“What’s this?” asked my clutter-resistant husband, observing the giant mason jar of oily plant matter on the counter.
“Ohh, it’s medicine! It’s called Balm of Gilead,” I explained.
“Oh. But what is it?”
“Cottonwood tips in oil.”
“Hmm. And what’s it good for treating?” he asked, in an impressively neutral manner, eyes scanning to the brand new bottle of extra virgin olive oil next to the stove that was now suddenly, dramatically, near-empty.
I reamed off a list of benefits for the old herbal remedy, that I’d gleaned from the website of Natalie Rousseau, a local yoga teacher, seasonal celebrant and self-described “kitchen witch”: good for sore muscles, aches and pains, simple wound healing, as an expectorant chest rub to treat a boggy spring chest cold. The resinous buds of the cottonwood tree are rich in salicin, which your body converts to salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. Bees also use the resin to protect their hives. Pemberton clinical herbalist Evelyn Coggins calls it a homemade Tiger Balm (and will be selling preparations at the Pemberton Farmers Market this summer at Roz’s gypsy wagon, Fridays from 3pm – 6pm.)
“Plus,” I enthused, “it’s helping me be more in tune with this place, with the seasons, and what’s outside our door.”
He’s knows that “tuning in to the deeper rhythms” is my jam right now, so, even though I could see his brain calculating the cost per millilitre of this little experiment, as compared to the cost per unit of a bottle of generic aspirin tablets, factoring in the probability of me ever 1. completing this project and 2. treating anything with it, he simply nodded quietly, and put the jar back on the counter.
Since moving to Pemberton from the land of gum trees and jacarandas, I had acquired the habit of thinking of black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera ssp.) (which I couldn’t reliably even identify), as junk trees – the wood is too wet to burn well, the snowfall of the seeds in May wreak havoc on friends’ allergies, and the branches crash to the ground, making them hazardous to live directly under.
Then, in February, I joined Kera Willis and Güliz Ünlüfor an all-day workshop, offered through Mountain Horse School, “Lightning Seeds: Opening the Gateway of What’s Possible.”
The hook had been set, when Kera asked: “What happens when we invite natural rhythms, cycles and energies to help us create the changes we wish to see, in ourselves and the wider world?”
Facilitated by Kera and Güliz, our group was invited to stand in the crunching snow in the shelter of a cottonwood and consider: what is the smell of lightning? What is the sensation of green? How do we court wonder? How might we hold ourselves if we invited animals to approach us, instead of steam-rolling our way into the thick of things, without waiting, without listening, without receiving?
We ended our explorations at the mixing table, pouring melted beeswax and cottonwood oil into containers, inhaling the distinctive aroma as the balm slowly cooled and set.
A month later, on the first day of spring break, I found myself at the base of the massive cottonwood growing beside the creek behind my house. I had a basket with me and the memory of smell, and I snuffled along the forest floor, like a truffle pig, until I spied dropped branches with the tell-tale resinous buds (quick sniff for confirmation, month-old memory of sitting at Kera’s table still fresh).
I gazed around to locate the source, up, up, to the wild outstretched limbs of a 150 foot tall “junk tree.” And all I could think was: majesty. I tried to snap a picture, but she was too tall to be contained in the frame. A coastal dweller, her kin are native to western North America and the flood plain is her habitat – she can take root in pure sand or gravel along river banks and creek beds, and absorbs water through her roots to help control flooding. She’s a local here, grounded in her belonging.
I picked the buds from winter-fallen branches, taking in the scent, and I complimented her on her lovely qualities, as I tasked myself with noticing them – including the fact that the branches she drops in winter storms are rich with medicine. That I don’t have to take any life to “harvest” this gift, which is a relief for a vegetarian who thinks too much about such things.
In the month since that day, as my jar takes up space on the counter, infusing plant medicine into oil that I can massage into tired muscles post-ride or rub on my son’s chest when he’s coughing, I have come to notice this specific tree all the time. I see her – from my window, when I’m out in the yard, or walking the creek – and I feel some surge of calm, of gladness, like when I see a friend around town. Some mornings, I have found myself just stepping outside my front door and standing where I can look up at the crown, rising up above all the other trees, and I slow my thoughts, and stand in greeting. I wonder if I’m seeing a little shimmer or shudder in her buds, in response. Or if it’s just the wind. Or my imagination. Either way, we have entered a kind of relationship. This tree has given me medicine, a way to treat my family, to respond to their scrapes and aches and pains. But even if I never use the oil medicinally, some other, deeper “medicine” has been gained, in this, small glimpse at the significance of the phrase I have heard my Lil’wat neighbours use: all my relations.