The medicine of the land can become medicine for the people.
This first appeared in Plant Healer Magazine - A great magazine to check out - http://planthealer.org/
I was always a city gal. Constrained in my youth by lackluster country amusements I hitchhiked my way out of the barren landscape without a backwards glance. It was the landscapes of peoples’ emotions, pulsing expressions and tricky intent that fascinated me. These were the interplays I observed, tasted and fiddled around in. The backdrop was old, mostly, northern Europe where “wild” was found in the constant peer examination of professional function. Wild was discovered in how you found your way to bed at night, how you could sign into oblivion and stumble, fumbling alone, as one centric individual. It was not the wild of the woods, the wild of the screaming silent territory, the wild that harbors no sense of human, the wild which, as Dr. Martin Shaw says “disables our capacity to devour in the way the West seems so fond of; in the most wonderful way I can describe, we get devoured.” So it has been a returning to the circle, finding myself back in the country, a call from the land, this voice that I’ve heeded, this belonging I’ve needed to stay sane.
“I am the bear,” I say to myself as I move along the undergrowth. Its a big forest I’m walking through. Big enough to get lost in. To lose myself in, to become unknown. To be devoured in in the most wonderful way. Not the constant consumption of human entrapment but something beyond myself. I hear rustling and movement. Everything in me stops, then starts. “I am the bear,” I mutter. As an omnivore I've joked about being part of the circle of life enough to know that I might have called it up in some clumsy moment. For I am the bear, ready to immerse myself into the forest in a way that will open my synaptic gates, those Huxleyesque doors of sense, smell, mind, quiet. More transparent and whole at the same time. I massage the edge of my fear with the mantra, looking around the unknown forest. The unknown landscape of strange principles and order. I don’t want to be afraid.
It’s uncomfortable, trust. Trust that you don’t know the landscape. Trust that you might not be able to cope. It takes a while to get to the place where if I saw “one who knows where the honey is “my first response would be ‘shoo!’ It takes a while to begin greeting the trees, heart-lifting at the familiar sights, everyone in their place, caressed limbs waving in recognition. It takes a while to step lightly, meandering through, noting friends, new and old. It takes a while to be familiar in a wild that’s not of you. A while to be able to slip into the mindset that comes about meandering through nature.
Which is why, when I’m thinking about pertinent information for this monograph, when I think about how to impart to you, good reader, reliable facts and solid handles of knowledge, I stumble, mist in my mind as I pull the fluid heart-moments with my grasping hands that simply feel the slippery truth of experience flow through. First, it takes a while.
It takes a while
I started out from my urban decay far from the woods. My first forays into landscapes and local were through gardening, especially permaculture. It made sense to me, permaculture. how a system’s unspoken entropy is balance. It also made sense that the landscape was the conductor of orchestration. The holder of hot, cold, constriction, lax, damp and dry. How the plants responded to the shifting, the dipping and the draining, The lay of the land, the bones of the earth and the microscopic dance in play between all players. The embedded universality. While looking at where my pattern-recognition could meander and play within this system of observing living principles I got sucked in, noting the perennials of the region and from there on found the medicinals. Laziness was key. I am the epitome of the armchair gardener, for as I glanced at my designated clumps of vibrant green offerings that would soon wilt away and scab the winter gardens like picked at ingrown hairs, my pupils would sideways shift towards the forest, the roadside, the unused lot, because I could see on my periphery, I could see that right there was the land already teaming, overladen, perfectly unweeded, joyously yelling, “We are here!”. I could see beautiful, vibrant, abundant medicinal gardens.
“One of the most important things about permaculture is that it is founded on a series of principles that can be applied to any circumstance. The core of the principles is the working relationships and connections between all things.” - Juliana Birnbaum Fox
Leaving my more premeditated efforts to ‘self organize’ I started to learn what was around me. Simultaneously, I was learning about traditional western medicine, with Matthew Wood’s teaching being a figurative influence, his insight and way of revealing the six tissue states and their definitions slowly awakening my senses as I began to feel the correlation between outside and in. The archway of awareness opening up in my back, letting wispy ancestors walk through as I relaxed into the root of Calamus, the intense shiver of Quaking Aspen and the deep deep call of Devils Club. “March on good soldier”. These feelings correlated with taste and action but they also all had the nuances of personality. Finding the language of plants found sense in their home. Found sense in the sitting in their groves, noting who were their friends and hindrances. Noting what blew them this way and that. Our living functions so similar and yet our knowing worlds apart. What inherent knowledge did they behold?
