Owl’s Your Bird Knowledge?

I love watching birds, and I’ll bet you do too. But unlike Deer Cloud, the protagonist in my new book Peyote Fire about the Archaic Lower Pecos, and his band (aptly named the Bird Wing), I don’t recognize many bird calls. So I’m trying to learn the way we do it today–watching videos online. Deer Cloud and the Bird Wing would have known the calls of all the birds in their region of canyons and rivers as easily as we know TV sitcoms. They simply would have grown up immersed in this knowledge. If you’d like to try to recapture some of that ancient knowledge, listen to this video from the Cornell Ornithological Lab to learn the different calls of owls.

Watch this live Great Horned Owl cam to see owls in action, live.

My book is going through final revisions this spring, with an ETA of Summer 2014! You can bet I’ll hoot and holler when it’s done!

Cheers, and have a wonderful New Year’s!

Hiking Presa Canyon

Now that cooler weather has arrived, some of you may be thinking of hiking in the desert and canyons of the Lower Pecos region of south Texas. Wonderful idea!  I had the privilege of taking the guided hike to Presa Canyon last spring.  The temperature was only forecast to be 95 degrees Farenheit, so the tour was a go. If it’s more than 100 F, they don’t take groups into the canyon, for good reason.  I promised you then that I would write more about it ( see my post of March 18, 2013), but it has taken me awhile to get up the guts.

Rock Art in Black Cave

Rock Art in Black Cave

The hike was about eight hours, four hours in to Black Cave, and four hours out.  Information from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department describes the hike as “extremely strenuous” due to “rough terrain,’ and suggests that hikers have “experience in backcountry hiking skills.”

I had been hiking in the Lower Pecos for 20 years or so, and I said to myself, “well, it’s ALL rough terrain,” so I thought I could  do this. I made my reservation and paid my fee at Seminole Canyon State Park. Everything started fine, a lovely walk though a beautiful place. I felt good.

But when we turned down Presa Canyon itself, the nice flat canyon floor became a jumble of stones ranging in size from an Easter ham to a small Volkswagen. I wish I had thought to take a photo, but I was concentrating too hard on where to put my next footstep. Over and over again. For about six hours.

We reached Black Cave about noon, had our lunch, and studied the enigmatic rock art to be found there. Then we headed back. Four hours of watching where I put my foot, step by step, in exquisite torture.  I hurt the whole way back. Every time I put my foot down for the next step, my toe hit the end of my boot, which hit the rock. Ouch!  In addition to several blisters, I eventually lost five toenails.  I wish I had a picture of that purple horror, too, to scare you straight. Fortunately for you, I don’t.

You see, I made some poor choices about this hike. Like the socks I chose. And how much I carried on my back.  And,

Deer head skeleton under blooming Mexican buckeye tree in Presa Canyon

Deer head skeleton under blooming Mexican buckeye tree in Presa Canyon

knowing what I know now, I should have invested in different hiking boots. Even my wide-brimmed straw hat that I thought was great, turned out to snag on every limb and thorn along the way.

Another mistake was thinking I was really healthy enough to be doing this in the first place. There is a reason I was dragging at the end.  Heat, exertion, and high blood pressure.  Rock canyons become radiant stone ovens by afternoon on hot days. There was a time or two during the hike I thought I might pass out from heat stroke. I drank a lot of water, but high blood pressure gets you in the end.  I thought I was OK before I started, then Val asked me, “is your blood pressure under control in normal conditions?”  “Yes,” I said. “Well,” she said,  stating the obvious,”these are not normal conditions.” Oh. I get it now.

Fortunately, I made some good choices too. Like being reasonably fit. And taking extra moleskin along to bind those blisters. And taking my trusty hiking poles. And freezing a couple of bottles of water the night before–they were sure good in the heat of the afternoon. I even had some to share, which was good because somebody else ended up carrying my pack most of the way out.  Thank you, whoever you are.  Sorry I don’t know your name. You were galloping along so easily, and I was so far behind.

