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A page from a Song Dynasty (960–1279) printed book of the I Ching.

Voices / Essay

‘Uh-oh’

Putney or Plainfield? For one family, the answer came down to yarrow stalks and the I Ching. But does a more accurate understanding of plant identification call that decision into question?

Charlene Wakefield, president of Write Action, is an artist and writer whose work has been published in The Best of Write Action, The Cracker Barrel, and Chrysalis Reader, and also in these pages.

Westminster West

I’ve been walking along my dirt dead-end road every day, watching the plant life as it progresses.

Lately, I’ve had my eye on the Queen Anne’s lace and got to wondering if any of it was actually yarrow.

I know Queen Anne’s lace has that tiny little purple spot in the middle, but I began to look more closely and realized that not all of them have that spot — or at least don’t have it yet.

But how else could I tell the difference? I searched online and found the answer.

Both species belong to the carrot family, but the difference can be discerned not only by that purple dot in the center, but also by the fern-iness of the leaves as well as their placement.

Yarrow’s leaves alternate while Queen Anne’s lace has opposing leaves. I also learned not to depend on seeing that purple spot because it isn’t always there.

“Uh-oh!” I thought — for a reason that goes back, back, back into my past, back to when I sought advice from the I Ching.

* * *

There are two ways to get guidance from the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text: the easy way, which is throwing Chinese coins, and the longer, more involved process of counting out dried yarrow stems between your fingers.

I preferred the yarrow stalks myself, because you weren’t apt to do them on a whim — you had to be willing to concentrate and spend the time.

This method wasn’t meant for willy-nilly decisions, I felt. You ought to sit and get yourself into the right headspace, the right heart space, to be sure you were in tune with the universe before you asked the universe a question. My husband agreed.

So I had gathered local yarrow stems and dried them myself, cut them into the prescribed length, and stored them, appropriately wrapped in silk and in a wooden box.

When we needed to make an important decision, we did it with all the trimmings.

* * *

One day, we decided to move to Vermont. We’d had some trouble with theft in our shop, and it seemed like this state would be a more honest place, an accepting place, a place that would promote our peace of mind, a place to bring up our children.

We left our daughter with my mother and spent a weekend driving up one side of Vermont and back down the other, feeling the vibes as we went, stopping here and there to soak in the atmosphere and measure it for its fit with our own atmospheres.

By the time our reconnaissance trip was over, we’d determined two areas that we felt in communion with: the area around Putney and the area around Plainfield. Although each area had its own vibrational comfort and pull to us, neither outweighed the other.

The only way to decide would be to ask the I Ching.

I Ching answers aren’t straightforward, I need to point out at this point. They come in the form of ancient sayings that are set in hexagrams and need to be interpreted. You must be in accord with what you’re doing and feel at peace with your surroundings when you ask, so that you can discern how the advice applies to the question you’ve asked.

Our question, of course, was, “Putney or Plainfield?”

I counted out the yarrow stalks and put the extra aside; I counted others into piles and between my fingers and whatever else was called for by a ritual that has now, after all these years, escaped me. (Although, I might mention, I do still have those yarrow stalks.)

The advice said something along the lines of “Look for success in the south and the east.”

Wow — pretty straightforward. It was hard to mistake that advice.

So we packed up and moved to Westminster, the town just north of Putney, where we found 10 acres with a brook for $5,000. It even had an old camp on the property — it offered no running water, but it did have electricity. And an outhouse. We could easily live in it while we built a more house-like home. We bought an Ashley woodstove and moved right in.

Well, things went along as thing do — ups and downs, ins and outs — but today, here I am, living in that same cabin, although amenities have been added to accommodate the comforts I’ve let myself come to require.

* * *

But now, back to the yarrow.

What if I’d been wrong? What if those yarrow stalks had been Queen Anne’s lace all along? What if the advice had been faulty because of my lack of horticultural knowledge?

Would Queen Anne’s lace have led us instead to Plainfield? Would I have had a whole different Vermont history, another list of friends throughout the years, an alternate job history?

Would the ups and downs and the ins and outs have changed significantly? Would my children’s lives have taken other paths? Would my whole life have been a different one if I’d known how to tell one wildflower from another?

There’s no telling, of course, and I do like this Queen Anne’s lace life.

But I can’t help but wonder: Where would Yarrow have taken me?

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Originally published in The Commons issue #579 (Wednesday, September 16, 2020). This story appeared on page C1.

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