Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Apothecary's Cabinet

Since I was a little girl, I've loved collecting and gathering small and magical things—rose petals with strange red droplets on them in the garden, from the wings of metamorphosing butterflies (at the time I thought it was blood and was at once terrified and enthralled); owl pellets full of little gopher bones (to my parents' mild disgust, I believe); nasturtiums and velvety purple sage flowers and pebbles for garden potions; glass animals; rabbit fur-covered toy mice dressed in little dresses and coats, called "Mistress Mice"; and, upon entering my teenage years, rocks and stones from every imaginable beach and hill and special place; hundreds of shells and sand-dollars, bird's nests and mosses and sticks with labyrinths and pathways made by bark-eating beetles... Each thing gathered seemed at the time to have an almost palpable magic to it, as if gathering it was an act of consecration, a way to hold a piece of the immense mystery of a place or a period of time that was fleeting—the vast red solitude of Death Valley, a visit to Denmark, a hike on the Mountain with the young man I was busy falling very much in love with. 

Somewhere between childhood and young womanhood, somewhere in that strange middle-country in which the old cupboard my father had turned into an Abbey for all of my Mice (and the oven-baked clay companions I had made for them, moles and rabbits and such, along with a veritable cellar full of feastable clay foods) no longer held its deep enchantment, this Apothecary's Cabinet made its way into our home, and my life. 

It filled the space between childhood fantasy—those endless games in the garden, using baskets on strings in the rosebushes as elevators for said Mice, or adding just the right shiny rocks and odd little amulets to the sorceror's tower in the Abbey's "attic" (presided over by a Mouse with a very tall blue-velvet hat)—and adult competence. I wasn't ready then to actually use the Cabinet in a practical way—carefully storing separate medicinal herbs and roots and tinctures and elixirs. Instead, it was the bridge that carried the wild scampering magic of my childhood, in which I ached to be alternately a cheetah, a wolf, or a budding young medicine woman who could talk to said cheetahs and wolves— into the uncertain terrain of being a teenage girl, that time in which it is so easy to lose sight of the savage little nasturtium-potion brewer in each of us. It always felt to me, as I busily filled the drawers with shark egg pouches and wine-red manzanita sticks, masses of feathers, serpentine stones from the Mountain, necklaces, old notebooks, that each thing that went in was somehow changed by its place in the Cabinet. I think, in a way I didn't quite know how to articulate then, that I had this sense that all of those things held their own medicine, and that medicine needed to be treasured, and so in they went! 

Now, some thirteen years since the Cabinet first came into my life (from England, from the 19th century, and beyond that, oh, I ache to know its tale!), it has finally made its way into my adult home, as you see above, and it is finally being used to hold tinctures, and dried herbs, and elixirs of all varieties. My "woodrat" (read packrat) tendencies finally seem to have found some practical application; and perhaps that's where they came from all along, this age-old knowing inside our bones that Gathering things is a useful and good past-time, because Gathering once meant (and still does mean) food and medicine and objects of magical power, such as rare stones and bones and feathers. This is not to say that the items within these drawers, placed there from ages 12 to 19 or 20, were not valuable—only that they had become a great and tangled wilderness, with no sense of which rock came from where, which leaf-gone-to-dust had come from which place, or summer, or tree. And that it was time for a rebirth, a renewal, a letting-go. Because in the end we hold memories and places and times within us, our hearts the greatest of apothecary cabinets, and so there is no need to obsessively gather a rock or a feather from every single special moment!

I am still that gathering-girl in my heart, though, coming home often with random seeds and rocks and mugwort leaves in my pockets—which I daresay still often find their way onto all previously neat surfaces... Just not quite as often as before. And now the gathered items most often have some immediate use— lemon balm from the garden or, most recently, Hawthorn's beautiful wool (which was not, shall we say, a pleasure to gather—indeed it was more like a nightmare for both of us—but is a pleasure to have, and a great gift, of magical properties, in my opinion). It is such a satisfying thing to gather a garden bouquet...

...or the roots of the California (orange) and red poppies, which I dug up incidentally when thinning a garden patch, and found I couldn't part with, for they felt like strangely shaped, arcane beings, smelling as I imagine bear-musk and the inside of the earth to smell.

The lemon balm and the roots will find their places in the Cabinet when they are ready and dry. But below, I thought I'd share some recently made medicines now tucked safely away in the dark comfort of those drawers. For I believe that the gathering and making of medicines, the relationship forged during the picking and the crafting, the bottling and the storing-away, stirs something deep and old in the blood, and is just as useful a sort of "research" as reading about the lore of ancient physicians or the properties of strange and stubby roots in books.

