Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Wild Geese Fly Home: Gratitude for Mary Oliver

In one of the deepest moments of grief and shame and fear I have ever known, in the last words she would share with me before we went our separate ways, a dear friend sent me a single line from Mary Oliver:

"You do not have to be good."

and I wept.

Releasing for a moment my deep sense of failure and disgrace, and opening into he possibility that I could breathe the
next breath and live.
Several weeks later, in a ceremony held by a community that was willing to hold all the complexity of my healing, as my prayer deepened, Mary Oliver's words came again, spoken in the voice of that same cara anam (friend of my soul):
"You do not have to walk on your knees
fora hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves."
and again, tears flowed, washing away a lifetime of stories of worthiness and unworthiness, deserving and undeserving fall away, understanding that no matter what had come before, and no matter what would come next, in that moment I could choose to be with the beating of my heart and the beating of the drum . . and love.

Love, wild love,
unconditional love
has fallen out of fashion in these times.

We fear it will not be enough. Or that we will not be strong enough to sustain us.

We fear it will reach the underserving. We fear we might be among them.

We fear it will make us vulnerable. We fear it will make us fools.

We treat the imperfection of its expression as proof that it was never real.

And yet, love is truly the only thing that can overcome evil, because it is the only thing evil cannot understand, and hence the only thing that catches evil by surprise.

(I do not believe that there are evil people, but I do believe that evil is a force in the world that finds its way through the cracks in our hearts when our hearts are not turned toward love.)

And deserving and undeserving are meaningless in the hearts of the wild and the divine.

Thomas Paine wrote that belief in a cruel god makes men cruel. I see all around us, people sharpening the edges of righteousness, praying for the suffering of their enemies, whether they are paying to one god or to many or to an impersonal ideal of justice.

Mary Oliver's poetry again and again reminds us to turn toward the beauty of the living world, remember its goodness, remember love. It turns us away from cruel gods and invites us back into our own hearts, our own soft animal bodies that love what they love.

And so, as Wild Geese on the wing fly through the snowy twilight, and their calls echo from the sky, I remember you with gratitude, Mary Oliver.

And I remember to love.





Friday, April 13, 2018

Unnatural Categories: In Defense of Barnhill and Martucci

I read the controversial article that Dr. Anne Barnhill and Dr. Jessica Martucci wrote in  Pediatrics Perspectives, problematizing the use of the word "natural" in breastfeeding promotion campaigns, and while I think that they oversimplify the variety of reasons why people would be skeptical or resistant around adhereing current vaccination regimes, their core argument is an important one.

Barnhill and Martucci write:
It makes sense that breastfeeding promotion would make appeals to the 'natural.; The resurgence in breastfeeding rates over roughly the past 4 decades is rooted in a history of women’s organized efforts during the 1950s and 1960s to redeem the value of feeding babies 'naturally' in the face of widespread medical support for formula feeding. Coupling nature with motherhood, however, can inadvertently support biologically deterministic arguments about the roles of men and women in the family (for example, that women should be the primary caretakers of children). Referencing the “natural” in breastfeeding promotion, then, may inadvertently endorse a controversial set of values about family life and gender roles, which would be ethically inappropriate. Invoking the “natural” is also imprecise because it lacks a clear definition."
Their point is not that breastfeeding is not beneficial,  or shouldn't be promoted, but that in identifying it as "natural" and assigning a moral value to that category we identify mothers and families who can't breastfeed -- women and other mothers who don't lactate,  men  and other fathers who are raising babies together or on their own -- as "unnatural" in ways that skirt dangerously close to the rhetoric of Christian fundamentalists and Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists.    (If you aren't familiar with Judith Butler's questioning of the category of "natural woman" here is a taste -- http://magdor.tumblr.com/post/108754874029/when-aretha-franklin-sings-you-make-me-feel-like)

The problem with dismissing things as "unnatural" is that it quickly leads to dismissing people as "unnatural."  I am highly critical of the choices we in this culture make around technologies such as genetic engineering, petrochemical production, smartphones, and the methods of using and administering pharmaceuticals -- but I find that as soon as people move beyond the specifics of how the use of these technologies is impacting complex living systems and into the argument that they are "unnatural" they soon begin talking about the ways in which those technologies are allegedly responsible for the existence of monstrously unnatural people -- usually members of sexual and neurological minorities that have existed since the beginning of humanity and beyond. 

