Autumn Melancholy + Saturnian Journeys
It is late October, and the peak of the Equinox has come and gone. The fields are golden with constellations of butter-colored squash and dried corn, and every day the light grows dimmer. In the wheel of the year, autumn is a time of both extravagant wealth and liberating death. As the days curl up like leaves, smaller and smaller, we are presented with more literal darkness and invited into a conflicted space of both reapening and reflection.
Autumn wears two crowns. The bright bittersweet berry and the bones of blackberry thorns. It is a time of dichotomy, of arrival and departures, endings and beginnings. Fall is an overwhelmingly evocative season, one that carries the crisp scent of nostalgia at midday, and the fog of old longings at night. For autumn’s light, thin as sorghum syrup poured in early morning sunrise, is the last of its kind. The final flicker before we enter the cave of winter— after fall we are subsumed by the dim unknown. In any spaces of darkness our eyes naturally widen and seek. And in autumn, our pupils begin to open like ponds into the deep.
Autumn’s darkness has a peculiar sheen, like an obsidian scrying stone, there is much to see in such opaque depths. Darkness, an aspect of living that is as integral as the shadow to the light, has been much demonized in our contemporary society; it consorts so closely with the unknown. Traditionally, this time of the year was recognized as a moment when the veils thin and what exists in the underworld (aka. the worlds underneath our perception of this world) can be made visible. The true underworld is not a place of demons or devils; it is the unexplored terrain of the soul. It is a place of individuation, searching, seeking, and deep creation. Like Pele and her lava, this dark place holds the regenerating force of creation in flux, the fluidity that births new land.
Autumn presents us with the opportunity to accept this inward quest, and acknowledge the vital importance of death. In autumn we can consciously invite in the dissolution of old habits or ideas, relationships, ways of being, or concepts of the world. Death, in truth, is a kind of harvest; we cannot collect the seed until the sunflower has become hunched and blackened like a crone. Autumn reminds us that death is a natural cycle of life, and in death there is nothing to fear. We engage in petite deaths all the time— the end of the day, the end of a phase, the end of our moon. Our soul is intimately interested in death. In fact, it is so curious that each and every one of us is born into a body that will one day die. Without death or darkness, how can we be reborn?
Depression is a heavy word in our culture. It carries as much weight as the ferry on the river Styx. As a society, we fear depression, just as we fear death and descent. In the olden days the word melancholy was often used. In contrast to depression, melancholy is not a deaf sinking or a mute plunge into nothingness; it is a search, as important and heroic as an anchor seeking deeper shores. Melancholy is born from a fervent yearning for meaning, a desire to know the purpose behind the pulp of ife. This search is fecund. It is the force that drives us into the unexplored terrain of the soul. In his book Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore echoes the importance of melancholy, recognizing depression’s emptiness as a type of alchemy that can transform the very fabric our lives. Many seeds must first be buried in darkness before they can bloom into light. Melancholy, and all the deep creativity it engenders, is a kind of planting. Traditionally associated with the God Saturn (who is also the God of harvest, age, wisdom, density and wealth), melancholy is a kind of passport into other worlds. In the old days, those who were considered constitutionally melancholy were sometimes called “Saturn’s children” and treated with respect. As progeny of such a distant and deep planet, we are usually asked to travel far.
We all move through Saturnian times in our life. Anyone who has experienced the enormity of change that can accompany your own personal Saturn return already understands the heavyweight importance of such underworld journeys. [Saturn return is a term in astrology, marking when Saturn returns to the same point in the sky that it occupied the moment you were born. This cycle comes about in 27-30 year intervals and is generally accepted to herald a time of massive transformation, new directions and change]. Whether you are literally in your Saturn return, or simply descending into a Saturnian moment, we must remember that such sinking is not the same as driftlessness. Every descent has its necessity, every death its reasons. The autumn leaves on the tree do not wonder why they flame and fall, they simply let go.
Saturn and its melancholy asks us to go deep, casting off our surface personalities to seek the wider identities of our soul. At its most primal element, a Saturian autumn is a time of approaching mystery. Not only the mystery of death and beginnings, fairy tales or witches brews, but the unfathomable mystery of oneself. As Oscar Wilde wrote near the end of his life, “The final mystery is oneself. When one has weighed the sun in the balance, and measured the steps of the moon, and mapped out the seven heavens star by star, there still remains oneself. Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul? “
Autumn is the time for approaching the brave trajectory of your own soul. It is the season in which we are asked to simply witness our rotation, recognizing the fecundity within the dark sides of our moon, and accepting the shadowy gifts autumn’s Saturnian return.
Several months ago I was sitting amongst a patch of Ghost Pipe on the forest floor when, like an ember thrown from a far off fire, Carnelian sailed into my awareness. In that moment, a flame burst into being. I recognized that these two medicines were asking to create magic together, and so I bowed my head and made it a reality. Only a month prior Kunzite + Mimosa has engaged me in a similarly surprising waltz. With this imploring I knew that a new era of One Willow had been born, and so I began to gather tinder to feed this deeply inspiring spark. By definition, alchemy is a practice that can literally transform matter. Soon after I began working with these earth medicines, I knew these elixirs held the ability to turn even the darkest elements into gold. Now, in the richness of this Saturnian time, I am so proud to announce the beginning of One Willow’s new Earth Alchemy line, an ever-evolving collection of flower and stone pairings that have asked to be breathed into life.
