Gnosis Through Taxonomy … or Science Fictions

(What follows is originally from an email exchange with my friend & novelist John Crowley)

Gnosis Through Taxonomy … or Science Fictions

February 2020

John,

I’ve been meaning to thank you for the inscribed copies of your latest book collections (And Go Like This; short stories, and Reading Backwards; essays.) My own work and interests means I have varied stretches of time where all my reading is non-fiction — botany (both “general” and detailed taxonomical work), ecology, anthropology, archaeology, and history. There have been some periods where this has been my exclusive reading focus for years on end. Usually, however, I am seized by an almost visceral need to “balance” this out by immersing myself in fiction. Occasionally I juggle both. Currently I have been in a rarer state of floating between the two– being drawn to both and pondering their intersection or interpenetration. The arrival of Reading Backwards could not have been more timely. I’ve been enjoying it immensely. I’ve been reading it in a rather random/intuitive manner; starting with the last two entries first, next the prologue, then a random scattershot. Most recently I settled onto the beginning of section three (Norman Bel Geddes) and have been carried along towards where I began reading–at which point I’ll need to make use of the table of contents to ascertain the unread portions…
As always I find something familiar and comforting about your prose. There’s also a clarity of thought which is both refreshing and inspiring, especially after reading so many dry academic texts. I hope to one day have the space to write more. My biggest obstacle is a paucity of time for such endeavors (compounded by the seemingly endless cacophony of young girls and their imperial requests! The sudden lack of which can be just as confounding!)
Whenever I read something that touches me, a feel compelled to reciprocate in some manner. I’m not sure why this is, most folks seem to be content with being “consumers” of books. I always feel like it is some co-creative process that I should (though rarely do) take a more active role in. So let me attempt to share at least one small sapling of thought that germinated years ago and got well fertilized while reading some of your essays. I realize it is inevitably incomplete and I would need much more time to fully flesh it out. Yet I think (hope!) you can still make sense of it and will find some amusement in it.

In the piece on Madame Blavatsky you have a wonderful line where you write that Yeats’s:
“The trance principal of nature” might be a good name for the apparently hardwired human impulse to make and become enthralled in fictions.”
This got me musing about the degree to which this “hardwired human impulse”, arguably a religious impulse, is found in the sciences such as taxonomy.
I have an ongoing fascination with taxonomy. Not just plant taxonomy– but the whole human propensity to describe and classify the world– I find utterly bizarre yet alluring. Entrancing even.
I have “discovered” and helped describe through publication several new species of Andean succulent Echeveria in the past decade, I’ve had to key and identify hundreds of plants during my travels or years on as the seed I collected has grown into mature flowering specimens. I make use of these taxonomical systems all the time. Yet I have come to view taxonomy (at least plant taxonomy) as a “philosophical science.”
There are varied philosophical foundations to how one gathers and interprets data, to ones education and beliefs about the endless unfurling routes of evolutionary biology. What constitutes a Genus, a Species? At what moment in evolutionary time, in which exact generation, does a change from one species to new distinct species occur? Is this truly recognizable? Measurable? These are deep philosophical ponderings without absolute physical answers. The recent trend in taxonomy to use genetic mapping has not clarified this as greatly as some would like us to believe. Highly useful in some cases yet there are a surprising number of arbitrary ways knowledge of DNA is interpreted and then applied in classifying genera.
At times the whole affair can seem an absurd compulsion, like trying to describe and order water droplets in a river.
Ultimately our descriptions and ordering always fall short. The map is not the territory. They are a form of fiction (science fiction?) A highly useful fiction that is born from our enchantment with, and need to make sense of, Life (what to best call it? The Real? Nature- I find deeply problematic) At their best these fictions can be a tools that enable us to have more meaningful relations with Life in all its diverse exuberance. Yet many taxonomists are still caught up in the religious impulse of science. Believing in– and searching for– the monism of “Truth.” I found your brief explanation of medieval nominalists versus realists (in the Rosamond Purcell piece) as a useful example of a now subconscious philosophy that still strongly influences the workings of taxonomy. (J. Crowley writes – “Medieval nominalists were opposed to realists, who thought that organizing categories, types, concepts, had a real, not merely a notional, existence; the treeness that all trees share was as real a thing as any individual tree. The nominalists said that such categories were mere names, not realities, a human mental construct, a handy tool; every existent thing was unique in itself, and not just the emanation of some overarching logos.”)

