ACROSS THE DESERT OUR BREAD IS BLOOMING!
I want to argue a paradox that the myth asserts: that the origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on. I hope to give some sense of how this can be, how social life can depend on treating antisocial characters as part of the sacred.
—LEWIS HYDE, Trickster Makes This World
But to live outside the law, you must be honest.
This is a story about an itinerant outlaw and her love affair with creation. Specifically, her love affair with a panoply of edible wildflowers belonging to the genera Lomatium, Lewisia, Perideridia, and Camassia. The outlaw’s name is Finisia Medrano. As a kid, witnessing the destruction of the earth, she resolved to “go the other way” and to “be all the world’s outcast” if that’s what it took to fulfill her “obligation to God and the truth.”
The truth, according to Finisia, was simple: our purpose on earth is to tend and keep the garden of God’s original planting. For centuries, earth-based cultures the world over realized this purpose by cultivating more biodiversity than they harvested. And though she’d fallen in love with the radical Jesus of the Bible many years before, this ethic—the ethic of sowing more life than you reap, of “planting back”—informed her worldview more than any other. She dreamed of many thousands of people returning to that way of life, all across the world, replanting the garden.
According to tribal historians and elders, ethnobiologists, and early settler accounts, edible gardens once blanketed the western United States, providing sustenance and freedom of movement to those who tended them. In the Great Basin, many of those gardens consisted of flowering tuber plants: camas and sego lilies, biscuitroot, bitterroot, yampahs. A hundred and fifty years of colonist ranching and farming destroyed most of the roots in the valleys, but throughout the basin were stony plateaus, unsuitable for grazing or plowing, and in those “abandonments” the roots survived.
For more than thirty years, Finisia Medrano traveled by foot, horse, and covered wagon through the backcountry of the United States in search of those abandonments, basing her moves on the seasonal availability of food, replanting as she traveled. Mostly she lived alone, but in her later years she sometimes traveled with a group of young queer folks whom she’d dubbed “the Prairie Faeries,” in a caravan that included half-broke horses and a covered wagon painted with the slogan Pulling for Wildflowers.
I first heard about Finisia and the Prairie Faeries from my oldest friend, Peter Bauer. Peter was one of the three friends with whom I attended a wilderness survival school in rural Washington State in the late ’90s. He’d continued to practice “ancestral skills” in the almost twenty-year interim, basic life skills his Celtic ancestors would have mastered in childhood—stuff like skinning and butchering animals, weaving baskets, and building natural shelters—and over those years he’d become acquainted with a number of unconventional characters living off the grid. He’d gone out to visit one of Finisia’s camps and returned a convert. Not to Jesus, but to Finisia’s land-tending philosophy.
I asked whether he might see her again and, if he did, could I come along?
* * *
It took six hours to travel from Portland to Sparta. Peter drove, I sat shotgun, and Peter’s friend Jesse was crammed in the back seat with the gear. In my window, I watched the dense green of the Pacific Northwest rain forest gradually give way to farmland, then foothills, and finally to the high desert sage of northeastern Oregon: a semiarid country with big skies bounded by white-capped mountain ranges. In a few days, Finisia’s crew would pack up their camp and ride off into Hells Canyon, and Jesse was going with them. Their pilgrimage would last forty-two days.
“Like Jesus,” I said.
“Jesus wandered the desert for forty days,” Jesse corrected. Finisia required a couple more.
Jesse, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, was in their early twenties and learned about Finisia and the Prairie Faeries the same way I did: first through Peter, then through Finisia’s Facebook profile. In a previous season, Jesse and a friend had traveled out to one of her camps for the weekend “embarrassingly underprepared” in terms of gear. She’d lent them some silverware for digging. Finisia was “pretty attached to her silverware,” Jesse told me; apparently she needed “just a few fancy items” in order to live “like a queen on horseback.” Later in the weekend her wolf dog killed a fawn, and they butchered and ate it. It was a memorable trip. “The whole experience hooked me,” Jesse said. “I knew I wanted to return.”
* * *
It was hard earth in Baker County. The thaw hadn’t yet come on, and I was feeling well excavated. Like a lot of people, I’d managed to live as though key aspects of my experience were separate: my physical health, my relationships, how I made my living, my emotional and mental stability, the news of the world. But there had been creep among the categories in recent months, and I was having trouble keeping them sorted. All that winter, I’d been experiencing spells of shitty health: unexplained fatigue, itchy skin, rolling panic, stabbing stomach pains. I’d been to doctors; none could land on a diagnosis. And though my symptoms felt real enough, neither the doctors nor I could tell if the source was in my body or in my mind. Such was my condition on arriving in Sparta in early 2014. I felt minced, tentative. I hugged my own arms and spoke from the neck, like a person recently choked.
