Yesterday I planted a big sagebrush shrub (Artemisia tridentata) from a local nursery next to my glass prayer flag sculpture. Despite its common name, the shrub isn’t big, and they* looked a bit lonely, so this morning on my dawn walk, I collected some seed from the abundant native wildflower Palmer penstemon (Penstemon palmeri), also called wild snapdragon, and sprinkled the seeds around the big sagebrush.
*I’ve started using “they/them” pronouns for other species, instead of the objective “it.” Objectifying other beings denies their lives and personhood, and “she/he” doesn’t always fit, especially with plants, so I’m taking a leaf (pun intended!) from gender activists and using “they/them.” The big sagebrush shrub I planted is not a static “thing”–they are alive, breathing out the oxygen I breathe in, communicating, growing, adapting to their environment. By using “they/them,” I am honoring their presence and their life.
Tomorrow, I’ll go back to the nursery and buy another big sagebrush shrub to plant with the first. Eventually, I will surround them with the native wildflowers and grasses they have been in relationship with for thousands of years, their home community.
Big sagebrush is my totem plant, my closest “family” in the world of green and photosynthesizing beings. I first recognized these shrubs with the gray-green, three-tipped leaves (hence “tridentata” in the language of science) as kin when I was a child, on a June day as my family drove across southern Wyoming, headed for Yellowstone National Park.
It had rained the night before, and the glass vanes of the jalousie windows in our homemade camper-van were wide open, allowing the morning air to pour in, cool and redolent with a distinctive combination of camphor and sweet orange–the airborne fragrance of big sagebrush. I looked up from the mystery novel I was reading, took a deep breath of the sagebrush-scented air, and said to myself, “Home.” Then I went back to reading.
That fragrance has said “home” to me ever since. For the past decade since my husband, Richard Cabe, died of brain cancer, I have wandered the skirt of the Rocky Mountains where big sagebrush grows, searching for who I am in this phase of my life and where I belong. In every place I have landed, I have sought out big sagebrush nearby to visit.
In some of those places–in particular, Cody in northwest Wyoming, where I have lived twice in the past decade and re-storyed two different houses–a sea of big sagebrush surrounds the town, its fragrance part of the air after spring and summer rains. In others, big sagebrush had been mostly plowed up for orchards and farms, or was only an occasional presence.
Sometimes I planted a few shrubs near my house to bring the plant home; sometimes I simply visited big sagebrush nearby. But always, I settled only where big sagebrush was a part of the landscape.
Now I live in a piñon pine-juniper woodland outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. Big sagebrush was once scattered along the edges of the arroyo near my condo, mixed with rubber rabbitbrush–chamisa in local parlance–and spiny-stemmed saltbush. But 20 years of drought killed the big sagebrush around this arroyo.
So when the maintenance guys for my condo took out a dying pine tree planted in a too-small space between my garage and a retaining wall for the slope above, I saw my opportunity to return big sagebrush. And in the doing, to root myself here in this chosen home. So I asked the guys if I could plant some sagebrush where the tree had been removed, got their blessing, and headed to the nursery.
As I patted the red soil around the roots of the big sagebrush shrub yesterday, and shaped a circular dam to capture water, I promised the plant that I would be here to watch it grow tall and strong, the trunk thickening and twisting, the spring leaves sprouting green and fragrant, the evergreen winter leaves turning slowly each day to capture winter sunlight to make food.
“This is our home,” I said. “We will flourish here.”
And we will. I write this from my sunny living room as the day draws toward sunset on Easter, the holiday that has its roots in Eostre, the ancient goddess of spring and renewal. I am grateful to be in this beautiful place, to have sunk roots here both literally and metaphorically, and to draw on the community of this blessed land and of my human friends.
I am grateful that spring has come, despite the climate whiplash we have created, despite wars and racism and troubles the world around. I am grateful to wake up breathing each day.
I do my best to live with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand. Love is our species’ best gift; the practice of living with love can save us and this numinous earth. May we all embrace the promise of this season and walk onward with renewed hearts and spirits!
Blessings of spring to you all.