I joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) recently and picked up my first delivery at Knox Presbyterian Church in Pasadena. The CSA folks stack the boxes in a locked breezeway behind the church offices. My box contained kale, chard, cilantro, broccoli, puny beaten-up spinach, three very tiny elongated yellow and orange beets, four equally stunted but terrifically sweet carrots, parsley, a bunch of romaine and what looked to me to be four small kohlrabi. I wasn’t sure it was kohlrabi, so I took the safe route and sliced and roasted it along with the beets. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good, either, and since my husband and I weren’t certain what exactly we were eating, and whether we were supposed to have cooked the leafy tops of the mystery vegetable instead of the bulbous root, we became increasingly more paranoid that we had poisoned ourselves. I imagined the headline: “Journalists Fall Ill Due to Neglected Google Search.”
It reminded me of the time my friends spent the summer during college as national park docents in Hell’s Canyon, Idaho. Every two weeks a ranger would pack a canoe with food and supplies for them and spend the day paddling to their remote riverside cabin. But one week the ranger didn’t show up. And the next week he was a no-show again. By the end of the fourth week Hannah and Isabel were down to half a head of moldy cabbage and some rice. They decided to forage for roots and greens in the woods around the cabin to pad out their evening meal. Eventually they found a patch of wild onions, dug up the tender white shoots and carted them back for dinner. They sautéed a mess of onions with the cabbage, doused them with soy sauce, served them up with the rice and enjoyed their stir-fry by the fire.
After dinner they both read for a while before bed, as they did every night. Hannah had already read everything she brought with her, so she randomly pulled a book off the shelf of the bookcase in the cabin’s living room. It was a field guide to poisonous plants of Northern Idaho. Leafing through it, she noticed a familiar looking plant. It looked exactly like the onions they had foraged and just eaten in copious amounts. And then she read the caption: Panacle Death Camas. She repeated the words ‘Death Camas’ silently to herself. “Isabel, look at this” she called out, waving the field guide and pointing at the blur of the photo, “Don’t these look like the onions we found today? Isabel got up, leaned over Hannah’s shoulder, and read the entry aloud.
The grass-like leaves of death camas can be confused with wild onions (though death camas lacks the distinctive onion odor) and the edible blue camas (death camas flowers are creamy white). This plant is common in grasslands and shrub lands throughout our area. The entire plant is highly toxic and fatal to both humans and animals. Poisoning symptoms include profuse salivation, burning lips, mouth numbness, thirst, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, confusion, slow irregular heart beat, low blood pressure and low temperature, difficulty breathing, coma, and death.
When she finished they both stared back at the photo.
“Oh my god, oh my god.” Isabel gasped, “Do you really think that’s what we ate?
Hannah leaned down to get a closer look at the photo. “Well, it does look an awful lot like it.” She looked up at Isabel. “Do you feel anything unusual?”
“No, I feel fine.” Isabel said. “But, you know, I don’t usually have so much spit in my mouth. I keep on swallowing and swallowing but it’s like a fountain suddenly sprouted at the back of my throat. Oh my god, do you think it’s the profuse salivation starting?”
“I don’t know. Are your lips feeling hot, too? Because my lips are feeling a little warm. And I think, maybe, I think my mouth feels weird, like a little numb.”
“Oh my god, me too. My mouth feels weird. It’s all saliva-y and numb, too. I’m breathing strange too. The rhythm is all off.”
This went on for a while. One of them would start to reassure the other that it was all in their heads, and they’d decide they had better read to take their minds off the fact that they might both lapse into comas and die before dawn. So they’d start reading their books again, but then one would ask the other, “Do my lips look blue?” Or “How does your stomach feel? Because I felt a little twinge, like a little crampiness.” And then the other would come back with, “Yeah, my stomach doesn’t feel so good either, and I’m so thirsty. Are you just, like, dying of thirst?” Finally they gave up on reading, and decided if this was going to be their last night on earth, they had better record it for posterity, so that after their deaths their friends and family would know how much they were thinking about them in their final hours. They hauled out a cassette tape recorder, and recorded their last will and testament.
Two years after this episode I was sharing an apartment with Hannah and Isabel at college. One day I was rooting around in a narrow kitchen drawer looking for tweezers when I discovered an unmarked cassette tape. “What’s this?” I asked Isabel. “Dunno, pop it in the stereo and see.” The stereo was turned up to ear-lacerating THE WHO calibrated volume, and suddenly the house shook with the sounds of two girlish voices half yelping and half whispering over each other again and again, “We love you guys, we love you guys, if we ever did anything to piss you off or hurt you we didn’t mean it, really I didn’t mean it the time I said your ass looked like a bad moon on the rise,” and then they’d collapse into hysterical laughter. Or perhaps it was hysterical sobbing, I couldn’t be sure.
Isabel flipped. “You found the panacle death camas tape! It’s a joke, we did it as a joke, you are NOT allowed to listen to that. Hannah said she burned it!”
The tape went on for seven minutes. Hannah left Jules her favorite Frye boots. Isabel said Molly could sleep with her boyfriend but only after he “goes out of his mind and loses like 25 pounds from unbearable grief and mourning and guilt about not spending enough time with me ever and drinking too much at football games and shaving Rob’s head that time after Rob passed out drunk.” Each behest was punctuated by bouts of hyperventilating and escalating fits of giggling. If they were faking it they were doing a really, really good job.
Isabel told me that after they made the tape, they were both so exhausted from the combined stress of mortal terror and uncontrollable laughter that they decided they had better just go to bed rather than stay up all night monitoring each other’s increasingly spot-on panacle death camas symptoms. She thought she wouldn’t be able to go to sleep, but after she got into bed, she stayed awake long enough to wonder whether she would regain consciousness just before her death, and whether her last thought would be “I’m such a dork for dying because of an onion. Everyone will think it happened because we’re art majors.”