Basil, it is said, wards off dragons. I learned this long after having started growing basil in the big clay pot on the deck. Long after having mastered the technique the witty and beautiful people of the Food Network call “chiffonade” (the process of rolling the deep green leaves into tiny cigars and slicing them into slender ribbons of fragrance). Long after having decided that, when the time comes, I’d like my casket filled with fresh-cut basil so that I can leave this world surrounded by the scent of spring.
I learned it, in fact, only recently and cannot attest to the truth of the statement, but it does occur to me that whatever beasts of the dragon variety may live in the far reaches of the branch behind Sandhill have been held at bay to date.
I am a farmer’s daughter. I know a little something about sowing and reaping. Seeds or plants go into the ground with the eye toward reproduction, multiplication, harvest of more than that with which you started. In a world of insecticides and fungicides and herbicides and outside the realm of organic farming, there’s not a lot of planting for defensive purposes.
So the whole idea of this tiny little plant arresting the advance of a monster arouses my curiosity and the thought that what we plant, what we grow, what we tend and nurture does more than produce, but also prevent now has me wondering about the other green things I’ve stuck into the ground like stockade poles. I’m not necessarily concerned with whether the chinaberry tree — that source of my father’s constant wonderment — has some part in forestalling the advance of ogres or whether the thyme and sage guard against trolls. I’m not even thinking about whether the azaleas, the hydrangeas, the hostas are anything more than decoration, sort of like the Queen’s Guard outside Buckingham Palace — standing there and looking nice, but not much of a defense against the wildness that would overtake the yard in a matter of weeks left untended.
I’m thinking of other lands, more exploitable and vulnerable lands. Miles and miles of what the old westerns called the frontier, that which lies beyond a boundary, beyond what is known. The ground that is most susceptible to dragons and other hellish creatures is not that which creeps beneath my fingernails or blackens the bottoms of my bare feet. It is not surveyable, conveyable, devisable acreage. It is the interior real estate. The land of the heart, the soul.
There is a reason we call it a stream of thought. A field of study. A flood of emotions. The landscape within has its own topography. Rivers and creeks of memory and curiosity, pastures and deserts of interest and intellect, tides and currents of anger and sadness and love.
Often sight-seen and visited, occasionally occupied or squatted upon, frequently over-logged or strip-mined, but only rarely, I think, is the heart, the soul cleared for construction of a home, a place to stay. Too seldom do we, do I, unroll the plat and walk the lines, dig under the fallen leaves to find the rebar set at the corner so we know what is ours.
It is not impossible, however. Too seldom doesn’t mean never. The terrain of one’s heart can be learned like the farmer, the hunter, the hiker learns a piece of land — with intention and attention. With slowness of pace and undistracted vision. With time, lots and lots of time.
I went walking in the woods the other day, scooting carefully down the hill from the path over the pond dam into a circus tent of bright green leaves. It had been a long time since I’d given myself over to purposeless roaming and it felt good to be surrounded by nothing but tall trunks and slender branches. I did not pay attention to where I was going. I didn’t have to. I have spent hours walking these woods. I know them. I know what grows there.
I believe I know the countryside of my heart and mind just that well. I believe I know what grows there. And, just in case there are dragons, I’ve planted basil.