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Chamomile for Elsinore: Tea Tuesdays at the Marmalade Library

The author’s notes, folded, placed in cup, absorbing moisture: then placed in window to let light shine through.

Once plants — were art? Most knew them, at least something about their medicinal powers, their lore.

Unlucky Ophelia had her declarative listless list of flowers, her mad list, herb and flower names (“…rosemary, that’s for remembrance…Pansies, that’s for thoughts”) symbolizing pre-suicide remembrance and rue—though why-hadn’t-Hamlet-loved-her-enough was the meaning of all flowers for her at the end. Herbalists keep their lists, their lists longer, older, deeper than Ophelia’s. Are you weary? Are you anxious? Are you unfocused? (These are the earnest questions an herbalist might have asked distracted, fretting, burned-out Hamlet.)

China’s herbal knowledge is so manifest and deep it might be best passed on by household; perhaps the best Chinese herbalist grew up among his herbalist parents’ and grandparents’ dried forest troves, kept in dozens of small sliding square wooden drawers. (Perhaps the only way to fully know anything is to grow up hearing its mumble, whether you are auto mechanic, or writer, or royal).

There is now the mighty war between chemicals-science and herbal lore: German chemists, for example, made aspirin, and fortunes, by copying what composes the inner white pith just beneath a willow tree’s bark. Once all you needed was a willow bough and a small sharp knife.

Tea Tuesdays, now at the new Marmalade Library are an herbal teas event led by Josh Williams, herbalist, often with other herbalists or musicians or persons in other capacities as assistants; there have been 13 monthly Tea Tuesdays thus far, and there is a steady list of more to come.

Usually every chair is taken in the upstairs Tea Tuesday room. Tea tables are laid with empty paper sachets and sturdy narrow brown paper bags with sealable tops. (Downstairs, at their coffee shop, there is phenomenal La Barba coffee.) But this is free, and a great way, it seems, for the herbalist Josh Williams to spread the news about herbs and tea.

After coming up in the elevator, you fill up your cup by spigot with the tea offering of the evening, gather up crisps and cookies Williams has brought to accompany his tea troves, and settle at one of the tables. Josh Williams has a gliding quality as he walks about, and looks both oldish and youngish. He has a just-opened business, an herbal apothecary of sorts, on 900 South, which he calls Greenthread Herbs. Just as you could say he is neither oldish nor youngish, you can’t say either whether he is tanned or pale; he is both. (Does he pick herbs by moonlight, or twilight? Or noon?) At the beginning of the evening he is winding his way through the room, greeting people, checking names off the reservation list.

Herbalist Josh Williams at Tea Tuesdays at Marmalade Branch Library in Salt Lake City.

Williams likes, or loves, to talk about herbs. “I brought a list of 12 herbs,” he said at a recent Tea Tuesday, “but I lost a lot of sleep wondering whether five more should have been on the list.”

This past Tuesday at the front of the room, as if on an altar, on the stage, is a table set with a dozen oval bowls deep with herbs, Chamomile (German most potent and best, not the Egyptian—“Egyptian is what fills those dusty little teabags in stores,” says Williams), Linden (from enormous trees with dizzyingly wonderful scent, lately heavy with spring bunches of milky-white blooms), Motherwort (Mediterranean herb), Dandelion (“teeth of the lion”), Hawthorne (“for all things related to the heart”), Catnip (“fever-breaker,” “very calming for children”), California Poppy (relaxing), Peppermint (Moroccans love mint), Yarrow (the one that made Dopey sneeze), Lemon Balm (“only plant it in a pot; it will go Dexter in your garden”), Mullein (“helps lungs”), Wild Plantain (“deeply cleansing”), Goji Berries (“deeply nourishing”), Sage (“herb for longevity”), and Stinging Nettle.

The small brown paper bags are to take hefty spoonfuls of the herbs of your choosing home with you. Write down, says Williams, what you’ve put in; later—you’ll forget. (Ophelia knew which flower was for remembrance.) The brown paper herbal bag of the mix of herbs is fine to cup under your nose and deeply sniff from: the smell, maybe, of secrets, or forests.

