John Northage, 1951-2012

At the very end of 2011, I lost two people who were very important to me. One was Willa Sleath, who counts among her many accomplishments leadership roles at the legendary Findhorn in Scotland, and Keeper of the Chalice Well in my beloved Glastonbury (where I met her). The year couldn't make an exit without also taking my cherished friend Tony Rose, whom I'd been going to visit since he was the spry age of 85 (he passed away just after Christmas at the age of 96). Tony was exceedingly dear to me, and I am so happy that while all of my memories of him are joyful ones (all of them!), the last day I spent with him, Willa also came to visit, and it was a stunningly beautiful, sunny, record-breakingly warm day in England (85 degrees in early October). We had a beautiful lunch prepared by Tony's wife (my first Glastonbury friend, Daphne), and everyone was dressed smartly.  It was nothing short of magical.

Just when I was afraid to ask, "What next?" 2011 went away and I was relieved to see the back of it. But then I received the shocking, tragic, heart-smashing news that my mentor's husband had died suddenly on January 29, 2012. 

I don't have many words to say about that; I've said what I have to say at his memorial service and have shared with his family (which in many ways are my family too) what is in my heart. But what matters is that you know about who John was, why his life was so damn important to this world, and why he will live on through the healing hands of students. Below is an obituary I wrote for him. Neither of the major Chicago rags picked it up, which is not surprising (even for an obit penned by a Medill grad). But here it is, so that anyone wanting to know more about him can find it here. See you next time around the wheel, John.


JohnAbove: John Northage in his trademark tie-dye uniform, with his wife Althea at his side. Alan Salmi at far left.

John Northage was well known and respected in the Chicagoland complementary and alternative healing community for his talents as a structural bodyworker, cranio-sacral therapist, acupuncturist, and energy worker. Aptly dubbed by many “a gentle giant,” Mr. Northage transformed the minds and bodies of hundreds of clients and students through his Rogers Park private practice and as a teacher at the Chicago College of Healing Arts.

“As a healer, John was amazing,” said his wife of 26 years, Althea Northage-Orr. “He had those enormous hands, but they were so delicate in their touch. I once watched him straighten out the cranial bones of an infant. She had come wearing a helmet, crying. When she felt his touch, she took a deep breath and stilled. She left with her head as normal as a baby’s head should be… His touch was magical.”

Mr. Northage died suddenly at his nature sanctuary near Culver, Ind., on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012, of an apparent heart attack.

Born John Robert Phillips Northage, Jr., on Oct. 20, 1951 in South Bend, Ind., to John Robert Phillips Northage and Genevieve Troyer, Mr. Northage spent his youth working on local farms. He earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Restaurant Management from Purdue University in 1973.

Mr. Northage worked in the restaurant industry and owned a landscaping business for several years until he met Althea Orr at a festival in Indiana in 1985. Within four and a half months they were married and living in Chicago, where they founded the Chicago Center for Psychophysical Healing in the late 1980s. Ms. Northage-Orr educated him in various healing modalities, including the structural integration bodywork for which he would later become famous. In 2000, they identified the need for organized, holistic education of herbalists, bodyworkers and acupuncturists, and founded the Chicago College of Healing Arts in the same building. In neighboring treatment rooms, the pair enjoyed extremely busy private practices.

They also found much happiness in raising their three children, Justin, Ariel, and Joanna, who grew up in the midst of a vast community of clients, students and colleagues for whom their parents served as a hub.

“He was an amazing parent to our three children, but he was a father figure to many, many other children as well,” said his wife.

Notably, many of these came from the Chicago Waldorf School where the Northage-Orr children received their education. Mr. Northage’s youthful adventures on farms and his talent for cooking for a crowd came in handy when the family bought their cherished 80 acres in Indiana, where they hosted Chicago Waldorf School second-grade field trips and their own college workshops for 20 years. Mr. Northage’s educational focus at these events was respecting the Earth and working in concert with nature. Unsurprisingly, he shaped the land himself, adding buildings, electrical and plumbing systems, landscaping, and growing herbs and crops. In more recent years, he turned his attention to perfecting a technique for making biodiesel, which powered his blue van.

