I first moved to these mountains in spring. Early spring, when things are still raw with beginning. It felt fitting. I had left behind my entire life in New York City— my relationship, my community and career— to start anew in Appalachia. I brought only what would fit into my car, leaving space for the bigness of what I was carrying, the dream of what life could possibly be like moving forward: To live in daily communion with the natural world, to come into the vividness of my being, to open up the doors of self-initiation that had only been hinted at previously.
Continue reading “When Violets Speak”
Belief in reincarnation was common throughout the ancient world. It is found in the oral tradition of many tribal societies, including the cultures of Siberia, Greece, the Celtic Druids as well as many peoples in Western Africa, North America and Australia. Reincarnation is a central tenant to many world religions including Hinduism, Jainisim, Buddhism, Taoism, ancient Kabbalistic Judaism, and certain sects of early Christianity. Take joy in exploring your multi-hued self!
Interested in going deeper? Check out light-hearted video guide to exploring the lake of time. Connect with the herbal realm to access other lifetimes + imaginative aspects of your inner self.
In winter we stir the embers. A motion of both caretaking and stoking, a gentle coaxing and potent remembering of that which lights our fire. Every winter, as color fades from the outer world, we are invited to journey into the vibrant tableau of our deepest self. To rekindle our inner colors with a gentle dedication to feeding our own sources of warmth. This wintertime enliven your inner embers by simply nourishing yourself, deeply and daily. Take a long bath. Sip good broth. Wrap yourself in quilts and go to bed early. Tend your inner hearth by feeding yourself fuel that burns clean and easy. Good food, warm slippers, laughter. With a bed of good embers, even the soggiest logs can catch fire. In winter we realize that self-care is an act of preparation, a gentle gestation for transformation itself. To tend our embers is to lay the groundwork for bringing new flames to life. Even the smallest acts of self nourishment are like breath on the coals, bringing our inner hearths to active possibility once more. Any good fire begins with a well-tended coal. In order to realize our wildest dreams we must be expert caretakers of these innermost fires. This winter, embrace this lush opportunity to nourish the embers, and by doing so create a warm bed in which any vision can catch fire.
Sometimes the easiest way to restart your fire is to reintroduce a creative spark. The cold months are deeply generous with the space given to creation. Traditionally, winter was a time for luxuriously slow and meditative tasks. Winding wool and knitting scarves. Carving spoons, dipping candles and hand penning letters. Winter was devoted to the kind of tinkering and creative rekindling that can only happen when ones sole employ is to keep the fire going and stay cozily indoors. This winter, allow yourself the gift of rediscovering an art, or idea, or creative pursuit that brings your own spark alive. What was it that excited you as a child? Poetry or painting? Studying sea creatures or playing make-believe? As the cold months clear the landscape of leaves, give yourself the imaginative space to rekindle your creative spark. Engage in the sheer joy of moving by the unhurried torch of curiosity and experimental living. Use your creativity like a flint box, bravely striking into new creative pursuits to light something anew. With a slow burning curiosity and a house cat’s dedication to comfort, let yourself absorb gradually, learn in-between hearty mouthfuls of hot soup and a long nights sleep. Accept the natural pardon given by a world gone cold to withdraw from the quickness of doing and rest by the warm woodstove of your innermost interests, those things that make you sigh and bring you alive.
There is an alchemical altar inside all of us that aches to be fed. In winter, we are invited to pay homage to the sanctity of self-nourishment and our individual creative sparks, to become devotees of our innermost glow. Winter is an invitation to rediscover our light, for when we give our inner selves the care and attention we need, that ever present altar can burn bright enough to throw light into even the darkest corners of our wintertime world.
>> Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) <<
** Please note: Chaga is currently listed as an at-risk fungus and is being overharvested in many areas of the world. Please practice ethical wildcrafting and do your research when purchasing from outside sources. And remember, a little goes a long way**
A living embodiment of both the darkness and spark of wintertime, Chaga is a rich and mystical cold weather medicine. In natural hue, this medicinal fungus looks like a hearty slab of rough volcanic stone or a wet hewn chunk of wood. In our area, Chaga flourishes on Yellow Birches (Betula alleghaniensis) but in other northern corners of the world it can be found on White Birch (Betula papyrifera) and Gray Birch (Betula populifolia) as well.