Camping out in an unfamiliar place was a welcome distraction, and I looked forward to meeting the Prairie Faeries and to taking part in what I imagined would be a carnival of jubilant pagan nudism. But more than that, I was hoping to be reacquainted with an old part of myself, a more solid and vital part: the part that believed my life could serve a purpose greater than individual achievement in the marketplace.
* * *
We pulled into camp at dusk. In the far distance, the Wallowa Mountains reflected the last canted light, but the earth between was flat as a page, barren miles of dirt and scrub weed; no Prairie Faeries in sight, no covered wagon. A single tepee broke the line of the open range. Excepting a few horses, the camp looked to be vacant. Finisia appeared in the gravel road alone.
I’d seen photos, so I sort of knew what to expect, but Finisia’s clothing was nonetheless impressive. She wore heavy, ankle-length skirts and a beaded leather tunic. Her skin was leathered. There were locks of hair (human hair, I’d later learn, cut from many different heads) sewn onto her tunic like fringe, and there were a dozen braids, cut from Finisia’s own head, stitched into her hatband. The effect, in the glow of the magic hour, was at once regal and macabre—an otherworldly queen in an elaborate gown of hair and skin.
Two members of her crew were smoking cigarettes in the grainy dim of the tepee. Michael and Kelsey, or “the kids” as Finisia called them. They were both slender and blond, their skin unblemished and milky beneath the layer of dirt. I guessed they couldn’t be any older than Jesse, maybe twenty-two. Kelsey, the young woman, wore an ankle-length skirt and handmade leather vest. The young man, Michael, had a bushy beard and chin-length hair and was bent intently with a pocketknife over a craft in the corner. Neither of them spoke.
We threw our sleeping bags off to the side and joined their circle around an old woodstove. Empty tin cans, sauce bottles, and dirty dishes were strewn nearby. Jesse later told me that before moving to Sparta, the kids had been living on the streets of Spokane, a long-depressed former mining and mill city in eastern Washington, of which the writer Jess Walter once remarked: “On any given day in Spokane, Washington, there are more adult men per capita riding children’s BMX bikes than in any other city in the world.”
Despite being homeless, the kids had somehow managed full-time work and saved enough money to gear up for the season. Boots, horse feed, a full-tang blade—in the final tally, achieving freedom isn’t all that cheap.
The drama in camp that evening was the abrupt departure of a group member, one of Finisia’s longtime devotees, a boy I’ll call Kevin. He’d packed up and left camp after a disagreement a few days earlier, but not before infecting everyone with a cold.
“His parting gift,” Finisia scoffed.
They all lit cigarettes and Michael finally spoke. He told us that Kevin premeditated his departure, probably back in October, but chose to pass the winter in their camp, feeding his horses on the hay they’d scrimped to buy.
To complicate matters, they’d been receiving phone calls from journalists and TV people since some photos of the Prairie Faeries were posted on Vice’s website the month before. Someone, a producer, maybe, was supposed to come out in a few weeks and shoot a pilot for a reality show, and now they’d lost a cast member. Not that they were champing at the bit of fame.
“We’re not signing with anyone,” Finisia said. “They can go talk to Kevin.”
Both Finisia and Michael had cell phones that they kept charged with a small solar panel, and they were able to keep up with Kevin’s movements on “Facefuck.” Michael read Kevin’s latest status update aloud to the group: “Riding out, on my way back to my old cabin to do some spring work for Cain. I’m willing to give to Caesar a little of what is Caesar’s so I can get by the rest of the year giving to God what is God’s.”
Biblical allegory formed the basis of their shared vernacular. Caesar was invoked as the prototypical dictator, enslaver, and destroyer of Gallic tribes. Cain, the crop farmer, represented agriculturalists, a people who rape the mother with a plow. Abel, the pastoralist, whom Cain killed and God loved, represented nomadic hunter-gatherer-gardeners. Thus, those of us who took from the earth without planting back (i.e., those living in the empire) were referred to, variously, as “children of Cain,” “whores of Babylon,” or simply “motherfuckers.”
