The hunt for red clover

My close friend Michal, the one who was once a virulent rhetorical racist but who for the sake of my friendship silenced his opinions on the subject of the Roma ten years ago, has leukemia. He had a stroke last fall and the budding leukemia was apparently the cause of it. He’s only in his mid forties and he has two pre-teen sons, a lively wife and a country home in the Iron Mountains of East Bohemia. We have all been utterly shocked by his sudden health problems. He had always been a vibrantly healthy man, physically strong and active, living one of the healthiest lifestyles you’re likely to see in the modern world.

I was thinking of him, because I recently called his wife, Kamila, to see if we should come and visit any time this summer. The answer is no. They are a two-hour drive from here and they aren’t up to a major visit these days. Michal started a six-month schedule of monthly chemotherapy rounds in April. My herbal medicine chest is growing but didn’t yet have the most important anti-cancer herbal preparations, which most importantly sooths the nasty side effects of chemotherapy. That’s red clover, at best red-clover tincture. It’s such a humble herb that my herbalist friends scoff at it but the books say it works. I have yet to try it. Ever since an elderly friend here in Mnichovice was found to have lung cancer last year, I have been trying to figure out how to get enough red clover to make a tincture. It is fairly common but usually only in small clumps, and it is hard for me to see, so I decided to grow it.

That is a process that takes many months however. After Christmas, I ordered seeds from a specialized seed company – Heirloom Seeds, one of the few companies I am ever going to give free advertising – and planted the starts early in the spring. I now have three nice looking bushy plants but not enough flower tops to speak of. I gathered what I could but it would make no more than a few cups of tea, and this is one of those herbs that you have to take in fairly large doses, like at least three cups a day for quite awhile to make a difference. Tincture is easier and quicker of course but even with that you need quite a bit of the flowers.

I was missing some other key herbs, so when my morning classes were cancelled on Friday and the sun was out but not hot, I decided that Shaye and I would climb to the top of steep Bozkov hill, a significant hike through the suburbs, and walk out across the top of the ridge between Mnichovice and the town of Miresovice, where there is a lot of unused land. It is perfect for herbs, high enough to be out of all the smog and thus ecologically clean and unused enough to grow weeds and yet occasionally thinned, so that it is not a tangle of brush and thickets but more like rough meadow land.

When I was dreaming of having children, one of my favorite fantasies was that we would walk up there and collect herbs. Ha! Even I knew that was a fantasy. Collecting herbs with small children is a lot easier dreamed than done, particularly when the expedition requires a steep half-mile climb up a narrow road frequented by the SUV drivers who have only recently acquired access to cars larger than a hatch back. As a result, this is only the second time that I have been up there with Shaye for the purpose of gathering herbs.

As we slogged up the hill, Shaye started to ask a string of “What’s that?” questions, whether about a flower, a bug or the noise of a chainsaw. I noted this new phenomenon happily. I know most parents get very tired of “What’s that?” from two-year-olds, but I haven’t come anywhere close to being tired of it yet and I think it will take some time, given that it is such a huge improvement over babbling and whining. I like to talk and will happily explain whatever object or noise Shaye wants to point out. But more importantly than that, it is a sign of a new linguistic stage which I noticed dawning in her just two days ago.

It was odd. I went to get her up from her nap and she snuggled into my arms and said, “Papa is here. Papa outside.” She had obviously heard him outside in the garden as she woke up and was happy about it. This is simple enough but it marked a significant divergence from most of the things she had said before. “I want it.” “Come here.” “Go away.” “That’s mine!” Most of her sentences or phrases of more than just one word were up until very recently rote phrases, things she had heard repeated again and again in exactly that phrasing and that she parroted like a single word.

I sensed that afternoon that something had clicked. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was at the time but I did note the exact time when it happened and, from a linguist’s point of view, that is great fun. Ever since then, she has been generating original sentences at an increasing rate – “Shaylinka and Mama up up up hill.” “Gabina play lego.” And so on and naturally she does it both in English and it Czech. She is no officially bilingual. So, her newfound fascination with asking “What’s that?” is a welcome sign that she is taking both her languages by the horns.

