Essence of Lavender

    1. I mostly keep it bottled away, this three-year period of my life in which I obsessively sucked on breath mints, learned how to remove the smell of rancid almond oil from sheets, plunged my swollen forearms in bowls of ice at the end of the day, and developed opinions about the Irish singer Enya.
    2. If teachers teach what they most need to learn, massage therapists first come to bodywork out of their own need to heal. Some have grown up with scoliosis; others have a history of assault or abuse. Some come in response to illness or death.
    3. In the world of holistic health, the smell of lavender is ubiquitous to the point of being ordinary. Lavender is the most popular essential oil, one preferred by massage therapists for its extra narcotic kick; its scent is calming and helps bring on sleep. Lavender is safe to use on anyone, even pregnant women and children.
    4. Lavender was the only essential oil we sold in the tiny store (really a closet) of the massage school where I worked a second job as an office manager. I answered the phone and rented white sheets to students who’d forgotten to bring theirs to class.
    5. Lavender evokes mental images of the lavender fields so frequently seen on posters and calendars: unending rolling fields of purple, the lavender planted in straight furrows—and occasionally, the image of the crumbling twelfth-century abbey Sénanque, the most photographed building in Provence, one of the biggest lavender-growing regions in the world.
    6. Lavender’s reputation from when I was young: the scented pomander ball that hung from the headboard of a bed at my grandmother’s tiny house, in a room that also happened to be painted lavender
    7. Lavender’s reputation beginning in the 1990s: clean-scented spas, wholeness, mindful living.
    8. Lavender enthusiasts will tell you that the plant derives its name from the Latin lavare (to wash), adding that the Romans often scented their baths with the herb.
    9. Not so fast, say the linguists. While the word flirts with lavare, its earliest form seems to come from lividus, meaning a bluish discoloration, like a bruise. This is lavender’s shadow, often hidden from view, complicating any kind of ecstatic ode.
    10. Lavender, how were you bruised, and are you still angry?
    11. Hemophiliacs do bruise dramatically and easily—purple to nearly black, yellow, every shade of blue. Before the miracle drug known as factor showed up on the market in the late 1960s, few hemophiliacs lived past their teens.


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  1. It’s hard to correct a myth. The blood of a hemophiliac is missing the one protein necessary to trigger the clotting cascade, so it’s true that they bleed a lot, but not enough to die from a paper cut.
  2. The danger of hemophilia is unchecked internal bleeding, and a hemophiliac’s biggest daily struggle is managing bleeding in his major joints. After a day of ordinary play, a boy’s knee can puff up until it looks like a sucker on a stick.
  3. Over the years, blood eats away the cartilage between joints until bone scrapes on bone, and it can be difficult to tell which pains signal a bleed, and which pains are chronic.
  4. The hemophiliacs I knew limped when they walked. By middle age, many used canes. They wore high-topped shoes or hiking boots to support their mostly immobile ankles. In photographs, they put their hands in their pockets or folded their arms to disguise the way their elbows would no longer straighten.
  5. Before factor, however, those same hemophiliacs would have spent much of their short lives in bed or at the hospital with their doctors, often addicted to painkillers.
  6. It was the celebrated Islamic physician Avicenna who figured out how to use water vapor to make essential oil, and we still make it the way he did over a thousand years ago. The flower blossoms are cut and placed on trays in the upper part of a distillation tank, over water that is brought to a boil. Steam rises to the flowers, coaxing oil from each flower’s calyx in the form of vapor. The steam is then cooled until it condenses back into oil on the water’s surface. The oil and water are separated, and the oil is collected.
  7. Antihemophilic factor is genetically engineered now, but before the 1990s, factor was made from human blood.
  8. Plasma from sixty thousand donors at a time was pooled into a giant vat, the kind you might find in a wine factory. The one necessary blood protein was isolated and extracted, then freeze-dried, like coffee, into a white powder.
  9. The amount of lavender grown in Provence dramatically increased over the nineteenth century, thanks to the booming perfume industry in the nearby town of Grasse. But only when the right machinery was developed in the mid twentieth century could Provence’s lavender be harvested on such a large scale and become a major commercial crop.
  10. Once, the harvesting of lavender’s purple-spiked flowers was done with a scythe. It was tough work, and done by women. These women carried their flowers in canvas shoulder bags and walked from one village to the next, looking for lavender: low shrubs with silvery-green leaves.
  11. Eventually they brought the cut plants to a local distiller, referred to as an “apron broker,” who paid the women by the blossom.
  12. A dose of factor is sold as two small glass bottles, side by side in a box. One bottle contains the factor; the other contains saline. The user punctures the lids of the bottles with a needle, and the saline is vacuum-drawn through a needle into the factor, forming a liquid that can be injected into the body.
  13. T, my first husband and a severe hemophiliac, infused his factor into a vein along the inside of his forearm by using a butterfly needle attached to a syringe by a long, thin plastic tube.
  14. He had been able to treat his own bleeds since he was eight, and did so nonchalantly: in bed, on the couch while watching a basketball game, at the table while talking into a phone receiver held in the crook of his neck. He had been born lucky, he said. In 1969, the year he was born, his family’s clinic began stocking freeze-dried antihemophilic factor. His brother, born six years earlier, had had to treat his first bleeds with the slower and more cumbersome medicine cryoprecipitate, or sometimes even whole plasma.
  15. Wait a minute. I want to tell you a story about problem solving, lavender, and scale.
  16. One day, a local aromatherapist called my desk at the massage school. He had gotten a surprise order from a big-box retailer eager to participate in the latest natural medicine craze. The retailer wanted fifty thousand bottles of lavender oil to package with diffusers for Christmas.
  17. The retailer also wanted everything shipped within ten days.
  18. The aromatherapist had never worked on this kind of scale. He worked alone in a room off his garage, fielding his own customer calls and pouring each bottle by hand.
  19. He would have to rent a filling machine, one that could fill more than one bottle at a time. The machine would need to run for sixteen hours a day, every day, until it was time to ship. It could be done, barely. Would anyone at the school be willing to help out?
  20. The next evening a friend and I pulled up to the curb in front of the aromatherapist’s house. The smell of lavender in his driveway was heady, stronger than if we were in a spa. Arkansas was in the last throes of summer humidity, and the cicadas were loud.
  21. The aromatherapist and some of our students were standing around a stainless steel five-gallon drum of lavender oil, talking, as if they were at a keg party. Probably one student was massaging another’s neck—massage students tend to be touchy feely. A long, clear plastic tube emerged from the drum’s top and snaked through the garage, finally disappearing under a door. The drum of lavender was worth thousands of dollars.
  22. Do you lock up that thing at night? I asked the aromatherapist. He said no. Who would want it? Besides, he added, grinning, if anyone took it, we’d find it.
  23. I followed the clear plastic tube to his workroom, where one of the massage school students was pressing a pedal at her feet. Hum—stop—hum, went the filling machine.
  24. I sat with one of the students in front of a tray of hundreds of newly filled bottles. We snapped into each bottle’s open mouth a round piece of plastic with a hole at its center, meant to slow the flow of oil to one drop at a time. We twisted on black caps.
  25. Each bottle held one teaspoon, which equals exactly one hundred drops.
  26. From above, the open mouths of the bottles reminded me of a honeycomb, and the filling machine of a bee’s proboscis. But lavender oil is even more condensed than honey. An acre of lavender might yield thirteen gallons of honey in a season, but only two gallons of oil.
  27. Essential oil is astonishing in its level of concentration. Each miniature bottle we were capping required an entire pound of lavender flowers.
  28. The drum held 42,240 teaspoons.
  29. Lavender is useful for more than just soothing. You can use it to kill germs. The lavender-heavy blend of vinegar and herbs known as Four Thieves is said to have been created during the Middle Ages so that thieves could rob plague victims without being infected. Lavender’s germ-killing properties are rumored to have protected French harvesters, along with glove-makers (who often scented their leather), from outbreaks of cholera and tuberculosis. Lavender was used as a hospital antiseptic during the First World War.

    The miraculous and horrific often happen when we do things on a scale that is different from the one on which we live every day.

  30. Lavender also heals burns. René-Maurice Gattefossé, the French chemist who observed the harvesters and is considered the father of aromatherapy, used lavender oil to heal his own hand of gas gangrene after an explosion in his lab.
  31. I did not believe this story until, one morning at the massage school, one of the teachers pulled me away from my desk, dabbed some lavender on a cotton ball, then swabbed the angry red blisters on the part of my forearm where I’d  made contact with a hot pan the day before. A few hours later, the burn was gone.
  32. To me, that’s the real essence of lavender—that it seems flowery and ordinary, but there’s a stealthy magic to it.
  33. And some days I cannot get over the sheer miracle of people. In southern France, we can grow lavender as far as the eye can see, producing 170 tons of essential oil every season. We can figure out how to distill the perfume of sixty roses into a single glossy drop.
  34. Which makes it doubly hard to understand our monstrosities. We can also split one atom and devastate an entire country, dissolving thousands of people so fast their shadows are burned onto nearby stone.
  35. We can set off a nearly incomprehensible planetwide cascade of timing issues—the scientific study of which is called phenology—like flowers blooming before the insects that pollinate them show up.
  36. The miraculous and horrific often happen when we do things on a scale that is different from the one on which we live every day.
  37. Once hemophiliacs had access to factor, for example, their lives completely changed overnight.
  38. Their bleeds, which had once been excruciating and had taken weeks to treat inadequately at a hospital, could be effectively treated in minutes at home. An assortment of small crutches and a folding wheelchair stood in a dusty corner of T’s family’s garage, but T and his brother rarely seemed to need such things.
  39. A man with hemophilia could even fly to Provence. He could walk its rocky terrain, the sun beating down, with someone he cared about. The acres of lavender needed to fill a drum like the aromatherapist’s would take over an hour to cross, but he could do that, noticing bees and lacewings and the small papery wings of butterflies. He could walk with his children, telling them about the painters Cézanne and van Gogh, pointing out the silhouettes of olive trees in the distance.
  40. Because suddenly these boys were living until adulthood, even middle age. Hemophiliacs left their bedrooms and walked out of their hospitals. T and his brother played kick the can with neighbor kids in their yard, became summer camp counselors, and went off to college. Men got married, started families of their own.
  41. But this freedom required a lot of factor, and making factor was expensive. It was one of the most expensive drugs on the market. At the time I am writing about, the ’90s, medication for a severe hemophiliac cost $100,000 a year. Today the same amount could cost half a million dollars.
  42. Part of the reason for this cost was the amount of blood needed to make factor. Drug companies harvested extra plasma from for-profit plasma centers, which they set up in the poorest neighborhoods.
  43. At one point, plasma was harvested from prisoners, who were paid to bleed.
  44. One problem with offering cash for blood is that it creates a strong incentive for people to lie on health questionnaires.
  45. It’s 1982 now, and there’s talk of a mysterious immune disorder that is affecting hemophiliacs who have no other risk factors. Remember that each vial of factor contained blood protein from up to sixty thousand donors, of which only one or two infected donors could contaminate an entire lot. There were about fifteen thousand hemophiliacs in the U.S., approximately half of whom were severe, and a severe hemophiliac infuses his medication once or twice a week. That is why it did not take long for ten thousand hemophiliacs to become infected with HIV.
  46. France currently produces one third of the world’s lavender.
  47. It’s 2019, and years of drought and a destructive bacteria spread by insects have weakened France’s lavender plants. As Provence gets hotter, its insect population thrives, and cicadas eat the already vulnerable lavender plants. In the last ten or fifteen years, the amount of lavender produced by France has declined by half.
  48. If these problems persist, no one knows how many more years lavender—or olives, for that matter—will grow in the south of France.
  49. The cicada, la cigale, is also the symbol of Provence and the blissful life many people have found there. It is seen on many local souvenirs, along with the region’s motto, coined by the nineteenth-century poet Mistral: Lou soulou mi fa canta. The sun makes me sing.
  50. According to local legend, the cicada was sent by God to wake up the peasants on warm summer days. Instead, the cicadas’ song lulled the peasants to sleep.
  51. In the early ’80s, when HIV entered the blood supply, no one wanted to believe this amazing life-giving medicine could be affected or should be taken away. Not the men who remembered the alternative; not the parents of boys. Certainly not the drug companies, who would lose billions of dollars and would have to throw away one of the most wondrous and expensive products ever created.
  52. Health organizations and doctors advised patients to stick to their treatment plan.
  53. Lavender won’t disappear; it just won’t be able to grow where it’s always grown.
  54. By the mid-’90s, hemophiliacs were dying at a rate of one per day. The hemophilia community is small, and we lost dozens of friends. Ken, Dick, Matt, Leo, Michael, Jim, Ricky, Ryan, Danforth, Tom, Michael again, Larky, Jonathan, Curtis, and more. The deaths seemed to come all at once.
  55. T died in 1994. His brother died seven months later.
  56. Increasingly, the plant grown in Provence is not fine lavender but its heartier cousin lavandin, a hybrid of fine and spike lavender. Lavandin is less complex-smelling, with a higher yield of oil; it therefore commands a lower price on the market. It is used in cleaning products, air fresheners, and detergent, and while an aromatherapist has told me that it can be lovely for relaxation, perfumers tend to avoid it.
  57. The ancient Greeks saw the cicada as a symbol of trans formation and rebirth. Cicadas start life looking like small white ants, then disappear underground for several years. They emerge looking completely different, ready to shed their exoskeletons and become adults.
  58. I used to keep their abandoned shells whenever I found one on the trunk of a tree.
  59. I think people are more like the cicada in the French version of “The Grasshopper and the Ant.” We sing and dance all summer even as we know that winter is coming.
  60. In 1995, the Institute of Medicine and National Academies of Sciences released a report called “HIV and the Blood Supply: An Analysis of Crisis Decision Making,” designed to “prepare the guardians of the blood supply for future threats [to] public safety,” and, more generally, to look at how high stakes decisions are made at uncertain moments. The IOM found that uncertainty makes people cautious about making big changes, creating opportunities for self-interested people to exploit that uncertainty for their own gain.
  61. In 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its most recent report, warning yet again of the oncoming cascade of storms, sea rise, floods, and food shortages. Writer and activist Bill McKibben confided to a New Yorker interviewer that, at this rate, whatever is done, he is concerned that we’re not going to catch up with the math.
  62. Did the panel on climate control read the report from the Institute of Medicine? Did anybody?
  63. Linguists will tell you that the word lavender has some roots in the Latin lavare (to wash). Going back further, lavare carries the proto-Indo-European root leue-, which is not just part of washing words like laundry and lavatory and latrine but also ablution, the ritual washing off of sin. Ritual cleansing is a rite found in nearly every world religion. Usually the washing is done with water, but sometimes it is done with blood.
  64. And “essential” comes from the French être, to be. Essential oil is oil bearing the essence of a plant’s being.
  65. The pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. were never fined. No one was sent to jail, was found guilty of a crime, or admitted wrongdoing. The companies collectively settled with the families, making what were referred to as “compassionate payments” of $100,000 for each person infected with HIV. The government followed suit and did the same. Many families I knew were glad for the financial assistance. But not one felt that $100,000 made up for their loss, and for those who genuinely needed money, the medicine was so expensive that the money did very little.
  66. Are people able to learn from their mistakes? Can we be reborn?
  67. I am trying to focus on complexity, problem-solving, and human fallibility, but I have trouble understanding some of the pharmaceutical companies’ actions as being motivated by anything other than greed. After the contaminated factor was recalled, for example, Bayer continued to sell their untreated product in Asia and Latin America for at least a year while offering a safer product to the U.S. market. Records show that company officials decided the untreated product was too valuable to throw away.
  68. The companies’ scientists and clinicians probably also felt great fear. How else could you feel? If you were fairly sure but not certain, and you lacked the courage to challenge management?
  69. In Japan, during a public announcement of a financial settlement for their infected hemophiliacs, a grief-stricken mother demanded that the CEOs of one pharmaceutical company perform dogeza, her culture’s greatest acknowledgment of shame short of suicide.
  70. To everyone’s surprise, the six executives dropped to their knees and bowed with their foreheads pressed against the floor. The woman continued to cry and shout. You can see video of this; it is horrible to watch, but also consoling, to see those powerful men acknowledge another’s grief with their bodies.
