Love’s Purgatory is a Thistle Field

Carduus Nutans (Part 1 of 4 in a series on losing love and regaining a life)

Carduus Nutans

Carduus Nutans, also known as milk thistle, causes one’s arms to itch as if they have ran into sand paper and mosquito bites at the same time. The plant is extremely evolutionarily adept and my arms sorely vulnerable; no match for this foe weed. The beautiful petaled purple flower has me reach for it like a child reaching up to the hot stove with wonder and it surely has bees flock in for its sweet soft flower center. I, posing as a farmer, lean down and bellow as I try to pull the tap root from below the surface only to break off the root leaving the rest somewhere near the center of the earth’s core. This place, Thistle Whistle Farm, fits it’s name as thistle, in deed, is its main crop though the farmer rightfully prides himself on having hundreds of varieties of plants. He explains proudly that he does not farm crops, but gardens plants; a subtle difference understood for those who both care and see connection that it has to a developing a healthy diversity. The field of thistle stretches out 600 feet in 6 beds and hides potatoes that are shaded in the flower’s glory, two rows to each bed. Some of the thistle almost reaches my hight; almost five feet seven inches. The majority, however, requires one to hunch down like an old woman. Hunched over like grandma, we harvest the thistle and lay it neatly by the potatoes, so as to not lay the soil barren, to ensure a job for the next season when the flowering plants take root again, and to make sure the namesake is not in vain.

This season has not let the name of the farm down and we are busy at work continuing the cycle of thistle harvesting. I hunch down to pull the stubborn thistle from its soil bed with my hands protected by rubber farm gloves that do not breath, yet somehow still leave a farmer manicure. My arms are covered to protect against the spines and the hunt of hovering mosquitos that seem unfazed by the hot, scorching high mountain summer sun. My eyes are shaded by a brimmed hat that holds in the sweat that sometimes dribbles down under my slipping sunglasses. My prescription sunglasses were once a marker of how much better I now taking care of myself, but they do not quite fit the challenge of the farm. They seem more suited for driving than for sweaty work that has me humbly looking down at the feet of the weeds. The task of pulling thistle is just about the same for each plant. You merely lean down and pull from the bottom hoping to take most of the root with you. Thistle does not change that much as time floats by, though the picker does.

Early morning harvest of the thistle finds me still with sleep at the corners of my eyes. The morning sun breaks over the mountain and my heart welcomes it even while it feels as if it is but a heavy stone held by a tight gripped fist within my chest. Thoughts of Him flow inward and come to a dead stop at the center of my chest. As the day progresses and I slowly bow down the field harvesting and laying the thistle to sleep upon the top of the bed, thoughts float in and out of my mind; some come in gently and others strike like a fist smacking me from within. Early afternoon has me stretching upwards and, with my hands supporting my lower back, I arch slightly backwards. I stand as a pregnant woman would; arched, and with hands holding my lower back as if to support frontal weight though with nothing in my womb, but a ticking clock and sadness. There is a faint feeling something is missing and sadness for a dream that once was though now feels no more real than the present bucolic one I currently tread in. Stiff, I long for the farm worker camper trailer and curious flies that buzz through where I can lay my head and let depression sink my body further and further into the mattress while my dog lays near by stalking giant grasshoppers. Carduus Nutans fill my days now and keep me from sinking.

The camper trailer does not win and, hunched, I continue with the thistles. Oddly, I do not struggle with the concept of pulling the thistles only to have to pull them again in the next season. I am carried away from heat and an ever present internal chatter. This chatter, that previously yelled at me so much it brought me to my knees, now merely suggests harsh ideas in a quiet conversational tone. I look forward to thoughts drifting out of my mind more like a whisper into the wind carrying them away like a seed from the pod of a mature and hopeful thistle flower. I do, in fact, have moments of occasional internal calm and quiet. Perhaps, as long days under the sun continue these moments will fill the day more.

As I work, my fellow farm worker, a young woman posing as a much older one, looks on with prescription glasses hidden under dollar general square frame sun shields and a unbent ball cap with some nondescript marker. What is on the cap is possibly more noteworthy for someone not so preoccupied that they actually can remember small details like hat emblems, names of people, and where the hell they set down their cup of coffee, water bottle, or harvest knife. I, on a good day, struggle with these details and now hardly can muster the basics. Luckily the time I completely forgot to button my pants after visiting the composting toilet happened unnoticed as I walked through the empty intern kitchen. The kitchen, like the thistles, is a reminder of the simple principle of entropy — a tendency towards disorder. The kitchen, filled to the brim, is really more like a corner scratched out of a barn for the purpose of stove top cooking, fly swatting at a kitchen table, and water flooding under the sink plumbed by the self-taught resident all in one farmer. Still, this corner is filled with emotion, story, and camaraderie with my young farming friend as we spend the evenings together breaking bread after 10–12 hour days fighting with entropy in the field.

The meditative cacophony of mind chatter and thistle picking is dammed by the structure of my cranium only till a flood of story and sadness pours out. The story is a version of the same about Him and Her that I have been telling for months, yet it seems to slowly be shifting in tone and narrative structure. Still, my fellow thistle picker kindly remembers my request of not mentioning His name so often and interrupts the habitual narration pouring out of my lips. She asks me instead, “can you think of a metaphor about thistles; both the ones we are keeping in the field and the ones we are laying down around the plants?” I tell her that a few had crossed my mind over the course of moments hunched down. Again thinking and feeling only the turmoil and loss of recent, I say “I imagine each time I pull a thistle I am exorcising a demon; I am exorcising Him from my heart and mind one painful, stubborn thistle at a time”. She tells me she likes it and we plod on for a time. I ask, “what metaphor do you have for thistle picking?” Thinking, she tells me a description and I urge her on for her metaphor and finally she leaves me with yet another depth to thistle picking worth considering, “each thistle is a day. Some days are easy and pass on by and others you really struggle with. The day is beautiful and full of layers, though not as elevated and purposeful as we imagine them to be.” I add, “the field is like a life time. After all thistles have been picked and laid down on the soil another life begins and thistle picking continues without any interruption”. Quiet, we continue pulling, listening only to the sound of tearing thistle roots from the crust of the soil and leaves of uprooted plants nudging at those still erect.

Over the course of the last several months I have walked through a field of thistles with roots that reach the Earth’s core and are planted in dry soil that hold onto the spiny stalks of each plant with the force of gods. I have walked in this field bare naked; bare and exposed. I am just now washing with cool water and rubbing soothing arnica and chamomile salve over open wounds. Somewhere down the thistle bed a ways I got caught up in bind weed and did not realize my love, the one in which was to walk with me old and wrinkled, continued on without me. While I laid wriggling, trying to free myself, His voice called out sweet assurances, but I did not realize they were meant for another. One of those thistle days found my love tired of deep roots and weeds and looking to one who is so similar yet, in His words, “something different”. My wounds are deep, fresh and bloody from walking naked through the thistles since I discovered I had not been enough and wasn’t sufficiently “different”. Perhaps, however, the rain will soon come and loosen up the soil, or there will be a patch of young easy thistles to pull. Maybe, with patience, I will be so lucky again to find someone to reach around me and grab a hold of the same thistle; four hands are better than two after all.