Native Son – July, 2009
Road Trip to the Ranch
Summer sunset, North Central Texas.
Another Texas summer … and the same heat that has knocked my body out flat has sent my mind soaring. How can the world change so much in just a few miles? Five o’clock and I’m log-jammed in traffic around the Weatherford courthouse … five-fifteen and I can neither see nor hear another vehicle out at the horse ranch in Peaster. The colts prance about, hummingbirds dart and whir, Mississippi kites soar above … and all seem oblivious to people and our rush-rush-rush world. And to think … just about 50 miles straight up from this ranch (or Times Square or Paris or Mount Fuji or the South Pole), our atmosphere gives way to the infinity of space, leaving all of our lunacy behind. Some folks say that space is not cold … it just lacks heat … and that space temperature is what is really “normal.” Well, Texas must be pretty darn abnormal, because we sure don’t lack heat.
Which brings me to wonder about the plants I find along Shady Grove Road on my way home. Growing right up out of the sun-parched shards of broken limestone are little pink fountains of flowers called mountain pink (Centaurium beyrichii). How can something so delicate grow in terrain so dry, so brutal that even the prickly pears are puckered up? Yet there they are, hundreds of tiny pink blossoms dancing atop a foot-tall, intricately branched stem rising from the rocks. The leaves beneath are dark green, and about as long — but only half as wide — as a grain of rice. Dozens of these botanical ballerinas stand on the side of the road in 105 degrees and full sun sur la pointe where a road crew bulldozer once scraped the old prairie down to bare rock. Seems like they’d roast their tutus off.
A hundred yards down the road, saw-leaf daisy (Grindelia papposa) is pulling the same trick … living … thriving … in a merciless environment. This deep, dark, green beauty is 3 feet of stout stem, sticky and sharp-edged leaves crowned with a lovely golden blossom buried in a cup of prickly sepals. Botanically, this cup is called a pappus, hence the species epithet of the plant. Tough as barn nails, yet delicate and beautiful … sounds like Ladybird to me. Anybody else out there think about Ladybird as often as I do?
Near the end of the road, I see that the antelope horn (Asclepias asperula) flowers I photographed six weeks ago have transformed from baseballs of bewitching blossoms to fuzzy ruptured capsules that shred apart and fly away right before your very eyes. Like all members of the Milkweed family, they have a white, milky, chemical-soup sap that, when eaten by Monarch butterfly caterpillars, makes the butterflies distasteful to (and thus, safe from) predators like birds. That’s why Monarch mommies will lay their eggs only on milkweeds. That toxic sap is also the reason cattle don’t graze it, kids shouldn’t play with it, and it makes a lousy substitute for creamer in your coffee.
So I get down near my house and see the county road maintenance people have been busy with the mowers, but somehow managed to miss some of the spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata) growing up by the barbed wire. Great plant … resembles a bleached-out horsemint until you get close enough to notice the sweet yellow flowers (with the namesake dark purple spots on them) sitting daintily on the circles of creamy bracts. They encircle the stem, so the whole thing looks like a floral shish kabob. Spotted bee balm even trumps horsemint’s wonderful citronella fragrance with an interesting, invigorating, somewhat familiar smell of its own. This aroma is thymol, an antiseptic chemical often found in mouthwashes, and I suppose this is why bees always have such pleasant breath. Bee balms, in mass, possess a strange sort of checkering effect that makes me kind of dizzy when I stare at them. (Oh, I can see it now … hundreds of teenagers lined up along the road to get the “Bee Balm Buzz….”) ‘Course, it may just be the heat stroke coming on.
So I get back to the house, pop a cold one, start this article, and the phone rings. It’s a friend of mine who ends up asking why I’m always taking road trips…. "Can’t you just go somewhere, like everybody else? Does it always have to be a road trip?" Truth is, I think road trips are pretty wonderful, and for me, anyway, they provide avenues for self-examination, personal change, and adventure. I know they don’t do that for everyone. After all, the saying is true: "Wherever you go, there you are." Some people find solace in art museums; others in books, malls, caves, beaches, gardens…. I find it on the road. So even if it’s just down to the market for some milk, it’s a road trip to me.
Just like Carlos Castaneda found out in his adventures with Don Juan … once your eyes are truly open, you realize what you sought was right in front of you all the time. For Carlos, the path to enlightenment involved peyote. Carlos eventually realized he did not need the peyote at all, and was angry with Don Juan for administering the drug to him. Don Juan agreed that peyote was not the destination, but told Carlos that it was necessary for him because he was so caught up in his singular view of reality that he could not see the world differently.
I never took peyote, but I know what the old man meant. I think almost all of us have experienced different realities. The euphoria of love easily transforms an all-too-familiar street into a brand new avenue of adventure. A sense of wonder can turn a treehouse into a castle. Conversely, sorrow can change the cheeriest restaurant into a dank hall of futility; fear can color the bluest sky black. The world is the same, but our view of it changes. I have come to wonder if this is the root cause of conflict itself, from playground tussles to full-scale wars. Six billion people all living on the same planet, and all seeing something different. But the real beauty comes when we gain a common vision of reality, if only for a short time. The power of unified visions/spirits is obvious in churches, sports events, and concerts, and it can bring us together in wonderful ways. On the other hand, it also provided the fuel for Hitler’s reign of terror. Common vision is powerful stuff, and we should be careful how we use it. Same goes for uranium and habanero peppers, I suppose.
As for me, these days I am seeking love in my heart and purpose in my work. One version of reality involves a big spoonful of patience for love and a daily sweat bath of dirt and aching muscles for purpose. But when I choose to look at it differently, another reality lets me immerse myself fully into this life, reaping the benefits of true joy in both quests. On one hand, I can’t change the reality of the world. But on the other hand, by changing my perspective, I can change the reality of the world.
Ummm … well, anyway, that’s what I get from road trips.
Peace & Love,
About the author: Steven Chamblee is the chief horticulturist for Chandor Gardens in Weatherford and a regular contributor to Neil Sperry’s GARDENS magazine and e-gardens newsletter.
Your invitation from Steven
Plan your visit to historic Chandor Gardens now. We have made lots of changes this past year, so if you haven’t seen Chandor Gardens lately, you just haven’t seen Chandor Gardens! We’ve got heirloom color plants, waterfalls, fountains, sculpture, grottoes, a labyrinth, and more. You can go to the website (www.chandorgardens.com) for a preview and call 817-613-1700 for reservations and more information. Combine your Chandor trip with an afternoon visit to nearby Clark Gardens (www.clarkgardens.com) for a full day of blooms and beauty.
A little help from my friends….
I still need some destinations for my Texas road trips! If you would like me to speak to your garden club or group, just shoot me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org to make arrangements. I’m inexpensive and low maintenance, and you know I love to go just about anywhere, so let me know. No city too big; no town too small. As long as it has a Farm to Market road nearby, I’m in.