I started to have a weird relationship with Teasel. It’s everywhere here. In the grimiest of places. All over refuse and drainage. It’s a just-arrived-at-the-party plant, all seven feet or so, suddenly present, arms waving like Neptune’s trident. It happened that I was getting ready for a forest immersion in the Gorge. “Bring something for the bundle” the initiates said. The pressure! Bring something special/meaningful/doomed!
I was driving the kids to school, mind meandering about what to bring, what special gift I could place in the special bundle, letting the consciousness float through, seeing if any attachment became caught in the thought-cloud, the kids in the background, radio, traffic lights. As I slid into the mostly empty lot I noticed something large and perfectly parallel to the white lines in the parking space beside me. Watching the kids rumble towards the school door I walked around and saw a tall perfectly intact brown dried teasel with suspicious indentations similar to tire tracks. “Still with all her teasing burrs” I wonder, thinking that she was lucky to hitch a ride - for indeed Cinderella, she was, off to the offering at the Gorge. I let my mind disengage and I didn’t try to understand what my heart felt as I lay her in the station-wagon. Wildness, wildness settled in there and I smelled the skunk of her fox pelt.
Since then she’s crept right up to my door. She’s become a good friend. So overwhelmed by emotion one day I drunkenly lapped at the pools in her chalice-like leaves, laughing at myself when I see all the bugs disintegrating in the bottom. Then after having repeatedly sprained my ankle for the third time in a year and sick of my current fearful shuffle on bumpy paths, I finally reach for the teasel tincture and rub it on. I immediately feel a click as the cool menstrum sinks in and then, in my head, a command: “Jump up and down!” Somewhat startled, I do. Another click and crunch in my ankle and I’m dismissed, ankle readjusted, not to spring out of place again. You can’t help but fall in love, stand in awe, feel blessed to greet her in the doorway with gladness in your heart. Mullein was watching over for a while but now the Teasel’s standing guard. The same two St. John’s Wort hang out by the water faucet come June. The Lemon Balm and Peppermint battle it out while the brambles take on my assaults of rage, for if I was calm to begin with, by the time I'm entrenched in the briar medicine I’m as whipped up as a bobcat in a cage not of its making. Fighting furiously against all my knots of thought and prejudice, wound up with no generosity for the facets of my animism. I make friends with myself as the brambles I negotiate a slow release and let me feel what I do not allow myself to feel, to submit, submit to being in the unruly presence of something vaster. The knowledge that comes with interaction.
It takes a while to establish a working relationship
I nibble and munch and smell. I sit and meditate, experiment on my own and with groups, sometimes clarity of insight, green-whisperings, sometimes a practice in frustration, despair, self-loathing. I think about the scientific correlation with constituents and regularly observed pathologies. I think about the herbal lore, tidbits passed down, experiences shared, and I try to tuck markers of this information away, to use, verify, experiment and understand. The left brain is a beloved friend unlike my untrusty right side, ready to cave in a second, alive with palpitations when it brushes with the infinite of being. Being there, in the old lot next door that is brimming with pioneer diversity, being there, just still. Being.
I have a little radio show. It came about when I was stalking some Cottonwood on a cold, crisp, sunny January day, after the storm. Everything about me shivered with clarity. I suddenly slipped into my childhood wonder of watching David Attenborough and his unabashed connectedness to the animal kingdom that he was so avidly reporting on. I giggled to myself at how my “prey” was so stealthy, its movement was barely discernible. More than that, I was reaching back through time, connected by an undivided passion, the vibration of absolute delight in being in the wild and nowhere else. The thought of sharing this joy popped into my mind. The ongoing story of our earthy observations. I recorded a five-minute window of that world into my phone, bashed up an edit and successfully pitched it to my local radio station. Passion honed by discipline, I would go out, go out and wildcraft, make some medicine or not, do a show or two, opening up the windows of my worlds. I would be all eager, jumping out the car, the dog leaping around while I got the phone set to record the show, get it done. This was when I was harvesting rose petals, I stood there, recording the show, talking about the taste, the astringency, the different parts. I felt satisfied. I had imparted the information. I had covered some succinct points, got some good tips in. The Rose vinegar sunburn splash with St John’s for good measure. How wonderful! Something extra for the listeners.
