Chronicles of a Modern Pict
August 3, 2000
I woke this morning to the faint buzzing of a small mosquito contemplating which soft part of my body would be the tastiest location for its late morning breakfast. Of course he who snoozes loses, thus I ignored my pantheist philosophy and flattened the blood sucker! Survival of the fastest.... I write from the eagles eyrie high upon the mount. This place is my Tor, my sacred lands beyond the mists. Were it not for the great horned owl, and his little brother the screech owl, the only sounds that penetrate this holy silence would have been the gentle rustle of the leaves in the wind upon the heads of the mightiest of ancient pines and firs. I would seek 'Ciunas Gan Vaigneas' the quietness without loneliness tonight were it not for my desire to write these words. The near full moon has risen and soon her light will fill this dark forest with ephemeral gossamer threads, dancing rays from treetops to leaf tips, that in my child mind's eye may well be the habitat for faeries, but as a man I can imagine this as the center stage for the eternal dance connecting our species between "...geology and the Milky Way," as my friend Gary Snyder put so well. My faeries beckon me to take up their dance, but I shall resist until the Moon reaches her fullness on Sunday... These legs of mine ache from an overly heavy pack (where are my Sherpa when I need them), I am now many miles from the trail head, but if I finish my work tomorrow (or if my equipment runs out of batteries), I'll hike out late in the day.
The first time I camped in this place (Skunk Cabbage Meadow) I was a young boy, perhaps 13 years old, learning the trials of the Boy Scout program by completing my camping, hiking, and edible plants merit badges. I remember a small group of us preparing camp while several troopers were off with their handbooks trying to figure out what plants might make a decent edible salad. My botanical skills were just beginning to bud at that time of my life, and it seemed logical that a place named after a edible plant (Skunk Cabbage) would provide the basic foodstuff for our goal of an 'all natural' meal. The Boy Scout Handbook is published out of the east coast, and most of the plants described for the edible plants merit badge are eastern in their distribution. Skunk cabbage is ordinarily highly edible if collected early in its emergent growth, so the goal for the first night was to find the plant and make a salad that would qualify us for the award. Our scoutmaster was not a botanist, and in retrospect was the kind of man that probably didn't get much past the processed food stage of epicurean enlightenment. So when he looked at the bags of green leafy samples collected by my cohorts, they appeared reasonably edible to him. I was getting carried away with a lashing project (rope and knots) in order to secure a ridge pole for a primitive shelter I was building when I heard a commotion going on in the "kitchen' area of the camp. One of my fellow "boy sprouts" was clutching his stomach and groaning in a rather pitiful way. Spread out on a makeshift table was our cornucopia, à la Euell Gibbons, and apparently the "Skunk Cabbage" had already been sampled by our aspiring chefs. One after another the boys began succumbing to the toxic effects of eating Veratrum californica, the California Corn Lily, a poisonous plant that is so strikingly similar looking to Lysichiton americanum, the eastern Skunk Cabbage, that the early non-botanically trained explorers of this mountain range named a meadow after it. Fortunately for my friends, the plant is not lethal in small quantities, and an informed wilderness ranger hastened to their aid with an immediate rescue to the lowlands for a stomach pumping at the local hospital.
To this day, there is not a single Skunk Cabbage plant to be found south of Oregon or west of the Colorado River, but the place name persists! And isn't it ironic that about every 5 years or so the scenario that remains so vivid in my memories is replayed by successive groups of boy and girl scouts who in their ignorant bliss are looking for the fast track to that elusive merit badge! My faeries have given up on me because I refuse to dance with them, and I am about to fade into sleep within my own solitary cocoon of goose down and mosquito netting.