Jan 252011

The Herbalist’s Inner Sanctum

By Jesse Wolf Hardin

Excerpted from a larger essay “Imaginariums, Inner Sanctums & Cabinets of Wonder”,  appearing in an upcoming issue of Plant Healer Magazine: www.PlantHealerMagazine.com

There’s something mysterious – and therefore entirely irresistible to a child – about exploring a parent or grandparent’s special or private space.  It may be a cupboard out of reach without a stool, concealing curiosities like Mother’s mothballed wedding dress or her first pair of fancy dance shoes, apparently sitting there in the dark for years begging to be tried on by a five year old.  A never used bedroom where a Great Uncle’s old green army uniforms hang, its smell of pine disinfectant suggesting a government office or experimental laboratory with “No Admittance” signs.  Or an unlit and long neglected attic, its bounty made all the more enthralling by the spider webs draping from its steep sloped  ceiling to the archaic leather suitcases and wicker baskets arrayed on its dusty oakwood floor.  Up the creaky pull-down stairs they might go, hushing each other with little fingers to little lips even though all the adults are gone for the afternoon to town.

Not even a fabled pot of gold could outshine a youngster’s excited finds: An ingenious folding rack glinting with impossibly colorful spools of thread.  A heavy black telephone like you might have seen on the desk of some 1940’s private eye, ready to ring loud and clear when some spooky “dame” calls for help.  Costume jewelry with cultured pearls and dangling sea horses.  A dried flower arrangement as old as Moses, and a robe worthy of Merlin.  A selection of foppish hats, making ideal costumes for a hastily organized play about dancing pirates and quick-shooting outlaws.  An Etch-A-Sketch toy from back when television shows were so few and screens so small that they couldn’t compete with trying to draw a perfect circle using twin knobs.  Faded black and white photographs of mainly unrecognizable relatives and straight faced ancestors giving inexplicable looks, some creased or torn, some with the glued-on corners that had once held them to the pages of bobby-soxer scrapbooks.  A tobacco can marked “Dirt taken from sweet Cleo’s grave,” too sacred or scary for casual handling, or an oil portrait of an old homestead that looks either haunted or enchanted depending on the angle viewed by a susceptible child.

A naturalist’s or herbalist’s inner dominion can similarly be a wondrous place, filled with secrets informed by a long life spent partly out of doors and partly in the ever expanding diorama of the human imagination.  Like the wizard Merlin’s mythical sanctus sanctorum, it is often a library of tales waiting to be told, an assortment of curiosity-stirring objects and character-revealing art.  It may be housed in a quaint garden cottage apart from the rest of the domicile, covered with a dangling mantle of useful vines, or simply be a certain room in an otherwise too-white stucco suburban house, exclusively dedicated to plant studies, wildlife passions or artisan obsessions.  Either way, when we open its door and step inside it’s as if we have suddenly entered some enchanted parallel reality, dropped into the white hare’s hole leading to a miraculous Oz or embraced by and lifted into the high twisty branches of Yggdrasal, the mythic world tree connecting all things, all beings, all ideas and possibilities.

Even without the transportive allure and amore of lit candles or golden kerosene lamps, the lighting will usually appear somehow different.  This can be true whether or not the overhead fixtures are the same as in the next room, as even the most sterile and artificial of white light waves are absorbed, refracted and reflected, tinted and toned, touched and transformed by all that they fall upon, by the walls full of earth hued items and shelves of leaf, soil and sky colored glass.  The sparse and predictable decorations of other rooms or buildings drop away to reveal a richer and more suggestive world, to a hodgepodge of necessity and embellishment that is emblematic of its inhabitant’s character and interests, evincing no accommodation for contemporary tastes or transitory fads, no dilution of the intensity of its composition or purpose since it is designed and maintained not for occasional guests but for its creator and primary inhabitants, beheld only by the trusted and the initiated… and just maybe, by the unrestrained child sneaking a peek at its rumored treasures and gallery of mystery.

Arrayed on tapestry draped tables and shelves may be a mix of scientific and craftsman’s tools and instruments, an antique brass and wood scale for measuring small quantities of precious herbs or a vintage Ohaus triple-beam for weighing larger quantities, an iron tincture press for extruding liquid medicine from generous leaves.  Magnifying glasses of various shapes and sizes, some being Sherlock Holmes-looking hand held antiques with exaggerated lenses and ivory or onyx handles, others on tripods or extending from metal goosenecks like long necked birds leaning over subject or prey.  A microscope perhaps, a leather-skinned brass anachronism or plastic up-to-date stereo version, for the most intimate examinations of plant structures, the psychedelic patterns of bug wings or indications in affected blood.  And in balance, a plaster sculpture of the Venus of Willendorf, or macabre skeletal Mariachi band courtesy of a Santa Fe yard sale during Mexican culture’s Dios de los Muerte.  A beer stein requisitioned by the muse and festooned with micron pens, #2 pencils and a mix of flat, round and pointed tip brushes made of wickedly supple sable and paint wicking camel hair.

