The other day my 2-year-old nephew and I went for a walk. Such a walk with a little companion is always bound to be wondrous, and this one was delightfully so. We walked back and forth repeatedly over a patch of grass under the poplar tree, laughing happily as brown and yellow leaves crunched under our bare feet. We were listening to the sound of Fall. My walk here today was full of that sound, and the rustling, crackling, crunching rhythm as I trudge through leaf-covered cow paths is pleasantly companionable and familiar. The trees, too, are rustling, the drying leaves whispering to each other just before they fall. A friend once told me that there is an old word for books in a native American language that translates to "talking trees," a name derived from the sound of turning pages and this autumnal sound of wind in the leaves.
"And all at once, summer collapsed into fall."
- Oscar Wilde
Here at my thoughtful spot, the waterfall drowns out most sounds, certainly the gentle sound of rustling leaves, but not all. A woodpecker is keeping up a happy knocking on a tree across the creek from me, too far away and high up for me to tell what kind, but he's small and I see a little splash of read, so I'm guessing he's a downy. He's hopping in circles back and forth and up and down the trunk, high above me in the yellow leaves where the sunlight hits, he must be quite a happy little fellow.
"Delicious Autumn! ...if I were a bird, I would fly about
the earth seeking successive autumns."
- George Eliot
A breeze must have blown through those treetops just now, for a marvelous dancing flurry of leaves has just fallen. They look like golden snowflakes falling so slowly, as if trying to defy gravity and enjoy their flight for as long as possible. Though I'm in deep shade here as I write, I have only to look up and the sunlight is all dappled golden above me. That canopy that was such vivid green only a month ago, is now saturated with the warmest light, the tree trunks are creamy white in the sunshine, and the leaves are every imaginable shade of yellow. Isn't it lovely that as the weather cools the colors warm?
"How wonderful yellow is. It stands for the sun."
- Vincent Van Gogh
Between the moss and fallen leaves on the forest floor around me, dozens of miniature wonders have sprung up. Patches of delicate, pale pink Lady's Thumb are every where, its new shoots in the spring are edible, and songbirds love the seeds in the autumn. The tiniest toadstools grow in little clusters, they seem very fitting in this setting that is full of the scent of decomposing leaves and rich, damp earth warmed by a companionable and gentle sunshine. Though perhaps they would look more at home in the mists of these early autumn mornings, rather than the warmth of late afternoon. I remember learning once that Beatrix Potter, though best known for her beloved watercolors of rabbits in jackets, was a mycologist, and loved to paint fungi. She would have been very happy in this little thoughtful spot, I think, with such a plethora of interesting subjects to paint. One day I hope to distinguish with confidence between the poisonous and nutritious varieties of of these odd little plants, but for now I believe I shall content myself with attempting to sketch them in their native habitat, rather than bringing them home for dinner!
Late August is purple. I think every season has a color, though a different one in every corner of the globe. When we lived in New England, December was white, here in Tennessee it's something closer to grey. July here is a vibrant, deep, living green, but on an island in Alaska, July was the red of ever lengthening sunsets, the sort that never seem to end until they bleed into daylight. And I'm quite convinced that October will be, no matter where I live, the warmest, earthiest, coziest orange, a color that seems almost indistinguishable from the magical scent of falling leaves and sunshine and homeliness.
But, in this quiet hamlet of rural pastureland, late August is purple.
Time is purple, just before night, / When most people turn on the light -
But if you don't it's a beautiful sight. / Asters are purple, and there's purple ink.
Purple's more popular than you think, / It's a sort of great-grandmother to pink...
- Mary O'Neill, What is Purple?
My thoughtful spot in August is resplendent with the vivid magenta of ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) towers, and the violet-indigo of Venus' looking glass (Triodanis perfoliata), tiny star-shaped wildflowers that appear everywhere once you begin to look for them. I'm surrounded by deceptively soft explosions of lilac atop massive, prickly thistles (Cirsium vulgare), which are the gathering places of swallowtails in dancing clouds, and the occasional wandering monarch. As I walked here I harvested, to my great delight, a basket full of dainty purple and white self-heal blossoms (Prunella vulgaris), which, after several years of love and close supervision, are at last growing aplenty along the edges of the pasture. A few late-season red clover (Trifolium pratense) brighten the grass here and there with their plum-colored pom-pom blooms, and even in the last of the summer's blackberries, drooping from sturdy bramble vines over my path, there lurks in the depths of their color a royal, luxurious shade of purple.
For nearly ten years I have been wandering these same acres, each corner and valley and creek are familiar and dear, yet whenever I think I know them by heart, just then, some new discovery appears. It struck me today as I was looking for elderberry (which, now that I think of it, is rather purple too!) not far from this spot, that the sun was hitting a small level plot on the hillside I had never noticed before. Just about the size of a kitchen table, only a tiny plateau between two slopes, it is shaded by a lacy walnut tree and looks made expressly for picnicking. And here in this pleasant place I found the final addition to my purple bouquet, the downy blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum). What an aptly named plant! It does indeed look as though the stems are encased in a soft lavender cloud of mist.
There's more wandering to be done this afternoon, for I'm off to try to find a vine of wild passionflowers (Passiflora incarnata). Just recently I discovered that they are the state wildflower, and their exotic firework blossoms will be the perfect complement to my basket overflowing with purple.
Perhaps I've been delighting in this magic color for a bit too long today... for as I read over this page in my notebook I begin to fear my prose themselves are turning rather purple!
