I COULD TELL SOMETHING WAS WRONG by the tone of my mother’s voice on the phone. So I jumped into my car and drove eastward, toward Blackstone Avenue—Fresno’s commercial meridian—into Pinedale, the once unincorporated Sugar Pine Lumber Company mill town now swallowed within Fresno’s city limits. I raced past streets named after trees—Birch, Locust, and Spruce—and pulled into my parents’ driveway. Their majestic white mulberry tree, its branches laden with fruit, leaned over the side-gabled house, and my father’s work desk sat cracked in half on the curb.
“Good, you’re here,” my mother said, shoving a glass jar of pickled mustard greens to my chest. “Take it, I made too much.” Then she disappeared back inside.
“Is this the important thing you mentioned?” I shouted from the door. I could see cardboard boxes where couches used to be. Her heavy, gold-foiled, leather Bible perched atop a pile of clothes. She reappeared with a plastic bag. “Here,” she said, slipping the handles through my free arm. “I grew myself. Good for woman’s—you know.” She gestured at her crotch. I held the bag to my nose. “What is it?”
“Tshuaj,” she said. Herb.
“Zaub,” she said. Vegetable.
“Ntoo,” she said. Wood. “Take two sticks, and boil. It will make your blood come fresh.”
“Where is it?”
“In the nroj,” she said. Weeds. “Go and see yourself.”
“How will I know?”
“Look for the paj,” she said. Flowers.
“No Hmong word.” She waved me off. “Purple.” And she shut the door.
My mother’s garden was an impossible oasis. Fresno’s salt plains are naturally barren, yet a tangle of vegetal knots snaked up the fence. In the east corner, the thornless honey locust tree’s lacy fronds shimmered in the June heat. Opposite, a tall bush with conical, lilac flowers lanced the sky. I took a photo using a plant identification phone app. It was a butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii), native to China, invasive here. “A noxious weed,” said one horticulture website. Buddleja after the English botanist Reverend Adam Buddle. Davidii after Père Armand David, who journeyed to Sichuan and “discovered” the plant there. Whoever he consulted first remains anonymous, but I imagine that she looked like my mother: bent over and scraping the earth, like our first mother pressing wild rice seedlings into the folliculated murk of the Yangtze River bank more than ten thousand years ago. A wild woman feeding herself.
In 1735, Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus introduced his revolutionary binomial nomenclature in his book Systema Naturae. Old English had displaced Spoken Latin by the eighth century, but the dead tongue endured through the Romance languages. Linnaeus classified more than twelve thousand species. He would live on as the “father of taxonomy.”
At the same moment, in China, my ancestors revolted against the Qing emperor. Han settlers had displaced Indigenous Miao, from Sichuan to Yunnan, and decreed their culture and language illegal. Rebellions were crushed, so Miao fled into Southeast Asia carrying only their infants, tools, seeds, and words. There they became Hmong. Those remaining behind were forced to speak with four tones, instead of eight, and given Mandarin names. A hundred years later in Indochina, Hmong farmers learned French to trade with the Vichy administration; they learned English starting in the 1950s to fight an American proxy war. UNESCO predicts that the Hmong language will disappear by the end of the twenty-first century. My generation’s task is to translate. Hmong university researchers, medical practitioners, community organizers, and YouTube home cooks are identifying herbs and cultivating gardens with familiar flavors as our compass. My parents’ task is to remember their lives before exile.
In the Book of Genesis, God instructed Adam to name all living things in the Garden of Eden—but it was Eve who ate from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge and became wise first. The couple was cast out before they could eat from the Tree of Life and conquer death. Surely, this story affected Père David when he played Adam: a man striving to know, then be like, God. Like many who have sought dominion over the humming, singing world. The French missionaries first taught my mother how to read, and the French paid cash for opium. This was how my mother’s clan became rich. In the spring, the hills turned a crimson-pink so bright the color was named paj yeeb. Poppy.
These flowers are paj yeeb.
Driving back from my parents’ house, I watched endless rows of Callery pears and ginkgo bilobas blur past my window—the same trees that make my city look like your city—and noted that they, too, were from Asia. Non-native, dislocated, thriving, but popular. Aren’t weeds simply plants we don’t know? David Quammen wrote: “Homo sapiens itself is the consummate weed.” We are all nroj. As the Bible says, “All flesh is grass.”
After my parents settled into their new apartment, my mother dropped off five plants in Homer buckets, and we placed her refugees in our backyard. I thought about how the soil was formed by eons of women’s quiet creations, and how their bodies layered deep within the sediment. I felt a hull split within me, my mother’s dormant advice germinating at long last. I could feel our first mother’s arms reaching from the east, where things begin, her voice singing from the earth as a symphony of flowers.