So, here’s my list of must-haves if you take this hike:

Sunscreen, of course

Chapstick

Bandana wrapped around small frozen bottle of water–wet the bandana down and wrap it around your neck in the afternoon to chill down

Baseball-style hat, possibly with neck protection

Black Cave

Black Cave

Moleskin and knife or small scissors

wool hiking socks

good fitting hiking boots

hiking poles (optional for the young and agile)

easy lunch that does not need refrigeration, like peanut butter sandwiches

one or two pieces of fruit like apple or orange for snack

Gatorade

trailmix

camera ( I only took my iphone camera because it was light.  But you may want higher resolution photos)

Bandaids (you never know when you might need first aid)

Be careful, and watch where you put your feet and hands.  Rattlers, you know. Just remember that a rescue crew would have to walk in and out four hours each way too.  I asked the designated first aid specialist with us , a big former Army type, if he would carry me out if I broke my leg.  “Yes,” he said,” but I don’t bring anesthetic.  You would hurt like hell.”  Go safely, my friends.

The Opposite of Dry is Wet

Flood waters near Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon September 20, 2013

Flood waters near Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon September 20, 2013

Seminole Canyon is known for being hot and dry. That dry desert environment leads to wonderful preservation of rock art and delicate artifacts such as basketry, sandals and twisted cordage.  But occasionally Mother Nature creates conditions for beautiful rain in this dry land. And sometimes it is just too much of a good thing.

The weekend of September 20, 2013 saw such conditions arise as a cold front moved down from the north

Weather map for September 20, 2013 from www.accuweather.com

Weather map for September 20, 2013 from www.accuweather.com

to hit warm tropical moisture from the southwest from Hurricane Manuel, which did considerable damage in Acapulco. That combination can create the “perfect storm” in the Chihuahuan Desert.  In the three days from September 19 to 21, 2013,  Seminole Canyon State Park had over five inches of rain, and the weather station Langtry 10.6 W (elevation 1623) on www.theweathercollector.com registered 4.47 inches.  In a region that generally only receives 18 inches or less of rain per year, that’s a lot.

Perhaps more importantly, upstream of Seminole Canyon, areas received from 6 to almost 8 inches of rain in the same period. This created massive run-off, that eventually drained into the canyons.  In addition, the Rio Grande rose quickly, backing more water up into canyons.  Just notice which way the water is rushing in the big picture above.

Fortunately, no damage was done to major rock art, that I know of,  since the water did not get that high.  But tours to Fate Bell Shelter were shut down for several days.

It rained hard the night of July 3, 2010 as well, again due to a stalled out tropical system.

Mile Canyon Pour-off, July 4, 2010. Bonfire Shelter nearby.

Mile Canyon Pour-off, July 4, 2010. Bonfire Shelter nearby.

Pour-offs in Mile Canyon, in Langtry, Texas, home of the famous Bonfire Shelter bison jump, rushed with brown, frothing water. The Rio Grande also rose, backing up in the short canyon and creating very dangerous conditions for wildlife, humans, and ancient debris.

The worst flood in the region in recorded history occurred in 1954, when a hurricane stalled out over the area.  More than 20 inches of rain fell in one night over Mile Canyon. The ground was already saturated from an 8-inch rain a few days before, so the water had no place to go. Catastrophic floods like this occur once or twice a century and cause changes topography of the canyonlands. As the website Texas Beyond History  (http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net) says, “Spring-fed pools become choked with gravels, new springs emerge, and walnut trees are ripped out.”  This flood also moved boulders as large as a small house at least a quarter mile downstream, and damaged rock art in Eagle Cave.  We can only image the artifacts that washed away, never to be seen again.

Mouth of Mile Canyon and Rio Grande, July 4, 2010

Mouth of Mile Canyon and Rio Grande, July 4, 2010 to the Rio Grande.

Raging water in the 1954 flood moved these large boulders at least a quarter mile

Raging water in the 1954 flood moved these large boulders at least a quarter mile.

Related Articles

Peyote Fire: Shaman of the Canyons

The sun which rises every day

The sun which rises every day

Some people have asked me about the novel I claim to be writing. I am happy to say that I have recently completed the first draft–over 86,000 words in about 19 months.  The book is tentatively called Peyote Fire, and is about the first peyote shaman.

