Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ghost Pipe: A Cautionary Tale

Thank you to Renee Davis for the Facebook post that pushed me to stop procrastinating on writing this.  And to Howie Brounstein for telling me many of these things in is inimitably loving way.

"I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods 
meeting the unmarked strip of light— 
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise: 
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear. 

"And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you 
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these 
to have you listen at all, it's necessary 
to talk about trees." 

-- Adrinenne Rich "Revolutionary Road"

I thought it was enough that I didn't give the names of the forests where I found it.

I thought it was enough that I told people to take only the aerial parts and only a few from each stand and not share their harvest spots and only use the medicine when nothing else would do.

But none of that matters to the plant whose populations my writing and teaching served a role in decimating.

I thought it was enough that I had the plant's permission to teach about it.

But plant's don't know  much about our culture's desire to take things and have them for our own.  So it was never really informed consent.

I told myself it was ok because William Cook had written about Monotropa uniflora all the way back in the nineteenth century and he hadn't made its populations dwindle.  But I didn't understand the impact another century of removing people further and further from the wild and from their own wildness would have.

I thought, nobody is going to read what some upstart late bloomer herbalist working with pot growers in rural Maine says, these words won't reach very far.   My false humility kept me from understanding how far my voice would carry.

I wish I had never begun writing and speaking about Ghost Pipe.

Yes, there are people who were helped who no other plant could serve who met Ghost Pipe through my writings.   And people who fell in love with the plant after I introduced them to hir and have built loving relationships with hir.   But I know enough about plants and about magic to know that I could have made this happen in more discerning ways.

So I am writing this now so you do not accidentally betray a beloved in the way that I have.


Another Adrienne Rich poem comes to mind:

"Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.
One line typed twenty years ago
can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint
to glorify art as detachment
or torture of those we
did not love but also
did not want to kill.
We move but our words stand
become responsibly
for more than we intended
and this is verbal privilege"

The nature of plant knowledge is similar to that of other magical lore.  Those new to the Craft, tasting the liberation and vitality they are feeling in enduring ways for the first time in their lives, want to share everything so that others can be free too.   They assume the magic they have found is so pure and so powerful that it will transform the hearts of those who engage it, leaving no need to fear for its abuse.

That was what I believed when I began writing and teaching about Ghost Pipe.  Connecting with plants made you a better person, so all knowledge should be out there, free for the reading and finding.   (At that very time I was stalling from beginning to pursue training in the Feri tradition because I was struggling with the vow to hold certain knowledge and practices close and not speak of them publicly.)

The years that followed gave me a more nuanced understanding.

Yes, absolutely, the plants are there for all to encounter.  Just like the gods and the elements of nature.

But as with gods, there are some plants, and some aspects of their being and their medicine that are best shared by the plants themselves alone, when and how they choose to share them.   Or, by a seasoned practitioner with a trusted student after years of working together.    Not because that knowledge belongs to an elect few, but because it loses meaning outside its context.

 As my teacher Karina says often, not everyone needs to know how to use a chainsaw.

Many of us who teach hold this to be true about poisonous plants and profoundly mind altering plants, because of the dangers they might pose to people using them without the knowledge of the proper time and place and manner.

It is equally true of rare and fragile plants, because of the danger people might pose to them by using them without the knowledge of the proper time and place and manner.


I understand why knowledge of a plant like Ghost Pipe spreads like wildfire.   We live in a time when people feel cut off from the living world, and finding out about a strange, beautiful plant that taps into the mind of an entire forest brings a stir of recognition of the kind of connection the deepest parts of ourselves know is possible, even when we so seldom experience it in our lives and our worlds.

And I understand why so many feel the need to harvest the plant for themselves or buy the tincture from someone else.   We live in a culture that has objectified and commodified everything.   And in which the sense of our entitlement is magnified and the sense of our impact on the living world is diminished -- my own included, or I wouldn't be here writing this mea culpa.   It can seem like the only way to access the magic Ghost Pipe represents to us is to hold something made of the body through which that magic moves.

I am not saying nobody should use Ghost Pipe as medicine.   I am saying it should be used only when no other medicine will do, by people with enough knowledge to know that no other medicine will do, who have also cultivated a deep relationship with the plant.

For those who have come here seeking knowledge about this plant, here is what I suggest you do instead:

go to the forests, the fields, the deserts, the mountains

find strange and beautiful beings

make intimate relationships with them

and hold their medicine as close as you would the hidden pleasures a lover's body brings.


Karen Vaughan said...

Beautiful Sean,

I feel similarly about chaga.

Marli said...

This post is so beautiful and tragic and loving it gives me chills.
Thank you, I was so concerned to see on-line posts about this plant, and yes chaga and so many others, the greed, and yet I do not want to be greedy and think others should leave it for me alone....leave it for ITSELF and the other beings with which it is in close communion....we can get so much healing just by sitting and praying with it. You have said so much already, I just am grateful to find kindred spirits.

Lorin Purifoy said...

