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September 2007

Autumn Equinox: Into the Abyss


The thing about living with the seasons is this: when the days grow unmistakably shorter and colder, and the green either drains from the trees or goes up in a blaze of glory, even those of us who prefer the warmer months don't feel as sad as we might have in the past. Or, like Apollo above, you might even feel downright delighted!

But the Autumn Equinox, when the day and night share equal hours, is usually -- actually, quite literally -- still somewhere in between. We celebrated the cloudless, breezy and very warm first day of Fall last Saturday on Ima's farm. It was warm enough to be summer but brown and dry enough to be Fall. The silvery moonlit night came cold and damp, allowing us to be truly grateful for a roaring bonfire and double-pronged twigs perfect for toasting marshmallows.

But I get ahead of myself.

We were joined by four guests for this celebration, including Christina, a friend of mine whom I met through Herb Dad's course.

We started by casting sacred space in the Tree of Life garden. Those of us in the Mystery School proceeded to our chosen spheres, which served as reminders for the issues we'd committed to work on this year. Our guests were given a crash course in Kabbalah and each chose the sephirah to which they felt the most drawn.


At the beginning of Autumn, the trees bear fruit even as they begin to shed their leaves. With this in mind, we journaled in our gardens to create lists of things that no longer serve us (like the leaves) and meditated on those blessings for which we are grateful this year (like the fruit). We picked a few herbs from each of the gardens and ... well, we stuffed those in our pockets.

Amuletsfandfran Next, we traveled the short distance to Hermit's yurt for the second activity in the day's extended ritual: playing with Sculpey clay! Actually, we were using the medium to create amulets representing what we wished to incubate in the dark. Apollo, a natural sculptor, showed us the beautiful amulet he'd crafted ahead of time and introduced us to various sculpting tools and techniques. I encouraged the group to make this a contemplative, quiet exercise -- because what we plan to dream in the coming dark takes no real form until the light of Imbolc in the beginning of February. While the clay hardened in the oven, we created apple pomanders (fresh apples studded with designs made out of cloves) to represent the blessings we received this year.

14godshilljohn After lunch, we reconvened in ritual attire and made our way to the God's Hill, the high point of male energy in the forest. There, a fire was prepared. Apollo eloquently introduced us to the next ritual activity: the burning of the lists we made of the things we would like to unburden ourselves of as we go into the Dark of the year. In these flames, we purified our amulets with the element of Fire. After this, one by one we walked to a seven-foot high wooden stave engraved with the runes of Odin. With eyes closed, we each ran a hand along the surface of the stave and chose a rune to be interpreted later.


Next, we walked to the lowest part of the land and the point of female energy, the Goddess Glade. Here we spoke aloud our gratitude and placed our pomanders, as an offering and sign of these blessings, in the center of the Navel Fire which we kindled at Spring Equinox. Family, friends, community, opportunity, love, lessons learned, and happiness -- our apples quickly accumulated to become a cheerful green and red group amidst the cold gray-brown ash of the fire pit. Here we sprinkled sand from around the fire pit over our amulets, blessing them with the element of Earth. When we were finished, Ima called the women together to cover the apples and the Navel Fire pit itself with the large stones that serve as its protective ring during the active season. With this act we officially closed the feminine fire for the winter.

Hecate2 Ima led us down the forest trails to the main Y-shaped crossroads, where we called upon Hecate, triple goddess of the crossroads. She is the goddess of liminal places, who alone sees the secret events that bring great change, a perfect guide for our quickening descent into the Dark. We placed the herbs we'd picked in the sephiroth that morning as fresh incense in a thurible. With the resulting smoke we blessed our amulets with the element of Air.

As our last activity before supper, we traveled to the dromenon (a labyrinth in a natural clearing) to officially turn the Wheel of the Year at dusk. As Ima reminds us when we do this at every solstice and equinox, who is to know if Nature will change her seasonal garments without human recognition and participation? Indeed, as Hecate darkly bears witness, what are the small secret acts that bring great change? We held hands and revolved around the altar at the center of the dromenon for one and a quarter turns.


After dinner, we met in the dark outside the yurt. I distributed taper candles to all present. These were lit; and, not without a bit of theatre, we proceeded single file, in the dark, by candlelight, to the Goetic Circle.

