Tour Vignette: Wildcrafting in Western Mass

We drove like truckers, we set up, played our hearts out, shared laughs and stories and food with hosts and patrons alike, slept the sleep of the dead, and did it all over again. Day after day for two weeks. We landed in a charming wooden witch hut in a forest, with quirky angles, an overgrown garden, and herbs steeping in jars. By Sunday, we found ourselves beneath a canopy of trees with a master herbalist. Our mission: wildcraft 40 pounds of witch hazel.

That’s a lot of witch hazel, yo!

We were led in a prayer to the witch hazel plant before we began. A treehugger cliche perhaps? For a split second I thought so, and right on its heels the following thought: this is such a lovely way to live one’s life! To take a moment to speak to the tree, to acknowledge its consciousness and bring our own presence to the tree, allows us to be aware of its life, its needs, its limits. The dismissive judgement of “treehugger” is someone’s voice, to be sure. But it is not mine. Just something I heard somewhere, and took on. I let it go. For my part, this way of approaching the world is far preferable.

A plant will tell you what it wants. You can feel when you have taken enough leaves, and when you should stop. You can feel its rhythms, a kind of humming. You can feel its relief as you prune away the overgrowth, allowing it to shed its burden and drink the sunlight. Likewise you can feel it begin to strain if you take too much. All it requires is a moment to acknowledge the tree, a moment of prayer or communion, and you can establish this type of communication. It is so simple, so obvious, it is a wonder to me that we could ever have become so disconnected from nature as to lose our awareness of its life force. And yet, we have. As I wandered through the woods plucking witch hazel leaves, the interconnectedness of life was so prevalent, so right there, that I could no more deny its reality than I could deny the reality of love.

I wondered, as I gathered, whether my ease of communion with the plant was totally intuitive, or whether there was some teaching deep in my memory that was guiding me. I seemed to know a fair bit about best pruning practices. My dad had been a gardener, perhaps I had picked up some things from him. And then I remembered it was Father’s Day, and I was awash in such an intense hit of grief, memory, and missing my dad, that I burst into tears right there in the woods.

Life had been too much for my gentle father. He had no idea how to navigate the world of women’s emotions, and my stepmother had plenty of them. This dynamic destroyed our family, and he died with a great deal of loss and regret. There was something of a “visitation” about this experience, cathartic and healing, as though parts of my relationship with my father that I had lost could be regained in this moment. It was as though the forest opened me to places inside myself that I keep safely tucked away, and allowed me to commune with my father, or at least, with his memory. This grief was a gift, for I would rather have moments of true sadness than to tuck my love for my father so far inside myself that I forget where I’ve left it.

I continued on, going from tree to tree, taking what leaves were offered – in some cases the trees were glad to be rid of them; I’d go to pluck one leaf and five would come off in my hand – it occurred to me that the life of the wanderer is a sort of wildcrafting process. You meander along, never really knowing what you’ll find, but you open yourself to life, and pluck what seems most fitting from what is offered. There is a certain amount of trust that must be extended, and this too is a lovely way to live one’s life. You don’t know what you’ll be given, for life is anything but routine out on the road. Yet somehow you always find what you need.

Sometimes that ends up being a gas station burrito, of course, but that just makes the home made soup all the sweeter when it comes!