Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Live Forever

Lana Kim McGeary

My grandmother Adele grew herbs in her Vermont garden and hung bunches of comfrey, red clover, sweet cicely, lovage and lemon thyme from her kitchen ceiling to dry. Rosehips tangled by her back door through which the resident garter snake slithered often enough to be named Henry/Henrietta. Adele used to serve nasturtiums in a salad bowl the size of a baby's bathtub and was fond of saying, in reference to the healthy habits she energetically espoused: "You'll live forever if you're not careful!" and "Everything in moderation, including moderation!"

When I hear about a woman who gives walking tours of edible herbs in Mile End and on Mount Royal, of course I think of Adele.

A friend points out Lana Kim McGeary to me at the Social Club on St-Viateur. She's an herbalist who enjoys strong coffee. I sidle up to her and mention that my grandmother Adele Dawson was an herbalist. She says, "Of course I know Adele Dawson! She's famous!"

I love that she says this, and that she uses the present tense. It's as if Adele is right here, even though she died 17 years ago.

After meeting Lana, who says that Adele was a pioneer in bringing back the tradition of the Wise Woman or village healer, I go home. For the first time, I Google my grandmother –someone who never heard that term. It turns out that Adele is alive on the internet. I have a copy of her book Herbs: Partners in Life, but I didn't know it was in its third printing and available for sale online. There are even customer comments on Amazon that say, "I liked Dawson's voice," and "her writing style is friendly and wise."

This makes my eyes sting, although it shouldn't surprise me that Adele is still making herself heard. A few years ago, I transcribed some of my favourite passages from her book because I liked the way her personality bubbled off the page.

"No one wants to take a chance on having a parsley shortage," she writes, making me think I've been remiss not to have ever worried about this. In an assertion that sounds counter-intuitive, she says: "Another healthy and appetizing addition to the salad bowl is the stinging nettle." (That's if you get to the plant before it grows too prickly.)

She provides a recipe for a summer drink made with comfrey, violet and raspberry leaves and mint, and then advises the reader to "wait smugly for the inevitable delighted comments of your guests."

That's Adele –waiting smugly for the inevitable delighted comments of her guests! She was always so confident and satisfied with her efforts, it only made sense for everyone else to appreciate them, too. She liked to say she was a NBEOE –a Natural Born Expert on Everything– and, after a Vermont newspaper once referred to her as a state treasure, she often shamelessly augmented her status, declaring, "I'm a national treasure, you know!"

So, it's because of my grandmother Adele, herbalist, national treasure and NBEOE, that I find myself sitting on a sunny slope at the base of Mount Royal with Lana, who's leading a Mountain Herb Walk.

I've met Lana a few times by now and talking to her always feels like a little trip to Vermont somehow, or, as if Adele is making an appearance in my neighbourhood. Lana pays attention to the plants that grow in the cracks in the sidewalk and was able to identify the sprawling green overtaking our infinitesimal yard: "Ground ivy," she noted. "Very good for kids, for fevers."

Now it's early October and the leaves on Mount Royal are just starting to turn. It was a weekend like this, 24 years ago, back when I was a teenager, that I went to Adele's 80th birthday party. It was two days long, with guests spilling out of the house into the garden. There was a pig and a lamb roasting outside, and cake, and 80 bottles of champagne. Friends and family members from all over had every motel from Marshfield to Plainfield booked solid.

On the mountain, I feel the sun on my back and wonder how many people throw themselves a party like that at 80.

Lana is talking about the pharmacopoeia that is the dandelion. She mentions eating the tender greens in the spring and using the root for tinctures in the fall. "Some say there is nothing the dandelion can't heal," she says.

Her language is familiar to me and so are the names of the other plants she points out on our walk, not that I could recognize them growing. Burdock, wild ginger and stinging nettle –that healthy and appetizing addition to the salad bowl!

Further up Mount Royal the city recedes, the birds are more audible under the canopy of maples, the traffic fainter; it's more like Vermont.

I've been wondering about it and I realize I don't know exactly when Adele became an herbalist. I consult with my mother and my aunt.

They say that it was after she moved to Vermont, adding that it may have been inspired by a life-changing remedy of boneset tea that cured her of Dengue fever while she was in the West Indies.

Adele was almost 60 when she started a new life. That's when she planted a garden and threw herself into learning about herbs. She collected a library of books on the subject, studied hard and figured out how to use them.

"She would give out herbs, but also advice, " my Aunt Susie remembers.

"I never knew how much to take seriously," my mother says. "We were never sure. She had such utter confidence about everything. I do remember being impressed that she was able to identify so many wild plants."

Our family tended to see Adele as an unreliable narrator because she'd always been an extravagant storyteller, an instinctive embellisher, the ultimate self-appointed expert.

But as Lana points out, part of herbalism is learning as much as you can yourself so you don't have to rely on healthcare experts. It's DIY, and Adele was a natural on that front.

Of course, I'm only scratching the surface here. Many may want to weigh in, family members included, or especially. While I'm at it, maybe I should confess that I still have Adele's copy of Culpeper's Herbal that I borrowed from her library of books on herbs (a collection that really should stay intact) approximately 13 years ago. I may be unreliable myself.

Birthday parties aside, there were always people at Adele's. Artists, potters, dowsers, woodworkers, writers, travelers. She had housemates like a college student. And she had followers. I remember being surprised by the reverence they sometimes displayed, as if they didn't know she was a whole person with a sense of humour and mischief, a stubborn side, and a temper like a sudden hailstorm.

One time one of her admirers asked me, "How does it feel to be Adele's grand-daughter?"

How to answer a question that was not really about me? I felt too dull, quiet and shy to be the granddaughter of a natural-born national treasure, but that didn't seem like much of an answer.

Meeting Lana spurred me to consider the question again. For my answer, see above.

Herbs: Partners in Life

For more information on Lana Kim McGeary's walking tours and workshops, contact her at: abundanceliving (at)