Monday, June 29, 2009


"Your blood flowed before your heart was formed." -- Stephen Harrod Buhner

Your blood
began moving
before your heart
was formed,

humming and buzzing
through your veins

until you heard
a rhythm
through the waters
of the womb

calling you
like a humpback whale
across oceans

and muscle
and nerve
came together
to form a magnetic drum

that set the iron
in an wild dervish dance.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Joy on Earth: Yarrow Divin-ation

"Sing, feast, dance, make music and love, all in My Presence, for Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and Mine also is joy on earth."

-- The Charge of the Goddess

Three days of dancing barefoot in the rain on Harry's Hill and practicing the seat-of-the-pants art of holistic field medicine brought an undeniable ecstasy.

But a few days in the human world always leaves me hungry for time alone with wild plants.

So this afternoon, when the rain let up I put on my lined flannel shirt and set off to gather Yarrow.

Yarrow is one of the plants I use most frequently in treating clients. I love Yarrow's ability to help the body released trapped heat. I also love the way the plant has both analgesic and anti-spasmodic actions, making it a wonderful ally for those experiencing muscle cramps and spasms. Combined with the plant's ability to regulate the menstual flow, these qualities also make the Yarrow an excellent ally for women with menstrual cramps. And I frequently use Yarrow and Elder together to treat colds and flus.

But Yarrow fascinates me most as a psychotropic plant, bordering on the entheogenic. ("Entheogen" is an ethnobotanical term for plants that induce profound spiritual experiences, bringing out the divinity inherent in all things.) Maude Grieve noted in A Modern Herbal (the source of the illustration above) that Yarrow "was one of the herbs dedicated to the Evil One, in earlier days, being sometimes known as Devil's Nettle, Devil's Plaything, Bad Man's Plaything, and was used for divination in spells. "

These names were, of course, given to the plant by medieval and early modern Christians who were trying to seperate people from seeking out the direct experience of the wild divinity of the living Earth. Divination, after all, is also the process of revealing the presence of the divine in all things -- and the wilderness was the place where people traditionally went to align their human and divine natures. This posed an obvious threat to those who would insist that the consciousness of the divine could not be accessed without their intercession and that the presence of the divine could only be felt in their churches.

What was so dangerous to these people about Yarrow?

I got my first glimpse of the answer last summer during my vision quest in the Pemigiwassett wilderness. On the third day of fasting, a throbbing headache was keeping me from being fully present. Yarrow was the one analgesic herb I had in my pack, so I began taking it -- just a dropperful at first, but then several more over the course of the next two hours. I felt my senses heighten and warmth radiating throughout my body. When I stumbled from my tent to the edge of my circle of stones, the Usnea growing on a fallen Hemlock branch became illuminated and began to speak to me.

To be sure, fasting, solitude, and the magic of the Usnea himself played big roles in shaping that moment -- but Yarrow was an important part of the mix. And the presence of a thujone, hypnot cannabanoid compound in Yarrow provides a partial biochemical explanation of what I experienced -- but

Today, as I gathered Yarrow, I was tasting the blossoms and some of the young leaves to try to find the patches with the strongest medicine. I felt that familar warmth and heightening of my senses. Though it was cloudy and it was late afternoon everything brightened.

I continued up the dirt road where we live toward the old Lincoln place. I noticed a fresh bundle of Yarrow flowers, recently picked, on the ground. But nobody has been in that place this summer and no cars came up or down the road today and my housemates had been inside all day as had Tom and Joanna up the road. I gathered them up and put them in my jar -- exactly enough to fill it the rest of the way to the top.

I turned around and the wind brought the scent of roses. Right across from me were blooming Prickly Roses that I had never seen in that place before.-- Rosa acicularis, a rose common to disturbed areas in boreal forests.

The scent alone opened my heart wide, and I felt at the edge of tears of gratitude and joy.

I looked up and a hawk circled overhead.

The porous nature of the boundaries the self became clear. Rose mind, Hawk mind, Yarrow mind, seeped into my own consciousness.