The Goetic Circle is the newest magical site on the land. It was designed by Apollo last year when he completed his work of Abramelin, which is an oft-attempted but seldom completed grueling 18 month-long magical work designed to purify the magician of all his demons. (This is a grossly oversimplified description; suffice it to say, it is not for the mentally unstable, the easily distracted, or the faint of heart.)

The site itself is a major piece of installation art: 72 two-foot-tall posts comprise the circle. These are painted white on the inside, black on the outside, and bear the 72 triplets of Hebrew letters which represent the names of 72 angels or intelligences (also known as the Shemhamphoresh.) This first night of Autumn, at the foot of each of these posts in the circle's interior, flickered a tealight in a tiny glass globe.

As each of us arrived at the entrance to the circle, Ima met us with a challenge: "Are you willing to enter the darkness of the abyss?"

Upon answering, "Yes," she extinguished our candles, one by one. I stood at her side and as each attendee passed through, I handed them an unlit floating candle. Once we were all in the circle, Ima told us a story, which I will summarize here:

Once upon a time, when a loved or honored one passed into the shadows of death, the Celts would place the body on a raft or in a boat and push them out to sea. Once the boat was far enough away from shore, a flaming arrow was shot onto it, consuming the body and its carrier in flames. It was an offering, a tribute, a separation once again of the person into the four earthly elements that make up all our bodies.

We approached the center altar, atop which was set a large, shallow container of water. First we consecrated our amulets with the final element of Water. Then, we lit our new candles and floated them on the water's surface, acknowledging that we burn our blessings in gratitude and let them go to make room for the new. We intended that this burning be fuel and this light a beacon for us throughout the Darkness, a help to navigate the ever uncharted Abyss. The sight of the faces of my friends, these women, men and children, illumined against the deep blackness and reflected in the dark pool, was haunting and beautiful.


Our candles crowded the Abyss, and when all had placed a light there, we turned to a large black mirror positioned outside the circle. Each of us were invited to scry its curved surface. Because some are more naturally receptive to visual images than others, some saw shapes, while others did not. Some approached the mirror, others did not.

When all who wished to scry had their time before the mirror, Ima announced a surprise: her son had requested to have his Third Eye reopened and that he be dedicated to the hermetic path. Many of us have watched him grow from a small boy to a handsome, sweet-natured teenage martial artist who can hold your gaze the way most adolescents cannot. In recent years, Ima has spoken of him often as a future priest, and I admit I couldn't quite see what she saw. But now, as he stood before us in the darkness in his father's brown ritual cassock, he looked every bit the young magician and warrior priest.

His father blessed him with the male elements on the altar: Air and Fire. Ima asked me to bless him with the female counterparts: Water and Earth. Finally, Ima anointed him with oil and welcomed him to our school by his magical name: Lioncoeur (Lionheart). We are very proud and happy to have him as a companion on the hermetic path.

That night I dreamed very un-Autumnal psychedelic dreams of young succulent plants flourishing as in stop-motion animation all over the gardens.

I had the honor of designing the Autumn Equinox ritual this year, based around a core of two of Apollo's ideas. Despite this, I asked Ima to lead, which she did, and so beautifully. She was fully committed to the ritual even though it was not of her own design.

Binah2_2 Perhaps I am biased, but she seemed to priestess this celebration with uncommon grace, even for her. I'm sure it was a combination of things -- the season, her dress, her new spiritual disciplines, Lioncoeur's dedication to the path. Something about the light, or perhaps some other intangible thing, made her look so much more... magical than usual. Like Hecate, I observed her when she could not observe me: I watched her sitting as though suspended in Binah, her sphere, steady through the reedy and trembling equisetum like some kind of anti-Ophelia. Taking a shortcut through the gardens on an errand at midday, I spied her secretly meditating under the merciless sun in Tiphareth. In her olive green dress she passed in and out of the smoky sunlight at the God's Hill. I have known her for about five years, but on this unlikely holiday she was throwing glamour like a siren.

What great change is she courting?

