Thursday, February 26, 2009
Mountain Misery and Skunk Cabbage
(image: the plant commonly known as "Mountain Misery," or
Chamaebatia Species: foliolosa)
In the High Sierra, there are at least two plants with over-powering aromas: skunk cabbage (often found in marsh-like conditions but at high altitude) and mountain misery, which seems to grow in the shade and is most drought-tolerant. These plants are serious about the way they smell. They also cause arguments. Some people, like me, like the way they smell. Other people don't. I think people from the latter group gave the plants their common (as opposed to Latin) names.
Of course creatures fascinated us. Like us
they'd ended up not in Paris or Perth but
in the High Sierra--by accident; or maybe
it was a career-move; who knows? Rattlesnakes,
skinks, lizards, ouzels, kildeers, owls, potato-bugs,
scorpions, deer, periwinkles, bears, raccoons,
bobcats, cougars, water-snakes, hawks,
and company charmed us like wizards.
The plants, too, cast a magic, though, rooted,
they were easier to ignore and less dramatic.
The way milkweed actually bled milk when
snapped, every time: so cool. How skunk-cabbage
(Lysichiton americanus) and mountain misery
embraced you with their odors like a boozy,
perfumed, vivid aunt: wow. Anis-stalks tasted like
licorice. Pine-sap softened by saliva turned
into gum. Take your chances with wild berries:
elderberries, yes; inkberries, no. We climbed
pines and firs, rode them as they
bent with the wind as flexibly as
grass-blades. What was the strangest
vegetation of all? I will say the snow plant,
Sarcodes sanguinea, bereft of chlorphyll.
It was less than creature but more
than plant. One day it would simply arise
beneath a tree in snow, bright red in Winter,
broadcasting a mute allure that suggested
it might not be a part of any timely scheme.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom