Kapka Kassabova is an award-winning author of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, born in Bulgaria and now living in the Scottish Highlands. Her newest work of narrative nonfiction, Elixir, soars with the luminous prose and unflinching honesty we have come to expect from this brilliantly gifted writer.
Elixir is an extraordinary, profoundly moving book. The moment I finished reading it, I began again from the beginning, pausing only to order multiple copies for friends. Like Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass, Kassabova effortlessly integrates science and the sacred, addressing historical, ecological, and personal trauma with clarity, compassion, and hope. Elixir combines memoir, travel, history, ethnography, botany, philosophy, spirituality, eco-psychology, alchemy, traditional Chinese medicine, and even alchemy, in a subtle, sophisticated exploration which defies all categorisation.
Kassabova takes us deep into one of the least-known parts of Europe, the Mesta Valley of southern Bulgaria. In this remote place, impoverished in many ways yet rich in plant medicine and folk knowledge, she discovers ‘a long lineage of foragers, healers, and mystics’ living close to the earth in ‘a symbiotic system where nature and culture have blended for thousands of years.’
The Mesta river carves in a ‘smiling gallop’ through steeply wooded slopes where the Rila, Pirin and Rhodope mountains meet. In one of the wildest landscapes in Europe, still home to wolves and bears, Alpine pastures open up ‘in quick succession, a show the Earth had put on in an outburst of genius for its own delight.’ Here, Kassabova found, ‘Everything was still connected – peaks, people, plants. This place still had something of the old, wild kind – medicine, meaning, magic.’
In this unique ‘cultural ecosystem’, Christians, Muslims, and Roma have lived together for centuries. Elders are honoured for their practical skills and mystical wisdom, both gleaned from their intimacy with the natural world. Pilgrims come from far and wide, seeking the healers – mostly older women – whose reputations give them status and authority in the community. ‘All that we still take pride in comes from the women’, one man explains.
Many are Pomaks, indigenous Bulgarians forcibly converted to Islam centuries ago. This religious minority has endured terrible persecution in recent generations, yet are barely known in the Western world. Kassabova asks, ‘How was it that these people have been a permanent part of the landscape yet remained invisible, the last unknown Europeans?’ She brings the Pomak women into crystal-clear focus, with ‘hands huge from planting, sowing, hoeing, digging, weeding, watering, harvesting, shelling, de-stoning, drying, stringing, milking, boiling, preserving, birthing, killing and cooking.’ Behind gentle voices ‘was the familiar steely note. Their power was not on display, only the fruits of their earthly work, yet behind them was the mountain. Always, the mountain.’
Kassabova’s writing is as daring and dramatic as the landscapes she paints. With constant shifts from broad strokes to fine detail, she playfully shares her delight in individual plants – such as a flower ‘that made you want to sit down beside it and forget your troubles’ – and transmits plenty of practical herbal knowledge, while always meditating on larger themes of ‘ailing and healing’.
Elixir interweaves emotional with geographical landscapes, tenderly illuminating individuals I really came to care about, against a terrifying backdrop of historical, political, and environmental calamity. Kassabova bears witness to ‘the devastating weight of the ecological and cultural disinheritance that the people of this valley have suffered,’ yet somehow, people survive. Despite war, subjugation, massacres, hardship, past totalitarianism and present kleptocracy, the Pomaks continue to care for plants, places, and people.
Kassabova writes: ‘The people of the valley are keepers of a rare knowledge, not only of mountain plants and their properties, but also of how to transform collective suffering into healing.’ Bulgaria has perhaps seen more than its share of collective suffering, but as violent ecological and economic upheaval spread everywhere, the ability to transmute tragedy into healing is a skill we all urgently need.
The Mesta Valley folk have their bitter side, but the sweet side reminds me of the peaceful, egalitarian civilisations of Neolithic Old Europe, and indeed, human settlement along the Mesta river has been continuous since early Neolithic times, ca. 6000 BCE. Although Kassabova does not explore this link directly, I can’t help seeing the life-affirming, earth-reverent, subsistence culture she describes as a living remnant of the pre-patriarchal Old European world.
My own extensive travels in Bulgaria for dance research started in 1990, right after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and through the subsequent decades of crisis which wracked the country (shatteringly portrayed in Kassabova’s earlier books, Border and Street With No Name). I’ve been through the mountains of southern Bulgaria, even up the Mesta Valley, where I bought herbs and honey from Pomak women just like those Kassabova describes – perhaps their antecedents, or perhaps the same, in this place where so many keep alive the ancient ways; where, as one local says, ‘I got the tail end of the old life and held onto it for as long as I could’.
As the author’s quest for healing leads her ever further from the beaten track, her parallel interior journey is equally intrepid. Kassabova’s lyrical language reveals the transformations effected upon her by herbs, land, and healers, in an astounding feat of personal and transpersonal exploration which stands alongside the very best travel writing.
Kassabova’s portrayal of a disappearing world can be hard to bear. Her prose is breathtaking, the stories heartbreaking. Tears sprang to my eyes continually as I read. With her ‘urgent and unforgettable call to rethink how we live—in relation to one another, to Earth, and to the cosmos’, Kassabova courageously shines light on incalculable anguish and loss, yet the triumph of her book is that she never gives up hope; she always finds, and shares, evidence of ‘the spiral dance of the earth that weaves a spell against extinction’.
This is the alchemical gold we are given from the exquisite crucible of Kassabova’s writing, as her pen distills the essence of her immersion in this world to craft an unforgettable ark of revelation and salvation. The very ink with which she writes is itself an elixir.
Elixir: In the Valley at the End of Time © 2023 by Kapka Kassabova, out now in paperback from Graywolf Press.
Kassabova’s previous award-winning books include Border, To the Lake, and Street With No Name. Visit Kapka Kassabova’s website here.
Watch this space for an excerpt from ‘Elixir’, coming on FAR later this month.