The medicine of my world is fed by many streams— plants, flowers, stones, spirit and dreams. The most profound healing in my life has arisen from the ocean-like concurrence of all these streams. This piece is an homage to the whirlpool that it, itself, the healing.
This time last year I was officially diagnosed with Lyme disease. My story, which is long and fated and slated to be a blog post all its own, holds a special brand of medicine…and it is healing, for me, to simply be told.
Originally published in Plant Healer Magazine, this tale is an ode to the deep and multifaceted mystery of plant healing. It is the story of a medicine encounter that truly changed my life. It is a narrative of sacred basil and holy dreams. Unexpected illness and the call to bow my head to mystery. Thank you, dear readers, for reading…
p.s. If the Tulsi of this tale calls to you, I would be so happy to share. I offer this very same, sweet Tulsi from my garden in the shop. It is a blessing.
// Tulsi + The Beginning //
After several months of traveling I had arrived back home to a new season of profusion and growth. Sprawling honeysuckle and dandelion, squash left on withering vines. There was a fresh crispness to the air, the subtle changes of birdsong and light. Amaranth had sprung up in the tobacco beds and the comfrey splayed out of her niche by the back door. In my absence, the garden had grown wild. What were once rows, now grew over in weed and vine and seed. The Tulsi planted up on the terraces, however, was ever-leggy, fragrant and lithe. I went, as I had gone for so many seasons before, to greet her.
For years Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) has been my beloved plant ally. She was one of the first medicinal herbs I ever grew. Continually blessed with many early summer seedlings, I often transplant Tulsi to every corner of my yard. The first year I remember placing extra starts in-between the kale and kohlrabi, tucked into overgrown apple mint plots. The next season we found that Tulsi had seeded herself in the most unexpected places: in our fire pit, and the shade gardens, a single ceramic pot left to overwinter on the porch. In the summer I gather leaves in tiny winged fistfuls. I let her get tall and bowed and lay my head between her spines to watch the bees go to and fro, balancing on her willowy curves. By the season’s end the rafters of our mudroom are always hung with thick garlands of the sweet drying herb. We string it up in the kitchen, just above the gaze of our wooden windowsills, and tie bundles to the outside of our bedroom doors. All winter long we drink the last herb of summer, throwing Tulsi leaf and flower into almost every brew.
I love Tulsi for the way she makes me feel, and what I know she can do. Tulsi has helped ease me through early seasonal allergies and indigestion after a full meal. During long hours of study, Tulsi has gently picked up my head from the nest of my arms, clearing and focusing my mind. I’ve used Tulsi to help fight off infections, colds and UTIs. Tulsi has been an ally, a familiar friend, a known entity to me for sometime. But, like most stories, this tale follows the paths unknown, straying beyond the characters or qualities we can string up and keep safe for some future era. In truth, this tale speaks to a much older faith: the insistence that no matter how much we think we know, there is always more, so much more, to understand. All beings change. Even rocks, overtime, will metamorphisize, disintegrate and grow. There is a spirit that lurks behind the familiar— and it is this mystery, and medicine, that we so diligently court.
One year ago this fall, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease. I started showing symptoms of Lyme within days of arriving home from a full season of travels. I had been driving for months— teaching and learning, harvesting wild foods and blazing across long sunlit highways. It began with the typical symptoms: malaise, obscure aches, brain fog. When I heard that several of the friends I’d been camping with had been diagnosed, I immediately recognized the signs.
The morning I was awaiting the call with my final test results, I had a powerful and prophetic dream. In it, I saw myself driving down the long slopes of Eastern Pennsylvania, my childhood home. At the hem of the Pocono Mountains the valleys there are long and slow, like honey poured on a cool autumn evening. If you take the time to lift your eyes, you can often see for miles. I was peacefully coasting down a particularly magnificent slope when a large line of cars came into view. Everyone, it seemed, had stopped in the middle of the road. I had to put on my brakes very suddenly, my easy downhill arrival abruptly interrupted. I wondered, for a moment, if I would even be able to stop quickly enough! With some expert maneuvering I slowed to a creaky, close-shave kind of halt, and straggled out of my vehicle to see what had spurred such a mythic hold-up.
A whole crowd of Northeasterners (who, as you know, are always perennially zooming around from one place to another) had stopped plain in the middle of the road. Why? I followed my curiosity to a crest over the valley. Something had made even these busy-minded people stop, hush, witness and gather…. When I got to the top of the crest I could finally see what event had created such a wondering crowd: It was a technicolor moonrise.
The moment was spectacular. They sky itself seemed to catch its breath. The moon rose, full and brimming, threatening to spill over into the entire sky. Like a bowl left out in the rain, the celestial silver waters swelled at the very boundaries of the night. As it rose, it cast the whole land in a halo. We gazed as she reached her fullest height and then began to change colors. From vine green to parakeet blue, hibiscus red and tangelo. I watched as one color fled into another, into the moon, into the sky. It danced on my skin and I knew I was witnessing a big change, the apex of a great cycle that was demanding me to slow down and give up on the plans I had hoped for, the destinations I thought I knew. I was being called to honor, recognize and watch— welcome in the vast arrival of the new.
I was awoken from this vibrant dream moment by the ringing of my phone. My doctor was calling with the long awaited test results. But, she didn’t need to tell me. I had already been told.
// Courting Mystery //
That day I ghosted around the house. I wasn’t sure yet what to do with myself. I knew I would have to make some hard decisions, not only about what medicine or protocols I would chose (this, I assure you, will be it’s own blogpost someday soon), but how to fit this new journey into my life. I would have to slow down. Tremendously. As suddenly as a hundred cars abandoned in the middle of the road. My life, which had been at a cross-country full throttle, would need to be completely shifted and settled. I had been driving, it seemed, at one hundred glorious miles per hour, per year, and suddenly the whole transit had to cease. This was obviously the beginning of a phase that would be both awful and awe-inspiring…and undoubtedly new. But where to start?
I went to the hill, as I often do when I’m struggling and lonely, dispirited or low. The Tulsi, so sweet and hardy, had taken care of herself in my absence. I thought, perhaps I would make myself “useful” and harvest a few basketfuls of herb to get some fresh wreathes drying in the eaves. I sat down and closed my eyes. Giving gratitude for any harvest is a comforting practice to me, but can have the possibility of becoming rote—especially when it is an herb I have planted and tended, watered and pruned. Sometimes we become so familiar with the living aspects of our lives, we cease to remember that they breathe and change, they hold their own mysteries. This time I felt called to completely clear my mind. Let go of my normal prayers or supplications and just allow the Tulsi to speak to me. She appeared immediately behind my eyes and said in a voice that sounded like sky, Look— Once again, I was witnessing the technicolor moonrise.
In one moment my understanding of Tulsi seemed to pinch and then explode outward, like the creation of a star. An inextricable link of synchronicity spun out from the center, connecting my body and this new disease, to my dreams, to this plant, to the deeper mystery behind it all.
She spoke to me in a language before words and I understood. This moment, this journey itself, would be medicine for me and Tulsi, my beloved ally, would help guide me through the biggest threshold of all. Far beyond the boundaries of what I had previously known and ascribed to this plant, she was, in essence, showing me the vastness of mystery. The beauty that can blossom when you throw away the deadlines or destinations, and approach any illness, plant or dream with a curious eye. The best way to begin is with simple humility, to simply sit and watch the techincolor moonrise.
In this one interaction, my understanding of Tulsi (and my own life) deepened as quickly as an ocean current. I felt, and heard, and was shook. It was like whale song— a transmission that is understood on such vibratory and ancient levels, and yet will never quite be able to be translated in human words.
It was the beginning, the push I needed, to embark upon this new journey with a deep trust in the mystery, my most important and ever-present guide. The experience spoke, in truth, to the heart of why I am drawn to plants and medicine, healing work and herbs. As herbalists I think we can get stuck in the ruts of what we know. We have our material medicas and our herbal actions. Our constituents, our trials, our patient-proven results. But, for me, the most profound healing and transformation has always come from places unknown. From the beginning I could have railed against my contraction of Lyme disease, investing my energy in bitterness and resistance. Instead, I poured myself into research and herbal experimentation, yes, but I also accepted, once again, my place as an apprentice to the unknown. With the guidance of Tulsi and my own dreams, the synchronicity of plants and prayer, the natural mysticism and heralds of the heart, I placed my trust in the kind of transformation that can only arise from courting such mystery.
Throughout my journey with Lyme disease, I have allowed mystery to be my weft. All else— the plant medicine and antibiotics, yoga, supplements, acupuncture and prayer— is the warp. When I first wrote this piece for Plant Healer I felt, at times, like Penelope, weaving and then unweaving, awaiting the return of Odysseus. Wishing for completion but knowing in my heart that the journey had not yet reached its end— in truth, I think it is a lifelong odyssey. Each time I try new thread, change my vision, tweak the weave until it feels stronger than before. I seek out the diversity of all the medicine in this world— plant stories and whale songs, full moons and unexpected gatherings, the humility to see how much more space there is to grow. I honor Tulsi and I keep her by my side. I remind myself daily that what I know, as Mary Oliver says, is “important and honorable, but so small! While everything else continues, unexplained and unexplainable.” Whenever I get overwhelmed or discouraged, imbalanced or unsure, I simply touch the Tulsi still bundled about my door. I come back to the unbelievable comfort of all that I do not know, and cannot see, and trust in the timely revelation of a technicolor moonrise.
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.