At the end of the weekend, as we packed to leave, she called me away from the others into her special enclosure in the forest. We spoke of no small things: We talked about what it means to be a priestess, a wife, a lover. We talked about discipline and strengths and weaknesses. Finally, she told me that while she did not plan to die any time soon, one day she would go away, where I couldn't find her, and I would be able to take her place.

No amount of living with seasons and observing the Earth's cycles could have prepared me for that. I felt very sad, but also very ... right. These are the things we speak of in this time of no time, during this still point of balance between light and darkness.

Two days later she pushed me out of the nest to perform my first public ritual in her presence -- a very special rite of passage for her beautiful daughter, who officially named her spirit mother (our very own gentle Vesta, a welcome newcomer to our Mystery School!). I was completely stunned by the task, and honored too. I hope I did well.


A new beginning in Autumn, as all the plants turn brown and withdraw their energy underground to their roots? Dreams of bright green seedlings on the first day of Fall? How do these fit into the turning of the season?

Geometry shows us that movement at constant speed in orbit -- like the Earth moves, or as we move around the Wheel of the Year -- continually presents the moving object with a new tangential perspective, courtesy of its velocity vector. In other words, if we move around a center, we have the opportunity to see in every direction (on that plane). Freed of centripetal force, we move in a straight line through space and can look in but one direction: straight ahead! Some people think there is little use in looking back, but I find that it can be helpful when one doesn't want to repeat one's mistakes. It is odd to consider that this kind of freedom of sight comes, ultimately, from being bound.

Or as Ima is lately fond of saying, "Once you stop changing, you're dead."

Let us be grateful for the center that holds.

May you have a blessed Autumn and a dream-filled Dark.

See pictures from our Mystery School's Autumn Equinox weekend here.

An Embarrassment of Riches

Elderberry Elderberry2
Goldenrod_2 Goldenrod2
Pserotina Pserotina2

Above: 'before and after' shots of elderberry, goldenrod (plus some elecampane, yellowdock and a bit of late lemonbalm) and wild cherry bark. Click on the photos to enlarge.

It's been a longer than usual break between posts here on Herbis Orbis, but as you can see I've been busy enjoying the autumn harvest! I'm only about halfway through processing these herbs -- I've yet to make cough syrup out of the wild cherry bark and the elderberry. Harvesting, garbling and preparing herbs for medicine is time-consuming but meditative and peaceful work. As you can imagine, time is of the essence so that these plants remain as fresh (or well-preserved) as possible. I'm excited to see how this year's crop of medicines turn out.

Stay tuned -- when I'm finished medicine-making, the next installment in the South Park/Five Elements series will go up (hopefully by the end of this week)!

You have exactly 15 minutes to create an eight-part formula chosen from at least 200 herbs...


... Ready, set, GO!

Last night I led the interrogation and assessment of a new client in our clinical class at herb school. A young couple came to us with a host of complaints. I took the gentleman to one of our treatment rooms, in fact the same treatment room where I received structural therapy when I first started attending school here. I sat on the low massage table while he chose a chair across from me. Behind me, two of my classmates quietly took notes and observed the process.

I love talking to people. I love interviewing them, making them feel at ease, helping them find words when they have difficulty expressing themselves. I love the investigative process of the intake, picking up a thread and seeing where it goes. I love taking a patient's hands to feel their pulses, the quiet calm we enter when I "listen" to those pulses in all their different positions. I love holding their hands once more as I look them in the eye and thank them when I let them go. Heck, I even enjoy examining the tongue for more clues as to what patterns of disharmony they may have.

And last night I enjoyed all of that. Our new patient was totally open to the process, friendly, and he had a sense of humor to boot.

But then we were released into the main classroom to identify the patterns of disharmony and come up with a formula or two to treat them. And it had to be done in about 20 minutes.

I mapped out the patient's symptoms on a five-element chart (like the one in the last post, just without all the fun cartoon characters). He was all over the place, but his main issues were concentrated in two or three places. I could identify the man's patterns fairly well, steered back on course
by Ima when I went off track.

But when it came to formulary...

We had about 15 minutes to come up with activator and tonic formulas, and I swear, it's as though I'd spent the last four years daydreaming through my materia medica classes. I could remember most of the energetics of the herbs we looked at, but if you asked me for three herbs, say, that treated Heart Qi deficiency but didn't interfere with his other patterns or were not contraindicated with some of the more troublesome symptoms, I couldn't tell you. Not last night anyway.

