We embarked in search of génépi, a rare Alpine flower that only grows on very specific ridge lines, which makes a delicious liquor. This unassuming weed-like flower has the power to turn a doubtful verisimilitude of our seemingly fictional existence into an absolute truth, pure ningen, a Japanese word meaning “human in the space between.” We set out on an awkward Monday, just after the four-day long music festival thee Bellowing Bee. We hesitated to go but we all knew that the génépi season was going to be over soon. My ears were still ringing from the amp roars of Frog’s Gum, and I still felt a kind of nausea after being thrown around on those chairs. I even threw up in the field on the way down from our cabin. The girl from the portrait was asking me if I remembered last night.
“Do you remember the pink and blue horses outside the cabin? They looked so majestic under the moon,” I had no idea what she was talking about.
“I just remember a toad. . .”
“You were standing right beside me in awe at their glowing hair. . . and you said they looked half asleep while they chewed. . . No? Ring a bell?”
“Hmm, no. But I can’t believe Toad was there again, just waiting for us by the door like he’s defending something! And he is always so bloated with his chest up-like this,” I said, puffing my cheeks and wobbling around in a circle with my arms flailing.
“You laugh, but there were horses last night. Beautiful horses.”
“I’m not so sure that I showed him who's boss of the cabin! He keeps coming back, he is winning the war,” I said, and then a faint memory of a long horse head eating an apple out of my hand and its dazzling long mane crawled up my subconscious mind electrically, frizzing like a mushroom spore struck by lightning as the memory crumbled and burned out of my mind forever and all that was left was the morning.
I shouldn’t have messed with Toad in the first place, was it in fact possible he pulled a multi horse metamorphosis? Did Toad embody multiverses? Does Toad transcend space time and reincarnate at will? Toads are the more fluid of species when it comes to shape shifting. I could still feel Toad’s rubbery skin as he pushed his weight against the tree branch that I poked at him to move from the entryway with. He was stonelike and broke many twigs. The coenesthesia of touching him through the wood made me feel like I had now acquired toad skin. I nervously checked my face in the mirror while brushing my teeth before leaving for the high alps. No signs of Toad. Perhaps he has already embodied me, I have no way of knowing.
The car was ready and we were ecstatic to go looking for this magical flower and to get out of the Village for a few days. We unwisely left during the morning meeting. All the volunteers and organizers were standing in a circle in the middle of the only way out of the Village. We started the car at the top of the Village near the yurts and slowly drove down. The circle of association organizers, volunteers, and children separated and made way for us (we were kind of supposed to go to work that day). But we were just volunteers after all. So why not go out and have some fun if given the opportunity?
We got bad looks and vibes from just about everybody. The Village was set to do a massive cleanup of the festival that day. We got the old, excuuuse us-your-majesties-make-way-for-royalty, I tried not to make eye contact with anyone. Luckily Benjamin was driving, and the Sage was in the passenger seat, and they knew how to act. Pays to have seniority. We passed through the circle of sixty people, and they closed their ring back up as our puncture grew to a close, like an amoeba secreting a foreign object. With the crowd behind us and many kilometers of mountainous terrain ahead, we got excited again. Once on the road, the Sage began a long conversation that dragged on almost until the lavender fields of Aix-en-Provence.
“You ever get the feeling that your life is being directed by the internet? You find your apartment online, you find your volunteer project online, you find your spouse, your college, your dinner, your dog, your watch, your movie, your book, your words, your computer, your phone, your jokes, your news, your religion, your community, your validation, your coffin. Not one aspect of modern life isn’t affected in some way by the internet. I thought I could get away and unplug from everything, not check my phone for months on end, but it knows better. It knows that I’ll be back someday. If only to check on my accounts. It sucked me in again after I promised myself to lay off. It's like it whispers in your ear, ‘You want to be creative? You want to be an artist? Well, you need me,’” he said, looking at Benjamin’s sunglass reflection of himself. Benjamin nodded, and the Sage looked back to see if the girl from the portrait and I were listening.
“Things just keep sprouting up into my life, like little mushrooms. Ploop. Ploop. Ploop, ploop ploop.” he said with his hands making little ploop gestures. “I can’t make a decision on anything anymore. Life just goes the way it wants to.”
“Speaking of mushrooms, remember when we picked those orange mushrooms Henri?” Benjamin said, looking back at me. “Those made the best sauce à la crème. It’s crazy how our eyes aren’t trained to see them. Our mind can’t process what they are, even though they are bright orange. Eyes get trained somehow. The green mossy forest is just a mossy forest until you sit there and really look. I mean you have to stare for a while to see them.” Benjamin said.
“It took me hours,” I said.
“Yeah you sucked at that.” Benjamin said and laughed. “No, but he’s right it takes a long time. In a moment, once your mind understands, it sees these orange things, like almost sprouting out of the moss at an exponential rate. Just like you said: Ploop. They’re everywhere actually.”
