An Herbal Memory


I collapsed on a tuft of dried grass, and wept pitifully for a while. I was in a foreign country, miles and borders away even from my student apartment, and I had spiked a fever, with chills and aches from the flu. The local stores had no natural remedies that I could find.

I lived in Paris, France, for a semester of study in the late 1980s. It was easy to find a healthy, whole-foods diet at open-air markets, hole-in-the-wall bread shops, cheese shops and butchers, and an occasional venture into a supermarket coming home from classes. I found herbal teas like linden, red clover and chamomile in neighborhood drugstores, next to vitamins and homeopathic remedies. And I walked everywhere, including the stairs to my sixth floor walk-up apartment several times a day.

At Christmas, most of the other students in my program flew home to the States or met relatives in other countries. So with everyone I knew out of town, I traveled alone to the most inexpensive destination I could find, which turned out to be Dublin, Ireland. My ticket was for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. It didn’t occur to me to pack first aid or any kind of illness prevention. I had stayed very healthy in Paris and didn’t consider what could happen abroad.

The train south from Dublin passed through other-worldly green pastures bordered by low stone walls. Sheep grazed placidly in these meadows, which had only occasional splotches of snow, despite the season. Dublin lies farther north than Winnipeg, Manitoba, but the country is warmed by the Gulf Stream.

Killarney was my first stop after Dublin. It is next to a national park filled with mist-covered hills reflected in placid lochs. I stayed in a dorm room at the youth hostel and walked the few miles to town every day for a week, looking for diversions. It was quiet between holidays, the streets deserted during the days, and few shops were open. I had given up drinking so I didn’t accept the invitation to a pub from a middle-aged Irishman, who had dark, ornate eyebrows and the gift of gab. I sat with him, though, on an empty street, and quizzed him about local birds.

After a few days in Killarney, I felt the tell-tale chill of a flu coming on. Someone at the hostel had been coughing and sneezing. I had planned to rent a bicycle, and pedal around the national park and was determined not to let a little achiness stop me, I walked to town, picked up a bike, and went around to shops in the area, looking for an herbal tea that would help me. I found nothing, but continued to the park several miles away anyway. There were beautiful paved bike trails that went up and down the hills of a holly and ivy-strewn yew forest like a gentle roller coaster. The forest was quiet as a cave and dark green, in that deep December.

As I rode, I felt worse and worse. Instead of sweating out the virus, as I’d hoped, I was accelerating its progress in my system. Finally, loneliness and aching got to me, and I got off the bike and flung it down on the grass. I wept for being alone in a foreign country during the holidays, and for feeling so awful .

Maybe it was the fever, or being so far from home, but my mind suddenly got calm and still. The plants in that park were unfamiliar. I tried to think what the world’s first herbalists must have done. My mind lofted out like a falcon over the dried grasses. Scanning the field again, my eyes zeroed in on a clump of withered raspberry canes with a few dried berries on top, about twenty yards away. I walked over and snapped off a few inches of cane and stuffed them in my jeans pocket, then dragged myself back to the hostel.

That tea gave me the greatest relief from a flu that I think I’ve ever felt, and raspberry is not even a common remedy for flu.



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