Wednesday, May 23, 2007

the red currant

My grandmother felt no compunctions whatsoever about taking from the land. Hell, she came from a time when the land belonged to anyone who was willing to stay in one spot through a winter. She picked up windfall fruit off the sidewalk, berried behind the gas station, she seedheaded in garden centers and from public plantings without a second thought. In defiance of state law she transplanted rare trilliums at will, keeping twelve of them in a washtub under some pine trees behind her house. In this highly unusual setting they grew merrily in utter defiance of the common notion at the time which held that even to squint hard at a trillium would kill it.

One spring she decided that she needed a red currant bush. Now I recall that this had been a subject of some conversation for months and the conclusion was reached that none could be had from any of the nurseries around.

A red currant is a shrub native to the Pacific Northwest. It's habitat is at the forest's edge, nearby a creek or a river. In March it comes forth covered in a fountain of deep pink flowers, nearly red, and later on these are followed with clusters of berries just in time for the robins. That suited my grandma down to the ground; she loved robins.

But at that time native plants were seen as nothing special and not worth offering commercially (excepting fashionable rhododendrons, but those were so pricey that they were black marketed). People mainly wanted exotics and things they remembered from back East, or from the 'Old Country'. This was the heyday of the Hybrid Tea Rose and the petunia. Who'd pay money for something that grew wild?

Which was exactly the way my grandmother saw it.

"I want to go for a ride up in the mountains," she announced one weekend. Her word was law. The car was packed up with picnic things. My grandmother appeared with a shovel (blade polished like a diamond, handle varnished and topped with red paint) and some burlap sacking and the trunk of the Ford opened while my father dithered and sweated and grinned and turned red. "Oh for Heavens' sake Niilo, I'm not going to do nothing wrong. Anyway you never know. What if we get stuck? At least we can dig ourselves out!" she stated. She held the trunk lid open with one hand and tucked the shovel inside, while my dad's hand rested heavily on the lid, pushing the other way. I saw her elbow lock.

All the way up the mountain my father kept repeating "Now, you know we aren't going to bring anything back you know..." and my grandmother kept saying "Oh Niilo, let's just take a nice ride. I just want to see things in bloom." When things wound down my mom would stir them back up again with a provocative comment. I kept mum.

By the time we reached ZigZag, halfway up the mountain, my grandmother and my father were openly arguing, something I had never seen before. "Now, this is against the law, Mom," he announced in his 'I'm the man so I'm the boss' voice. "This is breaking the law! I don't want no part of it!"
"Oh, I'm not going to do nothing wrong! Just drive, Niilo", she said.
" I know what you're gonna do, Mom, and..."
" I am 83 years old and if I want a tree I'm going to get a tree! Now that's it!" she replied emphatically.

This cracked my mother up pretty bad. I was just astonished.

The woods were beautiful, foxglove and seafoam and alder. Rhodadendron bloomed in leggy wands tipped with ridiculous pompons of bright pink, shining between the evergreens. We passed a few 'rhodie rustlers' along the way. These were backwoods Joad families with shitty old pickup trucks loaded down with plants stolen off public land. They openly sold them by the roadside despite it's being illegal as hell. My grandmother pointed them out triumphantly. "Nope! That ain't right! They're breakin' the law!" My father groused. "Now, now don't you tell me you want one a them cause I'm not stoppin!"
" I already have some rhododendrons, Niilo" she replied. "I got them from behind Sherret's place when they moved out."
"Oh, boy" said my dad.

We turned off onto a state forest road and began to climb into the foothills. My father was red. "Look at all the people, Mom" he whined. And it was true; everyone was out enjoying the woods that fine April day.* "We can't, we don't wanna, we, we better not-"
"Keep driving, Niilo" she said.

For awhile the car was pretty silent, unless you count the sound of my father sweating #8 gravel.

"There" announced Grandma "I see one. Stop the car."

There was a brief skirmish. My grandmother finally plucked the keys from the ignition and marched back to the trunk, opened the lid, removed her gear and set out into the woods. Hairnet, dress, stockings and all.