In the spirit of what's alive and bursting in the garden right now, in the spirit of the Earth Constellation not of the wild hills and coastal valleys, but this very plot of fecund earth in this corner of the Temescal neighborhood, where the silt-rich Temescal creek once flowed, lined with the bark-houses of the Huichuin Ohlone people (and who knows  what bones and graves and bits of shell and antler exist in the storied strata beneath the nasturtium and lemon verbena roots, the plum and apple and lemon and rose), I've made lemon blossom and rose elixirs. These two smells and sights describe the heady beauty of late spring-early summer in the garden, beside this mediterranean-climate Bay, with its fogs as well as its gentle warm weathers, to perfection. I suppose they are also plants of classic and famed beauty—the lemon and the rose—unlike the feral nettles, the scrubby native coyote brush and lupine, coffeeberry and alder, who more regularly make an appearance here.  But each plant has stories hitched to it, a string thrown between my heart and the rose-bud, and the lemon-blossom; it is not their elegance or their almost painful beauty that matters so much as the relationships we form, the way the smell of a rose comes to conjure a whole caravan of memories that are thorned and untamed and full.

Abraham Darby
And so first, the rose. These misty roses—how the water seems turn them to the lushest of jewels!— are from my mother's garden, taken on a day last week when a sudden mist descended upon the world, especially in the North Bay. I felt it was only right to gather petals for my rose elixir from my mother's garden, because my mother seems to somehow encompass or embody a rambling rose garden in my mind, and always will.
The mystery rose! We can't figure out his name
In the house where I grew up, just around the corner from the one where these roses now grow, there were great white Madame Alfred Carriére roses making a completely wild cavern-tunnel over one whole side of the yard, between fence and rain-gutter-pipes. There was a Cecile Bruner (my favorite) so big it created a cave beneath itself, for hiding and clambering with the spiders and the fallen thorny leaves. There were Abraham Darby roses luscious and squat, created, it seemed to me, primarily for the purpose of burying your face entirely in their petals and getting lost for a moment in that sweet old calm.
The Prince
For the rose in all of her more wild and old-world iterations is a supreme nervine medicine; it's obvious just from the effect her smell has upon us. And of course since smell is so suggestive of memory, in some ways when I tuck my nose into a rose, I feel my childhood is contained there, the whole universe of it, that it is never far away, always existing inside of each fierce bloom.
Cecile Bruner beyond the apple tree
For as much as she is gorgeous, the rose is also strong. Like her cousins the blackberry and the hawthorn, she is toothed, and I love her all the more for it. She protects herself, or she creates thorny caverns of protection for those who would seek it—children, gray foxes, rabbits, hermits, and who knows what and whom else.

And so from seven different fragrant, old-world roses in my mother's garden, I made a rose elixir, modeled after the recipe from the brilliant Kiva Rose. I have named it The Eighth Rose Elixir, because at its heart, packed in amidst hundreds of lush garden petals, is a single wild rose, Rosa gymnocarpa, red thorns, pink blossom, fragrantly resinous leaves and all.

In the Douglas fir and redwood forests where I roam, our native wild wood rose is too small, too rare in terms of how many blossoms one is actually likely to find in a season, for me to ever feel comfortable making a wild rose elixir. That flower is hardly bigger than a penny, but oh my stars, it packs a punch. It may be the sweetest of all the roses I've ever smelled, as big a scent as the stately Abraham Darby or the even statelier Prince, and all emanating from a single, pollen-gold center. Beyond that intoxicating smell, what makes our wood rose exceptionally fascinating, in my mind, is that she blooms almost exclusively, so far as I've seen, in the shade of firs and redwoods, often at the edge of a steep slope near a creek. The base of her stem is often very willowy and covered in a fur of red-tinged thorns, and her leaves are slightly sticky, with their own incredibly herbaceous smell, sharper than the flower, but no less powerful.

In the past two weeks, in all the woods I've visited, our own Rosa gymnocarpa is in full and glorious bloom! What a special and deeply sylvan window it is, this time of the wild rose bloom, from now until sometime in July. Who knows what sorts of beneficent magics stir in the firwood at night around the rose blossoms and red thorns, but surely they do. For some reason, during my most recent wild rose encounter, I had this sudden vision of the grizzly bears of yore, and the black bears who no longer live here (though they do one county up), delicately snacking on the rosehips, come autumn. This seems slightly preposterous, given how tiny the hips are—about the size of my pinky-nail—and how big a grizzly's mouth! But in any event, there is a bear-like ferocity to this little plant: a rooty musk to her leaves, a toothed thorniness to her stems.

I have no doubt she will bring out the bear-fierce hearts of all the roses in that jar of rose elixir, and imbue some of the old medicine she once gave to the native peoples of this land, and in all the lands north of here where she grows, straight through British Columbia. Among the wonderful ethnobotanical notes I read (and perhaps too small for you to make out above) are these: wood rose stems were used to weave baby carriers; a wash of leaves and stems was used to soak nets and fishing lines for good luck; a tea was made as a protection from bad spirits; a poultice of the leaves was used on bee stings. Yes indeed: the rose, our protector. And however we have managed to deserve her good graces, may we stay in them, for the rose in all of her forms has given us so many gifts through the millennia, too many to number, first and foremost among them the medicine of herself for our bodies and spirits.

