Georgia Savory and Air Potato, Cheryl after John Muir

by Tim Gilmore, 10/13/2012

Cheryl considered herself a forager. She could walk through the park and walk through downtown and walk through abandoned suburban apartment complexes and find shoots and blooms and leaves and roots she could enjoy that very few people would ever notice. Cheryl was a wasteland connoisseur.

She knew what would grow in sand and in swamp in high land and methane muck. She knew where to go. She knew too the architecture of the city, but she considered those plants she foraged the truer architecture of the city.

She had seen that the city’s residents and the city’s government might not care about its greatest artists of buildings. The houses, the temples, the towers would be allowed to fall into disrepair, and then the city would tear them down because these buildings were in disrepair.

Most of the city’s oldest buildings were little more than a century old. But how old were human beings? Hundreds of thousands of years? And how many millions of years old were hominids?

Cheryl walked through the muck by the creek beneath the footbridge, thinking that she owned nothing, but feeling with every fiber of her being that she belonged to everything, that she was taken care of.

In the muck by the creek after the rains, she walked in the slush and picked up native mints. These plants that were so seldom known bore whole panoplies of confusions of names. Browne’s Savory and Georgia Savory were the best examples.

Browne’s Savory was native only sporadically to a couple hundred miles, but it was native to more than a million years. As such, it didn’t really matter what you called it, because Browne’s Savory itself didn’t care what you called it. It didn’t even care that it wasn’t a savory at all, that it was a mint. There were only seven places in the more that 700 square miles of city limits were Browne’s Savory currently grew, and this morning after the weeks of rain, she walked in ringworm and Browne’s Savory’s thriving. She could smell it when she stepped. It opened up her sinuses and lungs. She picked its leafy stems and placed them in a pale, careful to break each stem in such a way to encourage it to increase new growth.

Georgia Savory grew native to a much wider terrain, spreading from Florida up to South Carolina and over to Alabama. Though native, Cheryl knew only two places in the city limits where Georgia Savory grew wild. Through her walking, she knew of 23 local places where Georgia Savory grew in herb gardens or along sidewalks or porches.

And if Browne’s Savory was no savory at all, but a mint, Georgia Savory carried a much more complicated network of names.

Cheryl ran all these names through her brain while she walked Riverside Avondale and San Marco and San Jose and Neptune Beach. Her favorite famous walker was John Muir, who inaugurated his career of walking and immersing himself in nature by walking from Indianapolis to the Florida Keys just after the Civil War, a walk recorded in Muir’s A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. Cheryl walked her city’s woods and its swamps and its city and its suburbs. She remembered that Samuel Taylor Coleridge estimated that William Wordsworth walked 180,000 miles.

In Riverside, near Kent Campus, Cheryl ran her fingers through four lush and woody and sprawling bushes of Georgia Savory, blooming small lilac in its dark green bristles.

She remembered every time she had ever seen the plant. At a cursory glance, she had once thought it was rosemary. Another time, looking closer, she thought it was winter savory. When she saw it in a clay pot at the Beaver Street farmer’s market, the merchant called it “wintermint.” She asked every local nursery about wintermint, but no one had ever heard of it. At the Riverside Arts Market, she asked Dora, proprietor of Maggie’s Herb Farm in St. Augustine, who sold herbs at a book in the market most Saturdays, but even she had never heard of wintermint.

Then some junk dealer at a flea market had a pot of the plant, and he called it Catamintha Georgiana. Yes, Catamintha, the junk dealer said, also known as “cat mint.” So now she had a starting point for research.

She found that Catamintha was really Calamintha, which no one who knew their native herbs called “cat mint.” But Calamintha Georgiana was also not a calamint. The leaves and blooms were nothing alike, the taste and fragrance were only as alike as savory to mint. Calamintha Georgiana was also called Georgia Basil, but was even less like basil than it was like calamint. Among several other names, the plant was known as Satureja Georgiana, placing it in the same genus as winter and summer savory, winter savory the plant, even more than rosemary, it most closely resembles.

So Cheryl said to herself, “Georgia Savory,” and she stood in its woody stems of dark green bristly leaves and light lilac blooms and savory fragrances, and all this she accepted as the best architecture the city could ever offer, and that very morning, she lay down in the Georgia Savory that spread across the herb garden of a small house in Riverside. She believed herself not to inhabit Jacksonville, Florida, but to inhabit Heaven, Heaven proven to be very much Earth, perfumed with 25 different herbs, poet laureate among them Georgia Savory.

And she held the stems to her face and closed her eyes across the morning, but eventually she had to rise, and then she had to walk back.

Then, walking by the little tributaries of Little Fishweir Creek, she looked into the trees and saw them. Dioscorea bulbifera.

Air potato.

Each tendril of the vine grows 40 feet. Multiple tendrils cover a small tree in a year. They smother a palm tree, an immature hickory, a strand of elderberries, a willow. She has seen air potato cover kudzu, that monster of invasive vines, and devour it completely.

The air potato produces its “potatoes” in the air. It grows them like bulbous rocks all over the trees it kills. The air potatoes are poison, but Cheryl chops down the vines, harvests the fruits, and fills bucket after bucket from one or two trees. She boils the bulbils three separate times, to make sure the considerable toxins are voided, before she eats them in the ruins of the old Oriental Gardens, south of San Marco.

The air potato that suffocates so much of Florida’s indigenous vegetation originated in Western Africa. Air potatoes snuck across the Atlantic Ocean aboard slave ships bound for North America, and even if Cheryl boils them extensively three times before she eats them, the vines dominate the South like some remaindered form of justice. Cheryl considered the forms she foraged the truer architecture of the city.