Down to Earth: Bath Herb Collections

| December/January 1996

  • Illustration by michael eagleton

As a child, I loved to gather seeds, acorns, Kentucky coffee beans, fishhooks, bits of interesting wood, and rocks with holes in them. Too often, though, these treasures ended up in the washing machine. “James Edward,” my mother would scold, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you! When will you learn to start emptying out your pockets before your clothes go into the wash?” Even so, she never discouraged me from making my collections.

Once, I decided to turn our empty chicken house into a museum. I’d spread out all of my things so that I could find and fondle them. I’d arrange my dried seed heads by shape, keeping the bundle of rudbeckias next to the bundle of purple coneflowers. One area would have just pods—sweet pea pods, false indigo pods, pods of all kinds. There would be another place for the arrowheads I found in plowed fields and still another for the rusty pieces of iron from the alley where an old house had been.

But my mother said a firm, quiet “No.” I would not be allowed to make the chicken hutch my repository; there would be no museum beyond my boxes, shelves, drawers, and pockets. My mother didn’t share my vision, but she continued to encourage me to ­gather and collect things—and to find uses for them.

To decide what kind of bath blend we would make, we spread out all of the ­materials on her large deck, which overlooks a ­pristine Ozarks ­valley.

Nearly two decades ago, I met Billy Joe, who is a lot like me. She, too, likes to collect seeds, plants, leaves, feathers, rocks, and other interesting objects. From the rafters of her kitchen dangle a hundred or so good-sized bundles of herbs, harvested from her garden or gathered from the woods and nearby meadows. She makes many useful things from her herb hoard—a fact that would make my parents happy.

One morning, Billy Joe invited me over to help her mix bath herbs. She told me to bring wood moss and peach leaves, both plants she knew I ­collected and dried, and any rosemary, marjoram, or roses I might have on hand. I enjoyed the three-hour drive to her house in the cool air of early winter. When I arrived, Billy Joe was busy taking down dried bundles of herbs from the rafters.

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