It is the destiny of mint to be crushed. â€“Waverley Lewis Root
June 12, 2007
Rained most of the night. Morningâ€™s cool and sweet. Good day to venture into a canyon. Because the storm has left behind puffy white seeds that could blossom suddenly into rain, I replace my extra water bottle with a rain poncho. In honor of the sky, scrubbed to a deep, shining blue, I wear my turquoise tee shirt. Usually I wear a white one with sleeves, but I like to wear this color when I hike. Weather permitting, I do.
The cicadas arenâ€™t singing as fervently today as they were four days ago. On the west slope, where the morning sun strikes full, they clung to branches of junipers and pinion pines, revving their love engines. Occasionally, I found one thrumming on a rock on the trail. Clearly, though, they prefer the desert trees.
Cicadas see quite well. If you come within ten feet, they tumble from their perch, emitting an dry rattle sounding something like the rattlesnakeâ€™s classic â€œbuzz.â€
The first time I heard a rattlesnake rattle was at the Monte L. Bean Museum at BYU. Back then, they kept some live creatures in small glass cases. Without realizing what was inside one, I leaned over it for a better look at something on the wall behind. The second I heard that buzz, I experienced a powerful startle reflex. I jumped back from the case then looked in and saw the snake, coiled at at the ready, but it didnâ€™t strike the glass, perhaps because it already knew the futility of such behavior. Or perhaps it was waiting to see if I heeded the warning.
Iâ€™ve crossed paths with several rattlers since. Some were close brushes; others, more distant encounters. In all cases, their warning buzz triggers a more powerful response in my brain than does the sudden honking of a car horn.
When a cicada tumbles and buzzes, it triggers the same startle response. At first. Cicada hum and rattlesnake rattle donâ€™t sound exactly alike but it takes even an experienced brain a split second to make the distinction and suppress the recoil reflex: not rattlerâ€“bug. By then, the bug has fled.
As I was saying, cicadas see well and are not insensible; when you draw too close, they tumble, buzz and fly. I donâ€™t know much about these insects but guess their good eyesight is a function of their big bug eyes. Their quickness reminds me of another large, bug-eyed insect, the praying mantis, whose level of responsiveness suggests an above-average aptitude for relation with its surroundings.
Four days ago, I realized as I walked through the drone that I wasnâ€™t disturbed by how the cicadas changed the audioscape. My trail, usually vocal only when wind sighs or roars through tree branches, sounded like a racecourse for miniature cars. The sound excited me a little. I walked through the vibrancy feeling a charge as if I were passing through an electrical field.
Today as I descend the trail the cicadas are mostly quiet. They drop out of the pinion pines and junipers and fly away, their buzz only brief and muted. Too cool and wet, I suppose; the rain has dampened their ardour. On the trail I find a cicada shell, bulbous like a bumblebeeâ€™s body, paper thin, shiny, brown. When I was a kid in Virginia I collected these shells and played with them till they fell apart.
I said it was cool, but itâ€™s humid, also; I started sweating before I reached the trailhead because what heat there is gloms to my skin, soaking into and matting my hair. I find most of the cliffroses bloomed out; their pale yellow blossoms withered, then the blooms puckered and sent out long, feathery appendages which appear to reach for something. Even so, the dying flowers bear the strong, sweet frangrance of plant sex.
At the trailâ€™s sandier parts I find coyote tracks. Theyâ€™re a familiar site, but I only see the coyotes themselves if they linger against their better judgement to wonder at me or if I pull a fast one and double back, suprising a Godâ€™s dog who didnâ€™t think I had it in me.
By the time I reach the canyon bottom, itâ€™s filled with cloud shadow. Tops of clouds turn back the heat I felt earlier. I cross a rabbit brush and big sage forest, where raindrops hang pendant from leaves or lie in shimmers along green creases. I walk beneath a cottonwoodâ€“old, venerableâ€“just as a breeze slips into its leaves. They drop their payloads of cold rain on me. Water has muted everything; I could walk silently if I wanted. But silent footsteps could result in my coming upon something truly dangerousâ€“a free range cow, maybe, whose protective instinctsâ€“instincts I understand wellâ€“might provoke her to drive me away from her calf.
I strike the canyon bottom and turn south, hearing, as I emerge from the rainy cottonwoods, a familiar, sharp, â€œEhhhp! Ehhhp!â€ Itâ€™s the Swainsonâ€™s hawk nesting in the next cottonwood grove. At sight of me, he flaps quickly back to the vicinity of his nest. Iâ€™ve bothered this hawk and his family much with my observations of their business and my idle talk; we know each other well. But he still doesnâ€™t like me.
The sand, wet as it is, is easier to walk in, providing firmer footing, but I hit a patch of the trail that looks drier than it is and slip. My fall pitches me to the left so quickly Iâ€™m unable to recover balance. I go down hard but since Iâ€™ve moved here Iâ€™ve found my one, great physical talentâ€“I take a fall like a pro and am rarely hurt. Water bottles fly over my head, catapulted from my packâ€™s exterior mesh pockets. I collect my bottles and wits, mentally assessing my parts, and feel no warning pain.
Gaining my feet I immediately notice the faint imprints of fresh turkey tracks. In the hawkâ€™s grove, I encounter the turkey itself. Startled, it trots out of the wash. I stand quiet, offering no threat, so it stops, regards me then walks forward at a leisurely pace, emitting a single-note cluck that sounds something like Pop! Pop! It disappears into the sage flat on the washâ€™s east side.
