Rebuild all your ruins

Sun Voyager sculpture in Reykjavik, on the coast of the North Atlantic Ocean. This photo was taken just before midnight on the summer solstice.

Iceland was the last of the European countries to be settled, just over a thousand years ago now, by Viking explorers, Celtic women, and monks. Today the country has a relatively small number of people living on it; it’s around the size of the state of Ohio, which has some 11 million inhabitants, but only about 340,000 people live there. The island’s tumultuous natural features are a big reason for this. There are hundreds of volcanos and many of them are active. Evidence of their previous activities can be seen all around the countryside in the form of lava fields, which look sort of like regular fields because they’re covered in green moss but are rocky and cracked all over by fissures, some of them treacherously deep. The heat from volcanic sources creates warm geothermal pools and magnificent geysers. (The word geyser, in fact, comes from the Icelandic name of a huge one near Reykjavik, Geysir, which was the first such water spout modern Europeans had ever seen.) Parts of Iceland are covered in ice caps, including the largest glacier in Europe, and the glaciers’ constant melting feeds the rivers and results in some 10,000 waterfalls across the country. The Icelandic highlands, situated in the middle of the country, are mostly uninhabitable and largely without infrastructure; the rivers there change course frequently, even daily, and can’t be bridged. The country’s landscape is wild, stunning, and in many ways rare.

Iceland is also, of course, the land of the midnight sun. That’s the reason J and I chose to visit there over the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Ever since I learned in school that, way up north, the sun is up around the clock in the summer and dark for most of the winter, I’ve marveled at the idea, have wondered for all these years what it would feel like if the sun never set. Now I know: It feels weird. Almost enchanted. During the week we spent there, it never really got dark. Even after sunset at midnight the sky stayed lit but dim, like the light at twilight, until it rose fully again at around 3:00 a.m. On sunnier days, as opposed to cloudy ones, slices of yellow sun peered through the slats in the blinds behind our bed and rested on my face, giving me the confused sensation—at two o’clock in the morning—that I was on a beach vacation and lying down for a nap on a drowsy afternoon. It felt moving, too—strange to think of people in another part of the world having a different sort of understanding with my old companions the sun and the moon—and very energizing.

The chaotic emotional stuff I’ve been going through in recent months has drained me, and I think something about the idea of drinking in full, 24-hour days of sunshine must have struck me as a kind of personal restoration technique. Sure enough, though I felt tired from traveling and from all the walking we did while we were there, I didn’t exactly get sleepy in the evening, the way you do naturally when it gets dark. It was as if my little internal battery was plugged in and getting recharged. One day I even refreshed myself the way the locals do, by soaking in a geothermal pool, right on a beach in Reykjavik. It was a grey day with a low, moody sky but I’d packed my bathing suit for our long urban hike in case we found a place to bathe. When we did find one I looked out at the unfriendly sea and felt dubious: Who goes to the beach on a cold, rainy day? Icelanders do, that’s who. We saw people trucking across the sand in bare feet, and others swimming in the ocean with mitts on their hands and feet to protect them from the sharp rocks on the bottom. Before I chickened out I went into the locker room to change, then hustled through the chilly air to a long concrete tub built into a platform on the beach. The water was only about as deep as a bathtub, and sinking gratefully into its warmth I had the embarrassing yet thrilling sensation that I was in fact taking a bath with a bunch of strangers. I eavesdropped on but couldn’t understand their conversations because they were in Icelandic, Russian, and rapid-fire French. My body was warm while a light, cold rain spritzed my face, which struck me as strange enough to be funny, and the pleasure of a rare feeling of pride filled me. I’d gotten myself to this beautiful, special place, I’d been brave enough to get naked in front of strangers, and here I was, quite literally basking in it. 

One evening in Reykjavik, J and I went to a concert. It was the thing I was most looking forward to on our visit to Iceland, which sounds silly given what I just told you about the lava fields and geysers, but before this trip I had no frame of reference for things like that. Listening to live music in a darkened room, on the other hand—that’s an experience I already knew I loved. This show was to be experimental ambient music performed by Jo Berger Myhre on standup bass, and his collaborator Ólafur Björn Ólafsson, who plays keyboard and drums (sometimes with Sigur Rós!).

