Problems of Place: How My Nana Taught Me to Listen to Plants

The smell of the creosote bush has a way of connecting you to place in the deserts of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. I have focused my doctoral research on the history of this plant called Larrea tridentata, which has both figuratively and literally rooted me to my Mexican family’s past, as well as to where I am from. I want to begin with my grandmother, Lucrecia Robles De la Vara. I remember her always busy—outside washing the porch, wringing clothes through the rollers of her washing machine, patting out tortillas for us to eat— the immense experience in her hands. This is my family’s origin story with the creosote bush, gobernadora, the fulcrum on which my research project turns, and a sort of leitmotif for my dissertation work.

Long before she was my Nana, Lucrecia was a young woman growing up in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. In 1940, as a young mother of four, Lucrecia and her family moved to Mexicali, Baja California, where the vegetation was notably different from what she was used to. Growing up, her mother had taught her the use of medicinal plants, but the plants of arid northwestern Mexico was largely unknown to her. Her children had all just gotten over the chicken pox, but the youngest one, an infant named Rosalina, had some sort of secondary bacterial infection on her head, a worry which Lucrecia was carrying on her mind as she walked outside of their new home into the desert shrub landscape. As she wondered that day what she might use to cure her baby, she first smelled the distinctive scent of the creosote bush. It was a smell she did not recognize, but she identified it coming from a nearby shrub with green, sticky leaves. She knew at that moment and said to herself, esta planta es buena. This is a good plant. She picked some branches from the bush and boiled them in water for a tea. And she dried another portion on the comal to grind into a powder. She washed the baby’s sores with the tea preparation and then sprinkled the powder on after. The treatment worked quickly, and Lucrecia would later learn from women neighbors about the traditional medicinal uses of that plant and others, but continued to turn to the gobernadora time and again to heal her family—a legacy which has continued for four generations.

I didn’t know this story when I decided to explore the history of the creosote bush the summer before I started the PhD program in Borderlands History at the University of Texas, El Paso. I remember the moment well. I was driving back from southern California to El Paso, looking out the window toward the mountains and desert of the basin and range topography from the I-8. The desert landscape has gotten more and more fascinating and beautiful to me as I have gotten older. The smell of the creosote bush simmering on my mother’s stove had been a constant companion of my childhood, but one that I had never really turned my attention to. As I watched the stands of creosote bushes all around me through the window, I was suddenly struck with a curiosity about this plant that I had known and yet hadn’t really noticed up to that point. I wondered, finally, what is the deal with this plant? In that moment I decided that it would be the focus of my dissertation research. I would start with the gobernadora and see where it would take me.

Thus far, my project is an environmental borderlands history of a desert shrub. It is a plant with a paradoxical history—considered both “useless” and the most important medicine of the North American deserts, depending on who (and when) you ask. Broadly speaking, my path with the creosote bush has shown me new perspectives on plant-people relationships over time; of non-cultivated plants and modernity; of ancient creosote bush elders, one upwards of ten thousand-years-old; the science behind plant-people communication; and eco-sensorial attachments to place—how our senses connect us to our environment. In the borderlands deserts, the distinct smell of the creosote bush is the harbinger of the single most important environmental factor: water. It is the smell of desert rain. I always take a little sprig of creosote bush with me when I conduct oral histories about the plant. Its smell often conjures nostalgic memories of childhood that speak to the ways that the environment seeps into our personal histories and identities.

This project has also shown me back to my own family roots. When I told my mother that I had chosen to focus on the plant she had “given me,” she happily recounted the story about my Nana and how our family had come to know the gobernadora. Hearing my Nana Lucrecia’s story from my mother was a gift—a heritage that has literally grounded me in academia. As a scholar, it is a legacy that I am unapologetically grateful for.

Was Lucrecia’s origin story with the gobernadora just an intuition that could have gone terribly wrong, a risky experiment with a plant she did not know? I don’t think so. Instead, I think my Nana knew how to listen. I continue in the same spirit of learning to listen to the stories that this common underrated shrub shows me, histories that ground and guide me on this academic—and personal—journey.

*Cover Image Credit: A view of the desert (photo taken by author).