All Creatures Great and Small

Finding an herbal ally, daemon and/or genius

The_Inspiration_of_Saint_Matthew_by_Caravaggio A couple of weeks ago, this video of Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert was making its rounds on Twitter. In it, Gilbert discusses the idea of how the creativity of artists was perceived in the world of classical antiquity.

In short, artists didn't take all the credit for creating some incredible piece of work; transcendent artistic expressions were believed to be the fruit of a collaboration between the human artist and his or her assigned supernatural helper spirit, a daemon (as it was called by the ancient Greeks), or genius (as it was called by the Romans).

Gilbert says of the ancient Greeks and Romans,

People did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then. People believed that creativity was a divine attendant spirit who came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons.

By the time the Renaissance rolled around -- regarded as the rebirth of the art and spirit of classical antiquity, ironically -- the human being was placed at the center of the universe and artists themselves became known as 'geniuses', signaling a shift toward the belief that creativity was indeed a singularly human phenomenon.

I shared this video with my friend @theogeer of Autumn Twilight. I mentioned that I had felt rushed in clinic the previous evening and complained that I wasn't quite sure I had adequately helped my new client. I joked that I sure could have used the aid of an 'herbal genius.'

Theo said:

I wonder about that idea of an herbal genius. Lots of practitioners, particularly of native or isolated traditions have a plant ally of some sort. Carlos Casteneda famously detailed the development of his alliance with peyote, and the Curanderos and Brujos of Mexico and Central America have a well known alliance with mint, which they use for everything. Maybe what you need is to find a plant ally to guide you in your work?

Now, when you live with one foot in the magickal world as Theo and I do, synchronicities are not only frequent but also consciousness-shifting. Those few lines of his above focused my mind on the events of the previous night at the clinic:

I was concluding a follow-up appointment when my teacher and herb clinic director, Althea Northage-Orr, popped her head in the room and politely asked me to hurry up; an unscheduled client decided to come at the last minute and she wanted me to take the case. I wrapped up my intake and ran to the pharmacy to tweak my follow-up client's herbal formula.

His formula originally contained white peony root, also known in Traditional Chinese Medicine as bai shao. I took the bottle of tincture down from the shelf. It had about a finger-width left at the bottom. I looked at the golden liquid and said to it (silently): "Nope. A woman is going to come in today who will need you." I put the bottle back on the shelf and subbed another Yin-building tonic into this man's formula.

Sure enough, my next case was a lovely woman dealing with exhaustion and family hardships at just the time she was beginning menopause, among other complaints. The white peony, which I had always considered a very feminine, softening, building herb, was among the medicinals indicated for her symptoms. I was happy to drain the last of the bai shao into her formula and mentioned it specifically when I tried to explain to her what my treatment principle was and why I had chosen some of the herbs that she would be taking.

Paeonia lactiflora by Ulf Eliasson That night I dreamed that I was drinking tea out of a wide bowl with a strainer pressed to the bottom of it to keep the tea leaves from floating to the surface. When I had finished the tea, I removed the strainer to discard the marc (used-up plant matter) and was delighted to find that the bottom of the bowl was covered with large white flowers, fresh and plump as if they had just been cut from the plant.

I hadn't thought of my little moment in the pharmacy with the white peony tincture or the dream at all, until Theo's question kicked my memory into gear.

White peony is now a definite herbal 'genius' of mine.

Althea (whose special plant ally is mugwort, not marshmallow, by the way), incorporates workings with plant devas into our education to help attune us to the spiritual energies of plants. In this way I've had wonderful experiences sitting in her garden with live plants which made them special 'friends' -- namely, skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), elder (Sambucus nigra) and St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum). But I'd never had quite the same experience of communication between myself and a plant like I had with white peony.

