it he beautifully describes how the evolution of hot-blooded, fast-metabolizing mammals and birds really could only take off once flowering plants, with their nutrient dense seeds, flowers, pollen and fruits, had evolved too. That we deeply and directly shaped and leaned on each other. In the time of slow-moving, huge reptiles, the world was giant in its proportions, and mostly green, but when the angiosperms arrived, the world transformed, butterfly-style....

California poppies, dry clovers, so many grass seeds!
"The world of the giants was a dying world. These fantastic little seeds skipping and hopping and flying about the woods and valleys brought with them an amazing adaptability. If our whole lives had not been spent in the midst of it, it would astound us. The old, stiff, sky-reaching wooden world had changed into something that glowed here and there with strange colors, put out queer, unheard of fruits and little intricately carved seed cases, and, most important of all, produced concentrated foods in a way that the land had never seen before, or dreamed of back in the fish-eating, leaf-crunching days of the dinosaurs.

Blooming California buckeye, intoxicating to smell
"That food came from three sources, all produced by the reproductive system of the flowering plants. There were the tantalizing nectars and pollen intended to draw insects for pollenizing purposes, and which are responsible also for that wonderful jeweled creating, the hummingbird. There were the juicy and enticing fruits to attract larger animals, and in which tough-coated seeds were concealed, as in the tomato, for example. Then, as if this were not enough, there was the food in the actual seed itself, the food intended to nourish the embryo. All over the world, like hot corn in a popper, these incredible elaborations of the flowering plants kept exploding. In a movement that was almost instantaneous, geologically speaking, the angiosperms had taken over the world. Grass was beginning to cover the bare earth until, today, there are over six thousand species. All kinds of vines and bushes squirmed and writhed under new trees with flying seeds.

The red elderberry of the Pacific northwest
"The explosion was having its effect on animal life also. Specialized groups of insects were arising to feed on the new source of food and, incidentally and unknowingly, to pollinate the plant. The flowers bloomed and bloomed  in ever larger and more spectacular varieties. Some were pale unearthly night flowers intended to lure moths in the evening twilight, some among the orchids even took the shape of female spiders in order to attract wandering males, some flamed redly in the light of the noon or twinkled modestly in meadow grasses. Intricate mechanisms splashed pollen on the breasts of hummingbirds, or stamped it on the bellies of black, grumbling bees droning assiduously from blossom to blossom. Honey ran, insects multiplied, and even the descendants of that toothed and ancient lizard-bird had become strangely altered. Equipped with prodding beaks instead of biting teeth they pecked the seeds and gobbled the insects that were really converted nectar.

Little wild plums
"Across the planet grasslands were now spreading. A slow continental upthrust which had been part of the early Age of Flowers had cooled the world's climates. The stalking reptiles and the leather-winged black imps of the seashore cliffs had vanished Only birds roamed the air now, hot-blooded and high-speed metabolic machines.

The seeds of the wild cucumber fruit, and behind my hand the huge cone of a sugar pine from the Sierra foothills
"The mammals, too, had survived and were venturing into new domains, staring about perhaps a bit bewildered at their sudden eminence now that the thunder lizards were gone. Many of them, beginning as small browsers upon leaves in the forest, began to venture out upon this new sunlight world of the grass. Grass has a high silica content and demands a new type of very tough and resistant tooth enamel, but the seeds taken incidentally in the cropping of the grass are highly nutritious. A new world had opened out for the warm-blooded mammals. Great herbivores like the mammoths, horses and bisons appeared. Skulking around them had arisen savage flesh-feeding carnivores like the now extinct dire wolves and the saber-toothed tiger.

Dire wolf skeleton, from La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles

"Flesh-eaters though these creatures were, they were being sustained on nutritious grasses one step removed. Their fierce energy was being maintained on a high, effective level, through hot days and frosty nights, by the concentrated energy of angiosperms. That energy, thirty-percent or more of the weight of the entire plant among some of the cereal grasses, was being accumulated and concentrated in the rich proteins and fats of the enormous game herds of the grasslands."

To read this whole marvelous essay, I found an online pdf here.

These words are just deeply and wildly moving to me, to remember how we have all grown together, feeding each-other, the insects little seeds of nectar, the deer made up of the grass, our own bodies nourished by all— deer, seed, fruit, bird, fish. Being omnivores, Eaters of All, from nectar to mammal blood, we have the honor of bringing all life into our bodies, like placing prayers upon an altar. But with this honor comes immense responsibility, and I daresay the other side of the coin seems more our forte at the moment—consuming, destructively, everything in our paths, without heed, without honor, with great violence and blindness.

Perhaps if we remember more often the wise words of Gary Snyder, below, we can begin to right this balance, at least in our own lives...

Song of the Taste
Gary Snyder

Eating the living germs of grasses
Eating the ova of large birds

the fleshy sweetness packed
around the sperm of swaying trees

The muscles of the flanks and thighs of
soft-voiced cows
the bounce in the lamb’s leap
the swish in the ox’s tail

Eating roots grown swoll
inside the soil

Drawing on life of living
clustered points of light spun
out of space
hidden in the grape.

Eating each other’s seed
ah, each other.

Kissing the lover in the mouth of bread:
lip to lip.

* * *

We are, after all and always, that which we eat, that which we breathe, that which we drink, and the  tales we tell ourselves. May they be wild, may they be magic, may they be joyous, may they be honored.

Lupines on the steep coast of Mt. Tamalpais (a few months ago. Now these hills are entirely gold)

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