Detroit's wide distances between events are easy to traverse during the summer. There's no such thing as being in for the night in the neighborhoods. The city's landscape transforms into a buggy, wild garden, with structures abandoned and occupied alike becoming mantled in effulgent green.
Detroit in summer dress has always filled me with wonder at the sheer beauty of the greening landscape.The East Side neighborhood where I was raised would swell and sag across lawns and between houses with explosions of hosta, skunk cabbage, goldenrod, and tree of paradise. Fireflies would dart among the leaves at dusk- when the streetlights illuminated, the blue glow of television sets winked in windows, music drifted, kids yelled, and the air became thick enough to run your fingers through.
I didn't think of the wild growth in terms other than aesthetic appeal and abstract magic until I joined a group of women on a wildcrafting gathering that included foraging for wild-growing plants for food and medicinal purposes on the Summer Solstice. The act of wildcrafting joins an alternative means of gathering food with a tacit act of dissent against the status quo. It is distinct from farming in that it involves no cultivation of the land, rather ethical harvesting of what grows naturally in an urban or rural landscape. The act of dissent lies in the rejection of industrially farmed food and in the act of gathering food in a free, unregulated manner, without the intervention (or protection) of the agricultural industry. The gathering was led by Kate Daughdrill and Gretchen Gruenburg. Kate is an artist and proprietor of Burnside Farm, where we began and ended our walk, and learned how to preserve our haul in tincture form. Imagine sipping the essence of summer in Michigan next February. The farm's neighborhood has a laid-back vibrancy- with the farm a neighborhood hub.
Foraging down Detroit's many alleys and sleepy residential streets is a practice of venturing past accepted surfaces and looking into something more comprehensive and real. Learning to identify plants involves slowing down and looking, seeing the well-kepts homes and the immaculate, cultivated yards bursting with vegetables and flowers. The trimmed lawns and weedy alleys breathe life. Squash and grape vines creep up towering, handbuilt arbors.
The crisscrossing alleys near Burnside are dense with tangled weeds. The experienced foragers began pointing out particular flowers and leaf shapes. Giant sorrel. Motherwort. Pink-blossomed yarrow. Curly dock, with its grainy, conical head. The more familiar flora such as goldenrod and shepherd's purse, stuff I dig out of my garden and toss en masse, were revealed as nutritious foods and home remedies. I learned that a tea brewed from tender little ground ivy leaves can help flush out heavy metals from the body. As a painter, I could benefit from that. It made me marvel at how thin, how institutionalized my understanding of the world around me was. And then... Comfrey. Kate was pointing at a large, fuzzy-leafed plant with a cluster of phallic purple blossoms as a crown. That was comfrey. Another woman had mentioned that certain individuals needed particular plants and were drawn to them, and that certain plants, like motherwort, have an “affinity” for certain parts of the body- motherwort supposedly goes straight to the uterus, easing cramps and promoting tone. Comfrey figured heavily as a magical healing plant in the fiction of my childhood. Whole chapters of Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel are devoted to blow-by-blow accounts of the protagonist, Alya, foraging for comfrey and other wild herbs in a prehistoric landscape. When I was seventeen, I found a small tin of comfrey salve in a New Age shop in Greenwich Village. I bit my cuticles to pieces in those days, and when I knew I had a date in a few days I'd smear them with the comfrey salve, which healed them practically overnight. I used the last of it on the first boyfriend I had in college, after accidentally biting him during sex.
Despite all that, I never touched, tasted, or learned to identify the living plant until yesterday. I now have a tincture of comfrey leaves sealed in a jar, which should be ready to heal from inside, watered down and drank, in around six weeks. The workshop was empowering in gaining knowledge and a sense of self-sufficiency, and in the free exchange of views that went, unchecked, throughout the afternoon. Each woman contributed her knowledge, and listened to what the other women had to say. It was the longest day of the year, and we were experiencing the revolutionary magic of gathering our own provisions direct from the earth, in the sultry, wet June air. I certainly hope for more chances like the wildcrafting gathering to deepen my knowledge of my city, and what it has to offer, this summer.