To some of my colleagues what I’ve written would be a form of heresy. I’m sure I could find a train of thought to refute my own thinking here, but for now I’ll just sit with that awareness.
It is so easy for us to get entangled in our own complex constructs, in language itself. Part of why I find some occult and Gnostic systems so compelling is their predilection to recognize us as lost or entrapped within some fiction and the longing to transcend this, to return to our origins.
For myself, this has always been about the fictions we can’t help but impose upon our world through language, through dizzyingly complex architectures of thought and our capacity to also allow such compelling ephemera to disperse and be re-immersed into the flow and tumult of Life…
So what I am realizing while writing this is that, in a sense, I experience some gnosis through taxonomy; it is both an enthralling fiction and a doorway to escape that fiction and return to the arms of the utterly strange yet familiar living world of which I am…
I think this is part of why I’ve found your Aegypt tetrology so deeply affecting; the long journey it charts from the lofty heights of occult enthrallment through to the even more wondrous stars, stones and roses of the quotidian.

saludos,
Ben

Date: Tue, 25 Feb 2020 19:39:02 -0500
From: john crowley To: Ben Kamm

Ben —

Thank you for this perspicuous and actually quite moving piece. I certainly hope you find time for writing — you certainly have the power. Your thoughts in the piece align with mine in some ways: at 77 I can sometimes feel that the world around is somehow insubstantial, even unreal (that it is losing substance in fact is a different feeling). I have been meditating in the last couple of years and (as promised) have had some insights delivered I would not have acquired in other ways — a few days ago as I was remembering some incident in my past, it was made clear to me that the past doesn’t exist. Sort of absurd to say, since it lies all around us, but I think you might know what I mean. The insights granted you in the work you do are like those given me in my work: dealing with matters that have a real and solid yet at the same time so tenuous that they border on the imaginary. It can be lovely sometimes to experience this.

Love to you and the women folk —

John Crowley

Copyright Ben Kamm, et al 2020

Family Tales

Family Tales
I was told quite young that we had Cherokee ancestors on my mother’s side, but nothing more. As I grew up, hearing one has Cherokee blood began to sound like a classic American cliche. I always assumed that digging up any information about said ancestry would be difficult at best. Several years ago, overcome by some esoteric mood, I began looking into the endless bifurcations of my genealogy. Knowledge of my dad’s Russian/Jewish heritage begins with his maternal and paternal grandparents arrival on eastern US shores and whatever family remained in the “old world” was later lost to us in the smoke and tears of WW2. My mom’s paternal line meanders back to late 1700s Ireland–with side trails disappearing into the mists of Scotland, England, France, Germany–a spicing of Blackfoot and negro rumors thrown in for good measure. But then looking at my mom’s maternal side I discovered, literally, whole volumes.
My mother’s mother’s mother, Ruth Ghan, was a mixblood Cherokee and the last in my line who knew the language; she intentionally did not teach it to my grandmother. Fleeing her Indian identity, she left Oklahoma for San Francisco, California around 1916 in her late teens. Her father, Darius Ward, was a cabinet maker who held various minor offices in the Cherokee government in Oklahoma. His parents, James Ward and Esther Hoyt Ward, died tragically before he was ten. Both James and Esther were born in the original Cherokee Territory (which includes the Carolinas, Tennessee, parts of Georgia and Alabama) and survived the trials of the Trail of Tears as children. James became a teacher at a Moravian Mission in Oklahoma. During the Civil War the Cherokee Nation was deeply divided and James was brutally murdered by his own people (including a family “friend”) because he came from a Southern family. Esther fled with her five children to church friends in Arkansas then Salem, Illinois, where she promptly died upon arrival. Esther’s father was Milo Hoyt, the son of a prominent early missionary, and her mother was Lydia Lowrey Hoyt, author of the first Christian hymn written in Cherokee–which came to her in a visionary dream. Lydia’s father was Major George Lowrey (or Lowery) (named Agi’li: in Cherokee “He Is Rising” “Aspiring” or “Standing Tall” due to his tall stature and reported regular presence standing next to government officials and missionaries as a translator, perhaps also his religious aspirations). He was the assistant principle chief (VP) of the Cherokee Nation during the time of the Removal / Trail of Tears–he’s in every book I’ve come across on Cherokee history. He was said to be a great orator and have a “deep humor”. He was something of a proselytizer of Christianity and the myth of progress and was instrumental in the Cherokee adoption of “white” civilization as a means of cultural survival. He was bestowed the honorary title of “Major” for his valor fighting alongside Andrew Jackson during the war of 1812. Of course, it was Jackson who was responsible for the forced removal of the Cherokee from their ancestral lands in 1838. Ethnologist James Mooney wrote that the Removal “may well exceed in weight of grief and pathos any other passage in American history.” A Georgia Confederate colonel wrote: “I fought through the Civil War and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by the thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.” Lucy Benge, my 7x great grandmother and Lowrey’s wife, was half sister of Sequoya (also a cousin of G. Lowrey), who in addition to lending his name to our largest trees, is remembered for being so enamored by the idea of the written word that he created an alphabet (syllabary) for the Cherokee language that was adopted and put into use by the entire tribe in a relatively few short years. Gifting his people their own writing and reading–unique in the annals of history and a rather astounding feat for someone who had only ever seen a few “white man’s” books and never learned to speak, read or write English. One of Lowrey’s ancestors was the blood-soaked war chief Oconostata who survived numerous massacres and helped ratify peace with the Iroquois and British. His name translates as “Groundhog Sausage” (literally “pounded groundhog”!). Things then begin to get a little murky at this period where matrilineal descent through the seven clans was still common. It seems that I’m related to several other prominent 18th century chiefs, British soldiers (such as John Stuart (know to the Cherokee as “Bushyhead”) and Scottish, British and Irish fur traders ( Benge (Byng), Daugherty, Lowrey, Watts, Ward, etc.) that eschewed colonial culture and chose to live in the “wilderness” in the mid 1600s.