"Go with her, Niilo" my mother nagged. " She's gonna get hurt or somethin'."

Off he trudged with my mom in tow. " You stay here!; I was warned. "I don't want you seeing this! If anyone comes by you just don't say nothin, you hear me? Even if they talk to you! Don't say a word! Nothin!"
And so I sat, and sat, and sat...while the sound of bitching and digging echoed out of the woods.

They returned with a nice little currant, reachy but glowing red. My grandmother directed it into the trunk of the car like an air traffic controller. 'Don't break it, Niilo! And don't just dump it on the ground! Wrap the burlap around the dirt! You're bending it! Just set the root ball in the trunk on the mat!"

I kept my head low and watched this in the rear view mirror. My father was very near a heart attack at this point. Breaking the law was bad enough...this was worse! This was VOLUNTARILY INTRODUCING TOPSOIL INTO THE SURGICAL CLEANLINESS OF HIS AUTOMOBILE!
"Oh come on. A little dirt isn't going to hurt anything!" my grandmother said.
This made my father laugh in sheer disbelief and outrage. It was DIRT! Dirt was DIRTY! Dirt was TOUCHING HIS CAR! AND IT WAS UNLAWFUL DIRT!!!!

It got worse. Once the thing was in the trunk, three feet of it stuck out the back. No, it COULD NOT be cut. No, it COULD NOT be bent. Just prop something up under the lid of the trunk and tie it shut, Niilo.

Everyone loaded back up and we headed off down the mountain with the currant bush waving and nodding behind us like a flag.

Which was when the forest service truck pulled out behind us and made us stop.

The ranger made my father get out of the car, show his license, open the trunk, explain his business. My poor dad could not finish a sentence, blushing and stammering, grinning like a dog, mortified way past rational thought. Finally my grandmother sighed and got out of the car.

She strode up to the ranger with her arms crossed. " This is a red currant bush. I dug it up; I wanted it. I pay taxes. This is a state forest and we own these woods, and if I want to dig up a currant bush I'm not hurting anything. I my taxes paid for it, after all."

My grandmother stood nose to nose with the ranger while my father slunk off and slid behind the wheel. The ranger tried, poor thing, insisting that they had to fine anyone who stole plants from the woods, it was against state law and she had to be written a ticket.
" See? I told you! I told you! It's against the law! my father said, feeling justified. Feeling it at a safe distance from the fray, of course.

My grandmother stood her ground, completely unconcerned. "I am NOT doing a THING wrong. I would NEVER break the law. How can you steal a tree? That's the most foolish't thing I ever heard of. Steal a tree."

And the ranger backed down.

He made her promise that she wouldn't sell it (which set off another stern lecture-"After we drove all this way? This is going in my yard! The robins like it!") wouldn't dig up anything else and that she'd go straight home, the ranger got back in his truck and drove off. Probably to the nearest tavern.

And the currant went into her back yard, and the robins nested in it.
She made my dad plant it for her, too.


*things bloom a month later up the mountain than they do down in the warm valley.


  1. He He He , there is nothing like a feisty old lady to derail officialdom.
    Now that was worth remembering :-)

  2. What a fantastic story, sounds like a great old lady. Only one thing worries me, what is a trillium? Sounds a bit too like a triffid to me.

  3. beast: she was tough as nails! came to the northwest on a covered wagon, shot at indians, killed bear, skinned deer, married and outlived four husbands, cooked on a woodstove and did her washing on a board until they MADE her get electricity. she was COOL!

    realdoc: WHERE YOU BEEN WOMAAANG?????
    -a trillium is the most beautiful flower in the woods, a small lilly with three petals and three leaves. it grows in the shade. on the west coast here they are pure, pure white and look like stars in the green gloom.

  4. A very lovely and touching story about an amazing spirit. You honor her. Thank you Firsty.

  5. Anonymous1:24 PM

    she sounds just like my mom. and like someone who i would have enjoyed being around. i'm betting you are just like her too.

  6. your grandma kicks my grandma's ass six ways to sunday. my grandmother was a self serving, image obsessed cow. can i have your grandma?