One unforgettable characteristic of Mr. Northage’s was his lightning-quick sense of humor, which, despite its reliance on bad puns, was always impeccably timed, for good or ill. Mr. Northage also delighted in encouraging little ones’ suspicions that he was Santa Claus, welcoming them to tug on his peppermint-scented beard.

“He took great care of my mother and became her partner in everything; I often think their marriage was unique because of that,” said his eldest son, Justin. “He was a great father to me, my brother and my sister. He was generous of heart and taught us so many things.”

Mr. Northage is survived by his wife, Althea, sons Justin and Ariel, daughter Joanna, and by three sisters.

A memorial service will be held on Monday, Feb. 6, 2012, from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at the Chicago Waldorf School Auditorium, 1300 W. Loyola, Chicago, Ill., 60626.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made the Northage-Orr family to help the children complete their college and Waldorf education, and to offset funeral expenses. Checks may be made payable to Althea Northage-Orr and sent to 1622 W. Devon Ave., Chicago, Ill., 60660.

Elderflower Spritzers and Pancakes

EldercloseupFresh elder blossoms, pulled from their corymbs, harvested in Indiana.

It's just past midsummer here in Chicago, which means that the elders (Sambucus nigra) have already reached their peak bloom, but for those in cooler, higher climes, there's still time to get out and harvest the fragrant flowering heads of this incredible plant.

Elderflower is commonly used in the Western materia medica as a cooling, relaxing diaphoretic, possibly with antiviral activity (the ripe berry is especially prized for this -- stay tuned for Fall when I'll share some fantastic recipes for these). People often ask me how I escape Chicago winters with no colds or flu, and I attribute my good fortune directly to my use of big cups of hot elderflower tea with honey and frequent doses of elderberry syrup at the first sign of disease (this is one of the few herbs I use exclusively as a simple).

When I am lucky enough to harvest fresh elderflower at the Summer Solstice, I set aside a few blossoming corymbs on screens to dry for winter tea, but most of my spoils are used fresh in foods, representing some of the most fleeting joys of the season. I'd like to share two of my favorite recipes with you in this post.

Elderflower Spritzer

I was introduced to this on my first solo trip to Glastonbury in 2001. I'd spent an unseasonably hot May day hiking all over the countryside, across fields of nonplussed cows to Gog and Magog, and up the Tor and down again. Dusty, hot, and tired, on the way home I stopped in at Cafe Galatea on the High Street (the only place at the time with public Internet terminals, paid for by the quarter-hour chunk) and found an "Elderflower Spritzer" on the menu. I ordered it. I drank it. Then I ordered another one. And drank that.  

Let me tell you, there is no better way to end a hot summer day in England than by having a little elderflower cordial in a glass with ice, fresh lemon, and bubbly water.


And really there's nothing now that says summer to me like the elderflower spritzer, for its fleeting delicate beauty. Here's what you need to make this refreshing, low-alcohol drink at home:

Elderflower Spritzer

  • elderflower syrup or liqueur
  • dry white wine (torrontes, pinot grigio or viognier do well with their fruity grassy notes; vinho verde or a sparkling white are also nice and up the bubble factor)
  • sparkling water
  • fresh lemon
  • ice
  • elderflowers for garnish

If you have lots of fresh elderflower, you can make your own syrup as a base for this cocktail following a recipe like this one recorded by Langdon Cook at Fat of the Land. Alternatively, you can go to your local bougie market and buy an elderflower liqueur like St. Germain, or, perhaps more commonly found, one of the many brands of ready-made elderflower syrup (D'Arbo is a tried and true brand). 

I've evolved into an 'eyeball' cook -- that is, I don't often measure, and this non-principle applies tot he making of this cocktail. So here's how you assemble your Elderflower Spritzer:

  1. Pour a little elderflower syrup or liqueur into the bottom of your glass. How much depends on the size of the glass, but for a regular wine goblet I'd say it's a couple of tablespoons or so. You may add or subtract more to taste -- that is, how elder-y or how sweet you wish your drink to be.
  2. Add two or three cubes of ice.
  3. Add one or two thin wedges of lemon, squeezing the juice over the ice.
  4. Now fill the glass with half white wine and half sparkling water. You can adjust this ratio also, depending on how sparkly or how wine-y you wish your drink to be.
  5. Garnish with individual fresh elder blossoms, if you have them -- these add the high summer magic of the sidhe to your goblet.

