The warrior rose: first assay

Rosa multiflora on the farm
Rosa multiflora on the farm. Adorably plump farm kitty for scale.

I am not sure how to begin.

My last post on invasive plants wasn’t just random musing; I’m about to start working with one of them, Rosa multiflora. I’ve been gardening and making herbal remedies and of course cooking and eating plants for many years now, but this is an altogether deeper level of work I’m about to begin, unlike anything I’ve ever done before.

It was initiated by the rose herself.

As a garden lover, I think roses are nice, but they probably aren’t my favorite flower (I think that title would go to Japanese irises). Of course rose flowers are beautiful and I do adore the scent. But have you ever looked at the rose bush itself? They’re really not all that attractive.

But those are your ornamental rose varieties. Wild roses are something else again. Wild roses are brimming over with magic and fierce beauty. And as an herbalist, I am in love with rose medicine (I use that term broadly, encompassing the physical, spiritual, and magical). I need rose medicine. (Here’s a good monograph on rose medicine. And another.)

At the farmhouse where I used to live, there were a couple of multiflora rose bushes that had been tolerated as ornamentals–it is a beautiful species–but it grows wild everywhere here. In fact it’s extraordinarily difficult to restrict or eradicate because the gracefully arching canes that make it so aesthetically pleasing even when not in flower (well, I think so) will root wherever they touch the ground, and it tolerates many types of soils and habitats. “In Ohio, it is especially troublesome in the southeastern part of the state” <– understatement (source).

Its thorns are prolific and unusually vicious: I’ve had minor pricks that barely drew blood continue to ache for days afterwards. They can be strongly recurved and seem to reach out and grab you, snagging absolutely every part of you and your clothes. It is universally loathed by people who live or work in the countryside.

But not me. Early on I formed a certain grudging respect for this rose. Yes, she hurt me a lot. Tore up some of my clothes. But she’s a fighter and a survivor–nay, a conqueror.

And yet she’s also every bit a Rose, that millennia-old symbol of love, beauty, and sensuality. In June she is covered in fragrant heaps of little roses–white, some tinged ever so softly pink, with golden centers–beloved of bees. In fall her branches are beaded with tiny glistening scarlet hips, beloved of birds.

My favorite of her common names is “rambler rose,” but in my mind and heart I have always known her as the Warrior Rose. She has an intense female-warrior vibe that I realize I have barely begun to understand. Now she says we have work to do, and I have no idea what that is going to entail, exactly, but it starts now.

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(Dis)orientation

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View of my house from the river.

A quiet rain is falling on the 150ish-year-old farmhouse I now call home. The house sits on a hill overlooking the Hocking River, in the midst of 40 acres of meadow, pasture, and woodlands. The ceilings are high, there’s almost no insulation in this part of the house, and some idiot blocked up the fireplaces years ago, but it’s been a mild autumn, I’ve got a dog curled up on the couch with me, and it’s warm and cozy here. It could change any minute though; the weather here is moody to say the least. And outside it is dark as pitch and the coyotes are calling.

My new/old home is in rural southeast (Appalachian) Ohio, a place that, until a week ago, I had never been before. Yet it has always felt like home to me, and I always knew I’d come back here someday. My mother was born in Athens, and my maternal ancestors have been settled in the region for about 200 years. When my best friend got a great job here and almost immediately announced that she’d fallen in love with the area, despite not having any roots here herself, I knew it was more than coincidence. One by one obstacles cleared and pennies dropped and it became clear that I was supposed to make this my home once my mom had died and finally hang out my shingle as an herbologist (which hasn’t happened yet but is in the works; more in a later post).

I arrived two weeks ago Saturday. I’ve wanted to post something every day since then but the information and sensory overload has me tongue-tied (keyboard-tied?). Plus a lot of it is…weird…although my landing here has been soft, the welcome warm, and the orientation process pretty gentle. I just haven’t been able to find the words until now, and the ones I’ve cobbled together are entirely inadequate. My cousin visited this area once many years ago and before I moved, she told me that the whole landscape had a haunted feeling. It’s lousy with old cemeteries, decaying barns and farmhouses, historical mine disasters, a huge Victorian insane asylum, and Native American burial mounds, so haunting would seem likely (and I’m not ruling it out), but the word I would use is inspirited. One of the first things I noticed was how alive the landscape seems. “Well, of course it’s alive, dummy,” I said to myself, “you’re looking at trees.” But I mean that out of the corner of your eye the trees seem to have mischievous faces like Brian Froud creatures, that then disappear when you look directly at them. I constantly feel like I’m being watched, warily. I already love this land but it hasn’t made up its mind about me.

hawthorn 1
Honey locust branches frame a view over the pastures.

During the day it’s peaceful and calm here. In a word, bucolic. Nighttime is a different story. To some extent this is just the nature of rural places: there are a lot of critters and they come out to eat when it gets dark. My housemate and I have seen rabbits, foxes, raccoons, and more deer than we can count, hear coyotes not infrequently, and a couple days ago the newspaper reported a mountain lion in the general vicinity. (That’s just the wildlife that comes out by night, of course; there are lots of other beasties during the daytime.) When it gets dark, it gets very dark–no city light pollution here. On clear nights you can see the Milky Way. I grew up in the country until I was 7 or so and I’ve always considered myself a country mouse at heart, but after so many years in cities, the totality of nocturnal darkness here has taken some getting used to. But at the risk of sounding overdramatic, I think there are other things–eerie, uncanny things–that come out at night.

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Woods at dusk.

I know it’s not just my imagination because this place is absolutely crawling with pagans, a fact which I put down to the fact that everybody senses, on some level, the presence and primacy of old powers here. The (all too brief) influence of some wormwood and anise extract one night brought intensely clear perception–my breath was taken away by the beauty of the night here; everything seemed to be reaching out to communicate with me and all other beings. I felt enmeshed in a web of sentience and radiance.

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The skeletal white silhouettes of sycamores stand out against the autumn landscape.

In addition to its spooky qualities, this also feels like a wild landscape, though it’s really not. It’s been farmed and mined and deforested and pumped and excavated. It hasn’t been a frontier for a couple hundred years now. Humans have altered the ecology in many ways and there are probably as many domestic species as wild ones. I feel like I have to reiterate here that while I’m no farmer, I’m no stranger to the country and to agriculture. So this isn’t just some romantic pastoral ideal on my part when I say that this place is not tame.

On that note, I had a funny experience a couple days ago. All day I had been thinking about just this thing, the wild, magical, uncanny vibe of this place. That evening I sat down to check my email where I saw this subject line:

That's my Pan

Subsequent research uncovered that That’s My Pan!™ is a line of personalized cookware of the sort you might like if you frequent potlucks and have a really bad memory. But at the time, given my earlier line of thought, this is more what came to mind:

Pan's Woodland Night Song by Todd Yeager
Pan’s Woodland Night Song by Todd Yeager

…which you have to admit was a lot more a propos than spam aimed at church ladies. I recalled that some new local friends of mine have an image of Pan on their mantel, which at first I took as reflective of who my friends are, but I now realize is more a reflection of where we all live. It may not be this particular foreign Hellenic deity that we sense here (in fact, that may just be shorthand used by some less-verbal part of my mind to communicate to my more-verbal, abstracting consciousness), but there is no question that Pan’s characteristics–wildness, abandon, altered consciousness, disorientation, discomfiture, fear, ecstasy, vitality–are abundantly present. I cannot wait to get to work here.