Symbolic Sumac

This is not about the moon, though I suppose it could be, because it seems my Cancer existence is always backlit by lunar influence.

That beautiful, amber Full Buck Moon has passed and the clear starlit sky has left my midnight driveway darkened this week, a blackness that is palpable as I walk from the carriage sheds into the house each night after work. Soon the new Full Sturgeon Moon will appear as a faint, slouching sliver, probably casting a reddish summer hue. I can feel it, which is neither here nor there, but yes, the moon is always there for me, even when hidden, and capable of unleashing weirdness.

So who knows? Maybe this omnipresent lunacy is precisely what’s affecting me this week, the impetus for thoughts about symbolic patches of staghorn sumac I pass daily, the fruit ripening in stiff, upright drupes displaying various shades of vibrant red, the same color as the invisible new moon building energy, known also as the Red Moon, which is gaining subconscious momentum under dim, deep skies.

For some reason, I have since a boy been attracted to sumac stands. I might add that my first memories of the wild bushes had nothing to do with the plant or its drupes, but instead with associated wildlife sighting — particularly the startling sensuous stimuli that started with a furious rushing sound, then a flash, then disappearance like a midnight haymow spirit, quickly vanishing when you click on the light, leaving in its wake only haunting stillness. Later I came to recognize the soft harbinger drumming that hints all hell is about to break loose seconds before it does.

Yes, I guess I have always linked sumac to ruffed grouse — or partridge, or grey ghosts, or whatever you want to call them — beginning with those enlightened childhood days of free, unsupervised play and exploration in the mucky swamps, along brooks and ponds, through the pastures, their brushy perimeters and bordering woodlots, and up to secluded highland perches that kneaded it all into a panoramic view of a tiny world known by ancestors and the River Tribes who preceded them. For as long as I can remember I’d see sumacs, their autumn leaves a scarlet red, and immediately suspect partridge were lurking. I’d pause briefly and, sure enough, off they’d explode, one after another, usually bursting down the narrow power line leading north from the end of Graves Street, toward Boro’s and Yazwinski’s pastures, before disappearing with abrupt turns into colorful hardwoods shading dense undergrowth. Back then, we were almost as free as the birds, skipping off in whatever direction we pleased, spontaneously learning the landscape and its many hidden secrets, the route entirely our own. At some point, we always seemed to end up in the shelf-cave facing southwest from the North Sugarloaf point overlooking the notch, that low sunken ridge line attaching the two Sugarloafs, bordered west by Eastern Avenue, Decker Farm and Mountain Road, south of them the sacred little ballpark at the western base of Mt. Sugarloaf. There we honed our baseball skills, again unsupervised and free to learn the game on our own terms. Some boys developed into ballplayers and climbed the ladder quickly, others hit the wall and chased newfound dreams, some of which turned to nightmares. In the end, we all find our places, I guess, even the kids who can’t hit a baseball or prevent others from doing so; though it’s no secret that in this culture you have an unfair advantage when successful in the heroic arena. I’m not saying that’s the way it should be, just the way it is here in this hypnotized land of the free, home of the brave, Big Brother looming to the hardy cheer of frightened masses.

The sporadic sumac growing on that power line along the western base of North Sugarloaf was not the first I encountered. No, the first would have been a small patch in the narrow tree line between Sadoski’s and Dwyer Lot that leads south into the Bloody Brook swamp across the street from my childhood Pleasant Street home. My father always said there had been a barn there when he was a kid, and remnants bore him out. That thin brushy strip, now taller, still stands along the eastern edge of the grammar-school lot, following the third-base line of the youth-baseball diamond. To be honest, I cannot say I recall flushing partridge there when that open grammar-school lot was most often covered with silage corn. We may have flushed a few over the years, but partridge were rare there, where I vividly recall igniting an accidental fall blaze as a kindergartner and hiding under my upstairs bed as sirens and flashing lights approached. Actually, we were much more likely to encounter rabbits at that site, plenty of them, plus seasonal songbirds in the trees and occasional ringnecks feeding on fallen drupes. I had no clue back then that the sumac wildlife was after those long red clusters of berries extending from branches between rich green leaves. I just knew that where there were sumacs there always seemed to be critters. Plus both sites also contained wild grapes and blackberries, additional wildlife magnets.

My, how times have changed. Nowadays it seems I rarely flush partridge from sumacs, never from the neighborhood patches I pass daily. There just aren’t the partridge there used to be, most likely because the young forests of my youth are now much older and less attractive to foragers. Today, myself also 50 years older, the sumacs I pass remind me of something else entirely: the dysfunctional, budget-busting health-care system we’ve created to fatten Big Pharma, insurance companies, investors and their sacred profits, the lifeblood of predatory America. Yes, it’s true that a wild plant utilized by Indians for healthy tea, refreshing soft drinks, jams and jellies, cooking additives and medicine, not to mention dyes and powders and smoking-tobacco spice, is today considered invasive and worthy only of Roundup destruction: oh yes, the Monsanto solution. Think of it. Here we have a wild plant that annually produces antioxidant and antimicrobial berries that could be gathered as a free source of Vitamin C, yet this consumerist culture teaches us that it’s an invasive pest, better off dead, which sounds hauntingly similar to treatment of the indigenous tribes that once valued sumac as a gift from their Earth Mother.

