Monday, December 28, 2009

Why I don't participate in the "health care system"

NOTE:  This essay no longer reflects the full reality of my thinking or my life -- October 2012

"Whatever people say they believe in terms of spirituality and religion, what they do when they are sick and in need reveals the true basis of their belief system."

-- Matthew Wood, The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism

When dogmas reach a certain level of acceptance they begin to be treated as self-evident facts beyond questioning.

So it is with the notion that "people without health insurance cost us all money" because "everyone will eventually need to go to a doctor, a hospital, or an emergency room."

The idea that health care is a service that we receive from doctors is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it is impossible for most people in our culture to imagine anyone choosing not to participate in the "health care system."

In order to understand why I refuse to participate in that system its necessary to understand its history and its nature.


In traditional societies around the world everyone knew some of the medicine that the world around them provided.

The art and science of medicine were practiced by witches, shamans, midwives, herbwives, medicine men and women -- people who were responsible for maintaining the soundness, wholeness, and integrity of all things. The health of the individual, the health of the family, the health of the village or tribe, and the health of the land were inextricably linked.

Knowledge and technique were passed down through oral tradition. But the medicine itself came through direct interaction with the living world. It was deeply relational.

The healer was responsible for making all things sound. And the community supported the healer.

This approach to healing and medicine continued to prevail throughout rural Europe well into the early modern period until it was systematically suppressed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (It is still the primary approach to healing in poor communities around the world, including parts of the U.S. like the rural south.)

But in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, new social and economic forces caused knowledge to become a regulated and privatized commodity.

The Catholic Church had already made some attempts to suppress these practices because of their ties to traditions that taught that the divine was present everywhere and healing grace was abundant and freely available. As Starhawk writes in Dreaming in the Dark:
"The Catholic Church had for centuries served for a model for an approved body that dispensed approved grace. Many of the charges against Witches and heretics can be seen as charges of dispensing 'Brand X' grace, one that lacked the official seal of approval"
But while this ideology held sway in the cities, in rural areas where people continued to work the land together, older beliefs still held sway. And many feudal landlords looked the other way, seeing old customs, old beliefs, and old festivals as outlets for energies and impulses that might otherwise feed rebellion.

But other forces began to come into play. Over farming and over grazing (a result in part of pressures on the countryside to provide food of the cities) were leading to diminishing returns on the land at the same time that the infux of stolen gold from the Americas was causing massive inflation in Europe, leading landlords to break up and sell their holdings. The Witches who were both healers and priests to their communities were responsible for the rituals that reinforced peoples' ties to the land. And so they were persecuted.

At the same time, the urban market economy was expanding into the rural areas. With its spread, Starhawk writes, "Knowledge itself began to be an 'intangible commodity.' It was something to be sold only to those who could afford to buy it." It became the property of licensed professionals. And medicine was one of the first professions to be licensed. Just as the clergy had been the guardians of the soul and sanctioned dispensers of grace prior to the Protestant reformation, in the newly emerging and more materialistic society, doctors were the guardians of health and sanctioned dispensers of medicine. Licensure was the legal instrument by which they established their monopoly.

The story we are told is that this is the point in history at which medicine became a science and it became necessary to have means of certifying that practitioners were sufficiently well versed in the appropriate knowledge. To say this is to belittle the richness and complexity of the body of knowledge and wisdom passed down from practitioner to practitioner throughout human history prior to the 1600's.

There is no evidence that the licensed physicians of the time had better results in treating their patients than the unlicensed herbwyfes, midwives, and witches who they condemned.

As Starhawk writes, citing the work of Jean Baker Miller:
"Licensing is supported by the premise that it protects the consumer of services from incompetents, charlatans, and unethical practitioners. In reality, licensing protects those with approved credentials from competition by allowing them to limit their own numbers and raise their fees. It is one of the primary ways in which 'functions that a dominant group prefers to perform . . are carefully guarded and closed to subordinates.'"
In the case of medicine, the system of licensure led to the criminalization of traditional healers and the marginalization of their methods and knowledge. Fortunately the fact that women's work in the kitchen was largely invisible and innocuous to the powers that be allowed some traditional knowledge to continue to be passed on from woman to woman.

In North America, the mingling of kitchen witch traditions with Native American and African healing traditions led to the development of rich healing traditions in many rural areas which in turn informed the rise of the Physiomedical and Eclectic medicine in the nineteenth century. These threats, along with the emerging threat from European homeopathy, was dealt with through the establishment of the American Medical Association which successfully lobbied for the passage of new licensing regimes.

Well into the first half of the twentieth century, no matter how mechanistic their model of healing was, physicians used plants as the basis of most of their medicine. Healing was still about a chemical and electromagnetic conversation between living beings.

But after World War II, doctors began switching to pharmaceuticals made from synthetic chemicals primarily made from petroleum products -- the long decayed bodies of ancient plants and animals.

The biochemistry of plants is remarkably similar to the biochemistry of our own bodies. Plants create medicines to address their own chemical imbalances and to support the healthy functioning of their own systems. When we ingest a plant medicine, our body recognizes its structures, and over time can begin to imitate them. Subtle medicines can bring profound healing over time.

But ecause of our limited understanding of the chemistry of life, synthetic pharmaceuticals act at a very crude level, stimulating or suppressing a particular chemical reaction in our bodies.

This can have a host of unintended consequences. Our bodies can become too dependent on these outside stimuli, allowing our natural feedback loops to atrophy. And turning one reaction on or off can have a cascade of consequences elsewhere in the body.

Bacteria and viruses quickly learn and pass on new responses to these simple chemicals, setting off an escalating arms race between the chemists of the pharmaceutical industry and the infinitely more innovative infectious microorganisms that grow resistant to each new generation of drugs.

And since our bodies don't recogize these chemicals, we excrete most of them and they end up in our wastewater. They are taken up throughout the environment with often devastating results -- excreted Prozac in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico is altering shellfish mating patterns and excreted synthetic hormones are altering the sexual development of fish, amphibians, and possibly humans. (See Stephen Harrod Buhner's The Lost Language of Plants for an in depth exploration of these issues.)


I spent much of my own life dependent on asthma medications that kept me breathing but taxed and weakened my body.

In the winter of 2006, I was introduced to Elecampane, an herb that would help my lungs release everything they were holding onto.

Mischa Schuler, the herbalist who introduced me to Elecampane, also introduced me to the possibility of learning directly from the plants, transforming my sense of the world as alive from an abstract belief to a literal reality.

Over the next few months, the plants began speaking to me more and more directly. They healed and transformed my body in profound ways.

They also transformed my sense of myself -- I had believed my body to be a broken machine in need of constant support. I came to see it as a living entity just like the forest capable of regenerating itself given the right conditions. That transformation required faith in my body's ability to heal and faith in the plants as teachers.

That faith was tested dramatically in June of that year when I contracted Lyme disease. Most of the people in my life were telling me that I risked debilitation and even death if I did not take antibiotics. Instead, I opted to put my faith in my body and the plants, and immediately began a complex herbal protocol that spared me from the dire consequences my friends and family predicted.

