Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Self Medicating

I am always a bit taken aback when I hear herbalists using the term ``self-medication`` in disparaging ways.

After all, self-medication is a big part of what we promote. We encourage our friends, our families, our students, our clients, sometimes even people in line at the grocery store to try Elderberry elixir at the first sign of the flu, or an onion poultice for a nasty cough.  We teach kids to chew up Plantain leaves and make spit poultices for bee stings and bug bites.  And we talk about the right of people to make informed choices about what they put into their own bodies.

Sure, if someone tells us she has been taking Oregano oil internally for persistent colds we might tell her about the damage to the lining of the digestive tract that her go to cure might be causing, and the impact of that damage on her immune function, and suggest some better alternatives.   And if one of those nasty colds turns into pneumonia, we might suggest that she go to see a clinical herbalist or a naturopath or even a doctor.   But all of that is likely to come with a compassionate understanding that our friend is doing the best she can with the resources she has to meet a real need.

So why then is there so much moral judgement when we speak of people ``self-medicating`` for spiritual or emotional pain with Cannabis or alcohol or sugar or what have you?   The people doing this are doing the best they can to get through their days with the strategies that have been successful enough to keep them going in the face of that pain.   No, these strategies are not the ones we would recommend if someone asked us -- but why judge them more harshly than the strategy of taking Oregano oil internally for colds?  And, yes, these strategies tend to exacerbate the underlying problems.  But so does the strategy of giving steroids for asthma.

I would love to see us as herbalists approach people who have been trying to deal with pain and trauma through substances that make them hurt less in the short term with the same compassion we have for people who have tried every treatment they could imagine for the chronic physical health problems that are disrupting their lives.   Shame and guilt compound people`s suffering, and the using the term ``self-medication`` in disparaging ways suggests that we don`t trust everyone to make their own health decisions.  

The people who seek our help deserve to be treated with dignity and kindness and respect, no matter what the source of their pain may be, and no matter what they have done to deal with it.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Working with all things

"A witch works with all things." -- Karina BlackHeart
This past year had brought me many places I never expected to be -- I am now teaching at a college in Victoria, BC, across a continent and a national border from the place I thought I would always call home.   I arrived here at the end of a winding journey across North America that required that I muster power and resources I never imagined I had.

But none of the events of the past year challenged my sense of who and how I am in the world more than my visit to a medical clinic in northwestern Washington in late August to have a basal cell carcinoma removed from my face.

In late October I will go back for a second procedure to (hopefully) remove the last of the cancer.

Before August, I hadn't set foot in a doctor's office for over five years.

For the first thirty three years of my life, I had depended on pharmaceuticals to manage my asthma, in the process ravaging my adrenal glands and spiking my cortisol levels.   I had dealt with doctors who made me feel ashamed of my body, throwing me into a cycle of brief attempts to bully my body into health with scattershot changes in my diet,  followed by crashes into feelings of guilt, failure, and hopelessness.   I was struggling with depression and well on my way to diabetes and heart disease and convinced there was nothing I could do to change it.

And then I met an herbalist and an herb (Elecampane) who would change my ideas of health and healing, my experience of living in my body.  Feeling the way Elecampane cleared my lungs and the grief they held allowed me to feel my body's capacity to heal and change itself with the support of a plant's living medicine. 

I grew more and more uncomfortable with pharmaceuticals manufactured through toxic processes and with approaches to medicine rooted in a mechanistic model of human biology.   And as my trust in plants and in my own body deepened, I reached a point where I felt like I needed to entirely renounce a medical system that seemed like it had only alienation and frustration to offer me. 

I was rejecting the dogma that health care is a service performed on people by doctors in favor of a belief in medicine rooted in rich relationships between people and plants and a belief in the intelligence of the vital force that animates us. 

There was power in that renunciation to be sure -- it sharpened and deepened my dedication to the Craft that I was beginning to recognize as my calling.

But in time it hardened into a personal dogma.

It was the mirror image of the mindset I was rebelling against -- and it was flawed in exactly the same ways.  I was rightly angry at the refusal of so many in the medical system to acknowledge the value of any approach to healing that was outside their own realm of experience and expertise.   But I was imitating that same closed mindedness by insisting that there was nothing worthwhile for me to find within the realm of conventional medicine.

And like any dogma, it stopped me from thinking and feeling and questioning in crucial ways.

