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.







Thursday, July 21, 2016

Our Existence is Not an Epidemic: An Open Letter to Jill Stein

Dear Dr. Stein,

I was an activist in the early days of the Massachusetts Green Party in the late 1990's and early 2000's.   We met briefly a few times when you were running for Governor.

I am also Autistic. 

The last time you ran for President, you told John Saul of the Seattle Times that:

"In 25 years in clinics, I witnessed an increase in diseases – asthma, obesity, autism. Certainly our DNA did not change in that short time; the problem is with our sick food system, pollution and failing health care,”

When you make statements like this you are further marginalizing people like me -- which flies in the face of the values the Green Party is supposed to represent.

Autism is not a disease.    As Autistic scholar Nick Walker writes "Autism is a genetically-based human neurological variant."  Our divergence comes in the form of increased sensitivity to sensory and emotional stimuli, marked differences in verbal and non-verbal communication from the general population, and a tendency toward non-linear systems-oriented thinking.   These differences have made us driving forces in technological and cultural change throughout human history.  And, in this culture, they have made us pathologized and feared.   Many of us have trouble "functioning" in the ways this society expects us to, because this society was not made with us in mind -- just as Queer and Trans people often find challenges to integrating into a society that is based on heteronormative and cis-normative assumptions about gender and sexuality, Autistic people often find it challenging to integrate into a culture rooted in assumed neurotypicality.

(Incidentally, being fat is not a disease, either.   While there is some correlation between a variety of health problems and high body weight or high body fat, correlation does not equal causation, and healthy bodies come in many shapes and sizes.  The moral panic about "obesity" is unscientific and contributes to discrimination against fat people.)

Nor is there an "Autism epidemic."   First of all, in order to have an epidemic you have to have a disease.   But, secondly, the increase in the frequency of Autism diagnoses is explained by changes in definitions and diagnostic criteria.

As someone who struggled with asthma most of my life, in part because of growing up in a cluster of trash incinerators in Massachusetts, I am more aware than most of the public health crises caused by pollution.    But my neurobiology is neither a pathological condition nor is it the result of anything in my environment.

Please:


  • Stop talking about Autism as a "disease" or an "epidemic."
  • Clearly and publicly distance yourself from the fraudulent and hurtful claims of former gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield that vaccines cause Autism.   While I understand your principled position that vaccines should not be mandatory because people should have a right to make their own health care decisions, in the absence of such a clear statement, your opposition to vaccine laws provides cover for those spreading false information about vaccines and Autism.
  • Get to know Autistic adults.   Consult with us about our needs.   Adopt policies that support the work and struggles of Autistic people.

I would love to be able to support your campaign, but I cannot do so while you pathologize people like me.


Sincerely,
Sean Donahue