In any event, we made it to the top of the hill, sat down for a snack of a banana and a few sips of water from Shaye’s sippy cup and, then, we set out across the top of the ridge. We quickly found a bit of St. John’s Wart and then, to my delight, a new herb that I have been studying, called Canadian Fleabane, which is supposed to be miraculous for severe infant diarrhea and even cholera. We continued on, Shaye walking the whole time, except for when we ventured off the tracks worn through the tall weeds by the occasional tractor. I didn’t expect her to last nearly as long as she did. We made it all the way to what I used to call the Secret Meadow. It is about as far as I have ever wanted to go on a brief walk before and it isn’t on the way to anywhere else. So, I used to think it was a dead end, blocked by cliffs and the train tracks and the brambles around them.

But as we came to it this time, I could see that there was a new tractor track running right through it and down the steep hill. It hadn’t just been driven once either, but apparently many times. So, the meadow isn’t so secret any more. No wonder. Here, so close to the exponentially expanding Prague suburbs, it is impossible to have a truly secret natural place. But it still has its spectacular view of the forested hills rolling away to the East. And there at the very upper edge of the meadow, where the view is most enchanting, I found a huge patch of red clover, the only red clover I had seen all day. With my eyes, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there but still I was delighted. I broke out the rest of Shaye’s snack and went to work collecting blossoms. I picked until Shaye was cranky and I was worried that she would be a wreck by the time we trekked all the way back through the ‘burbs to our house.

That was frustrating because I knew that from where we stood our house was probably not even a mile away, just separated from us by a steep slope covered with brambles and the occasional sheer rock face. Not the sort of terrain to try exploring in with a two-year-old. But then I thought, there was the tractor track. With that much wear it had to be going somewhere. It wasn’t just the track of one tractor going down to the far edge of the meadow to cut hay. If it went down far enough, it would eventually join the main road from the town of Miresovice and that would take us home much more swiftly. So, as I was still feeling uncommonly strong and invigorated, I decided to risk the possibility that the track would dead-end and we would have to climb back up it, trek across the ridge and go back down the way we had come. We walked down the track quite a ways and I was beginning to feel quite hopeful. The rail line that runs at about halfway down the slope came into view below us but then the track started to fade out, becoming rougher and fainter. The piles of slash and fresh stumps all around attested that the track had been a used for woodcutting, but still I couldn’t quite believe that we would have to backtrack all the way up the hill and over the top. It would be almost impossible for even a sturdy tractor to pull a load of wood up the sheer slope we were on. It was much more likely that someone had driven the tractor down with a trailer, loaded it and continued on down.

We finally reached the rail line and I could see that, where a tunnel allowing passage under the tracks should be in a ravine, there was a pile of brush instead. I told Shaye to wait up the ravine where she could watch me and I climbed down a rough slope to inspect the problem. And sure enough, the brush had been piled intentionally to hide the opening to the tunnel but there was a hidden hole at one side, big enough for a person on foot. Through it I could see a good dirt road continuing on the other side. As I climbed back up to retrieve Shaye and my basket of hard-won red clover, I saw a hand-written sign tacked to a tree, “Private property. Please don’t take our wood.” That explained the brush screen. This was “private land” but the owners were either not allowed by some ordinance or unable to fence it, and in this country unfenced land and anything on it is generally considered fair game. So, the brush had been put there to discourage would-be lumber thieves.

Shaye and I clambered down to the tunnel and continued on the dirt road, which did indeed lead to the main Miresovice road as I had hoped. After an unpleasant hike on the very edge of the extremely narrow but heavily traveled highway, with Shaye on my shoulders for safety, we made it home, basket and all. And I have the red clover tincture brewing.

I returned to a mildly unpleasant email from a bureaucrat, from whom I am seeking help to find a way around the regional adoption officials who are blocking our chances of adopting another child. But it turned out to be mostly a small misunderstanding, that I believe I cleared up with another email, to which she responded promptly and more positively. Still the process drags on, but summer is really and truly here, with watermelon in the stores and lettuce, chard and the first zucchinis in the garden.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kathy Mangan
    Jun 18, 2011 @ 20:04:19

    In your previous post about gathering herbs, you were wondering if you would have been able to gather herbs if you had adopted another child.

    I am thinking you are exactly where you need to be and all the knowledge of herbs and dealing with bureaucrats will be of value in the future. I was encouraged to retire last year and everything I have done since then has been of value to learn who I am and what I can do.. Take care. Kathy


  2. Peter Farnam
    Jun 19, 2011 @ 00:42:58

    A great story! I think I may have found that tunnel the last time I was there. Ember was with me I think. So sorry to hear about “Michal”. This is the first I have heard. I hope he gets better soon.


  3. Beverly
    Jun 22, 2011 @ 23:58:10

    Arie, you are amazing.
    from Holly’s Aunt Beverly


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