Earrings Dangling and Miles of Desert

Gary Snyder

Sagebrush (Artemisia) is of the sunflower family, or Compositae. It is not related to sage, Salvia, which is in the family of mint. The great basin sagebrush, our biggest artemisia, A. tridentata, grows throughout the intermountain zone and other portions of the arid at West. Sagebrush lives together with rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnos), saltbrush (Atriplex), and greasewood (Sarcobatus). As a little group they make up one of the largest plant communities on Turtle Island. Another community would be the sub-boreal spruce forest of Canada and Alaska.

      –brushy, bushy, stringybark cobwebby tangle
      multi-stemmed, forking,
      twiglets jut sidewise, a scatter of silky tiny leaves,
      dry twigs sticking straight;
      a lizard scooting in the frizzy dust–

It is eaten by sagebrush voles, pygmy rabbits, sage grouse, and pronghorn (which can browse it: the plant contains an oil that inhibits microbes in the rumen of cows so that they cannot digest it. Sheep can eat a little. Elk can eat it and belch a lot.) It is a home to mourning doves, nighthawks, sage thrashers, shrikes, sage sparrows.

The bark has been used by humans for tens of thousands of years. The shreddy fiber makes bags, nuts, shells, and sandals. It is used by ranchers and Indians alike for firewood. The leaves are burned as a purifying incense or a mosquito-repellent smoke. It is used as a tea for stomach disorders by the Hopi, who call it: wi'kwapi.  The edible seeds are gathered by Guilia, who also make a herbal tea from it. They call it wikwat. Another smaller artemisiaA. californicam,  is used by the Cahuilla for women's tonic.

Sagebrush: In northern Paiute called sawabi, in southern Paiute sangwabi

      who lives across the ranges,
      stretching for miles,
            she's always there:
      with saltbrush and greasewood,
      with rabbitbrush
      and all the little grasses.
      Her blue-gray-green–

In Europe, the plants of the sagebrush group are called wormwood. Tarragon the herb is an artemisia, and A. absinthium, from which the “extract of absinthe”is made and used to flavor the drink by that name. The drink sold in France under the name Pernod is the same liquor without the wormwood. 

Artemisia is everywhere: thirty species in Japan alone. It is the mugwort and moxa of China. The name artemisia comes from the goddess are Artemis, because for her the wormwood is the sacred plant. Narrow leaves grow silver in her moonlight–

      “She loves to hunt
      in the shadows of mountains
      and in the wind”

Artem in Greek means “to dangle” or “earring.” (Well-connected, “articulate”, art.)

       Her blue-gray-green
      stretching out there
      sagebrush flats reach out to the edge
      bend away–
      emptiness far as the mind can see

      Raincloud maidens come walking 
            lighting-streak silver,
      gray skirts sweeping and trailing

Farwell, Artemisia,
      aromatic in the rain
            I will think of you in my other poems.      

Gary Snyder is a poet, essayist, and lecturer. Snyder is a winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the American Book Award.
Originally published:
April 1, 1992


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