I set to picking petals. The patch I have always harvested from is large and profound, Dog Rose in great families. Bushes upon bushes set back a little from the ocean inlet, gracefully held in a huge horseshoe embrace of Madrone, Alders and Cedar. Boggy land with dry sandy hillocks, salty with big breaks of Hogweed and Hemlock, Yarrow and Yellow Dock with Wild Carrot to come. So plentiful that I do not have to embrace the thorns, but can pick a years worth of medicine by grazing on the edges. Meandering, grasping the petals, four or five only with each bud. A slow business, grasp, gently pull and place petals into the bag, so hypnotic that there is high danger of missing the open bag on my arm, petals trailing behind me like I’m an angelic Gretel. Hands slightly sticky with the scent, the fragrance becoming more than a cloud of invisible pollen, the scent itself a path to walk through, a realm to embrace. Grasp, pick, place, stop, gaze. Grasp pick place stop gaze. How are the tent caterpillars this year I wonder, noting the flux and ebb. How are the territories this year? Noting the growth and set backs, how is the essence this year? Lots of sun, and there will be sweet nectar, or early bloom, more astringent, slightly drier, off into a flow of being, not needing to think to know, body comparing, registering the slow yearly progression where rose and I meet again. Time reduced to nothing, just us in our conjunction, our act of love. Again wondering abstract thoughts that balloon like baby spiders drifting upwards while my heart slowly starts to aspire and open, to lift and rise, to encompass the whole of my body.
I pause. I’ve been picking for a few hours. I notice I am extremely enhanced. I am very different. It suddenly occurs to me that now I have to record the show to talk about rose. Five minutes of heartfelt longing on the meaning of trust. My listeners will have to google for the vinegar sunburn rinse.
It takes a while to establish a working relationship you cherish and then revisit, again and again.
The very fact that I can experience a general action from a general taste allows me to drift and meander through my neighborhood of plants exploring their possibilities. My young sons complaining. Delicate in his piscerian stomach he is experiencing sudden painfulI cramps. Try some dandelion leaf I say - there is little alternative, no aromatic leaves of yarrow let alone the calming fennel in this rather regulatory neighborhood we’re in. However the cramps stop, the leap from the page into the meeting. This casual acquaintance is key because there is something greater than personal knowing going on here. A reaching in -into something other than my self to bring it to myself. What I seek is somatic. Using the tastes and the observations of the landscapes that the plants grow in allow me to understand where they might be more helpful. Maybe. What inherent intelligence have they gained? Is the Yarrow on the beach different from the one on the mountain? I go off in search and then I have the medicine, neatly labeled “Yarrow, 5000 feet,” and “Yarrow beach”, yet the variables are so contrary and the scientific method that I’m practicing bogus. It isn’t as effective as I want it to be. Or neat. Definitely not as predictable. Rather like I am describing myself.
I truly appreciate the rigors and observations and gatherings of data, I enjoy reading the blood, understanding physiological process, the endless depth of knowledge I witness in herbalism. I am constantly stretching my Self into the realm of language, variables, parameters, process, cause and effect, the delicate multi-play of interactions, the exacting absence of mystery. The delightful depth of knowing. My understanding is that this perspective is extremely successful in healing. Yet I also know that it’s simply the Practitioner’s Way. If a practitioner remains faithful to what they understand and how they perceive they help transfer the medicine of the land to the people. Remain faithful to how you understand and the patterns will fall into place, the invisible lines of causality will become clear, your moral themes and prudence learned over time will take play. I learned this with my practice as it became my own. I learned this with medicine-making.
A good friend loves to dry the plants all up, grind them thoroughly and then, there they sit, the clumpy beige or ochre messes seemingly gelatinized in the bottom of oversized jars. This habit not even for the sake of consistency, rather a personal calling; these slavic blocks of grey matter. I was secretly appalled. I would look at my wares, tightly packed to the brim. Fresh, colorful plants squeezed in their mason jars like old fashioned carnival exhibits sitting next to hers like some parody of Oz. Yet her medicine, so different from mine, so different and so effective. Thankfully she follows her path, her way of understanding, as I do, as we compare and take notes. Envy and delight in our successes and learning-mistakes.
It takes a while to establish a working relationship you cherish and then revisit, again and again. As you get to know the land, the land gets to know you and you get to know yourself.
