Contraband

As nervous as a novice drug courier, I handed the Chilean customs agent my sworn statement declaring I was carrying no plants, seeds or fresh foods into the country. The agent waved me through. Outside, I patted the bulge in my parka pocket-a plastic tube containing a ten-inch California redwood seedling. Greater than my concern for breaking the law was my need to bring back to Chile a living keepsake of what I’d left behind. Those were times of relative ecological innocence. Biodiversity was not yet a word in my vocabulary.

In my walled city garden I chose a protected spot to plant the seedling and gently placed it in the hole I’d prepared, uncertain it would survive in this dry climate.

A towering avocado tree started from seed twenty years ago by my younger son, Nicolas, flourishes in one corner of my garden. Avocados, originally from Central America, thrive like natives in both Chile and California. In the opposite corner stands the redwood, now over twenty feet tall. Native Chilean foxglove and wild fuchsia grow in the shade of its branches. As I dig in this soil, care for my seedlings and watch the seasons pass — forty-two years of them now — I continue putting down roots of my own. I wonder how deep they go.

I fall in love with places, my first love was the small northern California town where I grew up. Now, wherever I go beyond this concrete urban landscape, rocks, shells and seed pods seem to slip into my pockets as if by their own accord. Perhaps I’ve the genes of a gatherer.

During one California visit, I hiked through stands of redwoods and lacy shadows cast by bay and madrone. What pleasure to tread again the soft, loamy earth, inhaling the pungent fragrances of the trees and the dry grass of the open hills. When I reached the top of an earthen dam, a lake that I’d known since childhood came into view. I saw turtles sunning on floating logs and noticed a familiar, spicy scent-the very essence of that place. Sniffing like a hound dog, I found the source, a shaggy, brown weed. I broke off a twig and slipped it into my pocket.

Scanning a book of the county’s native plants, I found it: a perennial covered with sticky hairs that emit a strong odor; small yellow flowers at the apices. Its name: Chile tarweed, madia sativa, a member of the sunflower family. Found in Chile and California. Just like me.

I envy the tarweed’s ability to adapt. How did it come to be native in both places? Perhaps some seeds slipped aboard a Spanish ship sailing up the Pacific coast in the 1700s, or, during the Gold Rush, when California-bound ships stopped in Chile to take on passengers. Maybe a few seeds were carried in the pocket of a woman who wasn’t sure where she belonged.

The spirit within me that loves places expands to encompass new loves. Each new landscape marks me. The southern beech forest where we spotted a family of giant Magellanic woodpeckers. The soft mauve and melon hues of the setting sun on the bare mountains rimming the Atacama Desert. The milky greens of the glacier-fed bays in the Straits of Magellan. Familiarity with these landscapes deepens my attachments and triggers a desire to write about them. Photographs in words to jog the memory, to remember the beauty and relive the fleeting, wondrous moments of oneness with all.

In my garden shiny new avocados peer through the foliage on Nicolas’ tree. California poppies — accidental stowaways to Chile in the 1800s — open their golden cups to this southern sun. One spring, a pair of hummingbirds chose the redwood tree to build their nest. The redwood is my companion in this journey. Together we continue to push our roots deeper into this foreign soil.

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