Dense and woody, Chaga needs to be decocted to receive its full medicine, and so is best drunk in the long months of winter when the windows are happy to be fogged by the warm breath of the stove. Chaga is a rich addition to your daily routine of self-nourishment. In the winter I like to keep Chaga in a pot on the woodstove for days, or sometimes weeks, at a time. On first simmer, Chaga will turn your tea dark cacao colored, but you can use the same chunk in your decoction until the brew turns a light caramel.
Medicinally, Chaga is a deeply nourishing immune tonic. Antiviral, immune modulating, and adaptogenic, Chaga has been an indispensible wintertime decoction in the far northern climes of Russia for centuries. I often like to add Chaga to a wintertime adaptogenic tea with Reishi (Ganoderma tsugae, G. lucidum), Eleuthro (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and good handfuls of cardamom and cinnamon for taste. I sip a cup of the tea every morning and the fortifying nourishment of it seems to spread throughout every limb. Chaga tea is also rich in antioxidants and most excellently paired with bitter dark chocolate. Traditionally used in Russia for cancer, Chaga has been shown to have an antitumor effect in contemporary clinical trials.
Often referred to as a mushroom, Chaga is actually an outgrowth of the mycelium of the fungus itself (mushrooms being the “fruiting body” of the mycelium). Mycelium, or the vegetative aspect of fungi, extends underneath the soil of our entire world. Indispensible and vast, mycelium is the unseen web upon which the entire living world is woven. Over time, this magical root-based system works to break down massive amounts of organic material, turning winters leaves into the fertile humus of a forest floor. Mycelium is so adept at breaking down organic compounds that many think these organisms might be the first to adapt to the new chemicals of our world, transmuting radiation and pollutants into something more benign. Mycelium is an undertaker of sorts, turning the opportunity of death into the rich possibility of rebirth. Mycelium also functions as a vast network of organic interconnection. Some scientists believe that trees and other plants are able, not only to communicate, but also send vital nutrients to each other through the infinite strings of this mysterious web. With each sip, Chaga invites us to step into the nourishing weave of interconnection, helping the entire complex system of our being to receive sustenance and opening up new threads of communication between all layers of our self.
Also called tinder fungus, Chaga is as an excellent ally for catching coals of fresh-drilled hand-fires and holding the spark for a miraculous amount of time. Used as tinder for eons, it was even found in the pouches of Otzi, the Copper age man who lived and died in the Alps around 3,300 BCE and was discovered in an ice flow 5,000 years later. A vital companion for sojourners who need to bring the spark of new life with them wherever they go, Chaga is an embodiment of tending our inner embers. This rich medicine reminds us that even in the bleak of winter we can strike new and nourishing sparks to flame, and that it all begins with the slowness of putting a pot of tea to boil.
Chaga Maple Hot Cocoa
Recipe makes two mugs of hot cocoa
½ oz Chaga
1.5 cups water
2 tsp cocoa power
¼ – ½ tsp cinnamon (or to taste)
2 oz coconut milk
2 oz maple syrup
(Optional) Vanilla Extract
- Decoct Chaga. Combine Chaga with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and let churn for at least 20 minutes (or until your tea turns to the shade of dark wood). When your decoction is done, strain the tea into a separate container.
- Sir in cocoa + cinnamon powder until all lumps are dissolved
- Add Coconut milk and Maple syrup
- Garnish with a cinnamon stick and make a toast to mycelium!
Interested in up-leveling this recipe with stone medicine? Check out this post for to learn how Chaga + Hematite like to work together
// post originally published in Plant Healer Magazine, Winter 2016 //
It’s spring and the whole world is cleansing. Tender greens are rising like a blush in the woods. The song birds have returned to flit their wings on the surface of cold ponds. And the forest bathes itself in blooms.
Every spring there is a feeling in the air as if everything can be made new again. That reinvention is a birthright. That we too can slough off what has felt winter-heavy within our bones and burst like a dogwood into full bloom.
Fresh winds, cold springs, and translucent forests of green. In spring we are invited to join the world in a deep and soul-full cleansing.