Whenever I travel I always pack a medicine pouch. Over time this has evolved. From bandaids and first aid salves to tinctures, feathers, stones and talismans. As the years flow by my very definition of medicine changes, grows, and transforms– from the sturdy resiliency of the western medical breastplate, to the more ineffable healing of the natural world, quiet and effective as the swoop of silent downy owls. More than a balm for physical aliments, Medicine is anything that helps you to grow, transform, fulfill, and remember. Medicine is a kind of energy that can bring us back to the truth of our mystery. Medicine, real medicine, reminds us of who we are — infinite creatures who are capable of infinite healing.
Traveling itself is a deep kind of medicine for me. It is a time when I am allowed a kind of shamans-view of my life. I slip out of the confines of my day-to-day and journey, meeting strange and wonderful allies, encountering obstacles, seeing life from an expanded perspective. Every time I travel I come closer to home. I am able, with distance, to see more clearly – what is feeding me, and what isn’t? What newness would I like to call into my life? And what would I like to let go?
Over these next past few weeks I’ve be traveling from the mossy hollows of Washington state to the canyon lands of red-drenched Arizona. In just a few short days I’ll be arriving at the HerbFolk gathering for my teaching debut, and I am elated to be passing the time until then swimming in streams and lounging amongst their lemon and limestone banks. My medicine bag for each journey is different, as I change and grow and transform, so does my medicine. As a snapshot in time, I am offering a petite view into my medicine bag for this trip. This is where I am. This is my medicine.
Spilanthese flowers: This zesty eyeball-like flower is one of my most important travel remedies. A brightening immune stimulant, I nibble on a flower head or take a couple droppersful of the tincture whenever I feel the icy approach of a cold or illness. It is particularly helpful when wanting to avoid airplane plagues. I like to dry the flower and wrap them up in smoky pieces of buckskin for safekeeping. It’s simple to travel with on trains or trails, and still packs a considerable punch! Spilanthes is easily adaptable to a wide variety of garden soils and such a curiously fun plant to grow.
Spirit Quartz/Cactus amethyst: Sometimes the medicine chooses us. I was at a stone show earlier this summer when this captivating ally drew me in, flickering iridescent like a hummingbird at its nectar. Once I laid eyes upon the crystal patterns of this intricate amethyst I was under it’s spell. I am always cycling in and out of relationship with different stones (just as I am with plant medicines, new music and the very tides). I almost never consciously chose which stone will be at the center of my new medicine wheel, it’ll simply appear in my life as sudden as the full moon rises from a veil of cloud. I can do nothing but stop, steep and howl. I often will “look up” what others have written about a stone long after the initial romance has begun and, most often, what I’ve intuitively picked up is only further embroidered by other’s experiences. This stone has been a powerful ally for me in connecting with the conscious creativity of my wider spirit, inviting deeper awareness of my particular brand of power and an invocation to personal evolution.
Black tourmaline I almost always carry this piece of black tourmaline on me. It is helpful for creating healthy psychic boundaries as well as protecting against negative energies. As someone who identifies as unavoidably empathic (sometimes detrimentally so!) I value the companionship of this stone deeply. Known to help those who hold a lot of energy to “decharge”, it is a vital stone for anyone who facilitates healing work. I like to hold a piece of black tourmaline after my consultation sessions or classes to return to my own naturally grounded state of being.
Kunzite + Mimosa Elixir Every time I travel I choose one vibrational elixir to imbibe every day. These past few weeks I’ve been exploring with Kunzite + Mimosa, a deeply inspirational (and impeccably timed) vibrational pairing. This past summer an idea for a new line of medicine called Earth Alchemy began to take shape. Like dawn through the earliest fog, it began with a whisper. I had never thought to combine kunzite stone and mimosa flower together when one day, like a songbird landing on the ledge of a clearly lit window, the two of them simply appeared to me. I certainly never ignore the implorings of any kind of earth messengers, and so began a whole new era of medicine making. I’m hoping to do a longer post where I can visit on the inspirations these two vital medicines have brought to me but, in the meantime, I continue to be this elixir’s devotee. Joy exists in every moment, and in every moment we have the opportunity to simply enjoy. A natural pairing of soft heart openers, Kunzite + Mimosa helps us to inhabit our innate spirit of optimistic effervescence and glee. I couldn’t think of a better medicine to accompany me on these travels. How blessed I’ve been on this journey…Rose Petal offerings It is important to me to bring offerings whenever I travel. Handharvested sage, tobacco from my garden, stones I found and greatly love. I like to leave offerings where ever I lay my head– at the roots of tree, in the banks of rivers, and with friends who graciously offer to host me. This trip I’ve brought a very special offering with me. These rose petals graced a creativity altar of mine from this past spring. The altar, which was laden with fresh roses, citrine and zincite, was instrumental in helping me to begin working on a long-dreamed project– my book! I lovingly dried each rose petal from that altar and now, over 8 months later, I’ve decided to take these vibrantly creative offerings with me. I give gratitude with all my heart, my hands, and from the deepest flow of my spirit’s creativity.
Elecampagne Root I love to dry roots and bring them with me as an easy-to-chew remedy. Elecampagne is such a valuable ally for me in times of digestive upset, coughs, colds and bronchial disparity. I particularly love to gnaw on a knob when I’ve had one too many airport meals. When I’m nervous I pull out a thin root to chew steadily, it never fails to assuage shaky or nervous energy.
The rugged and fog-softened beauty of the California coast. Myths, mysticism and re-wilding. Warm pots of tea and delightful trails through time-warn fables. This month I am delighted to be sharing an interview with one of my favorite authors alive– Sylvia Victor Linsteadt. Sylvia is both shamaness and wordsmith, a creator and collector of gorgeously spun tales and deeper states of mystery. Each one of Sylvia’s stories is as glitteringly unique as a songbird’s nest. Woven from ancient folklore, ecological exploration, land-based knowledge and the enduring webs of mythology, Sylvia’s tales are nurturing portals to a new world. Almost a year ago Sylvia and I stumbled across each other’s work at the same time (fated re-meetings seems to work like that, I find!).
The first time I read one of Sylvia’s stories it felt like climbing back into the great tree of who I was… that ancient, standing, growing being who was intricately connected to the living world around me. I am forever grateful to Sylvia and her tales– not only for their sweeping vistas and sensuous detail, endless inspiration and intricacies– but for what they incite in me. Within her stories is the flicker of the ancient, the glimmer of a thoughtfully re-imagined destiny. Through her tales I can see, once more, the cradling mystery of everyday being, the endurance of this beautiful world existing, always, around me. I am so thankful for Sylvia and her story medicine, her Wild Talewort.
Drink deep from the following interview and enjoy. If you find you are thirsty (and I think you might just be) head over to Sylvia’s gorgeous blog and website to find out about how you can receive tidings from her brand new project, Elk Lines, hand-stamped and sent to your very own postbox.
Your stories are such a jaw-droppingly vibrant mixture of ecology, naturalism, mysticism, and myth. You are, in my esteemed estimation, a truly exciting boundary bender! If you had to define your writing style (or that stories that most want to come through you) what would you say?
This question has always been a challenge for me, because in this world of ours we so enjoy making boxes around genres, severing the bonds between poetry and prose; we delight in calling a thing “Nature-writing” or “Romantic Poetry” or “Literary Fiction,” but have trouble when Literary Fiction becomes streaked with the fantastic, a lyric voice, and the wild lives of trees. Is it fantasy? Is it nature-writing? I’ve always felt that writing is the loom upon which I can weave the many strands of wonder, sorrow, beauty and story I see in the world—poetic, ecological, folkloric, downright magical, whatever it may be. So my writing style is all of it at once. Sometimes I think I’m really a poet wearing the patched and furred coat of a storyteller, so even “fiction” can be tricky for me as a category to place myself in. Anyhow, I’m rambling on here, but in a nutshell I’d say this style of mine is some wild country where poetry, magical realism, myth, animism and ecology meet.
Indeed. And it is a long and a short story. Writing is my way into the heart of the world—its wildness, its strange magic, its beauty, its terrors, its sadness, its joy. Metaphor (a favorite of mine) is an act of shape-shifting, of remembering that each thing is hitched to the next in the great cyclical transformation of energy, from sun to seed to doe to cougar and back to worm; the line between ourselves and the wild world is thin indeed. Writing (thick with metaphor) is the means through which I can praise the wild mystery of this world, and also explore its unseen realms—the realms inside the hearts of bears and granite stones and buckeye trees; the lands just the other side of the moon and the fog, the lives of men and women long ago or just around the corner. If I were buckeye tree, then writing would be the buckeyes that fruit at the ends of my limbs come late August. In other words, writing is the thing made in me from all the waters and winds and soils and stories that come through my five senses (or six), and it feels very inevitable, like the buckeyes at the end of summer.
Also, I have always been an avid reader; especially as a child I devoured books that told of magical worlds and lands, lady-knights and healers, the everyday peasant life of Old Europe (especially Scotland & Ireland), talking animals, caravans of camel nomads, druids, long adventures on horseback. Such books literally shaped and changed my life. They informed the way I see the world today—as a place much more mysterious and full of wild magics than we tend to believe, where everything is alive and everything speaks. So I write because writing is even better than reading in the sense that you really get to go to those places in your imagination, and give them to other people. The stories we tell ourselves and each other form the world in which we live, and so I write both selfishly—shaping my own way of seeing the world—and because if I can give single ember to another like the tales I have read have given to me, then I am happy.
