Respect Your Elders (The Uses and Lore of a Familiar Tree)

 Kay Nielsen, The Elder Mother (ca. 1900)

“It was not exactly a story,” said the Elder-mother; “but the story is coming now, and it is a true one. For out of the truth grow the most wonderful stories, just as my beautiful elder-bush has sprung out of the teapot.
—Hans Christian Andersen, “The Elder-Tree Mother”

For people of millennia past everything crackled with meaning. The fire that burned in the soul was “of the same essential nature as the stars,” the twentieth-century Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács wrote, for the world was for those living then “new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own.” Even plants were rich in significance. The humblest weeds had indwelling spirits both familiar and strange.

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Bitter Buttons: Tansy and Its Uses Through History

Common Tansy (<em>T. vulgare</em>)
Image from Wildflowers Worth Knowing (1917)

The scent of tansy blows this way,
The aromatic tansy which
The housewives of an elder day
Planted in dooryard coign or niche.
—Donald Lines Jacobus “A Medley of Summer” (1914)

Certain plants our ancestors ate eagerly are now best left alone. Common tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) is one such plant. I often see this winsome member of the aster family growing along roads and in vacant lots. It greenish burgundy stalk stands some three or four feet tall and is adorned with clusters of canary yellow petal-less flowers. When crushed, its finely divided compound leaves smell of camphor and rosemary. It’s a lovely plant in its way — enough, anyway, to tempt me to take some of it home. But then I remind myself of its checkered past.

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What Dreams May Come (Musings on Mugwort)

If they would drink nettles in March
And eat mugwort in May,
So many fine maidens
Wouldn’t go to the clay.

—Proverb

The days drag when unrelieved by summer festivals, backyard parties and weekend getaways. My Google Calendar, which in years past teemed with events during the warm months, sits as empty as beauty salons did late last March. On rainy days I fill the hours with the important-looking books I always intended to read but never found reason to — all eleven volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, say, or John Cowper Powys’s A Glastonbury Romance. And when the sun shines I head outdoors to read the natural world.

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