Our bodies are like tuning forks. They are as sensitive as a willow switch divining for springs. As human beings we are in constant motion of picking up moods, sensations, chemical compounds, and feelings. But sometimes we accumulate experiences that feel like toxins to our systems…
Inner smog. Overwhelm. Words that stung when they were said, and hung in the air like smoke. Overly processed foods, chronic stress, too little time spent dreaming. All the tiny accumulations of stagnation, moments spent sitting when you needed to move. The seemingly inconsequential self-judgements that build up like wrappers left out in the street. Every time you drank or smoked or snacked or sucked it up when what you really needed to do was soften and cry, receive nurture or be acknowledged.
In Ayurvedic medicine there is a term for such accumulated toxins— Ama. When we experience ama we are not just encountering the physical impediments of sluggish organs or overworked lymph, but the stagnation of negative thoughts, stressful environments, and limiting beliefs as well. In Sanskrit the word ama literally translates as “undigested.” In truth, ama helps us to understand that toxicity is more than just a build up of metabolic residue, it is everything that comes into our system and doesn’t move.
And so the fresh winds of spring bring an opportunity. To clear house. To tend the inner wells and make them bright again. To compost anything that doesn’t serve you and replant the garden of your innermost self with something more life-giving, more authentically you.
We hear the word “cleanse” and we feel that it’s a dictate to scrub away some aspect of ourselves that is unclean. But I think this way of thinking causes more toxicity in our culture than anything else.
True cleansing, real cleansing, is about creating new space inside of ourselves so we can expand.
It is a spiritual practice, one that can be creative, connective and soulful. Cleansing, at its heart, is a radical act of self care.
In this blog I offer three week-long creative cleanses to invoke gentle, spirit nourishing spring cleaning. Have fun, be imaginative and implement as you need. Read on to discover these three easeful gateways, and invoke a spring inside yourself.
>> Clear Waters Cleanse <<
A cleanse to invoke a rush of new vision and to refind your inner flow
+ Drink 64 – 80 oz of water a day
The easiest way to make sure you drink enough H2O is to designate a quart-sized mason jar as your water bottle for the week. Drink one quart between breakfast and lunch. One between lunch and dinner, and one in the evening hours between dinner and sleep. (There are 24 oz in a quart mason jar). Don’t sit down for a meal until your water portion has been emptied. Try to eat as cleanly as possible and keep snacking between meals to a minimum. When you get hungry, try a big gulp of water instead. Oftentimes we feel hunger pangs when we are actually thirsty. Make water your decadent treat and notice how much more juicy, energized and enlivened you feel.
+ Infuse every cup with good intentions
Water has the ability to take on and be infused with a wide variety of impressions, energy, medicine and intention. Don’t buy it? Try making a cup of tea and see how much that water takes on the color, taste and characteristics of the herb. Or check out the transformational work of Dr. Masaru Emoto. Infuse your water with your intentions for this cleanse. Try leaving a glass of water out overnight with a love note tapped to the bottom. Or hold your cup first thing in the morning as you sing one of your favorite songs. Get creative with how you infuse and your body will become a vessel of new healing.
+ Drink a Clear Quartz Elixir every morning
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. 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.
Program your quartz with healing. Take it with your favorite medicine places. Let it infuse in a spring. If you have a specific intention for this cleanse, 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 infusing directly from you into the stone. Clear quartz will hold this intention for you.
Make an elixir by putting your programmed clear quartz in one cup of water over night. Cover the lid with a cloth or piece of paper and let sit. Remove the stone upon waking (or leave in, if you’d like!) and drink your elixir water first thing in the morning.
+ Take Lymph moving herbs
The lymphatic system governs the waters of our bodies. A network of tissues and organs that help our bodies naturally cleanse itself, the lymph is like the wetlands and tributaries of our entire ecosystems. The primary function of the lymphatic system is to transport lymph, a cleansing fluid that contains our protective white blood cells, throughout our body. When we get sick our lymph nodes work double time, hence why they often become swollen. Lymphs don’t have musculature, and so they don’t move on their own. This is why yoga, dance, and lymph tapping or massage can be so invigoratingly vital for full health. Herbs can also be deeply moving for the lymphatic system. Spring weeds like cleavers and chickweed are lovely lymph cleansers added to tea or a smoothie. For southwestern folks look into the power-filled Ocotillo (check out this wonderful article by Rebecca Altman about the waters in the body and its resonance with this desert dweller)
+ Bathe, Swim, Sweat, Shower. Go for walks in the rain.
