Spine Songs: Spring Comes to the Northern Chihuahuan Desert
That girl, she was a Red Rock woman.
Soft as pine needles and strong as the stone
-Terri Windling, Red Rock
Many mornings, when I wake up gazing at the brilliant lapis of the New Mexico sky, and the dusky rose of the canyon’s cliffs, I entirely forget how I managed live anywhere else. The volcanic rock hums underneath my bare feet and the wild winds tangle my hair with errant bits of Juniper bark and Evergreen Oak leaves. There’s no doubt that not everyone feels at home in this arid, stark environment where the grasses dance golden for a good part of the year, and most anything you touch is likely to have thorns or claws attached to it. It’s hard to explain to people unaccustomed to or uncalled by the Southwest, how the spines sing to me, how the beauty is made more intense by the pain it sometimes causes me. For some, comfort or familiarity may seem to be the hallmark of home, but the untamed, and sometimes prickly, spirit of the Gila is one of the ways I knew it as a necessary part of me from the first moment I set foot here.
Now, whenever I travel away from my mountains and deserts, it’s as if the song of the world grows muted, perhaps overridden by the dirge my heart plays in grief as I move further from what feels very much like the center of the world for me. I wont pretend to be objective about this, I know how my heart feels about the land here, attached and interwoven in the most visceral manner until I my body hurts with the lack of it when I leave. In the same way my tongue and fingers know the feel of the words I’m looking for when I tell a story, or write about my beloved plants, so do my feet and heart know my home. By feel, sinew and soul deep.
I count the seasons here by which flowers are blooming, by the species of birds singing, by the animal tracks next to the river. Calendars mean so little when you reckon time by the cycles of a particular place. And so I realize it’s Spring when the Mountain Candytuft (Noccaea fendleri) begins to bloom under the Ponderosas, when the Golden Smoke (Corydalis aurea) unfurls in the dry hills and desert washes, when the Poor-Wills echo off the canyon walls with their nightly calls, and by the way the light slants across the cliffs each morning.
On the northern borders of the Chihuahuan Desert, the Mexican Gold Poppies (Eschscholzia californica ssp. mexicana) explode into a brilliant dawn blanket across the rocky slopes. It’s a yearly ritual for my family to travel down from our Saliz Mountains on the Continental Divide to harvest woven baskets full of this wild medicine. There’s a tendency to simplify this herb down to its ability to encourage sleep. And it can do that very well, being one of the most adaptable and diverse relaxant nervines I know of. Its effects are broader than this one use though, and I deeply value its mild but thorough ability to blunt all sorts of pain while easing the irritability and restlessness that so often accompanies pain. It’s also an effective anti-microbial when used externally. It makes a colorful and useful poultice when fresh, and also works well as a wash or compress when dried, or can be applied as a diluted alcohol tincture.
When I was recently wandering through the white bone forest of Sycamores (Platanus wrightii) along the Gila River, I happened upon a single Desert Buckthorn (a local Redroot species, Ceanothus greggii), in exuberant bloom, the lilac and cream blossoms fragrant with a scent I associate so specifically with here. With these wild lands I love. The Buckthorn is an important medicine in my practice, it’s blood red roots serving as a strong alterative and lymphatic, that I especially value when treating many chronic hepatic disorders. The wintergreen flavor of the roots and bark also make it one of Rhiannon and I’s favorite plants for chewing on simply for enjoyment. Nearby, the Cleavers (Galium aparine) grows lush in the shady spots beneath the trees. While people don’t often think of Cleavers actually growing in the desert, it surely does, along with an impressive array of other medicinal plants.
Just beyond the Desert Buckbrush, I climbed the box canyon’s wall to gather the twigs of Rabbit Thorn (Lycium pallidum), where purplish buds were just beginning to form in preparation for their delicately veined flowers so soon to come. Beneath the brush, rocks veined with copper and quartz glitter in the noonday light. Rambling through the Gila, it’s so easy for what we consider to be mundane reality to quickly shift into myth-time, the space in which we can better experience the more-than-human world, and our own magical place in the larger ecology. The medicine and stories of place rising up, undeniable, from the plants, animals, the very stones themselves. There’s a damn good reason New Mexico is called the land of enchantment, and it’s not just to bring in more tourist dollars. There is a palpable intensity to the mountains, grasslands, deserts, wetlands, and woodlands here that sets the human spirit afire.
Back down on the banks of the Gila river, the first golden blossoms of Monkeyflowers (Mimulus spp.) glow, and the Evening Primroses (Oenothera spp.) turn from white to pink under the desert sun. Both are gentle, nourishing medicines, and favored allies of mine. Their ability to calm anxiety and uplift the heart, speaks of their sweet but tenacious natures. Cottonwoods, Los Alamos, line the water, their aromatic buds just beginning to unfurl, and their spicy sweet scent travels on the breeze. At home in the wood stove warmer, several quarts of the sticky buds are infusing into grapeseed and olive oil in preparation for the annual medicine making of salves and liniments created to relieve aches and pains, chest/sinus congestion, and to heal wounds.
Standing with both feet in the shallows of the river, I look around at the healing found here in this patch of land many would call barren, and am awed by the power of the desert. Not just by its wealth of medicinal plants, but also by the myriad kinds of medicine that shimmer in the vital force, the anima, that ripples through river and its sands, through the wildflowers and trees, up out of the glittering bedrock and into the red rockface that rises up around me. To be a medicine woman here, is to recognize and learn the mystery and beauty of it all, to delve into the medicine that thrums through my body every time I open my eyes in the morning to the sky and stones, ravens and ringtails, spines and flowers. Spring comes, and it sings in me.