Give yourself a few minutes for this story about the link between seasonal produce and cultural patrimony:
In the dusty red earth of eastern Arizona’s portion of the Navajo Nation, the main road stretches out beneath the massive white-cloud sky and rubs against barren, chalky mesas; sometimes it skirts the deep, dry crack of a canyon stubbled with sagebrush. Small fields of corn occasionally sprout up beside the road, the short stalks still far from ripe.
But away from the road, tucked beside lakebeds or the foot of a hillside, a mid-summer visitor will find bright yellow flowers beginning to open. They are the crowning blooms of a thin plant that can grow up to two feet tall and which thrives in the heat of this arid region. Called greenthread (Thelesperma), it is used to make Navajo “tea.”
Unlike the evergreen Camelia sinensis used in caffeinated black and green teas, greenthread is brewed from at least one species of Thelesperma. A member of the Aster family that’s native to desert regions of the American West and Southwest, it sprouts up in abundance during the spring; its flowers appear at the end of its stalks in mid- to late summer, signaling that it’s ready to be harvested.
Deborah Tsosie grew up on the reservation and teaches third grade at Canyon De Chelly Elementary School in the town of Chinle. She is a regular drinker of Navajo tea. This wild herb resonates deeply with her as a means to connect with distant pieces of her culture, and the great-grandmother who first taught her how to harvest it.
“Each year, [Great-grandma] would gather the extended family up, and we would spend a few days picking tea,” recalls Tsosie. “We would make camp where the tea was, cooking outdoors with oak and cedar fire. These are the times when I learned that you always appreciate what you have. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t know anything,” about traditional Navajo ways.
Navajo talk of a deep sense of kinship with all things in nature, called K’é. Honoring that, Tsosie picks greenthread by snapping it off low-down on its stem, taking care not to pull out its roots. Then, she shakes the plant to release its seeds back into the soil.
“That way, it will be replenished,” she says. After rinsing and a day or two of drying, the plants are folded into tidy bundles and strung into garlands. “Tea” is made by snipping off a bundle and boiling it in water for several minutes with sugar or honey. At this point, it takes on a ruddy hue and the earthy, mild flavor of fresh grass…
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