You will learn that the dried herb is more potent, sweeter, than the fresh, for tea; flowers should be steeped two to three minutes. But fresh herbs and flowers in tea are a special treat, says Williams.

You might sit beside someone just beginning to study to become an herbalist, talking about The East/West Foundation, taking tiny, complex notes; people urgent to find out where they may get “all these herbs”; people bringing their own handmade cups to sip from; emergency room nurses, teenagers making remarks about the state of the environment; old men who know more of the technical terms for rating herbs’ freshness and potency than you will ever understand; young men and women in the bloom of health who simply want to sit at a table, sip tea with others and be glad they have no pressing need of solutions by herb. (Or, perhaps, feel as if they are slipping back into a gracious and grateful and still-secret past.)

You will be asked to sit, sometimes, in five minutes of silence, to meditate together while you drink your tea; you might hear someone playing reverberating musical bowls, see flowers arranged in the Japanese way—arrangements of leaves, flowers, and boughs so strikingly alert and strangely supple they suggest almost a militancy, like strung bows.

You hear that if you pick herbs, avoid the places where there is not a single dandelion in bloom (“someone’s gone Roundup”), or where there is heavy automobile traffic (“remember, flowers and plants are respirators”).

Hawthorne, you hear, grows in Memory Grove; linden trees bloom throughout the city. Goji berries, rich in minerals (Williams: “I’d say they have a tart sweet taste between an apple and a raisin”) from China cost $30 a pound in health food stores, but love, Williams says, growing in Utah.

What is Williams’ favorite way to dry herbs? Hang them upside down to dry, Williams says. But not in the sun—under a tree, for the shade.

You might wonder, during your 5-minute meditations, why Impressionists often made growing things as if one mighty almost unending modulated mass; whether arts-and-crafts William Morris made hypnotic dense all-enclosing vine-and-flowers designs that became wallpapers to allow or urge retreat back into pre-industrial forests. Another sip might make you remember those intent Pre-Raphaelites, painters and writers who seemed to want to place you under the hypnosis of plant and twining vine. Swirl your spoon, and you think of Williams saying “Chai tea needs sweetening; without sweetening the flavor of chai—is flat.” Look out a window: you think of how vines grew to the top of Rapunzel’s tower, vines even longer than her hair; protective ivy covered Sleeping Beauty’s castle, keeping it dark through years while she slept, making sure only the most intent of suitors could reach her. The herb Stinging Nettle makes you remember that strange sad girl in the fairy tale madly knitting sweaters from forest nettles full of thorns for her seven brothers who had been turned to swans. As her funeral pyre began to burn, their sister threw the nettle sweaters she’d knitted over her swan brothers’ shoulders. They became human, and freed her. You’re almost at the bottom of the cup. The tiny hundreds of circles in a pomegranate, you wonder, could they have been the start of mosaics?

All medicines are poisons, American doctors say, and if given wrongly—or in too large a dose—can be lethal.

But what about chamomile? Its flowers promote sleep and calm only, no matter how much you drink. Drowsy is all you’ll become— not dead.

Chamomile might have been the solution for Hamlet and Ophelia? Even for Gertrude? They could have all they like, drowsily miss a few royal functions in a row where royal poisoners and murderers were rankly clustering. Chamomile tea could have turned into row, row, row your boat trips down sleepy rivers, returns refreshed and vacationed, a living Ophelia and Hamlet, possibly even Gertrude and her King, too, he with more years to live; possibly living happily and drowsily, all of them, ever after in Elsinore.

 

Tea Tuesdays are the third Tuesday of every month at Marmalade Library. Reservations are required and can be made at www.HerbalistJosh.com. Apothecary, 362 E. 900 South: GreenthreadHerbs.com.

 

Rebecca Pyle graduated long ago from the University of Kansas, the university highly recommended by the Wizard of Oz. Her publication credits include New England Review, Indian Review, Remembered Arts Journal, and Underwater New York, which has just published her artwork and a big handful of poems, forming an e-chapbook of poetry: The Underwater American Songbook. Rebecca’s art website is rebeccapyleartist.com.

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