+ Cry. At anything and everything.
Take 1-5 drops of this essence blend made with fresh tree sap first thing in the morning to start your day with a rush of new beginnings
>> Quiet the Hum Cleanse <<
A fast to help detox from the buzz of technology. A cleanse designed for sensitives and introverts to refind the nurturing shores of their inner worlds.
+ Turn off your computer, TV and phone
As much as you can. For the entire week. Turn them off. Take a break from glowing screens and all the toxicity that comes with procrastination, comparison, self-doubt and overwhelm. Turn off everything as soon as you arrive home. Or before you even leave home, if you can. When we quiet the outer buzz it is truly remarkable what we can hear within.
+ Give yourself permission to be in your own world
Read a fantasy novel. Color in an adult coloring book. Play with stones, wander the woods alone. Give yourself complete and utter permission to tune out of other people’s needs and create an inner world of vision, dreams and fantasy. Practice allowing yourself to be in your own world for at least a 1/2 hour every day.
+ Smoky Quartz
This dark variety of quartz is revered for its ability to help clear EMF, radiation and environmental electronic fog. In Chinese medicine it is known to help clear “pervasive Qi,” or any energies that feel chaotic and invasive. This is a wonderful companion for a technology fast, and can help us deprogram ourselves. Letting go of the accumulated impressions of the digital world so we can clear space for a more engaged relationship with our own inner landscapes.
Keep a piece of smoky quartz on you all week. Or try making an elixir to drink first thing in the morning (see notes on elixir making in Clear Waters Cleanse).
Take 4 drops 4x day directly on the tongue to reconnect into the joy of the living world.
+ If you have a question go to a living source
When you have an inquiry about something this week, practice going to your neighbor, a plant or (most importantly) your inner sage. Ask a living being for guidance, tune into your intuition rather than Wikipedia, and see what kind of embodied magic happens.
>> Wildness Cleanse <<
Recall the wild within. Let the natural wilderness of the world return you to your most authentic self.
+ Eat something wild every day
Spring is the richest season of wild greens. Wild edibles tend to have much higher vitamin and mineral content and are infused with the complex compounds and ineffable magic that only comes from living wild. Chickweed, cleavers, dandelion, violets. Most of these greens are growing right outside on our lawn.
Check out this blog post for more insight
And don’t miss this lovely guide from Sophia Rose of La Abeja Herbs
+ Go outside. Every day.
Even if just for 10 minutes. Start to shift your perception of the “outside.” Instead of seeing the out-of-doors as separate from your day to day life, allow yourself to embrace nature as a home space that nurtures your wildest self. Find a patch of green and literally stretch. Or jog. Or lay on your back and let the rain fall on your face. Listen to the birds, follow squirrels into the trees. Climb a tree. Find as wild of a space as you can. And act wild as you can let yourself be.
+ Eat only whole foods
Only imbibe foods that come fresh, wild, or from the pasture. Cage free eggs, organic whole grains, clean pasture meat, farm fresh vegetables and fermented foods. Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients on the label. Better yet, don’t eat anything with a label at all.
+ Improvisational Movement every day (10 minutes)
As Mary Oliver says, let the “soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Put on music that digs up something raw and unfiltered inside of you. I love this song by Glasser (I call it “cave dance party” music). Put on a song that ignites you, let yourself be alone with your body, and allow the animal in you to move.
+ End the day by Candlelight
Turn off your electric lights and spend at least the last hour before bedtime by candlelight. I normally like to end this week of rewilding and cleansing with a bonfire and long hours spent gazing, remembering what it means to be a human being.
+ Go on a shamanic journey to meet an Animal spirit guide
From time immemorial people recognized that the wild beings that surround us often hold great medicine for our deeper spirits. Bears come when we need courage. The meadow lark when we need to sing. When we connect back into the animal realm, we ignite an understanding of ourselves as wild co-creators in this world.
