Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Crab-Apple Magic

‎"Our wild apple is wild only like myself, perchance, who belong not to the aboriginal race here, but have strayed into the woods from cultivated stock." -- Henry David Thoreau

My people aren't from here.

But my bones are.

My biological ancestors come from places where the invaders began clearing the forests and outlawing traditional religions 500 years before that same genocide reached the shores of this continent.

My great-grandfather came from "beyond the Pale" -- the line that separated the "civilized" English speaking parts of Ireland from the "wild" Gaeltacht. He was a Captain in the IRA who left at the age of 21 with a price on his head. The last person in my line to be born in his ancestral homeland.

So when I invoke the magic of my blood ancestors, I am invoking the magic of places I have never known.

But I have lived all my life in New England. The water I drink, the air I breathe, the food I eat are of this place -- every cell of my body comes from this land.

I've known these forests and fields and swamps and this seashore since I was born. The bullfrogs and spring peepers sang me to sleep throughout my childhood.

It was in the forests of Maine that my adult self first realized that the trees and lichens were speaking to me. And it was in the swamp behind my parents' house in North Andover, MA that I realized Skunk Cabbage had been singing to me in my dreams since before I could speak.

So as a pagan who believes that the world is alive where do I look for the ceremonies and rituals and magic that shape my practice? And as an herbalist what traditions do I look to guide me in connecting with the wild medicines around me?

The gods of my ancestors come when I call them, they recognize something in my blood. But their traditional rituals are connected with the stones and water and forests of another time and place -- forests that were burned or cut over a thousand years ago.

Their healing traditions teach ways of approaching and understanding plants, but the plants that I find when I am out wildcrafting are a hodge-podge of European and North American species.

The traditions that do come from this place belong to people who have survived genocide and are living under occupation (much as my great-grandfather did) and understandably don't want descendants of Europeans appropriating and claiming their medicine and ceremony as their own.

And yet, as someone who has devoted my life to serving the wild and feral plants that are themselves ancestors of mine from a time before humans knew such divisions, it behooves me to pay attention to the healing and ritual technologies of the people who have lived on this land the longest.

Its a fine line to walk -- honoring the traditions of my blood ancestors while understanding that to be true to their spirit I need to find new forms that fit this time and place. Looking to the knowledge of those who best understand the physical and spiritual geology and ecology of the place where I live without claiming their traditions as my own.

Like my great-grandfather's people, I've put myself beyond the Pale, outside the wall that defines the border of the civilization that dominates the world around me. But unlike them I am an interloper on this land.

My body, and my spiritual, magical, and herbal practices are very much like a Crab-Apple tree -- ancestral seeds from Europe planted in North America, their DNA changed by the place where they take root.

I trust the wind and water and soil to guide me in that process of becoming something new.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Stuck in the mud with snow on the ground : Digging Skunk Cabbage roots

This post is part of the "Adventures in Herbalism" Blog Party hosted by Darcey Blue French at http://www.gaiasgifts.blogspot.com/

Sometimes the things that make a plant so amazing also make it extremely hard to gather.

So it is with Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).

Autumn would theoretically be the best time to harvest roots in a swamp in New England. The trouble is that by that time, the leaves of the Skunk Cabbage have died back. So why not just mark the location of the plant earlier in the season and then come back to it?

Skunk Cabbage has contractile roots -- and those roots allow the plants to move slowly across the swamp.

So if you want to dig the roots at the point when the plant's energy is concentrated underground, you have to do it in spring.

The trouble is that what a Skunk Cabbage calls spring in New England is quite different from what we call spring.

You see, Skunk Cabbage in a thermogenic plant. It generates heat to melt the ground around it.

So the flower of the Skunk Cabbage begins to appear when the ground is still frozen and there is often still snow on the ground.

And the time to harvest the roots is when the bud of the flower is still green -- before it opens and turns purple.

So that means slogging out over thin ice into a still frozen swamp.

When you find a bud peaking up through the frozen muck, its time to begin digging it up.

As you dig, the chilly water the plant melted begins to flood the hole and try to suck the plant back down.

And with a shovel its hard to really find how far the root goes down.

So once you have broken the ground, you really need to reach down and start digging with your hands, grasping the plant at its base with one hand, and beginning to extract the long tendrils from the mud.

Some of the plants can be hundreds of years old. And even a fifty year old plant has pretty big roots. And on the surface the one year old plant and the 300 year old plant look just the same. The only way to choose which one to harvest is to ask the plants. And sometimes its the old Grandfathers that will most want to provide their medicine.

So you soon find yourself stooped over in the swamp, almost elbow deep in the muck.

In order to be able to feel the roots you don't want anything thicker than a pair of rubber kitchen gloves. And they don't offer much insulation. And they only reach to your wrists. So you get cold fast. And after a while the tannins in the swamp mud begin working on your skin too -- along with the oxalate crystals of the Skunk Cabbage itself.

And when you are done digging that one plant and are ready to get up and move on to the next, the swamp sucks at your feet. Last March I lost the sole of one of my shoes after digging the roots of one Grandfather and finished the day's harvest with my foot wrapped in a garbage bag.

So I guess it says something about the kind of herbalist that I am that I look forward to the Skunk Cabbage harvest all year long.

Because part of the medicine comes in the harvest.

Harvesting any root is an act of connecting with the Underworld.

Harvesting Skunk Cabbage is almost an Underworld initiation in its own right.

