by Dana Perry
Five of us in the car, our little tangerine Kia was crammed to the hems. We’d each held firm to the ArborVitae packing list: camping gear, tincture making supplies, vessels to collect spring water, at least two potluck dishes to share, plates and cutlery. We couldn’t fit our sleeping bags in the trunk, so we snuggled them up underneath our feet in the back seat, using the opportunity take off our shoes and sit, almost cross-legged, like we were elementary school kids in a blanket fort at a sleepover.
Our fearless driver mindfully followed all traffic laws, resisted the urge to honk her horn, and gently requested directions from her four wayfarers as we mindlessly munched handfuls of cheddar bunnies and threw around road-trip talk.
Traffic was tricky getting out of the city and we were soon trapped, inching along the FDR, gathering in views from first Brooklyn, then Queens and the islands wedged in the East River. Shooting up through the Bronx, hoards of cars faded into clusters and even within the bounds of the cramped car (and without a drop of blue vervain), I felt my shoulders relax a bit. The city was behind us.
GPS led us through the back way along winding, hilly roads. Rain began to drizzle down and through the New England mist we captured glimpses of Connecticut second homes. As we got closer, the internet got spottier. A slave to technology, (and paranoid as hell) I frantically took screen shots of our listed “next turns.” Directions dwindled to one and we turned to discover that Turtle Pond was, in actuality, a very large pond, not just a clever name like those given to housing developments in suburban sprawl.
We followed the direction of “parking” written with sharpie on a cardboard sign and then meandered our way, on foot, to a beautiful, rambling farm house, passing a few charming farm animals along the way: a pen of chickens, a goat, two horses and a bunny, which immediately transported me back to my days in 4-H. Catching a glimpse of Richard through the back door, I realized we were in the right place (and not accidentally GPS-induced trespassing). In the kitchen stood a rain-soaked handful of second and third year students and a glowing Claudia with a brimming bowl of nettles. They’d just returned from foraging and dinner was underway.
We met Jack, one of the owners of the land, and he took us out on a tour. The property had once been a dairy farm and also once a mill. We learned that the 500 acres also housed a McCoy (or maybe a Hatley?) and were warned to be wary of the snapping turtles.
By then the rain had let up, so we awkwardly set up our tents. “Did you just all run out and buy these for this trip?” Chris, (a second-year) joked, as we struggled with poles and stakes. We gathered back for dinner: nettle soup, pulled chicken and cauliflower fried rice. Bellies content, our few token male students went off to start a fire and our little ‘car’ crew said we’d catch up later.
We didn’t really know where we were going, but led by drifting smoke, a far off flicker, happy giggles and the occasional call on a flute, we found it. Palo santo, sage, kava chocolate and herbal ferments were all being passed around the crackling fire. We joined the circle one by one. It wasn’t until I had to urinate that I realized just how far away from my country roots I had traveled. I was able to sneak away from the campfire quietly enough but logistics and angles were immediately confusing. I panicked. Maybe 10 years in NYC had officially turned me into a city mouse. I used to know how to do this, I thought. I grew up in Idaho for goodness sake. Mission accomplished, but for a too-long moment, the night sky held two moons. Upon return, I smudged and sipped, eager to release my anxiety to the big dipper that glowed overhead.
Morning was greeted with the sound of unzipping in our little tent city. A creature of the nighttime, I rolled over to try to catch a few more snoozes, but then realized the window for breakfast was moments away from closing! Class began with a gong bath and readings by Claudia and Richard. I looked around the circle at the dear faces I’ve had the opportunity to become friends with throughout the year, little sparkles in the sun, my face and heart grew warm. It was hot, and became clear I would probably sustain a sunburn.
Split into two groups – first years went with Richard and Nathaniel on a botany walk. We all eagerly pulled out our Newcombs guides and began following the key in the front. How many petals does it have? we asked each other, Are the leaves alternate or opposite? A shared Symonds Tree Identification book made its way into my hands. Both front and back cover stripped, the pages were stained with soil and resin. Spots of green chlorophyll dabbled rough, turned corners and sprinkled around the name printed in the front: R. Mandelbaum. I looked down at my Newcomb’s flower guide, embarrassed by its fresh, mostly unturned pages. I worried that I might not have enough years left on this earth to love a botany book as much Richard had — to give a book the respect it deserves.
