Wormwood--for Thoughts


‘O, MICKLE is the powerful grace that lies In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities.’

THUS soliloquized Friar Laurence on that ‘grey-eyed morn’ in fair Verona as he bore his laden osier cage from the Franciscan garden into his own cell, there to hear the ‘riddling confession’ of the distraught young Romeo; and thus in homelier drift said my great-aunt Mary Ann Fawcett, once herbalist of Piscataquis County, Maine.

Piscataquis is alike an inland and an upland county. A hundred miles from the coast the tall fir trees of its high pastures harbor few mists; the air above them on summer days is dry and pungent. It is a county of ponds and lakes; Moosehead cuts its western boundary with miles of dark and curving shore line; the smaller contribute their brooks and trout streams to the headwaters of the Penobscot and the Kennebec. The hills, though none other emulates Katahdin to the northeast, are yet ample, and in places tumble about in wide, well-wooded stretches of country. In the high valleys among them the farms embrace a variety of land, so that within a small acreage the plaintive whistle of the whitethroat at noon from a secluded pine thicket may be echoed and supplemented by the hoarse quavering of blackbirds from the marshes and by the rapturous trill of a song sparrow from the top of the tallest mullein stalk in some bare and open pasture. Here the dog days of August are less to be reckoned with than on the coast, here the weather is less capricious; here the summer winds, warm from blowing across the sunny shoulders of the hills, are perfumed by aromatic odors strongly at variance with the salt and the moisture of those farther south.

Such a wind, blowing one August morning more than a century ago across the bayberry and pennyroyal, the juniper and wild marjoram, on the slopes of a Piscataquis farm, must have given rise to the rumor, since become a tradition, that my great-aunt Mary Ann’s first and immediate act upon entering this world was to sniff. She herself for seventy years stoutly denied the accusation, although upon occasion she was known to amend her denial by the announcement that if her nose twitched, it did so merely in contemptuous prophecy. For she was followed, within the short space of an hour, not by one sister, but by two!

Triplets were an innovation in the Fawcett family, unheralded by precedent. They were an innovation, too, among the older families of northern Piscataquis. Those immediately concerned felt, a trifle uncomfortably, the necessity of exoneration, and took an easier refuge than is possible to-day within the ramparts of those purposes of God which are past finding out. Like Milton and Pope, they sought, if not to justify, at least to vindicate His ways. Then, having nominally cast the responsibility for the situation upon Him, they exhausted the wardrobe at hand in dressing the three babies, who were lusty and identical, and summoned the female portion of the neighborhood to come and sew.

As time went on, however, all traces of embarrassment were blotted out in the complete assurance of the working of Divine Providence. Such infants, without spot or blemish, like those creatures commanded by the Levitican law, were obviously, in spite of their sex, reserved for a high destiny. That initial dismay, not untouched by chagrin, had been unbecoming in a family which was contributing to the new State of Maine — but lately separated from Massachusetts, its mother — sea captains and Congregational ministers as well as self-respecting farmers. Accordingly the great-uncle of the triplets was summoned from Boston for the christening at six months. With a solemnity fraught with mystery, he named them, in order of their birth, Mary Ann, Martha Ann, and Sarah Ann, amid the awe of the country congregation, who, whatever their purpose in attending the ceremony, were deeply impressed by the atmosphere engendered thereat and, like the inhabitants of Sweet Auburn, ‘remained to pray.’

And yet the fulfillment of spectacular destinies by girls one hundred years ago was well-nigh impossible, even with the complete coöperation of Providence. The sisters in due time approached young womanhood without having startled their neighborhood, not to mention the outside world, by any accomplishments save their intense devotion to one another, their industry, virtue, and comeliness. This lastnamed grace, however, must have been outstanding, if we can trust the sentiments in their Keepsake Album, now in my possession. In August 1840, which year marked their eighteenth birthday, they are likened by one fervid young gentleman of a classic turn to the Three Graces, and by another — a cousin who, having vainly wooed Sarah Ann, apparently suspected her sisters of treachery and connivance — to the Three Fates. The minister of the parish found them in that year strongly reminiscent of Jemima, Kezia, and Keren-happuch, the three daughters of Job, for he writes, with due respect to his source, ‘And in all the land were no women found so fair. — JOB 42. 15.’