It forces you outside your comfort zone, bringing you bodily into the world beneath the surface of the swamp that you would normally never see.

And you come back with a medicine that helps to dredge up the things that keep you from being fully present in this world -- be it phlegm deep in the lungs, deep depression, or fluid built up anywhere in the body where it doesn't belong. And it calms the tremors and convulsions of that birth -- be it coughing, epilepsy, or uterine spasms.

You can't be born again without going through a dark, wet tunnel.

Harvesting Skunk Cabbage can bring you to the entrance of one passage that will carry you through.

NOTE: Since writing this, I've heard from an herbalist whose family has been harvesting Eastern Skunk Cabbage roots in summer for several generations. Apparently drying the roots in an oven will eliminate enough Calcium Oxalate crystals to make the roots safe to use in a decoction.

Never the less, I do still think early Spring is the best time to harvest the roots -- the plant's energy remains concentrated in the roots at that early point before flowering.

Wendy Snow Fogg tells me that William LeSassier taught his students to harvest the roots in early spring by putting a knife into the center of the spathe.

Friday, July 2, 2010

This Root Doctor does not intend to diagnose or treat medical conditions . . .

When I first began practicing as an herbalist, I resented the standard disclaimer we are all taught to put on our intake forms and our websites -- "These products and services are not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any medical condition."

I felt like these words diminished the importance and power of the work I was doing. And it seemed somehow dishonest given that many of my first clients were people who were eschewing the medical system altogether, people for whom I was the primary health care practitioner.

But the deeper I have gone into this work, the more I have realized that my work has nothing to do with diagnosing or treating medical conditions -- though occasionally the protocols I've recommended have probably helped to cure them.

You see, contemporary medical science and practice for the most part, views the human body as a collection of parts. Diseases and injuries are identified by their symptoms and surgical and pharmaceutical strategies are developed to correct these particular symptoms by manipulating particular chemical and mechanical functions in particular organs and systems.

This approach works remarkably well to reverse symptoms in acute situations -- resuscitating someone who has had a heart attack or stopping an aggressive blood infection. We can do these things with herbs too, but medical procedures have a higher success rate here.

But the longer a condition persists and the longer a treatment is continued, the less predictable the outcome will be, and the more unintended consequences begin to develop. Steroid inhalers do a great job of opening the airways of an asthmatic in the short term, but over time lead to problems with the adrenals that contribute to the underlying autoimmune condition.

Some herbalists would suggest that the problem is that pharmaceutical drugs are too biochemically crude and that herbs can work better for chronic conditions because the plants that pharmaceutical drugs are derived from often contain chemicals that counteract side effects of the isolated compounds used in those drugs. And this is certainly true to a point. Many then take the next step and say that herbs can be used to replace pharmaceuticals in the treatment of chronic medical conditions and that we need to identify which herbs can most reliable be used to treat which diseases using which chemical pathways. And then find ways to standardize their cultivation, processing, and use.

This is where I take a sharp turn in another direction.

Because to me medical conditions are nothing but taxonomic descriptions of particular states of particular organs or systems in particular moments.

And they are meaningful only when the primary focus is on addressing the immediate symptoms.

But just as the laws of physics change when operating on different scales of space and time, so too medicine's description of the workings of the body and the actions of certain medicines in the body tends to break down when you change the frame of reference.

The body turns out to be more than the sum of its parts -- it is a living, self-organizing system. And changing a particular aspect of the operation of that system can have a host of seemingly unpredictable consequences to those who apply strictly mechanical and biochemical models to a dynamic system with a complex logic of its own.

I align myself most strongly with the rural New England Root Doctors of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who, working with insights gleaned from European folk medicine and what knowledge they could gather of Indigenous traditions, worked to treat the person, not the disease, attempting to understand and work with what the body was trying to do to heal itself and bring itself back into balance.

Their philosophy was best articulated by some of the heirs of their tradition, the great Physiomedicalist physicians of the middle and later nineteenth century. Dr. William Cook wrote in 1869 that ""The living body is held in life and action by a living force" and healing is best promoted by supporting the actions of that force. His contemporary, Dr. T.J. Lyle said that "in the art of curing disease we can but influence to contract and relax with varied degrees of rapidity and energy in imitation of nature's way of using these structures in health."

In doing so, its necessary to find the imbalance -- the obstacle to cure -- that is preventing the body from healing itself, and remove it through an equal and opposite corrective action. Lyle wrote:

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

The simplest ways to do this involve meeting the body's unmet needs for sleep, exercise, hydration, and nutrition.

But sometimes its necessary to bring in outside agents to effect change by warming or cooling, moistening or drying, stimulating or relaxing, in accordance with what the body itself is trying to do. This is at the core of my work.

Because plants have bodies remarkably similar to ours, they are constantly developing strategies for dealing with stresses remarkably similar to those experienced by our bodies. Like our bodies, theirs are trying to obtain or maintain balance. So plants that live in wet areas develop strategies for dealing with excess moisture. Plants that live in hot, dry conditions develop strategies for cooling and moistening their tissues.

And like us plants are more than the sum of their parts. In the laboratory it may be possible to identify particular compounds that produce particular results in particular conditions, but these are not the whole of the plants' medicine.

Plants operate as deep teachers to our bodies, helping us learn new strategies for correcting imbalances.

My work as an herbalist is the work of connecting people with plants that can help them find physical, emotional, and spiritual balance.

Any resemblance to work intended to diagnose or treat medical conditions is purely incidental.