Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hawthorn and the Third Road

The Harvest Moon shines brightly as you wander through the mist to the Hawthorn on the ridge above the river bank.

In May her flowers seduced you with an otherworldly perfume, heavy with the scent of sex -- and death.

Now, in the last days of summer, she is heavy with fruit that bends toward the earth where it will break open and decay, leaving the seed to wait in darkness for sun and rain to return in spring.

The old stories tell us that when the world became overrun by men who wielded swords and cut the earth with iron ploughs, the people who taught our ancestors to sing the songs that called the fruit trees to blossom disappeared beneath the hills. At the gateways to their world they planted Hawthorns to tangle and repel the brutish and unwary, but nourish the hearts of those who grieved for lost worlds.

Thomas the Rhymer fell asleep beneath such a tree and woke to find the Queen of Elfland who showed him three roads he might travel -- each road corresponding to another way of being in the world:

"O see ye not that narrow road,
So thick beset with thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Tho after it but few enquires."

The road to righteousness is the road laid out by the rules and laws of civilization -- rules that bind instinct with tangled thorns and briers that threaten to cut all who would deviate from the path. It is marked by the logical consciousness that is centered in the brain -- the consciousness that divides the world into categories that mark clear lines between what is right and true and acceptable and what is "beyond the pale." Its origins lie in the construction of the first walls that separated the city from the "wilderness" -- the name people gave to the living world around them when they began to forget they drew their life from it.

"And see not ye that braid braid road,
That lies across that lily leven?

That is the path to wickedness, Tho some call it the road to heaven."

The road of wickedness is the road of instinct uncoupled from any sense of consequence -- a sense that arose organically when people experienced themselves as inextricably woven into webs of human and ecological connection. With disconnection came alienation, and with alienation came unassuageable hunger and insatiable lust that rip and tear at the fabric of being. The road appears broad and easy because all sense of limitation is lost, it appears to lead to heaven because its the path of following unchecked desire, but it leads further and further from the source of being and life that offers the only true fulfillment of those desires.

Rather than bringing satiety, this path that disconnects us from the heart, brings agitation that can grow into panic as people desperately seek pleasure to take the edge off their feeling of emptiness, and as each moment of pleasure fades find themselves feeling the emptiness more acutely, more frantically seeking to stave off the gnawing feeling inside them. The true destination of this path is the realm of the hungry ghosts who have mouths but no stomachs and so eat and eat but are never full.

"And see not ye that bonny road,
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae."

The third road -- leading from the Hawthorn -- is the path of the heart. Its a path that leads to a wilder place, a place outside all ideas and judgements of right and wrong, good and evil, a place beyond and beneath and before the stories of guilt, fear, and shame we all carry. A place of wild innocence, where you can re-member your connection to the world around you, and your desires arise from your response to its unspeakable beauty.

The Chinese traditionally taught that the heart is an earthen vessel that holds the Shen -- the individual spirit.

When the heart becomes agitated, the Shen becomes disturbed -- leading to restlessness, anxiety, and insomnia.

Hawthorn nourishes and calms the heart, helping to settle the Shen. At the same time, her thorns offer protection from those who would harm you. Calm and protected, you can breathe into the center of your chest, opening to the core of your being.

Standing in that stillness and openness, the third road opens to you -- leading you deep within where you come into contact with the part of you that remains connected with All Things and experience pure ecstasy.

Thomas followed that road and disappeared from civilization for seven years. He returned with the blessing and the curse of the "tongue that could not lie." He was no longer able to participate in the lies of politics and commerce that are necessary to operate within he framework of society. But he was also no longer able to lie to himself, no longer able to deny his own beauty and power. The luminosity of the other world shone from his eyes. Its music flowed from his lips.

Tonight the Queen of Elfland stands again beneath the Hawthorn. She points to three roads.

Which one will you choose?


Deep gratitude to Paul Bergner, Stephen Harrod Buhner, and Karina B. Heart for their teachings about the heart, which inform and infuse these words.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Is Herbalism in Danger of being Outlawed?

European regulations on herbal commerce. Codex Alimentarius. FDA rules on "Good Manufacturing Practices" for herbal products.

It seems like every few weeks I am reading about a law or regulatory regime that opponents fear will mean the end of herbalism as we know it.

Some of these threats have a degree of reality to them -- the "Good Manufacturing Practices" regulations, for example, have caused some small tincture makers to go out of business and created significant problems for others. (Paul Bergner has a great article giving a balanced view of these regulations in the current issue of Plant Healer Magazine.) Others are largely overblown -- I have yet to read any convincing evidence that Codex Alimentarius actually threatens anyone's attempts to sell herbal products.