This is where I set down my research. Honestly, discovering this rich and tragic hidden family history was a bit unsettling. I’ve always been intuitively aware of a subterranean chasm of grief in my maternal lineage and now that I have stories to illuminate that terrain it appears stranger and more expansive than I could have imagined. I’m still not quite sure how to relate to or fully integrate it. It evokes a new empathy in me for the characters in John Crowley’s stories who find themselves entangled in gossamer webs of some aged tale…

Little People:
So… the ethnologist J. F. Kilpatrick edited the written recollections and stories of my great-grandpa George Lowrey’s granddaughter (my great-grandma Esther’s sister, I guess that makes her my great-great aunt?) Lucy Keys (her Cherokee name was Wahnenauhi: “Over-There-They-Just-Arrived-With-It”!?) This was published by the Smithsonian. It is within this collection that short stories of the “little people” occurs.
I find it fascinating that part of the story is the “little people” leaving –departing for lands beyond…and their name Nunne’he (or Nuh-na-yie) translates as “they who continue to live”. In ethnologist James Mooney’s documentation of Eastern Cherokee in the late 1800s Nunne’hi is a more general term for what he translates as “dwellers anywhere” or “immortals”. The “little people” are a diminutive subspecies referred to as Yunwi Tsundsi. One tale explains how prior to the Removal (Trail of Tears) the Nunne’hi warned certain villages of grave misfortunes on the horizon and invited the people to come and live with them in their eternal lands within the mountains and rivers. I’d like to think that some of my ancestors chose that route…

It seems that nearly every culture I’ve come across has some story of “little people”. Whether this is some mythic impulse, a universal archetype necessary to the stories we tell or something that exists (or existed) outside of ourselves is a conundrum–at least for those of us swayed by the revelations of science. For my ancestors, these stories suggest the “little people” were an integral part of their ecology, real enough to have an active living relationship with…which may be what truly matters.

copyright Ben Kamm, December 2014

Relictual Anthropogenic Vegetation at Choquequirao

5/12/15

(A slightly altered version of this article was published in The Explorer’s Journal in tandem with a longer piece by archaeologist Gary Ziegler, you can email us for a pdf of the article)

