I have had the odd sense, ever since I moved to Asheville, of seeds I planted and forgot years hence coming to mysterious bloom. Over twenty years ago, I moved to Asheville with a frame pack and a guitar. I crashed on the floor of a friend’s dorm room and walked the streets until I found lodging in a sweet, small apartment in a house on Chestnut Street. I took long runs every morning, following Chestnut Street until it dead-ended in a stately old cemetery.
All these years later, I was told that finding lodging in Asheville was a difficult proposition. I should be prepared to live outside of town and to wait months for the right thing to show up.
The first house we looked at was on Chestnut Street, right by the old cemetery where I used to run. It was a sweet little wood-floored home with a fireplace and a yard, in the heart of the historic district, walking distance to town. The rent was astonishingly affordable, considering the location, and perhaps for that reason the open house was bombarded with applicants. Afterward we walked to a nearby restaurant and talked excitedly about how amazing it would be to live here, and how unlikely we were to get the chance. All those applicants!
I sat and watched the phantom of that seventeen-year-old girl run by, and I knew we would get the house.
We got the house. I live on Chestnut Street again, all these years later, this time with my family.
Two years ago I sat out in the sun eating, in Boone, and talked with a new friend from my Expressive Arts cohort about our dreams and hopes for the field. We were both fascinated by the intersection between art and place, and I told her of my connection to Ireland and my deep desire to return there. She told me of friends in Ireland who had just started a fledgling expressive arts institute, and we began to dream of traveling to Ireland someday to visit them and collaborate on these ideas of art and landscape. We laughed, and made art about it, and moved on with our lives.
This Monday my friend and I flew together to Ireland to attend the Expressive Arts Spring Symposium, and spent a week making art about sacred landscape in a conference hosted by the friends she’d told me of on that day two years ago.
Honestly, it frightens me sometimes, the way life brings its harvest in. I feel unworthy of it, and worried about the price I will have to pay for all of this beauty. I feel very conscious of each move I make, each word I speak, knowing how irrefutably the seeds grow and show their fruit in my life.
On the day we flew to Ireland, two very momentous things happened. I had my first job interview for a counseling position and I learned that Touchstone Farm, the place I landed right after I left Asheville twenty years ago–the place that set me on the path of herbalism and yoga and searching for the sacred–was being put up for sale. It felt like the closing of a circle. I had returned to Asheville, had reached the beginning of my life as an Expressive Arts therapist, and the door to the past had closed.
Touchstone was very much on my mind and heart as I woke the next morning and walked out into the Irish countryside. Horses stomped and blew steam into the air, and a hooded crow lifted off from the fence in front of me in a heart-stopping line straight upward to the sun. It seemed to hang there for a minute, far above my head, and I wondered how the world felt to the crow, spread beneath it like that.
The hedgerow in front of me was overgrown with nettles and cleavers. Back when I was an apprentice at Touchstone, Shaker gave me a guide to edible plants from the community library and pointed out a few to get me started. Cleavers was one of the first I tried. It clings to you—the leaves are slightly sticky, and the seeds velcro themselves to your socks. This is a good way to remember its properties–it’s a spring-cleaning plant; it adheres to and cleans away the winter ick. I tried it plain and found its taste clean and springlike, full of chlorophyll. I liked the way it felt in my body, how it cleaned me out. But I hated the texture. Another apprentice suggested I put it in a blender and make a smoothie. That was worse. Finally, I read a recipe for cleavers coffee that consisted of dry-roasting the seeds and grinding and preparing them like coffee beans. I had a handy supply of cleaver seeds right there on my socks, so I tried this and found the resulting beverage delightful, slightly cocoa-flavored and smoky. Seeing the cleavers here on the tumbled stones of a farm wall in Ireland was like being surprised by an old friend.
I wouldn’t have known what cleavers was the first time I came to Ireland, because I had not yet been to Touchstone, had not yet learned to see the world through the eyes of a botanist. I was fifteen the first time I came to Ireland, and sixteen when I returned the summer after that, learning quickly enough what nettles were as I pulled them out to make a garden.
That summer I was living in Miltown Malbay, working as housekeeper/companion for Josephine Phillips. If Shaker taught me about plants and the sacred, Jo taught me about poetry. It was alive to her. She sat in her windowseat watching the storms roll in and softly recited poems to herself. Her eyes were slowly losing their battle to macular degeneration, so she committed as many poems to her formidable memory as she could.
I was full of energy and wanderlust, wanting always to bike off to Ennistymon or wander by the sea, but Jo was very firm that I should take some time each day to sit still and memorize poems. On rainy days we listened to poets read their work aloud on the BBC and Jo would sit there, dreamy, lost in the words. I learned to love words, watching Jo.
The crow flew away, and I picked a little bouquet of the nettles and cleavers, thinking of Jo and Touchstone and the way these long-ago seeds have borne fruit. Here I am, in Ireland, writing poetry, I whispered to Jo. Your lessons took!
Nettle juice heals its own sting, I thought, recalling all the teachers who have guided my steps through the world of plant medicine. I rolled the nettle leaves between my fingers until their stinging hairs were crushed and I could take them like little Ireland-acclimation pills.
Jo is gone now. I felt her so strongly this week in the wind that blew through the trees by the river Nore and the poetry that came flowing onto the page. Touchstone is gone too, in a way. But they are alive. They are all alive in me.
I made nettles-and-cleaver tea when I got back to the hotel and sat sipping it in the sun, sending out a prayer for the seeds others have planted in my life and the for the ones I am planting. This world is sacred, and so is this life. I sometimes cannot believe the beauty of the stories I have been honored to carry.
(for Jo and Touchstone)
I am knee-deep in nettles and peat.
I am one beat of breath to the crow above me.
I am caught in the arms of ancestors long fallen.
Who remains in me? Whose story am I walking?
~ Kilkenny, 3/30/16