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Mack Williams: Joe Pye and his weed

Mack Williams


No! This week’s column is not about the 50th anniversary of Woodstock! By chance, it’s also the 50th anniversary of the graduation of the East Rowan Senior High Class of 1969 (and it’s not about that either); but unlike some of those people at that other event, we kept our clothes on 50 years ago during graduation (and will at the reunion, I imagine).

This is about a Native American by the name of Joe Pye who lived in Massachusetts in the late 1700s-1800s and made a tea from the plant Eutrochium purpureum to reduce the fever of the victims of typhus.

Actually, this piece is more about the “Weed” than the “Pye.” This wild-growing plant later was given the name “Joe Pye Weed” in his honor. And I guess, just like a rose, a weed is a weed, is a weed, is a weed.

I’ve also read that it’s called “boneset plant,” because Joe Pye used its extremely tough dried stems to set broken finger bones.

I was going down the highway the other day, when I felt I was under the subtle gaze of “subliminal messages” from both sides of the road.

This message was not in words, but instead, as a subtle color, so subtle that if it could be expressed in sound it would be expressed as “pianissimo.” (If I could have made an inverted exclamation point following “pianissimo,” to express that color’s degree of almost-silent subtlety, I would have; but such a mark doesn’t exist).

Once my eyes became attuned to the color, it seemed to stretch along the road’s entire length. It started “popping out” the same way arrowheads and stone chippings in a plowed field seem to do after you’ve gotten used to what you seek.

I don’t know the reason, perhaps more groundwater, or something else; but I’ve never seen such luxuriant (subtly luxuriant) growth of Joe Pye Weed, as this Summer.

Many individual plants appear to have reached their maximum height and more, almost 10-12 feet tall, with their bulbous clusters of tiny blooms looking like “light pink-purple” clouds.
I’ve even seen those flowers grace a church altar. And just as they graced that altar, they could also serve as excellent plantings for the gracing of the grave.

It’s impossible to count the times I’ve seen the multitudinous, yellow “glint” of tiger swallowtail butterflies’ wings on Joe Pye Weed while trying to keep my eyes road-bound.

sIf a loved one’s grave were planted with such, every Summer the number of six-legged visitors there would make the number of two-legged visitors pale in comparison.

And since Joe Pye Weed is perennial, its presence at that grave might outlast visitors who think they’re “perennial,” but in reality, are just “one-year-at-a-time.”

Just as “The Summer of the Solar Eclipse” was in 2017; to me, this is “The Summer of the Joe Pye Weed.”

I once saw some Scripture (King James Version) inscribed in stone above the entrance to Chapel Hill’s Moorehead Planetarium, and I like to think those words are still there: “The Heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shewith His handiwork.”

Thinking of that faint, almost-at-perception’s-threshold, soft pink-purple color of the Joe Pye Weed when seen from the car; despite the Heavenly prohibition on adding to, or taking away from Scripture, I will be so bold as to paraphrase the last part of that Scripture above the planetarium’s door, and say: “And the Firmament shewith His handiwork, sometimes, very subtly.”

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