Possible Relictual Anthropogenic Vegetation at Choquequirao

At the time of Spanish contact the Inca had highly diverse agriculture (National Research Council 1989) and a complex relationship with trees which were intimately associated with the ancestors (Ansion 1986, Sherbondy 1986). Harnessing the fecundity of the land was an integral expression of Incan power (Dean 2011). We know the Inca had a priest class, the Mallki-camayoc, dedicated to agroforestry (Sherbondy 1986, Johannessen and Hastorf 1990) and were actively planting forests before the Spanish arrival (Chepstow-Lusty and Winfield 2000). Despite such documentation, the first thing done at most archaeological sites is vegetation removal without considering its historical, cultural and conservation value. Assessing the vegetation at Andean archaeological sites has been largely overlooked, yet may provide another important view towards better understanding past cultures and their ecological relations. With this in mind, we conducted a cursory floristic inventory of the cloudforest at Choquequirao during our short time there in May 2014. Given our temporal constrictions, this should only be considered a brief initial survey and is by no means exhaustive. We counted over 70 species of plants from 42 families. About two-thirds of these species have some known cultural significance or ethnobotanical usage. This diversity would appear to be considerably higher than the cloudforest just outside the archaeological site, but further observations would need to be made to conclusively confirm this. To what degree this high diversity is due to the favorable microclimates, water and nutrient catchment of the topography of the ruins or is the result of Incan horticultural practices warrants further study. The absence of any Spanish introduced plants helps to confirm Choquequirao’s isolation during and after the conquest. Further pollen studies, analysis of carbon remains and wood utilized in construction at the site would also give us deeper insight into the vegetation of Choquequirao and how it has changed over the centuries.

The following three species are the ones we think are most likely Incan relicts:
Ceroxylon sp.– Only about a dozen specimens of this palm were observed in the vicinity of the section of ruins referred to as the ridge group or pikiwasi. The tallest were about 8 m (26′) tall with hemipsherical crowns of large pinnate leaves. Ceroxylon is an endangered Andean endemic taxon with 6 species reported from Peru. Utilized for construction and thatching, the waxy coating on the stems has been used for candle production and the fruit of some species is edible (Sanin & Galeano 2011). Ceroxylon quindiuense is reported from the Chachapoyas ruins in Amazonas Dept., Peru and is utilized in agroforestry of the region (Galeano et. al. 2008). There have been very limited herbarium collections of C. parvifrons and C. vogelianum from near the Apurimac (Sanin & Galeano 2011). Taxonomically the plants at Choquequirao are closest to C. vogelianum but morphological variation keep us from clearly identifying as that species. It is highly probable that occurrence of Ceroxylon at Choquequirao is anthropogenic.

Cedrela angustifolia– “Andean mahogany”, “Cedro”. A large tree to 45m (150′), this Andean species is documented within much of the former Incan empire: from southern Ecuador to northern Argentina (Pennington & Muellner 2010). Highly valued and overharvested for its durable wood, it is now rare throughout most of its range, though known historically to have been much more abundant (Gade 1999). Common at Choquequirao, specimens of all sizes occur. It may be worthwhile to conduct dendritic analysis of the larger trees to assess their age.

Solanum ochranthum– This is an unusual woody tomato vine that grows to 10m (33′) tall and bears large, thick skinned, green fruit with an edible pulp. It has a broad distribution from Columbia to southern Peru, though locally rare. Its reported occurence in Chachapoyas, Machu Picchu and now Choquequirao suggests possible anthropogenic dispersal. (Peralta et. al. 2008).

To mention just a few of the other culturally important tree species that are common at Choquequirao– Escallonia resinosa “chachacomo”, Hesperomeles ferruginea “mayu manzana, Piper elongatum “mocomoco”, Vallea stipularis“chijllur”, and a few possible agricultural relicts: Arracacia sp. “arracacha”, Bomarea sp. “sullusullu”, Cypella sp. “chulluco”, Physalis peruviana “aguaymanto”.

Ben Kamm is an independent ethnobotanical researcher and conservationist based in northern California.

REFERENCES
Ansion, J. 1986 El arbol y el bosque en la sociedad Andina. Proyecto FAO-Holanda/INFOR. Lima, Peru.

Chepstow-Lusty, A. and Winfield, M. 2000 Inca Agroforestry: Lessons from the Past. Ambio Vol 29 No. 6, 322-328

Dean, C. 2011. Inka water management and the symbolic dimensions of display fountains. Res 59/60 Anthropology and aesthetics. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Gade, D.W. 1999 Nature and Culture in the Andes. University of Wisconsin Press.

Galeano, G., Sanin, M.J., Mejia, K., Pintaud, K-C., and Milan, B. 2008. Novelties in the genus Ceroxylon (Arecaceae) from Peru, with description of a new species. Rev. peru. biol. 15 (suppl. 1): 065-072–The palms in South America

Johannessen, S. and Hastorf, C. 1990 A history of fuel management (A.D. 500 to the present) in the Mantaro Valley, Peru. J. Ethnobiology 10, 61-90

National Research Council. 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas. National Acadamy Press, Washington, D.C.