Keep in mind that if you use liqueur instead of syrup, you'll have a squiffier cocktail -- you can cut back on the wine in this case, or eliminate it all together.

(Nota Bene: if you are ever in Glastonbury, get a meal or two at Cafe Galatea. I have never been disappointed by anything I have eaten there, and their mushroom cream sauce is outrageous.)

Elderflower Pancakes

I learned how to make these from my teacher Althea, and her husband, John. The making of elderflower pancakes for breakfast at Summer Solstice by these spiritual parents of mine is something I look forward to every year. We wake up on a Sunday morning after celebrating the Solstice, and Althea sits with a bowl in her lap, into which she gently denudes elder corymbs of their fragrant starlike blossoms. Then John folds these carefully into a thin pancake batter and fries the cakes in a buttered pan. The flowers disappear into the moist and airy cakes, imparting their delicate but distinctive flavor. These pancakes taste like elderflower clouds!

EldercakeElderflower-blueberry pancake

I like to dot the cakes with fresh blueberries once they are poured onto the pan -- just wait until you start to see the first bubble on the raw side of the batter. By the time you've added your berries it's probably time to flip the cake. Consider using elderflower syrup instead of maple, or dusting the pancakes with powdered sugar and finishing with a squeeze of lemon. You might also add a few scrapes of lemon zest to the batter. Heaven.


Talking to the Sun at Summer Solstice

When I was 9, my mom bought me a book of poetry called "Talking to the Sun." I regularly got lost in it, in no small part because its pages were densely packed with amazing art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This favorite book became a constant companion even as I moved multiple times a year during college, to now, over 20 years later. If I ever have a child of my own, "Talking to the Sun" will certainly be among the many treasured and beautiful volumes given me by my very cool, art-loving mother passed down to the next generation.

The poem below is the last poem in the book, and is the poem from which the anthology gets its title. I read it today under the noonday Solstice sun. (The painting, "The Repast of the Lion" by Henri Rousseau, is what accompanied the poem in the book, but as it was a collection for children, they cropped out the actual lion and his gory repast.) One good thing about growing up is that you can revisit poems and songs and paintings from your childhood and understand them better. Happy Solstice.

P.S. Sometimes I like substituting the word "herbalist" for "poet" in the following verses, and adjusting the rest accordingly.


A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island

by Frank O'Hara

The Sun woke me this morning loud   
and clear, saying “Hey! I've been   
trying to wake you up for fifteen   
minutes. Don’t be so rude, you are   
only the second poet I’ve ever chosen   
to speak to personally
                                  so why
aren’t you more attentive? If I could   
burn you through the window I would   
to wake you up. I can't hang around   
here all day.”
                      “Sorry, Sun, I stayed   
up late last night talking to Hal.”

“When I woke up Mayakovsky he was   
a lot more prompt” the Sun said   
petulantly. “Most people are up
already waiting to see if I’m going   
to put in an appearance.”
                                       I tried
to apologize “I missed you yesterday.”   
“That’s better” he said. “I didn’t   
know you’d come out.” “You may be   
wondering why I’ve come so close?”   
“Yes” I said beginning to feel hot   
wondering if maybe he wasn’t burning me   
            “Frankly I wanted to tell you   
I like your poetry. I see a lot
on my rounds and you’re okay. You may   
not be the greatest thing on earth, but   
you’re different. Now, I’ve heard some   
say you’re crazy, they being excessively   
calm themselves to my mind, and other   
crazy poets think that you’re a boring   
reactionary. Not me.
                               Just keep on
like I do and pay no attention. You’ll   
find that people always will complain   
about the atmosphere, either too hot   
or too cold too bright or too dark, days   
too short or too long.
                                  If you don’t appear
at all one day they think you’re lazy   
or dead. Just keep right on, I like it.

And don’t worry about your lineage
poetic or natural. The Sun shines on
the jungle, you know, on the tundra
the sea, the ghetto. Wherever you were
I knew it and saw you moving. I was waiting   
for you to get to work.