And for the better part of a year and half it kept me from addressing my skin cancer.    I explained it away with partial truths.   I told myself that it was going away when, in fact, it was growing.    But, finally, I was forced to admit that it was a cancer and that it needed to be cut away.   And that I needed a doctor to do that.

When someone I love and trust finally pushed me to see what I was refusing to see, I was lucky to find a doctor willing and able to quickly schedule surgery for me, an uninsured patient with no primary care physician.   Smart, compassionate, and skilled, he got most of the cancer on the first attempt.   And when the lab work came back showing that the margins weren't clear, he was quick to contact me and help me figure out the next steps.  I was lucky that way.

In the end, my medical care will cost me roughly what I usually make in two months of teaching and seeing clients -- a lot more than I can afford to pay, but far better than the medical bills many people in the U.S. are dealing with.

In some ways, the process has reinforced my critique of the medical system in the U.S.

At no point in the process has there been any discussion of why I have this cancer, what other problems it may point to, or what I can do to prevent its recurrence -- all of that is outside the scope and purview of the treatment generally offered to people going to doctors for basal cell carcinoma.  Conventional medicine tends to view this kind of carcinoma as a discrete event.  To be sure, thankfully, it is not life threatening and this kind of cancer is not known to metastasise.   But its also clear to me that no health problem, let alone any cancer, exists in a vacuum.   And to contextualize what is happening, and develop strategies to keep moving my body toward health, I will have to look outside conventional medicine.

But its also clear to me that I need this doctor's knowledge and surgical skill to "remove the obstacle to cure" by cutting away the cancerous cells.   My body can better heal itself, with the support of plants, once it no longer has to deal with the carcinoma.

Matthew Wood writes that

"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."

I would say that what this brush with cancer has revealed for me is that I believe in working with all things -- with my own knowledge, with my body's own intelligence, with my beloved healing plants, and with other people, herbalists and doctors, licensed and unlicensed, who can see things I can't see from inside myself, and in some cases do things I can't do -- like performing surgery.

Monday, June 18, 2012


There is a popular meme going around Facebook that says that foods are good for the organs they resemble -- Walnuts are good for the brain and the prostate, Kidney Beans are good for the kidneys, etc.

It's a simplified version of an old belief: the Doctrine of Signatures, the idea that the physical form of a plant suggests something about its medicine.

The doctrine is often ridiculed by rationalists as "magical thinking." Being a witch, I personally find some magical thinking quite useful. But, I insist that my own magical thinking be grounded in my experience of the world, and I attempt to bring the same precision and care to it that any other art or science would demand. Sloppy thinking is sloppy thinking, be it magical or scientific.

The version of the Doctrine of Signatures most people are familiar with today comes in the form of a system of correspondences: yellow plants act on the liver, plants with big leaves act on the skin and the lungs. Such correspondences often prove true, but divorced from the gnosis from which they were initially derived, they lose some of their power to illuminate deeper and more particular truths about the plants we encounter.

The way I see it, the "signatures" of plants are products of direct observation, and as such are particular to the time and place in which they are observed, the cultural and personal framework through which the observer is interpreting the information, and the relationship between the person and the plant.   Signatures not are fixed signs communicating an absolute truth about a plant, but rather representations of our own minds' interpretations of the information plants are sharing. Stephen Buhner posits that human-plant communication occurs, in part, when the brain receives information about the fluctuation of the electromagnetic field of the heart as it comes into contact with the electromagnetic field of a plant. It makes sense to me that the mind would translate some of that information in symbolic terms, giving the sense that a particular aspect of the plant's form conveys a particular meaning.

So, if signatures are particular to a time and place and set of relationships, why do different herbalists perceive similar signatures when they encounter the same plant?  Just as different people encountering the same person in different situations might describe the same personality traits, so too different people encountering the same plants in different situations will often notice similar qualities. And of course the minds of people within the same culture draw on similar symbols. Drawing on these shared symbolic languages, it is possible to describe plants in ways that evoke something of their magic and medicine, pointing others toward contact with some aspect of their being.

In contrast, the Facebook meme that I mentioned above exemplifies a common misconception -- the idea that the classical Doctrine of Signatures taught  that God shaped things in such a way that their form reveals their usefulness for humans.  This is a gross oversimplification and misunderstanding of the writings of mystical scientists and philosophers like Jakob Boehme and Paracelsus whose writings defined western understandings of the doctrine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Both believed, as Matthew Wood writes, that  "the whole natural world corresponds to the archetypal world, which gives it form and meaning."  They saw ours as a world in which archetypes, fallen into the realm of matter, take on imperfect physical forms. They believed that human intuition could recognize the patterns in the physical world that reveal archetypal form and meaning.   Rather than believing that the forms of plants reveal hidden messages from God about the plants' uses, they saw signatures as gateways to understanding and perceiving plants in their original, perfect, immaterial forms.

