When they are traveling around the American Southwest visiting the many and remote parishes in their huge diocese, the French priests in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop often have an Indian companion along. At night they camp on the desert sand. This passage is excerpted from the tale of one such journey:
Kneeling on either side of the embers they repeated their prayer together and then rolled up in their blankets. The Bishop went to sleep thinking with satisfaction that he was beginning to have some sort of human companionship with his Indian boy. One called the Indians “boys,” perhaps because there was something youthful and elastic in their bodies. Certainly about their behavior there was nothing boyish in the American sense, or even in the European sense.
Jacinto was never, by any chance, naïf; he was never taken by surprise. One felt that his training, whatever it had been, had prepared him to meet any situation which might confront him. He was as much at home in the Bishop’s study as in his own pueblo — and he was never too much at home anywhere. Father Latour felt he had gone a good way toward gaining his guide’s friendship, though he did not know how.
The truth was, Jacinto liked the Bishop’s way of meeting people; thought he had the right tone with Padre Jesus, and that he had good manners with the Indians. In his experience, white people, when they addressed Indians, always put on a false face. There were many kinds of false faces; Father Vaillant’s, for example, was kindly but too vehement. The Bishop put on none at all. He stood straight and turned to the Governor of Laguna, and his face underwent no change. Jacinto thought this remarkable.
Maybe the Bishop and Jacinto share some qualities of character, and that’s why they appreciate one another. One aspect of Bishop Latour’s character that I see is his humility. In fact, perhaps there is a double meaning in the book’s title: not just the usual meaning of the ending of his earthly life, which we read about in the last pages, but also the little deaths that come to him day by day, not adding up but subtracting bit by bit from the possibility of earthly glory that might have been his, if he had given his fine mind and life to a different life back in France. Instead of fame and accomplishment, he sees defeat on many levels. But he accepts that.
Fr. Stephen Freeman recently wrote in “The Despised God” about the humility of God. He says, “The ‘glory’ of God is not the glory of wondrous success, shining fame and an incomparable reputation. Instead, we are told that we behold the glory of God ‘in the face of Jesus Christ.’… The crucifixion of Christ for Paul is more than an event that accomplishes salvation – it is an event that reveals Him in His fullness.”
“For many, such meekness in Christ is treated as something of a disguise, or a temporary work for the purpose of salvation. They all too quickly turn away from this understanding to assert that ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead!’ But there is nothing to indicate that the definition of glory is somehow being altered for the sake of the Second Coming. As for the imagery of the Revelation of St. John, it should be read through the Cross rather than used as a corrective for the Cross.
“… the friends of God are foolish, weak, base and despised. That is the narrow way. Interestingly, it is a way that is the most open for all to walk. We need not be wise, strong, and well-thought-of. It turns the world upside-down and our lives along with it.
“Right now the world is desperate for a few fools.”
My most recent reading about tamarisk trees was in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, which is about two French missionary priests serving in New Mexico in the 19th century. In Santa Fe their house has a garden, with poplars and tamarisks:
On the south, against the earth wall, was the one row of trees they had found growing there when they first came, — old, old tamarisks, with twisted trunks. They had been so neglected, left to fight for life in such hard, sun-baked, burro-trodden ground, that their trunks had the hardness of cypress. They looked, indeed, like very old posts, well seasoned and polished by time, miraculously endowed with the power to burst into delicate foliage and flowers, to cover themselves with long brooms of lavender-pink blossom.
Father Joseph had come to love the tamarisk above all trees. It had been the companion of his wanderings. All along his way through the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, wherever he had come upon a Mexican homestead, out of the sun-baked earth, against the sun-baked adobe walls, the tamarisk waved its feathery plumes of bluish green. The family burro was tied to its trunk, the chicken scratched under it, the dogs slept in its shade, the washing was hung on its branches.
Father Latour had often remarked that this tree seemed especially designed in shape and colour for the adobe village. The sprays of bloom which adorn it are merely another shade of the red earth walls, and its fibrous trunk is full of gold and lavender tints. Father Joseph respected the Bishop’s eye for such things, but himself he loved it merely because it was the tree of the people, and was like one of the family in every Mexican household.
You know how people are always trying to figure out just what the manna was, that God gave the Israelites to eat in the desert? Some think it was the sap of the tamarisk tree, as Wikipedia tells us: “At the turn of the twentieth century, Arabs of the Sinai Peninsula were selling resin from the tamarisk tree as man es-simma, roughly meaning ‘heavenly manna.’ Tamarisk trees (particularly Tamarix gallica) were once comparatively extensive throughout the southern Sinai, and their resin is similar to wax, melts in the sun, is sweet and aromatic (like honey), and has a dirty-yellow color, fitting somewhat with the biblical descriptions of manna. However, this resin is mostly composed of sugar, so it would be unlikely to provide sufficient nutrition for a population to survive over long periods of time, and it would be very difficult for it to have been compacted into cakes.”
