A sparking juju for the natural world gets set off when I visit my friend, George, in upstate New York. We once went reptile and amphibian collecting at a state park in an attempt to populate his newly built pond. The only frog he was fast enough to catch, a move that had my graceful companion hopping right behind his target, was lost when I slipped in the mud. It flew out of the paper cup I was carrying. We were forced to pay five dollars for a couple of freshly caught frogs and a tiny turtle to a local kid who stood in a muddy lake up to his waist. It was shameful to not have the prowess of the hunt but while standing at the water’s edge in transaction, the boy squeezed one frog so tightly I feared its belly would pop. It felt good to take them off his dangerous hands.
This past summer, I was at The Grove, George’s property. The Echinacea, commonly referred to as Coneflower happened to be in full bloom. Out admiring the lush beds of pink flowers, without much thought, we committed to making the extract from the plants known to boost the immune system.
While still in their prime, the first step requires pinching the pink petals from the living plant; a very genteel past time. But not all the parts are as soft and lovely as they. In fact, the name Echinacea comes from the Greek word echino, meaning sea urchin, referring to the prickly center, the seed dome, which we planned on harvesting later in the season.
As if dealing with flower petals was too delicate a task to sustain, we balanced our botanical efforts by marching into a simultaneous agenda: war on the natural world. The conflict was over George’s tomato patch, and the enemy, the chipmunk.
Alternating laying out feathery petals in a pretty basket to dry, we ran through the garden like banshees, clapping, yelling and chasing the rodents to their side of the fence. We checked and tightened fences, securing every inch of the perimeter. When a chipmunk scurried over my bare foot, I said, while wiping the sweat from my smeared face, “This isn’t working.”
Under normal circumstances, neither of us would pick up a flyswatter. But upon another discovery of a bushel’ worth of green tomatoes lying all over the ground with teeth marks in them, we activated an elaborate defense program to save the fruits of his labor. We drove to the nearest hardware store for some heavy artillery. George already had two big live traps, which no living thing had visited. Back and forth in the aisles, we tossed phrases like ‘unusually mild winter,’ ‘global warming,’ ‘population explosion,’ ‘koyaanisqatsi,’ all justifications for what we were about to do. George paid for the biological weapon, a three-pound bag of sunflower seeds, and drove us back to The Grove. By then I was referring to his pastoral acreage as The Killing Fields.
George dragged the garden hose from the shed and noisily filled five-gallon bucket two thirds of the way. He sprinkled a thick layer of the dark seeds over the surface and carried it to ground zero. Back inside where the newly picked Echinacea petals were already hanging in place from the drying rafters, he shuffled through a stack of boards in search of the perfect width and length. Jamming one end into the ground, I watched as he rested the other on the rim of our bucket. Before my eyes, George built a miniature model of walking the plank. But it was for chipmunks instead of blindfolded, weighted down sailors. If things went as planned, they would dive head first into a seedy sea never to destroy again. “Diabolical,” I pronounced when the contraption was in place.
Living inside murderous intentions is, as my mother would say, ‘God-awful.’ In the morning, George awoke in a shuddering sweat from intermittent rodent nightmares. Our consciences forced us to dismantle the construction and abandon the mission, before we were able to face breakfast. The only hope was that one night of shock and awe was enough to send the army of chipmunks running for the hills.
I took the train back to The Grove in early November for the final phase of the harvest: leaves, the urchin seedpods, gnarly root clumps, and the dried petals of August. We brought all the ingredients back to my kitchen in the city AKA, The Lab. I scrubbed the roots while George chopped them. They were fibrous and difficult to penetrate. He ended up with a nasty blister from the effort and later that night I found a tick stuck to my side.
For six weeks of daily shakings, as I wrote and lived, behind the closed door of a kitchen cabinet, the colorful concoction brewed. A friend standing in my kitchen when I was making Roibus tea caught sight of the jar and said, “What’s that?” By then it was really dark and looked more like tar than a medicinal extract. After she left, I called up George and said, “It’s time. That stuff is putting me under suspicion.”
A few days later, George came back to The Lab and we sterilized the squeeze rubber tops and brown bottles, strained out the plant material from the final brew in cheesecloth, avoiding all metal because it has an impact on the contents of the brew. We put some in a little in water and tasted it, gave it our official approval, and poured it through a tiny antique glass funnel that has been floating around my kitchen for years.
George’s two contraband frogs grew and prospered. But the endeavor did not turn out exactly as we planned. One morning, we took our tea outside to the pond and discovered the horror of a reality we had not yet heard of: a frog eat frog world.