Embedded in modern misunderstanding of the Doctrine of Signatures is the assumption that other beings were created for the benefit of humans, a belief that is often extended into the human sphere as well -- the idea that women were created for the benefit of men, that people of colour were created for the benefit of white people. Such ideas found their most disturbing expression in  the "science" of phrenology that used the size and shape of human skulls as a way of justifying eugenics and white supremacy.  Nothing in the work of Paracelsus or Boehme supports these notions.

But the work of Paracelsus and Boehme is rooted in the view that our world is fallen and imperfect -- a belief I do not share. The particles that make up my body were present at the birth of the universe.  So were the particles of every Redwood and of the soil and air and water and sun that sustain us.  Because of this, I believe that nothing is separate from the divine; we are all part of divinity experiencing itself in infinite variety.  From this perspective, signatures can be seen as representations of how one part of the living world experiences and understands another.

So I believe in holding the Doctrine of Signatures lightly -- viewing signatures as organic poetry emerging from the encounter of beings inhabiting different bodies and speaking in different ways. And like all poetry, signatures have life when they are felt viscerally, die when they are memorized and recited by rote, and mislead when they are taken too literally.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lemons don't dry in the rainforest: notes on bioregional magic

When you stand in your own power, people tend to have some strong visceral responses -- conscious and unconscious, positive and negative and somewhere in between. Most magical traditions have warnings about and protections against "the evil eye" -- and the "evil eye" doesn't always come in the form of a hex or a deliberately wrought energetic attack (although it certainly can.) Resentment, envy, jealousy, fear, and anger are strong emotions, and if you are someone who attracts a lot of attention -- whether you are the "village witch" in a small, conservative town or someone writing and teaching in public or just the kind of person whose presence is immediately noticed when you walk into a room -- those emotions can be directed at you with an intensity and volume that really begins to take its toll.

So cleansing and protection are an essential part of my magical practice. I take salt water baths to slough off the energetic detritus of the day. I burn various and sundry leaves and roots and resins to clear my home and my car and the spaces where I teach or see clients. And, until recently, I regularly did a Lemon uncrossing spell.

There are various versions of the Lemon uncrossing spell, with accompanying incantations that reflect various worldviews, but the core technology is the same. The practitioner holds a Lemon and envisions all the sour spells and prayers and intentions directed toward hir being drawn instead to the sour fruit. The Lemon is then cut into three or four pieces, depending on the version of the spell, and those pieces are covered with salt and left to dry. If the Lemon pieces dry, the energies drawn into the Lemon have been cleared. If the Lemon molds, the spell needs to be repeated.

The spell worked well for me for a good long time. And then I moved to the rainforest.

A few days after I moved here, I performed the spell and put the Lemon slices by my altar.

A week passed. The Lemon slices had soaked up most of the salt but were still pretty moist. The salt preserved them well -- there was no mold. But clearly they weren't going to dry as they were. So I added more salt.

Then another week passed. Still no mold. But the Lemon slices still weren't dry.

Nothing in my life was suggesting a steady slow flow of malice, so I reached the obvious conclusion: there's no amount of salt that will dry out a Lemon in any reasonable period of time in my particular corner of the world. A spell based on drying Lemons just doesn't work in the land of Western Red Cedar and Salmonberries and Western Skunk Cabbage. It was clear that I needed to adapt my magic to my new surroundings.

Being the kind of witch that I am, I began looking to the plants around me to find someone who could bring the kind of protection I wanted.

Himalayan Blackberry came to mind, as I am myself the cultural equivalent of an invasive species adapting to a new part of the world. But its ecological niche suggests to me more the kind of protection afforded in the wake of the equivalent of the emotional equivalent of a clearcut, allowing new growth that will bring forth sweet fruit. Beautiful but not quite what I was looking for.

Hawthorn brings protection from those who blunder into your heart space, and Rose brings protection for the heart to open -- but again not quite what I was seeking.

What I was looking for was Devil's Club.

I'm wary about adopting practices from other peoples' traditions -- especially when I am an interloper on their land.   And at the same time, I believe that the magic and medicine of a plant are inseparable, and the experience of people who have lived in a place for a long time is important to look at as I begin to know the plants that grow there.    And nearly everywhere that Devil's Club grows, its stem or bark or ash are traditionally used for purification, cleansing, and protection. 

