I Find a Familiar Plant, and Old Friends Tumble By

yerbasanta.jpgI found an old friend at the cabin this weekend. I’d known it first from the California chaparral when I was growing up. I would have brought a sprig to the house, crinkling my nose at its medicinal smell. I’d have pored over my field guide, skipped the italics, and called it “yerba buena.” Its softness, the wholesome sheen of its leaves: they contrasted to the roughness or sickly stickiness of everything else around: the gravel; the monkeyflowers; pokey-edged leaves. Skin-ripping, rigid twig. The edges of yerba buena’s leaves were scalloped like a proper cotton blouse. Its flowers were prim, and very white; and they bobbed above the leaves like well-mannered adornments. Let’s say it was 1965 and I was nine years old.

During my PhD twenty years later, I made friends the field guide’s author, the smiley John Thomas. And John Thomas was a student of Doc Wiggins who was famous in my house from the stories. He and his wife lived in Barrow, Alaska during the same two years as my parents in the early fifties. Old friends, old friends.

In the summer of 1978, I took Organic Chemistry at UC Santa Cruz because I’d had to drop my Swarthmore class when I’d gotten mononucleosis in the fall. I liked plant ecology, so I volunteered in a lab while I was there. Jean Langenheim let me work with Dave Lincoln, a PhD student studying yerba buena’s chemical ecology: how different were the defenses it made in the sun and shade, where different pests would detect it, and where it had different resources for manufacture? Satureja douglasii, it became; its name, like me, grown up. Dave was generous with his wisdom. Over the next thirty years I’d see him and his wife Pat at professional meetings. And Jean suggested I might want to do a MS with Terry Chapin. I knew that name. In my library job at Swarthmore, I saw that Terry Chapin had checked out all the good books ten years before me. I did a Masters with Terry, and I still see Terry and Mimi; I saw them a month ago. Old friends, old friends.

In 2013, after many years of teaching and doing research on grass, poison oak, tundra seedlings, and lots and lots of wood, I had a sabbatical year. On the side, I took a writing class, a return to an activity I’d loved in the years before career and family became such focusses of time. I invented a story, since morphed to my novel, Nettle Soup. Deep in the Oregon Coast Range, my fourth-generation homesteader sat at the kitchen table and sipped her tea–Satureja douglasii tea–while she worried over family, community, and ethical duties that were important to her. More than a year later, I grudgingly changed her drink to a different mint species because in spite of inspecting every piece of land that my husband and I had trod on, we’d never found Satureja douglasii at the cabin.

But this weekend, en route to an outcrop to check if the Baccharis had bloomed, down below the ferns and salal, I saw the ruffle-edged leaves. I smelled before I could have smelled it; I saw sheen before I was close enough; I saw prim flowers but flowering was long past. On hands and knees I greeted my old friend. I thought of John Thomas, Doc and Dorothy, Jean Langenheim, Dave and Pat, Terry and Mimi, my character, and me. I realized with relief, she could drink her Satureja douglasii. That was what she wanted in the first place.

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