What mainstream TV huckster in his right mind would today advocate gathering sumac or other free medicinal plants — “weeds” in modern pejorative vernacular — from along the roadside or t’other side of high, cheap, ugly wooden fences built around Walmart dumpsters to contain the stench? Only rare doctors would propose such cheap remedies, and those who do are called alternative or wacko or cuckoo or much, much worse by outspoken critics committed to the trusted pill-for-everything solution. I challenge you to find alternative doctors your insurance company will cover. Trust me, it ain’t easy, and the doctors know it. In a nutshell, if Big Pharma ain’t raking in dough, insurance companies don’t want to hear about it. Just the way it is in a land where money is God.

A late doctor friend of mine knew the truth even though he attended the finest colleges and medical schools Big Pharma could buy, and he worked for a mainstream practice. Not only that, I happen to still know such a doctor, a good friend who’s been blackballed and badmouthed by competitors and considered “loony” indeed by the HMO club. He told me long ago to change my diet and shopping routines, get more exercise, eat healthier and stay away from pills, all of which, according to him, have side effects you want no part of. He’s a scientist. Although I always listened to his advice, I never acted upon it until I started to age and felt my physical prowess fading. That’s when I started fine-tuning my listening skills during our discussions, some convivial, and decided to change my stubborn ways. Why didn’t I listen from the beginning? That’s a question I often ponder when I’m passing sumac drupes and rose hips, wild sources of concentrated, organic Vitamin C that’ll keep you healthier than any jug of commercial orange juice, any pill, capsule or serum money can buy. The typical American will laugh at those claims. That’s OK. Those who eat healthy will laugh last.

I listened when my Midwestern doctor friend told me mercury fillings, pesticides, GMOs, and supermarket foods were the cause of various systemic human inflammations, which bring on symptoms like high blood pressure, gout, migraines, depression, you name it. I also tuned in when he warned that sugar’s a killer, more dangerous than fat, and that it’s essential to read labels carefully if you want to avoid invisible sugar intake. I sharpened my listening even finer as I watched his own physical changes after “detoxing” and attending one distant, pricey conference after another to learn about the benefits of organic foods, grass-fed meats, exercise, good-cholesterol intake, and refusal to go the pharmaceutical route your insurance and doctors demand. I paid particular attention to his indictment of fluoride as a dental agent and water treatment, his assertion that it was nothing anyone wanted introduced into their bodies, just a clever way for the aluminum industry to make money off a poisonous by-product and disposal dilemma. So, hey, why not put it in water supplies and toothpaste and mouthwash to maximize profits? Why not push it in pill form through dental practices? Ah, yes, the American way, even if it does make people dumber.

The man who imparts this wisdom is himself a dentist, no less, one who goes the extra yard and can’t for fear of losing his license tell new patients to remove their mercury amalgams, which he claims are toxic and responsible for many health problems, including mental illness. When I mentioned this opinion to a successful Long Island dentist I spent time with on Lake George’s posh south shore a few years back, the man couldn’t contain his fury. “He should lose his license for telling anyone that, and would if the ADA found out,” he exploded in a most unfriendly tone. End of conversation. Why push it? Sorry, I believe my dentist friend, who’s more concerned with patients’ health than the bottom line — a rare breed indeed.

One more thing that’s worth sharing before I go is that the only person I ever met who used rose hips as a medicinal cold remedy was a humble Vermont lady who married a card-carrying socialist and lived briefly in Scott Nearing’s southern Vermont “Good Life” commune. My parents were warned about this unusual family, told to keep their son away from the dangerous, subversive radicals. Today, I still think of those gentle folks who taught me much, my mind often wandering back in time, stirred by the sight of sumac drupes, a sweet whiff of wild roses on my daily Sunken Meadow rambles with the dogs. Those thoughts then flitter to my dentist friend who dares to be different, make enemies, and risk his livelihood for truth-telling that goes against the grain. Then I think of my self-proclaimed activist friend who listened to doctors at first and briefly took the medicines they prescribed for angina. Due to innate curiosity we all should value, this learned man soon began exploring his options and discovered there is another way, one without pills, the chemical solution he abruptly trashed for another way. That man is today 84 and going strong, pill-free for 10 or 12 years, no statins or blood-pressure pills. Then I think of the changes I myself have made over the past couple years, the weight loss, how much better I feel, and it becomes clear who’s worth listening to and who isn’t.

I guess it’s just one more live-and-learn experience, the story of my life, one that has endured many twists and turns but still fuels a strong orange flame standing tall in a soft autumn breezes behind the hurricane.

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