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.
10 thoughts on “Rooting and Springing”
Michael Durgain says:
Thank you thank you thank you. It is time to dig in and be grateful.
Susan Tweit says:
It is. Gratitude gives us a reason to not despair. And you are welcome. Barry Lopez said to me once that he had come to believe that the best compliment was that his writing was useful. Useful in inspiring others, in helping us deal with this difficult times, in bringing a smile, in deepening our understanding of ourselves and this earth. I think he’s right.
Grateful for your beautiful voice, Susan.
Susan Tweit says:
Thank you, Cheryl! You know about beautiful writing voices, because you have one. I smile every time I think about your success in finding a good publisher, and am eager to see where your heartfelt and wise and beautiful stories will take you. <3
Smith Jan says:
I lived among sagebrush when I was 18-20 yrs old on a big mountain in Hot Sulphur Spgs. I would take afternoon naps with the window open with the rain coming down. It’s my absolute favorite smell in the world.
Susan Tweit says:
It makes me smile to think of your younger self napping with the window open and the smell of sagebrush pouring in, Jan Marie! Thank you for sharing that memory. Those terpenes are unforgettable–some 18 different aromatic compounds go into the fragrance, depending on the plant, the place and the time of year. I think part of what makes the fragrance of big sagebrush so irresistible and unforgettable to me is that one of the principal aromatic chemicals in the smell is camphor, a lung-opening compound (think Vaporub). As someone who is “lung-reactive” and has had breathing issues for her whole life, breathing sagebrush makes me feel better–probably because it helps my lungs expand and work better.
Beka Whitson says:
I have followed your writing and adventures for many years since I was a staff member at CO Environmental Coalition and once sat down with you and Richard for a meeting. Your writing always makes me feel like I’ve taken a deep breath of mountain air, and today’s struck me again. I so relate to this love letter to the sagebrush. And your use of nonbinary pronouns for our plant cousins, which makes perfect sense to me.
Thank you for sharing your heart with so many.
Susan Tweit says:
Beka! How lovely to hear your voice here. I remember that meeting, and I am going to go look up Whitson Strategies and see what creative and world-changing work you are doing now. And thank you for the lovely compliment(s), especially that one about my writing making you feel like you’ve taken a deep breath of mountain air. I’m going to post that on my IG story, because it is so beautiful. Blessings!
Priscilla Stuckey says:
It is good to feel at home! And now you and the big sagebrush can enjoy it together. I got to know saltbush in Placitas—what a being! Happy springtime to you too, and may contentment and creativity flourish.
Susan Tweit says:
Thank you, Priscilla! We have saltbush here too (I know it as hopsage, the name in the northern Rockies), and yes, that’s another shrub with a distinctive character. I think of you in your spot in Hawaii and smile at how you’re flourishing there. Blessings to you!