Ghost Pipe + Carnelian is the second essence in this alchemical collection. In recognition of this season I wanted to introduce you to the two beings behind this glowingly transformational essence.
In Chinese medicine there exists a concept of ghosts that goes far beyond our understanding of hauntings. In traditional Asian medicine ghosts are not simply the energetic residue of the formally living, they are entities that result from a resistance to what is, a tear in our resonance with the universe. When we resist or reject our current circumstances, we often cause a split. In this way of thinking ghosts can actually be aspects of ourselves— unresolved grief, unacknowledged loss, regrets, guilt, and the haunting of old hurts. In traditional Taoist medicine Carnelian was thought to help move (and thus integrate) the ghosts we have accumulated throughout our lives. This fiery stone works an emissary, or torch, helping energies get to where they ultimately belong. Carnelian can help us mend that original split, enabling us to let go of the grief that has caused us to stagnate in dark places for so long. Historically, carnelian is linked to courage, bravery, and the ability to be eloquently bold. More contemporary understandings of Carnelian revere this embered stone for its ability to help us step into spaces of personal power and leadership. Carnelian encourages us to take action in our lives, moving us like a flame through the darkness in order to manifest our brightest dreams. Carnelian emboldens us to find our deepest courage and take the leap into the unknown.
Ghost Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is an eerily unique being, one that has captivated the hearts of many people over the years. It is one of the few plants that lacks chlorophyll and survives in a semi-parasitic (some would say symbiotic) relationship by tapping into the mycorrhizal networks of the forest. It has roots in both depth and dependency, embodiment and death. Ghost Pipe has often been associated with states of the underworld, and as a guardian of the threshold it seems to rise like a ghost from the dark forest floor. As an essence, Ghost Pipe can help us enter liminal spaces with safety. In Sean Donahue’s beautiful article on this evocative plant he writes, “Ghost Pipe to me is the distillation of the consciousness of the forest — of the deep peace that comes from complete integration in the cycles of birth and death to the point where the distinction ceases to have meaning.”
Ghost Pipe reminds us that, in truth, death and rebirth are one in the same. Emerging from the soil in a pale stand of downward facing hoods, this plant seems to embody the penetrating vision of the crone— the movement of bringing ones gaze into the inner worlds. After this plant is fertilized, the flower shades a miraculous pink and turns its face upwards to the sky. Ghost Pipe is an exotic example of the life-giving essence than can arise from our journey into the underworld. Once we allow ourselves the time of descent our souls require, we can fertilize a whole new generation, the blush of a fully lived existence returning to our cheeks to help us show our faces even more gallantly to the world.
Ghost Pipe has fallen out of contemporarily popular materia medicas, but was in wider use in the early Americas, where is was listed in King’s American Dispensatory. A nervine, antispasmodic and diaphoretic, Ghost Pipe turns purple when tinctured, a velvety reminder of the insightful alchemy that can happen when seek our medicine in the depths.
Ghost Pipe has historically been used in drop doses as a pain remedy. This curious companion was cited to help “put the pain beside you” where it can be examined, and ultimately transcended. Depression can be overwhelming, but when we focus on the pain we prevent ourselves from moving deeper into the places that our discomfort is asking us to address. Ghost Pipe can help us to put aside the intensity of the hurt and see our wounds as an opening into a truly transformational journey of the soul.
Please note: At this point and time I only recommend using Ghost pipe as a flower or vibrational essence (as it in within our Earth Alchemy line), as it is becoming increasingly endangered due to over-harvesting.
Life, like clouds, moves in cycles. Moments of brightness and clarity exist just as wholly as shape-shifting horizons of storm. To acknowledge the light, is to recognize the darkness, and to interact with the shadow is to learn about the very nature of light. A remedy of ember and empowerment, Ghost Pipe + Carnelian is a guide for such journeys into the underworld. In the old days, the natural seasons of melancholy were considered the domain of Saturn— the Roman God of wealth and wisdom, dissolution and depth, harvest, wholeness and liberation. Ghost Pipe + Carnelian is a torch for all those who are ready to move through the Saturnian journeys of their life. An invaluable ally in times of depression, darkness, or stagnation, this powerful pairing reminds us that we are, in truth, our own guides. We must only trust the imperceptible path. When we embark with willingness into the worlds that lay beyond this one, we consciously enter into the terrain of the soul. Ghost Pipe + Carnelian emboldens us to embrace entirely new ways of soulful seeing and being, a journey of consciousness that necessitates the death of the old. This dynamic essence dispels any energies that may be hindering our quest— ghosts, cords or parasitic attachments, and reminds us that rebirth always arises from places obscured. A bravely alchemical pairing, Ghost Pipe + Carnelian gives us the power and energy to burn like lava through the darkness, manifesting entirely new land.