Finisia’s crew, on the other hand, called themselves “Landtenders,” “Hoopsters,” or “Terraists.” A favorite Terraist activity was planting a kind of hillside graffiti in flowering tubers. One recent tag read THIS IS FOOD in ten-foot letters. It would take three years to blossom.
Kevin’s Facebook page indicated that he would be leading his own pilgrimage that spring with three other people, and I sensed morale had been damaged by this slight. An angry sadness seeped into the darkening cone.
“Everyone wants to come out here and steal a piece of me,” Finisia said. “Then they leave and I never see them again.” She turned her attention on me. In the faint glow of the woodstove, her expression was grave. “I fucking hate you people.”
She took a drag on her cigarette. The ember expanded and I felt the oxygen leach from the air.
“I don’t love a motherfucker,” she drawled, spilling her smoke. “I’m not doing this thing out of love. I’m doing it to get revenge.”
* * *
Finisia’s backstory is stranger than you might imagine, Homeric in scope, and impossible to corroborate. Most of the minor players were highway phantoms, and many of the key figures are dead.
Here’s how she told it: She was born in California in 1956 and halfway raised in Las Vegas. Her father was a member of the radical right of his day, a John Bircher survivalist. He fled Las Vegas in the mid-1960s to escape the communist takeover he feared was already underway, moving his family to the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho, where Finisia’s stepmother had family. Her father taught her basic survival skills and how to shoot a gun. They were formative days. She was twelve, going on thirteen, and it was around that time that an older boy began climbing in her bed, night after night, to abuse her. She calls him “Roy d’Raper.”
She started using drugs and getting in trouble with the law. Her father fostered her out. And in the midst of it all, she felt increasingly confused about her gender. “I thought my insides and outsides ought to match up,” she later wrote, “they just didn’t.”1 Finisia’s father was an atheist, but she tried out praying to the Christian God: “I asked Him to change me, inside or outside, I didn’t care. Just match me up again.”
But God didn’t answer. A few years later, she left her father’s house for good and hitchhiked west. Her hair grew long. Early on in her travels, she was picked up by a squirrelly guy who asked if she was a girl. She hedged, told him no. “Now you’re in trouble,” he said. “You’re too pretty not to fuck.” The man raped her.
She washed up on the Southern California coast in the mid-1970s, on Pirate’s Cove, a nudie beach in Malibu. There she dug a cave into a sheer cliff, twenty feet above the sand, using nothing but a three-pound slap hammer and her bare hands and feet. After a day of digging, she’d scramble down and eat seaweed and mussels off the rocks. The cave was three car lengths deep by the time she finished, and upholstered with soft rugs, like “a great big pussy.” Hippies and beach bums moved into the cave, and soon a little LSD-loving cult assembled around her. Naked bodies piled, slumbering on the rugs. Finisia told everyone she’d been born from the cave, a child of the earth and sea.
* * *
Many of these details come from Finisia’s book Growing Up in Occupied America, a collection of allegorical personal stories, poems, and open letters of protest, written in an eccentric patois of high-biblical rhetoric and colloquial vulgarity (e.g., “God made my ass a javelin mitt so he could play catch with His sons of Cain”). It was assembled and published in 2010 by one of the Prairie Faeries who’d traveled with Finisia, a Landtender named Seda.
Growing Up in Occupied America includes pretty much every swearword and offensive epithet you can imagine—most frequently those hurled at gay and trans people, slurs no doubt thrown at Finisia at an early age, reprocessed through her idiosyncratic cosmology, and then thrown back at the reader, whom she convicts of every mortal sin by book’s end, toggling between raw rage and elegy.
Chapter 2, titled “Fuck you,” opens with the line “Just because you can’t stand to be seen, doesn’t mean it’s my business to go blind!” Chapter 3, “Fuck me,” turns the interrogator’s lamp inward: “I fear I have taken the mark and image of the beast, condemning my soul to hell to bring you this message. I speak as one descending, not ascending.”
The book includes photos taken at Pirate’s Cove before Finisia’s transition, a nineteen-year-old kid with a surfer’s mop of sun-streaked hair. That was the kid who met Max Miller, a wealthy, much older man (born in 1910—“You do the math,” she tells us). Max was “a social engineer” who “had interesting pictures of himself with presidents.” He helped her financially with her transition in 1976. She said she selected the name Finisia because it means “the end,” and long before the word “Anthropocene” existed, she knew she was living in it.
After two years in the cave, she packed up and moved in with Max full-time. They were married in the “tawdry” living room of a discount minister who’d strung paper bells above the television set.
