Everything that can act on a body exists on the scale between help and harm, between medicine and poison. ‘The body’ as artefact, object: the body is acted upon.
Morphology is the study of form. Tiny specks of basil or lettuce seed. The particular and beloved pitted shape of phacelia. Botanical drawings of the different stages of a life cycle. The days were cyclical. Parable of the sower: the seeds that fell in cracks, among stones, on hard earth, and could not grow.
People fetishise the natural, forgetting that the names for compounds drawn from plants sound alien also. For example, digoxin is derived from foxgloves (Digitalis), and used to treat heart conditions. Early attempts to use foxgloves therapeutically resulted in death, because the changes in concentration of its active compounds over its flowering period were not understood. Typically these compounds are most concentrated right before flowering. Help and harm from the same thing.
In early agricultural societies about half the harvest went to brewing alcohol. Large crops necessitated long-term residence. Booze lubricates the social gears but dependency removes the implicit sanction, turns into a PSA where you smash your mum through the coffee table. And love is supposed to be good for you, like a glass of whiskey for a sore throat. From nineteen to twenty-two I was bound in love and alcohol to a boy older and unkind. When you adopt someone else’s habit, every occasion calls for a drink. Commiseration, celebration, already being high. The encroaching vine on the fence outside our room flowered. The seed pods burst off in the heat and I’d find them in bed.
Cabbage moths and their eggs on every leaf. Aphids like a living carpet on the stem of the huge Russian kale. And every problem with its series of possible solutions, varying in its potential to harm other life (spider mites skittering along fragrant tomato leaves; ‘you sound like my mother’ at every quashed hint of discomfort). I tried to make a garlic spray and the hot water melted the plastic bottle. The plants all have hard limits placed on them by time: bodies woody and withered with the change in season. A living thing, every part with inherent issues, solutions, impacts, inevitable end. An expanding net. A web you are nowhere near the centre of. Gone to seed early, bolting. It’s so hard to change something already started, and I had a hand to hold that smashed crockery and punched me in the head in my sleep.
I got told that if you’re using kawakawa leaves, it’s best to pick the ones the caterpillars have already left holes in. Activates its defences. Silphium is a podcast-worthy factoid, the origin of the heart shape we use to represent love. It was an abortifacient harvested out of existence. Every attempt to cultivate it failed. Looked a bit like fennel. Now when you want to take surreptitious control of your body you google things like vitamin C megadose. Make a marshmallow root infusion to support mucous membranes, when you should be researching warning signs for what happens when you say it’s over. Unannounced visits to pick up his things, one by one.
Roots grow slow and subterranean. Sat on a chair in the sun, surrounded by the plants, felt outside of life and death. Sprayed the garlic spray.
Then, with the house finally empty of this other person and their cycles, nights gaped ahead. Like the foxgloves, it’s difficult to standardise the effect substances or time have on a body. I didn’t drink again for a while.
Alex Gerrans is a nonfiction writer from Brisbane. Her essays and reviews have featured in the Guardian, Meanjin and Overland online, among others.