Shamanic journeying with the aid of the drum is an ancient method of shifting ones consciousness. Try this meditative practice to meet an animal guide that wants to work with you at this time. When you meet your animal bring them back into your day-to-day life through a drawing, a written story, an altar space or some kind of totem in your life. (Stuffed animals are totally allowed). Interact with them every day and let them be your guide into the wilderness of this deep cleanse.
Not sure what a shamanic journey is? Check out this wonderful talk by Sandra Ingermen or read on for my own guide to journeying below.
Shamanic journeying is a kind of meditation, combined with focused intention, to enter an expanded state of consciousness. In journeying, a Shamanic practitioner enters a kind of “trance state.” If you have ever had one of those moments of being lost in thought, like following the fading lines of a beach trail onto the shoreline of sand, you know how a trance state feels. Trance states are common in meditation, prayer, or intense life transitions—including birth, orgasm, and death. Trance states can be as light as a deeper feeling of awareness or as deep as the seemingly comatose bodies of deeply seasoned Shamans.
When we undertake a journey, part of our consciousness is able to detach itself from the body and explore realms that the physical body cannot perceive or move through. The object is not to escape reality, but to venture deeper into it. Many people who journey for the first time expect to have completely out of body experiences, but this is most often not the case. I often liken it to a branch of a river tree breaking off the main trunk to join a stream. The tree stays put, but an aspect of its being is free to travel. The tree still feels the gentle sway of the water over its roots, sustaining it crown, allowing it be what it is, a tree— it has simply chosen to send part of itself downstream.
Shamanic experiences are different for everyone. Some people liken it to the sensation of being in a dream. Some people have vivid imagery, tastes or smells, others simply have a feeling sense. Above all, try being curious. In his book The Way of the Shaman, Michael Harner likens Shamans to scientists. “Both shamans and scientists,” he asserts, “personally pursue research into the mysteries of the universe, and both believe that the underlying causal process of that universe are hidden form ordinary view.” As you work with connecting to expanded states of consciousness, you may have experiences that are odd, unexplainable, or peculiarly striking. Instead of casting off such experiences or images, save these perceptions as bits of evidence or data. You may not understand their importance now, but catalogue it for later evaluation. Surprise is an integral part of the shamanic experience. Consciousness often speaks in metaphor and we are continually learning how to be better readers.
Steps of the Journey (How to Journey)
1) Find a comfortable and quiet place where you can relax. Before I enter a journey I like to take some time to call in my guides, the four directions, ancestors, or any personal divinity that has meaning to me. This is a time to get clear on your intention. Let your wider consciousness know: You would like to meet an animal guide.
You are setting the stage for a safe and guided space of journeying. If it helps to relax, try some gentle yoga, dancing or deep breathing beforehand.
2) Most people like to journey in near darkness. I suggest turning out the lights and closing the blinds. Some people light a candle at the beginning of their journey, as symbolic gesture of keeping an aspect of their consciousness in the here and now.
3) Drumming can be profoundly helpful for journeying. Find a Shamanic drumming CD you like (or track on youtube) and use it to deepen your journey. When you are ready to begin, sit in a comfortable position or lie down (if you aren’t in danger of falling asleep!) and begin the drumming.
4) Many people like to envision an entryway for themselves. For meeting with a spirit guide traditional people usually went into what we call the “lower world,” deep into the earth. I like to envision traveling down through the roots of a tree, but you may prefer a staircase, a tunnel or a cave. These gateways can often be a signal to our conscious minds that we are transitioning in our consciousness and that it’s okay to let go.
5) Once you “step into” the journey itself just let yourself explore. Images, feelings, sounds or smells should come spontaneously. Shamanic journeying is not about conscious control, it’s about allowing yourself to have an experience beyond your rational mind. During your journey you will stay conscious in your body. You can expect to hear cars passing down the road or feel any itches or bodily sensations. Many people liken journeying to a powerful daydream. You remain conscious and aware, and yet let another aspect of yourself can travel. If you feel any distractions in the here and now, forgive the intrusion and simply let yourself drift back to the journey.
It’s always okay to ask questions. So if an animal comes to you in your journey don’t feel shy in asking, “are you my guide?”