Up to this time they were, according to their own later testimony, as identical as the proverbial peas in a pod. A divergence in occupation and environment, however, which followed close upon their nineteenth anniversary, produced inevitable results. Sarah Ann at length rewarded the tenacity of her cynical young cousin, John Fawcett, and moved with him to a neighboring hill farm. Martha Ann, who, it had been tacitly agreed, possessed a certain more delicate refinement of manner than her sisters, — a ‘tone,’so to speak,—was sent, upon the request of her great-uncle, to Cambridge, there to preside over his wifeless home, to move about the ‘Harvard circle’ with decorum, and to find in that larger, more fertile field meet soil for the nurture of her many graces. And Mary Ann, left with her parents, entered upon that predestined career of sniffing, which made her a godsend to two generations of country doctors, a solace to a wide countryside, and an ultimate source of wisdom and of humor to her grandniece.


Our paths crossed at precisely the turn of the present century. In that first year of the nineteen hundreds I was sent, an overgrown, awkward girl of thirteen, from our coast village for a summer in Piscataquis. It was the opinion of my father, ably seconded by our country doctor, that a bronchial cough, irritated by the mists of Penobscot Bay, would be almost at once dispelled by the dry, bracing air of inland fields and pastures. I recall the journey north from Bangor in the stuffy, loitering day train. It was the first I had ever taken alone. I sat leaning forward on the red plush seat and suffering from an annoying prickly sensation which I laid to my blue serge dress and to the asafœtida bag fastened about my neck at the last minute by a cautious grandmother, but which was probably the fruit of an extreme nervousness. It rained, I remember, in the course of the afternoon, a few great drops from a single sullen cloud high in the heavens, and I became anxious as to my leghorn hat trimmed with blue forget-me-nots and bows of tulle. I remember, too, the June fields, gold and white with buttercups and daisies, the drowsy buzz of sawmills beside rushing, foaming streams, the thrill engendered by seeing in the flesh, as it were, towns and villages whose names I had long read in the weekly paper — Dover and Foxcroft, Derby, Sangerville.

I was met at sundown by the distraught young cynic of my Keepsake Album, John Fawcett, now, sixty years later, an old gentleman of nearly eighty, who drove me in a kindly silence six miles through the hills and brought me just at nightfall to the farmhouse. He and my great-aunt Sarah Ann, he said, were on the verge of celebrating their sixtieth anniversary of married life. He told me he had been singularly blessed, and I believed him, though I have since wondered more than once whether he did not perhaps mean to emphasize the singularity of his existence rather than the blessedness thereof. For with him lived not only his wife but her two sisters as well, neither of whom had married!

Familiar as they had been in family lore, I had not heretofore seen my greataunts, and even at thirteen I felt the extremely unique character of the situation. Triplets of seventy-eight are not met with on every summer’s day! They still retained the fetish of dressing alike and wore simple gowns of gray percale with white and hemstitched aprons. As I saw them gathered in the wide doorway of the old house, I felt a sudden fear mounting for the moment almost into panic at the sudden apprehension of their collective years and of my own thin little life.

But such a fear was, naturally enough, put to rout by the necessity of greeting them and delivering the family messages and by the curiosity they involuntarily engendered. Identical though they may have been at eighteen, sixty years of diversity in environment, in occupation, and in thought had wrought many differences. They were of the same height, though Sarah Ann seemed flattened into stoutness and Martha Ann attenuated into extreme thinness. They had the same white hair parted in the middle, though Sarah Ann’s was streaked with yellow, whereas Martha Ann’s hinted at curl papers, and Mary Ann’s was pulled peremptorily into a very firm and somewhat arrogant knot at the back of her head. They had the same blue eyes, but in Sarah Ann’s placidity triumphed, in Martha Ann’s restlessness, in Mary Ann’s prophetic insight. Sarah Ann’s nose was strongly pragmatic; Martha Ann’s delicate and a trifle disdainful; Mary Ann’s eager like a pointer’s. Aunt Sarah Ann inquired with real concern if I was not hungry; Aunt Martha Ann, in a tone redolent of literary circles, asked if I had read Dickens in toto, Aunt Mary Ann, whose quick nose smelled my asafœtida bag, threw queries to the winds and gave vent to astonishment, not unmixed with anger, that my cough had not been thoroughly dosed with anise and horehound mixed with just a trace of powdered flagroot. I answered Aunt Sarah Ann by eating a substantial supper of beans and brown bread, and Aunt Martha Ann by attempting to decide then and there my predilection for Great Expectations or David Copperfield. I did not answer my Aunt Mary Ann at all. Her assertion had been of too oracular a nature to make a reply at that moment seem either meet or right.