All of this resonates with my own first experiences of Devil's Club -- which first called to me when I was sitting in a clinic in New England, looking for a plant to help someone who seemed to feel entirely unsafe and out of place in the world.  Just opening a jar of the root bark beside him made him sit up straight and brought a light to his eyes and a confidence to his voice.

Devil's Club can grow to be six feet tall, and has a woody, resinous, thorny bark that surrounds a pith core.  When it gets bent down to the ground it roots and begins growing upward again.  New stalks spread in a ring around the place where the first one grew.   Small, delicate plants often grow in the midst of a Devil's Club patch, taking advantage of the the spiny protection.

Here along the Salish Sea its late April when Devil's Club begins to bud.  A single maroon bud grows from the tip of each stalk, concentrating tremendous life force.   Biting one, I feel a surge through my body -- and I am strong and alive and aroused.

Devil's Club brings me the protection to concentrate on raising and standing in my own power without the distraction of worrying about judgements and ill intentions being directed toward me.

Interestingly, Ryan Drum notes that in some traditions, houses are made from Devil's Club spines "to prepare for important work and to warn away intruders; some references claim (pers. comm) that certain healers lived outside the village longhouse area in such huts, frequently built into huge hollow western red cedar stumps."   

This fits with my sense that the plant has an affinity for people doing a certain kind of work -- the work of walking back and forth between worlds, maintaining connection with the wild and divine to serve the human community.

This is not a medicine for everyone   Devil's Club is a demanding teacher, insisting that those who come for help be willing to leave behind their games of playing small and bending over and shrinking back and begin showing up more fully in the world.   The sheer amount of energy the plant brings surging through the body can be overwhelming for some people.   And while it is locally abundant enough in many places for a respectful wildcrafter to make enough medicine for hir own use each year without depleting the population, it is not common or prolific enough to support commercial harvesting -- and indeed commercial harvesting in some places is threatening the plant's availability for local, traditional medicinal and ceremonial use.

But for me Devil's Club brings the protection and support I need for the work I am doing here on this land.

I won't speak here of the exact ways I work with the plant -- the intimate particulars grow out of a personal relationship with the plant, and would not be the same for you as they are for me.  

The plant that will bring the right protection for you is growing in the forest or swamp or prairie or desert around you waiting for you to come asking with an open heart.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Upcoming Workshops -- CA, OR, WA, and BC!

Plants and the Twilight Realms
Saturday April 14, 2012 - 10am to 5pm
219 "D" Street in Old Town Eureka (next door to Humboldt Herbals)
$75 - $100, sliding scale
(Please call or stop by Humboldt Herbals to register and prepay)
Something flashes just at the edge of your vision and disappears into the woods.
Faint music drifts through the air on a night when the air is thick with the scent of Apple blossoms.
Many cultures have stories of other worlds - faerie realms separated from our own world by a thin veil. Of people disappearing into worlds of wonder and peril - and those who come back to tell the tale coming back transformed. And in many of those stories and traditions, plants guard the entrance to those worlds.
In this workshop, you will meet plants traditionally associated with the border between this world and the realms of magic, and look at the ways the folklore about these plants relates to their medicine and their ecology. You will spend time with Hawthorn, Datura, Black Cohosh, Ghost Pipe, and Wood Betony, coming to know each plant in a new way.

Please wear comfortable clothes. Bring a notebook, pen, water, and food to keep you comfortable during the day. We'll have folding chairs, but if that's not comfortable for you, you're welcome to bring your own chair or seat cushions. Many dining options are available in Old Town for lunch during our break.

Please call Humboldt Herbals at (707) 442-3541 with any questions or for additional information.

