As we were hiking the Lost Palms Oasis Trail in Joshua Tree National Park, my friend Pam Kersey, who volunteers for the Desert Institute there, told me a bit about yucca plants peppering the desert. She said they really weren’t trees—they belonged to the lily family. “They can live more than a thousand years,” she added, before telling me how they slowly inch into the whimsical poses I could see around me. We immediately agreed, anything capable of contributing to the cycle of life for so long deserves special reverence: Bristlecone Pine, Sequoia, Giant Redwood.
I’d already developed a fondness for yucca, not to mention a number of other desert beauties, but in this moment I felt a renewed sense of awe. I thought about composing a poem in my head focused on what I’d just heard—one I might jot down later. Yet while I ruminated on the yucca’s remarkable lifespan, a mental superimposition landed on my growing ode. The blot, to my mind, was my first exposure to the plant, back in the seventies. I’d never heard of yucca until I watched a television commercial peddling Yucca Dew Shampoo.
As Pam and I continued hiking, the faded memory played in my mind like a badly produced Youtube video: some supposedly indigenous woman (I don’t know if she was actually a Native American) showing off her shiny black hair as she discussed how the yucca had been responsible for this sheen for centuries. I couldn’t help but marvel at the hold my early television viewing still had on me. This recollection seemed more deeply etched than those focused on scenes from my actual life.
Once home, I tried to track down the commercial (on Youtube), but to no avail. I did discover a copy of the ad, however. I’d pretty much gotten it right.
“An American Indian shares her secret for rich, healthy-looking hair. ‘My name is Tenaya. For many generations, my people have passed down a secret of a shampoo that kept hair looking rich and healthy… even in the hot, dry desert. Until now, I’ve only been able to share it with a few friends, and I’m happy to have this chance to share it with you.”
I must admit, as I conducted this research, I also stumbled on information about traditional uses of yucca in The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, foremost among them, shampoo and soap. The Yucca Dew ad clearly referenced a real practice—though I found myself hoping the shampoo company hadn’t mowed down these thousand-year-old plants in their effort create the product.
All of that aside, Pam’s lesson made me want to write about yucca, a worthy subject for a poem. Yet I’ve wondered if the commercial ruined the piece before it was begun. My heart was in the right place—I wanted my poem to be about this miraculous plant and the vast landscape it inhabits—but I worried I was incapable of doing it justice. I still can’t untangle the yucca plant from the Yucca Dew commercial. I suspect that will always be true.
The fact remains, I am a poet in a modern world. If I am to do my time and place justice, I must honestly face what this world has done to mind and memory. I can choose to move my lens over some wonder in nature and work from there. I can also choose to ignore any other associations that might come up—tell them to scat! I do feel, however, it would be a mistake to reject these memories completely. For there are many natural resources in this strange brain of mine. All should be considered substance for my writing.
Wells, Ken R., and Rebecca J. Frey. “Yucca.” The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. Ed. Laurie J. Fundukian. 3rd ed. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale, 2009. 2417-2419. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 26 Nov. 2015.