So many people dream of supporting themselves through their craft, but in our culture it’s assumed that making a living through ones arts is not only daunting, but entirely unattainable for all but an inspired few! What has been your relationship with such commonly culturally held beliefs? How have you been able to cast aside such (if any) doubts?
Stubbornness, a dreamer’s heart, fierce love. These are the three things that keep my feet on this path, this wild and difficult and beautiful way. I think that especially in the age of this great strange internet, it is much more possible for independent artists to make their way, because we can circumvent the usual channels and reach out ourselves to our readers, our listeners, our viewers. This also means that we have to be creator, secretary, office assistant, publicist and marketing specialist all in one, but when you are doing what you love, and the thing you love is touching the hearts of other people, somehow you can just manage it all, juggling five different work-hats. (Though sometimes this means that things like weekends or work hours stop existing, and you may find yourself working Sunday morning, Tuesday night at eleven, etc.) In the end, it is actually very simple, in the sense that you must simply decide for yourself that this is just what you’re going to do, and then stubbornly, doggedly, hold to that promise with all of your heart and soul, because it is what you love, because this is your life, your path, your chance to be here, and the world deserves what it is you are best able to give. This is not always an easy thing to believe, or to hold to, but it can be done. Personally, I’m simply stubborn as a mule. Once I got the taste of this path, I knew there was no going back. Oh—and that dreamer’s heart. You have to believe in it, despite all the voices; you have to believe in the way that dreamers and children believe, your heart a balloon of hope. It’s hard to believe like this all the time, but if your heart is a balloon of dreams and hopes at least once every day, it sure smoothes the way.
Elk Lines, my newest Wild Tales By Mail project for adults, is a rewilding of the old Hungarian version of “The Handless Maiden” tale, set on the Point Reyes Peninsula of Northern California. Each of its eight installments make up one continuous novel, and are mailed to my subscribers—wax-sealed, in lovingly hand-stamped envelopes!— to arrive upon the eight seasonal festivals of the year, in the old Celtic tradition: the Autumn Equinox (September 21st); Samhain (November 1st); the Winter Solstice (December 21st); Imbolc (February 1st); the Spring Equinox (March 21st); Beltane (May 1st); the Summer Solstice (June 21st), and Lughnasadh (August 1st). My own hand-drawn “map” or “songline” of the season accompanies each installment, to further root readers into the landscape of Point Reyes and the lives of the plants and animals who dwell there.
Elk Lines is a roving, ambling novel about the power of our walking feet and our story-making hands. At it’s core, it is the tale of Eda Crost and the re-growing of her lost hands, but it is also the tale of the mythic Elk People, who roam Point Reyes with herds of tule elk, emerging from the Peninsula’s sudden fogs, and who show Eda how to follow the songlines, the hooflines, the feral palmistry of the land: the way to dig a root, trail an elk, gather a bulb, tend a seed to blooming, and to laugh long and loud into the ragged, airplane plumed night. Elk Lines is set in the world we know, with its highways and telephone wires and lightbulbs and gas-stations, but it is also set in the mythtime that has always, and will always, interfuse our every moment: in the place bare-foot touches dirt, the place just the other side of the fog-bank, the place inside the eyes of elk, who have known us longer than we have known ourselves. And don’t worry—amidst all the elk and the foot-prints, the wandering and sparrow song and summer-gold dawns, there is a love story, there is the birth of a little boy, there is an orchard full of pears, there is a childhood, and violin music, and the ringing, laughing kindness of strangers.
As it happens, now is a perfect time to come and subscribe in time for the autumn equinox, September 21st, when the next mailing arrives in post boxes all around the world! Please sign-up by September 12th to receive your Elk Lines by the equinox. All subscriptions begin with the first installment, of course!
What are five things/places/people that always inspire you?
Besides you, dear and wonderful Asia, Mistress of One Willow? (Seriously, you would be one of my five if you weren’t doing this interview!) Okay…
The Point Reyes Peninsula—I’ve been visiting this “Island In Time,” since I was a little girl, and it has thoroughly stolen my heart. Land of fir and alder, oak and bay, land of great wild beaches and coastal prairies, tule elk and pelican. If I could call one place my muse, it would undoubtedly be Point Reyes. It seems to have claimed me, in a sense; I find I must write about it. Nettle, mountain lion, bobcat, fence lizard, woodrat, coyotebrush, lupine, seal; muses, all. (That’s more than five right there!)
Rima Staines— I blame Rima for inspiring me to leave the realm of office work two years ago in order to whole-heartedly pursue my own art. The first time I came across her work and her writings about her life and the world, my heart flipped up and then down and then up again with such relief, I think I might have cried—because she reminded me that yes, it can be done. Your feet can follow the wild path you most love. You simply have to start walking. Rima is an extraordinary artist of paint, wood, puppet, wheel, song. She lives in Devon, England, where she paints the most earthen and otherworldly beings—human, animal, outcast, wanderer, jester, tree. Of all wondrous things, we are at this very minute working to get a book we created together out into the world (my words “illustrating” Rima’s paintings)! Stay tuned!
Nao Sims— beekeeper, dancer, tender of the wild homestead land of Honey Grove, on Vancouver Island, Nao is a very dear friend of mine and also one of the most extraordinary people I know. She was one of my early subscribers to the Gray Fox Epistles, but I had known of her previously because of a beautiful book she wrote called Moon Mysteries about reclaiming women’s menstrual wisdom, and because of a very wise and wonderful blog of hers called The Teatime Traveller, which lifted me up during a rough patch and reminded me of the bounty of beauty in every moment. So of course, when I found she was a subscriber, I was overjoyed! We got to emailing, and found a very old & uncanny sense of familiarity. I went to visit last fall, and the rest, as they say, is history. To me, Nao embodies the character of Juniper in Monica Furlong’s Wise Child, a favorite book of mine—keeper of the wisdom of land, woman, bee, flower. I am inspired by Nao every day! Oh, and as it happens, she and her husband Mark have a very wonderful vacation cottage on Honey Grove Farm, so if you are in need of a good steep in beauty, I recommend it highly!
Juliette de Bairacli-Levy— I daresay this wonderful woman needs little explanation from me, considered as she is the mother of modern herbalism. Born in the 1930s to a wealthy British family, she cast Veterinary School and aristocratic life aside in favor of learning from the gypsies and peasants of the world all they knew about the healing herbs. What an independent, joyous, wild spirit this woman was! For a taste of her voice, her knowledge, her adventures and her spirit, I recommend her book Traveller’s Joy. And it was a small and beautiful film about her called Juliette of the Herbs that inspired me a year ago to finally embark on a dream I’ve had since I was a small girl—to learn the medicine of plants. Oh, and as an aside, Juliette de Bairacli Levy is a partial model for the character of Eda Crost in Elk Lines.
Gary Snyder — the deep-rooted, muscular, wildly Californian poetry of Gary Snyder was the first true piece of inspiration in my adult life as an artist. When I found his work, I felt all of these little old locks and keys and wheels clicking and turning and what have you in my heart and my soul. I finally felt that my writing had found its voice. In particular, his philosophies about wildness, bioregionalism and rooting in a place—choosing a place and learning it deeply, deeply, as just as valuable a life pursuit as this incessant need for change we seem to have acquired as modern humans—changed my life. Somehow Gary Snyder led to animal-tracking, which to me has become my own “Practice of the Wild,” both spiritual and intellectual; I trace my writing “lineage” directly back to him. I’ve been known to call him “my hero,” which has garnered more than a few laughs, but I do mean it!
You’ve recently been sharing visual maps of the shifting seasons around you in your gorgeously hand-drawn “Feral Palm readings.” If you could draw us a palmistry map of your inner season right now, what would it look like?
I decided to go ahead and paint one for you! There is a rabbit and a grizzly bear and a mountain range at once Carpathian and Sierra Nevada, for I just visited the latter, and the former has been strong in my imagination and my writings these past weeks. There are hawthorn berries, ripe, and juniper berries, just turning dusty blue up in the mountains. There is a teapot the color of a hawthorn berry, because there is always a teapot in my inner season, I believe! There are aspen trunks, white-dusted, which grow up in the mountains to the east and bring me great calm, and a stag I dreamt of, with a buckeye tree growing like a third antler. The buckeyes are dropping their leaves now, at the end of summer, because our summers here are so dry— this is their defense against drought. All that’s left are the planets of their buckeyes. This is a sign of autumn to me—the bare buckeyes like planetariums. There seems to be a movement toward fall in my heart, though the sun is still strong, the days dry and long. My painting looks positively wintry! I love winter, so all the threads of its coming fill me with joy. The plants love winter here too—it means rain. It is, unlike the seasons of the East Coast, the time of flourishing.
What is one mystery you are aching to explore?
There are so many ways I would like to answer this question! But for some reason, one thing keeps floating to the top of my mind—nettle processing! I would love to really dive into the mystery of turning stinging nettle stalks into the flax-like material I know my Northern and Eastern European ancestors used for many millennia in place of linen. I’m a spinner, felter & knitter on the side, and ever since I wrote a story last spring called “Our Lady of Nettles,” a retelling of the Seven Swans fairytale, I’ve been itching to really delve into this process from start to finish. Nettle is my favorite medicinal plant (if I had to pick)—I drink her almost every day, and I love that she was also such an important textile plant for so many thousands of years. I think this qualifies as a mystery—because I am sure the process of retting and scutching and all the rest of those arcane words used to describe flax-processing (not to mention the spinning, the weaving, etc) would take me into a place of very deep connection with both the nettle and the ways of my ancestors long, long ago. I also believe that this process might be a very useful thing to know, down the line, when the world is no longer this crazy overseas network of sweatshop labor-commerce. (All empires must fall, after all…)
Stories have power, words create worlds. When I read your writing I often feel the burgeoning of a new earth underfoot. In your heart of hearts, hopes of hopes…what do you feel is being birthed through your work?