The protagonist, Deer Cloud, is painting the stories of the Powerful Ones in a stone alcove high above the

Lower Pecos Canyonlands

Lower Pecos Canyonlands

river. His grandfather Panther Claw consecrated the alcove when Deer Cloud was a boy, especially for him to paint.  The two spent many years tracing designs on the ground to arrive at the best composition to honor the gods and preserve their greatness for generations to come. When Panther Claw dies, Deer Cloud’s life takes a dramatic turn.

The book is set in the Archaic Lower Pecos, or about 4000 years ago in the area of the confluence of the Pecos River and the Rio Grande, bounded on the east by the Devil’s River. The Rain Bringer clan lives in the canyons , river banks, and uplands of this territory. There are many magnificent, brilliantly painted rock shelters that tell the stories of their gods within their lands.

Rock Art from the Archaic Lower Pecos

Rock Art from the Archaic Lower Pecos

I have used archeological reports and treatises written about the people of the Archaic Lower Pecos as a factual base for the story.  I have tried to make descriptions of everyday life as accurate as possible, given what we know.  But we do not fully know the people’s understanding of their world. As a stand-in for their undoubtedly rich religious and philosophical life, I am relying upon ethnographies of the Huichol people of Mexico, whom some suspect may be distantly related.  I’ve had to strip out every  agricultural mention in the Huichol mythologies, and other modern strains, such as cultural changes brought on by contact with the Spanish, in order to seek an Archaic core.

From these core beliefs and descriptions of Huichol ceremonies, I have constructed a fictional world view that pervades the Rain Bringers’ lives.  This world view brings meaning to their lives and explains the natural phenomena that surrounded them; the same mysteries that surround us today.

I have a list of revisions two pages long which I am working through now.  When I get that done, I will start completely over to add characterization and nuance (hopefully) to the manuscript.  I hope to have it finished and ready to shop around by next June. (Which means I’d better get to work!)

I’m not sure how it will be published yet, but I know I want an ebook version.  My son Miles, the composer and computer dude,  is writing music for the electronic book.  I may also add a bit of video of the landscape, just to set the mood.  There will also be plain, unenhanced,  paper copies, whatever publishing route I choose.

Thank you for reading my blog, and I hope you will read the book when it becomes available. Stay tuned for another year to find out.

The Great Transformer, Grandfather Fire

The Great Transformer, Grandfather Fire

Bees and Trees, Update

Flowering Purple Sage

Flowering Purple Sage

I had the good fortune to be in the Lower Pecos near Langtry, Texas (population 18), in the desert west of Del Rio and right on the Rio Grande, recently.  When I walked out of the house just as the sun was coming over the horizon, I heard the most astonishing thing: a purple sage bush was buzzing, humming, vibrating with unmistakable energy.

BeesandFlowersCommunicate050313When I went to inspect it closer, I discovered hundreds, nay thousands, of bees diving into the purple flowers sucking up nectar as fast as they could. There were two kinds of bees feasting on the plant: one a large black one, and the other much smaller and more golden color. I really don’t know much about bees at all, so cannot tell you the official names of these lively creatures. But I thought it was significant that there were TWO different kinds dining at the same time on the same flowers.

If there are any bee people out there, can you help me out?  I looked at the plant again towards sunset.  The

Tickle Tongue, or pickly ash, is covered with thorns

Tickle Tongue, or pickly ash, is covered with thorns

bees were gone, and the plant was quiet once again.

That evening we had dinner with rancher Jack Skiles, who has lived in Langtry most of his life. He commented on my blog about toothaches, and said he knew of another plant besides leatherstem that was good for aching teeth.  That plant is tickle tongue, also called prickly ash or Texas Hercules’ club.  He said if you chew the leaves, the mouth will go completely numb. He said he did not have one on his property, but knew where one was nearby. No doubt tickle tongue would have been a great addition to the Archaic Lower Pecos medicine kit I have written about in past posts.

Tickle Tongue

Tickle Tongue

For more information, see

http://www.dirtdoctor.com/Tickle-Tongue-Tree_vq3014.htm

Joint Pain: Medicine Kit of the Lower Pecos, Part II

Handful of native chili petines

Handful of native chiltepines

Human beings have been plagued with joint pain throughout the history of mankind.  Arthritis, the condition caused by the wearing down of beneficial cartilage in the joints, affects over 27 million people in the United States today, according to the Arthritis Foundation

A joint with osteoarthritis

A joint with osteoarthritis

(www.arthritistoday.org). I don’t know enough about the skeletal evidence from the Lower Pecos of Texas to do more than speculate, but at least some people in the region 4000-6000 years ago must have worn out a knee or two climbing up and down steep canyons and running over rough stone outcroppings in the uplands. In other words, they probably had  their share of  “archaic arthritis.”

