This week, the Hill Country meadows are punctuated with purple exclamation points. This lavender beauty is gayfeather (Liatris spicata), or blazing star, also called snakeroot and colic root. Mrs. Grieve, in her Modern Herbal (not so modern: 1929) reports that the plant was used as a diuretic, as a topical treatment for sore throat, to treat snakebite, and to flavor tobacco and repel moths. The latter two uses are probably related to the coumarin in its tuberous root (coumarin smells like vanilla). One species native to the eastern U.S. (L. scariosa) is called “Devil’s bite” because the root looks like somebody nipped a chunk out of it. For Native Americans, it was a heal-all. They brewed up a tea that treated kidney, bladder, and, um, sexually transmitted diseases–as well as sore throat, colic, laryngitis.
Not incidentally, gayfeather is one of a large group of native North American plants which were used as abortifacients. When you read that a plant was employed to treat “menstrual problems,” think contraceptive/abortifacient. For centuries, women taught one another what worked to help them avoid pregnancy when they couldn’t support another child. They used local plants. Gayfeather is one of them.
On my desk this week, more research in the current work-in-progress, a biographical novel about the artist Georgia O’Keeffe and Maria Chabot, the woman who built the beautiful O’Keeffe house in the New Mexico village of Abiquiu. During the most active decade of their friendship (1941-1949), the women exchanged over 700 letters, published in this collection. Their relationship (like many friendships) was an evolving, complex, and highly nuanced mixture of needs (Georgia’s) and desires (Maria’s), complicated by distance and competing people and activities. Important: Please, if you read the letters, be wary of the editor’s comments. She wants to direct you to a particular interpretation–hers. But hers is not the only interpretation of this long, complex exchange. When it comes to letters, a good editor gives you the texts, explains their historical context and any obscure references, and lets you decide what they mean.
The novel will be based on the women’s letters, but also on materials from the massive collection of papers that Maria donated to the O’Keeffe Research Center in Santa Fe. There’s no Chabot biography, but the current Wikipedia post fills in many of the details of Maria’s life. I’m planning a trip to Santa Fe next month to dig through the archives for more information about this remarkable woman’s fascinating and multi-faceted life. O’Keeffe’s life is already well documented. Of the biographies, I’ve enjoyed Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life and Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe. The last and most intriguing chapter, the elderly O’Keeffe’s years with the much younger Juan Hamilton, has yet to be written. This novel isn’t going there.
Book news: latest release. Please let your librarians know that Hemlock (the latest in the China Bayles series) is available from their usual distributor–also in audio and large print. The Darling Dahlias and the Red Hot Poker (#10 in that series) is with the layout editor now and will be published next April or May. I’m not sure when the O’Keeffe/Chabot novel will be published: maybe very late 2022 or early 2023.
Otherwise. Our Alaska son, Michael, is in Austin for a visit. We keep up via Facebook (which has its positive side, as well as negative) but it’s lovely to see him face-to-face. And even unmasked, since we’ve all had both vaccinations. It looks like our county might be getting a little break from Covid, although the deaths are still climbing, the vaccination rate is too low, and the people in the grocery store are mostly unmasked. (Texas is one of the states where the governor has mishandled the pandemic from the beginning.) Bill and I will be first in line to get our Moderna booster as soon as it’s available. Hope you’ll be getting yours, too. Keeping the infections down is the only way to stave off new and more dangerous variants–and more unnecessary deaths.
Reading note. Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.–Wendell Berry