But honey that bees make from tamarisk nectar — that’s for real and you can buy some right now. Rusty on her Honeybee Suite site calls it a “dark secret,” and says it tastes like “malt and molasses topped with overtones of horehound and citrus—and not excessively sweet. It had a lingering, smoky, slightly bitter aftertaste.”
Honey that is not excessively sweet? I guess it’s all relative. Emily Heath on Quora explains: “Nectar, which honey bees collect to create honey, varies considerably in the types of sugars it contains – some nectars are mainly fructose, some mainly glucose, some mainly sucrose, others roughly equal mixes of the three. This causes variation in the sugars present in the honey, depending on which nectars the bees collected… An average honey which has not been tampered with by humans might contain 17-19% water, 38-40% fructose, 31-35% glucose and 1-3% sucrose.” Here is another interesting site that compares many varieties and benefits of honey: Honey Varieties.
It was when I began to look for photos of tamarisk trees that I found warnings about their invasive and supposedly thirsty qualities. People say they take more water from the ground than native trees, and also crowd them out. After searching for a deeper analysis of their current place in the arid ecosystems of this area, I was thankful for an article in Discover Magazine, “The Battle Over the Tamarisk Tree,” a few paragraphs from which I’ll share below. It explains about the complex interrelationships of the flora and fauna, including the current dependence of the Southwestern willow flycatcher on the tree. At first, local and federal agencies attacked the trees with bulldozers, herbicides, fire and chainsaws; then they found an also non-native insect pest to help with eradication.
I should mention that the genus Tamarix includes 50–60 species of flowering plants. The one that is of most concern in the Southwest seems to be Tamarix ramosissima.
“In 1930, [the tamarisk] was a cure-all for erosion concerns in the West. Before long, it was vilified as a water-hogging monster. And by the 1950s, federal and state agencies had galvanized to bring the monster down.
“But tamarisk isn’t quite the monster it’s been made out to be. Sure, it’s highly flammable, and it may salinate the soil when it drops its salty leaves. But water hog? Turns out, it uses roughly the same amount of water as native riparian trees like willows and cottonwoods.
“Since the middle of the 20th century, humans have dramatically altered western rivers and made it harder for native trees to compete. We’ve built dams and diverted water, and we’ve tamed the periodic floods that once spilled over riverbanks to sprout new generations of willows and cottonwoods. As we engineered the rivers, tamarisk increasingly had the upper hand.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture began searching for a tamarisk biocontrol in the mid-1980s. By 2001, they’d launched the tamarisk beetle program, releasing the insects at 10 different sites with the caveat that no releases would be permitted within 200 miles of a known flycatcher nest.
“But by 2008, after an unsanctioned beetle release in southern Utah, Diorhabda carinulata reached the Virgin River: flycatcher habitat. Ecologists worried the beetles would destroy the tamarisks that this unique bird had come to rely on for nesting. And in 2010, the USDA ended the program.”
The beetles did not go away, and some people are still monitoring their numbers, hoping that they will help to restrain the tamarisks a bit. I guess the flycatchers don’t eat beetles that munch away at their homes; they like winged insects best.
An older article at Terrain.org, “The Thirsty Tree,” explains in more detail how our human impact on rivers created the situation in which the tamarisk, also known as salt cedar, could dominate:
“Groundwater pumping, overgrazing, and the construction of dams altered the natural pulse of a river’s seasonal cycle. Was it possible that salt cedar, well-equipped to deal with salt and drought, simply moved into niches where native trees could no longer take root?”
“Water savings—that goal meant everything to the politicians and resource managers of the Southwest. To ‘save’ water meant not to conserve it, but to rescue it from rivers and aquifers and make it available to humans.”
“The old idea of ‘plant as machine,’ a monster of our own making, imagines salt cedar roots drinking from a deep bucket of water, easily reallocated to human use. The reality is much more complex. Stark numbers ignore the intricate workings of tree, rain, soil, river—not a machine whose parts can be scrapped for other uses, but a delicate dance of interrelationships.”
The history of water use in the American West is fascinating and depressing. If you want to understand more about it, Cadillac Desert is a must-read. More primitive peoples didn’t use water the way we have in the last couple of centuries, so there was no reason to see the tamarisk tree as anything but a blessing. Our holy forefather Abraham was of this mind.
The tamarisk tree is mentioned more than once in the Bible, but maybe the most striking reference is in Genesis 21:33, where we are told that “After the treaty had been made at Beersheba, Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines. Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the Lord, the Eternal God. And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.”
Botanists and scholars think it was probably the Tamarix aphylla, or athel pine, that Abraham planted, and I have read in some places that it takes hundreds of years to get to its full height. It takes several generations, at least. As has been noted, you don’t plant it for yourself, but for your grandchildren, and beyond.
