The mark of a good book is that it changes you. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Nan Shepherd, Robin Wall Kimmerer and Jay Griffiths have all wielded that power over me, but I’ve rarely been so aware of an internal change being wrought, word by word, as I have these past days immersed in Kapka Kassabova’s alchemical prose. I fancy she had me under her spell from page one, with reference to the “smiling gallop” of rivers flowing downhill.
Geographically, the valley of the subtitle is that of the upper Mesta river and its tributaries in Kassabova’s native Bulgaria. Ecologically, it is classified as montane, and by British standards, enviably rich, with plants that have become rare elsewhere still thriving and providing the basis of an international trade in medicinal herbs. Historically, the communities Kassabova visits in the years straddling the pandemic have been traumatised and tempered over centuries by waves of invasion and persecution. Religiously, they are syncretic. When speaking to non-Muslims, the long-suffering Pomaks use a term equivalent to “Allah-God” to downplay their separateness. Economically the story is one of exploitation by one murderous kleptocratic regime after another, and now by international dealers and distributors of tinctures and teas. For a product on the shelves of health-food shop or chic UK herbalist you might pay 200 to 300 times what an expert forager in the Mesta valley receives.
Culturally this place is a nexus, and wild in the old, true sense of something uncultivated and self-willed. Folk traditions that have been largely lost elsewhere in Europe persist because, unlike religious and other freedoms, the liberty to practise plant medicine or to worship springs or stones has not been challenged by the state. Here are men with broken bodies, lost fortunes and encyclopedic minds and women of luminous intellect forced into doll-house existences, finding ways to sparkle nonetheless. Here are places where sacred sites and pre-Hippocratic healing rituals performed by charismatic, fiercely competitive older village women known as babi remain part of daily life. Here is place as potion, nature as medicine, mysticism as creed – for “Allah-God”, read “God-nature” or “science-magic”.
Elixir is like an ever expanding lucid dream that feels corporeal and spiritual, earthy and cosmic, in which we visit nested microcosms: egg, body, village, ecosystem, valley, mountain, planet, universe. I was amused to read the note that “no mind-altering plants were used in the making of this book; only a sense of wonder”. The vibe is indeed mildly hallucinatory at times, occasionally ecstatic, but etched with the pain of ecological and cultural loss. You might say that Kassabova keeps our feet so firmly on the ground that we find ourselves sinking, becoming interpenetrated by fine roots and fungal mycelium, breathing spores, phytoncides and the exhalations of other lives until we are indistinguishable from them.
Back home in Scotland, when Kassabova pauses to gather St John’s wort on a walk, a friend observes that they might once have been burned for collecting healing plants. “We half-laughed,” she writes, “because we only half-know how damaged we are.” Perhaps the time of the witch, the baba, the plant healer, the enchanter and the priestess is coming again. If they can help restore our broken relationship with nature without commodifying, branding and beribboning every precious dose, it won’t be a moment too soon.
• Elixir: In the Valley at the End of Time by Kapka Kassabova is published by Jonathan Cape (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.