20 May 2016

Reflections on the price of things…


Photo by Forest and Kim Starr CC BY 2.0

“One of the greatest accomplishments of contemporary aesthetics, secretly faithful
 to the ideals of democracy, is the ability of finding beauty and poetry
in nameless individuals, in poor corners, in the mass of destinations
and ornaments that make up the scheme of modern cities”

Some time ago, I was reading about the popular lemon grass (hierba limón, limoncillo in Spanish), and I was curious about how valuable this common, simple plant was for my friends. Therefore, I questioned them by phone, e-mail or directly asked them: What comes to your mind when you think about lemon grass?

My friend Héctor Collado is a poet. He is a rather robust man and, sometimes, I respectfully use the superlative “Poetón” (“Big Poet”) to call him.  His answer was the following: …“it reminds me of my childhood, those days spent on the countryside, school vacations when my grandmother used this plant for fixing aromatic infusions. We usually put some sugar and milk. Unlimited cups of lemon grass tea. Even today it brings me back to those places, to my childhood. To those times when mothers were fresh and young, grandparents were still alive, and we were just kids being kids, playing magic tricks with time, making trees and shrubs into unconquerable fortresses or into fantastic monsters.”


Argentina Ziegler Palacios lives in New York City and has one of the noblest professions one can have: she writes books for children. She told me: “Look, Coqui [I am familiarly known as Coqui], when I was a child I would have a cup almost every day. Now, when I go to Panama, I have a cup at least once a day. One of my cousins lives in New York too and he has lemon grass at hand in his kitchen. It is a must to have a cup when I visit him.”


Mirna Santana is half elf and half botanist.  She studied biology at Universidad de Panamá, but she started learning about plants long before that, from her maternal grandmother. “When I was a little girl,” – she told me – “in a town called Santa Rita de Antón, my sisters and I used to go to our grandparents’ house every evening. My grandmother would give us cookies or bread and butter, with some lemon grass tea.  At the same time, my grandfather would sit on his rocking chair and read stories about elves, witches, and about popular Latin American characters as Tío Conejo and Tío Tigre (Uncle Rabbit and Uncle Tiger). That plant is an indivisible part of all that. Years later, in Puerto Rico, where I attended a master´s program, Ms. Benita (the cleaning lady at the scientific station) planted lemon grass for me, ‘to keep me company’ – she knew that I liked it a lot. There are many things behind lemon grass.” …I have not seen Mirna in years, but I know that today she must be surrounded by plants. 

Andrea Nguyen. CC BY 2.0

Photo by Andrea Nguyen CC BY 2.0

Professor Milciades Pinzón, sociologist at Centro Regional Universitario de Azuero, sent me this text: “Lemon grass is a common staple in Panama, particularly for Panamanians on the countryside. It is the same thing as with some birds: they are not just part of the biological environment, but also belong to the social environment. Lemongrass [attention, our sociologist turns into a poet here], is the memory of both the grandmother and the mother. It speaks of funerals at the countryside, with all the emotions they bring to our mourning souls. It makes you think about cats, which seem to know its medicinal properties since they use it as a purgative. I think there is a lot more about medicinal plants and emotions to be discovered that has not been studied yet.” 

“Don” Milciades has written several books. I am very familiar with his book “Con las Cutarras Puestas” (Suggested translation: “Shod with a pair of “cutarras”. *Cutarras are a type of leather sandals worn traditionally by countrymen in Panama) (Editorial Universitaria, 2002). This book has many references to migration of butterflies in August, the corotú tree, and the impact of the Divisa-Los Santos road on wildlife in the surrounding areas, and many other details concerning the Azuero region. He undoubtedly knows, better than me, the value of plants like the lemon grass.


All these friends mentioned here live in cities. Cities of different sizes: small cities, big cities (like New York). Lemon grass makes them all remember a larger world where time is not short, and where there is more humanity than that found in urban areas today. 

Then, how do we assign a value to these plants? Or to those animals (I may add) which, as good neighbors, are rooted in our personal and collective memory?  

Even when large woodlands are destroyed and even when our sea is sold to the highest bidder, or even when we are sitting numb in front of the TV or in front of a window of a store at the newest “in” mall (losing track of real life), we will always be in need of nature and everything that it represents, whether we are in the countryside or in the city. 


These little things, like the simple lemon grass, are beyond the reach of the ubiquitous God of the Market: they are priceless.

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