Ow! Even that phrase hurts!  Osteoarthritis produces stinging pain and can cause swelling and stiffness in the joints affected. Generally, the older you are, the more wear and tear you have on your joints.  A stiff knee could make a thirty-year-old adult from the archaic period feel old before his or her time. But somebody had to hunt, somebody had to gather plants. It’s not like they could just stay at home with their feet up. So what did they do?

Recently I was forced to experiment to find out.  I had to forego my usual arthritis medication from the doctor, and researched various herbal remedies.  I decided to try cayenne capsules, devil’s claw root extract, and yucca root extract to alieve my own symptoms because native varieties of these were likely available during the archaic period in the Lower Pecos.

The “hotness” of chili peppers is measured in Scoville units. Cayenne is measured at between 30,000 and 50,000 Scoville units, but our native chiltepine pepper comes in at a whopping 50,000-100,000 Scoville units!  The “heat” is caused by capsaicin, which is present in all hot peppers to some extent. capsaicin is a main ingredient of various topical creams available today to treat arthritis. Some sources suggest rubbing the cream on the affected areas four times a day for best results.  Capsaicin seems to work by interfering with the perception of pain (aside from burning tongues!)

While cayenne does not grow wild in west Texas, chiltepines should. I recently asked four people who know the land and plants in that area intimately (ranchers, archeologists, botanist), however, and they could not recall seeing a wild chiltepine plant in recent years. So, even though the plant should be well suited to the area, there must be some reason why they are not currently in evidence.  At any rate, IF they were there during the archaic period, it is likely the people would have utilized the small peppers for flavoring and medicinal purposes. One way they might have used the little chilis would be to apply crushed pods to swollen joints, perhaps mixed in a plaster of some sort. Another way might be to drink the crushed peppers as a tea, although that would burn the mouth.

Devil's Claw

Devil’s Claw  seedpods

Another plant the ancient people likely exploited is Devil’s Claw (Proboscidea parviflora), which grows in dry places throughout the American Southwest. The dry seed pods which give the name to the plant were used by the Pima Indians in basketry and well as for medicine. They  broke off a piece of the claw and pressed it onto the affected area. Then the claw must be lit on fire and allowed to burn down. Ouch!

Devil's Claw plant

Devil’s Claw plant

Another variety called Harpagophytum procumbens has been studied for effectiveness. The journal Phytomedicine (2002) reported a study of 227 people treated with Devil’s Claw extract for eight weeks.  They each took 60 mg of the extract daily, and at the end of the study, about 60% reported decreased pain and increased mobility and flexibility. People are cautioned not to take this if they are pregnant, have gallstones or ulcers, or are taking antacids or blood thinners (see www.arthritistoday.org).

Yucca Root

Yucca Root

Yucca root is also known to have been used by Native Americans to alieve joint pain, among other things. The root has anti-inflammatory  properties, but little reasearch has been done to support effectiveness (see www.livestrong.com). I can say from the experience of taking four tablets of yucca root a day in addition to Devil’s Claw extract and cayenne capsules, that the combination reduced the stinging pain in my wrists and I had more flexibility in my knees.

The last plant in my Lower Pecos pharmacy for joint pain is stinging nettle (Urtica dioica).

Stinging Nettle--handle only with gloves

Stinging Nettle–handle only with gloves

As the name implies, contact with the leaves, or little tiny hairs on the leaves, can be rudely painful. The leaves and stems are widely used in Germany, however, to make a tea for both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. A small study from the University of Maryland was inconclusive regarding the anti-inflammatory compounds in stinging nettle as a topical cream.

As you can see, people living in that beautiful region we call the Lower Pecos, between the Pecos, Devil’s and Rio Grande rivers in south Texas, could have used several natural pain relievers to help keep their joints moving 4000-6000 years ago. I wish I knew their medicinal recipes…

Pecos Experience, Day 4

Figures in White Shaman shelter . Note little man in canoe at bottom of picture.