I am an animist -- I experience everything in the world as alive and conscious, and nothing as un-natural.  This includes things made by human technology.  I wish humans wouldn't dig up uranium and put it in nuclear reactors and produce plutonium -- but the plutonium humans produce is still part of the living world, just as much as Roses and Hummingbirds and waterfalls are, and only when we fully engage it can we begin to transform the systems that produce it and find ways to deal with the reality of its toxicity.

And sometimes the best and least disruptive interventions we can make to support someone's healing involve technologies and approaches we might otherwise be critical of which ultimately support the establishment of coherence and healthy flow in living systems in ways more efficient and less damaging than ostensibly more natural interventions.   As an herbalist, it is easier for me to support healthy tissue recovery after a surgery to remove a skin cancer than it is for me to do so after someone has applied a caustic "black salve."   Sometimes technologies we might otherwise be loathe to apply are the best means in a given situation to stabilize a person whose health is rapidly deteriorating so we can move forward with the real work of healing.

My teacher, Karina, repeated to me over and over again that "A witch works with all things"-- dismissing some of those things as "unnatural" can be an impediment to healing, magic. and justice.

Monday, November 6, 2017

New Online Class: Wild Magic, Imbolc - Samhain 2018

WILD GREEN MAGIC: 
practicing magical herbalism 

online February – October 2018 
with Sean Donahue Plants





Plants are powerful allies in personal, community, cultural, and ecological healing and transformation. Join herbalist, poet, and witch Sean Donahue for an exploration of an approach to magical herbalism rooted in connecting with plants as living, conscious, sovereign beings. Twice a month, participants will receive audio lectures and notes on themes including: grounding and protection, plant magic and the three-fold self, plants and the wheel of the year, eros and plant magic, ancestral healing, forest magic and forest ecology, honoring plants and the land, and more! 

To register or for more information e-mail greenwisdomschool@gmail.com

 $300 if paid by December 1 – $450 if paid by December 21 – $550 if paid by February 2

 a limited number of scholarships are available for activists and community builders

 free for participants in past “Plant Magic” courses

$50 discount for participants in "Materia Magica"

Monday, May 22, 2017

Materia Medica: Bear Medicine -- an excerpt


This is an excerpt from the notes accompanying my recent lecture on bear medicines from my online Materia Magica course which started in May.   If you like it and want to see/hear/read/learn more, please consider signing up for the course.  You will be sent my notes and lectures on Hawthorn and Bear Medicine immediately and will receive future lectures and notes twice a month through October -- http://www.seandonahueherbalist.com/materia-magica-online-may-october/

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In the forest I inhabit, bear and salmon are bringers of life – as they were in the lost Irish forests of my ancestors.

Returning from the ocean to spawn and die, salmon draw bears to rivers and streams, and the bears drag the carcasses of the fish into the forest where they feed the topsoil.

In the Irish tradition, the salmon is the oldest creature, and holds the wisdom of three worlds – the watery underworld it swims through, the airy heavens it leaps through, and the earth its body returns to. Who eats its body gains its knowledge and insight.

Bears gorge on Salmon in autumn, and then retreat into their own dark underworld, where their dreams are shaped by the mycorrhizal songs of the sleeping forest. When they stir in spring, they dig their medicine roots – which Matthew Wood notes are “brown, furry, pungent, and oily” like bears themselves. Wherever people and bears live in proximity, humans have traditionally followed suit, digging and decocting those same roots. And they have told stories of people who married those strange dark giants who rear up on two legs and whose skinned bodies look human.

There is linguistic evidence of deep reverence for bears in early Ireland.

Ireland was ruled through the last several centuries of the first millennium of the Common Era by a High King, an Ard-Rí, whose sovereignty was granted by the land itself as it spoke through the Lia Fáil, a stone that held powers of regeneration for the king and the earth.

But there is also an older Irish word, art-rí which means a king of bears or a bear-like king. (The Welsh version of the same word is likely the origin of the names of King Arthur and a Feri god.)