                                    And now that you
are making your own days, so to speak,
even if no one reads you but me
you won’t be depressed. Not
everyone can look up, even at me. It
hurts their eyes.”
                            “Oh Sun, I’m so grateful to you!”

“Thanks and remember I’m watching. It’s   
easier for me to speak to you out
here. I don’t have to slide down
between buildings to get your ear.
I know you love Manhattan, but
you ought to look up more often.
always embrace things, people earth   
sky stars, as I do, freely and with
the appropriate sense of space. That
is your inclination, known in the heavens   
and you should follow it to hell, if   
necessary, which I doubt.
                                       Maybe we’ll
speak again in Africa, of which I too
am specially fond. Go back to sleep now   
Frank, and I may leave a tiny poem   
in that brain of yours as my farewell.”

“Sun, don’t go!” I was awake
at last. “No, go I must, they’re calling   
       “Who are they?”
                               Rising he said “Some
day you’ll know. They’re calling to you   
too.” Darkly he rose, and then I slept.

"You put your weed in there": Uses for yerba buena


My friend Word and his direct olfactory application of fresh, aromatic yerba buena (Clinopodium or Satureja douglasii). 

Happy Friday! 

Soul Seed Realignment

East West Herb School students walk a trail Quail Hollow, Ben Lomond, CA 

Every late spring for the past four years, I’ve attended the East West Herbal Seminar in the redwood mountains above Ben Lomond, CA. Every year has been different and brought its own (sometimes mixed) blessings, and I confess, after last year, I wondered if I’d return so soon.

I’m so glad I did.

Ultimately, what is so healing about these seminars is that it’s sort of like summer camp for adults. Your job is to leave your work and home cares behind, ascend the mountain, set up your sleeping bag and toothbrush in a cabin with a roommate, then show up on time for herb classes or walks from morning until night. You are fed three beautiful meals a day, forge amazing friendships, and in between eating and learning, you sleep without the distraction of Internet, phone, TV or radio. And you wake up amid ancient towering trees full of singing birds. Not bad.


The big attraction this year was keynote speaker Richo Cech, founder of Horizon Herbs, purveyor of “seeds of medicine,” “seeds of sustenance” and live plants. Many of these are exotic or just plain hard to find, and are identified and collected by Richo himself on his many travels all over the world, then grown, researched, and lived with on his farm and in his greenhouse in Oregon.

At the beginning of the seminar when Richo was introduced, my friend Ben Zappin pointed out that by virtue of East West being a correspondence course, it couldn’t be very “plant-centric,” not in an immediate, tangible way; this aspect is left up to the student. The danger, Ben warned, is that one enrolls in a course like this and becomes a “UPS herbalist” who never sees or works with live plants. Richo was bringing to us a particularly passionate and focused brand of “plant-centric-ness” which, I would later discover, explained his rock-star status in the world of herbalism.

So on Saturday night I arrived late to Richo’s first lecture. With no empty chairs in sight, I sat quite literally at the feet of the fondly dubbed “jolly green giant.” Until that moment, I’d only known Richo as the faceless author of my teacher Althea Northage-Orr’s nearly-falling-apart kitchen bible, Making Plant Medicine.

What followed was a three-hour talk on Planetary Herbology (a term coined by Lesley Tierra back in the ‘80s to describe the use of herbs from all geographic healing traditions), complete with slides of beautiful plant photography, inspiring stories, hilarious anecdotes, potted plants for passing, and gardening and botanical identification tips about plants from all over the world.

I’d known Richo was a great writer, but in person he was pretty damn amazing. What really got me about his talks —his second lecture on the herbs of Zanzibar was possibly even better than the first— was that there was no shortage of frankly acknowledged magic there. Here was a man who was just as comfortable behind a microscope studying a seed as he was singing to that same seed while smoothing its destined home soil into a sun glyph with his giant hand. You got the feeling that you were watching someone whose sheer love and desire for Gaia – or, to put it less New Age-ily, someone whose steadfast dedication to responsible stewardship of this planet – put him in regular ecstatic contact with plant devas.

