first person

Rosemary Will Never Smell the Same

Photo: Ingolf Hatz/Getty Images/Cultura RF

When I started simmering herbs on the stove, my husband and I were already in a silent war about the bath towels I’d rolled up and shoved under the cracks of the front and back doors, convinced it made a difference. He would kick them out of the way to open the door when he took out the trash or got the mail, and I would rush to put them back in a huff. One part of me mentally rehearsed points about the placebo effect; the other was outraged at his blithe disregard for our safety. As wildfires ravage the West Coast, I’ve become desperate for something, anything, that might improve the air inside our home.

You’ve seen the photos of neon-orange skies, melted cars, entire towns flattened. You’ve read the harrowing accounts of attempts to escape immediate danger. Unlike those in neighboring counties and across the West, our house is not literally on fire. We haven’t lost all of our belongings, and we didn’t have to evacuate. Our suitcases are still half packed, filled with treasured children’s books and preschool art, diapers, clothes, and family photos.

That threat has passed — at least in my neighborhood in Portland, for now — but the smoke is so thick that the air is off-the-charts hazardous and seeping inside. Our eyes burn and our throats feel like they do on the first day of a cold. I can hear my husband’s coughing fits from behind the closed door of the room where he tries to work. Our 2-year-old son’s little voice is scratchy, like he’s hoarse from screaming or illness.

Air purifiers are mostly sold out online, and the local hardware store’s air-filter aisles are all empty, picked clean. These realities loomed large when a friend texted me an uncredited image macro from Instagram that depicted simmering certain herbs in water on the stove, claiming it would fill our homes with humidity and absorb some of the smoke particles. I knew immediately I would try it, simply because I had the materials.

We have a giant rosemary bush in our otherwise-lovely backyard, and while I think of this plant as a nuisance, and rosemary in general as too niche of an herb, I was suddenly grateful it existed. When friends on the East Coast checked in on us, I texted them a photo of the rosemary peeking out from the big pot of water, as though the kitchen scene’s domesticity could prove that we had everything under control.

Feeling almost autumnal, I added lemons to “my brew.” An Instagram scroll revealed I was not the only one doing this — all across the West Coast, it seemed, the pots were determined and simmering. I did wonder if the many trips to the backyard, closing and opening the door twice every time I went to snip branches of rosemary for our beautiful science experiment, were more detrimental than just … not doing the herb water. But if we didn’t make the herb water, what else would we do? Think about how some version of this is how so many people on this planet live, and many more will in the near future?

The minor relief rosemary granted turned out to be short-lived: On Tuesday, the Washington State Department of Health debunked herb simmering, which, it turns out, has the potential to do more harm than good. I turned off the burner of the stove, glad I’d chosen a lesser herb as my placebo, because I never want to smell rosemary again. The sun is still an eerie orange, hidden by a cloud of smoke. But as of yesterday afternoon, the air-quality level in Portland dropped from Hazardous, where it had been for days, to Very Unhealthy.

We have dealt with wildfire smoke in other years I’ve lived here, ash raining down, and the sky a frightening shade. This time, though, felt different. When we rushed around the house packing up our documents and medications, I was sure the fires would spread and burn down our house. Why wouldn’t they, after everything else?

When they didn’t, what I felt wasn’t that we overreacted or were foolish. What I thought was, Okay, that was good practice. Because it will happen again soon, and probably worse.

Rosemary Will Never Smell the Same