Volume 3 - No. 4
LET'S SEE THE DESERT
By William L. Bowen,
If your automobile balks in the desert, and an investigation reveals that the trouble is due to a break in the gasoline-feed line, look around for a Mesquite plant. Sometimes it's just a shrub; sometimes it's a small tree. In either case you are likely to find a gum exuding from the bark. The gum can be dissolved in a little water to make an excellent glue for emergency repairs to the gas line.
The Mesquite is one of the most valuable of desert plants. In addition to its utilization for firewood and fenceposts, it provides the material from which come many of the wooden buttons used on sports clothes. It has a highly nutritious bean which has long been one of the main sources of food for animals of the desert. Indian women have many ways of preparing the bean for food. There are recipes for bread, mush, and even for a drink reputed to be as refreshing as lemonade. And that gum which was used in making emergency glue - well, it can be used in making candy, too!
Such bits of practical information are provided by Park Rangers, in interpreting the natural phenomena to visitors in the national parks and monuments. Like the analysts who can "read between the lines", the Park Rangers are trained to look behind the surface, and to point out and explain the things that are not always apparent to casual observers. This interpretive service is free, and it has been organized to assist visitors in getting more enjoyment from the areas. So when you go to the national parks and monuments, join the Ranger parties.
The Ranger has only a few minutes to meet his party and to gauge the individual interests. Such things as bits of conversation, auto licenses, and clothes enable him to sort the group, and to make a quick mental assembly of those points of interest which are likely to make the most appeal in this particular case. This time we are going to see one of the Southwestern areas, and so - let's get along.
First there is Mr. Photographer. His battery of cameras testify that he wants to take some pictures. With him is Mrs. Housewife, that patient soul who has already spent much time waiting for John to get a picture. Often it will help when he shows the pictures to the folks back home if she knows what they are pictures of - he sometimes misses that "angle."
In the second car is Mr. Doctor, identified by the physician tag attached to the license plate. Later we learn that his wife was the former Miss Dietician.
In the third car are two middle-aged women. The first is a school teacher - she wants all the available literature on the park for her class in geography. Her traveling companion, judging from the easel, must be from the art department of the same school.
The man traveling with his little boy turns out to be a contractor who is going to be interested in stresses and strains and the relative merits of local building materials. His son meanwhile will have that natural curiosity of the young for any and all things that are new and comprehensible.
The array of musical instruments bear witness that the six boys traveling together are a dance orchestra absorbing a little scenery between bookings.
Here, then, is the group for whom we are going to interpret a section of this great Southwest which many people preconceive to be a land of sand dunes, heat, and wasteland with little or no vegetation.
The first plant we pass is the Thorn Apple, or Jimson Weed. This white, 6-inch, tubular blossom can be "sold" to Mr. Photographer; just the thing for a color shot. The Doctor will be interested to know that this plant belongs to the tobacco family, and contains the powerful drug, stramonium. Both the ancient and modern Indians of North and South America knew this drug. The group as a whole will see in this plant something as beautiful as the fragile, potted Easter Lily, and will respect it, not alone for its beauty, but for its hardiness that life in the desert demands. While Mr. Photographer is getting his camera back in its case, there is time to point out to the contractor's little boy how a flower is made up; and that if you can recognize petals, sepals, and stamens, you have made a start toward understanding botany.
Jimson Weed lends itself to study since it is large enough that even Mr. Bandleader recalls his course in freshman botany. Mrs. Housewife can see the resemblance between this bloom and that of the tomato vine in her own garden. Nature does strange things when she places one of man's best foods and one of nature's most powerful drugs in the same plant family.
Moving on a little farther we stop in front of a plant perhaps 2 feet tall with pale yellow or cream-colored blossoms. It is Wild Tobacco, a cousin of the Jimson Weed. The Bandleader takes up the chant of the tobacco auctioneer, ending with "Sold to the First American." He is right. The two most common wild tobaccos in this region were used by the "First Americans." In many cases the ancient Indian used tobacco because he thought it enabled him to commune more easily with his tribal deities.
Next is the Mesquite. If this shrub were turned around, with the roots in the air, the tree would compare in height with an elm in a city park. On the desert, water is the limiting factor, and the scrubby Mesquite has an enormous root system to provide sufficient water for the small part above ground. A closer examination of the tree will give the group a first-hand understanding of why the early Vaquero developed chaps as part of his working clothes when riding the Southwestern ranges. Catsclaw and Mimosa are other shrubs that can be explained in conjunction with Mesquite, since they are all members of the same family. After one encounter with the thorns of either of these plants, people seldom ask why the common name of Catsclaw.