What would the nature of a bear king be?

Old stories of sacred kings speak of the ways in which the life of the land and the life and death of the king intertwine. Their modern re-iterations speak of the king being sacrificed at Samhain. The king's life and death are dedicated to the well being and blossoming of the people and the land itself.

The salmon provides one model for this sacrifice – giving its life in the journey upstream to spawn, giving its body to the soil in death. And the bound bodies of chieftans and kings found in peat bogs suggest that for some kings, this sacrifice involved literal death.

The bear rides the wheel of the year in a different way. Three seasons awake, walking through our world, one season in darkness. A bear king might work in the same way. Spending nine months tending to the well-being of the community and the realm, three months in trance and dream and contemplation listening to the soil and the stones and the underground springs and the roots of the trees and the bones of the dead.

The English word king suggests authority rather than power, to use the late John Trudell's distinction – authority comes from dominating and coercing others into obedience, whereas power comes from being part of life unfolding. But the Irish word rí has an interesting etymology, deriving from the same root word as the Sanskrit rig, which means praise or shine. This suggests the possibility of seeing the sacred king more as a priest or shaman, not the maker of laws in the modern sense, but the speaker and interpreter of natural law through the gnosis gained from giving a quarter of each year to walking in the dark world that lies before all beginnings and after all endings, the original darkness from which all things emerge and to which all things return.

The bear medicines all serve to facilitate the movement from darkness and stillness into motion and light. Their bitterness grounds us into our bodies, their heady aromatic scents melt tension to allow the blood stirred by their heat to move through the body. The body of the art-rí that comes back to life when the snowmelt streams flow into fields of bright blossoms.

The rest of the notes and the lecture go into the specific natures of Eastern and Western Skunk Cabbage, Osha, and Angelica.   To learn more, register for Materia Magica today!



Monday, May 1, 2017

Beltane Blessings

I can't remember how many years ago I wrote this for the Earth First! Journal, but it comes back to me as a reminder of "the reason for the season" as those of a younger religion might say:

Beltane marks the midpoint between the spring equinox and the summer solstice -- a time of the world coming alive.

The smooth, muscular curves of the supple boughs of a young Aspen. The pulsing rise of Birch sap. Rushing water. Lush moss.

Or maybe its the scent of Chapparal hanging heavy in the air after a desert rain.  Or the wind blowing in from the sea on the first warm day of spring.

The living world seduces us, bringing us into our bodies, calling us to taste, smell, see, and feel.
Beltane is a festival of fertility and lust. The Celts marked it with wild excess – bonfires and sweaty ecstatic dancing and heady Heather (or Psilocybe cubensis)  mead, and lovers sneaking off into the forest at night, bringing back green boughs in the morning. The festivities began when the Hawthorn bloomed and continued until May's “Honey Moon” began to wane.   

The Hawthorn has powerful associations with the Fae.  The Tuatha de Danaan are said to have arrived in Ireland from out of the northern mists on Beltane as the Hawthorn bloomed -- and the Celtic sons of Mil also arrived from Spain and launched the war that would bring the Danaan down on Beltane as the Hawthorn bloomed.  And it was under the Hawthorn that Thomas the Rhymer met the Queen of Elfland who would take him away for seven years.
The Maypole, mummer's dances involving the Fool and Jack in the Green, the custom of leaving flowers on doorsteps on May Day, are all remnants of older Beltane traditions.   

In much of modern pagandom, the erotic energy celebrated at Beltane is cast in terms of heterosexual reproduction.   But in the wild and to our wild selves, the force of Eros -- vibrant, vital, lusty life -- knows no such limits and categories.   The ecstasy of the Earth emerges in myriad forms.  And we experience it viscerally when we allow ourselves to be fully present.

Terry Tempest Williams writes:

"Erotic means 'in relation.' Erotic is what those deep relations are and can be that engage the whole body - our heart, our mind, our spirit, our flesh. It is that moment of being exquisitely present. It does not speak well for us as a people that we even have to make the distinction between what is erotic and what is not, because an erotic connection is a life-engaged making love to the world that I think comes very naturally. Eroticism, being in relation, calls inner life into play."

