Saturday, April 04, 2009

Sassafras

During the early days of the Carter Administration, my mother sent me off to Camp Wawbansee, a CCC Girl Scout camp located outside of Simsboro, Louisiana, deep in the heart of towering pines. I spent a couple of years here among second growth pine trees and roadsides filled with coreopsis until I grew really bored with Girl Scouts. I was a lousy girl scout, really, impatient with the charge of being a good samaritan, intolerant of the daily dining room chores inflicted on 8 year old campers, and tired of all the public service events like singing at nursing homes. I really enjoyed building fires, stomping through the woods, identifying plants, and (of course) breaking into the storehouse of purple boxed Samoas that sat 5 feet high next to my piano awaiting delivery to paying customers up and down the block. I only went to Girl Scout camp a few years before attending Camp Hardtner, an Episcopal camp on the edge of Kisatchie National Forest in central Louisiana. I can't think of a single skill I learned at Camp Hardtner. I didn't have chores or duties there, no bed making or sweeping the cabin floors everyday, but I dove into friendships that span history, time and place. I can't name a single cabin mate from Camp Wawbansee, but have the email addresses and phone numbers of almost 50 friends from Camp Hardtner, many of whom I haven't seen since 1990.

It wasn't the fault of the camp or even the structure of Girl Scouts that left me uninterested. I learned about Louisiana forester and naturalist Caroline Dorman, one of my childhood heroes; I learned why you shouldn't pick wildflowers in the woods; I learned that throwing longleaf pine needles into a campfire makes the fire explode; I learned my trees and shrubs of Louisiana. But it was a lousy camp...even the songs weren't fun, all focused on service, God, and good citizenship (Conversely, we sang Hoagy Carmichael protest tunes at Camp Hardtner...I swear the diocese bred little socialists there). I left girl scout camp with the skills to build a great fire, but didn't really accrue lasting memories or tools for living life.

Few things I remember from those two mid-1970s summers probably shouldn't have been retained. Much like the lyrics to Steely Dan songs which loop through my head when I'm on the treadmill, lessons from girl scout camp creep up periodically. One of the troop leaders at Camp Wawbansee was a young mother with thick, salt and pepper feathered hair, skin-tight jeans which she professed to wet before rolling them on, tight black concert t-shirts from crappy bands like Boston and REO Speedwagon with the sleeves rolled up, snakeskin cowboy boots, a big pink comb in her back pocket. She came to the pine woods with a big luxury van with 8-point buck transparencies on the windows, white shag carpet stained with her daughter's spilled Coke, a macked out 8 track tape player with Kenny Rogers and Barbara Mandrell tapes scattered between the seats. She killed snakes -big, harmless things like rat snakes- with a shovel she carried in the van expressly for that purpose. Never really enjoying the quiet of pine woodlands in northeastern Louisiana, she blared her bad music from the van which she parked right next to the CCC shelter, about a mile away from the designated parking area, directly on top of a bunch of oak sprouts. I was grateful that my mother wasn't anything at all like her. I once saw my educated, talented, pretty, trim mother talking to her after a girl scout meeting and I felt unclean, like my mother had to use the payphone in a Bourbon Street strip club or something.

The troop leader led us on half-hearted "nature walks" up and down old logging roads, not wanting to go on the trail system (that Caroline Dorman herself designed) because she'd get mud on her boots. Along the way, she would flip logs in an effort to locate snakes to kill, pick strapping bouquets of roadside wildflowers, and create fiction designed to scare us. (Such as: our cabins were perched on Caddo burial sites, and that our cabins are haunted). I also learned from her that "all snakes are poisonous," a line I told my father who just laughed and laughed and laughed afterwards. This woman was so anti-snake that after she killed the ones around the dining hall, she skinned them ("to make a belt!"), chopped the meat into bite-sized pieces and then roasted them over the campfire. Ick.

But one afternoon that summer, she taught us about edible plants. My fellow scouts in Troop #36 watched as she ate grungy old dandelion greens, dusty from our repeated foot traffic. We saw her eat wild onion bulbs speckled with Tunica-black soils. We watched as she carved big chunks off of a big sassafras tree, undoubtedly killing it, to boil into a tea. In the pine woodlands of Louisiana, small sassafras trees can be found in the openings, along roadsides, wherever light can reach the woodland floor. I was enchanted by the varied leaves of these little midstory trees: one leaf looks like a mitten, another like a 3-fingered glove, maybe for a great blue heron, and the other a simple leaf without lobes. I asked the troop leader about these trees, how one tree could have three distinctive leaf shapes. She ignored my question, and showed us the dented Wearever pot full of a steaming, hibiscus tea-red sassafras infusion.