Any furniture is probably old, whether intricately carved or a plain Goodwill find, and most likely natural materials.  Cloth abounds in this place of textures, in curtains, hangings and throws, decorative weaves of wool and rayon, cotton and silk.  The floor will be adorned and softened with tattered Persian carpets or maybe oval braided rag rugs, and fine-to-feel clothes from Uzbekistan or Thailand via swap meet or Ebay may have been tossed onto the couch rather than put away… a couch that either folds out into a bed, or is wide enough to sleep comfortably on when having either worked on a project late or just wanted to rest among such energies and ambiance, to soak in the energy or be subject to its inspiration.

Cabinets may feature a cloister of containers, sorted and selected items and ingredients segregated into dedicated vessels carved from wood or stone, pieced together with stained glass and lead bezels, or hand formed from Gaian clay into bowls and lids.  Each appears as a cauldron of possibilities that one naturally slows and considers before stirring, but that like Pandora’s box, simultaneously dares the adventurer to open it up and take chance to discover whatever might lay inside.  Shelves host collected rocks and curvaceous (curvaceous what?), or maybe row after row of dark brown and cobalt blue tincture bottles topped with rubber droppers.  The more stout might bear the collective weight of quart jars filled with Galium aparine, Passiflora incarnata or Eschscholzia californica suspended in extractive alcohol baths, or perhaps with blended remedies as complex and likely more useful than any alchemist’s potion.

Other shelves shoulder stacks of spiral bound reports with up-to-date research, mixing it up with the field guides covered with weather resistant, transparent shelf paper, and with a handful of respected antiquarian volumes with iconic symbols embossed on their worn leather spines, the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy and truth-woven fiction of Philip Pullman sitting somehow at home next to Culpepper’s Herbal and numerous fact and photo filled reference books.  Nailed to any remaining wall space we might find a framed print of an inspiring medicine woman by Joanna Colbert, or a slightly twisted self portrait by Frida Kahlo, an attractive poster explaining herbal actions, shadow boxes of naturally deceased butterflies or rare plants both dry and fragile.  It could be the ceiling that hosts the more recent botanical acquisitions, fresh monarda, mint and chamomile tied into bundles and hanging from available rafters out of reach of the harmful sun, while rambunctious and unapologetic house plants appropriate whole sections of the room in search of its rays.

Altogether it is not only a feast for hungry eyes, but a delight to the other senses as well, with so much aurally alluring and tactically tempting.  And a feast to the nose especially, blessed and beseeched by the diverse insistent smells of those various aromatic plants hanging above our heads, of the damp earth supporting nearly translucent Aloe in fired ceramic pots, remnant clouds of dark coffee or golden tea, any number of barely contained essential oils, and a bowl of oranges blaring loud olfactory signals directly to some primitive and highly responsive part of our animal brains.  It is no less exotic than an appropriately appointed shaman’s yurt in Tuva or a Kasbah herb stall, and yet somehow native only to the place where it nests, a part and product of its bioregion.  A collection point for substances and for significance.  A site for the celebration of, study of, and dispensing of nature wisdom and plant medicine.  A nature-interface through which we learn and thus better survive, heal but also thrive.

To the honored guest – as to the wide eyed inquiring child – such a room proffers the rudiments of an education in content as well as form, a piquing of interest that could lead to an in-depth study or personalized practice, or at least the motivating of us to ensure that we always envision and manifest a work, study and reflection space that both mirrors and feeds who we really and wholly are, our interests and aims, tendencies and tastes.  No matter how small one’s home, there has to be a room that can be re-purposed to this need, a subterranean basement ready for retrofitting, or a backyard tool shed that could be opened up with the installation of windows and insulated against the cold.

Such a place is not a refuge from the distracting and the tasteless, so much as a den of sustenance, providing the rooting medium and nutrients necessary for our optimum growth, an ideal micro-ecosystem with our ideal PH.  Its earliest corollary is the ancient torch lit cave with separate secluded chambers, each individuated by poignant symbols painted in soot and ochre on its walls, and likely marked for a focused interest and intended or ritual purpose… a kind of place subsequently expressed in Native American medicine women’s intriguing huts, in the home laboratories of alchemists, rebel scientists and over-enthused botanists, and in the inspirational studies, special herbal rooms and inner sanctums that we ourselves must create.

All photos ©2011 Jesse Wolf Hardin

  2 Responses to “The Herbalist’s Inner Sanctum by Jesse Wolf Hardin”

  1. This sounds absolutely enchanting! I loved how I could totally remember the childlike wonder I held in certain places through the first part, and the second part had me daydreaming again of my workshop… the little cob building I plan to build one day and have already sketched out. 🙂

  2. Thanks so much! After reading this, I suddenly saw everything around me with new light. Even the shelf I store my herbs on looked different, they were no longer on a 15$ rack from a big box store, but suddenly had it’s own story, history and encompassed a sacred and enchanting space.

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