The hunger for wildness that stirs the blood, the fierce love of the living Earth are fed by our sensual experience of the wild world around us – be that the delight in seeing a dandelion cracking through the concrete of a Manhattan sidewalk or the sharp intake of breath when you wade into a snowmelt stream in the high Rockies. Williams writes – “No longer numb, we feel the magnetic pull of our bodies toward something stronger, more than simply ourselves. Arousal becomes a dance with longing. We form a secret partnership with possibility."





Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Why I keep writing about Autism

On days like today, I am tempted to never write about Autism again.

Most Autistic people spend a lot of our lives having people try to figure out what is "wrong" with us and why, telling us that if we only tried harder we would be better at the things that challenge us and that the things we are good at or passionate about are irrelevant, trying to get us to change the ways we think and speak and move and the things we like and dislike, and telling us how difficult it is to understand us.

When we speak about or experiences we tend to be told that we are too sensitive, asked to listen to and agree with people's theories about where Autism comes from, lectured to about the non-existent "Autism epidemic,"  told that Autistic people are a burden on our families, or shut down by being told that we aren't "really" Autistic or that we are "high functioning" (a presumption based on our ability to use language)  and therefore aren't "Autistic enough" and therefore should defer to the wisdom of "experts."   The similarities between these responses and the things we have heard about ourselves all our lives can bring up a lot of relational trauma.   After one of these conversations, it often takes me a day or two to recover my capacities to write and engage.

And it is heartbreaking and frustrating that after four years of writing and speaking and teaching about Autism, the starting point of most discussions is still defending our right to exist as we are.  There is so much more about my Autistic experience that I would like to be sharing beyond convincing people that my existence is not a tragedy.

So why do I keep writing about Autism?

Because when I found the writing of people like Nick Walker and Rosie Guedes and Lydia X. Z. Brown it transformed my sense of who I was and of my place in the world.   And every once in a while I hear from another Autistic person who feels that same sense of recognition when they read my words, or a parent who gains a new empathy for their child from hearing about my experiences.

Because it is an act of intellectual self-defense.  After a lifetime of internalizing the idea that there is something wrong with my way of being, in order to not re-internalize those ideas I need to speak out when people repeat them.   Especially when they are people in my communities.

Because I know other people I love feel under attack when anti-Autistic messages are out in the world and not everyone is out to the people in their lives or has the emotional resources to speak out on a given day.

And, because, occasionally, people listen.  And every time one fewer person is repeating hurtful ideas about Autism, there is a little more room for Autistic people to carve out space to exist in this culture.

So I will keep writing about Autism, despite the cost.    But please remember when you engage me, this isn't an abstraction for me, this is my lif.


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Damiana and the Cauldron of Warming

"In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer." -- Albert Camus

Damiana (Turnera diffusa)  is a light at the southwestern horizon reminding us that though the night descending is dark, morning will come.  

Bitter, warming, and aromatic, Damiana grounds us into our bodies, stirs our heart to quicken the rhythm of the movement of our blood, and relaxes the tension we hold to allow the blood to flow freely to all of our parts -- and where blood flows, awareness goes.

In winters of snow and ice, winters of the heart, and winters of our collective experience, Damiana awakens the memory of the invincible summer within us.

For my Irish ancestors, the time when ewes' milk came in marked the turning point out of winter, and became a festival honoring Brighid of the Three Fires -- the fire of the hearth, the fire of the forge, and the fire in the head.   Her three fires roughly correspond to the three cauldrons the gods are said to have filled in different proportions in each human, spoken of in an old Irish poem, "The Cauldron of Poesy", which is traditionally attributed to the great bard, Amergin,  I think of Damiana as stoking the fire of the hearth, which heats the first cauldron, the Cauldron of Warming (sometimes translated as the Cauldron of Incubation,) which in turn provides deep sustenance for the Cauldron of Motion and the Cauldron of Wisdom.

The Cauldron of Warming is the cauldron by which life enters the body, animating the flesh, setting us into motion.   I associate it with our Wild Self which experiences the world through sensation and emotion, and with the fire of the hearth that warms our bodies.  It resides in the pelvic bowl.

The essence poured into it is taken by the gods "from the mysteries of the elemental abyss" -- a reminder that it is our own most primal nature that connects us with the ecstatic birth of the universe, the emergence of cosmos from teeming chaos.

