Wild Hemlock

Wild Hemlock
by Christina Collins

It’s not a new feeling, that tightness in the chest, that vertiginous anxiety, that dull roar of blood in your ears drowning out everything else. It’s not a new feeling to get home at the end of it and realize, thanks to the adrenaline your body has been spewing for hours, that you have a hard time remembering the details of what happened that day. It is, of course, a very old feeling, bitterly ironic and inescapably sincere: this is what it felt like during the ride home after. This is what it felt like to take a shower after. This is what it felt like to lie in my bed after. This is what it felt like to not feel anything after, for such a long time after.

The last Thursday and Friday of September 2018 were terrible days, even by the heightened standards of this relentlessly dark timeline. I sat at my desk at work, physically trembling with rage, unable to stop watching as a woman—as every woman, every survivor—was interrogated, denigrated, laughed at, disbelieved; watched her retraumatize herself for an audience who had already made up their minds that she was lying, and even if she wasn’t, who cares?

Do you remember what it felt like? It felt like this.

That Saturday, I woke up still angry—I’ve woken up with this particular anger every day since; may I wake up with it for as long as it takes—but less frozen. More frantic. Desperate to make something, generate something, add something, to combat that insidious, crushing feeling of having something repeatedly and violently taken away. My brain was still a rage furnace—not especially interested in complex, non-angry thought—so no writing, no composing, no drawing, no painting.

Instead, I ripped up the garden for the winter. I cut the last of the late-season herbs and washed and bundled them to dry on the line in my kitchen. I hacked back the overgrown burdock and ferns and nettles one last time—everyone should own a machete—and threw forty pounds of squash vines into a pile to be macerated back into the soil. I gathered wild nightshade and hemlock in a dark cloth bag and tucked it into a corner of my basement. Just in case.

I’m not an accomplished food gardener (the forty pounds of squash vines represented the total output of the squash plants), but I’m good with herbs. I grow mostly culinary herbs—thyme, oregano, mint, basil, all the hits—but also medicinal and ritual plants. Prunella vulgaris (self-heal or heal-all) has been used as a panacea in many parts of the world for thousands of years. And you can just grow it in your yard (it might be there already)! Echinacea and comfrey and calendula and—hateful but so useful—stinging nettles generally refuse not to grow, given even a hint of encouragement. It doesn’t take a special talent to produce or harvest or preserve these things. It doesn’t take elite skill to use them. Even still, growing and using plants, particularly for medicine, is something often seen as mysterious, uncanny, downright witchy.

I love it.

I love being witchy. I love being able to make effective sleep tonics in my thrift-store saucepan on my intermittently-cooperative gas stove.  I love having knives meant just for cutting roots and knives meant just for cutting flowers. I love going into the pantry and siphoning some self-heal tincture from a brown glass bottle to apply to a bee sting or a stovetop burn. I love being able to name these things. To use them. To make them myself, from things I grew myself, without spending ludicrous amounts of money just because someone else put it in a bottle with a hand-calligraphed label. I love how capable, how powerful this knowledge makes me feel, even though I exist and operate in a world structured to make me feel powerless. I love it, maybe most, because being witchy is tied almost exclusively to being female, regardless of the gender of the practitioner, and recognizing that, owning that, being that out loud, matters to me in ways that feel increasingly critical.

Witchiness, at least the kind of earthbound understanding that I’m interested in here, is powerful beyond its ability to heal and cure and solve. Its fundamental domesticity—using the humblest kinds of plants to do the humblest kinds of things—isn’t flashy or sexy or Buzzfeedy. Maybe the packaging of it is—witch stuff is so hot right now—but these methods have been around for millennia. Practiced by women, and others denied civic and cultural power, for millennia. Dealing with female bodies, with corrupting sicknesses, with the most intimate and unspeakable concerns: the unmentionable-yet-critical, understood and treated by the socially irrelevant, whose knowledge was sought desperately in dark corners but whose person was spurned in the town square. Don’t look at her. She’s a witch.

So it was. So it is. This is my heritage; this is my knowledge to acquire; this is my skill to share with whoever I choose, and that choice, like all choices, is power.

