By Melissa Poulin
Her first time away from home, Kristin wanders away from the sleeping caravan of travelers in the mountains. She picks wild valerian blossoms growing on the hillside, fashioning a wreath. The blossoms’ pink color appears more vibrant than at home in Jorungaard, Undset writes of Kristin’s senses, which are alert to the adventure she’s thrown herself into.
That intensity– the potency and beauty of mountain plants — is something I remember from my early twenties, when I began learning wildflowers. I was living for a summer in a small mountain town in the high Sierra of California, where a neon blue sky sharpened the tops of firs and pines, and wildflowers managed to grow between granite boulders and along shale hillsides. I’d toss an apple and a library field guide into my backpack and wander along rivers, streams, roadsides, bike paths, and trails, criss-crossing mountains and meadows as I searched for flowers. Prairie-fire or castilleja, stonecrop or sedum, mule’s ear or wyethia. There is pleasure in knowing a plant by its names. Blue flax, linum perenne, winking bright blue along the roadsides, became a friendly sight, in a place where I had few friends and owned neither car nor bike. Western peony, paeonia brownii, startled me the first time I tipped its drooping face up to look at me, finding there something like fire.
There’s pleasure in knowing a plant by use, too. With the boy who would become my husband, I picked all types of artemisia, his favorite genus of plant. Artemisia is a group of powerful, bitter herbs with common names like mugwort, wormwood, and sagebrush. He showed me which ones liked to grow near water, which prefer arid peaks. I learned mugwort tea brings dreams, and burnt sagebrush settles the senses and helps focus prayer. Tarragon is the cultivated variety of this mountain plant, with delicious anise-like leaves well-known for a variety of culinary uses. We grow a stand of it at home now, shaded by Shasta daisies, which share a lineage with artemisia, both members of the asteraceae or daisy family.
Tarragon, artemisia dracunculus, is known as dragon in Swedish. Maybe because of the way its roots grow in a coil, like a dragon’s tail. All of the artemisia herbs can help to bring on a woman’s cycle, making them a friend to women in Kristin’s time, when a woman would be left to bear sole responsibility for sex she may or may not have wanted, while a man largely went free, his reputation only slightly muddied (if at all).
Fru Aashild alludes to this double standard, this duplicitous divide between the moral and the immoral, as she skillfully disperses the tension at an ale-fueled gathering in Jorundgaard. Calming the feuding priests, Sira Sigurd and Sira Eirik, she responds to their heated accusations of witchcraft and immorality with a nod to how many villagers would be in need of a potion to restore virginity before marriage: “If I had been able to brew it, we wouldn’t be sitting up there on that little farm. Then I’d be a rich woman with property out in the big villages somewhere– near the town and cloisters and bishops and canons.”
In other words, she wouldn’t be exiled from society for her sin, because she would have become indispensable to a society that is as much guilty of breaking moral laws as she. Secrecy and shame hide this reality, keeping people separated by fear of judgment, that of God and of fellow villagers. Yet the “moral” laws scapegoat her alone. She is physically separated from the villages for her sin, while those claiming morality cluster together, clamoring to appear close to God. It’s an interesting paradox, isn’t it? The priests in this scene are small-minded, greedy, and quick to anger, while Fru Ashild is clear-eyed about human actions and consequences– hers and those around her.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We were in the mountains with Kristin, gathering valerian blossoms. This, to me, is the true beginning of Kristin’s fate. Before the dwarf maiden, before the bull, before Ragnfrid bargains with God in her grief, turning to Fru Aashild to heal Ulvhild. Before Kristin’s betrothal, before she’s accused of seducing Arne and Bentein and causing Arne’s death, Kristin is a child. A seven-year-old drawn to pretty pink flowers, playing at grown-up things like the bridal wreath, a symbol of purity.
Valerian is a medicinal herb, also known as all-heal. It’s a relaxing calmative that has long been used as a sleep aid. You can go to the supermarket and find it listed in the ingredients on a box of Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime tea. Tamed in this way, it can seem benign, and yet for people in Kristin’s time, herbs brought powerful medicine to bear on otherwise dire situations. Historically, valerian was thought to bring awareness, and in its many medicinal uses, it was an herbal ally able to turn bad situations into good.
Is this the beginning of Kristin’s awareness? Seven is the age of reason, the time in life when humans are said to be able to make reasoned choices and answer for their consequences. In the mountains, in nature, Kristin instinctively finds a healing plant to take with her on the path ahead. The flowers crown her future with redemption, a promise that however bad her fate may be, in the end she will find healing and goodness.
To me, this a sign of God’s presence, here at the beginning of her journey toward womanhood. Again and again from this point forward, Kristin will face choices that ultimately pit two worlds against one another: the natural/sinful world, and the Christian world. It’s a well-worn dichotomy that many have written better words about. It’s interesting to look, as one writer does, at Kristin’s life as an allegory for the soul of Norway, weaving together its pre-Christian life rhythms and the new, Christian order being born. In this scholarly article, the writer suggests that the Catholic worldview sees the pursuit of God as a conversation, a relationship, where the pre-Christian worldview sees it as transactional. Temptation marks the beginning of Kristin’s struggle to pursue God.
But what about God’s pursuit of her? How is this quiet moment, a child enjoying the flowers that are gifts from her Creator, a moment where the natural world and the Christian world are not at odds? Might Kristin’s story also show us that even when she falls and all seems lost, God is still there, loving her and leading her to freedom from her suffering, by drawing her closer to God?
I wrestle with this perspective that pits God’s creation– the natural world God made for us– against a life lived for God. Historically, women have been maligned in the Christian tradition as temptresses and witches because of their desires, their knowledge, and their abilities. Around this same time, Christianity colluded with capitalism to impose a patriarchal order where God created equality. For women in the Christian faith, part of the journey is the untangling of that historical damage from the good news at its core: the truth of God’s unconditional love through Christ.
For me, there’s something very precarious here in the tapestry Undset weaves around Kristin. Can we rescue something of both worlds– Creation, Catholicism– from this story that is ultimately about the redemption of Kristin’s soul? Will we see that the dichotomy is deceptive, that really Creation is woven into and through the Christian story, and that perhaps the real enemy is the lie of control?
Kristin’s wreath– her purity, her sinless state, like Eve before the fall– is woven from mountain plants that bring healing. Maybe this is a sign for us as readers that God will bring her through what lies ahead of her, back to this place of innocence, healed.
Melissa Reeser Poulin is the author of a chapbook of poems, Rupture, Light (2019), and co-editor of the anthology Winged: New Writing on Bees (2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in basalt, Catamaran Literary Reader, Entropy, Poetry Northwest, Relief, Ruminate Magazine, The Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, and Water~Stone Review, among others. She’s working toward her license as a community acupuncturist, and lives near Portland, Oregon with her husband Lyle and their three children, Sky, Robin, and Iris. Follow her on Instagram at @melissa_r_poulin or online at melissareeserpoulin.com.