The Madrone is out there on the edge. I can view her from many different points of reference. I can see her in different walks of my life, my ex’s house across the bay where a lifetime ago I would wash the dishes looking out over the bay. The neighborhood beach where I would stand, looking up 200’ to see her there swaying, almost horizontal, ever-reaching; or from the forest edge where she hangs, root-tusks dug in an iron-like grip on the cliff face, beckoning me to really experience her medicine and for once lightly dance up her massive trunk so that I can fully embrace her boughs as we levitate above the crashing surf. I wonder if I will arrive at one of these vantage points to find her transformed. Gone. Sacrificed, Fallen. Our perspective of time is so vastly different from the forest that it hinders me in my judgment. I hug my fellow wildcrafters bemoaning the very pervasive medicine of the blackberries consuming their shrinking patch of diversity, while I hug my fellow wildcrafters celebrating the life-saving honey-bee blossom of the same infamous invasive. Land nurture, Self nurture. I find my true north.
Madrone light-seeker shows me that for ever she has been there and one day she will never be. If I start to feel frustrated or hurried while wildcrafting or tending in the forest, junk lot, embankment, I stop. It has taken me while in this learning for I am as effective as I’m impatient. Elder was a harsh teacher, breaking off in great branches of exasperation if I started to expedite the flower-gathering, her sweet umbels creamy-white against the splinters of her form. Shame flooding through me, the hypocrisy of my intentions! The rubbish of my medicine yet the knowing that I can grow and move on. Improve and learn about the balance and the nourishment, find the right form, the right fit.
Some years there are no berries. “What, no Angelica!” I exclaim to one of my favorite medicine-makers. “Damn!” Thinking of my client. “Get over it” she says. “The patch needs a break. What do you want? That we should start tincturing shipped-in herbs? You want that we completely change our modus operandi for your needs?” “No angelica then,” I murmur in agreement. I buy her medicine because of relationship. Not because it’s better or more effective, but it’s just my way. It’s the way that this land has taught me.
I caress the thin paper bark of fierce Madrone. She who houses eagles for they love to plunge into the Salish Sea from her perfectly-placed branches high above. As for myself I have to lie on my belly and slowly slither to the edge of the cliff reaching out to grasp the offerings of her bark, I have a long way to go before I can gamble out there and collect her leaves. The thought of stewarding the Madrone and her offspring seems ludicrous. Who am I to know? What could I possible know? But the point of contact is everything. The line that is drawn out from one point to another creates a dimension and that is the relationship we have entered into. That is the relationship that I can honor, fail, foul and rise again to improve. The dimension of story, experience, remembrance and hope.
It takes a while to establish a working relationship you cherish and then revisit, again and again. As you get to know the land, the land gets to know you and you get to know yourself, each providing strength to the others’ existence by entering into story.
And so it is into story I go and into story that I share with you. I was tempted to be more precise, but the list of my local herbs seemed to die on the page and how they helped has always been so much more than physiological. I am still just barely getting to know the story’s of the many medicinal plants that I continuously use and visit in my neighborhood but I can bring them to mind in a moment and when I do they are never devoid of the ground, the surrounding landscape. In these parts we are blessed with a sweet alien visiter and I have lived for a long time watching over a couple of stands of Ghost Pipe, the upright folk, perky and bright, looking intensely around in different directions, seemingly delighted by humans, there’s a reason why they are always right there out by the pathways rather than the interior. I have a family of them hanging out on a forest trail right by my dwelling. My son and I great them every year upon their reemergence, we hold them with us as we walk almost daily on that trail and they are in always in the corner of our minds as we pass the spot whether they are under the ground or in full luminescent glory or black shadows of themselves in the bones of winter, skeletal silhouettes barely discernible under the SalaI. One day in mid June I wake up early with the clear image of the Ghost Pipe in my mind, beautiful translucent white with the delicate blue and pink hues caught on the edges, the black tips providing sharp relief. I hear before I hear the weed whacker and then I’m out the door, flying down the path in my pajamas. The state park makes use of a volunteer system - lovely folks and now and then to be useful they like to “tidy” up the paths by trimming the edges. I reach my stand hoping that it won’t be for an impromptu harvest. It’s not. There they are, still in all their unity. Standing in community. I make a resolve to have a conversation with the park ranger, to find out if the volunteers are informed so that I can have a cup of tea before I go dashing into action.
It takes a while to establish a working relationship you cherish and then revisit, again and again. As you get to know the land, the land gets to know you and you get to know yourself, each providing strength to the others’ existence by entering into story. As your story grows you can begin to share it with community so that the medicine of the land can become medicine for the people.