Tree doctor. Green Man's Beard. These are the names Usnea whispers to me when I find him in the forest.
The lichen helps to filter the air for the trees where he grows and produces broad antibacterial and selective antifungal compounds to protect the trees from infection.
While he grows in many places, energetically Usnea is a medicine of the north, a bear medicine, with a strong affinity for the lungs and an ability to restore a healthy balance of bacteria in the body's mucous membranes by culling overgrowths of Gram positive bacteria and gently supporting the immune system.
Matthew Wood writes that in many North American indigenous traditions, "To dream of the bear brings empowerment in healing and work with plants."
So it makes perfect sense that this bear medicine was the forest medicine that initiated me into my work as an herbalist. (Never mind that Usnea isn't really a plant.)
He first spoke to me in the late spring and early summer of 2007, when I was wandering the Bangor City Forest, my heart breaking as I felt someone who had seen and touched and transformed me deeply slipping out of my life. (I had yet to learn that nobody who touches and is touched that deeply really ever disappears from your life forever.) Usnea reached his green threads into the cracks in my heart and began working to awaken my primal memory of my connection to all things, and my power as a healer.
I returned to that same forest this week, to listen deeply to Usnea again.
He spoke with grief and concern for the health of the forest.
Bangor City Forest is on the southern edge of the great boreal forests. The trees Usnea has been doctoring are feeling the effects of climate change. Within a generation or two, the forest here may transition completely to the kind of eastern temperate forest found in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The retreat of the boreal forest marks the retreat of the north -- the place of darkness, of deep winter dreams, of ancestral memory. Something fundamental is lost when we lose touch with such a huge part of the original darkness and wildness from which we emerged.
Two centuries ago these woods were full of caribou and timber wolves. Polar bears would sometimes range south searching for food.
With settlement, we lost that degree of wildness. And now climate change threatens to take the boreal forest itself from large parts of Maine.
Usnea is calling on us to reawaken that wild darkness within us that can help us dream our way back into connection with the living Earth and let her work through us to help us remember ways of living that will let the forest breathe, grow, and thrive.