Damiana is well know for its capacity to stimulate pelvic circulation, bringing blood and awareness flowing to the genitals, giving rise to its reputation as an aphrodisiac.   And it excels in this manner. Damiana infused in Coconut oil makes a wonderful lube for those who are not using latex condoms (and Kava is a nice addition for those who enjoy the juxtaposition of numbing and tingling sensations.)

But to fully appreciate the stirring Damiana brings to the body, we need to broaden our definition of the erotic.   Eros is the force that sets matter dancing, the ecstatic flow of life.    By relaxing tension and increasing blood flow and sensation, Damiana invites us to more deeply inhabit our bodies, engaging eros in new ways.   It is an herb of joyful embodiment, restoring sensual pleasure in all of its forms -- dancing, touch, savoring delicious food, breathing in the scent of snow and Fir and Pine and woodsmoke.    I often give Damiana to elders who are living in a world that forgets that bodies of all ages need and desire sensual pleasure and to people recovering from injuries and illnesses who are learning to be in their bodies again.   I often Damiana with Corydalis yanhuso to keep the return of sensation from being too overhwelming at first.   Damiana is also delicious in honey and amazing in mead.

Like all bitter, warming, aromatic herbs, Damiana is a carminative, stimulating sluggish digestion and relieving gas and bloating.  The latter action of carminatives is an important consideration in the timing of the administration of Damiana as an aprhodisiac in the conventional sense.

Medical science is also bringing us to the understanding that the stimulation of the bitter taste receptors in our digestive tracts (and airways and genitals) dilates our airways, and that the light molecules that we experience as scent when they brush against our nerve endings relax muscular tension by stimulating our parasympathetic nervous systems, meaning that all bitter, aromatic herbs can help us breathe more easily and more deeply. Holding a tincture or tea or honey infused with Damiana in your mouth for a moment will facilitate this opening.  Damiana makes a wonderful smoking herb as well.   I love mixing it with Cannabis and then swimming or lifting weights.

The Cauldron of Motion, which resides in the rib cage, corresponds to the Talking Self, which holds conscious intention and gives direction to our movement in the world.   Whirlpools within that very cauldron can lead the mind to spin in circles without being able to engage the body to take in new information from the world, becoming stuck in an imagined perception of how things are based on past experience.    By returning awareness and sensation to the body, Damiana allows us to come back to our selves and to the world as it is, reshaping our perception and intention and direction accordingly.

The Cauldron of Wisdom, which resides in the head, corresponds to our Divine Self, the part of us that knows its own infinity.  It is important in thinking of this cauldron not to impose our modern understanding of the meaning of the head onto this old Irish framework.  We tend to associate the head with thought and language and logic -- but this emerges from Descarte's decision to drink more than 70 cups of coffee and narrow his consciousness to the point where he believed that his conscious thoughts and his existence were one and the same.   The old Irish understanding of the head was as the place where the gods would set a fire blazing, bringing poets into ecstatic, direct encounter with the living world.  In poetry, Yeats spins the tale of the god Aengus, who tells us

"I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head"

that fire then tooks the form of a "glimmering girl" who called his name and runs -- and Aengus spent
 the rest of his days wandering the world searching for her, his life devoted to the desire to taste her 
lips.  This is not the stuff of the theologian's contemplation of the nature of the world, but rather of 
the mystic's drive to make love to the mystery.    

In my training as a Feri priest I learned that our Talking Selves are incapable of directly connecting with our Divine Selves because the knowledge of our own infinity would shatter all our concepts, leaving our minds in incoherent disarray.  But, when freed from shame and guilt and fear, our Wild Selves can touch that infinity directly through opening completely to sensation -- finding divinity in the feeling of warm water on our skin, the shining of the stars in the sky, the breath of Redwood and Rose, the line of a lover's collarbone.   Damiana invites us into that kind of exquisite presence, bringing us back to ourselves and back into connection with all that is.

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Come learn more about Damiana and other herbs for "Rekindling the Heart Fire" at my workshop in Bellingham, Februaru 11 and 12!   Details at  http://www.wildrootbotanicals.com/