That night she threw my bedraggled asafœtida bag out of my bedroom window with a fine gesture of disgust. Then with her firm hands, so amazingly free from the humps and knotted veins of age, she smoothed my lavendered sheets and placed between my two great pillows a tiny one filled with dried hops and leaves of bayberry. A hop pillow, she confided to me as she blew out my candle and stood, a tall, straight figure in the soft summer darkness, had proved the best of sedatives to King George the Third during those trying nights immediately following the Declaration of Independence. It was just as sure a preventative against homesickness. She left me to suck a square of her famous anise and horehound cough remedy, to watch for some drowsy moments the moon swing high over the tumbling Piscataquis hills, and then, like the restive George the Third, to bury my nose in hops and go at once to sleep.


By quick degrees Aunt Sarah Ann and Aunt Martha Ann faded from the immediate daily round of my thoughts and experiences — the one with her quiet, grave concern over my appetite, the rents in my ginghams, the nip in my leg from the querulous old gander; the other with her frail, correct table manners, her punctilious attention to suffixes, and her wistful anecdotes of Mr. Longfellow ‘in his younger days.’ The manner of their fading was borne in upon me a dozen years afterward when on a warm summer night in Berlin I attended a performance of Tannhäuser in the Tiergarten. Between the acts I strolled with other eager, curious students about the dark, shadowy walks, closely bordered by evergreens and lindens, whose perfume, drifting through the quiet air, had seemingly taken unto itself the rhythm and the stillness alike of that magical night.

One long and narrow avenue, I remember, was only obscurely lit by a lamp at either end, but as we traversed its dim centre there came from above our heads a sudden jarring sound, followed by a great white burst of light. For an instant there was something almost terrifying in that quick illumination from the bigger lamp, something awestruck in the shimmering of the poplars and in the pale, inadequate gleaming of the smaller lights. And there sprang into my mind the thought of my great-aunt Mary Ann, of whose death at ninety I had only recently heard. To me at thirteen she had been like that great central lamp, overpowering the other lights by the fierce irradiation of her prodigal self.

I served, however, a novitiate of some weeks before I was allowed within even the outer circle of its glow. July warmed the hills, bringing added gloss to the bayberry in the pastures, thickening the clumps of yellow melilot along dusty roadsides, purpling the pennyroyal on the high, dry shoulders of the fields. Not a fair morning passed, even Monday with its rite of washing, that Aunt Mary Ann did not set out on her mysterious journeyings. From a corner of the wide back porch I looked up from the beans I was stringing. How could she fail to sense the pleas I was sending toward her? For days I loitered among the morning-glories by the roadside gate. She passed through unheeding, her empty basket with its scissors, newspapers, and ball of twine in one hand, the strings of her capacious blue apron tied in an extra knot at the front of her spare, high waist. Did she, I have since wondered, in planning the ordeal to which she subjected me, have all the time in view the ascertaining of my spiritual fitness as a companion as well as the attainment of my physical well-being? I am inclined to think she did. Æsculapius, it will be recalled, living for long years the life of a solitary wanderer among the wild places of Thessaly and Argolis in search of healing leaves and berries, was slow to permit a disciple!

The ordeal was undergone after this manner. One morning in mid-July I descended to the great kitchen to find laid out for me on the table in the recessed corner my usual substantial breakfast. I found also my aunt Mary Ann, equipped and dressed for excursioning, but loitering a bit restively about the stove whereon stood a yellow bowl of generous proportions. A dark liquid, upon whose surface floated leaf and stick fragments, filled it to the brim. She halted my passage to the table more by the atmosphere she was creating than by her suddenly uplifted hand.