Figures in White Shaman shelter.

Today our objective was White Shaman shelter with Dr. Carolyn Boyd.  Dr. Boyd has studied the art in this shelter for over 20 years, and is as passionate about it today as she was when she started. We spent the morning in the shelter hearing her latest hypotheses about the meaning of the painting and the process of painting itself.

This complex mural was painted with four colors, black, red, yellow and white over 4000 years ago. The small alcove where it is located overlooks the Pecos River near the confluence with the Rio Grande.  Today, this confluence is heavily silted, with only a narrow channel of water actually trickling from the Pecos into the Rio Grande.

There are a number of mortar holes ground into the stone floor of the alcove, and also into nearby boulders. The

Hole drilled or ground all the way through boulder in front of paintings and overlooking river. You can see light at the bottom of the hole.

Hole drilled or ground all the way through boulder in front of paintings and overlooking river. You can see light at the bottom of the hole.

purpose of these is unknown, but one possible hypothesis is that they were used to make alcoholic beverages of some kind, perhaps to be utilized in ceremonies. There is no evidence of paint pigment in the holes, so probably they were not used for grinding pigment.

Our schedule was so full this past week, I am finishing this post at home in Austin. Our small group was proud of themselves because we all got in and out of the canyons without having to leave anyone behind for the buzzards! Although at one time the group I was riding with in the pickup did vote to leave me there, if I broke a leg, and bury me in a crevice in the flex position. It was a unanimous vote.

We had a great medic with us at all times, Dave Gage. I have no doubt all his reflexes would have kicked in had anything serious really happened, and he would have made heroic efforts to carry someone out.  I asked if he had brought anesthetic or something to knock us out, in a case such as that, and he said no, it was just gonna hurt like hell!   I voted for the flexed burial instead.  We kept hearing stories of someone who had broken a hip recently down in a canyon, and was carried out. It was not fun.

I mentioned the wonderful food we had in an earlier post. Therese, the cook, is wonderful!

Almond cupcakes with green tea icing

Almond cupcakes with green tea icing

She made chicken tagine with olives and carrots, lentils with kale, couscous, tabooli, and naan one night. The last night we had a baked ham with raisin sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, green beans with mushrooms, homemade rolls, and

Semifreddo--Take five cups of cream, two cups of sugar, 12 egg yolks...

Semifreddo–Take five cups of cream, two cups of sugar, 12 egg yolks…

three kinds of pie!  To me, the best desert of the week was the Italian semifreddo, a type of light-as-air ice cream. Yes, we were very spoiled.

The morning of the last day we held a ceremony overlooking a small arroyo to dedicate our prayers to the powers that be. Dr. Stacy Schaefer of California State University at Chico lead the typical Huichol ceremony.  Stacy has studied the Huichol, a small group in Mexico, for about 30 years.

Offerings to the wind

Offerings to the wind

She conducted the blessing ceremony, and we left the Huichol-style offerings we had made in the rocks for the wind and rain. We had each gained something special from the week, and we each felt the glory of the landscape and the call of the paintings by the ancients.  The ceremony was an act of gratitude for these things, and acknowledgement of our small place in the history of mankind.

Future posts will elaborate on many of the sites and observations from the past week. A week in the Lower Pecos gives you a clean heart and a clear head–and lots to write about!

Peyote: Plant Helpers of the Lower Pecos, Part III

Huichol indian yarn painting of peyote cactus

Huichol indian yarn painting of peyote cactus

Peyote was a powerful plant helper for ancient people of the Lower Pecos. Like the Huichol indians of Mexico today, ancient people probably considered peyote a sacred plant. Peyote contains the drug mescaline, which brings colorful hallucinations to those who consume it, along with nausea and other uncomfortable side effects.

Peyote has been used for at least 4000 years in the Lower Pecos and other areas for both medicinal and spiritual purposes. Mashed and dried peyote, radiocarbon dated to  4045-3960 B.C., has been found in certain rock shelters near the Rio Grande. Strings of peyote buttons have also been discovered in caves of northern Mexico.

