From 100 days of solitude, Day 96 (December 18, 2014)
The weatherman lied about today: he had predicted sunshine and clear skies but there was rain. Thursday was marked with a big yellow sun and the morning delivered. I got up and the sky was wide open and the yellow sun was climbing higher towards the peak of 17 degrees that had been promised, urging me to match it with a promise of my own, made for the next such day of yellow sun. So I got dressed, grabbed a large plastic bag and a pair of secateurs, strapped my rucksack to my back, and set off to pick sage.
Sage loves this island. It grows out of the hard, dry soil; it grows out of the rock faces, alongside oregano and spiky wild thyme. It grows on the edges of the fields and on the side of the road. The air is scented with it, a heavy, heady smell, sweet but earthy, uplifting and calming at the same time, with a hint of the medicinal and the meditative. To snap a branch off a bush and rub the leaves between your fingers is to know why this common herb is considered so powerful, why it’s been used for healing and cleansing for thousands of years, at every place in the world where it grows. Celtic druids and Native American shamans have traditionally used it to ward off evil and cleanse the spirit, and new age shops sell sage smudge sticks to hopeful Westerners, to wave about their homes. Its name, salvia officinalis, stems from the Latin salvere, which means to save, to heal, and a sage is a person of wisdom. And it’s all there, between your fingers, as it releases its scent.
Salvia officinalis, common sage. There is nothing common about it, but the fact that it grows everywhere makes me smile: according to English folklore, sage grows best where the wife is dominant. It doesn’t surprise me, its abundance on this island. There’s something feminine about it, in its subtle but consistent presence in this rough, rugged land, how it stands quiet and fragrant, always in the margins, with its soft leaves and its strong scent. How it doesn’t advertise its power and yet everybody knows. It reminds me of the women I’ve met in the last few months, ruling from the sidelines, from where they can watch everyone who goes past.
I had been meaning to pick some sage and then I promised: next sunny day I would walk down to the port, and fill a bag along the way. This is the best time for it, Margarita told me, after the first heavy rains have rinsed it clean. There’s something incredibly rewarding in picking herbs growing wild out of the rocks. Just walking along and bending down and picking. Growing your own vegetables is close, but not the same. That takes some planning and some work and it’s a good feeling when salad leaves appear in your garden and then on your plate, but you’re still the one who put them there. Wild things grow wild regardless of your intentions, and it’s almost like they were put there for you. It’s like a gift; it’s like the way the world was put together making sense, for a moment, when you walk along the road and fill your arms with sage. And you don’t even have to rinse it because it’s been washed by the rain.
It rained this afternoon, but the day delivered half its promise and the sun shone as I walked towards the port. I came back as the clouds began to gather, with a bagful of sage and my own promise kept. I laid the sage out in the spare bedroom, on towels, to dry, and then I laid myself in bed, in that eerie glow of cloud-filtered light, and listened to the patter of the rain against my window. It didn’t patter for long: it soon began to pound, and the shutters rattled as the wind picked up and threw sheets of rain, hard, against the glass. I got up to close the shutters and lay in darkness now, listening to the thunder and the wind, with the lingering smell of sage on my fingers. I lay in darkness and thought about power and wisdom and sages and sage, healing and being saved, and how I would make bundles and give them as gifts, and pass the gift on, once the sage had dried.
I lay in my bed as the unpredicted storm raged outside and washed the herbs and the plants and the roads and houses clean, as the scent of sage, subtle but powerful, drifted through the house and, for a moment, it was like I had wisdom, like I’d been washed clean by the rain. Like the way the world is put together made sense.
This is Day 96 from my book 100 days of solitude, documenting my experience of living alone on the island of Sifnos during the autumn and winter of 2014. I’m back on Sifnos now; I went sage-picking this morning, and it reminded me of this – the first time. If you’d like to read more of 100 days of solitude, you can buy it on Amazon, or email me for a free preview of the first 15 days.