6) If you are listening to a soundtrack of drumming the end of your journey will be indicated by a series of rapid rhythmic beats, followed by several slow thrums. Now is the time to “come back.” I often like to retrace my steps, going back through the entryway I have chosen. If, at any time, you wish to end your journey early just retrace your path and head home. When I arrive back into my body I like to imagine my spirit sifting in from the top of my head and settling down firmly into my heart and all my limbs.
7) Take some moments before you move to deeply breathe and feel yourself completely in your body once more. Once you are ready, I highly encourage writing down an account of your journey. Consciousness most often speaks in metaphor and sometimes the deeper meanings will be made much more clear once you take time for reflection. If only a few sentences, jot down some impressions from your experience and close your journeying time with some gratitude for your guides and for the perfection of this particular journey.
I walked through the warm woods barefoot to the cleft of hill overlooking the stream. Following the old worn way through the trees, the thin stitch of footfall over a soft quilt of pine-worn leaves. It was one of the first sun-warmed days of spring and I was opening my heart to finding something ephemeral and unseen.
All winter long I have watched the bare blue mountains behind my home like a card reader, hands scrying the mud and evergreen, imagining what might be rooted, precious as garnet, between the hard knobs of the trees. I studied the enduring leaves of beech like sheaths of papyrus, because I knew that they had lived for many springs and were intimately acquainted with what I was awaiting – the tender arrival of the woodland ephemerals. That rare breed of flora that flowers in the brief span of spring before the trees find their leaves. The plants that bloom, seed and cease before the rest of the world even sets out their green.
In the deciduous belt of the earth, where trees sleep like Persephone and lose the entire crown of their leaves, ephemerals acts as heralds for the return of the growing world. They are akin to the dawn chorus, a kind of songbird that celebrates the re-awakening of a rich hardwood cove. Every spring in Appalachia we experience an eloquent succession of these woodland ephemerals, many of which blossom for the handspan of just a few weeks. Taking advantage of the slowly waking slumber of the trees, these flowering plants occupy a unique niche within the forest’s overall ecology. For most of the year, these plants await as roots. But as soon as the earth warms they begin their quick ascent to supply some of the first food and medicine of spring. In the time it takes for the maples and tulip poplars and basswoods to unfurl their leaves, these soil-dwellers go through the entire cycle of their above-ground existence, dying back to the roots as the canopy finally flushes to fullness.
The first ephemeral always catches you by surprise, as mysterious and discreet as only true denizens of the underworld can be. You must attune yourself to the subtle, the unexpected arising from bare forest floor. Once your eyes catch their contours, however, you will notice that the flowers come in waves, as exotic and earthly as silk flags in the caravanning desert of early spring. Bloodroot, Hepatica, Spring beauties. Anemone, Trout Lily, Trilium. Temporary miracles. Each one, so gentle in petal, seems to be able to break even the hardest heart (and soil) wide open.
And so I found myself, on a spring-warmed day in April, out wandering with a heart that ached to unfold. I climbed up into the woods, letting my feet find the slopes of forest with the right cove of hardwoods, the perfect slant of light and bare canopy of trees. I had just returned from spending a long weekend with my new sweetheart and I was feeling that particular pang of tenderness and possibility that comes when a heart first decides to stir from a season of soilsafe hibernation. I was holding the tender petals of this inner ache to bloom when I first spotted them: an entire glen of bloodroot, curled in the palms of their own hands, rising to reach the sunspace of early spring.
Here, growing amongst the moss-laden roots of the slumbering trees existed an entire world of flowering beings where once there had only been winter-browned leaves. I couldn’t help but crawl in close, as awkward as a newborn fawn on shaky hands and knees. To be with them was to sip from a thimble-sized dram of spring’s most potent energy. The bourgeoning, the beginning, a blissful shot of sheer bravery.
Spring ephemerals are regarded as the lace glove of the flora world. They come and go as swiftly as a spring rain, often dying back to their roots in just a handful of weeks. Some spring ephemerals, like Trillium for example, can take upwards of seven years to even begin to bloom. There is a reason why such ephemerals are so rare. Delicate and scarce, their exquisite gentleness can sometimes be mistook for daintiness until you sit with them and ask them to speak.
