Sunday, December 23, 2007

Single-seeded Juniper

What’s still green above the snow: Conifers, Apache plume, roses, hollyhock, columbine, rockrose, coral bell, snapdragon, bouncing Bess, blue flax, sweet pea, yuccas, Mount Atlas daisy.
What’s gray or gray-green: Salt bush, winterfat, buddleia, snow-in-summer, pinks.
What’s red: Cholla.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, geranium.
Animal sightings: Rabbit and bird tracks in snow Saturday morning.
Weather: Cold all week; snow Friday evening.
Weekly update: When I was a child trapped in the backseat on my parent’s weekly shopping expeditions, I would pretend I was in a covered wagon moving west and the fallow fields passing the side window were virgin prairie.
Around the same time, Angélico Chávez was driving along the Rio Grande to La Toma trying to recreate the experiences of Juan de Oñate and the Franciscans who came north with him in 1598. He thought the "hunched junipers and piñons" would remind them, not just of their Estremaduran homeland, but of the olive groves of the Holy land.
I was too young to know the Michigan land had changed several times since whites had intruded in the 1830's. He may not have known single-seeded junipers had been encroaching on grasslands since the suppression of wildfires in the 1880's, and were more common when he saw them than they had been during the entrada.
Ecological facts would not have mattered to either of us seeking an imaginative leap into the past through the only thing that remained, the landscape.
Those who only know the juniper from photographs of perfect specimens would not understand the associations made by a Franciscan scholar born in Wagon Mound in 1910. Our native trees are clusters of gray trunks buffeted by high winds into asymmetric stabiles that rarely reach their full 40' height.
Juniper is one of the first plants to come back after fire, and its deep taproot and supporting surface roots have adapted to drought. Even in the best conditions, it only grows about 6" every ten years, a foot every score. While this Pinaceae may bear fruit when it’s ten years old, its best years come when the gray-green evergreen reaches 50 and last another 150 years.
Juniperus monosperma is more than an indicator plant for vegetation at our elevation between 5,000' and 7,500'. For centuries, the dark purple berries were a staple of the pueblo diet, replaced only when other foods became available. Santa Clara used the wood for bows and digging sticks, bound the shredded bark with yucca for torches. Spanish speakers used sabino wood for ceiling lath.
Hu seeped into Santa Clara ritual life where Robbins and Harrington heard juniper branches were substituted for the preferred spruce in dances, while women purified themselves the third day after childbirth with bath water infused by the fleshy, flat leaves.
To the west, Zuñi women drank hot tea of toasted twigs and berries during labor. Spanish-speaking women in northern New Mexico sipped a half-cup each morning during the last month of their pregnancies brewed from the herringboned branch tips.
Now winter has set in, the only green I see from my window is the scrubby juniper where the quail run for shelter. When I walk out, all I see are green bumps on the ranges rippling away from the river and arroyo. Even though I know the trees have probably only grown since the ranch beyond ceased operations, there is still something elemental about the dark dervishes clinging to the earth like Franciscans called to matins by Chávez’s hero, Junípero Serra.Notes:Chávez, Angélico. My Penitente Land, 1974.Cobos, Rubén. A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish, 1983.Curtin, L. S. M. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.Dunmire, William M. and Gail D. Tierney. Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province, 1995Johnson, Kathleen A. "Juniperus monosperma", 2002, in United States Forest Service, Fire Effects Information System, available on-line.Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.Stevenson, Martha Coxe. The Zuni Indians, 1904, reprinted by The Rio Grande Press, Inc., 1985.
Photograph: Juniper on the prairie, 22 December 2007.

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