"The same war //continues. /We have breathed the grits of it in,/ all our lives, our lungs are pocked with it,/ the mucous membrane of our dreams/ coated with it, the imagination/ filmed over with the gray filth of it:"
-- Denise Levertov, "Life at War"
Grief is a watery thing, that works its way into the lungs, moving downward.
When the waters become stagnant, infection can set in.
Since early childhood, I have struggled with asthma and frequent bouts of bronchitis, born of grief breathed in and pushed down deep.
My great-grandmother took her own life on Christmas Eve when I was five months old. She had a long history of developing breathing problems when she would become emotional. And she also had a long history of drinking -- perhaps to dull her senses. She was a psychically sensitive, college educated widow living in conservative suburban upstate New York.
I shared a strange bond with her. I was supposed to meet her the day she died, but I had bronchitis so my mother didn't take me to see her. Months later my mother saw her ghost move my crib across the bedroom.
I inherited her patterns of breathing. I stuffed down grief and let it fill my lungs until I couldn't breathe. When it overflowed, I would swallow it, and experience horrible gas and indigestion. When it got bad enough I would throw up, which allowed me to breathe again.
Sensitive to the world, I worried from an early age about endangered species and nuclear war. I was a melancholy, otherworldly child and a depressed teenager. I felt like I lived in a drowning world and could only pull more of its water into my lungs. Catholic theology twisted in my mind to make me believe that by taking that grief into myself I could somehow transmute it. The struggle for breath coupled with that theology to alienate me from my body.
As an adult, I made a profession of being a carrier of other people's stories of suffering.
In December of 2005, a few weeks after returning from gathering stories of torture, displacement, and the loss of land and culture in Oaxaca in the south of Mexico, I developed severe bronchitis that had me bedridden on New Year's Eve.
A chance phone call that day from a very perceptive herbalist I met at a party the night I returned from Oaxaca resulted in my introduction to Elecampane.
Elecampane is a medicine that reaches deep into the lungs and gets things moving again -- releasing and cleansing buried grief just as it brings up old, infected mucus.
In The Earthwise Herbal, Matthew Wood writes:
"Elecampane is a warming, stimulant, pungent, aromatic bitter that permeates the bronchial tree. It resolves bacterial infection, reducing heavy, thick, green mucus down to yellow and eventually to white or clear mucus. It is specific to yellow and green mucus, indicating bacterial infection. The removal of the layer of old, adhesive mucus allows for the secretion of a new layer of thin, clear mucus that is impregnated with immune factors. Meanwhile, the bitters protect the stomach against indigestion caused by mucus that is swallowed. Very typically, the person needing elecampane (often a child) swallows the mucus."Wood, of course, is describing word for word, the pattern of disease I had developed.
I still remember the warm zing of the first drops of Elecampane tincture on my tongue that winter.
The day after I started taking Elecampane, I was breathing well enough to take my dog on a long hike through the Bangor City Forest -- the very place where six months later, the Usnea lichen would begin to speak to me, claiming me as his own, bringing me deeper into relationship with the wild, and beginning to lead me on the path of becoming an herbalist in my own right.
Elecampane gave my my breath, and my breath brought me into my body, allowing me to begin to move and transform it, coming into the world in a new way.
------"Come away, O human child!/ To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand in hand,/ For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand."
-- William Butler Yeats "The Stolen Child"
Elecampane takes both its common name and its Latin name (Inula hellenium) from the legend of Helen of Troy. Wood writes that
"The legend is that when Helen was kidnapped by Paris the plant sprang up from where her tears fell. Afterward the plant was known as 'Heart of the campagna' -- elecampane."and notes that the plant is indicated for a person who has been "'torn away from one's home', causing grief and suffering."
I believe that the plant is also often indicated for those who have never felt at home in their surroundings to begin with.
Its a familiar archetype: the bookish, asthmatic child whose imagination is captivated by stories of other worlds that sound more like home than this one. At once distant and emotionally sensitive. At times deeply empathetic and perceptive and at other times completely oblivious to social norms and cues. Asthma in these cases is often closely associated with social anxiety. Breath is a tenuous thread barely keeping the child present in this reality.
Sometimes the distance can be associated with an early trauma -- as in the case of Elizabeth Bishop and her mother's mental illness (Marilyn May Lombardi explores this in a fascinating essay called "The Closet of Breath" in Elizabeth Bishop: The Geography of Gender -- but just as often there is no obvious external cause.
In another time and place such a child might be called "fey" -- perhaps a changeling, a faery child left in place of a stolen human one. And indeed Elecampane is a plant strongly associated with the faerie realm. In England, it was once commonly known as Elf Dock. And according to Alma Hutchens in her oddly mistitled Indian Herbalogy of North America "
In Russia they call it De-via-sil, or Deviat Sil, which means nine powers. Also Di-vasil which means fair or magic power."(Hutchen' book is a far better source on Russian folk medicine than on North American ethnobotany.)
Such feelings of being born into the wrong world and the wrong body can linger into adulthood. And by the time such a child has become an adult he or she has often internalized a lifetime of stories about being broken, powerless, and insufficient, eroding confidence.
This can lead to an attempt to deny and suppress the sensitivity and vision that are the core of such a person's identity. More emotion pushed down into the lungs, continuing the pattern of illness.
This may suggest the plant's possible historical use to treat "elfshot" which Wood describes as "wasting and preoccupation caused by being shot by an elfin arrowhead."
At the time that I was introduced to Elecampane, I was emerging from a period of my life where I had tried to suppress my imagination and my spirituality to gain acceptance in relationships and and in the culture around me. This meant denying fundamental aspects of both my childhood and adult experiences. It is the classic experience of the "dysfunctional shaman."
In his book, Fire in the Head, Tom Cowan writes that
"From the vast literature on mysticism and shamanism, it is clear that once the faculties of perception have been expanded, they cannot be restricted without causing mental or even physical illness. The malingering illness that results from denying the initial vision is well documented by reluctant shamans around the world. Most frequently the disease clears up when they commit themselves to shamanizing."Elecampane can be a powerful ally in bringing gifts from the other side of the veil between worlds into this one, integrating spiritual awareness with physical reality, and bringing the spirit into the body. Breath is powerful too for altering consciousness, and restoring the fluidity of breath can help someone to make the transition between different levels of reality more fluid.
Just as Elecampane works at the physical level to resolve the associated respiratory disease, the plant's flower essence can help such a person bring the gifts gained from a lifetime of gazing into other realms more fully into this world, gaining confidence and stepping into power.
Elecampane brings moisture up from damp soil to feed a bright yellow flower that grows high above the ground.
Christine Tolf of Lichenwood Herbals writes that:
"Elecampane is an essence for the experience of 'initiation'. This essence helps people adjust to new spiritual growth spurts. The process of spiritual emergency is more easily accepted and integrated when Elecampane flower essence is taken. Elecampane gives confidence in the intellectual mastery needed to adjust to spiritual growth, and trust that you will make appropriate choices."For me that choice involved coming more fully into my body and into this world without denying the reality of the music I heard from the other side of the veil. It meant allowing the pagan concept of a living Earth that I professed to become real and embodied by listening to the forest and working with plants to bring healing to others and to myself.
Elecampane gave me my breath. My breath gave me life and power.