The search for gold was the compelling reason Spanish conquistador Coronado ventured into what is now Kansas. Every Kansas schoolchild learned early the story of Coronado and his unsuccessful search for the golden cities of Cibola. Ironically, I think he found a gold far more important than the metallic treasure he wished to find. However, he did not recognize the importance of the gold dust he most certainly found coating his boots and leggings as he rode and walked through the tall and short grasses and flowering forbs of Quivira.
On a recent walk, I noticed a yellow dusting on the ground beneath the waving heads of brome and on the back of my little terrier that recently romped through this field of tall grass. Upon closer inspection, I saw this golden dust was bright yellow pollen, collected solar energy in plant sperm cells that permits life to flourish.
While many people think of pollen as trigger for a sneezing fit or the cause of their red, itchy eyes, bees understand that pollen is the essence of life. Bees spend their entire lives flying from plant to plant, collecting the usually yellow powder on their leg hairs to transport it to their hive where they turn it into honey, their fuel source and our toast accompaniment. Butterflies, in their continual search for nectar, do their share of guaranteeing you and I have fruits and vegetables to eat by carrying pollen from blossom to blossom. Perhaps most unique among pollinators is the yucca moth and the yucca. Without one another, these two species would die out. Only a yucca moth can transport the golden pollen from one yucca plant to another to ensure cycle of the species. That is undeniable treasure. Without bees and other insects moving from plant to plant transferring tiny grains of pollen to plant pistils, creatures of every kind would miss their fruits, vegetables, grains, and grasses.
In fact, this issue of successful pollination has been a concern in areas where massive bee die-offs have occurred or where pesticides have destroyed other beneficial pollinators. Fruit trees and farm fields do not get pollinated, and the crop fails. Even if we never thought about pollen being more valuable than gold at over $1500.00 an ounce, we do not eat if the pollen is not transferring. That puts a new value on golden pollen for sure.
Without modern current scientific knowledge, indigenous peoples understood that pollen meant life. To honor the role this plant dust played in their lives, the Puebloans and Navajo strew pollen as part of their religious practices. Washington Matthews (1902:42) explained the meaning of pollen: "Pollen is the emblem of peace, of happiness, of prosperity, and it is supposed to bring these blessings. When, in the Origin Legend, one of the war gods bids his enemy to put his feet down in pollen he constrains him to peace.
Not only do Navajo people value pollen as a religious symbol. Based on books I have read by writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko and Frank Waters, Puebloan, Hopi, and Zuni peoples use pollen in some of their spiritual ceremonies. Visiting after a feast day in Zuni Pueblo, I noticed a trail of ground turquoise and yellow pollen winding through the pueblo. I do not pretend to understand the significance of this practice, but I know I understand what they know. Pollen is the real gold of life.
While Coronado roamed through waist high grasses in Eastern Kansas and the shorter grasses of Western Kansas, he missed the real gold. The Seven Cities of Gold were right here all along—he failed to see the golden treasure that ensures existence, pollen.