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An item in Science Tuesday caught my eye. A woman in Germany—and it seems that she is only one of many—who has been drinking several cups a day of the flower/herb St. John’s Wort dried and brewed into tea reports that “The fear that everything good would disappear has stopped.”
Pause. Parse. Taste each piece of this, phrase by phrase: The fear. That everything good. Would disappear. Has stopped. The fear has stopped.
I lift my eyes from the page and see something shiny and peeling. It’s elderly Scotch tape, no longer translucent, no longer strong enough to keep the little sprigs in place, to hold them flat on the page, to maintain the shape of wild flowers picked and pressed under something heavy, say between the pages of a big book. Not pressed quite long enough to be really flat, as flat as the maple leaf I found when I paged through an old Bible we’d bought at an auction somewhere. Even at five years old I probably found that time was moving too slowly—“Those flowers must be all pressed flat by now!” Maybe I scooped the pressed flower out before it was wholly flattened. But it’s hard to flatten out a flower.
Pressed, anyway, and dried, and then taped into the pages of a smallish spiral notebook, which bulges with its cargo of flower after flower.
Open the notebook. Turn the freighted page. Here they are: buttercup; daisy; clover; yarrow, brown with age or else (or simultaneously?) almost pellucid. Either way, they’re fragile. Time has not only thoroughly discolored the pages of this makeshift album; it has begun the task of disassembling. Delicate petals have lost their tint; they’re amber-veined and clear. Tough little stalks now show their pith. The tiny, no longer yolk-gold tubelets that combine to form the eye of the daisy, have begun to come apart. And as they’ve separated from one another, one by one they have escaped the sagging tape, which can no longer confine them, and now meander down the page unanchored, like stray eyelashes, like fluffs of lint.
Black-eyed Susan; Queen Anne’s lace—found, picked, pressed, taped, and labeled. Aster; devil’s paintbrush; everlasting; St. John’s Wort.
Even then I knew, or think I knew, that this last-named flower was rarer than the others. Knew it how? How did I know anything? Because my mother showed me the reliably fivepetalled, pale gold blossom. I had to be taught every flower’s name. Or did I think that Solomon’s seal, vetch, mullein, and morning glory were my birthright? All the names of flowers came to me through her, who guided my unsteadily printing pencil in the summer of 1953. Her death in 1992 didn’t make me fear that everything good would disappear. It teaches me, if anything, a lesson I must relearn each year—a lesson of renewable epiphany, of the cycle of loss, recovery, loss, recovery. The loss is inevitable. And the recovery? Its provenance isn’t always so predictable.
The little notebook, its pages an eye-ease greenish tint, with my staggering penciled captions labeling every blessed thing, each flower picked and pressed and taped down to the page, contains more than specimens of wildflowers from a Vermont meadow. It encloses the first summer I remember. My mother’s full skirts, longish, well below the knee—their cotton prints, the florals and batiks I can still see clearly; me clinging at knee level, or her bending over to pick a flower, or leading me across the dirt road to the cow field, where clover and thyme attracted hordes of noisy bees. Her showing me where this and that flower grew, teaching me their names and how to spell them, enlisting me in the whole enterprise of naming and writing.
To press a summer flat between the pages of a heavy book: what storage! What retrieval! What an arc from something tiny as a daisy’s eye to something too vast and nebulous to name, let alone hold onto or write down—call it the trail from recollection to invention, blazed and reblazed out of invention’s mother necessity, since memory can take us only so far before it lets us down.
That bulgy little spiral notebook vanished years ago. I no longer care whether or not I find it. Probably it’s gathering (even as it turns into) dust somewhere. No matter. The laws of leaf and stem and petal hold. What seems sheer desiccation unlocks its stored power into this brew, this brimming mug whose steam (yes, Proust knew this) wreathes the lonely air: Courage. Nothing good will disappear.
From Piece by Piece: Selected Prose by Rachel Hadas (Paul Dry, 2021). Included in Vox Populi by permission of the author.
Rachel Hadas is a poet, essayist, and translator. She is the author of more than twenty books including Poems for Camilla, Questions in the Vestibule, and Strange Relation. She lives in New York City.
St. John’s Wort