Above all things I hope that through my work a renewed sense of the tenets of deep ecology and animistic thought can be re-infused into the world of contemporary human literature. The stories we tell shape the world we see, and the world we see is one of terrible environmental and humanitarian catastrophe, degradation, and extinction, both of animals and plants, and of human cultures and languages. I hope for my writing to convey a sense of the animism of all beings; that elk and alder and lichen and stone, bear and lizard and fog and oatgrass, are all subjects, characters, integral players in the stories of our lives and this world, not the objects we have made them into with our cultural narratives. For when a deer or a tree is a subject and not an object, it is not as easy to destroy it without a care. I also hope to keep the old human magics and beliefs surrounding this wise old world of ours alive in my writing—the ways of weedwife and hunter, wandering jester and gypsy and shaman and witch. And if my tales can be wild woodrat nests which lead to the other worlds inside this world, all the better. If they can somehow gesture at the weedier, wilder, dustier footpath which leads us back into what it really means to be human (and not the big tar roads)—well, that would be grand indeed.
As someone who works for herself (doing what she loves!) what does a typical “work day” look like for you?
Rise early. Feed Hawthorn the rabbit. Gather flowers and leaves for a little wild art left in my garden patch to greet the day—its birds, its soils, its winds, its sun, its four-leggeds. Tea, breakfast, an hour of writing (often my favorite hour of the day). I go to a dance class almost every morning, and when I come back I write again until noon in my little loft office. A quick break for lunch, which often involves gathering Hawthorn various greens and herbs and letting him have an adventure through the garden. Then I write again until about 3, at which point I generally experience an afternoon slump (the hours of 3 to 5 are really not my strongpoint). I try to work on non-creative things during this time—emails, various social media updating, queries, etc. If I can’t stand to do so (or don’t need to), I like to spend some time making with my hands in a different way—felting, embroidering, gardening, medicine-making. Around 5, I may have a last surge of creativity and write a bit more, or I might spend the time until about 7 editing or reading for research. At 7 or thereabouts, my love returns home from work, and this is the signal that my own work-day is over, thank goodness. Having him home, I feel I have an excuse to stop and savor the evening. Otherwise, I will work off and on until bed! I try to spend every Wednesday out on the land of Point Reyes, tracking (alone or with friends) the lives of plant and animal, tracing the songlines of that beloved wild place, so that my work remains infused with its many voices. This isn’t a schedule I always hold to—sometimes it’s more fluid, for better or for worse, because things come up, sudden deadlines arise, the creativity just isn’t flowing. But I find that keeping a bare-bones schedule is a life-saver. We can flourish better, it seems to me, with a few boundaries, markers up to help us find the way.
The obligatory question: what books are on your night stand?
This is a bit embarrassing, as it shows how indecisive and eclectic my reading has been these past few weeks, on top of the fact that I tend to hoard books by my bed for a while. I think they must comfort me.
The Reindeer People- Piers Vitebsky
The Others: How Animals Made Us Human- Paul Shepherd
The Steppe & other stories- Anton Chekov
Marcovaldo- Italo Calvino
Momo- Michael Ende
The Short Works of Leo Tolstoy
What is some advice you can give to anyone who is thinking about launching further into their creative flow/work?
This doesn’t sound immediately romantic, but the first thing that comes to my mind is—give yourself a schedule. I don’t mean this in a boring way; I like to think of it more like bones. An animal without bones cannot stand or walk. Similarly, it feels to me that the creative flow requires structure to flourish. So I love deadlines and scheduled tea-breaks and that sort of thing. At the same time, of course, too much structure can kill inspiration. One thing that really helps to start my own work in the morning is a sense of ritual, which is structured into my day. If you’re just starting out, make the time and space for your creative work sacred. I like to burn rosemary and light a candle when I start. Give yourself an hour every morning for a week, candle lit, tea at hand. It’s not so long as to intimidate, and not so short as to be useless. Get your computer and phone away from yourself, by god! (These can be the great killers of flow.) If you tell yourself, “I will write/paint/sing for this set amount of time every morning, for seven days, and see how it goes,” instead of “I am now a working artist and I must work 8 hours a day and be extraordinarily brilliant and productive for all eight hours, etc. etc.,” you will feel as though your goals are actually manageable. With the latter attitude, I daresay one might never begin. Another very important piece for me every day is to get out of my own way—don’t think of your reader, your viewer, your editor, as you let the work come out. This is why I am adamant about writing by hand. I hardly look back as I go. I just go. There is always time to edit, but you can destroy your flow by going back over too early with critical eyes. After all, it needs to come from a place of joy and passion, or it won’t really be your true voice.
All of your words are such a blessing. Would you mind leaving us with a wee prayer?
For some reason, what immediately came to mind was the very first poem I was ever proud of, the first poem that really seemed to come from this place of flow — “Order of the Machine.” I wrote it when I was sixteen, sitting on the back steps in the garden of my childhood home. It came down through my pen as if from elsewhere. I’ve changed it to second person here, for it feels more prayer-like, thus. Here’s the very last stanza.
Even as our futures buckle straight
do not let the woods
relinquish your heart
nor the fog your soul.
Do not let the Order of the Machine
steal the waves, crush the wildflowers
starve the river stones.
There is yet hope
in the foam of the full moon
in the green of apple leaves
in the light between two palms.
Sylvia Victor Linsteadt is a writer and a student of local ecology and ancient myth. She likes to follow gray fox tracks through the brush, gather wild plants for dye and medicine, dream up and write down poems and stories, short and novel-length, all in one way or another concerned with the relationship between human beings and the more than human world (bay laurel, barn owl, bobcat). She is the creatrix of Elk Lines, the Gray Fox Epistles, the Leveret Letters, and all projects associated with Wild Talewort.
She is a wanderer of the wild spaces of the Bay Area (where she was born and raised at the base of Mt. Tamalpais), a spinner of yarns (literally and figuratively), a felter of felts, and an animal-tracker. Good strong black tea with milk and a little honey is her fuel. Pennywhistle music, a hearty fire in the hearth, fog, fairytales and myths, all the voices of the birds in the morning in the black walnut out her window bring her joy.
For her official blog of musings, scraps of tale, track, dye, myth and wander, please visit The Indigo Vat.
Fresh herbs, warm breezes and evenings that come to life. Summer is one of my favorite seasons for luxury and languor. When the days are hot and the hours long I usually find myself gravitating toward nighttime kitchen crafting and, of course, cocktails.
I am a night owl by nature. I thrive like a moonflower in rich evening hues. When the clock strikes midnight something about those high shadows bring me to life. It’s been that way since before I can remember, I imagine it’ll remain that way for the rest of my life. Summer, in all its bounty of cucumber nights, tangy sunsets and sherbet-colored sunrises, is the one season where such late night behavior is not only condoned, it’s encouraged.
Last month we hosted our annual summer cocktail soiree. Every year we kick the gathering up another notch. Usually we put out at least several herbal cocktail potions for people to sample, often with a written invocation to read and a deep intention to set the mood. This year, inspired by the rainbowed bounty of our well-tended garden, we offered a whole bar of fresh squeezed juice, seasonal syrups, and medicinal bitters for our guests to peruse.Herbs are the original liqueur accoutrements; they have the ability to give any drink a touch of the sensational. Long before herbalists were making tinctures, herb folk of all kinds were using plants to ferment meads, spice cordials, and smooth liquors. The whole ritual of a pre-dinner cordial originated as a way to improve digestion by imbibing medicinal digestive bitters.
Crafting your own bitters and syrups is simple, and sure to make a wave at your next soirée. I love to focus on what is most currently bursting into bloom. Medicine making, like superb hostessing skills, is about way more than just combining the ingredients. It is an alchemical mix of season and sensation, temptation and mood. I prefer to create my syrups and bitters in tune with nature’s own rhythm, encapsulating each herb at the height of their potency or bloom. By doing so each bottle becomes a kind of capsule, an entryway into a distinctively fragrant, intoxicatingly specific moment in time.As a hostess, I am interested in creating an experience that can be remembered with every one of the senses. Unique, exploratory, and delicious—Herbal bitters and liqueurs will never be forgotten. Interested in crafting your own medicinal syrups and sensational brews? Read on for some simple how-to’s…
+++ Medicinal Syrups +++
Medicinal syrups are simple, versatile and oh-so delicious. Syrups make wonderful medicine for young children or the picky of palate, and are simply divine when mixed with late-evening cocktails.
- Gather, Harvest, Chop. To start, harvest or gather your material. I like to collect what is most fresh, abundant and seasonally sensational. How much material you harvest will depend on how much syrup you’d like to create! In general, you can guesstimate by chopping or otherwise pressing your herb into a measuring cup. You can expect the finished product to produce about as much volume as the original fresh herb. (Ex: If I harvested ½ oz of fresh lavender flowers, I will generally expect ½ oz finished syrup)
Note on processing: Some small or delicate herbs, like lavender flowers for example, will not need to be further chopped or processed. Simply add them straight to your water. Bark, like black birch, will need to be stripped from the branches with a knife. Roots must be roughly chopped, a butchers knife or pair of pruners work well.
Dry vs Fresh: Fresh herbs already have a good amount of water content inherent to them, so they will be fluffier, bigger, and more voluminous than dry herbs. As a general rule I use a 1:1 ratio of herb to water if using fresh herbs, and a 1:2 ratio of herb to water if using dried herbs.