My relationships with the plants around me deepened, and I spent a lot of that summer walking in the woods alone, listening. By the end of the summer it was clear that I would spend the rest of my life deepening those connections. And it was clear to me as well that I could never again take the synthetic pharmaceuticals that had created such dangerous imbalances in my own body and the body of the living Earth.

Many herbalists I respect greatly continue to use pharmaceuticals themselves for various reasons -- and I don't think any less of them as a result. I am in no position to place judgement on anyone else's relationship to medicine.

But the integrity of my own relationship with healing plants and with the living Earth requires a radical trust. That includes trusting death's place in every life, and knowing that the time will come when it is time for me to die, and that I would rather die in right relationship with the world around me than prolong my life through methods that violate the sacred trust I have placed in my plant teachers and allies.

As an herbalist, I place myself firmly in the tradition that sees the health of the individual, the health of the community, and the health of the land as of a piece. I cannot justify trying to heal my body with chemicals that will damage the forests and fields that provide my medicine any more than I could justify digging up ever Lady Slipper root in the woods around me. Either would represent a betrayal of everything my work is about.

And I will not comply with any law that insists that I pay money to health insurance companies with a vested interest in maintaining a model of health care that insists that we cannot heal ourselves without poisoning our planet.

Consider me a conscientious objector. I will not obey.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Six Weeks Beginning January 11
Sliding Scale -- $40-60

The world is alive and speaking to us. All we have to do is remember how to listen.

We are all born knowing this simple truth, and begin our lives in a world rich with meaning. But in our culture, the voices around us are quickly drowned out by electronic noise, and we are taught to ignore the bits of song we still hear on the wind or risk insanity. Eventually we reach a point where we no longer trust our own senses.

But for some of us the vibrant memory of the world we knew as children is stronger than the fear of madness.

The wildness of our souls can be recovered, just as a forest can grown from an abandoned field.

For poet and herbalist Sean Donahue, that process of recovery started when he began listening to the voices of the forest -- voices that guided him on a journey of healing, discovery, and transformation.

In this six week online workshop, Donahue will lead participants through an intense process of connecting with the living Earth and awakening the wildness within themselves.

Through reading, writing, meditation, and direct experience of the natural world, we will explore:

-- Our personal, familial, and cultural histories of relating to the land we live on and the beings that inhabit it
-- Engaging nature through engaging our senses
-- The use of the heart as an organ of perception (drawing from the work of Stephen Buhner)
-- Developing and deepening relationships with the plants that grow around us

Participants will share their experiences with each other and build community through an e-mail discussion list.

To register, please send an e-mail to before January 1.

The class will be limited to 20 students, so please register today.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Early Succession

The Quaking Aspen is one of the first trees to come in, behind the raspberries and the sumac, reclaiming abandoned fields, heralding the forest's return.

In the autumn wind, the Aspen's leaves seem to tremble with desire to return to the Earth, giving themselves over to become the soil that will feed the Maple, Oak, and Pine that follow.

Sometimes I think this is the role I was born to -- to make the fertile soil where the forest will grow again.

In this generation, we are witnessing the end of a civilization that seemed poised to make the world unlivable just before it began to collapse under its own weight -- like an old barn separated from its foundation and caving in on itself.

My home is at the edge of the field behind the barn, where the wild begins to creep in again. In the soil where I plant my roots there is still the memory of the forest that came before, It is enough to begin calling it back into being.

In this life time, in this body, I may never know the damp fullness of the deep forest, or the luminescent green of its lichens and mosses.

But I will know sunfire and rain and from them make a trunk and branches and leaves. My sap will run in spring time, making me supple and strong. And in autumn I will know the bliss of surrender, letting parts of me fall and feed and become Her fertile darkness.

And my descendants will know sweetness because I lived here, celebrate me in the scarlet passion of the Swamp Maple in October.


I wrote these words long before I admitted to myself that the world is alive and speaking to me. Fourteen years later, they take on new meaning:

I apprentice myself
to the quaking aspen,
setting down roots
in thin soil
at the clearing's edge.
Here in bright sun,
autumn brings
pale yellow

sweet darkness
will bring forth
maple red.

Hanover, NH -- 1995

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Green Man Botanicals Holy Basil Tincture

Holy Basil Tincture
(Ocimum sanctum)

1 oz -- $10 2 oz -- $18 4 oz -- $35
Leaves and Flowering Tops in 80 proof alcohol
  • Adaptogenic – helps the body adapt to respond to stress.
  • Helps the immune system respond to changing conditions.
  • Helps to release stagnant energies and emotions.
  • Traditionally used to improve memory and energy and to treat coughs, colds, and indigestion.
  • Contains antibacterial, antiviral and antioxidant compounds
NOTE: These statements are for educational purposes only and have not been reviewed by the FDA. Neither this product nor this information are intended to diagnose, treat or cure any medical condition.

To order e-mail Check or paypal accepted. $5 shipping per order (shipped Priority Mail.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Swampy Medicine for Swampy Lungs

This post is part of the October Blog Party: Bio-regional herbs for the Cold and Flu Season being hosted by Rosalee de la Foret at

Photo by Darcey Blue French

My relationship with Eastern Skunk Cabbage began with a dream about digging its roots to treat my own asthma -- a journey chronicled in an earlier post.

Recently I have been finding that many of my own experiences with the plant are consistent with the discoveries and practices of the Eclectics who knew the plant as Dracontium foetidum. (By the 1890's, most botanists were using the name by which the plant is known today, Symplocarpus foetidus, but I much prefer the older name.)

I believe Eastern Skunk Cabbage deserves a place in the Materia Medica of modern New England herbalists as an excellent ally in treating asthma and respiratory infections -- including the stubborn, lingering respiratory infections that often follow when someone does not get enough rest to fully recover from a serious bout of the flu. We have a tremendous amount to learn from earlier generations' usage of the plant.

The 1898 edition of King's American Dispensatory describes Skunk Cabbage root as "a stimulant, exerting expectorant [. . .]" Just as the plant's contractile roots reach deep into swampy soils to drink up moisture, the root as a medicine brings up excess mucous from deep in the lungs. Energetically it is neutral to warm -- well suited to treating the kind of deep, cold congestion that can set in with a stubborn lingering case of bronchitis or pneumonia.

Yet as a diaphoretic herb it can also help to release the excess heat associated with influenza and the ensuing inflammation of the lungs.

The Eclectics frequently combined Skunk Cabbage with Lobelia in their formulae. Lobelia would help to open the airways while Skunk Cabbage would help to bring up phlegm.

Both medicines are profoundly antispasmodic, and Skunk Cabbage is slightly narcotic, so the combination would also help to quell violent coughing fits and allow a sick person to sleep.

Skunk Cabbage root is also a nervine. King's American Dispensatory notes that "Its action upon the nervous system is marked, relieving irritation, and it has a tendency to promote normal functional activity of the nervous structures." As an asthmatic I know that the shortness of breath caused by the contraction of my airways is always compounded by the wave of panic that ensues when I can't get enough oxygen. Skunk Cabbage helps tremendously in calming that panic.

