Ramps and Floodwaters

you go out to look for something and find something else entirely

It was not the adventure we had planned. 

The hike we had wanted to do last weekend was washed away by rain. Already on the way there, we had driven through a puddle larger than we would have liked, though still safe. I was worried about the drive back. How much more rain would have fallen by then? My partner said: if we can see the lines on the road we’re fine.

But then we came around a bend and could not see them, could not see anything but shining water. There was a blue car parked by a small lake which had appeared in the road. We waited, up on a hill. Around the bend came a group of people on foot, wading in the water back to their car, trudging through the floodwaters almost up to their thighs. Nope, my partner said. We began to back up the long gravel road.

It was a ways before there was space on the ridge to turn around.

We tried to stay cheerful on the drive back, for the child. We parked by a rushing stream and watched the water for a while. My son poked in the soggy ground with a stick. We saw and watched an owl, and it watched us. Darkness fell on the drive and then, just a few miles from home: flares shot up from the black road, the red lights of two parked trucks.

A tree had fallen in the road, wide enough to block both lanes. Roots weakened by the days of rain, the season of it, the tree must have just fallen over. There was no wind.

My partner rolled the window down to a man in a reflective vest and asked if we should find another way. The man agreed. “We gonna be awhile.”

We turned around in a dirt driveway. A sign spray-painted on the gate read “fuck,” my son happily pointed out. We hit another patch of high water but there was no other road. The water shined in the headlights. We stopped until we were sure we could see the white and yellow lines. The water went around a curve, but it was only a small patch. We went through it easy, and it didn’t reach the middle point of the tires.

Out the windows the sunset from a light that had been absent all day looked as bright and orange as a chemical flare, a fracking rig on fire. We saw cats fighting in the road. The frogs were so loud, we could hear them over the radio, even with the windows up.

Welcome to mud season, I told my partner.

You’re in Appalachia now, my child said from the backseat. 

Ramps

We have been out mushroom hunting three times this year without much luck, even though I have a hand-drawn map of a friend’s secret spot (he moved away and gave me the spot, by rights), even though I come from a family of foragers. I’ve never been great at mushroom hunting, to my shame. And my son loves morel mushrooms, which complicates things. The mushrooms are expensive to buy, and many things are hard to find now, especially those foods or remedies I used to trade for in parking lots.

But before we found morels this year, we spotted ramps.

Also known as wild leeks, ramps can be used like spring onions: in scrambled eggs or pasta. We made a pesto with them by blanching two big handfuls of ramp leaves, chopping them, and pounding them together with 1/4 cup of nuts, a couple tablespoons of grated hard cheese, three cloves of garlic, and some olive oil. You can even make ramp compound butter. But my son likes ramps just fried on the stove with bacon grease.

Where I live the joke goes that you can tell the season by what foraged food is appearing on a certain local restaurant menu. That also seems like a by-gone thing: seasonal menus, eating at a restaurant with friends.

But it’s still ramp season, mud season, and more than ever maybe, we should use responsibly what we have, what we can find closeby.

Ramps are high in vitamin C, and taste a bit milder than onions. Fried in butter or bacon grease, the bulbs taste sweet. The plant is pretty distinctive-looking, with long, oval green leaves, and they grow in clusters. But the plant you pick needs to smell like onions or garlic—SUPER important, as some plants that look similar to ramps are poisonous: Lily of the Valley or False Hellebore. Make sure it has that garlicky, onion smell—a smell strong enough you’ll want to secure them in an airtight container in the fridge. You’ll need a knife to dig the plant gently.

When in doubt, leave less (taking one leaf of the plant and not both), and leave some or all of the root so that the plant can grow again.

Fire Cider

What about my gift? I asked the old woman

A few nights ago I had a dream. I’ve been reading that people during this pandemic are having more intense, vivid dreams and remembering them more, which is typical in times of high-stress and trauma. I normally don’t remember my dreams, but the other night—a night when my child too had nightmares and woke up screaming, I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you—I did. 

I dreamed I was hiding in a large house with my partner, an old woman, and many children. The house was old and dark, all the windows boarded up. The devil was coming, and we had to protect the children somehow. 

There was a girl who had a gift, and the old woman worked with her to encourage and practice it. Her gift was freezing someone to one spot, and that was the plan: to make the devil stand still. I felt something inside. I felt I had to say something, do something.  

What about my gift? I asked the old woman. 

What is your gift? she asked. 

I said I didn’t know. 

She held both my hands, closed her eyes, and concentrated. Illumination, she said. 

What’s that mean? I asked. 

Fire.