And now, from rose-caverns to lemon-caves. I must have a penchant for bushy plants that get overgrown to the point of creating little houses out of themselves, branches reaching straight to the ground. For I am in love with this lemon tree, growing from the rich ground of our Temescal garden. It is so heavy with fruit it resembles some kind of arcane citrus planetarium, numbering the strangest outer-stars of the balmiest universe. I know that the bewick's wrens love it too, because I often see them hopping about, chitting and chatting in their wood-on-wood voices, picking at spiders and smaller insects.

The origins of the wild lemon are mysterious—of course!— though it is believed to have been first domesticated in the Assam region of India some two thousand years ago. I can hardly imagine a wild lemon, or a wild citrus of any variety—what wonders the world holds, that once, long ago, some man or woman stumbled upon a smaller, lumpier and more sour version of the citrus tree growing wild, haloed with bees drunk on the blossom-nectar, and inhaled the scent of that leathery rind, those blooms.

There is something about the smell of lemon and orange blossoms that makes me feel almost sad. The smell is so sweet and strong at once, so heady, it almost immediately makes me feel a sense of yearning to hold all the things which can never be held. It is not a bad feeling, only a big one, sharp and unbearably sweet at once.

Four years ago now, I visited a dear friend of mine who was studying at an art school in Rome. I had been working on cold and wet Welsh sheep farms for the past two months, and so the sudden sweet warmth of Rome in spring was delicious. I remember one afternoon walking with her across the river, to the studio of a textile designer with whom she was apprenticing. While she attended to some matters inside, I sat out in the little side garden with my notebook, writing but mostly becoming infatuated with the blossoms of a certain sort of Sicilian lemon or orange tree. I still am not sure what, precisely, it was, only that this smell was so sweet and so sharp, so beautiful in that painful way, that I was nearly beside myself, desiring desperately to capture that scent, to be able to share it with my love across an ocean and a continent, to never have to stop smelling it. Typical human response.

Luckily I had enough peace of mind to also, after a few frantic moments, just be there, smelling those blossoms, hoping they would somehow seep right into my heart and never leave. In fact I think I spent most of that hour as I waited for Elsinore in smelling the citrus flowers. I was beguiled. It is the most distinct memory I have of falling completely under the power of a plant in that way, of realizing, nose-on, the full wisdom and meaning in the smell of a flower, how very ancient that beauty is, and made not for us alone but for all the insects and animals who in some way partake of the plant. In a dreamy way, I remember an older, hunched Italian man coming down from his nearby porch—for I think it was his citrus bush I was burying my face in—and in broken English he said something to the effect of: "this is the smell of the lovers," grinning and relishing that sweet smell just as much as I.

When I think about those words now—and I wonder if in fact he spoke in Italian, so all I can say for certain is it had something to do with Love— I imagine Rumi's Beloved, the Sufic sense of Lovers, the lemon blossom as the divine fragrance embodying the self in union with the deep beauty of the world, which resides somewhere in each thing, in the lemon blossom and rose as much as in the mangy stray cat with a single blind eye; in lemon fruit and rose hip and the sad longing found in people's eyes on subway cars.

In the end, all that inhaling of the Sicilian citrus flowers did, I think, mark my heart forever, because whenever I smell a lemon flower or an orange blossom (which are done with their bloom, by the way, as the bushtits are done with their nesting-- and now I wonder, did the bushtits time their nesting with the bloom of the orange flowers, for no other reason than their sweetness? Although of course songbirds hardly have any sense of smell, so perhaps I am taking this romantic notion a whit too far) I think of those blooms, and the old man's words, and I feel a mixture of yearning and melancholy and sweet joy, which is in some measure the feeling of what it means to be alive.

I gathered a jar-full of blossoms, though not too many, because each flower is a lemon! But it probably helped the tree out a bit, poor girl, as she's about ready to break under the weight of all those fruits. To be honest, I don't know what the medicine of lemon blossoms is in a Materia Medica sort of way. I'm not sure if their medicine presents in that fashion. I imagine it works more on the heart and spirit and nerves simply through its intense aromatic strength. We shall see. In the meanwhile, I am shaking the jar with some amount of impatience!

And so there it is, a drawer from the Apothecary's Cabinet, opened for your perusal, which in this span has become not just a drawer with jars of plant-matter within, but a drawer full of stories, and memories, and the magic that resides in all things. I suppose in a sense, little has changed—smooth Danish rocks and gull feathers for medicines with just as much storied importance, Gathered with wonder.


  1. Another delightful, completely intriguing, read. That line about melancholy, yearning, & joy....!

  2. I can smell the rose and lemon blossom from here. What an exquisite post this is. What an inspiring one you are. Xo