So here we were, under the gun, and I felt like Robin Williams' character in "Moscow on the Hudson," freshly defected from the U.S.S.R., standing in the coffee aisle at the grocery store and about to have a nervous breakdown.

The beauty of Chinese herbalism is that umpteen herbs do umpteen different things. Just like there is no one can labeled "coffee," there is no one herb indicated for one condition, and when you create a formula to treat multiple symptoms you introduce a synergy of herbs that will do the job according to their energetic, the organ meridians they enter, their direction, etc. The system, with all its choices, offers the practitioner and patient as much flexibility as it does precision, but the catch is: YOU HAVE TO KNOW YOUR MATERIA MEDICA.

Alas, I felt as though I'd checked that part of my brain at the door last night.

With Ima's help, my team and I put together two formulas for this man, and while my classmates prepared the formula in the pharmacy I went out into the front room to talk to him and his wife about what we were putting together and why, dosages, diet, etc. I told them to support each other and to set small, achievable goals for themselves. I also encouraged them to be patient with the process, as herbs work more gently than prescription drugs. I was so grateful that they would allow us students to question, poke and prod them. I was grateful for their trust and openness. I wanted to deliver the best that I could. I wished I could have spent more time with them.

Most of all, I wished I could have done the formulary part of my job better. It's my weakest point. I know I could have come up with something good if I'd had all my books around me and an evening to devote to it, but who has that luxury in the field, in real life?

I had a hard time falling asleep last night, Metal type that I am, always wanting to be perfect, hard on myself when I can't live up to my own standards. When I was in journalism school, we were faced with a similar challenge at least once a week. After an interview process, you'd be given 20 minutes to write a story that could be no less than 500 and no more than 550 words, and it had to be perfect. One misspelling, one factual error, one AP style mistake -- any single one of these earned you an automatic F. You had no team and no guidance from the professor. You were on your own.

I never got an F. Ever.

The thing about medicinal herbalism is, the stakes are much higher. Someone's life and health may hang in the balance. If you screw up, you can't publish a retraction, dreaded in the world of journalism as retractions are. Of course, you can tweak formulas that don't work, and these experiences may serve as guides, filling in missing gaps of information. But if you can nail it the first time, you earn confidence in yourself and trust from your patient. With herbs, the more tools you have, the more possibilities you may have to heal, but it doesn't mean a whit if you don't know your tools inside and out.

Looks like it's going to be an Autumn full of flash cards.

Above: Apothecary at Star Child in Glastonbury, UK. I took this photo about three years ago and they've since changed the look of the store. If you're ever in Somerset, please visit them!

P.S. Last night before clinical intake Ima pushed copies of the Nei Jing Su Wen, Shang Han Lun and one other book into my hands and told me to read them. What, my beloved teacher, learning TCM by South Park isn't serious enough? :)

Chinese Five Element Theory According to South Park


I've been studying traditional Chinese medicine for a few years now in an herbal context. One of the first things we get acquainted with is basic five-element theory. As with any philosophy, you can make it as elaborate and esoteric as you wish, but it's not that hard to grasp the basic building blocks of the Chinese five elements, especially if you can apply it to everyday life.

I don't have cable, and haven't got a lot of time to watch TV, so I'm a bit late to the party when it comes to most popular shows. I started watching South Park when a local station began showing reruns late at night. It didn't take many episodes for me to identify each of the Chinese five elements as represented by five main characters. So, this is going to be a bit "in-universe" as Wikipedia calls it, but if you're a student of Chinese medicine and you know the cartoon, you might find it entertaining... or helpful, even!

In Chinese five element theory, each of the five elements (namely, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water) represent different organ networks in the body as well as different emotions and personality characteristics. (Note: if you are reading this essay without any background in Traditional Chinese Medicine, please be aware that the organ systems of that tradition represent much broader functions and concepts than those of Western allopathic medicine.) Every person is a combination of all the elements, but usually one element predominates their psychophysical makeup. Different element personality types are prone to certain disorders, but of course no one is exempt from disorders of other organ networks.

Let's start with the element of Wood.