- Make a strong tea. Once you have your herb chopped or otherwise processed you are ready to make the base of your syrup…a strong tea!
If using herbs + flowers: Make an infusion- bring your water to a boil separately, than turn the burner off completely. Remove from heat and add your herb content to the hot water. Cover the whole concoction for 20-30 minutes to steep. (Examples of herbs to infuse: lavender, lemonbalm, mint, basil)
If using bark, roots, berries or seeds (tougher material): Make a decoction- add your herb directly to your water and bring the whole mixture to a boil. Reduce the boil to a simmer and cover for 20 minutes. (Examples of herbs to decoct: sassafras, cinnamon, elderberries coriander, black birch, wild cherry)
- Strain your tea. Once your tea is done steeping or simmering, run your tea through a strainer to filer out all the plant material. (A fine mesh spaghetti strainer perched over a wide mouthed bowl works supremely well)
- Gently reheat your tea (sans herb material) and add the sweetener. What makes a syrup so sweet? Why, sweetener of course! The sweetener is also a natural preservative, which is how syrup came about in the first place (and to get children to drink their medicine!). A general ratio is 1 cup sugar or honey per 1 cup water. But you can add the sugar/honey to your taste. The higher the sugar content the longer your syrup will keep.
- Storage. Plain syrups are best imbibed within two weeks of creation. If you’d like to keep your syrup for several seasons you can add alcohol to preserve. In general, a syrup with about 20% alcohol content will preserve long-term. If you have dipped into making infused liqueurs or tinctures it’s fun to experiment with preserving your syrup with an already altered alcohol (such as adding a dash of ginger tequila to a cinnamon syrup). If making syrup as medicine, adding a medicinal tincture to your syrup greatly increases its potency. When I make elderberry syrup I combine previously infused elderberry tincture to my freshly made concoction for full spectrum medicinal mixture. Store your syrups in the refrigerator to prolong their life.
+++ Herbal Bitters +++
Herbal bitters are a hot commodity these days, as our modern diets are embarrassingly lacking in this traditional taste. Bitters are amazing agents of digestion, helping to increase the production of our digestive juices, dramatically improving processing, retention and even our mood! (If you haven’t already, check out the bevy of research illustrating our brain/gut connection) Bitter constituents are prevalent in many of our healing herbs, and can often be used as an indicator for a plant’s medicinal strength! Bitters are the prince who has been unceremoniously turned into a frog and I think it’s time to give all our bitters a good kiss on the lips and induct them back into the romance of our kitchens.
Making your own bitters can be as simple as covering a handful of dandelion roots in some alcohol, or as complex as creating your own Peychaud’s. I’m offering a very simple guide here, but feel free to be as creative as a butterfly between hibiscus leaves!
- Gather your bitter herbs. Some well known and deliciously effective, bitter roots include dandelion, sassafras, elecampagne, Oregon grape, angelica and ginger. You might also want to try citrus peels, vervain, cacao pods, coffee beans, fennel, and (the gold standard of bitters) gentian (I recommend using the flowers of gentian, rather than the root, as it is over-harvested)
+Aromatic vs simple bitter: Aromatic bitters are bitters that have a warming, stimulating, often quite spicy flavor. They are bitter… with a kick! Some good examples include elecampagne, angelia, sassafras and ginger. Simple bitters are just that, simply bitter. Simple bitters include gentian, Oregon grape root, yellow root and dandelion .
- Create your tincture. Making bitters is basically just a process of making a tincture. You can choose to create single herb batches or throw it all together into one! The benefit of single herb batches is the ability to mix and match. Also, kitchen-sink batches can sometimes end up tasting dominantly like one herb or another, depending on what heavy hitters you’re using. If you are interest in a whole-shebang type of bitter I suggest looking up recipes for proportions online! (These recipes from The Kitchn look divine)
Chop or otherwise process your herb so it is in small pieces. The more surface area of herb touching your alcohol, the stronger your mixture will become. Put your herb into a glass mason jar and cover with booze of choice. Store your bitter brew in a dark place for 6 days up to 6 weeks! Sample your bitters frequently, their taste will change overtime. If you are in a hurry you can make your bitter batch the very week of your soiree. Just remember, bitter compounds often take a few days to really steep. I have a friend who found this out the hard way when he was making a stevia extract. He let the stevia leaf sit for longer than the recommended couple days and his extract turned out mouth puckeringly bitter, which would have been wonderful for some pre-dinner digestive, but not so stellar for making sweets!
A note on alcohols: I really enjoy vodka for my bitters. Vodka tends to have less of an innate flavor than other alcohols. If you want a fuller, huskier batch of bitters try brandy or even whiskey. Gin is already chocked full of herbs, but I bet it wouldn’t mind a few more companions!
- Press and Bottle your bitters. When your tincture brew has sat long enough to pucker your taste buds, it’s time to press and bottle your bitters. I like to pour my alcohol/herb slurry through a fine mesh strainer first to separate the alcohol from the herb. Then, I take the left-over herb content and press it in a potato masher to extract every last drop of juice. Conversely, if I don’t have such a press, I dish out the herb into a tight weave cloth and wring it by hand. Whatever method you choose, as long as you are separating the alcohol from the herb content you are doing it right!
Now is the time to add in any extras. Perhaps some fresh pressed OJ to your orange bitters brew? Mint syrup or wildflower honey? Is your bitter crafted for any specific drink in mind, or a simple pre-dinner sipping cordial? Your bitter is your tabula rasa, feel free to get wildly creative.
When you bitters are mixed to your taste filter them into a bottle for storage. I will often line the filer with some fine meshed cheese cloth to catch any last debris, and funnel directly into the bottle. Label, cap, store! Your bitters should last decades if they are a simple alcohol solution. If you added any additional juices or sweeteners you can refrigerate and keep your bitters for 2-5 years.
+++ Garnishes +++
Great cocktails (and parties for that matter) are all about the accoutrements. Here are some great hints to add some extra sparkle to your night.
Edible flowers: Summer is a bounty of edible flowers, including calendula, daylily, lavender, beebalm, mint, honeysuckle and sage. Don’t forget to scatter your bar with fresh flowers and garnish your drinks with their petals and blooms. Spilanthes makes a particularly striking edible flower when skewered on a tooth pick and floated into a drink. Sometimes called eyeball plant, this mouth-tingling (and immune enhancing) flower is an oddball cocktail garnish that has been gaining popularity amongst the herbally inclined.
Creative citrus: Simple lemon wedges are so utilitarian. Try slicing a rainbow of citruses into wheels instead to illuminate your drink with vibrant moons. Zest your lemon or lime on top of a well mixed drink for some extra magic in your sipping experience.
Decorative ice cubes: Why should ice be boring? Anoint your ice cub trays with edible flowers from the garden like borage, bee balm or calendula. Just add your flowers to your ice cube tray, cover with water, and freeze. Use immediately to preserve the flowers color and flavor. (On that note, would you like to see the most gorgeous herbal ice cube blog post on the internet?)
+++ Herbal Cocktail Recipes +++
You’ve sampled your syrups and bragged about your bitters, now is the time to become a maestro (and maybe get a bit tipsy) with your herbal creations! For our part we cajoled our friend, and esteemed cocktail Prometheus, Curtiss P. Martin to bartend at our party. After stealing fire (and sassafras syrup) from the gods he came up with the following cocktail mixes. Read on for details about how to shake up such treats, and what medicine is inherent to each drink.
This evening, or sometime very soon, I invited you to whip yourself up one of these drinks. Kick off the day’s to-dos. Let down your hair and get barefoot outside. Drink in the cool of these ephemeral summer evenings. Sip, enjoy, let go, luxuriate.
1oz Fresh-pressed Watermelon Juice
1/2oz Fresh-pressed Lime Juice
1/2oz Tulsi Syrup
4-6 Mint leaves, Muddled
Dry Shake, Add Ice, Soda to Fill
Mint + Lime Garnish
1oz Fresh-pressed Lime Juice
3/4oz Local Honey Syrup
1/2oz Fresh Orange Bitters
Garnish with thin lime wheel and fresh honeysuckle flowers
Birchbark Sassafras Daiquiri
2oz Spiced Rum
1oz Fresh-pressed Lime Juice
1/2oz Sassafras Syrup
1/2oz Black Birchbark Syrup
Thin Lime wheel Garnish
Black Birch bark: Wintergreen minty and delicious, Birch bark is a lovely remedy for muscle aches, joint pain, headaches and inflammation. The secret of Black Birch’s minty relief lies within its methyl salicylates— the aromatic pain-relieving compound from which our modern day aspirin is derived.
Sassafras: One of the original ingredients in rootbeer (and America’s first wildly successful export) sassafras has a distinctly exotic flavor. The root bark of this yummy plant is known to help stimulate our bodies and minds, ease indigestion, alleviate inflammation and cleanse the blood. Used acutely for colds, flus, fever and rheumatism, Sassafras has been a beloved medicine in North America for thousands of years.