I had a day to practice. I spent it alone in an attic room with boarded-up, triangular windows, and tried to conjure fire from the floor, from the eaves, from the dark, cobwebbed corners. I couldn’t do it. I tried and tried and couldn’t.  

When the devil came, the children hid. The girl froze the devil to the attic floor, using her gift. I cried out of fear and desperation and tried again. And again. And I brought fire from cracks in the devil’s skin, fire from inside the devil himself that destroyed him.

I’ve known for a long time that fire was my gift. I was going to make a joke about it on social media a few weeks ago: my genre is fire.

But it seems the time for that joke, many jokes maybe, has passed. 

I’ve been thinking over what the dream could mean. I’ve been thinking, of course, always now, of the virus. I have allergies and am treating them aggressively. I have a history of lung problems and was born with an immune deficiency which required hospitalization as an infant. Maybe the dream means kill the virus with heat. Maybe it means keep making words. Maybe it means nothing. 

I’ve decided to make fire cider. 

[Fire Cider recipe cards, from Mother Mountain Herbals]

Fire Cider

Fire Cider is a spicy, tangy, apple cider-based tonic. It’s nonalcoholic, and can be taken for energy or immune-boosting, or knocking out colds. Ingredients can include onions, lemons and other fruits, roots like ginger, spices like turmeric, and herbs. I use apple cider alone a lot, though the taste is a little bracing, drinking it straight when I feel rundown or have sore throats. I’ve never made this particular tonic before myself so these recipes are not my own, but just some recommendations to get you started:

A whole book about fire cider by Rosemary Gladstar (the herbalist most credit with coming up with the term)
Recipe by Rebecca Lindamood
An adaptation of one of Gladstar’s classic recipes, with a video tutorial

Have you made it? How else are you making your fire?

Herbal Toolbox

From this kitchen witch to your kitchen

A few years ago I was snowed in on a mountaintop when my companion fell ill with a headache. We couldn’t dig the car out to a store—and there was no store for miles, anyway. I searched the cabin upside down for aspirin, then searched the car. Nothing. Then I thought deeper. Willow bark.

The woods are the original drugstore. Herbs and plants are NOT a substitute for going to the doctor, of course. But where I live in rural Appalachia, many people don’t have primary care physicians. It’s very hard to get an appointment—and to be honest, our remote town doesn’t always attract the best professionals. 

As a toddler, my son was prescribed a drug that a doctor at a larger hospital in the city said hadn’t been used in ten years. Not long ago, my friend’s doctor showed up to her appointment visibly ill. Two OBGYNs just announced they are leaving, which the nurse says will cause the practice to close. Many times you end up having to diagnosis yourself around here. 

In a lot of ways that are terrible to think about, rural and poor towns like my own are unprepared for a pandemic. Our health systems are overcrowded, outdated, unaffordable, and inaccessible to many people. Stocking up on groceries is an impossible expense. Same with medication.

One thing we can handle in rural Appalachia? Making do, and making the best with what we have, some of which is in the woods and by the river.

The recent news that the surgery centers at the three hospitals and clinics closest to me will be closing, to reserve protective gear for coronavirus cases, has me very worried. This means that if my son or I get in an accident, we may have to drive over an hour for treatment. I’m not sure there’s a real way to prepare for this or for the coronavirus, but along with vitamins (especially Vitamin C, zinc, and selenium), and first aid supplies, I’ve been making sure I have a few plants that have helped me personally in the past. 

Here’s my small Herbal Toolbox. These plants have made me feel better in times of past stress, and they provide me a little comfort having them in my kitchen arsenal now. 

Eucalyptus 

Oils are weird. I don’t use perfume myself, and don’t use oils for their scent or relaxation. I’m concerned about how much plant matter it takes to make some oil, and I have read that oils can be deadly to cats. But if you’re pet-free, I have found eucalyptus to be helpful for congestion. Follow instructions on the bottle for adding drops to vaporizers or humidifiers (a good item to have).

Mushrooms

OK this isn’t a herb. My favorite mushrooms to eat are morels and chicken-of-the-woods, but cordyceps are my emergency fungi and I love them as much as anyone can love a mushroom. I have also heard good things about lion’s mane and reishi mushrooms. My reliable mushrooms are grown just up the road, and sold locally, powdered, in capsules. If I’m feeling run down, I take several before bed and seem to have more energy in the morning.

Ginger Root and Garlic

Have some around to slice into soups, broths, or tea, or roast the garlic and eat.

Slippery Elm Bark or Marshmallow Root

You can find this in a tea called Throat Coat, which was recommended to me years before I started to study plants, back when I was a singer. The tea is great for helping sore throats, and you can find it in grocery stores, but if you can locate slippery elm in health food stores in bark form, that’s very useful too. You can chew on the bark to help a sore throat. I think of it as nature’s cough drop.