  7. Hahaha, boy, does that sound like my Okie relatives. I felt right at home.

    The Spouse Sparrow's the same way, he'll appropriate plants, seeds, trimmings, etc. from all over town as we walk. Of course I'm the one encouraging him, heh.

  8. I never knew my Grandparents they all died before I was born. But this story did remind me of my parents, they always carried a penknife with them. When on holiday or visiting a botanical garden/garden centre out came the knife and cuttings were taken. I think a healthy disrespect for authority is good!

  9. The only thing that keeps the universe together is the tension created by the opposing forces of desperado little old ladies and squeeky clean forest ranger types.

  10. i could see her! what a grand woman she must have been! well done, sugar!

  11. oh that's awesome - what a great story. she sounds incredible.

    funny - rhodies are still freaking expensive. I've been thinking of stealing some from the neighbor's yard and hoping no one would notice.
    if i were more like your grandma, i would do it in broad daylight.

  12. Don't know why, but I imagine her canning tomatoes. I bet they'd be good.

  13. Who hasn't shot at Indians? the couple who run the corner shop are right cunts.

    No one wanted the tree except her so well done.

  14. I have a strange desire to lick old knudsens knees.........I think I should go and have a bath and a lie down

  15. I love your Grandma - what a great story. All the imagery washed over me as I read. I was slinking down in the backseat with you pearing through the rearview.

    She does remind me a bit of my MIL, who is known to deadhead plants from nurseries and such without a care in the world.

    Good for such dames.

  16. pearing - peering - all this talk of fruit.

  17. Wonderful, wonderful story - beautifully conveyed. Thank you!

  18. That was a beautiful, funny, story that was so well written, that I felt like I was there sitting in the car with you.

    I pictured the whole thing in that sort of overexposed 60s polaroid nostalgic tint complete with the odd scratch on the film...
    and that Ranger was played by Tab Hunter.

  19. Anonymous6:29 AM

    I wouldn't have dared mention it - I have been on the receiving end of bad tempered old people too many times... I guess the Trooper was quiet young? I do take "samples" wherever I can but discretely - sometimes I do make errors there is a certain small town which is plagued with a kind of weed I accidentally imported from Gibraltar..

  20. I have never seen you write like you do when telling a story about your grandmother.
    Living beside a state forest, I often feel this way -- if it is growing ten inches beyond my property line -- I think it is still mine. But what if it is 15 feet into the woods? Sometimes you've got to help out a volunteer.

  21. great story, but bloody hell don't red currant flowers smell just awful - we call ours (with affection) the urinal bush!

  22. Great story. I should garden...I can see it now...a yard full of shriveled vines and grass.


  23. kindness: she could have lead armies. thank you!

    pink: i should be so cool. my grandma would have got a huge kick out of caillou!

    cb: sure! you'd have to help make cider in the fall, though.

    fatty: you madame are aiding and abetting a CRIME! for SHAME!

    frobi: i have a folding clasp knife on my keyring for the very same reason. don't leave home without it!

    sopwith: and burritos. the guy didn't stand a chance.

    savannah: welcome welcome and thank you thank you!

    claire: don't forget the burlap sacking!

    ara: she did...but they weren't, god love her. she cooked like a german, unfortunately. everything was boiled and had onion and caraway in it.

    knudie: she would have had you running in circles and barking like a chihuahua, son!

    beast: he makes me feel the same way. it is part of his occult allure. makes me want to bathe too.

    g: there would have been room for you! it was a 63 ford with bench seating. size of a small house!

    danator: thankew kinely. imagine her living next door to your stepdad!

    homoE: that's kind of how i remember it, too. only more like a young michael rennie in the ranger hat.

    muttley: wouldnt have mattered. my grandmother was a force to be reckoned with. (i am plagued with 'butter and eggs' linnarea for the same reason!)

    mutha: when i lived next to a 'green belt' the boundaries got kinda flexible too!

    ziggi: leave it to you! i didn't even knnow they had a scent; never noticed!!!

    awaiting: oh crapola, lady. kudzu grows anywhere.