Understory

Wendy Mannis Scher

(Colorado)

“Long life/the wild pines want it too” –Ikkyū, translated by Stephen Berg

Hanging above my head, Taxol (trade name for paclitaxel, polyoxyethylated castor oil, dehydrated alcohol USP, diluted in sodium chloride 0.9% solution), channels through filtered PVC tubing, an open catheter laced in the vein. I watch the drip, the red-lit screen monitoring rate. It delivers. I drowse, pre-medicated for black-box warnings: urticaria [rash], angioedema [swelling], hypotension [low blood pressure], dyspnea [inability to breathe] = anaphylaxis [fatal].

Paclitaxel, empirical formula C47H51NO14, its chemical name my eyes/tongue/brain can’t untangle, regrettably forgettable.

Anti-neoplastic, anti-cancer, anti-tumor, anti-microtubule, anti-mitosis—pro-cell death.

Plant alkaloid, taxane, semi-synthetic, sustainable harvest, leaves/stems of Taxus (toxic) baccata (bearing berries). Common name: English yew, European yew, graveyard tree.

Named for progenitor, T.baccata’s American cousin, Taxus brevifiola (short-leafed). Common name: Pacific yew, western yew, mountain mahogany, yew bush, trash wood. 

Like all Taxaceae family members, it’s deadly serious: taxine/taxane—poison: beware.

First collected, 1962, my birth year, in the Pacific Northwest: Pacific yew bark, often moss-covered, purplish/reddish-brown, papery, scale-like. Cancer researchers stripped the bark, killed the trees.

I’ve never seen Pacific yew.

Rare, slow grower, understory denizen of evergreen forests. Its wood, fine-grained, hard, heavy, resistant to decay.

Never fingered its needled leaves, dark green above, light green below, nor traced the furrows of its trunk, branches stretching as wide as its height, capturing just enough sunlight to make sugars for itself, for neighboring trees.

A mystery—lethal foliage, foraged by moose, elk, occasionally deer.

Cone-bearer like my familiar ponderosa pine, female yew, mid-summer, seed-cones couch in a fleshy red aril, non-toxic to thrushes/other birds that eat, fly, scatter seeds.

Infused with yew, I’ve never smelled, never heard,

I touch the ponderosa, thick, brindled bark, inhale vanilla. Late July wind pushes clouds west over the mountains, pushes me/the pine. 

We lean into the sun.

Wendy Mannis Scher

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Wendy Mannis Scher is a graduate of Smith College, the University of Colorado's School of Pharmacy, and the University of Alaska's MFA Creative Writing program. Her poems most recently have been published in Warm Milk Publishing, Blood Tree Literature, Rogue Agent, and the chapbook, Fault (Finishing Line Press). Currently, Wendy lives with her family and animal companions in the Colorado foothills.

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