By the third day of my vision quest, fasting alone in the forest just above a stream flowing into the Pemigiwasset River, it was all I could do to to stumble to the edge of the ten foot stone circle that marked the boundary of my world.
Just beyond that border, I saw a fallen hemlock branch covered in lichen -- and among the lichens, a patch of usnea that seemed to glow with a pale light. Usnea is a lichen made up of long, grey-green threads commonly called "old man's beard." To protect the trees that it grows on from infection, usnea produces antibacterial and anti-fungal compounds that also serve as very powerful medicine for humans and other animals.
From somewhere inside my chest, I heard the voice of the lichen speaking, telling me that the lichen would often grow in the places where the tree was wounded, that the wounds themselves called forth the medicine. A song began to rise inside me:
"The wound is where the healing comes,
The wound is where the change begins!
Break on open and feel again,
Break on open and dream again,
Break on open and grow again,
Break on open and live again!"
As I sang out loud, cycling through the chant again and again, questions and contradictions I had been struggling with began to resolve themselves.
Central was the conflict I felt between the political work I have dedicated my adult life to up to now and the healing work that I have been powerfully drawn to in recent years. More and more it has been working to bring people together with plants that can support the healing of their bodies, minds, and spirits that has made me feel most alive. But strong voices inside me had been insisting that I had a responsibility to be part of political and cultural transformation.
That dichotomy fell away. I thought of the people who have come into my life and the pain they are living with -- veterans, torture survivors, military families, survivors of sexual assault. And I came to understand how opening to the reality of the trauma they have suffered reveals much about the fundamental disease at the heart of our culture that gave rise to the violence that brought such devastation into their lives. And if as Wise Women teach, "the problem is the ally to the whole," and if usnea as usnea was telling me, "the wound is where the change begins," then by coming to know the nature of those wounds I would also come to know the wild, living medicines that would help bring wounded bodies, minds, and spirits back to health. And that healing would point the way to bringing a sick culture into the dynamic balance of justice and sustainability.
In the myth of the Fisher King, the king sits on a throne by the water's edge, blood pouring from a gaping wound in his thigh. And because the king is wounded the land has become barren. The wound never heals because everyone is afraid to ask the one question that would stop the bleeding and restore the king and the land to health -- "What is the source of the wound?" The answer to the question lies beneath the waters the king is afraid to dive into.
The reverse of the Fisher King is the Tarot's King of Cups. The King of Cups is the King who has dived into the waters of the unconscious, come to terms with the darkness, and emerged transformed -- he sits on his throne holding a cup that overflows with healing water. As the bearer of the chalice he is a servant of the Great Goddess, the cup a symbol of her womb and the sacred blood of its mysteries.
The role of one who would walk a shamanic path in this lifetime, who would step up to accept the responsibility of holding that chalice of healing water is to come face to face with the reality of the devastation our culture has inflicted on people it now chooses to render invisible, an in bringing the wounded into contact with the healing powers of the wild, living Earth discover the medicine that can transform us all.