In many parts of the Southwest, where Mesquite grows on the richer bottomland, the hills farther back are covered with Creosote Bush. Mr. Doctor will be interested to know that the Indian boiled the leaves of the Creosote Bush to make a tea that was considered a remedy for coughs and chest colds. Later, after the discovery of America, the Indian used the plant against diseases brought by the white man; notably, syphilis. The yellow, waxy blossoms are interesting because of the tendency of the petals to turn on edge. The contractor's boy will probably tell you that they look like the pinwheels he shoots on the Fourth of July. The visitors will understand the common name, Creosote Bush, the first time they are caught in a shower on the desert, and smell the fresh, clean odor so characteristic of the plant.
Perhaps Miss Artist is interested in mosaic work. Some of the finest, ancient turquoise mosaics made by the Indians were glued together with a lac sometimes found on the Creosote Bush. This plant seems to grow in the driest of the dry places. A waxy covering over the leaves prevents the strong desert sun from drawing the water from the plant tissues. Mr. Doctor can undoubtedly cite some similar case in which members of the human race have adapted themselves to a not-too-friendly environment.
The tourist associates Cactus with the Southwest, and some one of the plant's thousand-odd species is bound to show up on any trip through this region. Cacti vary in size from tiny little buttons to the giant of the family, the Saguaro. Together they make up one of the Southwest's most interesting and beautiful exhibits. The Saguaro, by its own fantastic shapes and upraised arms, usually puts the crowd in a good humor from the start. Anyone who has an ounce of that all-important trait, imagination, can find in a stand of Saguaros an individual portraying human emotions from sorrow to hilarious joy. If it is during the blooming season Mrs. Housewife or Miss Schoolteacher will surely see the resemblance between the tiny little flowers so ludicrously perched on top of this massive trunk, and some portly woman under a particularly small hat.
In its range the Saguaro is one of the most useful of desert plants. Its fruits, in common with those of other cacti, are a staple food among the Indians living in the area. The fruit is gathered by using a long stick with a hook on the end. The ribs of the tree fit together something like the bellows of an accordion, and by expansion the plant is able to store much water which is gradually given back to growth, with a corresponding return to a slender figure, during dry spells. The long straight ribs of the dead plant are used for building purposes.
Prickly Pear is another member of the cactus family that will lend itself to wide interpretation. Here is a plant which arms for defense but does not forget beauty, for the blossoms are among the desert's masterpieces. The fruit, when peeled, is tasty and nutritious, whether raw or cooked. One can give Mrs. Housewife the recipe for "Tuna Preserves." Remove the small prickles by rolling the pear in sand; peel, remove seeds, cook by the open kettle method, adding sugar if desired, and the result is a deep red, tangy preserve. The Indians made syrup by continuing the boiling until nothing was left but the thick, sweet juice.
The members of the party who are not familiar with the Southwest may want to place other plants in the cactus family which do not belong there. Among these are Yucca, Agave, and Ocotillo. The slender, almost leafless stems of the Ocotillo will give Mr. Photographer an interesting "shot" when the blooming season tips the end of each stem with scarlet. Mr. Contractor's boy will be glad Ocotillo does not grow in his community, as the path of the transgressor could be very thorny.
The Yucca, common over a large part of the lower elevations, is used by the Indians in making baskets. Taken internally the plant is a laxative. The roots can be used as soap. The Hopis say you can cure baldness by washing the head with Yucca root and rubbing with duck grease, because "ducks have such heavy feathers." The long fibers in the leaves of the Broad-leaf Yucca were used in making twine, and Mrs. Dietician and Mrs. Housewife can prepare a new dish by baking the seed pods in earth ovens. Miss Artist has no doubt marveled at the beautiful designs painted on the prehistoric Indian pottery. Many of the lines, as fine as though done with an expensive brush, were probably painted with the chewed end of a Yucca leaf.
Agave, also known as Mescal, or Century Plant, will add one more item to the long list of new dishes Mrs. Housewife and Mrs. Dietician have encountered on their journey through the desert. The common name, Century Plant, is no doubt an exaggeration; however, the plant does spend from 10 to 20 years getting ready for its one flowering flourish which ends in the death of the plant.
Here each plant and each life zone takes on an individuality which, when interpreted to the individual interest of the visitor, will send him back to his lusher home pasture with a sympathy, an understanding, and an admiration for those plants and those individuals which make the desert their home. Here are plants and men who can get more results from one drop of water than most modern civilization can get from a barrelful.
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