‘Before you eat your breakfast,’ she said, looking sternly away from me, ‘I want you to drink this. To-morrow there ’ll be something else, and every morning. Don’t ask what it is. It won’t hurt you.’

I downed the liquid, drinking it directly from the bowl and avoiding the extraneous matter as best I could. It was more dreadful than anything I had ever swallowed during a childhood spent in a family adept at dosing. Its bitterness ran away from itself and, traveling to my nose and eyes, made me grope for my pocket handkerchief. But still I drank. My stomach rebelled, but in one swift and desperate instant I commanded it to keep its place. My outraged tongue clove to the roof of my mouth, but I forced it downward to receive more mouthfuls and yet more. I would have drunk hemlock without a word, for in her presence there in that old kitchen I somehow sensed that there was more at stake for me than the well-being of my liver and my stomach. She seized the bowl just when my flesh was crying out for release.

Yet a week passed without recognition or reward. Every morning there was the same yellow bowl on the back of the stove filled with some concoction which differed from its predecessors only in its degree of bitterness. Was there no herb of all those which, the Bible told me, God had made to grow ‘for the service of man’ of a sweet savor? And what about this dinner of them extolled in Proverbs which with love is better ‘than a stalled ox and hatred therewith’? I was frankly skeptical and yet tenacious. And every morning Aunt Mary Ann departed alone for the fields and hills, leaving the bitterness of my disappointment to struggle for supremacy with that of the mysterious herb of the day, which, I fancied, I could feel coursing triumphantly through my veins and arteries.

But with the swift passing of that week, with its seven apocalyptical days, there came a change. On the eighth morning there was no yellow bowl on the back of the stove. I stopped hesitatingly on my way to the breakfast table. Through the open door of the pantry beyond I caught sight of the bowl on a shelf. There was no mistaking it. Still hesitant, I sat down at my place. Was this treatment, perhaps, of the concentrative sort, seven mornings and skip seven, like that magic three-day formula for sulphur and molasses?

And then from the porch came my aunt Mary Ann’s voice, crisp, decisive, as though she had made up her mind once and for all.

’I was just thinking, as it’s an extra good day, that perhaps — But there—probably you’ve other things to do!’

I stumbled in my reply, realizing perhaps for the first time in my life the utter inadequacy of words. A tingling assailed my back. My breakfast became suddenly intolerable to me.

Ten minutes later I was crossing with her the fields beyond the roadside. We were making for some sandy slopes on the hills. I walked by her side, subdued and silent. I felt as young John Mark must have felt after he had become ‘profitable’ to Saint Paul, he who had heretofore been scorned by the apostle as useless and unnecessary. To comment or to question I did not once presume. I simply tried to keep in step with the long strides of her generous feet as she traversed the fields and scaled the uplands. The day was one of those bright New England days, less rare inland than on the coast, when the brilliant air seems pierced with countless shafts of light like great thin plates of burnished steel. On such a day, twigs and branches, even leaves and flowers, seem outlined in light instead of imperceptibly merging into it. And still the air was not hot, but cool, hard, and thin.

I first saw my aunt sniff as we reached the lowest of the sandy slopes. It was not an audible motion; only her nostrils dilated, her eyes widened, and her upper lip twitched ever so slightly. But it was an unmistakable sniff. When she did it, she was standing erect, looking off at the green and tumbling country. She too seemed outlined by light. And after she had done it she left me and made directly for some clumps of ragged-leaved weeds, which grew in great profusion in the sand. I was conscious of no odor from them, and surely they were entirely visible. The sniff, then, predetermined nothing; it was entirely accessory, of no practical value whatsoever.

I watched her pull a great quantity of these and store them in her apron before I went to help her. The bruised leaves and stalks gave forth an acrid, penetrating smell. This was wormwood, she told me. I had drunk much in the past week. It was the herb of herbs. No one knew how long it had served mankind. As I doubtless knew, it was mentioned more than once in the Bible; in the Book of Revelation a falling star was named for it. Pliny, the Roman, had mentioned it centuries ago, and the American Indians without it would have died out as a race. Though not yet in flower, it was good for certain ailments demanding the properties of the younger leaves and stalks. She did not name these ailments. She shared in that singular mystery which ever belongs to the hierarchy of those who heal.