Feel free to forward this invitation to others who might be interested!
Re-Wilding Magical Herbalism
a workshop in Portland Oregon with herbalist, Sean Donahue
Saturday April 21st, 2012 10-6pm
$75-100 sliding scale
Magical herbalism is often presented today as a set of memorized correspondences: Cinnamon to attract love or money. Rue to ward off "the evil eye." But these traditions all arose from people's deep personal relationships with the plants that grew around them, and from understandings of the world in which the magic and medicine of plants were inextricably linked. This workshop explores simple approaches to developing an organic and living personal spiritual and magical practice grounded in real relationships with wild and feral plants, and the role that kind of practice can play in personal, cultural, and ecological healing.
Sean Donahue is a traditional herbalist, poet and witch. As a teacher, he encourages students to build their own deep, personal relationship with the plants around them grounded in the experience of their own senses and their own hearts. He identifies deeply with the traditions of the edge dwellers – those who live in the places where the human and wild meet, bridging the worlds. For Sean, magic, medicine, and poetry are all expressions of a deep connection to the living Earth, and personal, cultural, and ecological healing are inextricably linked. For more about Sean and the work he does you can visit medicineandmagic.com
To save your spot in this workshop please contact Nicole Pepper at nicoleisnicole@hotmail.com, Spaces are limited, Pre-registration Required. Location in NE Portland TBA.
Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA --
The Evergreen State College Organic Farm House
Free for TESC students --
$5 for one workshop, or $8 for both for community members.

Plants and the Twilight Realms 1-3:30 pm
Something flashes just at the edge of your vision and disappears into the woods.Faint music drifts through the air on a night when the air is thick with the scent of Apple blossoms.Many cultures have stories of other worlds – faerie realms separated from our own world by a thin veil. Of people disappearing into worlds of wonder and peril – and those who come back to tell the tale coming back transformed. And in many of those stories and traditions, plants guard the entrance to those worlds.
In this workshop, you will meet plants traditionally associated with the border between this world and the realms of magic, and look at the ways the folklore about these plants relates to their medicine and their ecology. You will spend time withHawthorn, Datura, Black Cohosh, Ghost Pipe, and Wood Betony, coming to know eachplant in a new way.
Wild Healing, Wild Ecstasy: Plants for Reclaiming Authentic Sexuality 5-7:30 pm
Guilt, shame, fear, and pain abound in our culture, separating us from the core of who we are. This is especially prevalent and damaging in relation to sex and sexuality.
Plants are our biological ancestors and relations and possess an intelligence of theirown -- one that is not filtered through the myths and lies and complexes our culture hasbuilt around sex. In this workshop we'll explore how plants can help us heal some of thepain we carry around sex and reclaim our own authentic sexuality.
An Introduction to Traditional Western Herbal Energetics with Sean Donahue,
May 12-13 2012
Pacific Rim College -- Victoria, BC
In most traditions of medicine around the world, practitioners are guided by systems of energetics - ways of describing and classifying patterns of disease and properties of plants that provide a basis for knowing which plant is appropriate for which condition. These systems are rooted in observation and the sensory experience. Many westerners look to Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to learn about energetics - and these rich traditions provide amazing insights about human bodies and the plants and foods that can help them heal. But there is also a western system of energetics - blending European traditions rooted in Egyptian and Greek medicine with the experiences and discoveries of 18th and 19th century North American herbalists. This workshop offers a basic introduction to Traditional Western Herbalism. You will learn about the origins of this system of energetics, its emphasis on respecting and supporting the "vital force" that helps the body maintain health, and ways of identifying and correcting imbalances based on polarities of heat and cold, dampness and dryness, and tension and laxity. In the process you will try several herbs yourself and learn to recognize the ways they shift energetic patterns in your body. By the end of the weekend, you will have learned the basic concepts of a system that can help you understand what's happening in someone's body and choose the right herbs to support the body's own healing processes.
Course Tuition:
Regular - $300 (Early Bird - $285, until April 30)
Students* - $275 (Early Bird - $250, until April 30)
*PRC diploma students will receive 1 academic credit for this workshop.
Course Registration:
To register, please phone toll-free 1-866-890-6082 or email the Registrar at admin@pacif icrimcollege.ca. Full payment is due at time of registration to confirm placement in the course. Payment can be made via MasterCard or Visa, debit, cash and cheque.
Withdrawal Policy:
For course withdrawals submitted in writing or in person 30 days or more before the start of the course, registrants will receive a full tuition refund less a $40 non-refundable registration fee. For course withdrawals submitted in writing or in person more than 14 days but less than 30 days before the start of the course, registrants will receive a 50% tuition refund. Without exception, no refunds will be given for course withdrawals less than 14 days before the start of the course.
Sean is available to teach on the west coast this spring and summer. E-mail seandonahuepoet@gmail.com
He will also be teaching at the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference in Arizona this September.

Monday, March 26, 2012

FREE Recording

Bardic Brews has just posted a free recording of a talk I gave on"Talking with the Plants" --


Go on over and have a listen . . . and if you like what you here and want to delve deeper, there are still spaces available in my "Talking With the Plants" Course that runs from April 15 - September 15 --