Slippery Elm can be over-harvested, however, so you might use Marshmallow Root.

Slippery Elm was the first plant given to me for medicinal purposes. After my son was born, I started having respiratory issues. When someone gave me a handful of this soft, pale brown bark, I felt extremely doubtful. But I tried it. It tastes good, naturally sweet, and soothed my cough. You never forget the first plant that helped you.

Please stay strong and well, and help your neighbors. 

How to Love Writing Again

Take the dream and run

I don’t usually remember my dreams. I’m too tired. But sometime within the last three years, I dreamed of a greenhouse with people inside. Two adults and a baby. The adults were barely grown-up. The baby was not their own. I saw a yellow flame inside the greenhouse. Outside, I saw winter everywhere.

I saw the beginning of the book that became Road Out of Winter.

Where did it come from? I have no idea. What did it mean? Still don’t know. How did it come to be that I dreamed it? Honestly, not my question to answer, or even to question. It’s just my duty to take the dream, accept what was offered—and run with it.

And I did. I ran for almost three years. When I stopped running, the book had a new name, a publisher (MIRA Books), and a publication date of September 1.

But now I find there’s a lot of other running.

There’s the race to promote, to distinguish the book in a field crowded with a lot of great books, a lot of noise, a lot of not-so great books, and not much time or money. There’s the race do my day job. And then there’s the race to write something new, another book. 

If you keep running, little girl, you’re going to run straight into hell, an old man scolded me when I was four or five, after church one Sunday morning, when my family still went to church. When I was not much older, I rode a horse that went wild in sight of its barn. A man chased us down, grabbed the reins. I remember he had gray hair. I remember him saying he was impressed I could hold on.

But I can hold onto the wildest ride. It’s slowing down that I have difficulty with. Slowing down and balance.

On one level, I have no trouble coming up with new writing. On another, dealing with existing work isn’t easy—and it’s exhausting.

Promotion is urgent. Emails need to answered now. Edits, returned yesterday. But writing, creation itself, is very slow. It’s quiet. It doesn’t like interruption, the constant stop and start. And doing both at the same time—writing new work, and handling the editing, publishing, and promotion of old—is a rough cycle of opposing forces.  

Everyone always asks me: How do you come up with your ideas? The truth is, I don’t know, and if I did, I would probably not write them. It’s confusing, it’s overwhelming. It makes no sense and I can’t control or stem it.

But I know ideas come out of several places: dreams, silence, walks, and nature. And I know that to love writing, to love art and stories, to make them, I need to find time to do these things.

Last week, my partner, son, and I went for a walk in the woods. It was cold, wet, and muddy. Our coats may never recover. But in a meadow at the top of a hill, my son met a deer so still we thought it was a statue. And on the walk down, I thought of a new book. I shared my story with my family.

“That seems like a dumb idea,” my son said. Typical. Then he admitted, “I like it.” So did my partner.

But the important thing is: like it, and in the bits of our walk not interrupted by kid chattering or crow chattering, I thought of it some more, and it made me happy. It makes me happy to think of new ideas. It makes me feel less alone, even when I’m by myself. 

I live in a rural place, but even here it’s hard to get to silence and wilderness. It takes time which I don’t have. Time in which I can’t be writing something for money, or answering those emails, or doing other work.

Yet though each hour I spend outside, in the woods, by the river, on the cliffs, in the mud, is one in which I can’t be working, my brain is working. My brain works best in nature, in quiet.

It’s always worth it for me, to take that time to be quiet. How can the ideas get in unless you make space for them, by not emailing, not promoting, not talking, not watching anything else but the world? I know that ideas are everywhere. But you have to listen.

Read the first chapter of Road Out of Winter for free here.

Arnica for Bruises

Arnica, from the sunflower family, is one of my favorite herbs for injuries. I have found it really speeds up the healing time for bruises especially. About ten years ago I was introduced to it when I bruised my kneecap, falling down the broken steps at the university I attended at the time. A woman, a stranger, saw my leg when I was limping through a store, and immediately handed me arnica. 

Arnica is said to help reduce swelling, inflammation, and pain. You can get it in creams or sprays, and apply topically. It can be toxic in large doses, so I don’t use it in flower form, but buy it in a lotion or other product. I feel like it has a slight tingling effect, which is soothing and cooling. 

Most recently, when my little nephew accidentally gave me a black eye, I spread an arnica lotion on the injury. It was around New Year’s Eve, and I had a nice colorful display on my eyelid for holiday parties, but the bruises disappeared quickly. You need time, more than anything—but you can get help from plants too. 