Something about Yarrow seems to facilitate the operation of the heart as an organ of perception -- or to drop the consciousness into the heart where the heart's perception plays a larger role in the self's processing of reality. Maybe this is the nature of divin-ation, the art of opening the heart wide enough to fine tune its sense of the electromagnetic flow around it, giving the mind access to information it would not normally be able to access. In that state, the unity and interconnectedness of living things becomes real -- and we have access to a web of information larger than ourselves, an ecological brain we might call Gaia.

And in the fractal reality that opens us to, all beings feel pleasure in our pleasure, and we become joy on Earth. At once human, wild, and divine.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Mutations and Opportunities

Donald McNeil Jr. wrote about potential mutations of the H1N1 "Swine Flu" virus in today's New York Times. After explaining the highly unlikely process by which the virus could become considerably more lethal, McNeil noted that:

A much more likely change, scientists have said, is that the H1N1 swine flu will become resistant to the antiviral drug Tamiflu. A gene for Tamiflu resistance is now almost universal in seasonal H1N1 flus.

If that happens, the world’s Tamiflu stockpiles will be all but worthless, and doctors may have to switch to Relenza, which is a powder used with an inhaler, which makes it more expensive and harder to take.

Depending on the mutation, older antiviral drugs like rimantidine may be useful, but so much resistance to them developed in seasonal flu that they were largely abandoned a few years ago.

This is one of the biggest problems with modern, synthetic pharmaceuticals. As complex as they may seem to us, they are far simpler than the chemicals produced by living things -- be they viruses, bacteria, plants, animals, or humans. So it doesn't take long for a virus or a bacteria to crack the code and develop an effective technique to resist our pharmaceuticals. But rather than seeking a different approach, most of the medical community looks to new generations of pharmaceuticals to combat viruses and bacteria that resist existing drugs.

Modern pharmaceuticals do have the advantage of causing quick and dramatic changes in the body that can buy time for healing in life threatening situations. But those advantages are lost completely when the drugs are used so widely that resistance to them becomes widespread.

Herbal medicines have the advantage of more complex chemistries than synthetic pharmaceuticals. As James Duke writes in the foreword to Stephen Buhner' Herbal Antibiotics:

It is easy for a rapidly reproducing bug to outwit (or out-evolve) a single compound by learning how to break it down or even to use it in its own metabolism, but not so easy to outwit the complex compounds found in herbs. Scientists are recognizing this fact and developing more complex compounds such as the AIDS cocktail and multiple chemotherapies for cancer. The same super-scientists who downplay the herbalists' claims of synergies that account for the effectiveness of particular herbs and herbal formulas, are now resorting to synergies of three or four compounds in their pharmaceutical formulas.

It is certainly easier to demonstrate how two compounds can work together synergistically than it is to figure out how 200 or 2000 different compounds (and more, as are present in all herbs) can work synergistically. So the scientific community will be reluctant to consider the remarkable synergistic suites of compounds that have evolved naturally in plants. But we really cannot afford to ignore these. For nature favors synergies among beneficial, plant-protective compounds within a plant species (with antibacterial, antifeedant, antifungal, antiviral, and insecticidal properties,) and selects against antagonisms.

What's more, plants are constantly modifying their chemistries in response to environmental changes -- the same changes our bodies are experiencing -- while the chemistry of synthetic pharmaceuticals remains fixed.

But speaking in these terms, we are still missing something important.

Influenza, or any other diesease, isn't caused simply by the presence of a virus. Rather it is the result of a virus opportunistically multiplying out of control in a body whose natural defenses are already weakened and whose internal ecology is already out of balance. The virus is necessary for the disease to occur, but not sufficient.

Because the presence of the virus is the one common recurring element in the bodies of different people presenting similar symptoms, modern medicine tends to focus on eliminating the virus. In so doing, it tends to ignore the different factors that made each person susceptible to infection, and the differences between them and the people who are exposed to the virus but don't get sick.

(Think, for example, about the fact that the majority of sexually active adult women who have had multiple partners have been exposed to strains of the Human Papiloma Virus linked to genital warts and/or cervical cancer, but only a small percentage of the women exposed to HPV ever develop these diseases.)