Pennington, T.D. and Muellner, A.N. 2010 Monograph of Cedrela (Meliaceae). dh Books, England.

Peralta, I.E., Spooner, D.M., Knapp, S. 2008. Taxonomy of Wild Tomatoes and their Relatives (Solanum sect. Lycoperiscoides, sect. Juglandifolia, sect. Lycoperscicon; Solanaceae). Systematic Botany Monographs Vol. 84. The American Society of Plant Taxonomists

Sanin, M.J. and Galeano, G. 2011. A revision of Andean wax palms, Ceroxylon (Arecaceae). Phytotaxa 34, 1–64

Sherbondy, J.E. 1986 Mallki: Ancestros y cultivo de arboles in los Andes. Documento de trabajo no. 5 Proyecto FAO-Holanda/INFOR/GCP/PER/027/NET. Lima, Peru

copyright Ben Kamm 2015

Botanical Reflections

December 31, 2011

December being the month of my birth, and when night casts its longest shadow, is also a time of introspection. I had recently been thinking about the unique ethnobotanical knowledge of children. Not usually one for extended nostalgic reverie, I now find myself pondering aspects of the first ten years of my life. Consider what follows a Solstice offering if you will, a nod to the past, a small sharing of self. Perchance you will find it entertaining or it will inspire your own cascade of recollections.

?My early memories are a kaleidoscope of sensation, incandescent joys and virgin melancholies. This is still mirrored to me when I hear the early 70s music of Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Janis Ian. Like that music which wove itself through my initial years and in some way gave form to who I am, I’ve come to recognize that there was a whole panoply of plants that also infected me with their enchantments, infusing something potent, deep within the roots of my being. Bear with me as I meander through memories from my first decade that still exude an aura of magic, yet to be washed away by the cleansing flood of time…

Around the age of 3 we lived on a farm nestled in a valley south of the city of San Luis Obispo in Central California. It is here that my vegetal initiation began. I remember watching my mom transplant small seedlings from paper cups into mounds of sweet smelling freshly tilled dark earth. Becoming cognizant of how I could help, I carefully followed behind her pulling the tender young plants out of the soil. It wasn’t until she got to the end of the row and turned around that she discovered what I was doing and gently set me on the right track. Sometime later that year I recall the joy of struggling to pull the serpentine garden hose over to water sunflowers that were beginning to tower over my head, a feeling of gratitude emanating from their large leaves that waved to me in the warm summer breeze.

The next year in preschool I was introduced to the miracle of sprouting beans, inspecting them each day, snuggled warm and moist in a bed of paper towels on the windowsill. The timeless wonder of life’s spark as they swelled, their skin split and the roots emerged, then cotyledon leaves, pushing up, seeking light. The distinct earthy-sour aroma of this process. The excitement of filling cups with dirt and carefully planting the naked seedlings within. This was undoubtedly the single most valuable lesson I learned in school. Germinating seeds is still one of the great passions of my life.

Growing at the edges of the school playground was a lowly mallow plant with rounded leaves and small pinkish flowers. What all the children appreciated most was the little rounded immature seed clusters which inspired the name “cheeseweed”. We would collect these miniature rounds of green veggie-cheese and when enough were in hand we’d gobble them up, relishing the mucilaginous texture and vaguely cheesy flavor.

Around this time someone demonstrated to me how to select the tender young fennel stalks and peel the fibrous skin back to get to the crisp and juicy sweet flesh. The flavor was beguiling and I could spend many a happy moment peeling and crunching stalk after emerald stalk. This became one of my favored snacks, no patch was safe from my ardent ravishings.

When I was around the age of 5 my mom moved to an old sprawling house on a farm in the rolling hills south of Arroyo Grande, about 20 miles from San Luis Obispo. This we christened Ft. Avocado on account of the large avocado trees that ringed the property. It was something of a wonderland for my small self and I came under the almost tutelary influence of many plants there. The small purple-black skinned avocados were in excess much of the year, hundreds littering the ground, slowly decaying into a sugary smelling sticky mulch. As well as becoming projectiles for my reenactments of epic battles from Star Wars or Thundarr the Barbarian, they were a constant source of nourishment, most often sliced in half, dashed with balsamic vinegar and spooned into my eager mouth. My mom was continually churning out guacamole and more experimental but highly successful creations like avocado pie and chocolate sauce. In the diffused light of the kitchen windowsill we were perpetually sprouting avocado pits by piercing them with a few toothpicks to suspend them partway in a jar of water, gifting the resulting treelets to friends and family.

