Madsu stopped abruptly to admire and bless his favorite plant, ocean spray, a large bush also known as ironwood because bows and arrows were made from its sturdy pith. I watched him place sacred red willow bark beside its base. To him, the bush represented the survival of his people, and indeed, it was a shrub worthy of notice. With a collection of small, energetic white flowers extending proudly into the sky, it resembled the spray of the sea crashing against a rocky shoreline. Each of its leaves was decorated with fine ridges in circular fan-like patterns, the leaf margin as wavy as water, reminding me of the thrill of a storm at sea.
Pieces of cedar crumbled into our hair as we ducked under a large rotten stump to find turkey-tail mushrooms, a shelved cluster of woody fantails, brown- and orange-tinted with a white underbelly. When one hikes with a mushroom expert and herbalist, every rotten log becomes a subject worthy of special treatment, full of hidden clues. Unlike plants, mushrooms are only present for a few days, sometimes only a few hours, so you have to leave your worries, your lists and your disagreements with others behind and focus on that bounty of mushrooms. Known as an immune modulator, turkey tail is one of many medicinal mushrooms that help the immune system recognize and kill cancer cells.
Madsu sought wild herbs by day and made medicine by night. We spent hours gathering reishi and turkey tail, chiseling at the mushrooms and then slinging the wood-like fungus into our burlap sacks. Our other sacks contained sheets of f luffy, light green usnea rolled on long sticks like cotton candy, and chunks of precious red root, an herb whose potency increases as its environment becomes more hostile. When we returned to our camp on a hillside outside Twisp, the moon gave us just enough light to layer some of our herbs onto thin racks and place them into a large dryer. Then we began crushing the mushrooms, tincturing them immediately and then pouring the liquid into large amber bottles to retain their medicinal potency.
Madsu learned how to gather medicine and process it from his mother, who traced her native roots to a Spokane woman named Teshwintichina. From her, he also learned how to make cakes from camas, bitterroot and black tree lichen. [The] camas bulb needed to be baked long enough to release the sweet inulin; an hour too early and it would still be bitter; an hour too late and it would turn to mush. The black lichen was packed into cakes when it was still a warm, sticky substance that could be molded easily. His family would cook the camas on warm summer nights when song and fire could pass the hours. They could smell when their camas had cooked long enough to convert the inulin. They could smell when [the] medicine was ready.
To me, many of Madsu’s herbal and food preparation practices seemed witch-like, entrenched in fire-born ritual. But I later discovered that some of the plants’ active ingredients, so important for immune modulation, disappeared quickly without immediate preparation. They were also more bioactive in the beginning of the autumn when the leaves of the alder tree start to turn gold. The ability to know when to harvest one plant based on the life cycle of another made sense when one lived in community with the plants, truly understanding their annual rhythms.
Jasper understood annual rhythms, too. In the summer, he hunted for moles in the fields. As fall approached, he sniffed out and ate blackberries. As Christmas approached, he dutifully protected the house, bravely fending off evil deliverytruck drivers.
Back at the clinic, I left Wendy and Jasper in the exam room while I reached up in my herbal pharmacy for a bottle of turkey tail and reishi made by Madsu that September night five years prior. I thought of how the field we’d chosen to make medicines smelled of sweet tarragon after a moist evening, and how Madsu blessed the medicine, completely present with his full attention on healing. The stars had beamed over our makeshift laboratory on a deeply nourishing night, and the nearly full moon floated overhead as we worked on counters of cut logs, swirling jars of herbal menstruum.