In my herb garden a beautiful garden sage (Salvia officinalis) is spreading prolifically and is just about ready to bloom. This herb is familiar to most of us as a culinary herb, and its pungent scent is always reminiscent of the Thanksgiving dinner table, but a host of healthful benefits and traditional medicinal uses make sage an herb that deserves to be enjoyed throughout the year, not just in November.
The name “sage” is an Old French derivation of the plant’s latin name, salvia, which literally means healing plant, a name that aptly reflects both the modern medicinal uses of sage and the historical belief that sage could heal just about anything. Traditionally it was used as a natural bandage and considered an essential herb for wound healing, it was believed to enhance memory and knowledge, and even to lengthen life, a theory which inspired the old English rhyme, “He that would live for aye, must eat sage in May.” Sage has been found to be very high in nutrients such as vitamin K, iron, calcium, and antioxidants, and to aid in lowering blood sugar and cholesterol. It has long been used to support healthy digestion and is the perfect herb to include in cooking rich and heavy meals, which is most likely where the association with Thanksgiving dinner began. Drinking sage in teas can also soothe a sore throat, relieve stress, and settle an upset stomach, and when consumed regularly in either tea or tincture form, sage has been shown to improve memory and enhance focus and concentration.
Sage is also beneficial externally, it has strong anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, and is a gentle astringent, making it a wonderful herb to infuse in salves or oils and use topically for skin irritations such as acne, sunburn, and insect bites. The traditional use of sage leaves as a natural bandage is also beneficial, and a simple sage poultice can help prevent infection, reduce swelling, and promote healing of cuts and scrapes.
This silver-green summer herb can be enjoyed throughout the year in a variety of ways, both as a culinary staple and in medicinal remedies. For an unusual, summery sage treat, steep 1 TBS lapsang souchong and 3 fresh sage leaves in 8 oz of boiling water for 5 minutes. Strain, stir in 2 TBS sweetened condensed milk, and chill. Enjoy the unique flavor and healthful benefits of this sage tea over ice!
First published in The Tea Lifestyle, July - August 2020
Some days are purely magical, the sun is warm and friendly, the breeze fresh and cool. But then there are days that seem, well, less than lovely, days a bit like today. That once-friendly sun is blazing down on earth with a vengeance, that refreshing breeze seems to have up and blown away, and my companions, as I sit here on the mossy rock of my thoughtful spot, are rather less fairytale-like than the flowers and damselflies that met me here only a month ago. Invisible biting flies are swarming around me and I have that irritating sensation that some tiny thing is crawling around my ankles or on my arms or behind my neck and I just can’t shake it even though I know there’s nothing there… and it’s quite maddeningly distracting.
Sometimes my thoughtful spot isn’t very conducive to thinking.
Far from a wholly unpleasant moment, however, I marvel as I sit here at how much can change in the course of a month. The leaves are still green above me, the moss still vibrant below, the waterfall still tumbles down its lopsided ledge, yet there are myriad little changes that mark the past month’s events and the progress of the season. A flood swept through this creek not three weeks ago, the bank on which my seat resides has been carved out by the rushing water and the ledge has crept quite close to my feet. Further downstream the sandy gravel of the creek bed has been washed away to reveal three short, deep ledges of smooth, black bedrock. They lead upstream like steps, one could imagine they are leading to the great front gates of some formidable and ancient castle.
I walked here by a different route today. Up and over the hill of the upper pasture, through knee-deep yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) and blackberry brambles (Rubus moluccanus) and Iron Weed (Vernonia fasciculata) sentinels towering straight and valiant over my head. But growing hidden in the tall grass was another familiar face - Self-heal. Prunella vulgaris, this many-blossomed member of the mint family, has been known by many names - heal-all, woundwort, heart-of-the-earth - and it truly does live up to them. It’s been revered for centuries for its powerful wound healing properties, support of the immune system, and ability to soothe sore throats and allergy symptoms. The cheery purple flowers are said to grow everywhere mankind can live. It has always seemed a quite a heroic little herb to me.
When little Elves have cut themselves, or Mouse has hurt her tail,
Or Froggie's arm has come to harm, this herb will never fail.
The fairy's skill can cure each ill and soothe the sorest pain;
She'll bathe and bind, and soon they'll find
That they are well again.
- The Song of the Self-Heal Fairy
Down in a green and shady bed,
A modest violet grew,
Its stalk was bent, it hung its head,
As if to hide from view.
And yet it was a lovely flower,
Its colours bright and fair;
It might have graced a rosy bower,
Instead of hiding there,
Yet there it was content to bloom,
In modest tints arrayed;
And there diffused its sweet perfume,
Within the silent shade.
Then let me to the valley go,
This pretty flower to see;
That I may also learn to grow
In sweet humility.
Do You Have a
Many current trends in natural health focus on ecotherapy and shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, reiterating with scientific studies and medical terminology something that Winnie the Pooh taught us many years ago: we all need
a Thotful Spot.
We need a little corner surrounded by nature where we can sit and be still, ponder and pray, and observe closely the beauty around us.
These posts are musings and meanderings from my Thoughtful Spot, recorded once every month, and interspersed with occasional ramblings about my favorite medicinal herbs.
I hope you'll join me in finding a Thoughtful Spot, visit it often, record the things that make you marvel, and remember,
"the world will never starve for want of wonders..."
- G.K. Chesterton