July brings the compass plant (Silphium lacinatum) into our mix of Hill Country wildflowers. The plant that returns every year to our roadside is white, a rarer variety; compass plants are more often yellow. It's not a very pretty plant, coarse and weedy, sometimes lanky. But it has an interesting growth habit: it aligns itself to the points of the compass. The rough, incised leaves grow on a north-south axis, facing the sun (east and west) morning and evening, but turned sideways (north and south) at midday (when this photo was taken). On hot summer days, this allows the leaves to do a good job of photosynthesis without losing lots of water through evaporation.
William Least Heat Moon writes about the compass plant in PrairyErth: “Where these yellow rays of blossoms once grew in abundance ten feet high, some prairie tribes refused to camp, believing that the plants drew down lightning, yet during electrical storms the people burned the dried root to ward off thunderbolts.” The association with lightning may have arisen from the plant's many uses as a valuable healer for all sorts of ailments--as well as its narcotic properties (it's a mild opiate). The stems were slit and the resinous sap gathered for use as a "chewing gum." (It's also called rosinweed and gumweed.)
I love the compass plant because it's a remnant of the ecosystem that once encompassed the Hill Country. If you come across it when you're hiking out here, pause and smile. You've stepped onto a rare piece of original prairie, the way it was before settlers arrived and began plowing and fencing and cutting and paving. That's something to celebrate.
I'm celebrating the conclusion this week of the first draft of The General's Women. Next step: back to the beginning for another pass. The challenge with this book (like most of my historical fiction) is getting in just the right amount of historical detail. This Eisenhower-Kay-Mamie story is particularly rich, and I could easily overload it. Finding the right balance is difficult.
I'm not celebrating the summer heat. 100 here yesterday. The heat is hard on the garden and the chickens. The El Nino rains produced a lot of plant/tree foliage, and this heat is taking its toll. Lots of water in the lakes and streams, but the soil is rapidly drying out.
Reading note, from Always Beginning, by Maxine Kumin: I am grateful for every ordinary day, knowing that these will draw to a close somewhere beyond our seeing. I hope to go on picking vegetables, pulling bindweed out of the fields, enjoying the birds, the dogs, even our elderly cat, whose last season this likely will be. . . Going on is, after all, the ultimate pleasure of our lives.