Higher up on the bare hill slopes the mullein rose, straight and tall, in these late July days just bursting into yellow flower. As we gathered the thick, hairy, heavily ribbed leaves, she gave me its more gracious names. She herself, she said, preferred ‘Peter’s staff’ or ‘ high-taper,’ though the country folks about clung to ‘old-man’s-flannel’ and ‘shepherd’s-club.’ It too was of great age. It was hardy enough to have weathered the Flood, and she had heard once that Pocahontas, combining it with wild mustard, had made with signal success a poultice for Captain John Smith! ‘High-taper’ stayed longest in my mind and still sings there on August days when the tall stalks in our pastures are alight with pale yellow flames.

In the lower fields that day we found the wild marjoram, with its clusters of purplish flowers, and near by the pennyroyal, aromatic enough to induce sniffing from us both. I followed my aunt’s example in chewing one of its sturdy, slender stems, though its soft hairs tickled my throat. There too grew masses of yarrow, which we gathered in great quantities, and which, she unbent enough to tell me, was excellent for hemorrhages. In a swampy place between two ridges we found the purple boneset or joe-pye weed. Over this, which was just in bud, she studied at some length, testing the leaves by holding them to the light, by crushing and smelling them. Her silence increased the mystery which clung about her every action. Years afterward, reading of Theophrastus testing the plants in his Athenian garden, I saw again in a quick flash my aunt Mary Ann’s intent face, bending over the lance-shaped leaves of boneset in her thin, long-fingered hands.


From that beneficent July morning to the September day when, brown, coughless, and reluctant, I left the Piscataquis hills for the coast and school, I was my great-aunt’s disciple, she my Æsculapius. The joe-pye weed in the swamps purpled and then browned in great, furry clumps; the chamomile by the roadside faded, its white petals, bent backward in the August heat, giving it the expression of petulant children; the sharp odor of the pennyroyal softened on the high pastures. Every fair morning found us in the fields or woods or on the slopes, sniffing, cutting, pulling, while the wind blew clear and strong from the northwest, or the bright August heat shimmered over the uplands, or a soft dull day brought out the purple tints of the distant hills.

On rainy mornings my great-aunt went to the large unfinished chamber beneath the ell roof where for fifty years she had crushed and strained, brewed and bottled, and where she kept her small store of precious books. One August day, with some evident reluctance she asked me in with her. At this moment I can smell the dry, acrid odor of the big bare room, see the muffled bundles hanging in yellowed paper from the rafters, hear the simmering of some recondite liquid brewing on the air-tight wood stove. On the window sills were ranged certain enigmatical jars and bottles containing fluids of various colors, which, after being subjected to the light for certain varying seasons, were to be put away for future use.

Her dearest possession, she confided to me one stormy day, was a collection of books in six volumes. This work bore the title of American Medicinal Plants. I have since found that it was written by one Charles F. Millspaugh and published in 1887. Without it, she told me, Piscataquis County would be a sorry place. The books had colored plates in great profusion, which had a way of brightening the most fog-swept afternoon. The text seemed stupid and rather unintelligible until one day I made the discovery that Dr. Millspaugh seemed to have one nevervarying prescription for the brewing of herbs. Again and again as I turned the pages I found the identical direction, until I became convinced that no herb juices could be efficacious unless they were allowed to ‘stay for eight days in a dark, cool place.’ These were his words, sounding over and over again like a refrain. They have stayed in my mind and imagination ever since that day.

