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Life Force
Archaeologist Mike Newland sees the life force in relict plants, gamely surviving harsh conditions.

By Mike Newland

Twenty years ago, I was working on archaeological excavations in the mountains south of Battle Mountain, Nevada. We were working on a small mining town, a few standing houses scattered here and there along dirt roads. The place was so abandoned, the rabbits had taken to kicking human bone out of the cemetery, reclaiming the ground as their own.

Next to one of these houses was a gorgeous butter-yellow rose bush, armed to the petals with tight clusters of tiny thorns. The house had been built in the 1920s, a Sears Roebuck mail order home that the owner had modified to his liking. No one had lived there in at least 40 years. The last upgrade to the house was the installation of a toilet. Behind the house was an even older stone house that had been converted into a cold storage building, and it was between these two that the rose eked out its living, surviving without being watered or fertilized for decades.

I knew the whole town was going to be an open pit mine. I took clippings as best I could. I don't know what kind of rose it was. Perhaps it was an heirloom variety that no longer exists. It occurred to me at the time that it might be the last of its kind. It pains me to say that, at the time, I knew little about roses and the cutting didn't survive, both mother and child now long gone.

I love these relict plants that form uneasy truces with the natural vegetation. I'm not talking about invasive species like the scotch broom or periwinkle; I mean those shy, solitary trees and seasonal bloomers that keep to themselves. Left on their own, they go through their paces as if they were still tended to. The agapanthus family still huddled around the border of a house now long gone. The secret pear tree, bent with age and leaning against the boulder, who still has a few pears in her every fall for the raccoons and mice, her arms still raised to the setting sun.

With a Perspective, this is Mike Newland.

Michael Newland is an archaeologist with the Anthropological Resources Center at Sonoma State University.

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