You could call it a beauty ritual or a bonding experience. Or perhaps it is an ancient rite that comes with no explanation. It happens usually when my extended family are gathered at camp for Memorial Day Weekend, when the river water is still icy cold.
My daughter and her cousins gather at the dock, stripped down to bathing suits and sandals, sprawled out on the wooden planks to feel spring sunshine on bare skin. They talk, and laugh, and very rarely lie still. Schoolteacher Niece will stretch her body out against a beach towel to bathe in the sun, but within minutes, she will sit up to join the conversation, her voice rising excitedly over her gesturing arms, her corn silk hair swishing as she talks. Our dock is a private place, surrounded by acres and acres of green gold cattails.
Blonde Niece and my Smart Beautiful Wonderful Daughter grab a bucket from one of the boats and begin filling it with muck from the marsh, scooping up handfuls of decayed organic material, that rich compost of cattails and water lilies and marsh weeds. They dump handfuls on their heads, rubbing it into their long hair, the streaks of mud running down their bare skin. They giggle and squirm as they put the mud on each other. "It’s cold!"
Blonde Niece, her long hair covered with dark mud, sits cross-legged on the dock, facing the sun, letting the mud dry against her scalp and neck. For a few moments, everyone is silent, bathed in mud, soaking the marsh sun into their skin and hair. Cattails ripple, a snake swims quietly under the floating weeds, and bird song mixes with the soft thuds the sailboat makes as it bumps against the tires that hang from the dock post. Marsh mud smells wonderful, like dried grasses or rich compost.
Later they wash the mud from their hair. Daughter kneels on the dock, dumping buckets of marsh water over her heads. Blonde Niece swims in the shallow water, ignoring the cold, splashing through the layers of silty mud, and emerging covered in muck. My method is lie down on the dock on my stomach and lean far enough to plunge my whole head into the water, swishing my hair around in the clear water near the surface. It’s cool to stare upside down at the underside of the dock, but when I stand up, cold water trickles down my neck.
What does the mud do to hair? Who knows? But unlike commercial beauty products, it remains out of the cycle of consumerism. It comes with no wasteful packaging, no expensive transportation costs, no dangerous toxins. After the mud treatment, the teenagers brush their hair in the sun, their arms curved over their heads, the silky strands swishing blonde or red or brown in the sunlight, everyone talking lazily in the spring sunshine.