But none of them actually threaten to stamp out herbalism -- because stamping out herbalism is impossible.

What they do threaten to do is make it more difficult for companies that sell herbal products to do business. And certainly this is a real problem. I'm not in favor of any kind of government regulation of herbs prepared in traditional ways (though I would love to see supplement companies required to disclose whether they use toxic solvents in extracting plant constituents like Quercetin!) And most herb companies make a tremendous contribution to the herbal community through education, through support of conferences like the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference and organizations like United Plant Savers, and by providing practitioners and the general public with high quality, sustainably grown and harvested herbs.

But if all the herb companies in the country were shut down by government edict tomorrow, herbalism would not die.

People would continue growing herbs in their backyards and carefully and respectfully gathering herbs from the forests, fields, mountains, deserts, and swamps around them. They would continue giving Elderberry syrup to sick children and Chaga decoctions to people with cancer. And the people in each community who devoted their lives to working with plants would continue to share their knowledge with people who wanted to learn and to help people who were sick and in pain just as they always have.

Paul Bergner points out that the jailing of herbalists like Nicholas Culpepper and Samuel Thomson failed to break their spirits or keep others from continuing their work.

And if you want to look at how successful governments have been in outlawing plants take a look at Cannabis or Poppies or Coca.

To me the core of herbalism is about helping people take their health in their own hands and connecting them with the living world around them by spreading knowledge about plants and about the workings of the human body. And the approaches to herbalism that excite me most are those that involve people working with plants that grow in their own bioregion -- something I am increasingly trying to do in my own practice, though I will likely always still work with a few beloved allies that can't grow where I live.

In this society, such ideas and practices are somewhat subversive. And I don't think we can expect a society so based on domination and control to make it easier for us to teach self reliance and mutual aid. But I also think its important to remember that no system of government, no matter how totalitarian, has ever succeeded in preventing people from healing themselves and each other with plants.

And as long as people are working with plants as medicine, herbalism will be alive and well.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Goldenrod: September's Golden Twilight

(Photo by T. Parrish, Parrish Photography via Wikimedia Commons)

By the solar calendar, autumn is still a few weeks away. But here in Maine, summer is already fading -- there is a soft golden light as afternoon turns to evening. Everywhere, Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) blooms.

Gail Faith Edwards notes that Goldenrod is the last of the bright yellow flowers left blossoming in New England fields. Warm and aromatic, it carries the energy of these last warm days of September, and the medicine we make from it can bring sunlight into the darkness of winter, lifting the spirit.

Just as it lifts waning spirits, Goldenrod brings wonderful relief to sore, tired muscles. A massage with Goldenrod oil or a Goldenrod bath will do wonders after a hard day of working outside or a tough workout at the gym. Kiva Rose has used Goldenrod successfully for more acute muscle injuries as well.

And its warmth and astringency make it a perfect remedy for allergies marked by red, irritated eyes and a running nose that make you look and feel like you haven't slept in days,

Restoring strength when energy is flagging indeed seems to be a keynote for Goldenrod's medicine. Matthew Wood writes that:

"All summer long, while other plants are flowering, Goldenrod is steadily raising its single stalk towards the sky. Finally, around the middle of August, the golden-yellow spires appear. Both a staff and a spire are included in the picture. It is like the tarot card showing a man walking along a road with a heavy burden on his back, a walking staff in his hand. His head is bent down, so that he does not see a church spire rising in the distance which shows that the distance is within his reach. The message of Goldenrod is to endure to reach the goal."

Wood makes an interesting connection here with Goldenrod's ability to restore the kidneys' ability to pour in blood -- a necessary function for the processing of both chemical and emotional burdens in the body. When Goldenrod is called for, the kidneys themselves are tired -- often manifesting as lower back pain right around the kidneys. Wood notes that:

"In some instances, the urine is light and copious, as fluids are drawn through the kidneys, but not minerals. There may be edema of the legs. In other instances the urine is dark and concentrated"

Indeed, my first use of Goldenrod was in response to the edema that accompanied a nasty case of Poison Ivy several years ago at a point when I was also under tremendous emotional stress. My leg had swollen up under the rash. Goldenrod, in combination with a small amount of Horsetail, helped the kidneys clear the fluids.

I think of Goldenrod as bringing the last summer sun to rekindle the kidneys' fire.

It will be enough to carry us through the dark time until the sun returns.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Herbal Allies for a Changing World

Peak oil. Wars, revolutions, and uprisings. Economic crisis. Earthquakes, storms, and floods. Nuclear disaster.