Most of the concerts in this Midsummer Music series took place in Reykjavik’s large and impressive concert hall, and I’d somehow gotten the idea that the series itself was something most people in town would attend, as part of a circus atmosphere I imagined would be created by the perpetual sunlight, everyone up all night and partying. Once there I found that, with the exception of a few to-be-expected drunks hooting out on the street late at night, most people were not deep in some wild revel but were in fact composed and very soft-spoken (and, of course, going about their normal business). Likewise, as we walked to the venue I saw that this show was being held “off site” at the kind of place I’m infinitely more comfortable than in some fancy concert hall: a small art space located in what looked like it had previously been a storefront. People in good outfits were standing around and talking quietly, drinking from bottles of beer. I felt at home.

We sat in folding chairs and waited for people to come out and begin playing the instruments, both electronic and organic, that were arranged a few feet in front of us. Slowly Myhre and Ólafsson, with the aid of a dude squatting on the floor and working a big, blinking mixer, began playing from their album The Third Script. I’ve read that the album was almost completely improvised, which of course means that each performance of it is also completely unique. We listened as the music built up slowly, crescendoed, then deconstructed itself back into its separate parts before disappearing again. Myhre pulled his bow across the strings and made the bass moan and cry. The more rhythmic sections lumbered inevitably but irresistibly, like a dance and a dirge at once. Higher sounds occasionally streaked across the music’s horizon. Tiny bells tinkled in the middle of all that space, like wind chimes in the countryside reminding you that there’s a house not too far away, comforting you; you’re not really alone. 

I tried to resist it, but it was hard not to hear some elements of the music as reflections of the landscape around us: Ólafsson’s violent drumming as eruptions, Myhre’s bass as whalesong or the groaning of glaciers as they move, chafe, and break apart. And after all I do believe that, as a part of nature, we human beings possess the same qualities as the animals, earth, and atmosphere around us, so the art we make is necessarily formed from this elemental stuff. In any case, I loved the way the music made me feel. It matched something inside me, felt familiar. The movements of my life can be tectonic, rumbling low underground, or they can be sudden, violent, and smothering—a volcano. Whose can’t? 

The writer of this review of The Third Script gives an interpretation of the album’s name that I find profound and beautiful (and according to the musicians themselves, he’s correct). He writes that he finds the music “meditative” and “ruminative,” as I did. Several times throughout the performance my chattering mind went blessedly quiet, even as the music activated my poor, overworked solar plexus, who always comes to life during highly emotional moments. I let the performance be a way to meditate and breathed into that space, letting all of my constituent parts, my mind and my body and whatever else, know that they were free to wake up, if that’s what they wanted to do.

When we left the gallery it was 10:30 at night and the white, cloudy sky was still lit up as bright as daylight. It had taken several days for the strangeness of the perpetual sunlight to properly register and make some kind of sense to me, and all at once, for just a moment, it did. It just gives you more time, that’s all. More of each day to live. We walked the short walk through the city’s downtown to our rented apartment, not hurrying the way you do in the dark, but strolling like we had during the day, trying to take it all in. 

Kitchen witches

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Image from eBay

Hello, friends! After going through some difficult personal stuff this winter, I am happy to tell you that I’m busy working on a new book. This book will be different from the others I’ve written. In one way or another, most of the writing I do is some sort of memoir. The subject may be garage sales, linguistics, or cats, but really I’m always writing about my life, about myself in the world. This time around, my friend Nadine and I are working on a book together, something informational—though we promise it will also be entertaining, and pretty!—based on our zine The Kitchen Witche Guide to Natural Living. 

The Kytchyn Witche zine is a recipe collection and a sort of introductory guide to what we’re calling natural living; by our definition, this means using the simplest possible ingredients to make safe, healthy versions of the wasteful, pointlessly expensive, and often toxic household and personal care products that are available commercially. I’m a bit of a fanatic about cleaning my house and Nadine is passionate about skin and body care, so to make the zine we divided it into those two categories and worked on them separately, but in tandem. To create a book we’ll do something similar but on a much larger scale. 

