Introduction to a new edition of Native Texans (2013)
Fall, 2007. Three waves of native, immigrant and modern occupy Native Texans (Austin, 1984), a philosophy of plants and people. It is a tribute to Carroll Abbott, (1926-1984) raconteur, plantsman, publisher, who wanted articles for his Texas Wildflower Newsletter
(1976-84), but none came from me until he appeared in a dream after
getting cancer. It produced a determination to make him laugh. He
published two in the last issues.
We first saw Carroll
at his home along the Guadalupe in Kerrville. I had been given bags of
old “rare” seed from the world, or rather it was left in the building I
occupied at the Experimental Drug and Herb Garden. Some was unlabeled.
In germination trials one so called "Texas Madrone" sprang up in large
single-stems I could not identify. I opened the trunk to show
Carroll, he said, “well they’re not Texas Madrones, but I don’t know
what they are.” The next time I saw him we had both found out they were
papayas. You never know what seed will grow.
These papaya are a metaphor for this book I had no intent to write. My wife was a beekeeper who had written for Newsletter on bee plants. Carroll asked me for something but nothing got done. We subscribed to the Newsletter and got a signed copy of his book, How To Know and Grow Texas Wildflowers
(1979), traded cactus here, salvias there, sometimes seeing him at
shows like Austin’s Florarama in Zilker Park where he sold natives and we sold
He tracks the progress of his diagnosis in the Newsletter and rallied when it went in remission. We
had moved to Dallas by then and hardly saw him, but one night I had a
dream. He was seated in a dark room with his head down against a
background of chemotherapy, isolated from the people and plants he
loved. It made me want to make him laugh. The next day I wrote the
equisetum with its ironic and disbelieving blurbs, “the reeds do not
resemble the tail of a horse, neither will they whinny if picked,” which
wondered among lists of cautions if a “writer says that Equisetum is an
irritant and can be used on small cuts and abrasions to stop
bleeding…why anyone would put an irritant on a cut," or why, “if the
reed is a diuretic, the folklorist tell us that the Kickapoo Indians
used Horsetails in a tea to prevent bedwetting.” Equisetum was a
metaphor for Abbott: “if you’re the type who loves to eat Hackberry
nuts, then Equisetum could be about Number One in your book—even as it
is in Dr. Marshall Johnston’s (Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas), for the plain fact is that the Horsetail is just about the simplest plant in Texas.”
Inner and Outer Word for Carroll Abbott
all the piety he suffered in his years in the wildflower lobby, the
native plant societies, and all the pity that must have come with the
disease, he liked the next piece more. “You are probably standing on
some Croton right now! Be careful. It looks like a miniature maypole
around which the faeries of middle earth might dance. The wee people
used Croton as a tea before the settlers drove them out,” not as
facetious maybe as that croton later celebrated as a seasoning for Orc
as happens in Herbal Cures of Orc Tongue. The reader of Newsletter
learned “it is not the loco weed made popular by fiction writers...Mrs.
Alta Niebuhr of Austin writes she first 'met this plant by mail. It was
sent me by a frantic Texan who had drunk the tea all of her life and
had just been told by a veterinarian that it was poison!'" Who avoided
saying “it is always best to check with your postman before being
alarmed by what your veterinarian says about herbs?”
back page of the last issue revealed: “Here we go again: In mid-March, I
had my semi-annual check-up and…the knot in my neck is a malignant
tumor and there are suspicious shadows in my right lung and abdomen.”
Was the humor corrosive enough? “Texas Croton was used by the Indians.
In this case, it was the Hopi who, it is claimed, used it to induce
vomiting. The powdered herb in water was a strong laxative. Do you ever
wonder what it was Indians ate so much of that they either had to throw
it back up again or were always needing a laxative for?”
to counterpoint, he continued, “I’ll tell you the truth—it sort of
trashed out my mind for about a week. Then, I realized we’ve been here
before: we know the way out. So troops, here we go again! I need your
kind wishes, good thought and prayers.” By that time I was half through
thirty plants. “Motor oil, for instance, is said to have been drunk in
small amounts to induce vomiting and as a laxative.”
there was more to it than reading in the limestone dry spells caliche
soils, just like there were always more Sabinal, Nueces, Frio river and
creeks unspoiled. The graves are honeycombed like Indian campgrounds, as
good place to find endemics native as it is to find poems open like
arrowheads lying on the ground. Civilization has left its layers with
the native Matelea edwardsensis speech, endemic people and
plants, Anglo and Hispanic together in the dust with aquifers vaqueros,
sixguns, haciendas, longhorns, cowboys.
