True Thomas he took off his hat,
And bowed him low down to his knee:
“All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven!
For your peer on earth I never did see.”
“O no, O no, True Thomas,” she says,
“That name does not belong to me;
I am but the queen of fair Elfland,
And I’m come here for to visit thee.
A couple of weeks ago, I made some elder flower tincture. I have done this off and on for decades; somewhere among the possessions of the National Park Service is a video of my twenty-five-year-old fabulously hippietastic self giving a lecture on the subject at a Rainbow Gathering in the Talladega National Forest. Namaste, y’all.
Elder is interesting. It has big umbrels of tiny white flowers, not unlike Queen Anne’s Lace but on a shrub. (I am speaking here of American Elder, which is in the same genus as European Black Elder; it appears to have similar qualities and is traditionally used medicinally in similar ways). Both the flowers and the berries are useful. Elder is a spirit, and a respected power; you aren’t supposed to take anything from her without asking, or else. According to my friend Elinor, who also writes for this blog, Elder is the seat of the Queen of Faerie. All the more reason to be polite.
As I was riding from Atlanta to New Orleans on the Southern Crescent, I noticed elder growing by the tracks on my way out of Atlanta. I continued to see those bushes with their flowered white crowns all the way through Alabama, Mississippi, and into Louisiana. I wasn’t sure, as we approached New Orleans, that I would see any more; the climate there is pretty different. But I spied some growing in the neutral ground* of a road as we rolled slowly towards the station.
Now, I think I could make a good case that New Orleans and Faerie are not that different in some respects. They are both beautiful and a bit, well, sketchy; full of glamorie, charming and occasionally unseelie inhabitants, and very good musicians. They both exist on their own terms, with an independent sense of the passage of time and a peculiar etiquette. Really the biggest difference is that if you go to New Orleans, you definitely want to eat the food.
I spent the night in the French Quarter, in a hotel reputed to have been previously owned by Marie Laveau, which was every bit as awesome as it sounds, and I meant to try to get some coffee at Cafe du Monde before I left. But I woke up very early, well before dawn, with one of my ears clogged up. My hearing is pretty sensitive, and having it mostly blocked off on one side was maddening; I knew if I tried to ride all the way home like that I would be miserable. You can buy kits to clean your ears in a drug store, of course…but my train left at 7 am, and all of the drug stores within a reasonable distance didn’t open until 7. All but one, which was in the Garden District. If I got up, got dressed, checked out and rode the streetcar, I would have enough time to get to the drugstore and some to spare.
So I walked through the French Quarter in the early morning twilight. The last time I was there, it had been full of Mardi Gras crowds at all hours; now it was almost deserted, with only a few people wandering about, some up very early (like me) and some out very late. One young woman was trudging determinedly along the filthy sidewalk dressed in a black lace dress and black hose which were certainly getting ruined, fancy and uncomfortable black shoes clutched in her hand.
I missed the street car, of course. But I could still catch the next one and possibly make it, so I did; it perambulated along uncertainly until I had to change to a bus and then, hallelujah! there it was. Naturally nobody in that store but me was in a hurry. I am just as Southern as the next drawling, batter-frying, sweet-tea-drinking biscuit-eater. But I have lived in Atlanta off and on for twenty years. If you’ve ever been through security at Hartsfield, you understand the Atlanta attitude. We are polite. On the other hand, MOVE IT PEOPLE I HAVE SOMEWHERE TO GO.
I was beginning to get concerned.
The bus back was nowhere to be seen; I decided it would be faster to walk a couple of blocks over to catch the bus going up the street the train station was actually on; if I had to, I could walk all the way. I hoofed it on over there, pulling my lavender suitcase and garnering odd looks from the citizenry along the way. (I feel this is something of an accomplishment. I have done this in San Francisco and New York too. I have a gift). Found the street, still no bus. I continued up the road, dodging construction and motorists, and becoming mildly irritated.
…and then I saw an elder bush, growing half over the fence of a community garden, reaching out to the sidewalk. I laughed out loud. I know when I’ve been pixie-led; it happens to me often enough. This is what I was here to see. I thanked her kindly, and plucked an umbrel which I stashed in my purse for later. I’m sure some of those tiny white flowers are in there still.
I made it to the train just exactly on time. As soon as we got started, I went to the dining car and got some hot water and made myself some elder flower tea.
*Louisianan for median.