I harvest the roots Eastern Skunk Cabbage in March, when the green buds of the flowers have emerged but have not yet turned purple. There is usually still snow on the ground -- Skunk Cabbage is thermogenic and melts the ice, frost, and snow around it to become the first plant emerging in the swamp in spring. I dry the roots for a few days as a precaution because drying diminishes the levels of calcium oxalate crystals present, and then tincture them in 100 proof vodka. For acute respiratory infections I use 5-15 drops 4-6 times a day.

For bronchitis and bacterial and fungal pneumonias I usually use Skunk Cabbage along with Usnea.

For persistent, deep, cold, wet bronchitis and pneumonia I use Skunk Cabbage along with Elecampane and Pleurisy Root.

Large doses of Skunk Cabbage root may be emetic -- and in one nineteenth century formula, Skunk Cabbage was combined with Lobelia, Wild Ginger, Pleurisy Root, and Bloodroot as an "emetic for children and infants, [. . . ] safely used in croup, whooping-cough, bronchitis, asthma, convulsions, and in all cases where an emetic is required." When my asthma was at its most severe growing up, I often felt relief only when I would throw up, forcing some of the mucous from my bronchi in the process. In my own practice, I am not quite ready to revive old emetic therapies for acute bronchial and pulmonary congestion, but the idea is worth thinking about.

Friday, September 18, 2009

September Update

September Update

In this issue:
  • Green Man Botanicals -- New this month: Holy Basil, Self-Heal, and Ghost Pipe
  • Seeking venues for talks and workshops
  • September Special for new clients -- sign up for a first consultation and get your second one free!
  • 2 Herbalists and a dog seeking work and a winter home


The forests and fields of Maine have continued to be bountiful, and I am pleased to have more tinctures and flower essences to share. All are made from organically grown or ethically wild-crafted plants.

None of this information and none of these products are intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, or cure of any medical condition.


All tincgtures are made using the Simpler's method.

Holy Basil
(Ocimum sanctum) -- Traditionally used in India to treat memory loss, fatigue, colds, asthma, and indigestion. Some practitioners have also had great success in using Holy Basil to alleviate stagnant depression and help release thoughts and emotions stuck in the past. Research indicates that the plant may also aid in the modulation of immune responses. Flowering tops and leaves in 80 proof brandy. -- $10/oz

Self-Heal (Prunella vulgaris) -- Used in Europe traditionally for inflamed topical wounds and in Traditional Chinese Medicine to soften hard masses and swolen lymph nodes and to treat conditions connected with rising Liver Fire. Many herbalists also use Self Heal to relieve fevers without lowering the body's temperature too far. In addition, Self-Heal has antiviral, antimicrobial, antibacterial, astringent, carminative, vulneary, and antispasmodic actions. Flowers in 80 proof brandy. -- $10/oz

Ghost Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) -- A powerful plant to be used with great care in small doses for short periods of time to relieve intense physical pain or severe acute anxiety or in cases of acute dissociative episodes. Whole plant in 100 proof vodka. $10/ 1/2 oz, $15/oz

Oxeye Daisy (Chrysanthemum Leucanthemum) -- The Eclectic Physicians of the nineteenth century classified this plant as tonic, diuretic, and antispasmodic. The 1898 edition of King's American Dispensary suggested its use for "whooping cough, asthma, and nervous excitability." Some contemporary practitioners have noted its affinity for the upper respiratory system. Aerial parts in 80 proof brandy. $10/oz

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) Glycerite -- Yarrow has traditionally been used to release trapped heat from the body, stem bleeding, ease pain and spasms including menstrual cramps, bring relief from colds and flus, and aid in divination. Flowers and first year leaves in vegetable glycerin. $10/oz

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) Elixir -- Traditionally used to nourish pregnant women and lactating mothers, smooth the transition into menopause and andropause, promote fertility, and support the lymphatic system, among dozens of other uses. Flowers in a blend of vegetable glycerin and brandy. $10/oz


Stock essences -- $15/oz, $8 1/2 oz Dosage bottles of any essence or combination -- $10/oz, $8 1/2 oz

Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) -- For those who walk between worlds.

Trillium (Trillium Erectum) -- An ally in giving birth to the self.

Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule) -- Cradles and supports the heart, allowing it to open to healing love and healing eros, human, wild, and divine.

Self-Heal (Prunella Vulgaris) -- Restores faith in our ability to heal ourselves.

Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) -- Aids in emerging from abusive patterns and relationships and emerging from dark depression.


Payment accepted by check or Paypal. To order e-mail . $5 shipping per order.


Sean is looking for venues to give talks and workshops on the following themes this fall, winter, and spring:


There is lots of frightening and confusing information in the press and online about "Swine Flu" right now. And panic itself can be a factor in the spread of disease as stress first amps up and then wears down our immune systems. Herbalist Sean Donahue helps put the threat in perspective and gives practical herbal and nutritional strategies for preventing and dealing with flus.


The daily stresses of living in a culture that is so wildly out of balance take their toll on our bodies over time. Herbalist Sean Donahue explains the biology of stress -- how it plays out in our bodies and how it contributes to disease. And he shares how herbs, nutrition, meditation, and lifestyle changes can help our bodies, minds, and spirits deal better with the frustrations, anxieties, and fears that are part and parcel of living in these times.


Stress, pollution, and poor nutrition all combine to take their toll on the immune system. Some of us have immune systems that are dangerously depleted, leaving us vulnerable to infection, others have immune systems that are revved up too high, causing our bodies to attack themselves. Herbalist Sean Donahue will talk about how nutrition and herbs can help to restore and support healthy immune function.


The world is alive and constantly speaking to us – we just have to learn to listen. Throughout history and throughout the world, indigenous peoples have used their hearts as organs of perception to take in messages from the living Earth – this is how the great healing traditions of the world were born. Herbalist Sean Donahue explains the philosophy underlying this approach to the world, the biology of the heart as an organ of perception, and simple techniques that can open the hear to the world around us.


Our bodies have a tremendous ability to heal themselves given the right support. Working with herbs, flower essences, nutritional and lifestyle changes, energy work, and ceremony, Sean Donahue helps people find the support they need for physical, emotional, and spiritual healing.
An initial session involves an in depth exploration of the history of the issues a client wants to work on and the client's health history. Intake sessions typically last 1 1/2 - 2 hours. Clients are also asked to fill out a questionnaire before the first session.
Future sessions will be shorter. Depending on the client's needs they may include energy work, ceremony, and adjustment's to herbal protocols.
Sean works on a sliding scale, charging between $100 - 150 for an initial intake session, and $30 - 40 per half-hour for each follow-up session. He can also often provide herbal forumlae for an additional fee of $10-15 per ounce depending on the plants used. THIS MONTH ONLY, EVERY NEW CLIENT WILL RECEIVE A FREE FOLLOW-UP SESSION 2-6 WEEKS AFTER THEIR INITIAL CONSULTATION.
Barter is also joyfully accepted. Installment plans can be negotiated as well. No one is ever turned away for lack of funds.
Sean is currently available to see clients at the Center for Mindful Living in Lawrence, MA and at Nezinscot Farm in Turner, ME. He also sees clients in the Boston area. Soon he will also be seeing clients in Bethel, ME and Richmond, VT.
While it is ideal to meet in person, Sean is also able to offer long distance consultation by telephone and e-mail. Long distance consultations are a starting point and are not a substitute for an in person consultation with a local herbalist.