Down in the
lost villa of Sisterdale where he would learn to live, near Twin Sisters
Peak, that fictional spring begins. Not that the town exists, the names
are changed to protect the innocent. Gold is there, the gold of the
Sisterdale run. It just happens the stage stop occupies mounds and stone
middens. Ax heads, arrowheads, flint chips left or lost remain to the
present day; prospectors get their feet wet, but discovery means
destruction of the mound. Up Hondo Creek four summers sites occupied
were dismantled. It takes a wheelbarrow, shovel and screen. When the
site was sifted, the stones were rolled away, I came along and watched
them, large flints in a gulch today.
the Indies of spice and mine and thought he found Indians, but they were
generic, named by tribe, called themselves "human beings." Discoverers
hardly thought their epitome human at all. The chief benefit of this
existence then was to barter remains. The artifacts went home, to the
Balcones Research Center, collections lost forever to the ground.
Metaphorically plumbed, exhausted, mined, turned upon itself, lost
treasure was a wasteland because the treasure was found. It did not lie
immortal with the storm.
The modern prospector has
machinery, expectant concrete mixers and steel road graders; the
heavenly bulldozer coming. He came to the stagecoach stop of corral and
stone where the two sisters lived atop the flat. Beneath them ran the
escarpment. No more than fifty feet down springs ran the rocks, fed
headwaters, curled the hill and dropped sharply off. Roots cracked
rocks, dominion over flesh, anchored by stone, protected by the little
plateau a 14th century live oak, a Quercus thirty feet down in
the soft dirt of that field. There remains the hole dug by the seekers
of the Sisterdale run. Back in the '60's it was 20 feet deep. A dentist
from Kerrville dug but failed to fill. He told the rancher he was
sinking test pilings for a dam, that we all would profit at the finish.
Nobody knows what he found. Old and new, ancient and true conflict.
next year that rancher wiser now, was approached again, to excavate the
stage stop. Original outlines of the stone foundation were just
visible. But Quercus objected. It's roots twined the rocks.
Eupatorium in abundance with the putative gold grew in the oak community
with Mexican Buckeyes as neighbors we don't want to miss. The Buckeyes
bloomed like the Redbud with last year's seed caps, this year's flowers,
leaves and new fruits. It is not an election about the past. It is an
umber, leathery, three-valved song with smooth and shining seeds the
color of ripe Texas persimmon fruits. These indigo marbles were
excavated from paleolithic rock shelters with the vermillion mescal
bean, but don't eat them, or do, what's the harm, they pass through,
maybe get more orange. Good trade beneath the oak, the campsites no
longer used cover the size of three large mounds the area of a Pecan
tree shade at noon, scattered with flint chips brought from afar, north
tribesmen chipping around fires at night beneath the oak where the gold
later sat with the Buckeyes, and the Beans undiscovered bloomed satin
flowers coincident with this year's leaf already begun with this year's
seed. That election was not about the past versus the future.
This is the ground where Carroll Abbott lay.
he said, “I am not nearly as scared as I was the first time. If you’re
tired of hearing about my cancer, let me tell you: I’m tired of telling
you about it. I’m still able to work and I guess that’s what it’s all
about.” He did not see the piece on Hedeoma dedicated to him as epitaph.
After the huge thirty inch rains in the Hill Country in the summer of
’78, when Comfort was under water and Bandera overwhelmed, the next
months of that summer produced the greatest spread and harvest of
Hedeoma anybody ever saw. The ground in every field was covered with
pink lemon-scented flowers. He would have read: “someone in Medina
County is thought to be starting a Hedeoma Dude Ranch. Aristophanes
wanted thyme planted on his grave, but if you can get yourself planted
in some Hill Country field you can have the superior Hedeoma. Albertus
Magus claims drowned bees can be revived by the fragrance of the
inferior pennyroyal, M. Pulegium, and that if you rub it on the
'belly of any beast it shall be with birth.' The use of Hedeoma in this
way would shortly make so many beekeepers and mothers of us all we would
soon be overflowing in milk and honey.”
He never saw
the completed work, just the three articles, or know more was written,
much less that that dream of him was the entire impetus. “The World’s
Longest Continuous Row of Horehound,” printed by Geoffrey Stanford in
the Friends of Greenhills Newsletter (Dallas), along with Milkweed, asked, "why must we be bothered by every little plant that grows beside the road?” The Heard Natural Science Museum Newsletter
(McKinney, TX) of pilgrim mullein said, "ladies will stand up for
mullein and forbid their husbands to mow it.” “Hedeoma” appeared in the Texas Native Plant Society News (March/April 1985) announcing plans for the Carroll Abbott Memorial Symposium.
Dean Emeritus of the UT-Austin College of Pharmacy, also contributed.