In the heart of the forest’s own mythology, the story of spring ephemerals is a far cry from this picture of fragility. It is a tale of root-deep courage, otherworldly patience and the magic of vulnerability. Although the flowers themselves bloom for only a short breath of spring, their colonies flourish for decades. In fact, some Trout Lily communities are so old they predate the surrounding trees. Surviving, thriving and blooming in the short span between earliest spring and the first flush of the canopy, to be a spring ephemeral is to have mastered the art of divine timing and the life-generating strength of such open-blossomed vulnerability.
In our culture, we have a tendency to mark tenderness as weakness, but when a single bloodroot bloom can rock us back on awe-struck heels, we begin to glimpse the power of such exposed intimacy. Tenderness is perhaps the most potent form of bravery. It is the ability to open oneself, despite (as Anais Nin says) the incredible risk to bloom. To open, despite the danger of unexpected frosts and herbivores, the weather whims of spring’s mood and the negligence of passing boots. It takes unbelievable courage to expose oneself in such vulnerability. To say yes— to blooming, to loving and to living once more. Would it not be so much easer to stay quietly in our roots? In spring, the sun draws closer to earth, almost as if to say how much she believes in us, and we respond with a sweeping show of blossoming trust and the gift of our own transformational vulnerability. We bloom— not knowing if this is the right moment, or how the whole story will unfold— and this is how and where and when true growth begins.
There is a part of us that feels, acutely, that first wildflower bloom. That sharp acknowledgement of just how much bravery it takes to open oneself in such a seemingly empty place. How many of us have been protecting our hearts through a long winter’s sleep? How many of us have shrunk our tenderness down deep in the soil, like Catbrair roots in the cold winter sleet? When I sit with such ephemerals I think, perhaps, our hearts never needed to be roots. That’s what the soles of our feet are for. When we allow them to, our hearts can be flowers. Blooms that open in stunning vulnerability to the world, exposing themselves to all the possibilities of pollination and creation, to the sheer joy of radiating.
Sometimes messages are simple. Often, the best ones are. Be brave. Be open. Bloom and offer the unbelievable gift of your vulnerability to this world. Say yes to the life that lives through you. Begin again.
This world is full of gifts. We must simply open our eyes and hearts and be willing to receive. Laying amongst the cupped hands of so many ephemerals, on a warm day in early-spring, I was being given the gift of yet another beginning. The opportunity to embrace a new opening. The brazen invitation to fall in love— with a new season, a new person, a new spring. I held my heart, tender from such invitation and felt at once as strong and vulnerable as dicentra leaves. I accepted the bliss of such brave transience and felt truly released.
We can only love now, bloom now, find ourselves in the now that happens between the first kiss of sunlight and the leafing of the trees. On my belly, a humble student of these most ephemeral blooms, I opened myself up to the daylight and welcomed in the tiny, thimble-sized tears of such ground-breaking gratitude.
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?
Autumn has passed swiftly. In one momentous sweep the mountains around my home turned from yellow, to gold, to amber, to ruby and then finally– with a last groan– to earth and brown. Here in the Blue Ridge we watch steadily for that first bit of color. It seeps down from the top of our hearty navy mountains slow and liquid, as if the sky had poured its technicolor honey straight down onto the tip of their crowns.
I love fall. I love how sublimely the earth shows its individuality. One tree might be totally bare by mid-october, while another is just beginning to let go. We spend so much time plodding through unkept piles of leaves that we get lost in their commonplace and collective familiarities. But I love thinking about each leaf. To our eyes, they are always falling. But to a single leaf, the moment is singular, irreplaceable. There is a surrender in Fall that takes my breath away. It’s almost ecstatic, how the living let go to the cold’s embrace. Some die, some sleep, some pull inwards and prepare for the season of their magnificence. I imagine it must be powerfully peaceful, transcendent.
Fall is the time for harvesting. Collecting roots and the fruits of your labor, taking stock of all that you have tended and grown over the year and letting go of the rest. Harvesting means more than embracing that which has flourished and nourished you, it also means leaving behind that which no longer serves you. I am simply in love with how this season defines abundance– in Autumn’s shape, abundance is not just the acquisition of what you need to feel full and happy, abundance is a kind of inward expansiveness, a steadiness and contentment that allows you to let go.
