Its pink, furry florets shoot up along roadsides and in fallow fields, the tallest kids in the class. Though a little ungainly, Joe Pye weed is reliably sturdy just when other showier plants are starting to wither and fade. For centuries, it’s been used by herbalists to reduce fever. Legend has it that an Indian named Joe Pye shared it with the settlers in the 17th-century, placing him everywhere from Maine to the Carolinas. Recently, however, scholars were able to identify Joe Pye as Joseph Shauqueathquat, a Mohican, born in 1722 in New York who moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts where he became a selectman and a chief sachem of the local Mohican community. He took up arms against the English in the Revolution and was commended by George Washington who wrote that the tribe “fought and bled by our side” and should be considered “friends and subjects to the United States.” Some claim that because he shared his knowledge about herbal healing with white people, Joe Pye was forbidden to accompany his tribe when they moved west to Wisconsin. Whatever his actual end, the weed that carries his name remains an enduring part of the late summer landscape in the Berkshires.
Joe Pye weed crops up in a very different setting in this poem by Idra Novey, an award-winning American novelist, poet, and translator.
Of the Divine as Absence and Single Letter
by Idra Novey
If our view were not a Holiday Inn
but a fringe of trees, I could say G here
is our greenly hidden.
If we lived
amid Joe-Pye weed and high grass
instead of spackle and peeling plaster
I could say perhaps
I’m listening to G now
but mean the owl, a wind playing the silo,
a sticking sorrow,
any sound but the snore
of our latest visitor on the futon. Dear G,
please make him turn, make me kinder.
I’m not far from unfathoming it all.