Tulsi Gin + Tonic
3/4 Tulsi syrup
Tonic to Fill
Lime wedge +Tulsi sprig Garnish
Tulsi: One of the most sacred herb of India, this holy plant has been grown as a truly miraculous health tonic for thousands of years. Tulsi (or Holy Basil) is a gentle and effective adaptogen– it helps the body and mind to deal with stress, encouraging gracefulness in your every day dealings. Tulsi is also an antibacterial, antiviral, antioxidant, antiinflammatory, antidepressant and immunomodulator. Traditionally, holy basil was called upon for colds and flus, indigestion, and as a tonic for asthma and sinus allergies. This sweet and tasty herb is also a supremely clearing tonic for the mind; it has found to be helpful in unfocused thinking, poor memory, forgetfulness, ADD and ADHD. In Ayurvedic medicine, Tulsi is though to balance all seven chakras and considered to be a rasayanic herb, or a medicine that brings balance to the emotions and promotes the feelings of devotion, love and compassion.
Lavender Blueberry Ricky
1oz Fresh-pressed Blueberry Juice
1/2oz Fresh-pressed Lime Juice
3/4 Lavender Syrup
Soda to fill
Lavender flower Garnish
Lavender: Oh, the joys of fresh lavender. This much beloved flower is known to help soothe digestion, calm the spirit, and settle the nerves. Used for centuries to freshen dwellings, lavender is a renown antibacterial and antifungal, as well as a beloved herb for rest and relaxation.
This Fall I am delighted to be offering a fresh workshop at the HerbFolk Gathering. This herbal rendezvous, which takes place in the wilds of Northern Arizona, is one of the most inspired plant gatherings in our country. (Read my review of last year’s enchantment here). This year the gathering is stepping into a brand new incarnation of classes focused on folk tradition, mysticism and lore. In celebration, I debuted a short piece in the Plant Healer newsletter to unveil the themes and dreams, stories and scholarship that has ignited my workshop this year. I invite you to explore, The Woodland Within.
In the old stories, whether you be girl or goose, goblin or goddess, the forest was a place of profound encounters. At the edge of town, beyond the thickets of heather and ivy dark vines, stretched a limitless space, a mystery that was asking to be experienced. Once upon a time the boundaries of the mapped world ended at the edge of the woods. After that, stretched the unknown.
Throughout history the space of enchantment created by forest narratives has served to expand the very possibilities of our reality Within the woods you can transform—from man to doe, mortal to faerie. Meet with elders and find guides amongst the trees. In the forest, anything is possible. Gods and goddesses live here, monsters and Kali-like creationists, too.
As a people, we are forever enchanted with spaces of the unknown. Over and over again we reenter the woods for answers, profundity and connection. We are creatures who originate from a kind of woodland within. At the borders of our conscious minds lies a vast and often uncharted land. This is the realm of the unseen— spirit, soul, intuition, and the unconscious. We may live in a comfortable and cottaged physical world, a place of brilliant stories and community. But when night falls, like the twelve dancing princesses, each and every one of us slips the bounds of our physical world to explore places of deeper consciousness, spirit and dreams. Often times we may not even remember such travels, but our well-worn shoes will always tell the tale.
To leave the comforts of our homes and venture into the unknown can be exhilarating, confusing and profound. When we enter the woodland within, we give up the security and the trappings of our day-to-day minds. The consciousness of the woods works in modes of twilight. It is a space that is neither here nor there. Traditional shamans knew easily how to travel between such realms, as did the ancient mystics of Daoist meditation, eyes slightly closed. When we travel, we chase experiences, transformation and remembrance. But, above all, it is guidance we seek.
|| Intuition and the Knowing Unknown ||
Intuition, like dark mushrooms on a nurse-log, is a part of our very being. Mysterious and yet familiar – intuition has been creatively defined for centuries as instinct, gut feeling, magic or memory. Intuition comes from a place that can be only be described as the “knowing unknown.” In truth, intuition is a kind of revelation— a word that, by definition, means to glimpse and then be re-veiled. A vital shepherd through even the darkest wood, intuition is a form of guidance that comes directly from such uncharted places of mystery, and it is available to us every time we part the veil and enter our inner woods.
In my workshops, I like to bring people into direct encounters with their own places of intuition, guidance and mystery. As earth lovers and flower gatherers, blue jay singers and botanists—medicine makers of all kinds— developing an interaction with your own knowing unknown is as vital as watering the hidden roots of a newly planted willow. As healers, we have a sacred responsibility to venture into such places of forgotten remembrance, and we can begin to bring such inspiration back into our worlds through magnificent power of myth.
|| Mythology and Maps ||
In our country, herbalists are some of the few that make it their business to enter the woods, not only to dig roots or simmer cups of pine needle tea, but to venture beyond the limitations of what we’ve been given and explore the mysteries inherent to healing. Traditional herbalists knew the magic of a well-told tale; they were often their own mythologists. When asked, each and every herbalist I know will give you the story of how they first arrived and fell-to-their-knees in love with the growing world. The more we share these stories and connect to our inner unseen sources of guidance, the more, as a whole, we can heal.
Stories are one of the most powerful forces on earth. In many indigenous religions, the entire world began with a word. As some storytellers recount, there was a time when the distance between our thoughts and our creations was much thinner. The stories we spoke, were the stories we lived.
Whether you lose yourself in Tolkien or find conversation around a cup of tea, stories continue to inform our daily reality. They can help us define who we are, where we are, and why we are. Human beings have lived with mythology as a bedfellow since we first looked to the rising sun and wondered what it might mean. The purpose of mythology, as Joseph Campbell so famously popularized, is the practice of creating maps. Through our stories we can invoke an invisible universe, a vanishing atlas of the treasures just beneath our feet, so that we may more confidently move through this visible world.
In traditional folklore the best stories were replete with many creatures and beings of consciousness. Plants, as some of human’s closest allies, are also some of our most powerful story keepers. Often, when we fall for a plant, we are seduced by a kind of storyteller. When you become enchanted by a particular plant, are you not eager to go shouting their praises from every hilltop? In their deepest power, plants can act as traditional psychopomps, or guides of the soul, helping us to re-enter our own stories once more.
|| The Story that is Waiting to be Told ||
Like Scheherazade, stories are what keeps us alive. Every day we tell ourselves tales about our lives. Some of these stories are invoked from the popular mythologies of our time— whether that be the tales of the Buddha or Martin Prechtel, the free-spirited Juliette de Baïracli Levy or our own mama’s yarns. And within, beneath, inherent to all of this, is the story of your lifetime. At the center of your existence, lives a story that is waiting to be told. As the Aborigine’s of Australia say, the biggest stories are hunting us. We can begin to live more richly, more directly from our passions and purpose, by learning the stories that yearn to be brought back from these places of the unknown.
(To read more about the important alchemy of story hunting I highly recommend the dreamy work of Robert Moss)
This coming Fall I’ll be teaching a workshop at the HerbFolk conference with the intention of leading a group of such travelers into this woodland within. We’ll explore concepts of intuition and the richness of myth, approach the guiding role of traditional folktales and how they can help counsel us through the perils, possibilities and magic of plant-based intuitive work. As a group we’ll undertake a guided meditation/conscious dream journey to our own woodland within to meet a plant spirit ally who is waiting to help us tell our biggest story. Together, we’ll visit these inner places of fable, mystery and myth, and return to translate our deep encounters into our own personal folktales.
When you enter your woodland within, what will you find? A frog who has been waiting to become a prince or a white witch in disguise? A welcoming wolf clan or dwarves who can tell you your real name? Perhaps you’ll run into a friend of mine, an elder who has built her thatch cottage in an old deer bed. She is a woman with river lines in her face, and an apron faded to soft threads. Her house is an apothecary, cabinets lined with bottles and medicines of all kinds– not just willow bark or Solomon’s seal, but dragon scales, and discarded chrysalises, stones from the far-off veils of waterfalls. If you encounter her, she will most likely invite you in, share a drink as pink as mimosa flowers, and hand you a mortar and pestle so you can create your own brew. When you explore your inner woodland, what medicine will you find there?
This past weekend I let myself be free. At around 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon on Friday I pushed all my lingering work in a drawer, packed the car with a basket of food and my favorite blanket, and drove west into the sea-blue mountains. I stopped often, taking time to dip in the river and swim under the branches of mimosa trees in their full fuchsia-bloom. There was no aim, other than to sit on thick river moss and find familiars in the stones. Later, after the swim, after a thunderstorm, after the sun crept back out to dry my hair, I took a winding road up to a high mountain meadow to watch the sun set. One of my favorite places on earth, Max Patch looks out onto the blue folds of mountains in all directions – north, east, south and west. It was all the food I needed. I drifted up to the top of the world with a bottle of sparkling water and my thoughts. Quiet wind and clover up to my knees. I watched the sun descend through the clouds in bright drops of strawberry and wine. There was nothing to do but be. It was sherbet-perfect, nothing less than divine.
It’s been a while since I’ve taken myself on such a date. The months leading up to this year’s Solstice have been beyond full, brimming. Tending the garden of one’s life is a full time job. Planting, planning, nurturing the germination of every single seed. I have sometimes felt like a clematis vine…. my spirit having gone from its early days of sleep, to creep, to now leap… and it’s all I can do but continue to climb. After a long season of work, everything inside of me seems to ache for the kind of exploratory leisure that makes even the smallest moments come alive. With the sun at her lazy zenith, and the whole hemisphere saturated in life, I find myself seduced by a novel concept – the leisure of time.
We spend our time. Have you noticed? Day-in, day-out I often find myself quantifying time in dollars or what “makes sense.” Parceling out hours into quarters, constricting it like a cuckoo to a small wooden clock. Yet… in my best and most transformative moments, time is a kind of creature– shapeshifting and alive. Time is as diverse as a well-fed creek. On a slow sunny day, wind-blown and dry, it may move as slow as threads down the mountainside. And yet, on the next, with thunderclouds overhead, hours rush as fast as ocean waves. Time moves the way we invite it to. Our attention, our intention, is the spring that feeds all waters. In every moment we have the opportunity to decide: how do we want our time to flow?