Just outside the kitchen door was a shrub with large velvety leaves and huge, double trumpet, white flowers which exhaled an exquisite scent. This plant seemed to exert some spell over me. I recall many times staring at the shrub, enthralled by the scent of the flowers, sitting on the kitchen steps carefully peeling away the outer blossom to examine the convoluted one within, a heavenly pillowed landscape for hundreds of tiny insects. The plant seemed vaguely mammallian to me, associating the soft down of the leaves and blossoms with the fuzz on my slender arms or the skin of the pink babies that my pet rat, Rattie-Tat, had recently birthed (and soon devoured in a cannabilistic nightmare!) I now know this bewitching shrub to be the white angel’s trumpet, Brugmansia x candida, well respected by horticulturalists and shamans alike.

In the large open living room of the house there was a reproduction of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, which I found utterly fascinating and disturbing. I spent a good deal of time lost in the pleasures and horrors of that wondrous and deranged landscape. In the shady areas outside the house dwelled another plant that seemed an unmistakable hybrid of vegetal and animal. It evoked the same fascination as Bosch’s art, in fact looked like something right out of the painting, a confrontation with living ambivalence. An Arum species whose obscene fleshy purple flowers erupted from the ground to emit a noxious stench akin to rotting meat with delicate overtones of excrement. All manner of flies and beetles found this irresistible and performed curious dances upon the blossoms. As the vaginal spathe withered, the phallic spadix swelled lewdly into what looked to me to be a devilish bright-red corn cob. This I knew instinctually to be toxic.

Out back of the house in the shade of the avocado trees were a series of ornate shallow cement ponds with small cement bridges connecting them, probably the creation of someone’s faery-infested nostalgic Victorian longing. The bottom of the ponds had cracked many years before, so they never held water. Surrounding the ponds and often scrambling within was an extensive patch of nasturtium, their large round leaves providing shade for the various insects and toads that I was always on the hunt for. My mom showed me to eat the regal orange and red flowers whose spicy flavor was a strange delight. The rounded green seeds were a small treasure to me, a faery jewel, the way they rolled between my fingers, fit in the palm of my hand, filled the pockets of my overalls.

Scattered around the property were patches of Oxalis pes-caprae, which we knew as “sour grass”. The clover like leaves I identified with shamrocks, leprechauns and Irish ancestors. I thought that the bright yellow flowers were a clear signature of an affinity with citrus, the intense sour juice running through the stalks was surely the same juice that swelled the lemon. This ubiquitous weed was a refreshing snack that appeared to grow in every suburban backyard, even at school. All the kids around my age highly esteemed chewing the stems. I still ponder what it is about the sour flavor (oxalic acids) that children find so magnetic (my own son Shannon went through a phase of coveting an Andean species that is semi-weedy in our greenhouse). Most of us leave behind the craving for intensely sour flavors with adulthood, by my mid-teens it had lost its appeal.

There were several large Canary Island date palms on the land. I would imagine their massive columnar trunks to be the lumbering legs of a brontosaurus or wooly mammoth. The small yellow dates that showered the ground beneath the trees were mostly pit and no one paid them much attention, yet I found the thin stringy layer of sweet chewy flesh delectable and would squirrel them away for snacking.

There was a large castor bean bush that I found a little intimidating, the deep blood-red new growth, the spiky seed capsules, the veins of the huge palmate leaves radiating from a single point that appeared to gaze at me like the eye of the cyclops. Our neighbor mistakenly tied our two young goats near the plant one day which led to the demise of both bush and goats.

I loved to accompany my mom on the short walk to check the mailbox because of the large honeysuckle vine that ran rampant all along the dilapidated, lichen-encrusted fence bordering the property. The small glistening drop of nectar to be found within each yellow and orange flower was an ecstatic lesson in sweetness.

There was a small shaded stream that ran through the lower part of the land, the cool domain of polywogs, waterbeetles and nettles. It was here as well as San Luis Creek that I first discovered the sharp biting kiss of nettles, bringing tears and a persistent sting, yet for some reason I was continually drawn to experience this, even long for it at times. A good satisfying pain.