My fall was infused with joyful and conscientious gathering (and partings as well). Wild fruits like autumn olives, maypops (passionflower fruit) and persimmons (which should be collected when soft and mushy, otherwise you risk an astringent mouth straight jacket like you have never experienced before). There are leafy fall medicinals making their return on the other side of spring– stinging nettles, chickweed, and cleavers– as well as some herbs that only appear this once, in the waning of the season’s warmth. Goldenrod, a common roadside adornment, is one of my favorite fall medicine flowers. Known to many as an allergen, Goldenrod actually works to combat the symptoms of allergies, alleviating the sinuses as well as helping to improve kidney function and heal UTIs.
Fall is the best time of the year to dig most roots. From fields and wayland to forests– these are the roots for which we have waited all season. I scrambled under fences to low pastures of Yellow Dock, Dandelion, and Poke. I climbed wooded hillsides to find Wild Yam, Black Cohosh and Appalachian Osha. I journeyed to the Pigeon river and dug thin and willowy Yellow Roots from their sandy banks and slanted roofs of river stone. I harvested roots from my garden that I’ve been watching grow for years, waiting for them to return heavy and thick. Valerian, Calamus, Burdock, Echinacea, Comfrey, Angelica, and Elecampagne.
I am in deep awe of elecampagne. The day after I harvested over 5 lbs of root a friend from out-of-town arrived at our doorstep, bemoaning a deep, boggy chest cold that had been lingering for weeks. Hoping to give her at least a little bit of relief, I brewed a big pot of elecampagne tea for breakfast. Everyone exclaimed at its deliciousness! Aromatic, clearing, almost spicy with hints of both sweet and bitter. Walking down to the pasture afterwards our friend began coughing up long stuck muck. When we saw her the next day, she was glowing. “I am completely healed!” she exclaimed. Apparently, after battling this chest cold for almost a month, all of her symptoms completely disappeared. She was breathing easy and her lungs felt unfettered and free. Frankly, I was shocked. I normally think of herbal tea as a pleasure activity with the added benefit of some gentle healing. But this pot of elecampagne tea was powerful medicine. I felt reverent. As the old Latin phrase goes, Enula campana reddit praecordia sans (Elecampagne will the spirits sustain).
Fall is also the season of the nut. Many people are totally unaware of the blissful amount of food that falls from the tress every autumn. When I was growing up I remember thinking of nuts as fun toys or loathsome burrs. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was introduced to the wonderful world of eating wild nuts. Hickorys, acorns, black walnuts, and chestnuts. All of them require a bit of processing, but they are well worth the effort.
The first step is always to remove the nut from their fleshy hulls, otherwise they’ll rot. Once bare, nuts can be stored in their shells for over a year without going bad. Some nuts require additional processing, like acorns, which must be leached of their tannins (an astringent and bitter compound that will turn your digestive tract into an uncomfortable fist). Some hulls have additional uses. Black walnut hulls make potent medicine for parasitic and fungal infections and an excellent dye. In fact, if you process a good bit of Black Walnuts without washing your hands, you’ll end up with dark brown paws. We saved a good bit of hulls to dye deerskin that had already been softened and smoked. You can also use the dye for any other natural fibers like wool or silk.
Red amaranth, which grows in wild profusion at the top of our hill, is known for its deep and jewel dark dye. From seed to bloom, I have worshiped this plant for the richness of its color– an almost maroon, ruby-velvet hue. We collected enough to stuff a tall stock pot and brought it to a boil. Using alum as our mordant (a substance that helps to set dyes in fabric) we plunged a hearty load of cashmere and silk into its depths and simmered our brew for over an hour. As with most things wild and handmade, the process was slow and much less flashy than you might expect. But the soft pink dye that was left behind was simple perfection to me.
This past weekend we had what might be the last of our lovely fall days. It was sunny and bright and the colors of the mountain looked as if they had just been born. I spent the whole day sitting on the hill behind our cottage. I watched the gardens with utter appreciation, loving that which I knew was falling asleep underneath the thick duff of leaves as much as I admired what remained– the hardy fennel and tobacco and the flowers they both still bore. Despite the bareness of the trees and the gray web of their forests, stretching in a fog across the ridgeline of our valley, I cannot remember a day when I felt so sublimely alive. Everything, all of it, was just so delightful.