Half a century ago, when I was studying anthropology at the University of New Mexico, one of my dorm mates invited me home with her for spring break. She was a native Spanish speaker and a willing (if sometimes amused) listener to my stumbling attempts at conversation in that language. Though I’d studied Spanish all through high school, her accent—pure Castillian—left me groping for meaning in its soft, lisping rhythms. Her name at school was Lydia, but she confided to me that her family called her Lula. I called her Lula too, and wished I had a nickname like hers, redolent of childhood and belonging.
Lula lived in a quiet town in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico called Peñasco, a cultural and linguistic holdover from the early days of Spanish settlement. I relished the earthy details of Lula’s life: the warmth of welcome to an outsider unfamiliar with the old dialect that survives in this long-isolated community; the adobe house lovingly built by her father’s hands, in which the unleveled floors assure that anything that can roll will be found along the downhill wall; the quick hands clapping out tortillas to toast for breakfast over the open flame of the gas stove; lively eyes that betray their amusement at my abortive efforts to imitate that skill. “You need to have had a mother who did it, and a grandmother before her, and a great-grandmother before that, all the way back,” Lula assured me when all my attempts failed, and I’m pretty certain she was right.
Lula’s relatives lived on small homesteads strung out across the hills, each on their own piece of earth, counting cattle as their pride and wealth in an economy that had little relationship to the rest of the country. During my stay there we visited widely. In one farm home an infant, born only hours earlier, cuddled with her exhausted mother on a simple frame bed, its thin mattress topped by a pile of rumpled blankets. Beside the bed sat one of Lula’s great-aunts, a venerable presence despite her worn housedress and paucity of teeth. She was, Lula told me, a curandera—a healer—and a partera, or midwife. She had delivered the baby after an all-night labor, and she rested now, her face reflecting the pride and satisfaction of assisting this newest generation safely into the world. Her training had begun when she was a girl, at the side of her own aunt, who was both a partera and a yerbera—an herbalist, a woman who uses the simple resources of her surroundings to cure the ills of the people she lives with and loves. I have always wanted to be that person. Maybe every mother who’s ever worried her way through a baby’s fever or a tween’s fractured collarbone feels the same.
Lula too had learned from her female relatives how to comb the wild places for healing herbs, each in its season. I marveled at such a body of female knowledge, and the keenness of eye and mind that could pick out a means of salvation from among the plants I myself might mindlessly trample underfoot. It held an aura of mystery and of the sacred. I wanted to own such a gift someday. But these were skills not to be found in the catalog of courses at the university. Apparently they could only be learned from years of experience with older women in remote mountain valleys, and that required a birthright I had been denied.
I left Peñasco and returned to my classes, fell in love, married, moved away, but never quite forgot the women of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, who passed their healing secrets from generation to generation. Sangre de Cristo—the blood of Christ. Like the people of Peñasco themselves, the mountain’s name originated with the Spanish settlers in the 18th century, pious Catholics who glimpsed the mysteries of healing grace in both the mountain’s plants and the meaning of the name they gave it.
After birthing two children of my own—in a hospital, where the homey appurtenances of a familiar bed and the wise support of older female relatives were replaced by a skimpy hospital gown and the ministrations of strangers—I was ready to contemplate nurses training as a way of achieving my own hands-on engagement with the healing arts. Gathering my courage, I signed up for an introductory course at the local community college. The semester was interrupted by disaster when my husband, Bob, was diagnosed with valley fever, a lung disease endemic to the San Joaquin Valley where we lived. While valley fever is often no more troublesome than a cold, it can—and in Bob’s case it did—result in a months-long battle with fever, copious sweating, chest pain and extreme fatigue. I had no choice but to give up my classes and my dream of a career in bedside care and take over at home. I threw myself into the myriad responsibilities of caring for two toddlers and a very sick husband, but it never occurred to me that the career path I imagined myself giving up was exactly the one I was embarking on.
Many months of missed work later, Bob recovered fully, but my nursing plans had been permanently derailed. We became foster parents, which led us to adoption. I was a mother, period: nurturer, teacher, dietician, hugger extraordinaire. But, herbalist? Natural healer? No time for that.