Another teacher of mine, Michael Tierra, has mentioned several times on his blog that herbalists often happen to be artists as well. Being both myself, and knowing many herbal healers including Michael who fit the artist bill as well, I wholeheartedly agree. A paragraph in one of Michael's recent posts really resonated with me:

No matter how deeply one studies and enters into the complexity of healing, plant biochemistry and so on..., nevertheless there is always place for the irrational and the subjective. The poet's perspective of life, the musician's sense of harmony, the artist's eye of proportion and relationships - these are all shared by healers, especially the herbal healer who works with plants, which are the pure creative expression of nature and the healing process.

I challenge anyone to express it more brilliantly than that!

Herbalits are artists and therefore should create a special place in their practice for the help of their own little attendant plant spirit. Perhaps like animal totems these may change and cycle back and forth over time, but the idea of a divinely assigned plant ally, while by no means new, can really help an herbalist to co-create with the ultimate Divine source of healing.

Since my experience with white peony, I've been keeping my intuition a little more open and trying to allow it to confirm or be confirmed by my usual bookish nature when it comes to choosing herbs for a formula. I pay attention to herbs I come across during the day, in the form of pictures or live plants or dreams, and more often than not these herbs step forward when I review a client's case. Sometimes their presence is specifically indicated for a certain condition; other times they help me decide when I am on the fence about two herbs that do very similar things.

I have to say, after only a short time with this approach, the results and the experiences I have had with clients have been very gratifying. I have felt a greater confidence in my formula selections -- a shared confidence greater than the reassurance I have gotten from books and research only. I keep the awareness of gentle, beautiful bai shao close by; she takes the edge off performance pressure and ego, allowing me (so far!) to be a more present and compassionate practitioner. I am as grateful for this blessing and gift as I am for my human teachers.

If you have a special herbal daemon or genius, I'd love to hear about it and how you came to know it was your ally in the comments section!

Where the Wild Things Are (or, When Things Go Pleasantly Against Your Expectations)

A peridot-colored May froggie near one of the water gardens.

I spent last weekend at Ima’s farm, a welcome respite from the city and work. I’d been having a hard time getting back into my routine headspace after returning from my wonderful trip to California (adult summer camp, as I described it to my friend and teacher Ben), and the idea of going deep into the somewhat familiar Midwestern woods and walking, singing, writing alone – seemed just what the doctor ordered.  Ima was hosting the first-year herb students’ inaugural trip to her farm.

But we third-year kids know our joe pye from our boneset, our blackberry from our red raspberry – so I figured we could goof off all weekend and maybe get away with a little light weeding.

Star Farmer and I arrived to find the campground full. (Herb students and massage students on the same weekend? We hadn’t had such a big group in years!) We went up to a spot we used to pitch our tents last year and found the mosquitoes hungry. Even worse – my barely used tent, a lone exhibit of rare evidence that I do sometimes make astonishingly poor investments, would not go up. (It is supported by inflatable rods. To inflate it I must labor away at a foot pump made in China. It is only good in theory. Like some kind of fickle performing animal, it only sets up for my husband. It is ridiculous. It is useless. Verily I say to thee, stick to traditional pole tents.)

In a show of solidarity (and maybe because he, too, had had enough of the mosquitoes), Star set his sleeping quarters up along with mine in the big upper room of Avalon Hall, an all-purpose building at the front of Ima’s land.

Ah, but what disappointment can’t be cured by good food and good spirits? We went out for dinner, anticipating the glorious tangy, mahogany, crispy-skinned duck at a restaurant in the nearest town, overpriced and ambitious in its culinary endeavors but boasting the most decent wine list for miles.

No duck. They didn’t even have the wine we enjoyed so much last time.

The next morning my irrepressible Ima showed up as I waited for a campstove frittata to set, and for my headache to go away. By now we had a small cadre of exactly five third-year students.

“Great, you guys can help me plant while I show the new students around!” Ima chirped, looking beautiful, sparkling, even. Apparently there were some several hundred seedlings waiting to go into the ground.

“You can be in charge of the planting,” she said to me.


My Last Act of 2007: An Herbal "Proving" of Ambrosia Artemisiifolia


Dec. 31, 2007: A New Year's weekend at our friends' farmette in Western Illinois.