Nadine and I work well together because we tend to see things the same way while bringing different perspectives to our subjects. She and I are both serious about self-reliance, environmental sustainability, health and wellness, and damning the man. We are very serious about that last one. To this end, most of the ingredients we use are plant-based, and many of those plants are herbs. Though we’re not writing about herbalism in the strictest sense, we will talk about cultivating herb plants for use in the recipes, and we’ll give lots of detail on the benefits of various essential oils (which are oils made by distilling plants down to, well, their essence). 

In thinking about what I would like the Kytchyn Witche book to be, I’ve been taking in a lot of information, gathering piles of books about herbal healing and plant magic around me and then more or less rolling around on the floor with glee. The coolest thing that I have learned about so far, amongst very many cool things, is Culpeper’s Herbal. This is a book that was written and published by a botanist, herbalist, and astrologer named Nicolas Culpeper in 1653, under the title The English Physician. I found an edition of the Herbal at the library that was published by Sterling in 2002 and has a short but excellent foreword by EJ Shellard, a professor of pharmacognosy at University of London. That foreword, along with a few other sources that I’ve listed below, is where I learned the following history.

In 17th century England, people treated their illnesses, aches and pains in one of a few different ways. Wealthy people could see a physician—who charged a lot of money and preferred to see upper class patients—while poor and working people would either use plant medicines they made themselves or visit an apothecary or a pharmacy, this latter becoming increasingly more common due to population growth in cities.

Our guy Culpeper was a political radical who believed that the old knowledge belonged to the people and that they should have unrestricted access to it. Though he came from an aristocratic family and studied to become a physician himself, he experienced a personal tragedy—the accidental death of his girlfriend, who he was set to marry—and drifted from this path, ultimately becoming an apprentice to an apothecary in London. There he learned about plant medicine hands-on, by treating the city’s poor. He saw for the first time how different their lives were from his much more comfortable existence, and when he completed his apprenticeship he opened his own dispensary where he treated people at low or no cost. He did this outside of the authority of the City of London and to the extreme irritation of the Royal College of Physicians, who were looking to heavily regulate and, if they could, shut down the practitioners of traditional plant medicine. At one point he was imprisoned and tried for witchcraft.

In his practice Culpeper used plants that grew locally instead of imported ones and called them by their common, English names rather than their Latin ones. Even using the language of the common person was a radical act in this context. Believing that “no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician,” Culpeper published his most important work, the Herbal, in English. (An herbal is a book that contains descriptions of the medical or culinary uses of herbs.) He also took the London Pharmacopoeia, which was a kind of herbal published by the College of Physicians, and translated it from Latin into English, thereby making their ”secret” treatments accessible by many more people. Culpeper died at 38, and after his death his wife Alice edited his unfinished work and continued to publish all of his books. His Herbal has been published in around 100 editions in its long lifetime and has never been out of print.

The Sterling edition of the Herbal that I’ve been reading reproduces Culpeper’s original text alongside the approved-of contemporary uses of the plants. This is interesting for comparison’s sake, since some of the ways people used the plants back then are considered dangerous today, while many other uses remain the same. It happens that Culpeper was an astrological botanist, and as such he understood diseases, parts of the body, and the plants themselves to be governed by different planets—which, though widely accepted during his lifetime, is obviously bizarre and totally discredited today (“irrational” and “useless,” to use Shellard’s words). Still, I really appreciate the generosity Shellard shows on this point when he writes, “And why not! To the agrarian communities there was an obvious relationship between the growth of their crops and the behavior of animals with the changing seasons and the position of the heavenly bodies.”

The best part of the book is that the editors have retained Culpeper’s “caustic comments about the ignorance and deceits of the physicians of his day.” For instance, before his entry on the herb clary (Salvia sclarea), he writes, “I could wish from my soul that blasphemy, ignorance, and tyranny were ceased among physicians, that they might be happy and I joyful.”

Ha! I find everything about Culpeper’s story to be life-affirming, from his choice to live in service to others to his abiding pissiness. It makes me proud to be working on a book like the one that Nadine and I are making—a small offering, but one that we’re giving our all to, and are steeping with our good intentions as we work.

Sources:

Culpeper’s Color Herbal

“How Nicholas Culpeper brought Medicine to the People” (Smithsonian Magazine)

“Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54)” (Brought to Life, The Science Museum of London)

“The People’s Herbalist: Nicholas Culpeper” (Mother Earth Living)

Wikipedia entry on Culpeper