If you have questions or would like to make an appointment, please call Sean at 978-809-8054 or e-mail him at


My Siberian Husky, Trill, and I have been tremendously lucky to spend the Spring and Summer in a wonderful community in Sumner, ME.

But we will be moving on this winter. My partner, Darcey Blue French, an amazing herbalist, nutritionist and chef will be making the cross-country trek from Tuscon, AZ to join us this winter. And so we are looking for a winter home for our little family, hopefully in New England or upstate New York.

We are looking for a low cost living situation, and between us can come up with a small amount for rent and utilities each month. We are also glad to provide free health consultations and herbs, delicious healthy meals, running errands, care for children, elders, pets, or plants in exchange for reduced rent. Our needs are simple -- we would be very happy with a bedroom and access to a kitchen and a bathroom or outhouse in a family or communal home, or would be delighted to take care of a cottage or cabin for the winter as long as there is a way to heat it.

In addition, we are both looking for work this winter. I have extensive experience in writing, editing, and political organizing. Darcey has extensive experience in the natural products/health food industry, retail sales and management, gardening and indoor plant care, writing and editing.
Please e-mail me as with any leads.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Fall and Winter Workshops

Sean Donahue is available to give the following workshops and presentations this fall and winter:


There is lots of frightening and confusing information in the press and online about "Swine Flu" right now. And panic itself can be a factor in the spread of disease as stress first amps up and then wears down our immune systems. Herbalist Sean Donahue helps put the threat in perspective and gives practical herbal and nutritional strategies for preventing and dealing with flus.


The daily stresses of living in a culture that is so wildly out of balance take their toll on our bodies over time. Herbalist Sean Donahue explains the biology of stress -- how it plays out in our bodies and how it contributes to disease. And he shares how herbs, nutrition, meditation, and lifestyle changes can help our bodies, minds, and spirits deal better with the frustrations, anxieties, and fears that are part and parcel of living in these times.


Stress, pollution, and poor nutrition all combine to take their toll on the immune system. Some of us have immune systems that are dangerously depleted, leaving us vulnerable to infection, others have immune systems that are revved up too high, causing our bodies to attack themselves. Herbalist Sean Donahue will talk about how nutrition and herbs can help to restore and support healthy immune function.


The world is alive and constantly speaking to us – we just have to learn to listen. Throughout history and throughout the world, indigenous peoples have used their hearts as organs of perception to take in messages from the living Earth – this is how the great healing traditions of the world were born. Herbalist Sean Donahue explains the philosophy underlying this approach to the world, the biology of the heart as an organ of perception, and simple techniques that can open the hear to the world around us.


Sean Donahue is an herbalist, activist, poet, and journalist dedicated to promoting personal and planetary healing through connection to the living Earth.

Through herbs, flower essences, nutritional and lifestyle coaching, and ceremony, Sean works with people to find ways to restore the dynamic balances necessary to maintaining physical and spiritual health. He can be reached at

Monday, August 24, 2009

Teleseminar With Sean Donahue and Iris Weaver Wednsday 8/26

Spiritual herbalist, educator, healer, and professional speaker, Iris Weaver has invited me to be the guest for her first monthly teleseminar this Wednesday. Iris writes:

I am really excited to be having my first monthly teleseminar on Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 7:00 p.m. My guest will be Sean Donahue, Herbalist, poet, and ritual technician.

Sean has an amazing rapport with plants, and I am so happy to be able to talk with him about plants, healing, and lots more.

I will also be introducing my friend plant Ox-eye Daisy, a truly wonderful flower.

So please join me on Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 7:00 p.m. The number to call is 218-339-3600. When you dial the number you will be prompted to enter your pin code: 1082063#.

If you should have any questions you would like answered on air, please e-mail your questions to me at

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Healing Through the Veil: Field Notes on Psychedelic First Aid

Anyone who has spent time accessing other states of consciousness -- whether through fasting, meditation, ecstatic dance, magic, plant medicine, or synthetic chemicals -- knows that the worlds we enter on the other side of the veil are very real, and so are the dangers we face there.

Psychedelic plants and chemicals can rapidly bring people to realms that practitioners spend years trying to reach through other means. This can make them very efficient tools for deep transformational work. But it also means that they can bring people who don't have the well developed psychic defenses of a trained shaman to worlds subtly but powerfully different from anything they have experienced before -- a potentially dangerous situation.

Working as an herbalist at festivals where a lot of psychedelics are moving through the crowd, I have begun to develop both a model of what is happening inside a person who is having a "bad trip" and some protocols to help them through what they are struggling with. What follows are some notes on my approach and understanding that will hopefully spur more discussion among herbalists and other healers working with people who use psychedelic plants and chemicals.

A Biological Model

Psychedelic compounds move the plants, animals, and humans that ingest them into a highly creative nonlinear state of consciousness.(1)

In humans they seem to operate by opening the sensory gating channels that bring information about sights, sounds, sensations, tastes, smells, and electromagnetic field fluctuations from the heart and the other sense organs to the neocortex. The neocortex works to extract meaning from the signals it is receiving. In this heightened state of sensory awareness, the neocortex has to work harder to extract meaning from the information coming in from the world around it, forcing it into a state of nonlinear creativity.

For some, though, this flood of sensation and information coupled with the discovery of new meanings in once mundane things can trigger acute anxiety. And for those who have been severely traumatized in this realm, that feeling of anxiety can bring back body memories of their original traumas (in some combat veterans and some survivors of sexual trauma, even Cannabis, with its milder psychedelic qualities, can trigger full scale dissociative episodes.)

The sense of metaphysical vertigo can be traumatizing in and of itself -- and can have lasting effects when a person returns to "ordinary" consciousness. My interpretation of "acid flashbacks" is that they have nothing to do with residual chemicals in the spine, but rather are PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) related dissociations brought on by external triggers that remind someone of some aspect of a moment of terror on either side of the veil.

A Magical Model

The purple-blue tinge of the bruised flesh of mushrooms of the Psilocibe genus is a signature of the opening of the Third Eye and the Crown Chakra.

The sudden and dramatic opening that the medicine of these mushrooms and the similar medicines of various other plants, fungi, and chemicals bring on can open someone to states of consciousness that reveal the existence of other worlds, other orders of reality.

These worlds are populated by their own flora and fauna and even societies with complex behaviors, rules of etiquette, and feeding behaviors.

Shamanic and magical traditions prepare people to navigate these worlds through years of practice in sensing and moving energies. Just as a city dweller suddenly dropped into the middle of the desert or the forest would be at a loss for how to survive, those who have not prepared for a journey on the other side of the veil between worlds can find themselves stumbling into difficult and dangerous situations. The fact that the territories of these worlds overlap and layer over each other can lull travelers into a false sense of familiarity and security.

