This morning, I looked through a small black notebook that holds my mother's postcards from a trip West in 1946 and a book with a wood cover I rescued from "Discards" at the Iberia Parish Library in New Iberia, Louisiana entitled Plants of Sun and Sand. Here I am on The Mountain, supposedly counting my blessings for being in a cool spot at an enviable elevation, and I'm pining for the desert! "Go figure," as the young say.
One of the cards my mother bought along the route to California — through Arizona and New Mexico — is particularly appealing to me. It's entitled "A Smoke Tree on the Desert" and is a painting executed by an anonymous person who lived near Tucson, Arizona. The card is made of linen and has space for a one-cent stamp (!), possesses some "antique" worth, and I once used it as inspiration for poems in Postcards From Diddy-Wah-Diddy. Today, I look at these cards to remind me that although I was dubbed "the luxury-loving girl" by my father when we made the long trip across Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California, living like gypsies, it remains one of my strongest memories of landscape and travel. When I need inspiration for writing, I retrieve the little black notebook containing the card travelogue, and my senses are assailed by the smell of mesquite, creosote, and sage...
On a trip to the Davis Mountains near Alpine, Texas, I became enchanted with the sight of various desert plants, especially the ocotillo with its long branching whips, a plant reputed to make the best honey in Arizona. According to Plants of Sun and Sand by Stanford Stevens, published by the Print Room, Governor's Corner, Tucson, Arizona (the book I rescued from "Discards"), the cowboys used to pluck the scarlet blossoms at tips of the ocotillo branches in the spring and taste them as they rode by the plant. At one time the stalks were used in the building of walls and ceilings and can still be found in older homes in the Southwest. The plant was also used to build fences.
My favorite southwestern plant is the cottonwood tree that grows along riverbeds. It's related to Aspen and Poplar trees and, like them, showers the ground beneath with cottony seeds in the spring.
"Passing smoke trees in a desert wash,
downy bushes near a railroad track
going there and everywhere
past balanced cocks, stone houses,
dry gulches, windmills churning to match
the rhythm of our wheels...
by day, the sky an implacable blue,
scudding clouds overlooking eucalyptus
and not a breath of rain,
only the fiery silence of drought..."
I wrote this excerpt from an impassioned poem about the runaway trip of my parents "to least inhabited regions hidden in the desert broom on the shadow side of a mountain..."