Inside the house: the mild-mannered beast pictured above, Snowy (var. giganticat).

Wild card: an assignment to clean out a barn apartment, recently rid of mice, full of our stuff in storage.

In my body: a histamine cascade extraordinaire just waiting to overreact to cat dander and mouse poo.

No net: As alcohol would be a feature of the weekend, my Benadryl was left at home.

In my pocket: two ounces of ambrosia artemisiifolia tincture.

(Cue cheesy movie preview baritone:) In a world of airborne allergens, a novice herbalist protects her right to copious champagne libations and vows to meet the millions of invisible enemies head-on. Her only hope? A little-known medicine made of what most would consider a noxious weed -- ragweed. Who will win?


Snowy is our friends' cross-eyed, pigeon-toed, probably arthritic, and most definitely fat, cat. Now before anyone wants to know why he's called "Snowy" and not "Blondie," I am assured by his owners that he was quite white when he was little. He's got to be over 20 pounds now, so "little" was a long, long time ago.

Despite his personality, which can most accurately be likened to that of the Simpsons' Comic Book Guy, Snowy has become a favorite for me. Let's be honest: that face could disarm anybody.

But I've never been able to pet Snowy or even spend much time near him because, like most cats, he sets off my allergies.

Some time in November, my friend Ben sent me a bottle of his own ambrosia (ragweed) tincture, in exchange for some fresh wild cherry bark I'd harvested for him. I looked up its indications, and found that it could be effective at reducing allergy symptoms (in my case, a river of mucous, itchy throat and eyes, blotchy skin, constricting airways, hoarse throat). That's right -- the weed we blame for hay fever is said to actually arrest its symptoms.

But before Snowy even hobbled out to greet us, we were to make some room in the barn for our hosts' herb business. Little did I know, mice had gotten into the clothes and boxes. I had a dust mask on, but before long I was having a hard time breathing, and my dust mask was functioning more as a snot cup.

I went back inside the house, washed my hands, and took two big hits of ambrosia. I made it a point to let it coat my throat. Now, make no mistake -- the stuff is by no means palatable (a lot of herbs aren't). But it was either that or misery, so tastebuds be damned.

Fairly quickly, my symptoms subsided -- particularly that closed-up, itchy throat. I got away from the really mousy areas and spent the rest of the afternoon going through some boxes in the barn's dusty attic/hayloft, and I was fine.

Snowy2007 When we came in for dinner and a fire, Snowy trundled himself out for a snack, as did his much furrier but smaller friend, Pumpkin. All through our meal, anytime I felt my nose start getting stuffed up, or my throat getting itchy, I took another dropperful of ambrosia. As an extra measure of protection I brought my own pillowcases and sheets for the guest bedroom.

Result? A New Year's Eve holiday with dear friends where I wasn't literally itching to leave by the end.

Get your ambrosia tincture at Five Flavors Herbal Pharmacy in Santa Cruz. Ambrosia is the second entry on the Individual Tinctures store page.

Happy, healthy, 2008 everybody!

Running Late


This is the sole cicada I've seen all summer, despite the Great 17-Year Cicada Cycle which promised we'd be sweeping the creatures off our porches early this summer. The suburbs got hit pretty hard with the little guys, but we heard nor saw nary a one in the city.

Anyway, here is this sluggish cicada, a bit late for the party, sitting on the platform of the Brown Line stop near my house. When the train came to take me to my office downtown, about an hour ago or so, he was still there. He was probably drying out from the big storm that drenched everything in today's pre-dawn hours. I was running late myself this morning because Lugh left at about the time the storm hit for a set of shows on Mackinac Island in Michigan, and in his half-awake, thunder-and-lightning daze, he took both our sets of keys, which meant I had to find another way to lock up.

