The Gold Coronado Missed
The search for gold compelled Spanish conquistador Coronado to venture into what is now Kansas. Ironically, he found gold more valuable than the metal he hoped to find. Unfortunately, he did not recognize the importance of the gold dust he found coating his boots and leggings as he rode and walked through the tall and short grasses of Quivira.
On a recent walk, I noticed yellow granules dusting the ground beneath waving heads of brome and on my romping terrier’s back. Upon close inspection, this golden dust was bright yellow pollen, collected solar energy that permits life to flourish.
While many people think of pollen as a trigger for sneezing fits or the cause of their itchy eyes, bees know pollen as the essence of life. They spend their entire lives flying from plant to plant, collecting the typically yellow powder on leg hairs. They then transport it to hives and turn it into honey, their fuel source and our toast topping.
Unique among pollinators are yucca moths and yucca. Without one another, these two species would die. That is undeniable treasure.
Without bees and other insects moving from plant to plant, transferring grains of pollen to their pistils, creatures of every kind would lack fruits, vegetables, grains, and grasses. This issue of successful pollination concerns scientists in areas where massive bee die-offs occur or where pesticides destroy pollinators. Fruit trees and farm fields aren’t pollinated and crops fail. Even if we never thought about pollen being more valuable than gold selling at over $1500.00 an ounce, we don’t eat if pollen isn’t transferred. This puts a new value on golden pollen.
Even without modern scientific knowledge, native people understood pollen meant life. To honor the role this plant element played in their lives, Puebloans and Navajos utilized pollen in religious practices. Ethnographer 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.
The Navajo aren’t the only native people who value pollen as a holy symbol. Writers Leslie Marmon Silko and Frank Waters explain that Puebloan, Hopi, and Zuni people also use pollen in religious ceremonies. Visiting after a feast day in Zuni Pueblo, I noticed a trail of ground turquoise and yellow pollen winding through the pueblo. I don’t pretend to understand the significance of this practice, but I understand what these people know. Pollen is life’s true gold.
As Coronado roamed through waist high grass in Eastern Kansas and shorter grass in Western Kansas, he missed the real gold. He failed to recognize the treasure that ensures existence, pollen.