Always one to trust adults- even though I had very little respect for this woman -I drank some of her sassafras tea. I liked it, and thought it was pretty amazing that a slice off a tree boiled over a campfire could turn well water into something potable and red. Of course, she told us that afternoon that sassafras leaves are ground into a powder to make filè, an essential ingredient in gumbo. I then fell in love with sassafras trees. I wanted to know what else they could do.

Fast forward to my first growing season in the Ozarks. Walking through high quality dry chert woodlands in mid-April, my colleague and I come up to a ridgetop on the edge of a recently burned glade. Thick stands of 7 ft. tall shrubs fill the space between two large post oaks. Half of the trees were top killed by his April fire, scorch heights two feet up the brown twigs. The other half of the dog hair stand were thriving shrubs sending out big bunches of brilliant yellow flowers up and down the smooth brown stems. I peered into the simple, waxy flowers and asked my colleague what they were. "#$%&*^ sassafras. They love fire. You can't kill it," and he kept walking. I stopped, then questioned him like I always do when I'm surprised, with a loud and excited "really?" I thought of Louisiana and gumbo and root beer and that red infusion the woman with bad musical taste made.

Once I met flowering sassafras in Ozark woodlands, I saw them everywhere that spring, growing thick along fencerows, along woodland edges, on glade borders, in unburned savanna. I remembered the faded, pale orange hue the leaves take on in early September, the smooth bark, the list of cures attributed to sassafras. In Ozark woodlands, sassafras seldom grows into large, singular mature trees. They propagate by suckers and are difficult to transplant. Of course, hearing the disdain heaped upon them by my colleague, I'm not sure I would try to transplant one anyway. In fact, when he realized I was so thrilled to see so many sassafras trees with their interesting leaves, he asked if I wanted to come to his house to dig some out of his woodland.

I had great plans for these sassafras trees. I would do what I was taught to do in Girl Scouts. I would carve a chunk of the bark and soak it in water until the water turned a nice amber color. I would dry the leaves and make my own filè, an essential spice I can't find in central Missouri. But first, consult the beautifully illustrated Trees of Missouri by Don Kurz to see what he says about sassafras:
Root bark tea is a well-known spring blood tonic and "blood purifier;" also a folk remedy for a variety of internal ailments. However, safrole, the oil found in sassafras, has been found to cause liver cancer in laboratory animals. In 1976, the FDA listed it as carcinogenic and officially banned the sale of sassafras tea, roots, and oil.


Never one to invite cancer into my life, I decided to leave the sassafras where they were, clogging the woodland edge at my colleague's 50 acre property. That afternoon, I started to wonder what other misinformation I had retained from Girl Scouts. The FDA listed it as carcinogenic 4 years before the woman with bad taste fed it to us. I'm grateful I learned about the tree at a young age, and even more grateful that my mother realized my soul gained nothing from girl scout camp and sent me packing to Camp Hardtner, a place where I learned nothing whatsoever but grew nonetheless.

5 comments:

beetlesinthebush said...

I write, and try to find time to read.

You read, and somehow find the time not only to write, but write like this!

A beautiful, thoughtful, flavorful essay. I'll never look at sassafras - or think about 70's pop rock - the same way again.

my best--ted

Justin said...

I agree with Ted. What a fun read. The image of the gaint pink comb in the back pocket and the feathered hair still makes me chuckle. I had similar summer camp experiences in Colorado as a child during the same era. It makes me want to rent "Meatballs".

James C. Trager said...

It wasn't just the girl scouts -- for me boy scouts was comparably worthless regarding practical learning, and also unpleasantly regimented, and cliquish.

On the other hand, that school week spent at Camp Redwood Glen in the Santa Cruz Mountains during the spring of my sixth grade year (paid for by the San Jose school district!) -- that was a memorable and completely worthwile experience. I learned all sorts of interesting central coastal California natural history, extrapolation from which serves me even to this day in Missouri. It was also the first I ever heard about conserving water (while taking showers) in the perennially water-short West, again with ramifying carry-over throughout my life.

Thanks for reviving this memory.

Jeff Moore said...

I grew up in South St. Louis with a huge single mature sassafras in my neighbors yard. Everyone denied it was a sassafras including a tree trimmer I watched work its limbs one afternoon. All the leaves took on the single oval shape which I attributed to its age. Frustrated at a family event in which 40 people sat and stared, I took out some binoculars and studied the tree. Finally at the top of the crown I identified a single mitten. The conversations were finally over. Thanks for sharing about your sassafras.

Allison Vaughn said...

Jeff, you're right, in settings outside of woodlands, these trees grow into, well, TREES. There's a monster sassafras on a roadside at Table Rock State Park, could be a state champion. Give them a mown lawn and they thrive!