I sit on a favorite log to eat my apple-and-trail-mix breakfast and to write, but the roar of ATVs interrupts my peace. I grab my pack, walking willow, and notebook and bolt across the wash, heading for the cover of a huge cottonwood tree. I put on my brown sweater to blend in better.
My flight turns out to be fortuitous. The old cottonwood is in fact four cottonwoods leaning away from each other in a decades-old competition for sunlight. Because their trunks lean at steep angles, their limbs touch the ground in places, forming a natural shelter. Here, I find the remains of what looks to be an old cowboy camp. The open spaces between where the branches touch the ground have been woven shut with deadwood, forming something like a makeshift corral. Thereâ€™s a well-established but long unused fire ring and plenty of room for tents. On the bank forming the northern wall, I see a turkey feather lying against damp leaves and red soil.
This shelter is replete with the natural song of cottonwoodsâ€“a song filled with ringing water notesâ€“and birdsâ€™ song, if not actual birds, alights within. Wet, decaying vegetation tinged with the sage gives the air under the trees a tangy, ripe odor.
Just as the creek has risen slightly after the rainstorm, birdsong has swelled into the canyon. I hear canyon wrens among the orchestra, piping their falling scale. The ATVs appear to have turned north. I leave the cottonwood cowboy camp, walk to the creek, and cross it on a beaver dam. As I stop to admire the dam and wonder whether the beavers here are still active, I smell mint. Unawares, I have stepped on it. I look, find itâ€“same kind as grows up by the spring. As I close my eyes to enjoy its mild incense, I hear doves cooing.
Hundreds of varieties of mint grow on this planet. According to Greek myth, the mint plant was once a Naiad, a water nymph, named Minthe. Two variations of her story exist. The most dramatic has tender, watery Minthe as mistress to Hades, god of the underworld. Hadesâ€™ wife Persephone discovers the affair and in a rage attacks the defenseless nymph, kicking her to the ground and then stepping on her to grind her into the dirt. Minthe becomes a plant, releasing at each vicious kick a charming fragrance, some say like odiferous moans. I move away from the mint to peer into the water running below the dam. At the sight of me, thin minnows zip away like darts of water. Meanwhile, bottomfeeding tadpoles lie in place, my presence lost on them.
At the second beaver pond I find freshly cut cottonwood switches lying in the waterâ€“clear sign the beavers have survived. I walk up onto the high side of the bank and in the third pond see freshly cut rushes floating on the waterâ€™s surface and packed against the damâ€™s upstream curve. Then I see a beaverâ€“it looks like a kitâ€“swimming upstream, its mouth full of cattail stalks. Cliff swallow chatter distracts me. I look up and see them, just across the creek, hunting the east slope. Above them, my eye picks out other silhouettesâ€“white-throated swifts. Swifts are longer in the wing than swallows. Their manner of flight is quite different from the blunt-winged little cliff swallowsâ€“in my opinion, more sophisticated. I glance back down at the beaver, then look up in time to see a pinwheel of motion falling through the air. A pair of copulating swifts tumbles end-over-end toward earth. They separate a hundred or so feet above the ground and fly up to rejoin the hunting party. Iâ€™ve heard of how the swifts mate on the wing but never seen it; itâ€™s an extraordinary thing to witness. Cooincidence has favored me.
Sudden rockfall startles me and I glance from the swifts to the east rim. I see nothing except an eagle flying high above, turning a slow circle.
On my way out of the canyon, I stop at the spring. Usually I do this to listen to the sound of it, but today I pick four mint leaves to help me on the climb out. Crushing one leaf against my upper lip, under my nose, I feel its cool burn on my skin and an immediate invigorating lift, which I count on to boost me up one of the steepest sections of the trail. A sensation like joy fills my lungs. I hear the high, whirring tones of a hummingbird as it loops past.
At one of my usual rocks, I stop to rest, holding the three remaining mint leaves in my left hand, ready, like magic tokens. Their leaves feel soft, moist, and slightly fuzzy. I think how mint is a restorative herb able to alter your condition. Accounts of mintâ€™s singular frangrance ascribe to it the ability to induce wisdom. Iâ€™ve used it to help my family heal from various flus. Smelling it now, my husband rises to mind in a way that feels like his presence. He finds homemade tea, heavy on the fresh mint, soothing to body and soul.
Harsh caws suddenly drown the melodious overlay of birdsongâ€“magpies, full of complaint, fly from the rim northwest of me. Then I hear human voices; the magpies are fleeing those. The birds register the depths of their displeasure but they make no stand. At the sound of the human voices, I too go on the move. In a break in the trees I see them on the rimâ€“several children, then an adult joins them. They are all on foot. Around here, people usually = guns. Less than two weeks ago, I was out in my garden when a bullet, probably a ricochet, hit the ground less than thirty feet away, sharply magnifying my caution. I take careful stock, then crush a mint leaf to give me a spurt of energy. The magpies take little notice of me, now walking just below them. Iâ€™m glad I draw no scorn. Gradually, they flow back in the direction from which they came. I crush the third leaf then emerge from the canyon at the edge of the prairie dog town.
The last leaf I crush as I hit the pavement to walk home. Its frangrance draws the canyon up after me for a few seconds more. Again, the odor recalls my husband to mind. In a burst of pleasure that hits my brain like the sudden release of odor from the crushed mint leaf, I realize how closely I associate him with this common but broadly gifted herb.