Photo Credit: The Archaeology of the Recent Future Association
When we set out to hunt jewelweed, I had Asclepius on my mind. Asclepius, who gave humans both medicine and magic in the form of a bag of herbs. He was instructed in the art of medicine by the centaur, Chiron, who raised him after his pregnant mother was killed by the god Apollo for her infidelity and he was lifted, newborn, from the ashes of her funeral pyre. Later, he rendered some now-forgotten kindness to a snake, who licked his ears clean in return and then whispered into them all its secret knowledge. In this way he became a healer who could bring people back from the brink and beyond.
Every time we start over I think I’ll write the field guide to the beautiful weeds on the new acreage. There was the ironweed and wingstem farm that was lush and relentless. Then there was the chicory and thistle farm where I was as much a terrible fire season of a drought as the pasture was. Both farms were the farms where I became more and more out of practice talking. And, as the years went by, made my way into the inconvenience of town less and less. Evermore, my voice sounded strange outside my head. After awhile the field guides became conversations with and then love letters to the plants, who felt like the only things I knew how to know. There came a time when I realized what I was calling “ecofeminist botanical mysticism” is a phenomenon that psychiatrists call by other, more usefully descriptive names. I was, as they say, trying to keep a troubling sense of unreality at bay.
On the way to the creek to fill my bag with herbs, we had a fight about the new front yard. About what it means to live in a neighborhood and not an island of your own acreage. About what constitutes a weed. About what manners are and friendliness is. We were having a fight about whether we were willing to keep having fights.
When I tore out the new front yard hillside of plants you might call wildflowers or you might call weeds, I was trying something new. I was living without explanation or compromise or apology. The hill was a surprise garden of harebells, anemone, and wild mustard. Or it was a weedy entanglement of poison ivy. It was both, of course, but another name for my experiment was “I only believe in my version of reality.” The results of this field research: he was pissed and I was pissed.
With Asclepius on my mind, I was hoping we’d find jewelweed to rub on the poison ivy rash covering my neck and arms and face. My neck? My face? I was trying not to freak out, because that makes it worse, of course. But I kept touching my cheek and then taking a deep breath and then touching my cheek again anyway. It was the kind of rash that makes you wonder if you aren’t being punished for a terrible mistake. But also it seemed like an invitation to make more mistakes, because when it’s this bad, how much more do you have to lose?
There are as many rumors of remedies for poison ivy as there are wishes things could be different. You can make a salve of heavily salted milk or sour milk beaten until it is thick. You can make a salve of cow slobber. You can make one of nightshade berries mixed with sweet cream. You can put ironweed roots in an iron pot so they stand upright and cook them to make a liquid for washing the rash. You can wash the rash in apple vinegar. You can carry a pocketful of iron rifle cartridges to prevent or cure the poisoning.
I came to regret tearing out that bed. The roots of harebells form a staircase into hell. Anemones are the last breath of one of Aphrodite’s undying loves. Wild mustard can be turned into a poultice to ease the wheeze of a chest cold. Columbine is useful for birth control and also can give you the courage of an eagle. And of course everything, even the weed-choked or withering or chaotic tangled things, are pretty if you can look at them from the right angle. That everything-at-once-ness is the beauty of being alive – I was wrong to hoe up that bed, but also I was right. And anyway, all of it came back with vigor the next year and the one after that.
In a fight between people who have been married for fifteen years many things that are not part of the story are nevertheless part of it. For example, it is and is not part of the story that right after we moved he filed a police report about the neighbor whose dog was always barking. It is and is not part of the story that the dog didn’t bother me at all and I was deeply embarrassed to be roped into such a conflict by virtue of nothing more than being his wife and having my name beside his on the deed. It is and is not part of the story that we were new in town and I just wanted to bend to what was normal in the neighborhood for a while. It was the summer we didn’t get a divorce, but moved instead from the farm to a cottage in town because I said I was going with or without him. It is and is not part of the story that he missed the deep isolation of the woods where he had spent his whole life. It is and is not part of the story that if I let myself think about how sorry I was for him and what it was like for him to give up so much, my stomach would ache like a hole in the earth where someone just dug out all its may apple.
In the beginning, everything I knew about the green world I learned from him. During the leanest years of his childhood he poached wild ginseng and black cohosh off government land for small handfuls of cash from an old herbalist living in a trailer near Bear Creek who sold remedies to homeopaths up in the city where I was learning a whole different brand of resourcefulness. But after enough years together, there came a day when I knew everything about plants he did, and then there came a day after when I knew more than he did. On the day that happened we didn’t notice. We didn’t notice for a long time.
All of the accounts of Chiron make a great deal of how he was different from all the other centaurs – his front legs were human rather than equine, he was born of a nymph and a titan. A real centaur has four equine legs. A real centaur is born of the union between the sun and a rain cloud. Real centaurs are the stampede of storm. Real or not, all of the centaurs know how to read the stars and how to read the dew pearling on the leaves. If you really want to know how to live, you can start with Asclepius, but sooner or later you will have to go directly to those wild, dangerous, beautiful horses.
To learn all of the stories and all of the magic, the great folklorist Zora Neale Hurston would pretend to be in love or pretend not to be. She pretended to be a logger and a priestess and Franz Boaz’s favorite student. She drank and danced and fasted and crept through dense woods. Though most of the magic involving poison ivy is about how you can use other plants to cure it, poison ivy has its uses as an agent too. Hurston recorded one spell that involves putting the dried crushed leaves, along with some other herbs, into a little sachet you slip under the pillow of a man who has wronged you to ruin his peace and his dreams.
