Christmas Sage

Somebody brought a Cymbidium to the house yesterday. I said to Lorrie, I hope its screams don't keep us awake at night.

We are doing a Chaparral themed Holiday season again (Yuccapedia), so we are not decorating one of the 30 million victims of arboreal infanticide sold annually in the U.S. as Christmas trees. Instead, the dried husk of a chaparral yucca (Yucca whipplei) stands in the corner of the living room adorned, on its lower branches where its seed pods have already fallen, with frosted white and clear 1 1/2" glass balls from China (Sinology). Elsewhere in the house we have used sages, Baccharis pilularis, toyon and Ribes californicum in various arrangements. This level of holiday cheer is quite sufficient for us merriment minimalists.

The Cymbidium, poster child for the forced propogation of exotic flora into premature display of their sex organs, is sadly out of place and will probably end up in the guest room. We should, I suppose, be thankful that it was probably grown in California, perhaps in Ventura or Santa Barbara County, not shipped in from Thailand, the world's largest grower of Cymbidium.

The history of orchid growing in California goes back to the 1930s, when owners of large estates in Hope Ranch and Montecito began to raise them because they flourished in the Mediterranean climate. Back in those days, orchids took their own sweet time to flower - often as long as seven years after planting. Now, in the hot houses of Thailand, Holland, Australia and, increasingly, China, the plants have been hybridized to flower with 36 months of germinating and temperature and light controls are used to induce inflorescence at commercially opportune moments such as Easter, Mother's Day and Christmas. Other flower stimulating technologies, such as the application of cytokinin (6-benzyl-aminopurine), nitrogen starvation, extreme root excision and the forced feeding of phosphorous are being introduced to improve flowering synchronicity with market demand.

A couple of years ago we attended a talk by Dorothy Maclean, one of the four founders of Findhorn (Back-yard Romance) at Meditation Mount. She was introduced by Roger Collis, then executive director of the Mount. (Lost Horizon). Roger originally met Dorothy some forty years ago at Findhorn (where he also met and married his wife, Kathleen). So Dorothy, now in her nineties, was very relaxed in Roger's company and gave a charming talk on her work with plant spirits or devas. Towards the end of her presentation someone wheeled in a trolley with a large Cymbidium in a five gallon plastic pot, and Dorothy invited us to commune with the plant and then report on our findings.

A member of the audience had worked at an orchid 'forcing' green house and made trenchant comments about the floral gulag that exists in Carpinteria. It was an unfortunate moment. Dorothy was undone; perhaps she had been expecting a fresh, native Californian plant tenderly removed from the chaparral rather than the signature product of the global orchid industry; in any case, the magic of the event evaporated in the presence of this hybridized Orchidaceae.

Dorothy now counts as one of the three or four people I know of who communicate with plants (Dowsing). That's not including Prince Charles who, speaking of his 900 acre organically farmed Gloucestershire estate in 2010, noted that, "I happily talk to the plants and trees, and listen to them. I think it's absolutely crucial....Everything I've done here, it's like almost with your children. Every tree has a meaning for me." The key point here is the listening part: Margot confirms that, although scientifically trained, she still has much to learn directly from the plants within her ambit as a chaparral restoration ecologist.

Did the Chumash talk to plants? What of the other end of the spectrum - did they brutalize or hybridize plants in pursuit of aesthetic, culinary or healing goals? Were plants considered sentient beings in their cosmos? Did they practice, according to their codes, ethical treatment of the vegetal world? Only John Peabody Harrington knows for sure (alive to us today through his moldering notes, stored throughout the country and yet to be fully catalogued, in which lies the sum of his knowledge about the Chumash - for he wrote no syntheses of his notes, nary a short monograph on his life's work).

However, we can presume, that while probably not reaching the level of beatific communion with nature commonly ascribed to native Americans, the Chumash possessed a level of sensitivity to plant life that we can only imagine. For while we live in a world of written, pictorial and numeric information, they lived in a numinous universe of lithic, botanic, animal and meterological spirits where plants were revered for their multi-faceted contributions to the individual's and the tribe's well being.

Take sage. I took sage. For our Christmas decorations. I like to think that I am aware of all the local, accessible giant white sage (Salvia apiana) populations. Some are on our property, others a little further afield, but all were harvested in a careful and respectful way. James D. Adams, Jr, Associate Professor of Molecular Pharmacology and Toxicology, University of Southern California, and Cecilia Garcia (a self-styled Chumash healer) suggest that, "White sage, like any plant, should be collected with prayer. Only the amount needed should be collected. A small branch or a single leaf can be broken off for each use. Each leaf contains vital medicine for the health of the spirit." Fernando Librado (one of JPH's key informants) said that if a hunter placed white sage in his mouth he would be invisible to deer (Jan Timbrook).

This afternoon an Australian architect, Andrew Macklin, visited our house with a mutual friend and just as he was leaving we saw, through the open kitchen window, our local Monarch of the Glen (Sir Edwin Landseer, 1851), a magnificent three point stag wandering along the meadow protecting its fawn who grazed across the driveway. Our house is bedecked with sage, the four of us were at the open window, is it too fanciful to imagine that this architectural maw substituted for the mouth of the hunter? Certainly we remained invisible to the mule deer until doors were opened and gravel be-trodden.

Maria Solares (another of JPH's Chumash posse) recommended putting fresh leaves of white sage on one's head as a treatment for headache. It was also used as a purgative. More recently, those identifying as Chumash use sage for smudging - the ritual burning of compressed bundles of leaves as celebration and an act of spiritual refreshment (The Sage Gatherer). This is a plant, like so many others, that was woven into the fabric of Chumash life - offering a cloak of invisibility, various medicinal uses and spiritual cleansing. It may also have lifted the spirits of native people (as it does mine) who saw it displaying its large chalky grey-green leaves rising above an ocean of black and purple sage, competing with yerba santa, or on the edges of oak-shade - as a ghost sage wrapped in its new spring leaf - just in time for the winter solstice.

The stacks of Cymbidium piled outside of Trader Joe's are a similar sign of the mid-winter festivities but they leave my heart heavy and my spirit enervated for their waxy flowers betray the anguish of this forced display.