Dried peyote buttons

Dried peyote buttons

Peyote use spread to Native American groups in the Great Plains and Southwest such as the Lipan Apache, Tonkawa, Mescalero Apache, and Pima by the 1880s. Today, only members of the Native American Church may legally consume peyote in the U.S.

Taken in small doses, peyote is a mild stimulant and reduces appetite. Tarahumara indians in Mexico often chew peyote during their foot races to strengthen them as they run 50 miles or more. The cactus also contains substances that possess antiseptic and antibiotic properties against many types of bacteria.  Mashed cactus can be applied to burns or wounds to prevent infection. The Kiowa also used peyote to treat illnesses such as flu and scarlet fever.

This shy little cactus was declared illegal in 1970 by the United States’ Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.  The cactus continues to grows wild in south Texas and northern Mexico , but is under stress from several causes, according to Dr. Martin Terry of Sul Ross State University.Peyote_Cactus

Previous posts about mountain laurel and moon flower round out this short series on plant helpers of the Lower Pecos.

 

Rock Art Foundation

Rock Art Foundation tour to White Shaman Shelter on the Pecos River

Rock Art Foundation tour to White Shaman Shelter on the Pecos River

My guest today is Greg Williams, Executive Director of the Rock Art Foundation, which promotes conservation and education about the rock art of the Lower Pecos.  The Rock Art Foundation owns the White Shaman Preserve and offers tours there every Saturday.  To learn more, please see their website at www.rockart.org.

Greg Williams, Ex. Director, Rock Art Foundation

Greg Williams, Ex. Director, Rock Art Foundation

Hi Greg, thank you for being with us today. How long have you been with the Rock Art Foundation (RAF)?

It’s been about 20 years.  I first met Jim Zintgraff in 1993 – I had hired him to do a photo shoot in my business – so it’s been almost 20 years since I first became involved with the RAF.

Jim Zintgraff was a photographer, right?

Yes, he was a commercial photographer in San Antonio.  But in the early 1950s he started photographing rock art west of Del Rio, which was mostly unknown by the general public at the time because it was all on private land.  When the state of Texas decided to build Amistad Dam on the Rio Grande around 1963, Jim was commissioned to document many of the ancient pictographs that would be inundated with the filling of the lake. His images preserve this great legacy from the past.  Later Jim organized the Rock Art Foundation to continue this work.

What do you want the general public to understand about the ancient Image 5paintings in the Lower Pecos?

How important the art was to the people that left their stories for us to consider and what they could mean to us. The people who painted them had to be first concerned with survival in a harsh land but they took time from that to paint their mythology which was as important to them as their survival.

What is the biggest thrill you had with RAF?

Every trip I make to West Texas is a thrill. The country, the archaeology, the modern military and settler history, the tour participants – all are thrilling. Each time. It would be impossible to single out only one. I am as excited every time I go – just like the first trip.

Have you had any close encounters with snakes or other creatures of the wild?

Not many – we travel in a group and make a lot of noise. Most critters are long gone before we get there. It’s very hard to sneak up on a desert creature – most are nocturnal. In 30+ years of being in West Texas I’ve probably seen less that 5 rattlesnakes but we did see a mountain lion a few years ago at Meyers Springs. She was most likely tending to a hurt cub or we would have never seen her.

RAF Bunkhouse at White Shaman Preserve

RAF Bunkhouse at White Shaman Preserve

Besides tours of rock art sites in the Lower Pecos, what else does RAF do?

We are currently providing scholarships to the Shumla School in Comstock (associated with Texas State University) and outstanding seniors at the Comstock High School. We work with Landowners assisting in conservation efforts – in a recent example we contracted with Texas Tech University to provide a complete assessment of the prehistoric and historic cultural resources on a West Texas ranch for a new Landowner. The RAF keeps funds in reserve to protect endangered property through acquisition if needed.

We are also involved with restoration efforts on private ranches and are the official “Friends Group” for Seminole Canyon State Park helping them by conducting their weekend tours. The RAF operates a tour guide program with 15 experienced/trained Guides and we work with Landowners to develop access for this program (there is no BLM land in Texas – it’s all private property).

We also assist in research funding helping to defray the cost of field research and assist with publication funding. We have published our own book and CD ROM on Lower Pecos archaeology as well as the development and continued support of our website and have just established an electronic newsletter.

