My friend Lucy’s farmer neighbors, who are named Brown and raise brown cows, have a large colony of sweet flag (Acorus calamus) — a favorite brewing herb of mine — growing in the boggy corner of a pasture, and since the cows weren’t eating it we stopped by to ask if we could dig some.
Nobody was home; they were all out in the barn castrating pigs. One of the Farmers Brown paused long enough to smile and say sure, take all you want. She was young, fit and efficient-looking with frighteningly white teeth.
It was dusk. The closest cows looked enormous as they chewed and steamed. I rolled under the electric fence, dug into the muck with a giant fork and came up with a savory tangle of white roots.
The aroma was unmistakable, musky and strong, with hints of nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon—the quintessence of spice. It was more than mere imagination that led Walt Whitman to associate it with lust and the Lakota Indians to chew the root and rub it on their faces before going into battle in order to quell fear. Medieval Christians strewed the leaves on the floors of churches during holy week so its incense would rise from underfoot. A strong and complex smell can evoke such a mixture of emotional responses.
To me, sweet flag stands for something holy, too. This I believe: that no matter how crowded the earth gets, it will always have ungrazed corners and so-called vacant lots, feral, unclaimed or neglected places that together constitute an unoffical country whose flags are legion, albeit unrecognized by any government. Even as species disappear and ecosystems collapse, the natural world will remain sovereign and will still harbor inexpressible sweetness and delight.
There must’ve been enough sweet flag in that small corner of the pasture for 100 batches of beer. We stopped when we filled a small bag—if I need more, I know where to get it. The farmers were so good at their work, we never heard a squeal.