The afternoon class was an introduction to Cherokee Medicine with Jody Noe. She entered the grand living room wielding large branches, her commanding but gentle energy filling the space. Break off a piece and eat these,” she said, “these are the only two plants you’ll ever need, and thankfully, they grow together.” We broke off twigs and leaves and began nibbling citrusy-floral-ness and sweet wintergreen. Spicebush – the tree that makes friends out of enemies and Sweet Birch – to protect your door from foes, respectively. She spoke of Jack in the Pulpit, red trillium, bloodroot and sassafras, plants right outside those four walls. The plants we had spent the morning identifying. I frantically scribbled notes about the four directions, holy smoke, the good mind and the importance of being a vessel.
After class, all three years collected and Jody led us through a Cherokee water ceremony. Clearly few choralists in the group, we sang in cacophony, pounded the medicine drum and as the sun went down, one by one we left little broken pieces of ourselves at the pond, never to be picked up again.
A larger group around the campfire on the second night, we shared third-year Sam’s home-brewed palo santo and maca ferment and listened to the bullfrogs over the water.
After ceremonial sips of the herbal ferment, Angelica (my fellow first-year) reminded me of the best way to pee outside. Squat, and lean against a tree for support. I remember that, I thought, having spent many a night peeing off of a treehouse deck so as not to awaken the coyotes in the forest that surrounded me. In my Idaho life. The time before I learned to be afraid of how quiet nature can be, but not to be afraid of concrete, horn honks and air conditioner sweat. Second mission a success, I rejoined my comrades around the crackling fire. Smoke is holy, Jody said, and can carry prayers and praises to heaven. Now knowing that my wishes could make it that far, I tried to be more careful with my thoughts.
The next morning we collected spring water and took a short drive to visit an ancient oak tree. The star of “Ancient Oak Road,” its thick and twisted limbs reached skyward and Nathaniel guessed its age to be somewhere between 5-600 years. 500 years ago, we traveled by horse, there was no indoor plumbing, and we, as humans, were intimately connected to our cellulose-rich compatriots. We are composed of the same materials, we originate from the same place. We evolved together, us not for them, and them, not for us — but all of us simply just trying to balance the tenuous position we hold between life and death. I gazed up and wondered what it would feel like to watch with such stillness as everything moved – with increasing swiftness – all around you.
In even my lifetime, bedtime stories have transitioned from words on a page to words on a screen. Multiple-page newspaper articles are condensed into 140 characters, easy to pass by with the swipe of a finger. Everything gets shorter and shorter as the desire for everything is immediate. We order whatever we want off of Amazon and it can be delivered in 24 hours. I am a product of this too. The impatience. One year into herb school and I’m constantly frustrated with how little I know — how much I have left to learn. I thought of my pristine botany book, my notebook upon notebook of scribbled notes, the piles of earmarked herbals I’ve accumulated throughout the year.
As first years, we spent our afternoon close to the nest — with mother hen Claudia (collecting dandelion flowers for wine) and papa bear Richard (garbling ground ivy). Occasionally a second or third year would pass through the homestead. More familiar with the layout of the land and the weekend, they chose to take individual journeys into the woods. As my fingers grew more and more dandelion yellow, I remembered rubbing the flowers on my arms and legs, thrilled at the bright color it would transform my skin. I remembered my father chiding me as I blew the seeds into our neighbor’s yard.
“Becoming a person of the plants is not a learning process, it is a remembering process, Saja Popham writes. “Somewhere in our ancestral line there was someone who lived deeply connected to the earth, the elements, the sun, moon and stars. That ancestor lives inside our DNA, dormant, unexpressed, waiting to be remembered and brought back to life to show us the true nature of our indigenous soul.”
Jody taught us that Cherokee apprentices have to be at least 30 to begin and cannot teach or fully practice until they’re 50. I’m 32. Maybe I should cut myself some slack. Remembering is not immediate.
The road home to Brooklyn was less twisty than before, state roads leading to highways. Along the Bronx Expressway, traffic came to a screeching halt. The culprit: a pair of delicate peacocks, likely escaped from the Bronx Zoo. Worried about my own transition back to city life, I wondered how terrifying it would feel to have cars zipping around me, how honking cars might pierce my ears. I mulled Jody’s words round and round my head. “Once you open that door,” she said, “you can’t go back.” Once you begin to remember, it becomes that much harder to forget. We still have two more years of herb school to go. I realized, instead, to not be afraid. A peacock feather is all of the colors reflected in iridescence. Our rainbow. A symbol of ongoing transformation.
Editorial Note: We hope you enjoyed this excellent narrative, written by our fabulous student Dana, about our school’s end of the year camping trip. Please remember that this is the opinion and experience of one student; each student has a different, unique experience and partakes in different activities during the weekend.
Originally from rural north Idaho, Dana Perry is a Brooklyn-based freelance grant writer and copywriter for numerous nonprofit organizations, individual artists and small businesses. She is a student at ArborVitae.