Abraham truly had the long view. No doubt his friendship with God, and the truth of things that he could know from closeness to his Creator, gave him the ability to look toward the future and make provision for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he planted more than one tamarisk tree in his life. And it seems likely that after the Israelites endured 400 years of slavery in Egypt, and wandered in the desert another 40 years before entering the Promised Land, they were very glad to find tamarisk trees waiting for them, and to sit down in their shade.
I’ve read Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather three times, including an audio recording narrated by David Ackroyd which I only recently completed. These three readings were so far apart that each time seemed a fresh introduction to the characters and the setting. And yet, I do think that the first two readings helped to form a love in my soul for the Southwest territories of the United States, so that this third time I found it there waiting for me, like the warm sand beneath a red rock butte, a place where I might bed down for the night under the stars and feel whole.
Ackroyd’s voice and narrative style seem perfect for the story. There is a steadiness and a lack of hurry that aligns with the faithful dailiness of the lives of the two missionary priests as they try to meet the spiritual needs of a vast diocese that had just enlarged by nearly 30,000 square miles with the Gadsden Purchase.
They are based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but make frequent trips by horse or mule of hundreds and thousands of miles, even into Old Mexico, to take care of ecclesiastical affairs, to baptize babies and perform marriages, and to serve Mass. Their characters are sympathetic and rich; the story of their friendship over the decades is a thread woven through the novel, made up of small stories scattered through the years.
I’m using this audio book now the way I have two or three others in the last years since I sleep alone, for the times when I don’t sleep. I put a well-known story to play on my phone, set the timer for 30 minutes, and let David or another nice person read me to sleep. This only works with voices that do not draw attention to themselves in various ways, usually by being overly dramatic.
That means I am reading/listening to the book, based on a true story by the way, a fourth time. Because every anecdote and scene seems more luminous and meaningful than ever when it is told or described by a warm human voice, I may post here some passages that appear plain and dry to you poor people who may never have breathed the air of New Mexico or seen the Arizona desert in bloom. But today, it’s only goats we will consider, and I imagine that they are goat-ish the world over.
“After the feast the sleepy children were taken home, the men gathered in the plaza to smoke under the great cottonwood trees. The Bishop, feeling a need of solitude, had gone forth to walk, firmly refusing an escort. On his way he passed the earthen threshing-floor, where these people beat out their grain and winnowed it in the wind, like the Children of Israel.
“He heard a frantic bleating behind him, and was overtaken by Pedro with the great flock of goats, indignant at their day’s confinement, and wild to be in the fringe of pasture along the hills. They leaped the stream like arrows speeding from the bow, and regarded the Bishop as they passed him with their mocking, humanly intelligent smile. The young bucks were light and elegant in figure, with their pointed chins and polished tilted horns. There was great variety in their faces, but in nearly all something supercilious and sardonic. The angoras had long silky hair of a dazzling whiteness.
“As they leaped through the sunlight they brought to mind the chapter in the Apocalypse, about the whiteness of them that were washed in the blood of the Lamb. The young Bishop smiled at his mixed theology. But though the goat had always been the symbol of pagan lewdness, he told himself that their fleece had warmed many a good Christian, and their rich milk nourished sickly children.”
I’m reading My Antonia again — actually listening for the second time, to the recording narrated by Jeff Cummings. Next time I’d like to hear a different narrator, because I think Cummings makes the adult narrator of the story, Jim Burden, sound like young Anne of Green Gables. And he reads too fast, which doesn’t suit the pace of life depicted in the novel, and does an injustice to Willa Cather’s evocative prose.
This may be the fifth time I’ve read the book, and every time is a fresh experience. A paragraph or a personality will jump out at me as though I’m encountering it for the first time. For example, the introduction to the Burdens’ Norwegian neighbors after they moved into town:
“Mrs. Harling was short and square and sturdy-looking, like her house. Every inch of her was charged with an energy that made itself felt the moment she entered a room. Her face was rosy and solid, with bright, twinkling eyes and a stubborn little chin. She was quick to anger, quick to laughter, and jolly from the depths of her soul. How well I remember her laugh; it had in it the same sudden recognition that flashed into her eyes, was a burst of humour, short and intelligent.
“Her rapid footsteps shook her own floors, and she routed lassitude and indifference wherever she came. She could not be negative or perfunctory about anything. Her enthusiasm, and her violent likes and dislikes, asserted themselves in all the everyday occupations of life. Wash-day was interesting, never dreary, at the Harlings’. Preserving-time was a prolonged festival, and house-cleaning was like a revolution. When Mrs. Harling made garden that spring, we could feel the stir of her undertaking through the willow hedge that separated our place from hers.”