Myself and Richo Cech. Not in that order.  After his final talk, I approached Richo to thank him and ask him to sign his new book, The Medicinal Herb Grower, Volume I, for Althea. I told him I live in inner city Chicago, and that the stories of his far-flung botanical adventures made such an impression on me, given that I don’t even have a backyard to call my own. I have fun identifying and even harvesting herbs around Chicago’s bungalows and sidewalks, but the weekends at Althea’s nature sanctuary are the days I really live for.

Richo knew Althea as a regular Horizon Herbs customer, and somehow he knew that I worked for the Tierras. I mentioned that the editing work I do for them keeps me in front of a computer and away from plant play, but that it provides a great education to me and is still in service to the living herbs. He remarked that it’s great to do a good job serving your teachers and other herbalists.

Then he said, “But in this field you can get burned out pretty quickly. You have to figure out what it is about herbalism that brings joy to you, and go do it.”

He might as well have handed me a couple of stone tablets and told me to walk back down the mountain.

It’s a puzzle I’d been bumping up against for about a year. What I know for sure is that an activity like lying in a patch of Saint John’s wort gazing at the sun through the herb’s perforated leaves feels like recharging my soul-battery… Like returning to that blissful dreamtime of childhood where the world had not quite begun to push in upon me just yet (as Joseph Campbell says).

I didn’t see him again after that, but Richo’s parting words seemed to set the tone for the rest of the week – one of joy, of botanical delights, in sensory forms:

Marco makes the rose look prettierWhen the cook sings, the food sings

I had the good fortune to be asked to aid Ben and his lovely friend Marco in the kitchen – the pair were in charge of all the fabulous meals we had at the seminar. Little did I know, my first day on duty would be just Marco and myself while Ben worked at his clinic in town. As I was a stranger and untrained sous-chef to Marco (who cooks professionally), you might imagine that the day started off quietly and formally, the meditative santoor music I selected punctuated only by Marco’s gentle orders and mostly apologies from me.

The real communication we did share, however, was via plants: communing over the musky leather fragrance of saffron destined for the pasta; the unmistakable bright green odor of tomato vine; deep, earthy notes of freshly grated chocolate for the mole; the familiar thin and fresh smells of cilantro stems, chopped mint, parsley.

I’m relieved to say that my presence did not seriously derail any of the meals. By the time Ben had returned, Marco was dancing around the kitchen in his Crocs and fancy socks, singing along to Caetano Veloso’s shimmering version of “Cucurrucucu Paloma.” (You haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed this kind of happiness.)

Flower Power

That evening after dinner, I saw a client at student clinic. Part of this young woman’s prescription was a nervine tea full of flowers – including rose petals. She looked at her tea blend and mentioned to me that she had never really resonated with the mystique of the rose before; but lately she’d been noticing them more and more on her way to work, and found herself telling the customers at her store all about the roses – how they smelled, and where to find them.

To me, the rose has everything to do with the heart of femininity: compassion, beauty, sensuality – delicate softness not without its thorns. I posited that if she were recently beginning to develop a relationship with this plant, it surely belonged in her tea. She agreed.

At the end of the consult, I mentioned flower essences. In particular, one that stepped forward was sticky monkeyflower. I suggested she look it up in an FES book or online and see if it seemed a good fit for her.

That night, Ben, Marco, our friend Word and I worked late in the kitchen to prepare the next day’s lunch so that I could attend Ben’s offsite herb walk with the intermediate students. This walk was one of the events I was most looking forward to in the seminar, and I felt bad leaving Marco all by himself. But the plan was to get everything pretty much up to the ‘pop-it-in-the-oven’ stage so that Marco’s work would be light.

Ben (center, wearing the hat), with the intermediate students 

In the morning, still feeling just a little guilty, I found myself walking the sunny lupine-edged trails of Quail Hollow with Ben and his students. Looking even more in his element under the eucalyptus and manzanita than under the range hood in the kitchen, Ben unwrapped for us the mysteries of black sage, yerba santa, cow parsnip, horehound, plantain, wild oat, usnea, and California poppy, among many others.

Sticky monkeyflowerAnd then he pointed out a showy orange flower which I’d noticed cascading over the hillsides on the way up.