  71. Hemophilia means “love of blood.” The disease passes from mother to son. And though in this case “love” really means “tendency,” as in “tendency to bleed,” the name has always made me think of the love parents have for their children, and how often those parents stayed up all night with their sons, seldom letting their faces betray annoyance or worry. Or fear.
  72. T’s family seemed to know an infinite number of card games: spoons, peanuts, hearts.
  73. The last night of T’s life, when we knew he would die in the next few hours, his father said to him, I’ll stay up all night with you one last time, buddy.
  74. And what about nard, the highly expensive perfume with which Mary Magdalene is said to have washed the feet of Jesus? Some say that the Greek word nardos does refer to lavender, after the city of Naarda, where the plant grew. Others believe that nard is spikenard, a far more exotic and costly musk from China and the Himalayas.
  75. If Mary Magdalene was the apostle who best understood the philosophy of Jesus and the one who never abandoned him, then I want to say yes, it was lavender. If she knew he was about to be murdered, I would like to believe that she anointed him with something that would calm him and give him one last good night’s sleep.
  76. I have seen lavender heal people, if only briefly.
  77. In the three years I was a massage therapist, I worked on a roofer who had fallen two stories onto cement. Surgically, nothing could be done for his back, and I don’t think he had health insurance. Every day he paid cash for a one-hour massage in a lavender-scented room. He would walk in angry and leave whistling. He tipped big, said Bless you, baby as he left. For a few hours after, I imagine, he felt enough relief to be happy and maybe take a nap.
  78. I feel blessed that the oils have come to me and my family, said the aromatherapist—whose name is Brian—when I visited him this spring, for the first time in over twenty years. He named his company Imani, a word that means faith, and he spoke the way that artists speak about their materials. Working with the oils has helped me do the work of becoming a person who is worthy of them, he said.
  79. He now lives near the headwaters of the Mississippi, where he continues to decant oil into cobalt-blue bottles and field his own customer calls.
  80. I sometimes worry that I have told the story of what happened to the hemophiliacs too many times. But I am nearly fifty now, and, along with my family and the place I come from, their presence has been an essential fact of my life. They are the reason that lavender first found me.
  81. On my best massage days, nothing existed outside the dim room and sheet-covered table, not my worry about Ken finding a liver donor in time or my confusion about being in my twenties but having had experiences that made me feel as if I had already lived a whole life; it was just me and a person I did not know well who had fallen asleep in my presence. There were the bony landmarks of that person’s upper back, scapulae and vertebrae, with so many muscles attached to each that at school we referred to that area as the crossroads.
  82. On my best days, a client’s back resolved itself into a map of his life. There would have been at least one walk-in, a stranger like a locksmith or a dancer in town with a production of STOMP. Sometimes that stranger would tell me his story.
  83. On my best days, at the end of a treatment, before the client murmured Thank you, I would say it first, and mean it.
  84. On my best days, I walked home tired and calm with no thoughts of myself. I expected nothing, gave everything, and ended the day richer than I’d started.
  85. After my friend and I had finished helping the aromatherapist bottle lavender, we drove the winding two-lane toward the interstate, intoxicated by lavender. At some point we looked around and saw only trees.
  86. We stopped the car and got out. We could hear the faint sound of a creek nearby. The cicadas and crickets and katydids were nearly deafening. The evening stars had begun to reveal themselves, but we had missed the interstate and were lost.
  87. It would be sixteen more months before my need to practice massage would pass—before I would decide that I had spent enough time in the lavender room.
  88. We drove back the way we came, reasoning that the turnoff must have been small, but when we found the interstate, we were astounded. How had we been lulled into driving past an entire eight-lane highway, with all those vapor lamps and semis, all that noise?
  89. My friend said that she had never believed in aromatherapy or yoga or any of this stuff, but maybe now she did. We drove home into the purple Ozark hills, with the pink clouds of sunset turning into twilight, then a soft plum dark. O

Katrina Vandenberg is the author of two collections of poetry, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World and Atlas. Other essays she has published in Orion have been selected as a Notable Essay for the Best American Essays series and won a Pushcart Prize. She directs the creative writing programs at Hamline University and lives with her family in Saint Paul, MN.


  1. Such an intricate, exquisite essay. Thank you for this offering. xo

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