WHY "SASSAFRAS" ?
Here we are, a vibrant ADF grove, nearly fourteen years along the road (at 2011, nearly 20!) and it’s occurred to me that I have never published anything to explain the choice of our grove’s name...
Well, back in the mid eighties when the first ADF groves were being formed, Isaac had suggested the custom naming of groves after species of trees, perhaps trees native to or emblematic of one’s area and/or having some other symbolic or mythic value. The tree-name policy was never a firm rule and it had also been suggested that as an alternate, the name of one’s grove could convey themes from the Lore, patron deities, or even something more like a clan-totem designation. Suffice it to say, I chose a tree name and in no time at all less than half of the other groves ended up taking tree-names (-sigh-).
I wish I had some profound metaphor or mystery-teaching to present here but I can’t say there’s been one Great Secret of the Name to reveal. Who knows, the Sassafras tree certainly presents a number special features we could spin something out of... but the fact remains that the Sassafras has simply always been a strong and very personal symbol-link to me.
It’s a link to my childhood and personal past; it’s a link to my life long personal connection to the land: this land; this region; my region; my territory. It is a personal symbol of my quickening: that time in my youth; in my late teens; when the woods and the landscape and the sky and the raging sea of images, spirit and inspiration-from-within filled me to overflowing -- overflowing with a deep love for Home and Place and a very un-christian love for This World. It was a time of my life filled with magic, camaraderie, rejoicing and communication, all afflicting me in turn with an overwhelming, almost debilitating, need to share... a burden with which I struggle to this very day.
Back around 1961 when I was little, my brother Christopher, nine years my senior, was going through what one might call his Dan’l Boone phase. When he wasn’t listening to his classical music collection he was spending much of his time outside in the woods of our still-rural neighborhood, chopping dead trees into logs, building fences and fire-pits, checking his Victor-traps for muskrats every morning before school, then skinning his catch and salting the pelts after school. I remember the fascination with which I watched him swing his axe or clean and skin an animal. A revolting sight, yes, but still no real challenge in my eyes to the horror of a steaming plate of canned spinach.
Chris introduced me to Sassafras the way I feel everyone should get their introduction: the blackened Billy-Can. A “Billy” is a uniquely Australian piece of outdoor equipment and it was one of Chris’ two great treasures. Our uncle had sent it over with a real Aussie 'Digger Hat" with its left side turned up and with the original folded linen puggaree-sweatband proclaiming its absolute authenticity. Oh, did I mention that our “Mum” was from Australia? The Billy is an all purpose cookpot, also for making tea, cylindrical and roughly twice as tall as it was round and about the size of a big box of Mother’s Oats, with a rounded, tight fitting lid crowned, not by a knob, but by a little metal D-ring. The ultimate object to hang over a smoky campfire on a long green stick. It was as the steam forced-off its lid and the reddish pink tea foamed, boiling-over and ran down the soot-blackened sides of the Billy -that I first smelled it... the Elixir... the dizzying perfume of the Gods of These Hills: Sassafras Tea…
Like that but blacker...
Nothing can quite describe the exquisite character of well-brewed Sassafras Tea. To me its heady bouquet speaks of our yellow clay, groundwater and acid soil: the very soul of rural Western Pennsylvania. Well brewed, the tea is a deep to dark ruby-red and takes a good two hours or so to make. To be proper, it must be sweetened with (much) white sugar. Too much of the tea taken at one sitting can render one sweating profusely, dizzy, and if you have spent too much time breathing the perfumed steam, possesed of a crashing headache. As a “Spring Tonic”, some herbals list it as having narcotic properties but other than I have described, I’ve never had a hint of it.
The Sassafras tree grows in dense colonies, spreading-out from a parent tree with dozens of sucker trees growing off the common root network; separate trees, yet all connected intimately. The trunks grow straight with deeply textured bark with elegant branches spreading out for a considerable distance to support its umbrella like canopy of leaves. And oh; those leaves! When dried to a powder they are the Filé the Creoles use in Filé Gumbo: the lemony mucilage they add to Cajun cooking is essential to many recipes. And then there is perhaps the most inspiring symbol it offers to us: it is to be found in the multiform shape of the leaves. Yes, each tree has as many as four different shapes to the leaves: 1.) oval, 2.) right mitten, 3.) left mitten, and 4.) "Tripartite" (three-lobed).
-Earrach of Pittsburgh © 2003 rev.1.03
PS and for the Gods' sake, if anyone starts bugging you about the toxicity or carcinogenic potential of sassafras tea, PLEASE see: http://hbd.org/brewery/library/RootB.html for a careful analyst's asessment wherein he estimates he (as a 240 pound man) would have to "drink 24.925 gallons of (sassafras-) root beer [every day] to reach oral toxicity". At which time there would be a 50% chance he would develop cancer...