We are living in a world undergoing tremendous change -- a world giving birth to itself. And all of that is mirrored in our individual lives as well. The old structures are breaking open. The new ones have not yet emerged.

Now is the time when the world most needs us to bring our gifts forward. What can help us step up and accept the challenge?

Plants and fungi are our biological ancestors. They have lived on the Earth far longer than we have, and they can teach us how to let go of our grief, fear, and shame and remember how to stand in the fullness of our beauty and our power. And connecting with them connects us with the wisdom of the living Earth.

Sean Donahue is an herbalist, poet, activist, and witch who believes that personal, community, and planetary healing are deeply intertwined. In a six week series of teleseminars he will share his perspective on how we can work with plants and fungi to prepare ourselves for the roles we have to play in healing our communities and our planet -- the work we were born to do.

People are invited to take part in all six calls or just one. There is no charge for the teleseminars (except from your phone company for a long distance call) but donations are welcomed. Each call will begin at 7:00 p.m. EDT and run between 90 minutes and two hours with time for questions and comments. Calls will be recorded.

April 21 -- Grounding and protection
April 28 -- Working with grief
May 5 -- Cooling the head -- fear, anxiety, and anger
May 12 -- She changes everything She touches -- opening to change
May 19 -- Dreaming and visioning
May 26- Stepping into action

The call in number is (605) 475-4000 and the Participant Access Code is 355068#

Because questions may come up after the call is done, I have also set up a discussion group on Google. You may go to to subscribe.

These calls are free of charge. The only expectation is that you will use this knowledge to better do your own valuable work in the world.

However, the work of preparing and delivering this information does take a lot of time and energy. If you can afford to, and are so moved, I would greatly appreciate a donation. Be it $5 or $500, every gift sincerely offered is an important contribution to moving this work forward. Donations may be sent by Paypal to or via the link below.

For those seeking personal guidance I am available for private consultations either by phone or in person in Portland, Turner, or Hallowell, Maine. E-mail

To listen to a recording of the first call go to:

To donate click here

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Updated Thoughts on Radiation Exposure

AUTHOR'S NOTE:  This post no longer reflects my current thinking.  See

I've been watching the news of the accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant with grief and horror.

What will happen next remains unclear. In the best case scenario, every reactor will be successfully cooled, and Japan will be left with a disaster area to contain and manage and try to heal while also recovering from the devastation of the earthquake and the tsunami and with a small to moderate population of people dealing with the after effects of radiation exposure.

My thoughts are first and foremost with the people of Japan, and with the plants and animals and land and water and sky. I have been offering prayers all day to the Great Mother in her manifestation as Quan Yin, Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion.

But I have also been thinking a lot about friends on the Pacific Coast of North America. If a meltdown occurs and the wind patterns are right , radioactive material could potentially reach the west coast of this country.

Whether or not that happens, my focus has been drawn to herbal protocols to minimize the damage from radiation exposure. This is not an area where I have any clinical experience, but here are the suggestions I am sharing with my family and friends:


Radioactive Iodine 131 is a byproduct of nuclear fission and is be released in the event of a meltdown or possibly in the event that the fuel rods have degraded and fission products are carried with the steam vented from one of the reactors. Iodine 131 has been detected in the area around the Fukushima plant.

Fortunately for those of us in North America, the half-life of Iodine 131 is 8 days, and radioactive material will likely take a week to be reach our west coast if indeed it is carried that far. But there is still some threat of radioactive Iodine exposure for west coasters and certainly a more substantial threat for those in and closer to Japan.

Because the thyroid takes up Iodine, and Iodine 131 is highly unstable, there is a large risk of thyroid cancer from exposure to Iodine 131. The best way to minimize the Iodine 131 uptake is to provide the thyroid with large amounts of Iodine 127. Standard procedure in the event of a nuclear disaster is to distribute Potassium Iodide to people in affected areas. And Potassium Iodide will certainly do the job. (But be careful to make sure you aren't overdoing it!)

Personally, though, I prefer food based sources of Iodine that are gentler on the body.

Seaweeds are the best natural source of Iodine. Larch Hanson says that Laminaria digitata, a Kelp species, has the highest Iodine content, but other brown Kelps are excellent sources as well. Any seaweed will give you some decent amount of Iodine.

Shellfish, ocean fish, and red meat also contain Iodine in lower but appreciable levels. (Make sure your sources are ethically and environmentally clean!)

(One caution: people with hyperthyroid conditions such as Grave's Disease and people taking medications for hypothyroid conditions should not increase their Iodine levels without consulting an experienced practitioner.)