Just up the hill from the creek at the edge of the property was a hole in the fence where I could climb through to an open meadow and make tunnels in the aromatic green grass that towered over my head. In the middle of that field was my secret fort: a large poison oak bush with a hollowed cavity in the center of it. I remember laying in the embrace of its womb, feeling snug and content watching the dynamic play of sunshine amongst the leaves…it seems I was immune to the plant’s wrath, I never developed the rash, though others may have gotten it from me more than once…

During the school week I lived with my dad in suburban San Luis Obispo. From him I learned of the necessity for houseplants and how to care for them, mostly varieties of Pothos and Monstera and the small tree that inexplicably shared my name, Ficus benjamina. Occasionally, with my insistence, we’d venture into more exotic territory. The local Safeway periodically stocked those chlorophyll-deprived grafted cacti that were so popular in the 1980s: Gymnocalycium and Chaemaecereus mutants. How could a child resist the strange geometric forms and flourescent pinks, oranges, yellows and reds of these monstrosities? Appearing more akin to a grotesque pez dispenser than a living entity. They never survived more than year, the Hylocereus stock inevitably shriveling brown and the scion slowly losing its luster and turning to mush. The other houseplant I repeatedly convinced my dad to bring home only to perish were those amazing hybrid Begonia (Rex Cultorum group) with the crazy wrinkled and serrated leaves aswirl with exquisite color and patterns, disappointingly ephemeral in our hands.

My dad and I spent a good deal of time exploring the golden hills, granite capped mountains, oak filled valleys and expansive coastline of SLO County. We tried eating many feral foods: cattail rhizomes and flower stalks, miner’s lettuce, spicy wild mustard and salty salads of New Zealand spinach. Black sage (Salvia mellifera) and California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) provided the signature scent. Even today the smell of these aromatic plants invokes a wistful echo of my youthful wanderings. The dominant tree throughout much of the landscape was the coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia). There were so many of these charming noble trees that I spent time with, the gargantuan sprawling branches a welcoming playground, offering cool shade in the heat of summer, the architecture of their limbs and rough bark perfect for climbing and building tree houses, the leaf litter the abode of all sorts of interesting insects and the worm-like slender salamander. The acorns were always finding their way into my pockets. I tried eating the meat raw on numerous occasions, they looked so edible to me and I could never quite accept the astringency that greeted my tongue when I bit into a carefully peeled acorn. In the denser woodlands large colonies of pitcher sage, Salvia spathacea, carpetted the ground beneath the oaks, emitting a fruity smell when trampled. The hundreds of erect flower stalks with their large globose whorls of bright flowers hypnotized me. After observing the frenzied affairs of hummingbirds in their midst I was thrilled to discover that the magenta flowers secreted a delicious dollop of honey-nectar within.

Occuring throughout the foothills of San Luis Obispo were large patches of prickly pear cactus, Opuntia ficus-indica. These were most likely introduced from Mexico during the time of the Spanish missions, but may have also been part of Luther Burbank’s great “spineless cactus” debacle in the early 1900s. These colonies would often spread over several acres, the spiny pads forming a labrynthian fortress through which I would carefully traverse. The golden yellow flowers produced egg-sized red or orange fruit that I highly prized for their delicious flavor. Collecting and eating the fruit was a bit of a challenge. A small proportion of the plants were nearly spineless, but most were clothed in long vicious spines. I’d usually try to spear or knock off the fruits with a long stick. Once I had the fruits, I had to be especially cautious of the glochids, those miniscule barbed spines that armed the fruit. I did my best to avoid these by carefully slicing the fruit in half and scooping out the flesh, but many times I ended up with glochids in my hands or even my tongue and mouth. Because of this I had a strange relationship with the plant, and on several occasions, with a sturdy stick in hand for a sword, I waged war upon the cactus. Hacking and slashing the pads, the satisfaction of feeling the juicy innards splatter with my blows. Perhaps my later fascination with cactus was atonement for these violent acts or perhaps the plant had compelled me into what was ultimately a creative form of propagation rather than destruction… the pads I whacked to the ground would have simply rooted and grown more plants, like the severed heads of the mythical hydra.

When I was 8 my mom returned to the area after living in the mountains of Montana and Colorado for 2 years with my step dad and infant brother. For the next decade they lived in a house on 20 acres outside the small town of Nipomo, situated on a large sandy mesa about 40 minutes drive south of the city of San Luis Obispo. This is where I spent most weekends and stretches of summer. One of the most striking features there was the hundreds of acres of Eucalyptus globulus trees that surrounded their homestead. Of Australian origin, these trees were planted in 1908, perfect rows laid out in large grids. The tree denied the hopes and dreams of that era, they were not suitable for telephone poles or lumber in general, so the acres of planted trees became neglected and grew into the dense towering forests that I came to know. The large older trees with many side branches were superb for climbing. Big trees with younger saplings growing near them provided an opportunity for a unique experience. After climbing 15+ feet into the mother tree I could leap out through the air and grab hold of the sapling which would arch under my weight and rapidly lower me to the ground. I spent hours performing this joyous feat, feeling myself a primordial monkey-boy.