What if Amy was the Better Artist?

Some men love a wild thing just to keep it in a cage.

When I was nineteen, my college advisor pushed a VHS copy of The Red Shoes, the 1948 film about a ballerina, across the desk to me. “Men are going to make you choose,” he said. 

I didn’t understand. I was dating someone, a fiction writing student who was about to get really, really mad at me when I won a writing contest he had also entered, in a different genre category. It feels like a betrayal, he said.

Was that what my advisor meant?

Or was it the night before my PhD defense, when my then-husband fought with me, saying over and over he didn’t understand what was in it for him, this me obtaining an advanced degree thing?

In The Red Shoes, the main character, a ballet dancer, is forced to choose between her career and the love of a composer—her art or her heart, basically. She can’t give enough to either to make them both work, not in the confines of the world men have made. 

What was I going to be forced to do? I should have asked my advisor. What was the right choice? How did he know? I was a teenager. I had just cut my hair. For our honors class, I wrote an opera. 

I think he saw someone in me who was not going to be content unless they made stuff, not satisfied with the world as it was. And to have anything approaching more, especially as a person who is not a man, requires a whole hell of a lot of time. 

Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I gave up time. I didn’t realize it was a precious resource. And finite. There would come a point when it would be involuntary, my losing it. As a young woman, I gave up time willingly. I gave up time to getting ready. I gave up time to a man who couldn’t bring himself to say he loved me. I gave it up to standing in the corner at parties. To going to readings by bad writers, who were almost always white and men. To cooking meals no one appreciated. And to cleaning. So much time lost to cleaning, straightening up. Making everything, including myself, look nice. I gave up time I could have spent making art. I lost it.

So the choice after all was me. Me—or everything.

To ask an artist to choose a man over her work is asking her to choose a man over her life. Or her love over her love. Which, I mean … we do all the time, especially to mothers. But it’s not much of a selection. And it’s not one that men are forced to make.  

It’s been awhile since I’ve read the book, and to be honest, Little Women is not my favorite. Unsurprisingly, maybe, I prefer Alcott’s book Work. One thing I always loved about Little Women, though, is that the sisters are all artists.

Throughout the book and film versions, Jo and Amy are the clear competitors. Meg takes herself out of artistic competition by marrying, giving birth to twins, and giving up such things as theatre. Beth is taken out by illness, terribly. But Jo and Amy make it a long way.

Amy has both the artistic leanings of her older sister, the writer Jo, and the added bonus/burden of beauty, an attribute she cultivates, constantly pinching her own nose to try to make it smaller. She’s told as a child that she alone must save the family, and save it through marriage.

No pressure.

That was another thing a man told me, my driver’s ed instructor who lectured me, trapped in the front seat as we teetered around the country roads, “You want to be an artist? Marry a rich old man.” 

I didn’t know back then that some men love a wild thing just to keep it in a cage.

I cried at Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. But I didn’t like any of the concessions away from an artistic life, of which I felt there were many. I didn’t like that the girls’ mother, Marmee, brings Jo a tray of food while Jo is intently working—though what I wouldn’t give to have food fixed, brought to me, and taken away so that I could continue my work. Still, I couldn’t help thinking: What about Marmee’s work? 

In an oft-quoted line in the film taken directly from Alcott’s journals, Marmee says she is angry every single day. But about … what? What specifically did she give up? A career in social work, like Alcott’s own mother, or her own artistic yearnings? Or is she angry about having to do everything alone, as her husband—a character I’ve never been fond of, or really noticed at all (oh, he’s still alive?)—enlisted away from home?

Amy stops making art. And artists don’t do that. They just don’t, unless they’re physically forced to by illness, poverty, abuse, which doesn’t happen to Amy.

Maybe this means, as generations have insisted, Amy isn’t a “real” artist. Or maybe she is forced to stop by the pressures of being a pretty woman. Maybe she never had a chance, and the failings of the character are also really the failings of her family, sexism, the world. What if, after all, Amy was the better artist? What if Meg was? What if Marmee was?

I liked Little Women. But something that bothered me on a deeper level was the whiteness of it all. I complained to my partner: why do all the actresses have to be white? He said: “Maybe only white women would have a choice.” 

We love Jo because she makes it. We hate Amy because she gives up. But it’s a privilege even to have the option.

My partner and I saw Little Women together, and he will be the first to tell you he cried too, especially at the scene where Jo lays her manuscript out on the floor. Because upstairs at home, in a small back room he protects, forbidding anyone else from using, or leaving their stuff (or playing) in—I was doing the same thing.

(hey I have a book coming out!)

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