Thursday, March 18, 2010

In the Desert With A Plant Mystic

 Photo by Robin Kobaly
For the past several weeks I’ve been on book tour for the new memoir – San Francisco, Portland, Los Angeles, Palm Springs – and have at last happily landed home here by the Salish Sea. Though this lush, green landscape of sea and mountains is my chosen home, I also adore the desert. In that vast and arid wilderness one can still see the Native cultures who used desert plants for every purpose, from medicine to clothes to shelter.

In spacious and mesmerizing Morongo Valley, in the mountains just north of Palm Springs, my literary agent, Sarah Jane Freymann and I stayed with Robin Kobaly and her husband, Doug Thompson. I was there to speak at the William Edelen Symposium on “Religious Literacy.”

Doug and Robin are my long-time “podmates” who lead our group of naturalists, authors, NPR radio hosts, musicians, and publishers – all of us devoted to conservation through our own work. For many years our “Pod” has journeyed together to Baja, under the auspices of Doug and Robin’s SummerTree Institute to encounter gray whales in their remote Mexican biosphere birthing lagoons. There is a chapter in my new book “The Way of the Sea” devoted to this life-changing encounter between gray whales and humans. I also write about these birthing lagoons in my National Geographic book Sightings with co-author Linda Hogan. And Doug’s book/DVD Whales: Touching the Mystery, is the definitive book on Baja birthing lagoons.

Doug and Robin have led us all to discover whales in the Baja desert, but this was the first time I’d ever visited their home and the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve that Robin helped create and still tends. Under BLM management, the Preserve is an astonishing glimpse into what this vital desert must have looked like when Native tribes still respectfully lived on this land. And Robin, an internationally known ethnobotanist, guided us along the boardwalk deep along the Marsh Trail. Because of El Nino rains, the desert this year has bloomed more vibrantly than in the past seven years. Unexpected spring green adorned the landscape of Joshua Trees, cacti, cottonwood and diverse blooming plants.

“Oh, look here,” Robin would suddenly reach into what seemed to me like lowly scrub brush. “It’s stinging nettle. Did you know that every poisonous plant grows within sight of its antidote?”

As we walked along the path, Robin’s encyclopedic knowledge of plants astonished us. There were fragrant sage, yucca, creosote, wild cucumber, honey mesquite, and arrow weed; cat tails, willow and cottonwood trees, and a vital stream nourishing the marsh lands. Every time a bird flitted by, Robin glanced up and called out their names as if they were old friends: Gambel’s quail, Ladder-backed woodpecker, Red-tailed hawk, Bewick’s wren.

“People look at the desert and think there’s nothing here,” she said. “They just don’t know yet how to see all the abundant life,” Robin said. The sun glinted off her short blonde hair and she seemed like an illuminated plant saint lovingly blessing the flowers and the desert trees. “Native peoples used this cottonwood bark for diapers and skirts,” she told us. “They used these Yerba mansa seeds for spicy salt and seasoning.”

Farther along the marsh boardwalk, a group of school children ran by excitedly identifying the plants with their trail guide brochures. They were playing in the desert – wild and free. And happy. This desert is their birthright.

In her “Power of Plants” seminars, Robin teaches all ages how to plant drought-resistant yards and forego the thirsty lawn landscapes. She educates everyone from neighbors to government agencies to even tribal peoples in water use and desert conservation. Her program “Saving the Ancients” has been attended by hundreds of people wanting to learn about the mysteries of these enduring plants.

Once she was teaching a bulldozer driver how to recognize an ancient, but relatively small grouping of yuccas. “This plant has likely lived over five hundred years,” she told him gently. “You can bulldoze around it and save its life for the next generations.”

The workman’s eyes welled up at her words. “I had no idea,” he told Robin. “I really don’t want to hurt these old plants. I could have easily saved that plant, but the owner wanted all the plants removed.”

Now this bulldozer operator calls Robin to report, “There are ancient plants on this project. Could you talk to the owners before I go in to grade the site?”

“Education is the key,” Robin told us as our trail through the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve ended.

“All the miraculous medicines from this desert are here for us to remember and to preserve for our children. If we can just take the time to learn these often overlooked plants, then we will never again lose their power and their many gifts.”

Photo by Robin Kobaly

For Robin’s website “Power of Plants,” visit here.
For more information on Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, go here.
For more information on Doug’s book/DVD, Whales: Touching the Mystery, see here.
For the SummerTree Institute, go here.

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