The practice of folk medicine and healing herbalism is highly stratified by race and class, as most things are. Poorer people need cheaper options; in many parts of the world, folk remedies for basic ailments can be, by virtue of ease of acquisition and low bar for participation, simpler to source and less costly to utilize, both administratively and financially, than more modern medicines (important note: essential oils can’t cure cancer, and the best thing for a bone sticking out of your leg is a hospital). Herbal practices are deeply ingrained in, and highly valued by, some cultures more than others. I don’t mean to imply it’s some obscure art—it’s daily life for many, including me. The green-and-brown parts, that is; I don’t ascribe much existential reverence to making poultices, though there’s unquestionably an element of the sacred waiting if that’s an important box to check. That said, the process of tending to a garden, of turning a plant into food or medicine, is certainly meditative and calming for me (I also mentioned growing ritual plants for ritual purposes, generally smudging and purification–sage, patchouli, the woody stalks left behind from lavender and rosemary).


I have extremely limited time for pop witchcraft; for cute-but-expensive pentagram necklaces and cute-but-expensive herbal tinctures and cute-but-expensive bundles of sage, for the smoothing and gentrifying of an occasionally grubby, weird-smelling practice into another thing defined by its marketability, an aesthetic divorced from utility. On a purely practical level, growing and harvesting herbs is a super-cheap way of resolving a lot of minor issues, from making food taste better to helping cuts heal faster—it’s not (just) cute, it’s useful.

The power that comes from knowledge, from ability, from usefulness, is something that is currently saving me more than a little. Both in a general sense, and now, here, in this cultural moment, it is something I can offer; it is a way of connecting to a larger history that is owned primarily by women, being too simple or too vulgar or too tedious for respectable men, with their important jobs and culturally-enforced expectations of physical and emotional labor from anyone perceived as weaker—historically, but also contemporaneously: just watch any commercial for a cooking or cleaning product. It’s a trope prevalent enough that even satire feels exhausted. The helpless man, unable to microwave even a single pizza bagel. The sainted woman, soothing him and bolstering him and doing it for him (sometimes she gently teases him, but she always does it for him in the end).

The sainted woman, solving the mundane problems too boring to merit a man acquiring even the most basic competency. Solving the mundane problems in a world where all the problems are mundane, unless they’ve been invented to make people who don’t know how to feed themselves feel more powerful than the people who do.

Which brings us back to the garden, ripped up and plowed back under. To finding and cultivating and nurturing power—to both create and destroy—when it is impossible to avoid being reminded of your powerlessness. This is what it felt like. This is what it felt like. This is what it felt like. Do you remember what it felt like? It felt like this.

It also feels like, yes, a groaningly overt metaphor: the seed, carefully tended, blooming into something fierce and unwieldy and destructive in the wrong hands. But whose hands are the right ones? I say this with deep certainty and conviction: mine. It is important—it is perhaps more important now than ever before—to understand how to care for oneself, how to tend to oneself. As a sexual assault survivor, a queer person born female far from wealth, a person who has little to lose, societally—not that my little won’t still be taken away as soon as it’s politically expedient—it’s more important now than ever to have something to push back with, stand up with, and for me that’s something more than a little witchy. Something deeply connected to female history, to the history of outsiders; something that still feels whispered and secret in a world in which whispers and secrets shared between the powerless are literally life-saving acts. Something simple, practical, and, yes, potentially dangerous in a way I know how to use if I am ever so endangered as to need it.

Which brings us back to the nightshade and hemlock, tucked in their dark bag in a cool, dry corner.

Look: I’m not advocating for poisoning your enemies (another traditionally feminine art).  I’m not advocating for poisoning anyone. I’m saying I keep these deadly plants, these weeds that grow freely and look dangerously like other, sweetly benign plants, because their unassuming prevalence, their quiet lethality, that soft little blossom and that perfect glossy berry packed full of poison, feels familiar. Feels comfortable. Feels maybe a little too on-the-nose, but I’ll take it. I’ll take these little avatars in my gloved hands—hemlock will burn your skin if you touch it—and care for them by leaving them alone to whisper to each other in the dark. Then, when they’ve made their plans, reached their fullest and most fatal potential, I’ll take them out and hold them and I’ll know what they can do, that I can hold that kind of power, that witchy power, here in my hand at this moment, and that will be something too.

Christina Collins is a writer, musician, and interdisciplinary artist currently living in Minneapolis.