turn down for what

I sat in a basement with 16 other women and chugged herbal remedies to calm my Election Day nerves

Wellcome Library, London

WASHINGTON—On Monday night, while Donald Trump told voters in North Carolina and Florida that Americans may never get another chance to vote again after this election, I sat in the basement of a Renaissance revival-style mansion in the nation’s capital, watching a room full of women smell tree bark.

“Can you…chew it?”

The goods

The goods

A woman sitting to my left in a beige cardigan and perfect eyeliner held up the jar of tight wood curls, selected a small piece, and began to gently gnaw away. The Mimosa bark (Albizia julibrissin), she observed, had an astringent, sour quality.

The room, 16 young women (and one baby) seated in a semicircle, diverse in pretty much every way except age and a shared propensity for warm knits, scribbled notes and murmured in agreement.

“A lot of my herb clients are stressed out, and a lot of my friends are stressed out,” Holly Poole-Kavana, an herbalist with a forest green cape and a soft voice, explained to the room. “So I thought it was a good time to talk about herbs and stress.”

At this point in the evening, I was still working on my mug of Passionflower tea (Passiflora incarnata), which, combined with the six drops of California Poppy (Eschscholzia connica) I had also just taken, made me feel a kind of internal hum that matched the whirring of the projector across the room.

I stared at the pink flowers being beamed onto the wall ahead of me, listened to Poole-Kavana describe an “electric” experience she once had while harvesting a large quantity of Mimosa, and did not once think about Donald Trump Jr.’s Instagram.

Psychosomatic or real, I was feeling calm as fuck. I smelled the bark with my hands cupped around the lid of the jar, and passed it along without trying it.

“I think anger is really important, so having the theme of mental health, elections, and the dark half of the year, I want to recognize that anger is an important, and motivating emotion,” Poole-Kavana said while we each tried a tincture of Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata). “The bitter herbs, especially the Blue Vervain, can be relaxing.”

I keep Blue Vervain at home because someone told me a few months ago that it was a “Hillary Clinton” plant—good for calming Type-A despair and neurotic over-thinking, which has, hands down, been my number one default mood while covering this election.

I took three drops of the bitter, dark liquid and remembered when a white Bernie Sanders delegate at the Democratic National Convention told me, in a voice of serene confidence, that he might vote for Gary Johnson even though he believed dismantling “a lot of our support systems” could be “damaging in the long term.”

As a chaser, I tried Skullcap (Scutellaria) and Milky Oats (Avena sativa), tasted rose petals (Rosa rugosa) suspended in maple syrup, and essentially chugged a cup of Holy Basil (Tulsi).

Psychosomatic or real, I was feeling calm as fuck.

Over the next two hours, women asked questions about the utility of flower essences, mused about what decoctions might also make for good facial toner, and shared memories of their mothers heating cinnamon and other spices on the stove. (“That’s very lovely,” Poole-Kavana said.)

It was like the election wasn’t even happening. It was maybe the best moment of my life.

By the end of the night, I felt an unshakeable kind of calm. I could watch people fight about the meaning of pussy-grabbing on CNN for hours without losing my chill.

Poole-Kavana cautioned us on the limits of thinking of herbs as drugs (“there is no magic pill”) and their limits more generally (“there is no herb that will get us a president who has our best interests at heart”), but my post-political, herbal-induced bliss suggested otherwise.

The class ran over, but no one seemed that eager to leave. After a quick explanation about the importance of incorporating cayenne and other warming spices into our diets, we all stood up and returned our mugs to the table in the back of the room.

Odetta, a 27-year-old in a high ponytail who had just moved to D.C. from New York, told me she would be “channeling the girl power for tomorrow—hopefully.”

Another woman snapped on her bike helmet and walked upstairs. I followed her, past the dancers rehearsing in an adjacent room against a backdrop of soft blue lights. My Uber was already waiting by the time I got outside. The man driving, after I said I was in town for the election, proceeded to tell me about a Twitter fight between Nate Silver and The Huffington Post.

It was like the election wasn’t even happening. It was maybe the best moment of my life.

I looked out the window while the still-green trees of northwest D.C. raced by me. If only for a moment, I didn’t give a shit about polling models. The crush of reality would hit soon enough, but not just yet. I listened absently and made a mental note to buy some Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) to help ride it out.