There is a tall, ancient, sagebrush beside a mailbox along a road to the Yellowstone River—a remnant of the open prairie of long ago. A wild-looking piece of creation, it is not content to hide in the roadside debris of beer cans, accumulated drifts of dirt and dust, and the many kinds of exotic weeds.
It is silver sage, pushing its wild weathered head up four feet or more through all the seasons regardless of the temperature extremes. Some older stems lie in a bunch on the ground and lift occasionally with the wind, reminding me of some drunken, gray-headed harridan struggling to raise her head from a barroom floor for just one more swig. In its struggle to keep its place in an older order of things, the sage exudes an exotic perfume in the small sentinel space it still claims.
Numerous small hairs give the leaves their subtle gray color like the eyes of the lover my memory keeps. Rubbing some of its narrow-pointed leaves together causes an aromatic explosion of basic “West,” of endless prairies, of antelope people, dirt roads that disappear in wavering horizons.
Most poignant, I remember driving cattle, the hooves of horses and shorthorns trampling sage underfoot, mixing in extremis its aroma to sweat, dust and wind—a memory forever captured in the anterooms of my youth. Drive across sagebrush country and, when you stop, listen to the ticking of the heated engine, the silence of big country, and smell the essence of bruised sage that has slapped against the undercarriage.
One can burn the fine leaves for their aroma. Simply putting some on the hot surface of a wood stove creates instant scent of sagebrush—and memories. Burning sage is a spiritual cleanser used by Native Americans to initiate sacred or body and soul cleansing ceremonies and to honor the departed and the Creator—to obtain their attention, blessing and cooperation with the living now.
It is mainly the white man that appraises natural systems in terms of profit, and the sagebrush does not compete well with forage grasses for cattle. But it isn’t a noxious weed that our abuse of the land has encouraged everywhere today. It is, rather, a source of forage in fall and winter for all ungulates, particularly useful when the snow is deep and the bunch grasses sleep buried.
The hardy sage collects the drifting snow on its leeward side in countless small drifts stretching across bleak, winter prairies, and offers its hardy self to animals that need the sustenance or to smaller beings seeking shelter from bitter wind.
Big Sagebrush, a sister species to the silver sage, grows taller. It always impresses me to walk through a patch of big sage and find it over my head like some primitive woody gray forest. Its leaves are not pointed like silver sage. Rather, each leaf ends in three small lobes, and it smells just as good as the rest of the family.
If the river is the mother, then the great prairie stretching to distant horizons and shimmering mountains is the father. This is not pagan religion. It is just a sense of the order of things under the Creator.
I remember coming back from a distant war a long time ago to the old airport terminal at Billings. Before I called anyone, I just sat in there for a while and looked northward across the winter-flecked land to the Bull Mountains and skies and clouds stretching clear to the once great Missouri. Like the magic of divining rods, I let my roots sink into the earth. I could feel my homecoming, native son to ancient father, this land I had missed so much.