Although I have lived here for a number of years now, I still regularly encounter things that remind me I am far from my childhood home.
Some of these things are delightful, such as the lizards the zoom up and down the neighbors’ wall outside my writing office, to sun themselves on the stucco. The concept of native lizards tickles me, probably because I never saw a single lizard when I was growing up in Minnesota (several snakes, though). (Strange, too, because it can get fairly cold here.) In fact, I like the lizards so much that I find it positively charming when one sneaks into the house. I think they’re cute; they don’t trigger the “icky pest” reflex in me. (Except when they hide in my shoes. That’s an icky surprise.)
Some of these things are less than delightful. Such as the Shelob-sized spider I found in the kitchen sink the other night. It was, in all honesty, the largest spider I’ve ever found in any place I’ve ever lived. I hate spiders. And I am not crazy about living in a place where people occasionally find tarantulas (oh god nightmares tonight la la la go to your happy place Ian la la la).
Another thing that’s less than delightful? Chamisa.
More specifically, that species of rabbitbrush known to botanists as Ericameria nauseosa (formerly Chrysothamnus nauseosa).
But I don’t know anything about taxonomy or botany. I don’t know it by its Linnaean classification, or even as a member of the Asteraceae family. I know it as “that big bushy plant with the stinky yellow flowers that bloom in the early autumn.”
Chamisa is widespread in the arid American southwest, or so the Internet tells me. I know I see it very commonly in New Mexico and Colorado. I’ve come to associate it with New Mexico. In fact, nothing says New Mexico to me like the sight of a rocky landscape with mountains in the background and jumbled stands of juniper, piñon, and chamisa in the foreground. Sometimes I’ll see a landscape like this in the background when I’m watching a movie, and I’ll know it was filmed in or near New Mexico.
The plants can get quite large. Large enough that they require regular trimming, otherwise they’ll start blocking your garage door and shoving people from the sidewalk. And from a distance they’re quite pretty, especially when those golden flowers are in bloom. From which it received its earlier Chryso. appellation. I can’t argue with that one. Nor can I argue with the designation nauseosus/nauseosa… which apparently mean “heavily scented.”
Well, no, I take that back. I can argue with that designation. I argue with it because it doesn’t mean “stinks to high heaven”, and thus misrepresents the nature of the chamisa plant.
A chamisa bush in full bloom exudes the eye-watering mélange of overripe bananas (or really cheap banana scented Scratch-N-Sniff stickers), wet sheepdog, and poorly tanned leather. It’s revolting. And so alien that I just had to use it in a book.
Revolting to me, but moths appear to love it. If I’m coming home right after sunset, during that time of year when the chamisa is in bloom, and the headlights from my car sweep across the bank of chamisa bushes along the drive, the plants will fairly explode with fluttery white moths. It’s like a little snowstorm in reverse. Which is all very charming, until a few of them land on me and secretly hitch a ride into the house.
Where, undoubtedly, they wait until I fall asleep so they can lay their eggs in my eyeballs.