I was just talking about this minutes ago - the entitled behaviors we have and in particular about this plant. Thank you for writing this.

Paul Bergner said...

We all hear stories of indigenous people who will not tell Outsiders where their stance of plants are, or their uses, or they have to ask their Elder for permission to tell. I encourage my students to BECOME those indigenous people, and not gossip about harvesting locations. Even if the person you gossip to will not abuse the stand, what about the people they gossip too? I believe that almost everyone has within two degrees of separation at least one rapacious abuser of the Earth.

Paul Bergner said...

We all hear stories of indigenous people who will not tell Outsiders where their stance of plants are, or their uses, or they have to ask their Elder for permission to tell. I encourage my students to BECOME those indigenous people, and not gossip about harvesting locations. Even if the person you gossip to will not abuse the stand, what about the people they gossip too? I believe that almost everyone has within two degrees of separation at least one rapacious abuser of the Earth.

shuvanidev said...

Thank you Sean.

IrisWeaver said...

Hoo, wow, I had no idea!

This will have me thinking about what I show, teach, and share in my foraging walks.

Thank you for the deep thinking.

Unknown said...

The planet in which we aimlessly wander about, the only one in our solar system habitable and capable of sustaining life, earth; a world taken for granted with endless supply of natural resources, more and more misunderstood as each generation becomes further and further detached from the truth, from absolute natural life, from the sixth mass extinction currently under way, because what they see and share the world with from their heard from a teen-agers mind, "Well it's always been this way"; EARTH, as we know it, is dying from a cancer known as "populous homosapien". Like the cells that cause a tumor in our egocentric selves, humans are rapidly reproducing uncontrollably and disrupting vital life sustaining systems in the body of our beloved Mother... Mother Earth.


mama mudita said...

Greetings Sean

Thank you for this beautiful and thoughtful post. While the internet and social media is a powerful force for connection and dissemination of ideas. It is also a destructive one. Some people who are not ready to hold sacred certain ideas and stories have access to a wealth of knowledge with no community to hold them responsible. It's sad to see, feel, know that a well intended action can cause harm.

i'm writing because I wanted you to know that your ghost pipe article is still accessible online, though not through your site. I "googled" it and it came up. Maybe I shouldn't be writing this here, and I'm not sure how else to get this message to you. So I will write it hear for now with hopes that I can delete it soon. Or you can?


Cat-Ivy Amorocho said...

Sean, I came across Indian Pipe almost four years ago, identifying it with the respectful Newcombs Wildflower Guide. I discovered your works and writings because of my searching the internet for resources on Indian Pipe and for that I am grateful. Soon after connecting with Indian Pipe, I created a ceremony in which I camped in the woods by myself with a patch of Indian Pipe and made a moon flower essence and a pint of tincture. I have not made medicine with Ghost Pipe since.
Thank you for this article, for bringing awareness to our words and the power of the internet. For the example of taking responsibility and owning our choices, even those made with good intentions that get mixed up with other's capitalist intentions. May our relations with the plants continue to deepen with understanding and respect.

Jessical Alba said...

My daughter suffered from autism for more than 2 years which we started experiencing in her when she turned 1 year and 5 months we all thought it will end but got even worse as days went by. We tried all several treatments and therapy prescribed by various doctors we met but to no avail, she lost total concentration and always complain of sensitivity to sound . She usually tells me she haves poor eyes contact. This were steady disorder that disrupted her entire life, even at night she slept less because of this.It was during a casual conversation with a friend that i learned about Dr Williams herbal medicine I was able to contact him on his email address. and give him all the necessary information that he needed,few day later he sent me the herbal portion and his medicine was able to restore her back to normal and she is very okay now without any side effects whatsoever. If you have autism, do not hesitate to contact him on for advice and for his product. I hope this also helps someone out there

Green said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Green said...

This is irresponsible and offensive. Symptoms can be managed, but there is no cure for autism. And in some cases, such as my daughter, she loves herself the way she is. The world has the problem with the way they view her..Does Dr. Williams have a tincture for that??? "Normal" is overrated.

Vibrant said...


Thank you for this posting. I just want to let you know of my appreciation for you having a part in my path to ghost plant. I have a deep love and reverance for its being. It has saved my life, and helped many others I have share it with. I've harvested only the top parts, only a small percentage, and have returned to the same spots for 6 years, harvesting 5 yrs there. The community is strong and well, and more prolific than when I first began harvesting. I have been selective and careful as to how I introduce the plant to others. None of the individuals have harvested there own. You have made a huge differance from my perspective, and I need to thank you for that and let you know the info you've passed to me has not caused harm to this beloved being. However, the concern around overharvest (not just of ghost plant) is a deep concern to me as well. How can we keep this from happening? How do we create a higher synergy between the human culture we are working with at this time and the land? How do we heal as individuals and as a collective faster, before we do much more damage?

Anonymous said...

I live in Canada (Alberta) and have found a somewhat good supply of this plant. I was led to the spot by providence. It is rare and needs to be protected from pillagers, but not hoarded ... for this natural medicine was meant for all.