Because radioactive isotopes of other minerals may be released as well its advisable to eat bone broth and/or drink mineral rich herbal infusions (Nettles, Oatstraw, etc.)

Robin Rose Bennet, who has dealt with chronic radiation exposure herself, notes that "Russian scientists have found that sunflower seed pectin offers a great protection against deposition of strontium 90 in the bones. "


There is evidence that a diet including large amounts of Miso may have reduced rates of cancer and radiation sickness in some Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. There are a couple of possibilities here: One is that this was simply a factor of increased Iodine intake since Miso was traditionally served with fish and sea vegetables. But it is also possible that the beneficial bacteria in Miso may have played a protective role.

Because Soy is detrimental to thyroid health I would suggest Miso made from other legumes (South River Adzuki Bean Miso is my favorite!) For those who can tolerate gluten, Robin Rose Bennett reports good results with Barley miso.


One thing stands out to me in the photos I see of the forests around Chernobyl: the abundance of Chaga. I am struck by the abundance of Chaga in the forests of southeastern Vermont and southwestern New Hampshire as well, downriver and downwind from the troubled Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. Its presence in both places certainly long predated the nukes but it got me thinking.

Beta Glucans in a number of mushrooms including Chaga, Reishi, Turkey Tail, Matiake, Mesima,Birch Polypore, Lion's Mane, and Maitake help to modulate immune activity, and have been used with great success by a number of clinical herbalists working with cancer patients. Reishi and Mesima mushrooms have been shown to inhibit angiogenesis (See George Vaughan's great chapter on "Mushrooms in Cancer Therapy" in Margi Flint's The Practicing Herbalist.)

These qualities put medicinal mushrooms on my short list of medicines to look to in cases of radiation exposure.

I personally like Mushroom Harvest's 14 Mushroom Powder which Darcey and I regularly use in our soups, sauces, and gravies. (Thanks to Margi Flint for that tip!)

Other immune modulating adaptogens such as Eleuthero and Ashwagandha may be of benefit as well. I have seen Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng) suggested elsewhere but I am wary of it because it is highly stimulating and heating and traditionally indicated only for the weak and infirm. American Ginseng is far less stimulating and would be appropriate here, but remember that it is highly endangered and only buy from cultivated sources.


Gentle lymph moving herbs like Red Clover and Calendula are worth using, especially to keep the lymph moving around the head and neck. I might consider a gentle alterative like Burdock as well to support the body's natural detoxification systems as they move any radioactive materials out of the body.

Robin Rose Bennett also suggests salt water and baking soda baths -- which I agree are excellent for aiding in the body's natural detoxification process. Adding herbs to the bath can be nice as well. Calendula is a wonderful bath herb. I like Chapparal baths for releasing both physical and emotional toxicity.

Contrary to popular belief, Cilantro will not chelate heavy metals. Ground Ivy does appear to help the body flush lead, however, and MAY be applicable in the clearance of other heavy metals as well.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Bare Bones Energetics: Part 1 -- Energetics of the Human Body

A lot of times people will ask me "What's the best herb for a stomach ache?" or "What's the best herb for a respiratory infection?"

My response invariably begins with "It depends." Followed by a lot of questions about symptoms and signs that may at first seem entirely irrelevant.

That's because as an herbalist I work to support the body's healing processes rather than to eliminate a specific symptom. And in order to support the body's healing, I look toward energetic patterns, and find herbs that will shift those energies in ways that will bring the body back toward health.

Because most of us living in the U.S. in the twenty-first century don't have a language for describing those patterns, a lot of herbalists tend to borrow heavily from Chinese and Indian traditions to explain the energetics of people and plants. But newcomers to our craft can be quickly confused and overwhelmed by a proliferation of unfamiliar terms.

Its well worth taking the time to sink your teeth into Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and other energetic systems -- both because they provide terms to discuss herbs and conditions with other practitioners, and because they provide rich models for understanding the interaction between plant medicines and the human body.

But its best to begin working with a simple, largely intuitive approach to energetics. Here's my attempt to lay one out.

(Before I go on though, let me say that I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Matthew Wood, Margi Flint, Paul Bergner, and Jim McDonald for helping me understand the core concepts I use here.)


At any given moment, all of the tissues of our body are to some degree warm or cold, moist or dry. They may also be tense. Or atrophied. Or both.

Each person has places on these spectra where they tend to fall. Together they define a person's constitution. The constitution is analogous to the climate. Miami will almost always be warmer and wetter than Denver.