We also stage an annual fundraiser campout, the Rock Art Rendezvous, each October at Image 6the White Shaman Preserve and offer as many tours as possible that weekend. All these efforts are focused toward the preservation through education of the unique world class archaeology in West Texas. Our funding is all provided through private donations. We operate very efficiently – no one in our organization receives a salary.

Any advice for people new to exploring Lower Pecos rock art?

Yes – go to West Texas and listen to the country. Look at what appears around you and sit quietly. Be there at a sunrise, a sunset, sit beside the campfire – it will change you. If you’ve never been there it will introduce you to a part of yourself you didn’t know.

Thanks for being with us today, Greg.

Moon Flower: Plant Helpers of the Lower Pecos, Part II

IMG_1401

Moon flower, one of  the triumvirate of powerful helping plants in the ancient Lower Pecos, is known by many names: Jimson weed, loco weed, datura, stink weed, thorne apple and devil’s weed, to mention the most common.  These plants are members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which claims over 2,500 species such as potatoes, eggplants, and tomatoes. Datura stramonium, or moon flower, is a fragrant night-blooming plant that grows wild all over the world, including the Lower Pecos, and can cause delirium, anxiety, hallucinations, stupor, coma and death.

The plants contain the tropane alkaloids– atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. These alkaloids have many uses in modern medicine, but also serious side effects. Atropine interferes with activity in the brain stem, ranging from motor impairment to rapid heart beat, to overheating of the body. Internal bleeding and stroke can occur. Scopolamine and hyoscyamine are also sometime known as  “zombie drugs” because of the delirium and unpleasant hallucinations they can cause.

Spiny seed pods

Spiny seed pods

The seeds and leaves are the most potent, but all parts of the plant are toxic.  Uncomfortable effects generally begin 20-30 minutes after ingestion. Effects can  last from eight hours to three days.

Many researchers agree that ancient people of the Lower Pecos used moon flower, or datura, as a plant helper to converse with the ancestors and gods.  Their shaman were undoubtedly familiar with the plant and learned to dose themselves and others carefully to prevent dire reactions.  Some images in rock art have been interpreted as datura seed pods.

Spiny dots could be datura pods

Spiny dots could be datura pods

The Hopi used this plant for divination purposes, and Carlos Castaneda wrote about it in his famous book from 1968 The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. In the European Middle Ages, the  deadly nightshade known as belladonna was often used in magical brews.

A large moon flower plant grew at the base of our back door steps when I was a child. I was fascinated by the aromatic flowers that bloomed as the summer twilight deepened ,  and I wanted to pluck them for my hair.  But my mother always cautioned me strongly not to even touch the plant, and especially never to eat it. (It was not unknown for us kids to eat a little grass with our mud pies, but then, those were simpler days, when kids made up their own games outdoors.)

There must have been a note of truth and urgency in my mother’s voice when she cautioned me, for I obeyed her on this. And I was not known for being obedient.

Once my grandfather and I were riding horseback through a field when we came upon a moon flower plant.  I still remember the sharp distaste my grandfather conveyed as he said, “Don’t let the horse get into that!  That’s loco weed.  Now I have to get out here and get rid of it.”

I asked why he didn’t want the horse to nibble it, and he said, “because it will make him loco, crazy.  Don’t let him get into it, and don’t you touch it!”  And we quickly turned the other way.P1040172

The Center for Disease Control reports a number of datura or moon flower intoxications over the past few years which resulted in trips to  emergency rooms and admission to intensive care units. In one case, a family accidentally ate datura leaves in a stew, thinking it was an edible wild herb. Six members of the family were taken to the hospital, two of them unconscious.

Moon flower is not regulated in any way in the United States, even though it can cause severe reactions. It carries no warning signs in gardens or in the wild. Archaic people knew the power of this plant, after generations of dangerous trial and error.  Modern people should be aware that even one seed is poisonous and can cause severe discomfort.

The ancient people of the Lower Pecos used all parts of their environemnt, including toxic hallucinogenic plants. A  post in January discussed mountain laurel in Part 1 of this series, and an article on peyote is coming in March.  Nature is beautiful and complicated, as we learn over and over again. Four thousand years ago in the canyon lands near the Pecos River and the Rio Grande, the people knew this well.