I’ve heard quite a few stories about fearless, always-in-trouble kids on the playground, the ones who have come from someplace beyond the limits of a prim schoolteacher’s imagination, proving they were not to be trifled with by plucking a leaf of three and eating it before all of the aghast children buttoned so neatly into their future college degrees. There’s pretty good evidence from double blind studies tucked away in the journals of modern medicine that this is, in fact, an effective way to make yourself immune to the urisol in the leaves over time. There’s pretty good evidence in double blind studies that whatever you think you might know about how things work, you should not assume you know with more certainty than that.
Before I covered myself in calamine lotion, I wanted to see if the rumors about jewelweed might also be true. A plant with watery, succulent stems, the antidote is to crush the leaves in your hands and then rub your skin vigorously with the released juices. It often grows interlaced with poison ivy, which herbalists say is always the way – poison loves its antidote. Like a marriage.
There was a time when the puzzle of our disagreements interested me so deeply it was its own a form of love. He was 350 acres of pasturelands, and soo cow soo in the hot sun. He was this holler of grandfather’s abandoned cabin and that sweet spring of a great-uncle’s old claim. I was dandelion busted concrete and cars backfiring, was that a gunshot? I used to like it when someone wrecked what I thought I knew to be true. It made me feel like living was a form of floating. It was reassuring to live inside of constant proof of my one axiom that there is no certain knowing.
Then I changed. I was tired of feeling like my life was to be spent endlessly tangled up in my antidote. I was tired of dithering and hand-wringing and the dizziness of shifting my mind from this view to that one and back again. I could tell the stories of all the little fights, but they are so inconsequential and boring. Why did these insignificant things hurt my feelings so much? I felt like I was living inside the body of a spooked deer that would never stop running. I’d had a vision for a different sort of hillside – the too-tall Jerusalem artichoke would be at the back, the harebells would be bunched next to daisies and a domestic ornamental variety of columbine with blossoms large enough to hold the eye. The anemones could have the flat strip from the bottom of the hill to the road to spill. Every plant would be a check against some other plant’s inclination to clamor and scraggle. I had a vision where there would be a kind of geometry that would hold still long enough to be made into sense.
And then I understood it was all very simple. I wanted a garden and since a garden is about containing chaos inside of geometric order, I was willing to tear out a hillside of wildflowers, then plant the exact same species back to have it. I started to see that whatever else happened, I was also the antidote to myself.
Jewelweed has other names, like Lady’s Eardrops and Lady’s Slipper, which are perfect descriptors of the little resting butterflies of its orange flowers among those deep green leaves. For some reason it is also called Touch-me-not. I can see no reason for that name, since what we do is crush that plant between our palms, then smear the ichor on what ails. For all its wrongness, Touch-me-not is my favorite name for this plant and I covered myself in it.
When he filed the report about the dog, people at the precinct, he said, were sympathetic. Apparently they agreed the noise would make them nuts too. And later the neighbor was really apologetic. They shook hands. The house was quiet for days and days, then month after month. He became cheerful now that he could sleep again. He planted strawberries in some of the barren places in the yard while humming himself an old song about a boy with a gun and good hunting dog.
We went through the jewelweed on the banks and beyond to the ridge where blackberries tumble themselves down the thin soil of the piney bluffs. We ate them as we rested at the overlook watching the water run its clear trickle across the bed of quartz below. The trees dappled golden and spackled their shade as he pointed to some heart-shaped leaves and said, “Oh, bloodroot.” This is one of the plants he used to dig for money – when you pulverize the root it secretes iodine. That’s all iodine is. The medicine nurses pour from a bottle with an intimidating label while you sit in the chill white of a hospital room has been sitting here in the loam of these Ozark woods the whole time.
Sometimes I wonder if I ever would have discovered forests or plants, Chiron or spells, if it hadn’t been for him and how he took me to them. He was so charmed on that first hike when I looked around at the river bottoms tangled up in wild woody grape vines and said, thinking of that city arboretum at the center of my childhood, “I didn’t know nature was so messy.” Would I know if he hadn’t shown me that you’re never really lost? When you get tired of feeling lost, he says, just go down into a holler and follow it, either way, until you come to water, and you will come to water because hollers are made by rain. When you come to water, follow it, either way, until you come to a bridge, and you will come to a bridge because sooner or later people want something on the other side. And now I am the one to tell him that sooner or later, on either side, jewelweed will be there, because it’s one of those plants that’s like poison ivy. No matter how much you spray or mow or weed or pull, it survives and comes back. It’s one of those plants that will be with us until the end of the world.
I forget sometimes that there were many years when there was nothing but us and the perfect silence of our acres and I really was happy for a great many of them. I changed, but I haven’t stopped loving the brown silence of a mushroom blooming one ear after another along a crash of limb.
Clumps of soil are sticking to his palm as he holds up the orange tuber of a bloodroot. “Anybody have any cuts?” he asks. But no, I just have this rash. He insists, “Let’s do it anyway.” So I hold out my hand and he busts the root in half to smear some of that bright red ooze on my wrist. He’s shown me bloodroot before, but never broken out the secret elixir it keeps below the dirt. I wonder if it really is that these plants, his and mine, are helping, or if it’s just that time, that very good medicine, is passing. Whatever it is, I feel a little better. And when I ask him, he says he feels better too.
Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of the lyric essay collection, Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past, which won The JournalNon/Fiction Prize. Her poetry collections are The End of Pink, winner of the Laughlin Prize from the Academmy of American Poets, and Rag & Bone. A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, and Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, she is an associate professor of Creative Writing at University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as director of Pleiades Press.