I seem to be running late with everything these days. I'm three weeks behind on a deadline here at work. I'm behind in my medicine-making lessons for Herb Dad. I'm nowhere near the level of organization and memorization I would like to be at in my clinical studies with Ima. I'm a few days late in my work for the Thirty Day Challenge. I'm behind in correspondence with some of my best friends, far-flung as they are all over the world. I haven't seen my parents in weeks, and I'm fairly certain they're not too pleased about that. I haven't savored half as many summer-season-only fruits and veggies as I should have by now. Personal projects languish. My spiritual discipline --- not so disciplined at the moment. On top of all of that, last Sunday my home computer clutched its little throat and fainted away on the desk, never to be revived again. It's been triaged with the Geek Squad and they say it won't be ready till next week. If we're lucky, we won't have lost everything.

Looks like I'm in that full unfocused late August swing! Remembering the lessons of this somewhat disorienting time of year in my Lammas post, I'll have to take care not to let this devolve into complete chaos.

Meanwhile I've been having some incredibly powerful, so-vivid-they-could-have-been-real dreams. At least some part of me is getting some (interior) work done! Last night, I survived a shipwreck in Arctic waters. If that's a reflection of my life at the moment, then hey --- things'll be just fine.

Edit: I was re-reading this post and noticed that Mr. Cicada above wasn't blessed with those creepy red eyes we associate with most cicadas. Well, further research shows that he is of the annual variety, or tibicen linnei, and this species shows up in the 'dog days' of summer -- that is, late July and August. The red-eyed critters are the 17-year type, and guess what their genus name is: magicicada! I guess it just goes to show that the insect kingdom is perfectly punctual and I'm the only one running late today. Figures.

Country Mouse, City Mouse

Enkiducloseup First, meet Enkidu, the tiny peridot-green frog I found sleeping on the beebalm in my Netzach garden last weekend. Here he is, perched on Hermit's pinky.

I was on the fence about spending a weekend away from home again, but I had just as many responsibilities in the country as I had in the city, and a new tent to christen (disastrous), so off to Ima's farm I went. I toiled mightily in the hot, HOT sun all weekend, weeding and harvesting yarrow, self-heal and calendula for a salve I'm making. I pulled out most of the beebalm in Netzach, lovely in bloom but covered with an unsightly mold, and planted some Veronica, pinks, hibiscus and cosmos. I fertilized the rosebushes with worm casings (worm poo). I weatherproofed my garden statue of the Venus de Milo. I laid a path of beautiful old apricot-colored bricks to the center of the garden where she will eventually stand.

Ima's farm was in bloom, a garish profusion of petals and scents and insects. It was beautiful. It was exhausting. It was renewing. I praised the virtues of Gatorade and the humble garden hose.

We lost power and barbecued in the dark outside Hermit's house. Star Farmer fell into not one, but two holes (notably, not in the dark). In a move completely out of character, he toppled out of his chair as we sat around the fire talking about resale shopping. My wonderful classmate Claudia brought her lovely friend Jose, who completed a rather hypnotic painting inspired by the farm on Saturday. When Star Farmer suddenly found himself with his chair gone from beneath him, I thought Jose would never stop laughing. I still chuckle when I think about it.

Prunellaclose It was a great time, unstructured, full of hard work, intimate community, and green, green, green. I feel ever more confident about my path, financially uncertain as the practice of herbalism is. Recent research shows that a walk through nature can alleviate depression. I can vouch for that.

If you're in the city most of the time, nature still offers up its summer wonders; just do like my friend Stu. In fact, I could have just left this whole post blank and subbed in Stu's July 11 entry. He captures it perfectly. Well. Of course he would.

Don't miss the season, folks. It only comes once a year, and every year is different.

Bee! I'm expecting you!


To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, --
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.

---XCVII, Emily Dickinson

Bee4 I spied this honeybee in a neighbor's crocuses on Sunday morning. Look at the dusting of pollen on his fuzzy little head! At the moment my state is one of the few who have not yet reported Colony Collapse Disorder. Please follow the link above (before it expires; Earthfiles archived material is available for a fee only) and read about the distressing mystery of our disappearing bees.