As one teacher of mine says, not all beings without bodies have our best interests in mind. Beings that prey on us have been known to wear very seductive forms on the other side of the veil.

In helping people struggling with acute panic during a psychedelic trip its important to acknowledge the reality of what is happening in and around her -- her experiences are not metaphorical, they are lived experiences that occur in another world.

Handling an Acute Psychedelic Crisis

My first response when someone is panicked but lucid during a psychedelic trip is to get the person to a physically comfortable place, preferably accompanied by one or two friends, verbally let her know that she is in no physical danger and that she will come back from the place where she is, and encourage and model slow, calm breaths. Then I offer a calming tea.

During a festival I always keep a big pot of tea going containing Skullcap/Blisswort (Scutellaria spp.), Passionflower (Passiflora spp.), and Wood Betony (Stachys officianalis.) Note the violet/blue color of these flowers.

Passionflower is specifically indicated for "irritation of the brain, nervousness, restlessness, sleeplessness with muscle twitching, or circular thinking"(2) -- symptoms typical of the overstimulation brought on my psychedelic plants and chemicals. While some practitioners are concerned about the theoretical possibility that as a mild MAO Inhibitor, Passionflower could be dangerous for someone taking a Selective Seretonin Reuptake Inhibitor (eg.Prozac), I have not been able to find any documented cases of this kind of negative drug interaction, and my experience and that of other herbalists I have talked with suggests that Passionflower is generally safe for most people. However since depending on someone's degree of coherence during a psychedelic trip, it may be difficult to ascertain whether that person is taking an SSRI, those concerned about the theoretical risk the interaction presents might choose not to use the herb in this kind of situation.

The inclusion of Blisswort is more a product of intuition and habit than a carefully reasoned decision -- she tends to be an excellent adjunct to Passionflower and as a nervine that is not sedating she has an ability to help level off energies without bringing someone "down" too hard and too fast.

Wood Betony serves multiple purposes in this instance. As an herb with a strong affinity for the solar plexus, it is strongly grounding, helping to move consciousness into that region of the body, anchoring it to a degree in the physical world. Darcey Blue French writes that Wood Betony "helps to ground people here on earth, for those stuck in repetitive mental patterns, or in mind/head stuff who need to come down and think from their center, and be in their body."

Wood Betony is also a traditional herb of exorcism and psychic protection. French writes:

"Stachys has long been used as an agent of protection from evil ‘spirits’, nightmares and visions, and to repel venomous creatures like snakes. It was planted in churchyards as protection against evil, and the Greeks said, 'it shields him against visions and dreams.' It is claimed in folklore when surrounded in a ring of wood betony leaves, snakes would fight and kill each other. Those who wear it as an amulet would find 'good against fearful visions, and driving away devils and despair.'"(3)

Yarrow Flower Essence or an energetic dose (a few drops) of a Yarrow flower tincture may also offer a degree of psychic and energetic protection.

Occasionally if the tripping person seems mired in dark thoughts I add Lavender flowers to the tea. Tulsi (Ocimum sacnctum) might also make sense here because of its ability to disperse stuck thoughts and emotions.

For cases of more severe emotional trauma, bordering on and moving into dissociative states, some members of the Anemone family can be of great assistance. In an article on using various Anemone species to treat panic attacks, 7Song describes using Anemone to treat people having "bad trips" and people having trouble sleeping after taking LSD at Rainbow Gatherings.(4) Michael Moore used Pasque Flower (Anemone pulsitilla) to treat these conditions.(5) Buhner suggests that Pasque Flower works to regulate the sensory gating channels. (6)

It is important to note that in a small number of people, primarily those with constitutional tendencies toward excess heat, Anemone species can be agigating rather than calming.

So far, I have worked exclusively with a tincture of Anemone tuberosa. In mild cases, a 2 or 3 drops of the tincture will often help to calm a person immensely. In one more severe case, I gave 30 drops of Anemone tuberosa tincture and 5 drops of Monotropa uniflora tincture in water to an agitated, incoherent, and borderline violent 200 pound man who had taken a large dose of LSD, and he was docile within 10 minutes of drinking the water he was docile, within 30 minutes he was asleep.

I made the decision to include Ghost Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) in the formula I administered in this case based on Ryan Drum's reported success using the plant to calm an agitated and menacing man whose state was brought on by "sleep deprivation, dehydration, too much recreational medication, and no real food for many days."(7) and my intuition that, like Anemone pulsitilla and Anemone tuberosa, Monotropa uniflora acts on the sensory gating channels.

The plant's form suggests both the spinal column and brain stem and a tunnel between worlds. The irridescent violet of the tincture suggests an affinity for the Crown Chakra. Energetically it is cooling.

In my view, hospitalization is to be avoided unless you are unable to prevent a person from being violent toward herself or others, the person may have ingested a toxic substance while tripping, or the person has sustained physical injuries. Emergency room treatment for a "bad trip" will always involve taking a frightened and disoriented person with heightened emotional, sensory, and energetic awareness and putting that person into a place full of frightened people, many of them in extreme pain. It will often involve physical restraint and/or the administration of heavy anti-psychotic drugs designed to bring the patient quickly back into consensual reality -- a potentially traumatic ripping from one world into another. It will usually involve the administration of treatment by people who do not acknowledge the reality of the experiences the patient is having and are not concerned about the possibility that the person may have been subjected to psychic attacks.

Thoughts on further treatment

As an herbalist administering first aid at festivals, I seldom have a chance to follow up with the people I have helped in the midst of psychic and emotional traumas connected with the use of psychedelics. But I would like to offer a few thoughts on follow-up treatment for people recovering from a traumatic psychedelic experiences:

-- It is of the utmost importance that the person be given an opportunity to integrate her experiences. When she is ready to share them she should be treated with the same respect and support as a survivor of a traumatic event that took place in ordinary reality

-- Two herbs seem likely to be of great benefit to someone recovering from this kind of trauma:
Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) is useful when the "patient is fixated on a specific traumatic event, and complains of fatigue and mental fog" according to David Winston. (8) Pam Montgomery writes that "Besides being a great protector plant it helps in soul retrievals, as it is able to locate exiled souls and bringing them home."
-- Wood Betony (Stachys officianalis) may help to address some of the lingering energetic attachments from time spent in other worlds. In his monograph on the plant, Jim McDonald writes:

"Another of Wood Betony's virtues, [. . .] is it's ability to dispel evil and ward of spirits of ill intent. The manifestations of that need not be supernatural (though I think it good protection from bad magic and those who deal in that and Matthew Wood has used it on several occasions for those suffering PTSD from alien abductions) sometimes we may know or be related to such people. To access these more esoteric virtues, one might carry the herb with them in a medicine bag, or rub doses of the tincture into their wrists or temples. Sure, this may make you question how very weird your belief system is becoming, but when you see situations change around you in a way that reinforces this usage a few times, you can just flow with it. It's quite likely, after all that your friends and family already think you a bit 'eccentric.'" (10)

Its worth noting that "alien abduction" may be a modern interpretation of the ancient and universal experience of being taken or led by strange beings into other worlds. It stands to reason that a plant that helps survivors of these experiences would also be of assistance to those who enter those realms voluntarily but return scarred.

