Saturday, October 19, 2013

In Fall, Singing Two Heroic Herbs of Summer

In September it was time to start a move, and when apartment-cleaning, daily work, a commissioned art work and then the move itself began to bring on an interlude thick with detail I began acknowledging the warning tickles of  a cold. In my midlife I've grown susceptible to bronchial congestion that would bloom into pneumonia if left untreated. Prescription antibiotics in the years I'd been insured would squelch those symptoms within hours but more and more resulted in a left-over cough and irritation, then in a few years a vulnerability to re-infection that I could feel with every onset of a new contagion. In 2013 for combined reasons I've gone without health insurance and, facing the move and my usual Canadian travels in the month to come, I felt the clampdown of grim challenge in the sore throat and fatigue that foretold an end-of-summer cold. My house-mates (not the first but the second set of friends to make the claim) urged raw garlic on me and sent me away to Duluth with two whole bulbs of garlic, suggesting I eat it like pills.

So I gulped the cloves one at a time or broke them over pasta and cauliflower and green beans at supper time, while the cold infection developed because I couldn't afford to spend days lying down to sleep it off. I must have breathed garlic breath on my co-workers since whenever I burped I burnt the end of my nose with puffed fumes of garlic. But the familiar congestion never caught hold in any breathing passageways. The recent cold instead remained the gentle kind I remember having as a schoolkid or young adult, with sneezes and a three-days' cough in the last stages. I ate up one whole bulb of garlic, ceasing use of it when the cough had run its course, and then gratuitously escaped that feeling of bronchial residue that used to clue me in that the full course of synthetic antibiotics left bacterial survivors lurking after I had used it up. Now I am a convert to garlic therapies, in whatever formulas they might be laid out by practiced healers.

A friend and peer in Indiana years ago gave me The Herb Book by John Lust, Benedict Lust Publications ©1974. In this book garlic is ascribed a range of healing properties with beautifully arcane names: anthelmintic (a worm-purge,) carminative (a fart-starter to relieve belly gas,) cholagogue (a bile promoter,) antispasmodic (a spasm and cramp-dampener,) and expectorant (hastening the expulsion of mucous from the breathing passages.)

Part of the mystique that this past summer held for me included my first-ever acquaintance with another much wilder and exceptional herb in some locales considered threatened unless propagated, the native North American queen of the prairie or Filipendula rubra. Nothing I've read so far introduces any medicinal or salad-making properties in this plant, though in all the eons that human beings walked and foraged our continent it's hard to believe they never collected queen of the prairie or tried it out for its secret benefits.

I wanted the painting to honor not just the plant in its wind-swayed weirdness--a rose with a foam-like or plume-like floral structure, its leaves subdividing like the fingers of a spread-open hand but saw-toothed along all edges--but also the day on which I sat before it, with the wind ushering a complex of clouds from west to east into ever new sprawls and pile-ups. Wisps of rain cloud would complement plumes of pink flower. The day was of a type within infinite time, and the mixture of plants deepened and tangled into green and greenish black fibrous shadow. The mixture forced me into abstraction. The queen's precisely developed leaves might only bare glimpses of themselves through ever-differing green-shadow, implying depths so far within that blackness conquered the green.

A great share of my joy on that scene came of knowing I would soon be living just down this road from this plant colony of chilly-water fens, within a mile of the middle reaches of the St. Louis River, and would come home as I did today into the impending autumn, the first spurts of winter, the vanguard of cold weather with its walls of drear against the horizons, but the openings in those ramparts of dark cloud not a menace to me but a wink of old tomorrows and yesterdays, gold-trim along edges revealing jolly blue. High, low, openings here, there, and beyond them streaks of rain, smears of snow, inhospitable but more inviting to me than any domesticated skyline.

The queen of the prairie painting on the featured card is about earth's profusion of waters, sky waters and ground waters, engendering a somehow equal profusion of plants. Along these very roadsides grows caraway, a member of the parsley family going back to the wild from long-forgotten herb gardens, a once-cultivated plant which in that manner is akin to the garlic. Every plant I remember neighboring the queen of the prairie figures in to the living thatch-work of green in this work of art through the power of visual suggestion.