These anthropogenic forests were a perpetual source of discovery. In the shade of the sickle-shaped leaves with their menthol aroma and underneath the bark that sloughed off the trunks in large sheets I would find a plethora of insects and their larval infants, spiders, scorpions, centipedes and millipedes, toads of impressive size, slender salamanders that curled themselves into tiny spirals, sundry snakes, bluebelly and alligator lizards, the rare and coveted blue tailed skink, kangaroo mice, savage shrews and fantastical fungi. Scattered between the trees during spring and early summer bloomed pink, yellow and red flowers I never encountered anywhere else, still a mystery to me. Further up in the embrace of the trees there’d be Pacific tree frogs hiding beneath the bark or occasionally the yellow speckled arboreal salamander that squeeked when discovered. Climbing even higher would reveal all manner of intricate woven nests that cradled delicate eggs or the freakish fledglings of a considerable variety of birds. A great many moths and butterflies were also to be found but none quite so impressive as the migratory monarch. This large butterfly, vibrant orange with bold black veination, would arrive in autumn at select trees by the thousands to perch in dangling masses and overwinter. It’s hard to capture with words the wonder and strangeness of this phenomenon, standing beneath a tree in exultation, half of the branches scaled in their overlapping orange and black wings. How they all periodically moved their wings in unison, as if to one heartbeat, the inhalation and exhalation of one organism. How I would feel this pulse manifest in my own body. Tree, butterfly and boy as one. Grace.

Eventually I heard the grumblings about how Eucalyptus didn’t belong here, the forests somehow harmful to other plants and wildlife. This contradicted so much of my experience, but it’s a complex issue and I’ll leave my thoughts on this to another time. The popular maligning of the tree led to the 10+ acres of forest adjacent to my mom’s property, where my younger brothers and I had spent countless hours in play and rapt discovery, being clear cut and bulldozed. I was deeply saddened, like the loss of a whole group of friends, a vital piece of my childhood suddenly, irrevocably, gone. The acreage lay fallow for many years, a few forlorn stumps the only reminder of what was. Eventually a monocrop of strawberries was planted, black plastic and poison covering the once fertile earth…

Peering into this reflecting pool of memory I glimpse myself in sensual dialogue with the world, not so much a language of words, but of emotions, touch, sounds, smells and tastes. An immediate intimacy with the flux of life. Perhaps it is our maturation into the world of words and the concepts they construct that blurs our recollection of those early years, diffusing a little our relation to life in all its myriad sensuous forms. Yet, paradoxically, words are what I now have to capture and share these echoes of childhood.

The Aymara peoples of the Andean Altiplano acknowledge that the past lays not behind us, but before us, our entire history stretching to the horizon, yet clearly visible, the future always to our back, just over our shoulder, only seen as a glimpse. Coming from a culture that turns its back on the past, chooses instead to look for what is yet-to-be, I find it useful, at least for a time, to reorient myself and view my history. Gazing out across the geography of myself it is evident how integral and present the botanical realm was in my childhood, though it wasn’t until my late teens that I became acutely fascinated with plants. In those early years what really captured my greatest attention were all the creeping, crawling, scurrying, slithering, hopping and flying creatures. The plants were more an aspect of the sustaining matrix of the world, known as distinct living entities, but almost background to ambulatory life. Yet it now appears, from my current vantage, that the plants were an even greater molding force for me than the fistful of toads or pockets of rolly-polly bugs. We inhabit a scandalously fecund planet, teeming with life of every imaginable form. The more I consider it, perhaps facing always to the future engenders a fevered dream state, a phantasmal farsightedness, a turning away from who we are, longing to be more. This has allowed our culture to overcome great obstacles and manifest unparalleled wonders, but often at great cost. In looking out to distant stars for life we miss much of what is right before us. Living is coexisting, children know this instinctually and recognize sentience all around them. We have much to discover from children and from our own childhoods.

((((((((((Ben Kamm))))))))))

copyright Ben Kamm 2012

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