This adventure to collect the ruby red took place over the course of several years in the early springtime a decade or more ago. Events have changed the character of the setting but it still remains vivid in my memory.
North Idaho is where I grew up and return to in-between adventures to other lands. The Panhandle with its many mountains and lakes is beautiful and I’ve spent many hours being nurtured by its wild environment. I’ve enjoyed swimming, fishing, and boating on Lake Pend ‘d Oreille, just 60 miles south of the Canadian border. This jewel of a lake drains west down the Ponderay River past the community of Sandpoint. I’ve searched its shorelines for arrowheads and found a few but I’ve had more luck finding shards of vintage china and colored glass. Some early settlers dumped their rubbish into the river and over time, remnants of it reappear when the flood gates are opened at Albani Falls Dam and the lake level is lowered for the winter season. Exposed to the action of rain and snow, freezing and thawing, pieces of dishware and rusty iron scraps surface from under the sand and silty clay come springtime.
Also along the river’s shoreline, just downriver from the water treatment plant on the outskirts of the town, is an old graveyard. Bearing the headstones of pioneer families and the founding citizens of Sandpoint, Lakeview Cemetery is situated with a glorious view of the river. The granite and marble grave markers glow green in damp weather, covered with numerous species of moss and etched by lichen. The growing roots of large trees have tumbled many of the markers and the stones await resetting. Old climbing rose bushes sprawl over the graves of a few individuals as if spreading comforting cloaks of floral protection.
When walking along the northern shoreline of the river, you can easily spot the cemetery by the pile of rusting, antique car chassis that help stabilize the bank along its boundary. This is also the location of an old dump spot and has provided me with some of my nicest decorated pieces of broken china. Towering Black Cottonwood trees have also chosen this protected spot to sink roots deep into the riverbank. It is because of the swollen spring buds on the cottonwood trees that I am drawn to Lakeview for they are the source of the ruby red I am seeking.
Some of the trees’ roots are exposed to the action of the river and show they are integral to the jumble of auto bodies, brambles, willows and trashed plastic flowers. I’ve often found wind-downed budded twigs and branches atop this pile which required extra caution to extricate from the mishmash of vegetation. Above on the level of the graveyard, the lowest, overhanging cottonwood branches are at a perfect height for me to stand and pluck a few of their swollen buds. My selection of buds is judicious for I do not wish deplete my future supply. I prefer finding branches knocked down by the winds.
Perching overhead in the bare branches or nearby in the Douglas fir trees, bald eagles often keep me company. They are watching for the opportune moment to attack waterfowl sunning on the river’s shore or shoved against the icy bank by a stiff breeze.
The buds of Populus balsamifera spp.trichocarpa need several periods of deep freezing followed by thawing, sunny days to enliven the resin content in the buds. There have been years when the weather has been too mild to make a good, robust oil. Fortunately this is usually not the case and I am able to fill several jars with sticky, aromatic buds from around the community. They are then covered with a choice, organic olive oil and kept warm until, through the alchemy of extraction, the green liquid transforms into a fragrant and beautiful ruby red oil. At this point, the oil is called Balm of Gilead. We usually let it mature a few weeks longer before the final decanting.
The ruby red, ambrosial oil is used as the main ingredient in Michael’s salves for minor skin irritations and muscle complaints, just in time for early spring gardening activities. I make a whipped body butter from a small amount of the infused oil mixed in with wild rose petal-infused coconut oil, shea butter, grapeseed oil and a few drops of lavender essential oil. It smells divine and is rapidly absorbed into the skin, leaving it soft and silky, especially after a shower or bath.
The rituals of collecting, honoring ancestral connections, communing with the eagles, and mindful making of the oils, salves and body butters become part of their healing magic.
As the spring season progresses, the ice thaws, the dam gates on the river lower, the lake level inches upward, the eagles return to the river and scour the waters for fish and the Populus trichocarpa buds mature, releasing their cottony seeds to drift through the graveyard. Spring turns into summer.