Yet in spite of the fascination of the herb room, which was in use too early to be known as either a studio or a laboratory, it could not compete with the daily excursions in the open. The climax or high moment of all of these, just as the high moment indoors soon came to lie in Dr. Millspaugh’s everrecurring phrase, occurred just before we left with our spoils for home. Then, the sun warning us of noon, we stopped in some clear, high spot to spread our harvest upon the ground, to sort, discard, and rearrange. I recall a certain green ridge, bare of trees, which gave us, whenever we looked up from our work, a view of the white farmhouse in its uneven fields and of high, rockstrewn pastures, rising behind it to other ridges like our own. Here, on her knees, with newspapers spread out before her, my aunt Mary Ann sorted and displayed her wares to her eyes and mine. In such a position, before his carpet, did the herbalist of the Middle Ages kneel at Smithfield, or at St. Giles Fair in Winchester, famous for its gingerbread, or at the renowned Goose Fair in Nottingham. She might, indeed, have been reminiscent, to more learned minds than mine at thirteen, of the far-famed Madame Trote of Salerno, whom Rutebeuf, the French trouvère of the thirteenth century, extols as the wisest lady in all the four quarters of the world in her knowledge of medicinal herbs.

But unlike her predecessors, who bore their universal panaceas from fair to village green and market place, attracting attention by bells and horns and cries and holding it by a flow of urgent and reassuring words, my aunt Mary Ann was given to silence and circumspection. If she commented at all upon her harvest, it was to call my attention to the twin heads of some flower, usually single, or to the eccentricities of a certain root. Most memorable, therefore, were her confidences which she lent to me on the last of our excursions, made the September morning just preceding the day of my leaving for home.

We had been out primarily for wormwood, now in great, ungainly masses of yellow, knobby blossoms. In waste places and along the ragged edges of the fields it grew to four feet in height. We had gathered armfuls of it and now were on our green ridge sorting it in bundles, which, she assured me with relief, contained enough to supply the most exorbitant demand during the coming winter. The bundles securely tied, I gathered together papers, basket, and scissors against our leaving. But my aunt still sat on the ridge, her long, green-stained fingers, which always denied her age, interlaced about her knees.

‘It’s queer about wormwood,’ she said at last, to herself rather than to me. ‘From the reading I’ve done I’d say it’s been used for thousands of years. It’s in the ancients, you know — poets and historians tell about it as well as those that know about such things.’ (Oh, the mystery in her voice, enclosing in a charmed circle the healers of the world!)

There was more in that soliloquy that I would fain recapture but cannot, anecdotes of country cures brought about by the herb of herbs, legends connected with its use in far-off lands, pertinent advice as to its efficacy in the minor ailments that beset us. I recall in their place the first touches of color in that quiet hill country, the red of the sumachs, the bronze of the hazel bushes. But that which she said as she rose to go I shall never forget, though the words may be my own in the sad place of her lovelier, more native speech.

‘There are those that might laugh,’ she said, ‘at this next. But I’ve studied and seen, and I’m convinced in my own mind. Wormwood’s not only for the body. It’s for the mind as well. It makes thoughts, so to speak. I’ve seen it time and again. Taken right, it’s bound to work. I’ve known it to cure broken hearts and to put life into them. But there are folks in this world who’d claim I was plain crazy to say such a thing!’

Urged by the imagined reaction of her neighbors, she emerged quickly from the charmed circle and prepared to go. She was brisk and practical all the way home, and that afternoon by her look and manner she excluded me from the herb room where she was crushing, straining, and bottling the freshly gathered wormwood. Obviously she had with grave lack of decorum lent me too much confidence and could atone for it only by forbidding my alien eyes to look upon the wormwood as she made it ready to ‘stay for eight days in a dark, cool place.’


All this happened years ago; and one is painfully aware in these latter days of the name and the penalty attached in social and intellectual circles to one who is willfully reminiscent. Yet in this era of tonsillectomies and appendectomies, abscessed teeth and complete nervous breakdowns, when the most literary of magazines gives space to the insurmountable problem of paying the manifold costs of even legitimate illnesses and the health insurance companies flourish like the bay trees of the Psalmist, it is pleasing to recall that generous-footed Ophelia of Piscataquis County, who once contended that wormwood was for thoughts, and for whom, like Wordsworth’s Peter Bell, the simple growth of Mother Earth sufficed.

It is also not unpleasing to contemplate what beneficence, now hidden and inaccessible, might perchance be ours if we would for a season drop the anxieties, academic, culinary, and economic, that beset us and ‘stay for eight days in a dark, cool place.’