“This is sticky monkeyflower,” Ben told us. “Try not to drive off the road when you crane your neck to look at it. Everybody does.”

This was the first time I’d ever made contact with this flower. Synchronicity?

I had just arisen from squatting to take too many pictures of the monkeyflower when Ben passed by, unceremoniously aiming some kind of seed at my mouth.

Instinctively I opened up and said, “Thank you. What is it?” without so much as tasting it first.

He laughed and said, “Prepare to kiss the world goodbyyye! . . . Are you always so trusting?”

(It was sweet cicely.)

On the way out of the nature preserve, I was arrested by the smell of light pink tearoses growing on a trellis next to some wisteria. I picked a little rose for my previous night’s client. But when I returned to the cafeteria and saw lunch perfectly prepared and laid out, I tucked the little flower behind Marco’s ear (as shown in his portrait above) as a thank you for letting me leave on a day when I was scheduled to work, so that I could meet sticky monkeyflower.

Late that night a bunch of us huddled in my room, winding down the day. I sat next to Ben, who was still wearing the sap green shirt he’d worn on the herb walk. After about a half hour of wondering, I finally said,

“What is that? Why do you smell so good?”

From his breast pocket he produced a tight, hummingbird-sized clutch of warm, wilted yerba buena.

 “For cooking,” he said, sleepily. “Or tea. Tomorrow.”

Fiori d’arancio

Toward the end of the week, I was starting to feel sad about having to leave. I was already dreading the year-long gulf that separated me from the next opportunity to be in this magical place with these beautiful people. I sat with Marco at a picnic table outside the cafeteria, overlooking the orchard. He was talking about his hometown of Naples, and how much he missed it, and all his friends and family there.

“I don’t even want to think about it,” he said. “It’s too sad.”  

The long blue shadows of dusk matched our mood. We hung our heads and swatted mosquitoes.

Then the breeze shifted, and Marco’s face lit up.

“Do you smell that?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s the orange blossoms from the trees down there.”

At that moment I realized how loaded this fragrance must be for him – having toured the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento and Capri in February, I remembered how there were probably more orange trees per square foot in that part of Italy than probably any other place in the world. We strolled down to see the tree. When Marco inhaled the scent of the waxy white flowers, he looked like he might cry.

I thought, This is one of the great healing powers of plants – their ability to emotionally mend or soothe, just by being… By being their quintessential selves, everywhere, tugging on the matrix of memory! 

Now you try and tell me the tree and the wind didn’t hear Marco talking.

The next night the fresh orange blossoms were in the daily tea along with some chamomile. If a more soothing golden liquor were ever distilled from plants, I’ve never tasted it.

California poppyResistance is beautiful

As I re-integrate into skyscraper life and recall this very narrow but intense slice of my seminar experience, one thing that keeps coming back to me is something Richo said early on in his Planetary Herbology lecture:

“Back pressure is a much under-appreciated force in the universe. Tamping seeds into the soil gives them a chance to align themselves. It is back pressure that allows for this. I suggest you find out how back pressure works for you, and use it.”

What’s my back pressure? What regulates the speed and quality of my growth, expression, movement? Is it karma? Is it trial? Is it memory? Is it chance? Is it the people I meet? How much of a factor is my own inertia?

The gardener’s hand tamps the seed into the soil to align itself, to be held in place. From there it grows, creates movement – both up and down. The below ground parts you don’t see are just as important as what you do see.

In a real way, back pressure helps the seed's self to be organized into its unique identity and put forth its greatest potential. Maybe it’ll have the flavor and nourishment of kitchen herbs; the physiological healing capacity of rose petals; or even the space-time continuum-bending quality of orange blossom.  

For human “seeds,” I suppose this process could be called "individuation."

I’m still working out Richo’s challenge(s). But as far as back-pressure goes, I’m coming down on the side of finding good growing medium for my “soul seed” so that when the hand of the divine comes to tamp me down, my earnest attempts at work, healing, and my great loves push back, making me that much more awake and aware. 

We’ll see how it grows from there.

P.S. Today is Michael Tierra’s 71st birthday. Happy Birthday, beloved teacher and friend.