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 landscape of my youth. It has woody stems, large white crepe-papery petals, and a bushy yellow center; hence one of its other monikers, the fried egg flower. Native Americans used it for medicinal purposes for centuries. Tenacious, drought-resister, a lover of unloved places, the mantilija poppy is a “fire follower”, whose seeds are waken by smoke. To come across the poppy is to visit the scene of past calamities, to sense, even if vaguely, the terror of untamed fire, and to discover in its aftermath an unexpected serenity, even beauty.
The poppy has an Irish connection: its botanical name—Romneya coulteri—honors an Irishman, Dr. Thomas Coulter, who “discovered” the flower while collecting botanical samples in California during the 1830s. However the source of its common name is Chief Mantilija of the Chumash tribe, who fiercely resisted Spanish mission culture around the same time. Coulter is an explorer from the ‘Old World’ documenting the flora of the ‘New World’ while Mantilija is a man fighting to save his old world as the new people dismantles his culture in the name of civilisation, progress, and religion. The flower traces by name both men’s legacies. On the one hand it represents an instance of identifying uniqueness in the midst of a 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 genocide: what was, for the Chumash and other Native American tribes, unprecedented.