Otherwise, she doesn’t say much about the years of her marriage. She took some classes at Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley, tended to Max’s pet macaw, grew pot and opium flowers in his yard, and more or less settled into domestic bliss. But like many young brides, she hadn’t quite solidified and her world was about to be upended. She’d been smoking close to two packs of Kools a day and was coughing up gunk. A friend turned her on to a twelve-step program to help her quit, but she struggled with the second step, the one that requires relinquishing one’s will to a higher power. Hoping to discover if she believed in God once and for all, she grabbed a sleeping bag and a borrowed Bible and went into the Santa Monica Mountains on a kind of impromptu monastic retreat.
On the third day, the tobacco “spell” was broken, and she was given a vision of the twelve Apostles. “I heard a voice,” she wrote. “Whether in my head or in my ear I could not tell. The voice asked me, ‘Who would I send?’”
She fell weeping to the ground and answered: “Send me!”
Like Finisia’s father, Max Miller was an atheist, and upon hearing of this conversion he gave her an ultimatum: it was him or Yashua. But she’d already fallen in love with the Living Bread. She signed his divorce papers and, at twenty-seven, left their house with nothing but the clothes on her back. She walked out of Los Angeles in a baggy shirt, with her hair tucked up under a hat, because being a girl on the road was dangerous. After all that “work to be a woman,” she wrote, she walked with Christ “in drag as a man.”
* * *
That first night in Sparta, high winds whipped up through the basin, snapping the canvas against the poles. Finisia didn’t love a motherfucker, and she frequently reminded us of the fact. I woke a dozen times in the night, wired with each snap, fearing she’d cut my gluttonous throat in my sleep.
Around seven, I was jarred awake by her hand palming my face and a falsetto coo. “Are you sweeeeeping?”
She made coffee for everyone in a metal press, suddenly cheerful, nearly a different person from the one who’d professed to hate our guts the night before.
The Landtenders had planted a small experimental garden about a klick from camp some weeks before, and Finisia asked Michael to take us out to see it. It was a post- card high-desert morning, clear blue and frigid. We trailed Michael into the range, wending through sagebrush and combat-crawling under wire fences, until we’d crossed onto private property. Or maybe it belonged to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM); I couldn’t really tell the difference. BLM land often abuts private ranchland or national forest in the West, but it all looked the same to me: a scrubby sea of sage and cheatgrass. I scanned the ground for signs of life, for any of the wildflowers they cultivated, but didn’t see anything.
Eventually, we came on a flat expanse with twenty or so circles of disturbed soil, each about two feet in diameter. A few tiny sprays of ferny leaves dotted the ground. These were biscuitroot, Michael told us, or biscuit-cous, a species of the genus Lomatium. In the spring, Lomatium cous is identified by lacy clusters of bright yellow flowers and parsley-like leaves. Underground, their tuberous taproots assume a variety of shapes. Some grow as fat and stubby as radishes; others grow in slender fingers like their carrot cousins. They can grow short or stringy or as big as sweet potatoes. Depending on how they’re prepared, their flavor is compared to that of parsnips, spicy carrots, or stale biscuits.
Each root species has its own harvest protocol, but in general the Landtenders loosened the soil surrounding the plant with a digging rod, harvesting the larger tubers, then dropping the seeds and smaller root segments back into the freshly aerated earth—replanting as they harvested. Finisia called this practice “the reach-around,” named for the sex act in which one lover “reaches around” to manually stimulate the partner they are penetrating—an act perhaps better summarized in this context as “reciprocal care.”
In an addendum to Growing Up in Occupied America, Finisia’s former student Seda gives a simple definition: “The reach-around is a way to give life back to that which gives you life.”2 But there’s more nuance to the process than simply dropping seeds in the dirt. Successful planting-back requires intimate knowledge of the plants and a good sense of timing. One must first learn what helps a particular plant to grow and thrive. Seda gives examples: “When gathering roots, wait until the seeds have ripened so they can fall into the cracks you make. When you gather and eat berries, remember to defecate the seeds in places where they will grow.”
Finisia frames the approach more poetically: “The lomatium and lily would be in their joy. They would be full of seed when we dug … If one eats berries, and plants those seeds back in one’s defecations, then that planting is occurring. If one collects the seeds of the plants one eats, and plants them back, then that one is working to make things more abundant.”
Copyright © 2021 by Lisa Wells