Monday, March 18, 2013

Walking the Ancient Way

When she looked at you with her clear wise eyes, you knew you had been seen.  Yet often her henna-tinted head was bent away from the sun she almost worshiped, as if her brow carried the weight of years of knowledge and experience.  Juliette had much to do, so she kept moving, her skirts swinging with a slow flowing stride that followed the sure rhythm of her life.  I watched her go.

Juliette tended wayside gardens around the world.  Nothing grand; her needs were simple and her life too nomadic for anything else.  Her curiosity was the grand thing, so she experimented with gardens.  The plants and the places.  A small island in the Azores off the coast of Portugal.  Mexico.  A rocky hillside on an island in Greece where in the center of the garden stood an ancient olive tree.

When she was a young woman, she lived near the Sea of Galilee with her children.  They swam and bathed there, and the children, brown as wheat berries, combed the shores for small cut mosaic stones washed from the floors of the fallen palace of Tiberius, the son of that terrifying emperor Nero.  Each day they took the animals along to the water.  Always, they had a faithful guard dog.  Even the pet owl followed, flying from tree to bush, waiting as they slowly made their way to the shining beach.  When they found fruits or herbs to eat, they gathered them together.

Juliette took time to teach her children about the natural world around them, and she delighted in telling them stories.  A favorite one was about the holy babe in a stable, where the scene was of the wonderful peace of a happy , quiet family, and the swaddled little one lay sleeping in a manger of clean straw.  The animals there, were also at peace, their sweet breath and contented sounds and the warmth from their bodies keeping them all warmer.  Oh, the joy of it!  They learned, and they thrived in the open air.  Nature’s children.

Born into extreme wealth, Juliette was the child who chose a puppy over riches.  At a time when women usually stayed in the home, Juliette opened locked doors and became one of the first holistic veterinarians.  While practicing in the field, using the latest scientific knowledge, she noticed that the simple people of the earth were often the most successful finding good health for themselves and their animals.  So, she changed her direction in medicine.

She studied and collected medicinal herbs wherever she wandered, and she learned the ways of the Gypsies, Bedouin, or other native peoples.  Juliette well understood that people like the bush tribes of the Kalahari Desert, were so skilled in their environment that they could survive in the harsh climate.

Juliette so respected the practical wisdom of the native peoples that they came to trust her, allowing her into their lives.  Observing all she could with her kind, wise eyes, she patiently learned their ways.  Many also watched Juliette, and they saw she would walk softly on the earth; she would not take more than what was needed or safely allowed.  The earth was treated with respect, and another gatherer would pass along the way.

One heavy snow-covered winter in England, a flock of sheep were seriously failing.  Juliette asked the sheep be fed ivy.  “Mares eat oats, and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy.”  Experiment and try; the sheep didn’t die.  Then Juliette became known among the nobility, and no matter what praise fell on her, joy remained in the simple things.

But the wind blew and hissed hot from Chernobyl.  Everything in it’s path over-produced because of radioactive fallout.  The ancient olive tree in her garden became sick.  On her island of heart-shaped stones, this was a thing unheard of, but Juliette tended her tree with devotion, putting ashes from her fires around it to drive away ants.  Experiment and try.  It helped.

“Where bees can live, man can live,” Juliette often said.  “But the bees are dying.”  She didn’t understand greed; the bees cannot tolerate greed, yet they are robbed of much more than honey.  We have more to learn.  Juliette remembered from scripture God’s promise to bring to ruin those who are ruining the earth.  “We have our warning,” she murmured with urgency.

On a warm summer day , I saw her move away one last time.  Her skirts swung slowly with the steady rhythm of her own ebbing life.  I watched her go.

(This photo is taken of Juliette de Bairacli Levy in approximately the year 2000.-The above writing about her was published in Union County Writers Group Anthology of Poetry and Prose, 2007.)


Helen Nearing, Juliette de Bairacli Levy, Harlan and Anna Hubbard, and me.  Each is a link that forms a full circle of connections for me.  From earliest memory, fascination with the rustic life was strong .  Growing up in the heart of a huge city like Chicago could not change it.  I spent happy hours in the unkept yard of our second story apartment examining weeds in total fascination.  In childhood I could be happy making tents and mud pies, but later I found inspiration in others who took the wild path.

Helen Nearing is probably the first one who got my attention via Mother Earth News magazine.  Helen and Scott were at the front of the back-to-the-land movement.  I read most of the Nearing books and was inspired by their sun-heated greenhouse.  I still have and use Helen’s no-cook cookbook, Simple Food For The Good Life.  She was a salty gal who spoke her mind.  Had to love her. 

Juliette de Bairacli Levy came to my attention in the 70’s when a local herb farmer told me about her favorite herb writer.  Juliette soon became my favorite too.  I didn’t know then that she was one of the first to use holistic veterinary medicine.  Her book, Nature’s Children was a constant in the raising of my two children, and herbs later became a big part of my care for horses and dogs.  If anyone was the earth-mother type, it was Juliette.  We met her at the 1997 HerbFest put on by Frontier Herbs in Norway, Iowa.  She was a joy!

It took me over ten years to search out and read every one of her books.  But her three booklets of twenty poems each are almost impossible to locate.  However, Juliette copied and sent me one of the poems.  That was Juliette.

Later it came to my attention that Helen and Juliette knew each other, and well.  Helen wrote at least one introduction to one of Juliette’s books.  When I learned Helen had a copy of ‘Look! The Wild Swans’, a novel I had been trying hard to find, I wrote Helen about it, and she offered to loan the book to me; leather bound, gold leaf and all!  I read it quickly and returned the treasured item.  

Offers of some favor to Helen in return were replied to as unneeded, so I sent her Payne Hollow and Shantyboat to read.  The Hubbards had come to my attention via Organic Gardening magazine, and their lifestyle was a deep ongoing interest.  Her concise reply, 'Thank you, thank you for lending me these fine books.  Real river, and real people!'  Love, H. So like Helen!  

For me, the connections formed full circle.

This poem of mine was published in the Shawnee Hills Review in 2008

Mud Pies

A red rose up in Spanish Harlem...
Someone explained this mysterious song is about a girl, 
like a rose.

I know about growing up through the concrete,
so soft and sweet...

Am I not being forced like a bulb to bloom in the city too?
So much so, that I seek out patches of earth
and delight in anything alive here.

The Latin beat pulses down from Grandpa's radio
to my given spot in the yard where I have peace to think,
and dig with fury
making spectacular mud pies.

Music adds drama to this place where I have been planted,
low and closely rooted to the ground
where observation is so intimate, almost secret,
and I can concoct anything I please.

How delicious is the scent of the earth!
How satisfying to see my collection of empty bottle caps
packed full of fresh dirt:
Miniature tarts and casseroles set down neatly in a row,
waiting to be shared.

Lyrics from "Spanish Harlem" by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector, Atco Records, 1961.