To me, it is a simple fact. When I let myself wander, allowing long moments of soft fascination and pause, life feels eternal. When I un-dam the spontaneous flow of my imagination, creation simply flows. The best inventions are born from such spaces of effortlessness. What if all we needed to feel fulfilled, as rich as strawberries in a bowl of porcelain cream, was to allow ourselves time to ripen?
When I was a child, summers were like fairyland eternities, and I was invited, every hour of every day, to play. Bare feet and half-finished flower crowns, cold sprinklers and baskets of berries. The whole landscape of my imagination unrolled, like cloth at an emperor’s rich feet. The older we get the more we are encouraged to step away from this imaginal realm, pushing ourselves out into a terrain where the space between thought and creation is so much denser. As we grow, many of us abandon our beautiful tapestries of imagination and play, and the weave, like a well-loved but forgotten dress, fades.
Every moment of every day we choose how to experience our lives. When I focus on that which feels incomplete, stressful, small or scarce, I bring the whole of my being into relation with limitation. When I consciously choose to shift my mind, investigate the beauty, the blessings my life (and all the beings in it) my entire existence expands.
This past Fall I contracted Lyme disease. It has been a long road of rebalancing and recovery, and a seriously deep journey of learning. In truth, one single revelation has been my biggest teacher: Whenever possible, do what you want to do, when you want to do it.
When I engage in the activities that feed me – writing, reading, medicine making, exploring – I am full of energy and vigor. I forget that I even have spirochetes in my body. When I linger too long on the computer, push my body to work past dark in the garden, or pour too much energy into other people’s projects— I get sick. It’s that simple. It’s that novel.
My invocation for this summer season is plain but powerful. To enjoy. Life, like rivers, like well-fed streams, moves fast. If I don’t take pleasure in my existence now, then who will? When?
So how about a toast?
To choose, in this moment, to invite the deepest leisure into our days. Let’s allow ourselves the time to be delightfully present, inquisitively alive. Seek soft adventures, bask in sunlight thick enough to drink. Let’s invite life to ripen in its own time. Allow our deepest fascinations be our guides.
As Walt Whitman says: lean, loaf, invite your soul. It’s summertime.
In the spirit of following ones fascinations and inspirations, I am delighted to introduce One Willow’s newest elixir (and my most constant summertime companion).
Sundresses and sangria, fresh cucumbers from the garden and mint tea. In summer, even the simplest things can be a cause for celebration. Frisky and effervescent, Easy Livin’ elixir incites a deep devotion to summertime’s bliss. Crafted with melon-scented wildflowers, strawberry syrup, birch bark mint and champagne, Easy Livin’ encourages you to embrace an expansive season of
leisure. Whether you are reclining on sun-warmed rocks or falling under the spell of a twilight romance, Easy Livin’ invites the softest fascination to be your guide.
Summer is a time of deep abundance— baskets of blueberries and rope swings into cold mountain streams. Easy Livin’ reminds us that our richest creations arise from such moments of effortlessness; the best ideas appear like fireflies, bright and fluent in the dusk. This sun-drunk elixir encourages us to live from the inspiration of the present and recognize that all we truly need to be fulfilled is to let ourselves feel free. Picnic in fields of wildflowers or watch the crickets jump in cascades. Sip mojitos in the early moonlight and flirt with the very idea of evening. Easy Livin’ reminds us that we are allowed to take the deepest pleasures in our lives. Today is a fizzy drink, full of lively possibility and faint notes of jubilee. You must only tip your cup and toast to your own vibrancy.
+ Extracts: Black Birch (Betula lenta), Pedicularis (Pedicularis canadensis),
Kava (Piper methysticum)
+Essences: Strawberry, Hibiscus, Kyanite
+Strawberry syrup & Champagne
This year’s spring has been a revelation, sweet and slow. The mountains here held winter much longer than usual—we’ve even seen April snows. Crocuses were the first to awaken, scattered across a wild lawn by the lake. It was such a welcome sight, I stopped my car in the middle of the road. The pageant of blooms has been a leisurely unveiling, requiring the patience of a sugarbush pan over a woodstove. Soon after the first amethyst-colored crocuses the daffodil greens arrived, pushing up out of forgotten soil like vines. The Bradford pear down the street flushed out like a white-chested goose and the very first Cherry blossoms blushed— the bosom of spring had begun. Every day I’ve had new eyes for the world. I watch the hyacinths unfurl low to the ground, rich as embroidery on the earth. The tulips pop up with shocks of color, as sensuous as parted lips along the road. The dandelions have already flashed from teeth, to green, to yellow, to puff in less than three weeks. Sometimes I think I can barely keep up! In the woods the ephemerals have come and gone and come again. Bloodroot petals have already disappeared into the duff, the first spring beauties long gone. I sit on my haunches like the trilliums and count the mayapple umbrellas before they unfurl.
Spring is a many-petaled season. It is beautiful and fickle, exacting and loose. It bequeaths our hearts with so much hope and abundance, and then flits by as quickly as a cardinal at the window. It is a slow pour of both fulfillment and longing, our spring. The pain and the beauty both, gentle.
Spring is the traditional time of cleansing. After a long, internal winter Spring bursts forth, gracing us with the inherent energy needed to slough off that which has begun to feel stagnant or stuck, relearn how it feels to bloom. Every Spring I teach a class on Spring Cleansing. In the class we meander through all the fresh greens that grow wild in early spring: dandelion, chickweed, cleavers, violet, bittercress, creasy greens, poke… We discuss the mechanics of fasting and explore how to incorporate our herbal allies into our cleanse. I love this class because it encapsulates one of my greatest passions— connecting to the earth in her subtly, in her seasons, in her bounty of medicine changes. This year, however, we began the class much slower, quieter. I had every student sit down in meditation, take time to breathe, and do some gentle stretching to get our energy to begin its flow.
Fasting and strict cleansing rituals have their time and place. They are vital, transformational tools for a detoxification on all levels of being. But sometimes, like the first meandering snow melt stream, the kind of cleansing you most need will be subtle, gentle, incremental and deep.
When we cleanse, no matter how we cleanse, it is the intention that we bring to our process that initiates transformation. All healing comes from within. Our bodies are constantly working to repair and detoxify, our bright spirits will never cease in their insistency to come through. Why else are we so struck by a newly opened daffodil? We recognize within its sunny disposition our own ever-returning light. Conscious cleansing is simply a way to acknowledge this process, and deepen its process by lending the power of your conscious mind.
This Spring I have embarked upon a very gentle cleanse, a slow shedding of layers that fits the subtly of my own shifts perfectly. I’ve shared a few of my favorite allies and practices for cleansing below. Each day might have seemed very small, but at the end of nearly two months of intentionally focusing my energy on healing the changes I’ve witnessed, the blooms in me now open and free, are astounding. Every day I continue to give the gift of myself, my presence and peace of mind, to the world, and I am excited to see just what unfurls from here.
Now matter how you decide to cleanse the most important element is simply honoring where you are, and allowing the space for unforeseen transformation. All winter we witness the bare trees and forget about blooms or leaves. Then, suddenly, there will be buds and we will only wonder what lies inside them. And finally, on a day so gloriously sunny that we will have forgotten all else, they will blossom and we will come to know the world with even newer eyes.
// Violets //
Violets might be my most beloved springtime allies. When I first moved down to these mountains I was in a time of deep transition. I had left a long-term partnership and had just arrived in a town where I, frankly, knew no one and nothing! It felt like the right decision for me, but there were moments where I felt profoundly adrift. That spring it was as if I was seeing violets for the very first time. Suddenly, they were everywhere! They blanketed the half-acre around my house; a moss of purple so thick you forgot the grass even existed. I couldn’t get enough of them. I would pick them by the handful, eating the sweet blooms and heart shaped leaves while lying on my back and staring up at the trees. They were a comfort, a companion; I hoped they would never leave. The next year I made an essence from their blooms and the information that came through was revelatory.
Violets are incredible allies for helping you to feel comfortable and content with yourself. They are flowers of self-acceptance, harbingers of self-care. As a powerful alterative, Violets are potent physical allies for clearing and detoxifying the body. If nothing else you could cleanse solely by munching on a fist-full of violet flowers every day! On a more energetic level, violets help us to do the internal clearing of habits that have kept us feeling stuck or small. Violets consistently encourage me to let go of negative patterns of relating (most especially to myself) and foster a deep desire for self-exploration. They help me make a commitment to be warm and generous to myself, and honoring of the space and time, the stillness that I need to heal.
If violets are calling to you simply spend some time sitting with them. Explore their petals and their roots. Nibble on their flowers and heart-shaped leaves, sprinkle their medicine in a spring salad or fresh sandwich. Steep a violet tea and drink this dark amethyst brew for a daily detoxification ritual. Don’t forget about the power of on–the-body medicine. Lay down for a spell in the sunny grass and get a friend to cover you with blooms.
// Clear Quartz //
Known as the “master harmonizer” in Chinese medicine, clear quartz is a powerful cleanser and amplifier. On the physical level clear quartz is thought to increase and regulate the Qi, bringing vitality to all areas of the body. Clear quartz is one of my favorite stones to work with because it is so deeply versatile. Like our own spirits, it can be focused and attuned to any kind of purpose. In traditional Taoist medicine clear quartz was often used to draw energy from other stones, animals, elements or lands. By pointing quartz at a certain celestial body, for example, the stone inherently absorbs some of the energy of that entity and can become an emissary of that medicine wherever it goes.
