8.17.2013

An herb walk through the high Alps

I've been away from technology for a few weeks. Wandering the Alps, valleys where I grew up, in deep old forests carpeted with wild bilberries and up above the treeline in full view of the Dolomites. I've walked some really well-worn paths, visiting with the plants along the way and thinking about consciousness, presence, perception. These mountains are us - or, at the very least, I can feel the boundaries of my consciousness bleed into the the rocks and forests, the trail becoming more than a footpath, the walk becoming a habit the whole ecology has practiced for a long, long time. Do you know what I mean? Mountain telepathy, Euphrasia mind-meld, or really just finally resting in the place where "I" really feels like a composite of everything here.


Start in the warmer valleys, where the water slows down and there are many rock walls. It's shady here, maidenhair (Adiantum) grows thick and wild yam (Dioscorea) vines thread through.


By the streams, old friends. Wild monkshood (Aconitum), deadly toxic, hot and dry root by the cool streamside, pops up once in a while. With luck, some late-blooming narrow-leaved orchids (Dactylorhiza traunsteineria) come up in a patch, remembering days from the earlier season. 


Getting higher up, the spruce stops and a few low junipers and mugo pine are left clinging to the white crumbly soil. Above the treeline, in the bright sun, so many familiar species: first the wild creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), classic bronchial remedy that's always found in the kitchen.


Alongside the thyme, eyebright (Euphrasia) appears in big patches, parasitizing the native grasses. It's an old remedy for itchy, tired eyes (especially during allergy season), and has a unique, multicolored flower. The patches are everywhere along the rocky trail.


And, more rare but still fairly available, are clumps of wild gentian (Gentiana campestris), also known as German gentian or field gentian with a characteristic five-parted flower. This isn't the official medicinal species (that's G. lutea), but it is nevertheless still quite bitter and local folk use the whole plant as a digestive aid (even the flower has an intensely classic bitter taste).


Where the grass gets taller, among the Campanula, sit a few Arnica montana plants, with their big, lone, yellow flowers. When I was young, we'd collect these, soak them whole in grappa (60+ percent alcohol), and use the product as a liniment for all manner of bruises, scrapes, falls, and sprains - which often occurred on walks to harvest the Arnica...


And, of course, no walk through these mountains would be complete without the flower that most embodies the spirit of this magical realm. She's soft, silvery, and hardy. Her medicine is that of shining white beauty of the mountaintop, and you can't pick her. Even if you could, the power comes from being there, walking there, sitting up there next to her. Edelweiss (Leontopodium) is the reward for those who breathe the high, clean air. She'll nourish you for a long time. Her mind is my mind.


3 comments:

Carolyn Mase said...

Grazie. Bellissime foto, bellissime parole.

Rebecca Altman said...

That was incredibly beautiful. I had a recent similar experience when I was home in Scotland. Amazing how the body never forgets where its from, even after years of being away. And it does something to you being back there, I guess its, if anything, reminding you of your roots.

Marie Frohlich said...

Thank you for sharing this beautiiful reveree. It takes me back to Italy and my honeymoon in walking in the alps and seeking the soul of the mountain air and connection - simply connection and present living.
So lovely.