A reading by botanist Richard Felger
On December 4, 2017, in the historic Desert Laboratory library, the iconic desert botanist Richard Felger read from a lifetime of field notes made during his travels collecting plants in Mexico. He also collects stories, and is working on a book, Eye of the Desert: 10,000 Years of Field Notes.
As you can see when you read this excerpt, it was more like a poetry reading than a botanical lecture.
Richard Felger: This is part of a story from the Eye of the Desert.
It happened there, it happened then.
The People did less work though sometimes it was hard,
but fun because we didn’t do things alone.
We had time for storytelling, games and celebrations.
Teenagers spent hours arranging feathers and body paint;
boys put on new face paintings all through the day.
Nobody was homeless except banished criminals, and they didn’t live long.
Nobody was denied medicines and doctors spent a lot of time with you.
Too many babies died and too many women didn’t survive childbirth.
But women had special plants to prevent or end pregnancy,
and thought we men didn’t know about it.
People who made it through childhood and women through childbirth
were lean and strong in spirit.
Soul sickness was rare.
Not much emphasis on living too long. Nobody knew the years.
I asked some Old Ones if they wanted to go back to the Old Ways.
They said, “NO! It was hard.”
We have renowned medicinal experts.
Everybody collects and prepares tooth-root, dock, and creosotebush,
desert lavender, gummy aromatic snakeweed,
and dried desert mushroom, called land’s foreskin,
to prevent infection in cuts and wounds.
Everyone knows hierba de manso, good for so many things.
Each place has over a 100 medicinal plants.
And more than 1,000 across the place now called the Sonoran Desert.
Sometimes those shifty Nahuatl traders bring magic copper bells.
They want drug plants, turquoise, and young women.
Handsomely feathered birds are nearby,
and Imperial Woodpeckers,
they taste good and have feathers more valuable than an eagle’s
And Military Macaws raised in stone cages.
We trade feathers and medicinal plants and turquoise
for bison robes and slaves.
We keep waterholes open,
torching the dry brush in spring before the last frost,
So you can count on waterfowl, turtles, cattails
and reedgrass called baca for roofing, fencing,
walls, mats to sleep on, baskets, arrow shafts,
flutes, and containers for pigments and medicines.
The People of the Red River Delta and the Coastal People
fashion reed-raft-boats, balsas, from woven bundles of baca stems
tied with mesquite root rope and waterproofed with sea lion fat.
They ride out to sea to hunt sea turtles.
Balsas over 30 feet long can carry fifteen big turtles or a whole family.
Sometimes they lash 30 balsas together and 100 men row across the sea.
Once I walked 40 days to Cibola because it’s such a wondrous place to see.
Sometimes I go with other guys on the yearly trek to the Great Water for salt,
it’s a lot of fun although we pretend it’s a religious pilgrimage.
We come home to tell stories of swimming turtles, huge water-spouting fish-like creatures,
tall dark Coastal People,
and creatures of other worlds and when people were animals.
Do you know about the giant serpent down at the end of the desert?
The little snakes grow bigger
and in seven years come out of the sea
to destroy homes and crops.
Once a giant snake headed for the eight holy villages.
The One With Intelligence came down to destroy the snake.
A flash of light in the sky is said to be him.
He turned himself into Killer Grasshopper.
And the leaders asked for help.
He said ‘bring a leaf from each kind of plant’
He put the leaves in a big pot of boiling water.
When the water cooled, Killer Grasshopper jumped in and said,
“Meet the snake and shoot arrows at it, lure it to me.”
He jumped up into a mesquite tree.
The men met the snake but their arrows bounced off.
When the giant snake got closer,
Killer Grasshopper flew up and chopped off its head.
The snake’s head, body and tail
are a chain of black lava peaks running into the sea.
Killer Grasshopper knew that desert plants
have power over the forces of evil.
If you want the whole story, food plants, and medicinal plants, let’s get together for four nights.
Note: A version of Killer Grasshopper was first published by Ruth Giddings, 1959, Yaqui Myths and Legends. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
Eye of the Desert ©Richard Felger 2017.