Mary Beth Writes

Yes, that's Len up there in the blue shirt. 

...

We were midway through our second afternoon in the Santa Fe/Albuquerque area and had enough time to see one more site before we would meet Kay for dinner. It was 90-zillion degrees; being outside felt as if one was becoming one’s own bacon.

We asked a ranger at Petroglyph Nation Monument why there were petroglyphs in that area. The short answer was that 200,000-150,000 years ago there were three active volcanoes in the area; volcanic rocks litter the land even now. Many volcanic rocks are dark and seem to invite scraping and etching. This area is one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America, featuring designs and symbols carved by the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived along the Rio Grande River since time immemorial.

We climbed Boca Negra canyon, which is not a canyon but a hill (go figure). It was really a hard climb. The “path” is macadam poured between many but not all of the rocks of the walkway. Often you have to hang onto those rocks to keep from literally falling off the mountain. Len made it to the top. I made it near the top. The crazy thing is that the ancient etchings are right there, next to you as you climb.

I started back down that hill-mountain before Len and it was scarier going down than up. At one point a handsome man who was not a bit old asked if I would like some help. I said no, but that I was thinking of staying up there the rest of my life to live. Did he know if I could get pizzas delivered? And would he like my car? We laughed across two races of humans and 20 feet of loose volcanic rock shifting under our ankles and it was a good moment.

Eventually I made it back to terra firma.

After that magnificent and sweaty adventure, Len and I didn’t want to climb anything else. We decided to drive to the extinct (or at least fairly dormant) volcanoes. It doesn’t impress right off the bat. Just three mild hills out there in the scrubby flat desert.

One of the truths about deserts is that they don’t blare their story at you, you have to go there and look around. They dare you to pay attention.

Deserts give off the vibe that you can’t live there; except what they are really saying is that it’s complicated. You can’t afford to be arrogant or stupid. You better figure out what old people know what you need to learn. Then you better take care of those old ones, and you better learn what they have to teach.

Maybe they should put Congress in a desert. See who survives and then go talk to them.

The “walk” from the car to the kaput volcanoes was flat but not easy. It was still hotter than blazes. We were sticky with sunscreen and sweat, we wore hats and sunglasses and yes, we looked like a plump older couple on a long vacation to places that would bore kiddos. So the older couple had to wait until were past their cuteness prime to go look. We did not look like hikers in an L.L. Bean ad, is what I am saying. But we were there.

There were so many things to see and not understand. Footprints of tiny animals in the dirt. Little lizards skedaddling past. Plants I don’t know. Constant drive-you-crazy hot wind. That overwhelming overarching sky.

I saw this particular plant along the path. I had no idea what it was, and I saw only one. I took this photo and after I got back home, it took a half hour on the internet to figure it out what. (I knew I could call you, Kathryn, but it was super later at night. You’re welcome.)

It is … to-da, ta-dum … Wild Rhubarb. Canaigre Dock (ka-nigh-ga)

I drove 1500 miles to become mystified by rhubarb. But not just any Rhubarb. Wild desert rhubarb.

 

Those leaves, 6-24” long, are waxy and ridged so that even the barest amount of rain can collect along a central vein and filter down to the taproot. It’s grows and blooms January through June and then those seeds fly on the never-ceasing desert wind.

Canaigre has been cultivated in the southwest for centuries. Yes, for centuries it was a planted and tended crop! Mainly it was prized for its roots which are a source of tannin. It was used in leather tanning. It was also used to produce a lovely brown dye for baskets and later, after the Spanish brought sheep, to dye wool. The longer the roots are soaked, the deeper the brown.

It's also edible. The leaves and leaf stalks are edible when young, older leaf stalks are cooked before being eaten. The leaves contain oxalic and citric acid and the leaf stalks have malic acid (so do apples), so the greens were boiled with at least a couple of changes of water. Some native groups roasted/steamed them on hot coals. The Pima and the Papago used the greens after boiling or roasting them on hot coals. So, like us and our garden rhubarb, most folks processed them before they ate them.

Seeds were parched, pounded or ground, and mixed into porridge or gravy by the Kawaiisu. After roasting the seeds, the Pima would grind them, mix them with water and shape them into flat cakes.

Did you know that Buckwheat, brought to us by immigrants from Russian and eastern European nations, isn’t a grain at all, but is the seed of a plant in the rhubarb family?

The root contains tannin and as well as an abundance of starch. The root was dried and ground into a powder and applied as a poultice to wounds and boils by the Pima. Several groups of people chewed the root or prepared a decoction for use as a gargle for a sore throat, or to treat diarrhea, or to stimulate milk production in goats and in women. (So, make rhubarb treats for new moms?)

I follow several frugality bloggers. Currently one of these bloggers is investing an extraordinary amount of time and money and effort to transform her Nevada backyard into a midwestern garden oasis with grass, English garden flowers, fruit trees and more. Kinda leaves me speechless, as an action taken in a desert.  

A docent at Mesa Grande in Arizona (we visited several years ago) explain that 2000 Hohokam people, ancestors of the Pima, lived in mid-Arizona for centuries. Modern native people, historians, and archeologists have determined they regularly ate 200-400 plants and animals from the desert around them. They cultivated 27,000 acres of desert to produce some of their foods. They dug channels and ditches to bring river water into their fields when the river was high enough. They ate a wider diet than we do and they had a thriving culture with houses, a temple, incredibly sophisticated astronomy as well as art, feasts, stories, and religion.

Colonizing is trashing what’s in front of us in order to rebuilt what we are comfortable and familiar with. It’s walking into a new place or new situation with a plan for what success will look like – before we have looked at who and what is already in place and then spending some time (maybe a lifetime) working to understand what's around us now.

Not sure what the opposite word to colonizing is but I think we ought to try it. Don’t be afraid of what’s thriving right under our noses.

And also, just because it’s so cool - who knew rhubarb got around like that?

Comments

I laughed, I visualized, I pondered ( still am) with this post. Thank you always. Patricia
Mary Beth's picture

Thank you!

Thanks for your confidence in me and for not calling me late at night for plant identification. I didn’t know Canaigre, but I sure do now!
Mary Beth's picture

Hah! To this day my kids will ask me if Kathryn might know what this or that plant is....

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Three Things / Story, Eclipse, Brando

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I get emails from Boswell Bookstore (2559 N Downer Ave in Milwaukee). They host artist events pretty often and Monday evening, April 15th Len and I will be there for the Author Evening with Leif Enger. You can look up more of the details if you are interested. (Tickets are free but you need to reserve them.)

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