Updated: May 19
Tack-a-ma-hack. Tac-a-ma-hac Tacamahac
I love the word’s sound in my ears; it’s staccato feel on my tongue.
Tacamahac. Tacamahac. Tacamahac
Murmuring, I slip away; to other places, other times.
Tacamahac Hack-ma-tack. Tacamahac
“Nobody will know what it is or what you mean if you call the oil Tacamahac!” they said. They were right but this understanding deepened my sadness, it did not relieve it. “Maybe if more people were just to say, Tacamahac or Hackmatack, we might remember something!” I muttered. So it has been over the years, private and public, my love affair with the tree called Black Cottonwood, Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa, balsam poplar, Balm of Gilead, Tacamahac by the Eastern native tribes, the Menominees and Forest Potowatomis, the Ojibwas. Gigantic member of the willow or Salicaceae family of plants, she is sovereign of the deciduous trees in the Northwest and resides beside North American rivers across the continent. She is the tree of life; cut her down and she spawns 1000 children.
October 8, 1998. The first wind of fall is gusting, blowing this way and then that. Daily temperatures are in a state of flux 72…58…67…63… Hot, cold…dry, wet signals to the great lady tree in the hedgerow behind RavenCroft, to button up her overcoat. All of a sudden, a great gust blows through her branches and she lets loose! Not just leaves, branches and twigs plummet to the ground as well. Some plunge with enough velocity to impale themselves 12 to 13 inches into the earth. I stand clear watching, amazed and grateful at this forthright offering!
This one, this great tall old woman, will leave us sometime soon. She will give way to new houses. Bulldozers will wrench from the earth the web of roots holding this tree intertwined with her alder and maple neighbors. Even if we could get a reprieve for the magnificent tree herself, without that tangled mass of roots, she wouldn’t make it through any wind of consequence.
At over 80 feet, she towers above every living thing on top of this hill. Her trunk, 20 feet in circumference at the base, pushes up from earth. First, to the southwest, then realizing the extent of her lean, she corrects and pulls herself back to the northeast in a sweeping curvaceous arch. Three human homes are within the strike zone of her full crown. Countless creatures live in her spreading branches and endless root system. It is estimated that she drinks several hundred gallons of water each day from the earth she stands rooted within. Whatever of that liquid not needed in growth is transpired into air in the water cycle continuum.
Her leaves sing a new song each season. The bursting song initiates early spring when warming temperatures of the vernal equinox raise enough energy for her to shatter the tight casings of her sweetly held leaves. Fairies use the scented bud casings littering the ground as hats to stay dry while dancing in the rains of spring. Next, comes the unfurling song. A quiet, almost silent voice, it requires meditative repose to hear. Enter such a state beneath her spreading limbs and you will hear a sensuous chorus, a million voices opening their throats to the sky. Vibrating in pulses of life, they perform the dance of unfurling, with it comes the song… Listen… Leaves opening, preparing the task soon to be theirs of photosynthesis. That holy meeting ground where leaves use sunlight’s energy to synthesize carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water in such a way that this cottonwood tree is the only possible result.
With summer comes fullness; the sound in the leaves sated and moist. Warm breezes ruffle them in passing, setting the song free. The great mother exhales warm with satisfaction as the job of growing is realized. Gently, a midsummer breeze caresses a plume filled with seed and releases it from the branch. Ever so joyously one fuzzy puff of summer snow is joined by myriad more until the air is a swirl with millions of Tacamahac yet to be! Tranquilly falling to earth and tumbling together in great fluffy billows, clouds of cottonwood seed fill gutters and scamper across roadways.
This song, too, is brief. Fullness soon passes. A raspy song, a scratchy song begins. She holds this sound through the beauty and stillness of Indian summer until that day when the gusts come. Those blustery winds of fall initiate the leaving song. It is sung until the last leaf falls to the sweet earth below to begin the journey anew. Dissolving, percolating, nutrient rich, seeping down to the roots to be drunk up, it will feed new leaves the strains of the bursting song in Spring.
November 23, 1998. Temperatures fluctuate from low 30’s to mid 50’s. Four days of strong winds and torrential rains bring the leaves down and the rivers up to nearly flood stage! A handful of golden heart-shaped leaves defy the season, laugh in the face of the raucous wind and hold fast to her crown.
Last week, on the sunny day, we raked golden leaves from the grass. Leathery leaves hid children; bamboo rakes worked in circles gathering piles; piles moved to chickens, scratching, hastening, otherwise, slow disintegration. Yet, just beyond the hedgerow leaf resins slow the organisms that transform these leaves to soil. There, a carpet of golden leaves melts into blackness undisturbed; singing the soggy song, the dark and decomposing melody of metamorphosis.
I have picked Balm of Gilead buds nearly every winter for 35 years. I have picked them from young trees along the banks of Washington rivers on both sides of the Cascades; my young sons acting as weights held limbs within reach. I have picked them from giant trees toppled by the hungry teeth of chain saws. I have picked them from a solitary ancient cottonwood standing in the middle of a hayfield in the Highlands of the Okanogan. I have picked them from gnarly old trees beside Palmer Lake, while sharp, cracking retorts of breaking ice heralded Spring’s return. In 1998, my familiar and guardian of the hill on which I live shed her limbs, a parting gift I treasure still in memory.
We picked up the broken, scattered limbs of that October blow and heaped them onto a sheet in the living room. A few days later we picked the buds, the truly given buds, from the brittle branches. Next year’s leaf buds formed and tightly wrapped in their resinous coating to wait out winter storms. The unfurling song tucked inside each one. Tacky, propolis scented golden pitch clung to our coated fingers.
In a jar filled with olive oil, the buds now steep, their year long maceration begun. A cotton cloth secured over the opening let’s the moist breath of the buds exhale. (Cover too tightly, the moist exhale sours the oil.) The long, slow marriage of oil and resin is underway. A daily stir the first 2 weeks (remember the beginning of marriage?). Finally, the oil-bud mixture rests and matures in a cool, dark place. Occasionally, I check it, like I check a sleeping child, placing my hand gently on it’s back to feel the breathing. Through the dark months of winter the oil transforms. The scent deepens its luxuriant, sonorous quality. Listen! Can you hear the songs in the naked; snow covered branches? The voice of the ancestors, their dreams live still...
Tacamahac, Tacamahac, Tacamahac
Anoint your skin lavishly.
Breathe deep the rich and resinous oil!
Savor its warmth and resonant scent
To ease your daily toil.
Tacamahac, Tacamahac, Tacamahac
Anoint your friends and family.
Sing songs of transformation.
Feel seasons dancing ‘round the wheel.
Join heartfelt restoration.
Tacamahac, Tacamahac, Tacamahac.