The flower essence of Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is, in my experience, specific to smoothing the transition between worlds.

-- In some cases, especially when someone's personality or behavior seem dramatically changed after a traumatic psychedelic experience , the assistance of a shaman or root worker may be necessary to retrieve parts of the self left behind in other worlds or to dispell spirits and energies that have attached themselves to a person.


With another season of festival first aid under my belt, now seems like a good time to make some updates.

For cases of mild to moderate anxiety associated with psychedelics where the person doesn't necessarily want to "come down" I'm now generally using variations on a formula including Wood Betony (for grounding and protection), Mimulus spp. (for feelings of dread), Passionflower (for circular thoughts and to cool the mind), and Schizandra (to calm disturbed Shen, especially where breathing is fast and shallow.) If there are strong heat signs or if there is an edge of anger to the anxiety I'll sometimes add Melissa. If there is fixation on a particular negative thought or emotion I'll add Holy Basil. If the heart is racing I'll add Motherwort.

I realize there is some concern that Passionflower as a possible MAOI may further potentiate tryptamines, but a) I have never seen this happen at therapeutic doses and b) if a person is merely hitting a rough spot in a journey, the goal is to bring grounding and protection, not necessarily to abort the trip, so further potentiating tryptamines is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself.

Phyllis Light mentioned to me at the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference that she has calmed people on LSD by having them drink a glass of milk. When Darcey and I recently had a phone call from someone who was having a bad trip and didn't have access to the herbs we would normally use we had her drink a glass of milk and put her feet in warm water. This succeeded in calming her to the point where she was able to lie down and sleep it off.

In cases of severe anxiety marked by agitation I have stopped using Anemone in part because I am concerned about the potential of paradoxical reactions -- I've not seen this happen in a situation related to psychedelics but I have seen people who tend to run hot become more agitated by a very small dose of Anemone tuberosa, and given that the kind of aggressive agitation I have seen in some cases of people having "bad trips" feels like a Pitta excess to me I'd rather play it safe and use other herbs instead.

What I've been using in its place has been Ghost Pipe. In a dozen or so cases in which someone has come to the first aid tent because she wants her trip to be over or someone has been brought to the tent because he has become aggressively agitated on LSD, and in one case of someone experiencing tremors and terror from PCP, I've seen 30 drops of Ghost Pipe tincture administered between one and three times calm people down to the point where they are able to relax and usually sleep (and then wake up without any major disorientation.)

I have seen two cases in the past year of men in their early twenties becoming physically violent and completely dissociated while on LSD. In both cases they were men who had always seemed kind and gentle to their friends (which I believe because in both cases their kind and gentle friends helped us hold them over the course of several hours and never lost their tempers.) In both cases we later found out these men were also on Adderall. In both cases the things the men were shouting about while trying to attack people suggested the strong possibility of childhood sexual trauma. And in both cases multiple health care practitioners involved felt the very clear sense of another entity partially controlling their actions.

The Adderall connection feels important here for two reasons. The first is that I think PTSD in young men is often misdiagnosed as ADHD, and the suppressive therapies used to treat their symptoms may prevent emotional release, worsening the underlying condition. Secondly I theorize that when LSD brings up buried trauma, a stimulant like Adderall may act to further stimulate the adrenals and to increase physical energy and stamina increasing the likelihood of physical aggression.

In the first case, we were able to administer Ghost Pipe orally, and we watched as our patient's pupils contracted and his eye motion became more responsive to external stimuli. But he continued to kick, bite, and scream for another several hours. We made the choice not to evacuate him because getting him in an ambulance would have required police assistance and we did not want to see him face charges of assaulting a police officer. Once he was physically exhausted his friends took him to a hospital.

In the second instance, we were unable to administer any herbs orally in doses capable of making a difference -- a few sips from a water bottle with various herbs added was the best we could do. We initially applied Rescue Remedy to the temples and wrists and smudged with Tobacco, Osha, and White Sage. Eventually we were able to get the patient to smoke a combination of Skullcap, Tobacco, and Cannabis (an Indica-dominant strain) and chew a small piece of Calamus root. This combination seemed to have a calming effect, and he was eventually able to leave with his friends still tripping but no longer aggressive. Several of us had side conversations with his friends about the importance of encouraging him to seek counseling in some form.

Ironically, in both these situations, I could see entheogens in a controlled, ceremonial situation under the guidance of an experienced healer being useful medicines for helping the patient work with the repressed trauma. But clearly the chaotic setting of a festival is not the right place for that work to begin.


(1) Stephen Harrod Buhner. "The Ecstatic Journey and the Sacred Teachings of Plants" workshop at Sage Mountain, East Barre, VT, June 26-28. The subsequent information about sensory gating channels and the neocortex reflects my own extrapolation from Buhner's comments.

(2) David Winston. "Differential Treatment of Depression and Anxiety with Botanical Medicines." (C) 2006, Revised 2007.

(3) Darcey French "Wood Betony: Stachys officianalis." Unpublished monograph, March 2008.

(4) 7Song. "Herbalists's View: Anemone for Panic Attacks."

(5) Darcey French, personal communication.

(6) Buhner

(7) Ryan Drum. "Three Herbs: Yarrow, Queen Anne's Lace, and Indian Pipe."

(8) Winston.

(9) Pam Montogmery. Plant Sprit Healing. Rochester, VT: Bear & Company, 2008.

(10) Jim McDonald. "Wood Betony -- Stachys officianialis."

Thursday, August 6, 2009

My Place is at the Edge

The headline of a recent action alert from the American Association for Health Freedom urging support for provisions of the omnibus health care legislation now in Congress that would require insurance companies to cover treatments by all health care professionals licensed by the states they live in (including may naturopaths and accupuncturists) asks "Has the Time Come for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to Join the Mainstream?"

While I understand and appreciate and share the organization's goal of giving people more control over the choices they make about how they take care of their own bodies, the language of the question troubles me.

As an herbalist, I am not providing an alternative or a complement to anything. I am practicing an art and science and magic at least as old as humanity-- the practice of working with plants to help people remember how to recover and maintain the dynamic balance of health. It has nothing to do with the effort to "diagnose, treat, or cure" disease because it is older than the concept of disease.

What authority I have comes from my relationships with the plants and people I work with. It is a sacred trust, not something that can be judged and regulated by any agency or licensing board.

The licensing of doctors and the prosecution of those who practice medicine without a license has its origin in the witch persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Well into the 1600's, most rural people in Europe were Christians in name only, believing and practicing in traditions that bound them to land they worked in common. Their medicine came from that land, and its knowledge and traditions were kept alive primarily by women -- midwives and "herbwyfes."

Outlawing these traditional forms of medicine and making medicine the work of a small class of wealthy men trained in universities was part and parcel of an effort to break rural people's connection to the land and to strip midwives and herbwives of the power they still had in their communities -- a power that came from the intimate relationship these healers had with the living Earth. This was bound up with the replacement of living oral traditions of medicine with a single fixed approach that could be altered only with the permission of the recognized authorities of the new profession. All of it a patriarchal game.

