An interlude between historical novels: I read an essay on preparing to evacuate amidst the wildfires in California this year: “… I’m living in historic times even though I do not particularly care to do so: we are rehearsing our own deaths. Pack the bags, feel the fear, obliterate, release, refresh.” When unprecedented becomes the norm, what comes after that?
The author makes a passing comment on the mantilija poppy, and I look it up. Native to California and Northern Mexico, it is usually found in dry washes, canyons, the edges of freeways—the sun-washed landscape of my youth. Also known as the fried egg flower, it has large white crepe-papery petals, a bushy yellow center, and woody stems. Native Americans used it for medicinal purposes for centuries.
The poppy traces by name the legacies of two men. Its botanical name—Romneya coulteri—honors an Irishman, Dr. Thomas Coulter, who “discovered” the flower while collecting botanical samples in California during the 1830s. The source of its common name is Chief Mantilija of the Chumash tribe, who fiercely resisted Spanish mission culture around the same time. Coulter was an explorer from the ‘Old World’ documenting the flora of the ‘New World’ while Mantilija fought to save his old world as the new people dismantles his culture in the name of civilisation, progress, and religion. So, on the one hand, the poppy's name signals an instance of identifying uniqueness in an assumed terra incognita that already bore a long history of horticulture before the first European explorers arrived. On the other hand it alludes to entrenched resistance to Native American genocide by white settlers.
Tenacious, drought-resister, a lover of unloved places, the mantilija poppy is a “fire follower”, whose seeds are awakened by smoke. To come across the poppy is to visit the scene of past calamity, to sense, even if vaguely, the terror of untamed fire, and to discover in its aftermath an unexpected and eerie serenity, even grace.