He was director by default of the last years of the College's
Experimental Drug and Herb Garden, 1977-1980 and enabled the experiment
undertaken there. He gave me the only available copy of his Index of the Plants of Texas (1968)' I gave it to Carroll.
botany spouse also came everywhere on these explorations of the Rio
Grande, Big Bend, Chisos, Marfa, Alpine, Guadalupe Mountains, Edwards
Plateau, up and down the Guadalupe River from the sugar maples and Naked
Indians east to the Bois d'arcs and abandoned cisterns of the ruined
farms of Elgin. Alta Dodds Niebuhr
(8) contributed tales about the mandrake with Kim Keubel and others who
wrote manuscripts like Alta's unpublished Herbs of Texas or Gary
Fleming's, A Guide to the Plants of Central Texas.
by old Texas ranch ways picked up along stone escarpments, by being
there, additives of facetious comment about the mushroom farmers of
Bastrop, suspicious uses of cilantro and the psychedelic prospectors of
cloverleafs were accepted serially by both Eakin Press and Corona, but
failed the marketing tests. A few copies drifted around in small
printings. The cover was blue vinyl with a bumper sticker on it. Alta
forwarded a letter from Brother Daniel Lynch of St. Edward's University (Plants of Austin, Texas,
1968) who said, "it humanizes botany in a way I never dreamed of."
Another, Dr. Mathis Blackstock said, "it reads like a novel." There is
more to the story of Native Texans than appears, but leave it unfinished in the words of Carroll Abbott and “grow good!”
The elimae Article:
Alta Niebuhr was the first to say it should have been called A Philosopher Looks at Plants. She provided copies to her herbalists. That's when Brother Lynch wrote to her and said it humanized botany more than he could have dreamed. Dr. Blackstock said it read like a novel. An editor at TCU press said she had hoped it would have had more philosophy. The heirs of these folks, if they had any, could refer to fictions about herbs or subscribe to Human Botany. Croton, equisitum, milkweed, mullein, pennyroyal, horehound all appeared in native plant newsletters. It was perilous. The day the ms was typed a stranger appeared at the door who had a manuscript of her own and wanted me to tell her what I knew. She had read one in the Newsletter and had a book contract with Texas Monthly Press, wanted to know everything about native plants! Native Texans was enthusiastically greeted by two regional Texas presses and canceled.
Hedeoma was the way I wanted to memorialize Carroll Abbott, for the whole thing was due to him, and Henry Burlage and Alta and others. Saint Coop printed an introduction. "If you were to take one plant with your immortal soul into the afterlife, then Hedeoma (Hedeoma Drummondii) would meet Amaranth. Medina County is starting a Hedeoma Dude Ranch. Aristophanes wanted thyme planted on his grave, but if you can get yourself planted in some Hill Country field you can have the superior Hedeoma. Albertus Magus claims drowned bees can be revived by the fragrance of the inferior pennyroyal, M. Pulegium, and that if you rub it on the "belly of any beast it shall be with birth." The use of Hedeoma in this way would shortly make so many beekeepers and mothers of us all that we would soon be drowned in milk and honey."
By way of explanation, the sun shining on herbs in jars on a window ledge in Chicago at the home of a friend of Jack Dodds caused this out of nothing. Within a year of migration to the Texas hill country that fragrance produced a desire to grow herbs, which compassed the hills in their seasons, at that time well outside Austin, and affected with rock walls, pumpkins, retama, red bud, limestone, sheep, pot studios and screened porches, reading Edith Sitwell in robin migrations and the click of the equinox in hammocks under oleanders, under chinaberries, on roofs, and childhood from the hills of western Pennsylvania made it continuous if episodic.
Out of these herb jars came also A Calendar of Poems and its counterpart, Restorations of the Golden Age in New World Discoveries, but the peaks of roofs were coming over hill tops, so I moved into town. If you call it destiny it is inescapable, so after moving closer to the city, living in Hyde Park, I came one day upon the Experimental Drug and Herb Garden, four acres of herbs and medicinal plants fallen out of favor and cultivation with its proprietor, the College of Pharmacy. Amazed to discover this vestige of pharmacy's past by accident, and after much nay saying about the possibility, for the place was all but closed, Henry Burlage, Dean Emeritus, concocted an encounter with that present Dean to the effect that the place would remain open with himself as the Director, I the horticulturalist. The joy of this venture lasted three years and involved all sorts of trials and encounters, but when friend Henry took his last trip to the ER the end was in sight. The property was deeded back to the UT in trade for a new pharmacy building on campus. All these matters engaged the herb and native plant people, Carroll Abbott among them, who more or less founded the native plant movement in Texas, being an ex-politico, but who subsisted on sales of native plant seeds and bluebonnets with his Texas Wildflower Newsletter. These were days when Ladybird Johnson was active.
Further access to hill country land, explorations over the Edwards Plateau, visits with Carroll, walking up and down rivers and always growing plants, hungry editor that he was he had often solicited articles for the Newsletter. But who ever does what's in their best interest? These invitations fell fallow, but even after moving to Dallas to pursue something that would pave the way for a medical career invitations kept coming. Carroll by this time had contracted cancer, which he movingly wrote of in the Newsletter that I still read, but one night I dreamed of him in such a woebegone state, depressed, in the dark, ashen, that I couldn't stand it, and instantly started writing that first piece, Equisitum, followed by Croton and Prickly Poppy and a whole flood. He printed the first two in the last Newsletters. My whole intent and purpose was to make him laugh. From what he said it worked. So I finished writing this, called it Native Texans (1984) as a joke since these plants are universal here