Monday, March 14, 2011

The Healing Balsam of Poplar Buds

It was downright springy today.  The sun was shining, the snow melting off the roof in a steady wet stream, puddles and mud expanding even more.  We've had enough above freezing days in a row that I felt it was time to go out and get some poplar buds.  The few I had gathered before were oozing their resin into the oil very nicely, and so I slugged on the snowshoes to go have a look.

Now I'm used to gathering poplar buds in the southwest, sometime in early februrary, usually the sun is warm, reflecting back from the sandy wash where the cottonwood trees grow.  It gets downright hot at times, but it was always very meditative work.  Working slowly from branch to branch, gathering a bud here or there, taking care never to strip one branch of all its buds.  If lucky, finding freshly fallen branches on the ground after a windstorm.

But I've never collected the buds in the snow.  I mean, the sun was out.  And it was reflecting back at me from the blinding white snow.  It was so warm that I had to shed my hat, and unzip all my layers.  But then came the differences.  Snowshoeing through the maze of Balsam Poplar saplings, Sumac trees, spiny raspberry canes and tangling low branches just at snow level (because the snow is probably still three feet in spots.  I tripped more than once, got smacked in the face a few times, slid down an embankment, and generally had to pay close attention to where I was going.

Harvesting poplar buds is slow work.  2.5 hours yielded only half a quart jar of sticky, fragrant buds.  But oh god the smell- warm, sweet, pungent, vanilla,  honey, plus something all its own.  Ever so much more fragrant than the Fremont cottonwood buds I am most familiar with.  Little droplets of resin hardened on the large, brown buds.  Fortunately, this land is blessed with an abundance of sapling sized Poplars, just the right size for a short herbalist to gather from the lower branches.

I was thinking as I gathered, what is the lesson of poplar buds?  Certainly she teaches a measure of patience.  I mean- you have to wait until JUST the right moment, when the days are warm enough to melt the sticky resin inside the buds, but nights are cold enough to freeze it solid on the outside of the buds.  You might go check on them, every week for a month, or more.  And then, there's the slow business of collecting the juicy sticky buds, one by one, buds sticking to your hands, for hours on end, to result in a small harvest.   Surely we will learn patience from our poplar tree friends.

But also, attention to detail. Small details.  Watch where you step, check each bud, pick one by one, add to the jar, observe each branch, never pick too many from one spot, listen for the next tree to call, pick out the tree by paying attention to the grey, furrowed bark on older trees or grey mottled bark on the saplings, with reddish twigs where the growth is new.  All of these with no leaves to give it away, and picking it out among the whitish-yellow bark of its relative, aspen, and the bare, yet hairy branches of the sumach.   You look up, and notice how big and juicy the buds on the poplar are.  Nothing on any of the other trees compares.  Notice the aspen buds in some places are already opening catkins!  See the pairs of birchkins high on the white birches, and how they blend in with the large poplar buds.  Where does one branch end, and another start, which tree is which.

Attention to minute details isn't my forte in the normal world.  I have little patience for things like that. I like generalities, patterns, flow.  But it is different with the plants.  They ask of us more than we would give in other situations.  So I give my full attention to all the details of gathering poplar buds.  And sink into a state of peace- for a short while, not thinking about how much other shit I have to get done today, how sad and overwhelmed I feel by everything right now.  Just be here, now, with the trees, and the sun, and the snow shine, and the birdsong.  Following the trail of the turkey tracks through the trees.  I wonder if turkey was checking out the poplars too, or perhaps lunching on fallen sumac fruit clusters.  "And don't forget to pay attention," says the branch that smacks my cheek with a crack, "Slow Down" says the bramble that grasps at my clothes.

Finally, thirst and hunger urge me back to the house, trudging through the now melted snow crust, where I pour olive oil over the fragrant sticky buds in the jar to infuse for their pain relieving, antiinflammatory, and stimulating properties.  I'll go back another time or two, and gather a little bit more before the buds open into leaves and catkins, perhaps tincturing some as a nice stimulant expectorant and bitter digestive stimulant as well.  But for now, satisfied coming home smothered in the fragrance of poplar balsam.

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"The mother of us all, the oldest of us all, Hard, splendid as rock, Let the beauty you love, be what you do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth"~ Rumi ~