Schemes to regulate and license herbalists reflect the same thinking that underlies the licensing of doctors -- the idea that there is a set body of knowledge, an established set of approaches and practices, to which all herbalists must adhere. But the plants themselves don't follow the rules others would set out for them. They are constantly changing in response to the world around them. Those who would work with them need to be able to flow with those changes and trust the messages the plants give them more deeply than they trust anything they learn from the best book or the greatest human teacher.

To those who would argue that the licensing and regulation of herbalists is necessary to protect the public from bad herbalists, I say that the existence of the medical malpractice insurance industry and the legions of medical malpractice lawyers provides us with ample evidence that the licensing of doctors hasn't protected the public from bad doctors. The best protection people have is a sense of responsibility for their own health and the intimate knowledge of their own bodies that gives them a sense of when something is moving them closer to health and when it is moving them further away.

I have no interest in obtaining certification from any government or even any board of herbal elders.

Nor do I have any aspirations toward being part of the mainstream -- the nature of my work involves dancing at the boundaries of the human and the wild.

The shaman, the witch, the healer have always lived at the edge of the village or outside it -- serving the community without being fully part of it. Only by living and working outside the constraints and customs and assumptions of the culture is it possible to maintain the fierce innocence necessary to maintain relationships with plants, animals, and gods.

My place is at the edge. Come, meet me there, where we can both be transformed.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Green Man Botanicals -- Tinctures and Flower Essences for Sale

The forests and fields of Maine have blessed me with great abundance this year -- and I am offering the first in my line of ethically wildgathered Tinctures and Flower Essences for sale.

Watch later this summer for more Tinctures and Flower Essences from plants gathered on my journeys into the wild or lovingly grown at Nezinscot Farm, a biodynamic (and certified organic) farm in Turner, Maine.

I currently have the following tinctures and flower essences available for sale -- $10 for 1 oz, $8 for 1/2 oz, $5 shipping per order. Ask about prices and availability for larger amounts. To order, e-mail me at I accept PayPal, checks, money orders, and cash -- and am also very open to barter.

Please note that none of these products are intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any medical condition. Notes on the uses of these plants and lichens are strictly ethnobotanical in nature.


Usnea (Usnea barbata) -- Commonly known as "Old Man's Beard," this lichen was traditionally used as a wound dressing to prevent infection. More recently, herbalists have found this lichen very effective in supporting the immune system and in helping the body fight off bacterial infections, especially in the lungs. Whole lichen inctured in 100 proof vodka.

Oxeye Daisy (Chrysanthemum Leucanthemum) -- The Eclectic Physicians of the nineteenth century classified this plant as tonic, diuretic, and antispasmodic. The 1898 edition of King's American Dispensary suggested its use for "whooping cough, asthma, and nervous excitability." Some contemporary practitioners have noted its affinity for the upper respiratory system. Aerial parts tinctured in 80 proof brandy.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) Glycerite -- Yarrow was traditionally used as a plant of divination. This preparation was made in the spirit of the plant's magical uses. Flowers and first year leaves in vegetable glycerin.

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) Elixir -- Traditionally used to nourish pregnant women and lactating mothers, smooth the transition into menopause and andropause, promote fertility, and support the lymphatic system, among dozens of other uses. Flowers in a blend of vegetable glycerin and brandy.

Coming soon: Self-Heal Tincture and Forsythia Flower Tincture.


All essences are Stock Essences.

Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) -- For those who walk between worlds.

Trillium (Trillium Erectum) -- An ally in giving birth to the self.

Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule) -- Cradles and supports the heart, allowing it to open to healing love and healing eros, human, wild, and divine.

Self-Heal (Prunella Vulgaris) -- Restores faith in our ability to heal ourselves.

Coming Soon: Black Cohosh and Joe Pye Weed

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Lady Slipper and Solider's Heart

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons, photographer unknown)

Stephen Harrod Buhner describes the medicine of Lady Slipper as being like two loving hands cradling the heart.

In the wake of the Civil War, the shattered hearts of soldiers cried out for the Lady Slipper's medicine, and she was gathered almost to the point of extinction.

Plant medicines produce a direct and immediate impact in the body to alleviate suffering. At the same time they work to help the body remember the way back to health. This deep and often subtle healing happens best when space is opened for the plant to work deeply inside someone over time, penetrating further into the consciousness and the heart field.

These forms of healing are, of course, inextricably linked. But in a culture that has forgotten that the plants are our ancestors and teachers, the living medicine of the plants we use is often forgotten and ignored. Too often plant medicines are applied in a mechanistic way to create a specific result in the body. The medicine is still the medicine -- but when we don't give it space and time to do its work, and we don't engage the plant, much is lost.

I imagine the shape of the Lady Slipper's blossom -- a heart open in the center shielded by wing-like petals -- and I imagine the way she could teach a heart forced shut by the brutality of war to begin to allow healing in again. And, knowing enough Veterans who left pieces of themselves on distant battle fields, I also know something of the incredible patience and strength that opening takes.

Did the doctors treating "Soldier's Heart" in the wake of the Civil War bring their patients to the woods to be with the plants that would become their medicine? More likely the tinctured root was administered to a patient who was taught little about its source. In the parlance of the day the plant was known as "American Valerian," used primarily as a sedative. Plants are generous, using their bodies to create the medicines that will restore the imbalances in the ecosystem they perceive through the chemical and electromagnetic information they take in from the world around them -- including the imbalances in the bodies of the humans who share their habitat. But the imbalances created in our culture are too big for the plants to correct through chemistry alone.

There wasn't enough Lady Slipper in all of North America to heal all the pain and terror and loss the people here experienced as a result of the Civil War.

And at the same time a single Lady Slipper could have taught the culture all it needed to know about how to reshape itself in ways that would give hearts the space they needed to heal and open again like pink orchids in the understory of a shady forest.

Even more than we need plants as physical medicines today, we need them as teachers. And to know them as teachers, we need to come to know them in the wild.
Wildness is a fundamental part of their medicine. And wildness itself is the best medicine for the diseases of civilization -- violence, alienation, stress, numbness, grief, and rage. Former Green Beret Doug Peacock has written and spoken eloquently about how time with Grizzly Bears in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains saved his life when he came back from Vietnam angry and devastated and wanting nothing to do with the culture that sent him to war. Those of us living in that culutre would do reflect on the more subtle injuries we sustain from accepting brutality as an inevitable part of life.

In a culture at war with the Earth and with the wildness inside its own people, we all suffer from a variant of Soldier's Heart -- it is only diagnosed in those who show the most severe symptoms -- Veterans of war and survivors of torture and physical and sexual abuse. But in their pain we see our own amplified ten thousand fold and mirrored back. I am not speaking metaphorically -- nobody who has been exposed to the ravages of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (as Soldier's Heart is now called) even in passing could ever view such a profound psychological injury as a metaphor. Rather I am speaking of the fact that in the most violent culture in history, trauma is universalized, and diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress is a matter of differentiating the most extreme cases from the mental and emotional health state of the general population.