Experiment this Spring with programming clear quartz with your favorite medicine places. Take quartz with you when you wade through the rivers and bring this medicine home to make elixirs, grids, and mandalas. If you have a specific intention for healing, hold a clear quartz in your hands and gently ask the quartz to take up the power of this medicine. Speak your intention clearly and imagine that everything you need to heal is infuse directly from you into the stone. Clear quartz will hold this intention for you, reminding you to return to its flow. Let yourself play. there is no end to the manifestation of healing that can take place through quartz. If there is a particular cloud or concert that seems to be calling your name, ask its energy to go into a piece of clear quartz and take this moment in time with you wherever your go. Sleep with quartz until your pillow to get to bring this healing with you into your dreaming. Make healing elixirs by putting your programmed stones in water over night. Drink your elixir water first thing in the morning and witness how you feel.
// Presence + Breathing //
This element of cleansing might seem too simple for some, but if you can master the art of truly being present all healing will happen on its own. This season I’ve simply practiced being present. I take time every day to walk and witness what new leaf has budded out, which bulb has finally bloomed. By connecting into the seasons with presence and gratitude, I give my body and spirit permission to simply cycle naturally. I allow myself to soak up the medicine of a single moment and allow my own inherent healing to bloom. So much imbalance is caused by worry, anxiety, projection and regret. When we take our attention out of what will be or what was, and simply return to what is we relocate the incredible power of our energy into the present moment, where it is available for our healing.
Whenever I feel an edge of anxiety creep in I simply stop what I’m doing, walk outside if I can, and breathe. Three deep belly breaths are usually enough to bring me back down. If that fails, I’ll trying a few rounds of alternative nostril breathing. On the high-stress days, when my heart continues to race, I put one hand squarely on my chest and speak out loud: “I am here. Now. And it is beautiful.” It is always such a potent reminder. There is no time but the present, so why not begin our healing in this gentle moment of spring?
Many blessings on your cleansing journeys this spring! May your days be full of bounty and peace, may every bloom surprise you with its destined unfurl.
February is the only month in our calendar year when we are encouraged to not only celebrate, but explore love. It is a time of both recognition and seeking… and sometimes visionary revelation. Far beyond the commercialism of candy hearts, the sparks created by this fiery heart-centered holiday can be profound. It is no coincidence that Valentine’s Day falls within the sometimes dark and dreary bowl of late winter in our hemisphere. It is a timely reminder. Though our days may still be marked by isolation and interiority, hibernation and cold, the warm river that gives life its eternal flush continues. Love continues.
Every Valentine’s day I am submersed in so many representations of love, I often find myself in a state of reflection. When I step back and ponder the predominate culture that surrounds me, and all its messages about love, I can’t help but feel constricted. It is as if I’m looking into a tiny, tiny pond. When the truth, the reality of love, is so much vaster. I am in a time of my life—the late-winter of an important, but increasingly waning, phase of youth and its cocooned vision— in which I am turning away from the contained waters of what I has perceived to be love and seeking the greater ocean.
Our language itself holds such narrow definitions of love. The word spread thin, like a prudent amount of butter over a single slice of toast. In truth, love is not an object (of either affection or desire), it is not a thing we can covet or a state to achieve. Love is a gateway to remembering to our widest, wildest selves. The boundless beings that are fused with all of the world. The creaking oak, the changing sky, the mantras spoken by low creeks over cold winter rocks. Love is a state of being, of giving, of receiving… of knowing that at the center of all things rests a kindred flame that burns eternal.
In my dream of the world, Valentine’s Day is embraced as a day in which we recognize not only romantic love, but all incarnations of love. We would treat this holiday as a blessed opportunity to honor all the sources of love that suffuse our world—family and friends, beings that surround us both seen and unseen, the love of the land that holds us and the sun that rises and glows, gently now, warmer and warmer, every day. Most of all, I approach, again and again, the ceremony of self-recognition this month of love deeply demands. I begin the walking meditation in honor of the bedrock from which all over love springs— the love we are here to find within.
Self love has become a nifty catchphrase these past few years. Like a refrigerator magnet, the term is so habitually encountered that the meaning itself has faded into yet another assumption of the eye. We see it so much, we stop seeing it. For years when the term “self love” was brought up I would all but swish my hands dismissively through the air, an impatient motion like shooing a fly from one’s face. Of course, I loved myself. Yes, I love myself, Can’t we move on? And yet, the deeper I have allowed myself to go within the caverns of my own heart, the more I have realized that loving myself is a life-long journey of remembering who I am… and that it is a quest that I have only just begun.
We are the source from which we live every day. We are the sun that opens our eyes in the morning, the light that colors and catches, illuminates each facet of the world we see. We are the only flower we will ever know in this lifetime, and our sole purpose is just to bloom. I remind myself everyday that each bud deserves affection, adoration, exclamation and love. I remind myself everyday that without opening first, a flower can never truly see the world into which it blooms. Without opening to my own sources of inner-unconditional love, how can I love the world within which my own spirit so freely suffuses?
I am surrounded by an abundance of love in this lifetime. I am blessed by the spectacular love of both family and friends. I am touched by the everlasting love of this earth, the plants and animals and waters that feed and clothe me, still caring for me despite my small-sightedness, my forgetfulness, my sometimes entitlement. Despite it all, I am still loved. Despite it all, I live and continue to discover unconditional love.
Just as the love of this world continues, as constant as the mountain’s forever-sighing streams, so does our own inner sources of love. In a place before words, I know I have loved myself forever. It is a feeling that comes upon me in only the most serene of moments. Leaning up against the maple tree in my front yard on the first warm day of late winter, I think about the sugary sap running now from the roots to the crown, nourishing the whole tree. I know, without having to think or grasp, that this tree loves itself unconditionally. It does not disparage its broken branches, or pecked perches. It does not wish it was growing across the street, or even ten feet over where the garden soaks up so much light. It loves itself because it is, and there is nothing else for it to do but love its being.
Learning to recognize and embrace this steady stream of inner-unconditional love, learning how to let it in and let it feed my whole being, even after the long parch of a very cold and lonely-feeling winter, is part of my work in this lifetime. And every day, I remind myself to simply be-loved.
In celebration of this month of amour, I asked for the guidance to create a medicine that would help me to remember the love that exists so freely within this world. In my dreams that evening I traveled to a thatched cottage at the edge of an ancient wood. There, an old woman welcomed me, wiping two root-worn hands on a faded apron-full of medicine. Her face changed, turning silvery sides like butterfly wings— from young porcelain-skinned beauty to a chestnut weathered crone. She hummed to herself as she stirred together newly opened blossoms and jars of white roots, powdered rose quartz and steaming tea into a plain clay vessel. In the dream, the elixir was as pink as a cherry blossom and smelled like sugarcane. She handed it to me and I drank it down heartily, thanking her for the healing. Afterwards, she brought me to a rocking chair by the fire, and told me to rest with myself for a while. When I closed my eyes there, I woke up here. And I brought a new healing elixir, Be.Loved, with me.
Be.Loved is my way of honoring this blessed time of love. I honor the love I find within myself, and I honor the love that continues to find me. I offer this elixir in honest hope and heartfelt prayer: may we all remember that we are surrounded by love. May we all love and be-loved.
I was watching a cat, calico and sunning herself on the metal roof of our shed, when the weather suddenly shifted. One moment the light was grazing contentedly upon the emptied winter landscape and the next, the whole earth had clouded over with snow. Moody and feline, more than falling, the thick flurries raced toward the ground. It was a complete surprise.
We’ve been dogsitting for a large, ruggedly handsome German shepherd this week. With the furious arrival of so many flurries, I ran to the back door to rescue the poor dog amidst the storm. Poised like a sphinx on our back stone steps, letting the whirl of the unexpected blizzard lick at his fur, he was decidedly nonplussed. He looked at me, cold flakes scattered like pearls across his paws, and my plans for hot tea and cozying in bed quickly dissolved. I threw on my coat, slung my camera around my neck and launched myself out into the snow.
The sky nuzzled my face; the wind pushed my coat open with its insistent snout. The sun hid, and I didn’t miss its light. I explored the small slope of my backyard and caught the tiniest flakes. The mountain itself was obscured, forgotten. There was no need for grand vision, because it was all happening now. In that moment, I let go of all the biggest things. I released the overarching resolutions of transformation, the great callings for initiation, the howling insistence of change. Talent the dog bounded in loops through the high winter’s yellow grass. I ran after him. We both chased the tiny unseen patterns of the storm.
We spend so much time trying to approach the vastness of the world. In the seemingly endless array of diversity and opportunity, I am often overwhelmed. There are always new arcs of possibility snagging my attention, great shifts with unheeded arrivals, universal callings that tug at me like bramble to the hem of my sturdy winter coat. But the reality is that the world, my world, can also be gloriously small. There is revelation in each precious detail: the dark hedge of queen anne’s lace defining the collar of the hill, the dense cloud of snow forming shapes in a miniature space of sky, forgotten stones gathered like tiny, well-worn villages in the swirl.
I make this pilgrimage through my life, not only to encounter the wide world I inhabit, but to touch the smallest worlds that inhabit me.
What is inside each moment is so incredibly brief and varied. It takes courage to stop and simply appreciate the perfectly rounded circle of what exists within your reach. Today, the world was a snow globe, shook— and I gave myself permission to spend a long moment witnessing it settle.