Traditional herbalists and other holistic healers tend to look at these differences in detail, and employ therapeutic protocols that support the body's own ability to fight off infection and restore healthy function to all of the body's systems. In treating severe acute infections such healers will sometimes rely on high doses of certain "anti-viral" or "anti-bacterial" or "anti-fungal" herbs or even synthetic pharmaceuticals to address an emergent situation -- but these medicines serve primarily to open the way for other medicines to do the subtler work of helping the body heal itself. As Matthew Wood writes in The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism:

Biomedicine is constructed upon a materialistic interpretation of nature, which looks to its molecular structure as a guide. Holistic medicine is founded on the concept and experience that the organism is a functional unit or whole under the guiding hand of an intelligent, self-regulating, self-correcting guiding force or energy. Since Nature in the organism is self-maintaining and self-healing, holistic medicine is further based upon the assumption that the organism can be cured, that is, returned from an unbalanced state to one of balance or homeostasis.

The molecular level is, of course, very real. But it is also a level of reality whose existence we have only recently discovered. And we are tinkering there before we understand its logic, its flow, and its guiding principles.

It is the height arrogance to think that we can understand whats happening in our cells at a molecular level so well that we can afford to completely ignore the big picture of what is happening in our bodies, or that our creations can surpass the genius of the medicines that plants have developed over billions of years.

The proliferation of drug resistant viruses and bacteria provides us with an opportunity to reflect on and correct that arrogance while choosing another path -- one that uses synthetic pharmaceuticals sparingly and as a last resort, while relying primarily on the insights of the 150,000 year old science of herbal medicine to restore and maintain health. In the process, we just may remember that we are part of a living planet -- something essential to our prospects for survival.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Will Write or Wildcraft for Food

Actually, I have food and shelter through October thanks to some very generous friends . . . .

But I am in need of some work to earn money . . .

Over the years many of you have been very generous in sponsoring my travels to Latin America to report on people's resistance to this empire.

My journey now is taking me to a different kind of exploration and a different frontier of resistance -- helping people to change their relationships to their bodies, their hearts, and the living world around them through work with our oldest ancestors, the plants.

So, I am working to build a practice, working with clients one on one, and writing and speaking about plant medicine. But it takes time for a practice to grow.

So in the meantime, I am asking for your help in finding work that will allow me to pay for medicine and books and travel and my continuing education as I grow as an herbalist.

I am looking for people to help me find:
  • People and organizations who need someone to do writing or editing work on a contract basis -- including grant writing.
  • Herbalists willing to pay or trade for wildcrafted herbs from the forests and fields of Maine.
  • Herbal clients in the Boston or Lawrence, MA areas or central or western Maine (or in southern Maine or the NH seacoast area within a half hour drive from route 95.)
  • Businesses, schools, and organizations willing to host talks about herbal medicine.
  • Donors willing to support popular education about herbal medicine.
I am also open to other kinds of part time contract work that I can do from rural Maine or on a short trip somewhere in New England.

Thank you for all your support in all its forms.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


I awoke this morning to the news that 5,002 U.S. troops have now been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

An inconceivable number dwarfed by the number who have died of accident, overdose, or suicide as a result of the things they saw and did and lived through in these wars. Too many friends have come too close to being counted among that number.

By late morning I was interviewing Warren Henthorn, the father of Jeffrey Henthorn who died in Iraq on February 8, 2005 at the age of 25. He told me:

"“Way too many have died on all sides of these wars. If I remember correctly, President Obama won the Democratic nomination based on the promise to end the war in Iraq. But, between Iraq and Afghanistan, at the end of this year we will actually have more troops in harm’s way then we did at the height of the ‘surge.’ That’s just as bad as we had it under President Bush. These wars now belong to President Obama. The blood is on his hands.”
His words plain, and direct hit me deep in my chest.

I felt the enormity of all that had been lost. And ached to know how the world could ever be made whole again.

I walked down the dirt road to the garden by the edge of the pond where I had planted Marsh Mallow and Elecampane and knelt down on the ground by the biggest Elecampane plant and put my hands at her base and felt the medicine flow through the soil from her roots and work its way into my lungs.

I looked up and watched the wind on the water. This too was real. Just as real.

The world is already whole -- whats fragmented is our conception of it. Our inability to embrace paradox, to accept more than one truth at a time is at the root of the wars that killed these thousands of troops and tens of thousands of Afghans and millions of Iraqis.

But the wholeness is there. And the plants bring us down into the rich soil which reminds us of the original darkness in which we all last fully knew that wholeness.