Psychotherapist Chellis Glendinning describes the traumatic break that all of us have experience as a result of the dissonence between what our bodies know and what our culture telss us and makes us experience -- a break far more subtle but chillingly similar to that experienced by those who survive war, rape, and abuse:
"And as goes the outer, so goes the inner. The psyche that, by all accounts, had been a worthy reflection of the unity of seasons, wind and waters, soil and rock, stars, plant and animal life was shattered and scattered too. I see this breakage as the traumatic response – the splitting and sending into unconsciousness those experiences the organism is not designed to process, the seat-of-the-pants clawing for function and meaning in what is left of the conscious mind. And so the onslaught that appears to us as the unending march of harsher forms of technological systems, the grasping for control by global corporations, the splitting of community into those who have it all and those who have nothing -- this is reflected in a parallel inner onslaught that manifests as the march of abuse, a grasping for rationalization, and the splitting of psyche into denial and numbing on one side and unspeakable suffering on the other."
All of this has its physical consequences as well. Pam Montgomery writes in Plant Spirit Healing that:
"Heart disease is the single leading cause of death in the United States, claiming more lives than the combined next four causes of mortality. [ . . . ] According to heart surgeon, Dr. Philip Bhark, only half of heart attacks are caused by known risk factors like tobacco and obesity. What then is causeing such massive heart disease? Could it be that we are dying from broken hearts? And if so, what is causing them to break? The heart is made up of 10 billion cells that synchroinize in electical wavelike patterns. Dr. Bhark says that more than half of heart-related deaths are from sudden cardiac death, which is the abrupt disruption of electrical patterns in the heart. It seems that high levels of stress interfere with the electrical rhythm of the heart. Stress is not just a fight or flight reaction. It can also result from tension created in the body while having to process varying degrees of ever-present external challenges, then disrupting our inner connection with the laws of nature and even affect the synchronization of our natural rhythms. Additional tension can also result from the interference of manmade electrical fields. The natural wavelike pattern found in nature is one cycle per second, which is the same rhythm as the heart's. Could it be that the loss of connection to the natural world, created by modern life, is the original wound and this primary seperation is causing our hearts to break?"
(And could it be that war, on the collective level, and violent crime, on the individual level, are the way broken hearts replay their wounding, projecting it outward -- the result of being so deeply wounded that we come to believe woundedness and wounding are our fundamental nature?)

As an herbalist, I treat stress-related disorders with adaptogens and nervines -- much as Civil War doctors used the tinctured root of Lady Slipper. These medicines are important -- I have seen them help people who were prisoners of anxiety reclaim their lives.

But walking the forests of Maine where the Lady Slippers are coming back in greater and greater numbers, I remember that the most important work I do involves connecting people with the living Earth that is the source of their healing.

That's the medicine that makes hearts whole again.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Ground Ivy

Image from Wikipedia, source: Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany

[This post is my contribution to the Blog Party being hosted by an amazing herbalist, Darcey Blue French, at on the theme of "Weeds of Summer that you love to love, that others love to hate...."]

Weeds are the outlaws of the plant world -- plants that escape cultivation and resist eradication, slipping in where they aren't wanted, subverting the gardener's idea of control. Medicinal allies of the common people, dismissed by the medical profession throughout history (think of the plants whose Latin binomials contain the word vulgaris.)

Neither of Ground Ivy's Latin names (Glechoma Hederacea or Nepeta Glechoma) contain the word vulgaris, but Ground Ivy otherwise fits the definition well. According to a website maintained by Purdue University's School of agriculture "Ground ivy is difficult to control and it is a problem in 31% of lawns maintained professionally in Indiana." The State of Connecticut officially made Ground Ivy an outlaw, banning its cultivation in 2004. They were, of course, a bit late -- the tiny creeping mint came over with the first colonists who used it to make medicine and ale.

(Alehoof was a common name for the plant a few hundred years ago, reflecting its use as a bitter in beermaking prior to the standardization of beer composition that began with the German Beer Purity Law of 1516, a law designed in large part to end the production and consumption of psychotropic and aphrodesiac beers. See Stephen Harrod Buhner's Sacred and Healing Herbal Beers for more on this history.)

Ground Ivy was popular in British and American folk medicine well into the nineteenth century. Maude Grieve wrote:
"From early days, Ground Ivy has been endowed with singular curative virtues, and is one of the most popular remedies for coughs and nervous headaches. It has even been extolled before all other vegetable medicines for the cure of consumption.

"An excellent cooling beverage, known in the country as Gill Tea, is made from this plant, 1 OZ. of the herb being infused with a pint of boiling water, sweetened with honey, sugar or liquorice, and drunk when cool in wineglassful doses, three or four times a day. This used to be a favourite remedy with the poor for coughs of long standing, being much used in consumption. Ground Ivy was at one time one of the cries of London for making a tea to purify the blood. It is a wholesome drink and is still considered serviceable in pectoral complaints and in cases of weakness of the digestive organs, being stimulating and tonic, though it has long been discarded from the Materia Medica as an official plant, in favour of others of greater certainty of action. As a medicine useful in pulmonary complaints, where a tonic for the kidneys is required, it would appear to possess peculiar suitability, and is well adapted to all kidney complaints"

Despite (or more likely because of) its popularity, Ground Ivy was not well regarded by physicians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1869, William Cook wrote that "the marvelous repute it once enjoyed in England, has very properly faded away." The 1918 edition of the Dispensatory of the United States of America said:
"The herb was formerly official, and still enjoys some credit as a domestic remedy. It has a peculiar, disagreeable odor, and a bitterish, somewhat aromatic taste, and imparts its properties to boiling water. It is very prone to have galls developed on it, and to be infested with certain fungi."
But in recent years, the herb has made its way back into medicine, and even into commerce.

I was introduced to Ground Ivy by Madelon Hope of the Boston School of Herbal Studies who spoke of the plant's affinity for the upper respiratory system I gathered the flowers this spring and tinctured them in 80 proof Vodka. The tincture was ready just as I had a number of clients come to me complaining of head colds marked by severe sinus congestion, slight throat irritation and inflamation, and minor swelling of the lymph nodes in the throat. I used Ground Ivy in a formula with Yarrow and Elder Flowers and Berries at a dosage of 30-60 drops every 4 hours depending on body weight, and most clients reported relief from all symptoms by the end of the first day. I have found Ground Ivy very effective in relieving my own sinus congestion and inflamation.

David Winston speaks of several uses I have not yet explored in his section on the plant in his American Extra Pharmacoepia, including:
  • clearing toxic heat from the liver and gallbladder and promoting bile excretion
  • getting the blood moving and reducing swelling in traumatic injuries
  • increasing lead excretion in urine
Winston also notes that Ground Ivy has antiviral qualities -- which supports the emerging sense among many herbalists that rapidly spreading plants tend to be effective in treating rapidly spreading diseases.

This little outlaw who grows close to the ground and quickly overtakes yards and pastures is fast becoming one of my favorite medicinal plants.

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.