Forty-five years and nine kids later, I’m ready to renew my interest in the gentle arts of the curandera. Grown daughter Dara and I are heading to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, an hour’s drive southeast of Phoenix. It boasts a vast collection of flora from all the deserts of the world, and walking paths dotted with shady ramadas offering respite from the relentless sun. Best of all is its full range of expert-guided hikes: the Dragonfly and Butterfly Walk, Plants of the Bible, Learn Your Lizards, Summer Birds, Plant Photography. And today’s highlight: the Edible and Medicinal Plants tour along the Arboretum’s Curandera Trail. Perfect!
Because Dara’s diabetes has always been difficult to manage, her service dog, Penny is along for the excursion. A small Corgi/Cocker mix, her job is to alert Dara to rapid changes in her blood sugar levels that could be life-threatening. Penny does this by tugging at a knotted scarf that Dara leaves hanging from her pocket, then letting her know in which direction—high or low—her blood sugar is trending with a nose tap to her left or right hand. Penny has never been on a desert hike before, and I’m hoping the new scents that will surround her won’t distract her from her work. Since it’s up to me to keep her skills sharp, this will be a test for me as well as Penny.
Dara and I join some 20 other hikers and our guide, an ethnobotanist well versed in the ways of the native desert dwellers. I whip out my notebook and pencil, ready to record this esoteric knowledge, even though I’m certain Lula never had to write a single word on any of her fledgling forays into the curandera world. It is a warm afternoon, early spring temperatures in the high 80s, with no breeze and little enough shade from the low-growing desert vegetation. Before we reach our first lecture stop at a wide place in the trail, Dara is beginning to sweat. We both share a quick drink from the water bottles I carry, and I pour water into Penny’s portable bowl as well.
Creosote: the desert medicine chest, our guide tells us. Fungicidal and antimicrobial, a decoction from its tiny, oily leaves is the prescription for cuts and burns.
All fine and good, but Penny is having none of it. Restless and whining, she paws at Dara’s leg, then at mine, apparently begging to be picked up. This is not acceptable service dog behavior, and I intervene, cuing her to sit. She ignores me.
Our group moves on. Brittlebush, valued for its new spring leaves, which can be made into a salve to sooth sore muscles. Or heat its plentiful amber sap to create a calming incense. My notebook is missing crucial bits of the instructions as I wrestle with Penny’s continual fussing, and Dara and I are both beginning to wilt in the desert sun.
Further up the trail we stop again, this time beside a sprawling prickly pear cactus. Its fat round pads grow one atop the next, all of them covered with long spines as well as barbed, hair-like prickles. Our guide lists its healing properties, which include the regulation of blood sugar in diabetes. Who knew? My pencil hovers above my notebook, ready to scrawl the recipe for this pragmatic wonder, but Penny’s whining is becoming ever more insistent. I maneuver the three of us to the back of the crowd, where we’ll all be less of a distraction for our fellow hikers—and my failings as a service dog handler will be less obvious. I try again to help Penny focus on her public manners, but nothing works. Dara stares down at her ill-mannered pup with a puzzled expression, as though this must be someone else’s dog entirely. It’s an expression I suddenly recognize—it means her blood sugar has dropped precipitously, leaving her disoriented and near collapse.
But why hasn’t Penny alerted us?
“Your scarf,” I whisper to Dara. “Where is it?”
The answer is plain—the purse she’s toting over her shoulder is hanging across her pocket, covering the scarf and making it inaccessible. I move the purse aside and Penny leaps to yank the scarf loose, then noses my right hand to tell me Dara’s blood sugar is dangerously low.
I seat my teetering daughter on a nearby rock and crack open a jar of apple juice she carries for emergencies. The tour group moves on, all that arcane knowledge receding off down the trail; me squatting beside Dara, plying her with the simple remedies that will ease her past this crisis—apple juice, honey, raisins.
When Dara has recovered enough to walk again, we head back to the trailhead, and from there to the Arboretum’s shaded entrance patio. As we sit awhile recovering I look over at Penny, sprawled contentedly in Dara’s lap. No healing roots, stems, or leaves. No tinctures, or poultices, or sour-tasting teas. But still, she’s a resource and a mystery of the kind Lula and her generations of female relatives would understand. My notebook is nearly empty of the wealth of information I’d hoped to gather from our trek but, silently, I revise my résumé to include my new reality. Mother: nurturer, teacher, dietician, hugger—and curandera.