The Mesta is one of the oldest rivers in Europe and the surrounding forests and mountains of the southern Balkans are an extraordinarily rich nexus for plant gatherers. Over several seasons, Kapka Kassabova spends time with the people of this magical region and experiences a symbiotic system where nature and culture have blended for thousands of years.
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 ... 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.
It’s a very rich book and there is a lot here for a variety of readers. As often, my advice would be to skip if you find passages boring or pretentious, and go on to others which offer a picture of the experience of daily life ... This is a book... sadly lacking in humour – and how can there be a good life without humour and the ability to laugh at both others and ourselves? It would be wrong to call this book escapist, though some will surely do so, but it is not unfair to call it evasive.
Kassabova conjures up an entire history with a single, sensitive observation. Her prose is precise, yet still able to communicate a sense of wonder ... When she is describing traditional healing practices, however, that clarity gives way to vagueness ... Kassabova occasionally expresses scepticism about the cures she investigates, but she’s far more critical of “old-school” western medicine ... Yet the fact that Kassabova’s journeys took place during the pandemic, when mainstream medicine was racing to create a vaccine, weakens her case ... Her book is a laudable attempt to record an endangered region and a disappearing way of life. However, in the end, the stories of magical herbs and miracle cures seem less precious than the meadows, the mountains and the people she meets.