From day to day, from moment to moment, any part of their body or their entire system may become warmer or cooler, wetter or drier, tenser or more lax than usual. These qualities define the condition. And different conditions can prevail in different parts of the body at different times. The condition is analogous to weather. Just because Denver is generally cool and dry doesn't mean you can't have rain and high temperatures there in August.

Physical signs can help you interpret what's going on in the body. Reading the face and tongue for those signs is an art that takes time to learn well. (And I highly recommend Margi Flint's The Practicing Herbalist as a guide to that art.) But there are some basic indications that can help you get a quick sense of what's going on in someone's body.

HEAT signs include red on the skin and on the tongue, rashes, rapid pulse, extreme thirst, swelling (the body brings in fluid to try to cool the heat,) dark, scanty urine, and restlessness and irritability . Because heat rises, symptoms will move upward -- liver heat producing headache and nausea, heat in the stomach producing heartburn. If there is an infection, mucus will be yellow or green.

COLD signs include pale skin, constipation, dull aches and pains, pale mucus, lethargy, and a slow deep pulse. Symptoms move downward (as a lingering bronchial infection cools down it moves into the lungs and becomes pneumonia.)

Heat moves from the center to the periphery.

Cold moves from the periphery to the center.

Generally speaking, heat is associated with the vital force, and so hot conditions are usually conditions of excess and cold conditions are generally conditions of deficiency.

I'll talk about the exceptions as I address dampness and dryness.

DAMP conditions are marked by puffiness.

Matthew Wood divides damp conditions into two categories: flowing and stagnant.

Flowing dampness is marked by lots of free flowing fluids -- sweat, urine, thin mucus, sweat -- it is a condition of excess.

Stagnant dampness is marked by swollen, weak tissues infiltrated with water and with metabolic waste. All that excess fluid makes the body cold but it is nevertheless a condition of excess for the affected tissues (though it is often linked with deficient or congested kidney or liver function.)

DRY conditions are marked by dry, rough skin, scanty, dark urine, and creaky joints.

The depletion of fluids heats the body and can lead to what Chinese medicine refers to as "false heat." The body is deficient but appears to show heat signs (ie. redness across the cheeks or a red tongue.) Leslie Tierra describes this condition as marked by:

night sweats, a burning sensation in the palms, soles, and chest [ . . .] dry eyes, blurred vision, dizziness, nervous energy, taking fast but tiring quickly [ . . .]

CONSTRICTION is marked by tension and shaking.


In addressing any of these conditions our goal is to help the body return to its healthy state.

The great nineteenth century Physiomedicalist physician Dr. T.J. Lyle wrote

"in the art of curing disease we can but influence to contract and relax with varied degrees of rapidity and energy in imitation of nature's way of using these structures in health."

In doing so, its necessary to find the imbalance -- the obstacle to cure -- that is preventing the body from healing itself, and remove it.

Usually that occurs through choosing plants that will create an equal and opposite reaction to the imbalance. Lyle wrote:

"In the work of restoration the attempt must be to restore to some extent the opposite condition of that abnormally existing. If the parts are congested apply heat and relieve the circulation. If the body is emaciated give proper food and sustain digestion. If there be too much relaxation, stimulate to the relief of such abnormal relaxation. If there be too much rigidity, relax to the relief of that rigidity."

But in doing so its important to differentiate between disease and the body's response to disease. And assess whether the body's response to the problem is under appropriate control.

Fever, for example, is something we have been trained to think of as pathological. But in reality, a fever that develops in response to an infection is part of the body's attempt to eliminate the infection. And the hypothalamus will not allow a fever to rise to a point where it becomes dangerous. So in the case of fever, the best course of action is to support what the body is doing. Keep the body hydrated. If the body is seeming limp and tired give warming, stimulating herbs to move the heat from the core to the periphery. (I'll talk about which herbs those are in the next section.) If the body is seeming tense and hot give herbs that will relax the body and open the pores to let heat escape.

On the other hand, inflammation of the respiratory tract is also part of an initially healthy immunological response to infection. But the body doesn't have the same kind of fail-safe mechanisms for reining in the production of inflammatory cytokines that it does for body temperature. So at the point when inflammation begins to interfere with breathing it becomes important to cool it down.

This is where healing becomes an art, and where we learn from watching people's bodies and paying attention to the knowledge and wisdom of experienced keen observers. I highly recommend reading the works of some of the great nineteenth century physicians like William Cook, T J Lyle, and Finley Ellingwood to get a sense of the energetics of the human body.

(COMING SOON TO A COMPUTER SCREEN NEAR YOU: The energetics of plants.)