Several months ago in a previous post, I wrote that one of my field objectives on the Flying Hat Ranchito was to identify every tree species rooted about the pastures and Salt Creek. Beginning with this post, I identify the mesquite tree. Unless Southwesterners have been reared in a dark box, everyone recognizes the mesquite and usually such identification is followed with a curse word or two. Except for the far pasture between Barton Creek and Salt Creek, mesquite erupts constantly about the ranchito and requires annual shredding or pruning. I relate to the mesquite tree without impatience, finding it worthy of praise, not scorn. But, first, from a objective point of view, then followed by subjectivity.
The mesquite tree…
Mesquite is one of the most widely distributed trees in Texas. It is a small to medium tree with an irregular crown of finely divided bipinnately compound foliage that casts very light dappled shade underneath. It is armed with thorns sometimes up to 2 inches long. In the spring, summer and after rains it is covered with fragrant white flowers, and the long bean pods are ornamental as well as providing food for wildlife and livestock. Mesquite is not a rancher’s favorite tree: it readily invades overgrazed sites and other disturbed land, is virtually impossible to get rid of, and the thorns injure livestock. However, the foliage, flowers and fruit are attractive, it adapts to almost any soil that is not soggy, it is heat and drought tolerant, it fixes nitrogen in the soil and provides many areas of Texas with shade, fuel and timber where otherwise there would be none. The wood is used in flooring, furniture, and as a cookwood for seasoning.
“Texas Native Plants Database,” Texas A&M University (2011).
The mesquite bean is also ground up and can be used as an additive to wheat flour or corn flour for making tortillas and bread. I’ve not tried the recipe, but I shall from a Native American reference I have on file.
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Objects that appear void of emotional affect to one person may be illuminated with soundings of deep, ineffable meaning to another. The mesquite and juniper trees in my life resound with spiraling emotion that takes me to a different plain, evoking events in my memory that I never forget and can only begin to understand. I shall write about the juniper another day. Today my focus is the mesquite.
When I was a boy, about five or six years old, I used to play underneath a mesquite tree adjacent to my mother’s studio apartment in Brownwood, Texas. It was shortly after World War II had concluded and my father had separated from us and was reestablishing himself in Pennsylvania, far away from Texas, the place he met my mother. Across the street from mother’s apartment, my grandmother lived in a small trailer house and took care of me while mother worked at Southwestern States Telephone Company. At the time, I did not know how close we were to destitution. I was a boy and I played outside underneath the mesquite tree, thoughtless and innocent about money matters.
One day as I played under the mesquite tree, I heard the sound of the wind — a southwest wind — flowing through the trees as I had never heard it before, but have ever since. The sound was of medium pitch, neither high nor low, and it persisted with a rising and falling velocity, bending branches, shifting the shade about me and my toys. As I heard the wind, I felt lonely, really alone in the world. My mother was in the house — I knew that — but I sensed a separation from her and a state of emotion that evoked a sadness, a sorrow that I found inexpressible at the time. The moment remains clear and even the affect is still apparent. It never leaves me.
Years later I came to realize that under the mesquite tree I felt, for the first time, a separateness from other things, other people. I realized I was an individual, distinctively apart from others, and there was no going back I came to find out. Under a mesquite tree was the place the affect of estrangement spooled out and bound me. I’m not alone in that awareness and that is a comfort, for we all sense that estrangement and how we meet the abyss and gain unity or self-loss is the rest of our life. These days, as I walk underneath and beside mesquite trees on the ranchito, I sense the mesquite as a companion one day and a intransigent master teacher the next. It helped me grow. I didn’t want to, but it threw me out of my Eden.
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In Aztec mythology, Quetzalcoatl, the giver of knowledge and wisdom to the people was thrown out of his city, country and reign for moral turpitude. As he went into exile, going east, he crossed the mountains to the sea, his dwarf companions died from the cold and the chocolate trees he passed turned to mesquite and great sorrow came upon the land.
[This is first of several posts on the mesquite.]