The Sage nodded and asked about the sauce.
At a lavender field we stopped and picked a few stems to liven up the car. The purple, boundless hills perfumed the air, the girl from the portrait’s blonde hair was waving in the wind as she stared off with her eyes slightly squinting. We had spent a lot of that summer picking wild lavender at the Village. We dumped pillowcases full of it out onto screens that we would use to dry them, feeling the soft petals explode with the relaxing scent while teenagers blasted rap on their phones, bored.
Later, we’d turn them into soaps or a sweet syrup to refresh on a cold day.
We got back in the car and drove onward, towards the High Alps. The mountains got bigger, the sky got closer and more ominous. There were clouds surging in the distance.
“That better not be lightning,” Benjamin said, “or we drove through that morning meeting for nothing.”
The clouds’ greyness grew bolder and broadened. The center of its nucleus became thick, as a sachet of black tea infused in milk. Animals were on the move. We stopped for a drink at an alpine tourist bar and waited to see what the storm would do. The Sage seemed to think the storm wouldn’t go in the direction of where we wanted to look for génépi. We could now see a sliver of the sun, obscured by the dangerous looking clouds—new light was emerging, the grass highlights were now bright yellow. A beam arrived at the outside table area where we were sitting. Two orange tabby cats walked along a wooden fence and jumped down and played near us as we talked. The girl from the portrait went to pet the cats. Spirits were high.
After a short drive further into the high mountains we finally parked the car at a place where we could pitch our tents without getting in trouble. We prepared a bag for the day’s hikes and grabbed several brown sachets that we would collect the génépi in. The air was cool and the grass was lush. In that late July, summer was already losing itself. The hike took us two hours to get to the top of the ridge line. The mountains were purple, brown, and grey with zigzagging layers of rock telling time of spatial wave increments. They looked like visualized sounds, jagged, and pulsating through ages of change. On the ridge lines, the omnipresent wind seemed to let us hunt. The calmness was temporary and maybe overgenerous in the time we were allowed foraging. The little scattered patches of génépi appeared. Génépi stems are grey or very faded green with a somewhat blueish tint. Some génépi are black and some are white, and some are not génépi, though they look similar, when in doubt use your nose, the Sage said.
The girl from the portrait looked down a hundred meter drop off at the edge of a cliff. She turned and smiled and continued to pick. Every twenty minutes a gust of wind almost pushed us over. We were still training our eyes and hardly picked a handful, while the Sage and Benjamin had a few bags already.
"Don’t take them all,” Benjamin said. “Leave about half in the cluster, otherwise they risk not reproducing.”
“Why is it called génépi anyway?” I asked.
“It’s a generic term for the drink, but these flowers are actually a mysterious branch of the Artemisia genus, the same family as wormwood, and sagebrush,” said the Sage rather proud of this knowledge.
"What happens if I just eat it like this—”
“Try it,” he said. I put one in my mouth.
“Blaaaaah!” I said and he laughed.
“Bitterness is just taste that we don’t understand. If something is bitter, slow down the read, let the flavour ride as slow as possible and the complexity will break down a road to follow—molecule by molecule. If you can understand the most bitter things in life, you’ll understand ningen,” the Sage said.
“But not everything that is bitter is edible or intellectual. Some things that taste good, smell not so good, and some things that smell bad taste good.”
After an hour up on the ridge, you begin to think differently. The air gets thin and everything feels hyper real and euphoric. The elixir derived from these ordinary looking plants is said to have the power to capture the undeniable rarity of lofty moments like those. The monks understood that. I didn’t want to think about ridge lines growing arid, dry, and bald. I just wanted to have a drink and forget the possibility that they had been overpicked and overhiked by monastic pilgrims like us.
We stopped for a picnic on a high plateau, a fresh storm was looming in the distance, but we had time. Getting down is faster than going up. At that moment, you don’t want to be anywhere else. Mountain living beats anything else. It was getting harder to leave. We pulled food out of our respective bags: a tome of cheese from a local fromagerie, a piece of saucisson, olives, a can of sardines, melon, and a baguette. The smell of an almost too ripe melon always made me feel a little nauseous. As we ate, we talked about the marmottes making their alert calls, a bizarrely high-pitched whistle trill that echoes out of the hilltops. I’d never seen these alpine ground squirrels, but I’d heard them. They live in giant holes that they dig in the summer about a meter deep only coming out to graze and collect food. Their hibernation holes can be up to seven meters deep and they can spend September through May in hibernation. Sleeping in a hole.
“I bet they smell our cheese,” I said.
“Anyone want a swig?” the Sage said as he pulled out homemade génépi from last year.
I shook my head yes and took a small sip. The green as olives potion transported me and I realized that I can’t stay too long in any one place.