Herbalism

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.

Elderchalice2

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.

Elderchalice
(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.

 


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

Word 

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.


Richo-ji

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.


Seems like all I really was doing was waiting for love

Bulkherbs2 I'm sitting on the floor in San Jose Airport, having just finished a week at my school's annual herbal seminar. This was my third and final one, and it was a stressful week of monitored herbal clinic and the usual group dynamics psychodrama exacerbated by the pressure to perform. Gratefully, I had friends around me to whom I could show my own weaknesses and for whom I hope I provided support in kind.

On the way to the airport I began a sort of free-association whine with my long-suffering buddy Pam about all my going-away angst -- a feeling of incompleteness, naive expectations that weren't met, my own foolish illusions, what in the world the future might hold, anticipating missing my friends, and wondering if I'd ever be back to this beautiful place.

"You're saying pretty much all the same things you said when we left for the airport last year," Pam pointed out. "You're pretty much in exactly the same place."

Oh fer Christ's sake. Let's hear it for progress!

I'm still processing a lot about this week, which in effect was the culmination of about three years of study at East West. But I do want to share with you the following, which is an e-mail I sent my fellow herbalist friend Tom about what happened the day I landed in California. I think it sums up the whole experience.

-----------------------------

Hey love --

Got in this afternoon and met up with my girls. We were waiting for the last of our party and decided to go into Santa Cruz to hang out. My friend Pam had a stuffy head and lingering cough from a bug she got three weeks ago. I said "Maybe you need some Minor Bupleurum" and we thought we could stop in at Michael's clinic to buy a bottle.

I called him to alert him we might come in. He told us to come on by and sit in on him doing an intake. A chance to watch the master in action -- Hurrah!

But then his 3 p.m. canceled. So he decided to make my friend the intake and I became the student clinician. "Fine, I can handle this," I thought, mostly because I had no choice.

So he did the intake and asked a few questions, then did some acupuncture on her. How awesome it was for me to know some of the points by heart! (They were easy ones though.)

Then he had to do a phone intake and left me to come up with assessment and treatment principle.

I was a mess at first but finally came up with Six Gentlemen plus magnolia bud, platycodon and some damp-draining herbs. Pam gave fine suggestions from the slab, stuck with needles as she was and without the benefit of a book to boot -- sign of a fine herbalist.

Michael came back in after 30 min or so and asked what my result was. I started to report my assessment: "Lung Qi deficiency, Spleen Qi deficiency with damp, corroborated by pulse and tongue..."...

He said, "No, you have to state your assessment in terms of her complaints, not what you THINK her TCM assessment is. It has to be 'sinus congestion due to...' or 'rundown energy due to...' etc." OK, so I tried again. He asked why I chose these patterns. I began to explain my proposed etiology, knowing her previous history of illness.

He interrupted me again and said, "Did you look in the books?" I said "Yes, but they didn't have the same patterns so I went on my own." Again I began to tell him my ideas about how she came to manifest these symptoms while he looked in the books under related patterns, which turned up the EXACT SAME ASSESSMENT as my original one.

"Lung Qi deficiency, Spleen Qi deficiency --" he began.

So I looked up at him and I said impatiently, "But Michael, I just SAID that!"

And his face fell and he said "I'm just trying to show you how to use the books; you'll need them one day, you know."

Extractpowders Not wanting to waste any more time on my impertinence, he asked me my proposed formula and I told him... he said it was perfect and what he really wanted to hear was that I'd choose to use magnolia bud in there somewhere. He un-stuck Pam and sent us off to the pharmacy to mix up powder.

My tail was between my legs as I slunk out of the treatment room.

After he finished with his next client he came out to the waiting room where we were gathered to say thank you and goodbye. He saw the pained look on my face and said:

"You did a great job. You're ready. But stop being so defensive. You don't have to be right all the time. It stands in the way of your learning.
You are a student now and you should enjoy this time of your life."

Sound familiar, Tom?

xoxo

---------------

Fast forward 10 days later to today.

Feeling sad and disconnected (as well as empowered, oddly) when I got to the airport, I realized that I'd left my still-hot cappuccino at the curbside check-in when I was already halfway through the TSA line. Geez -- what else could go wrong? I threw my head back and looked at the ceiling in exasperation when some very comforting recognizable muzak came on. Huh.

A few minutes later at the newsagents I looked for the mindless comfort of non-herbal, non-medical tabloid dreck. Lugging my carry-ons, I ambled slowly to the right, scanning all the celebrity 'news' headlines I'd missed in my week of media deprivation. Then came summer hemlines, outdoor entertaining, Bob Dylan on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Before I knew it I was at paperbacks and a hefty tome jumped out at me: "The Rainbow" by D.H. Lawrence -- one of my favorite books in college and one whose passages I remembered spontaneously when I met Michael Tierra and was reminded of why I'm on this path at all.

I bought "The Rainbow." I'm going to re-read it. It's my second copy, about half the size and a quarter of the weight of the copy I bought in college almost 15 years ago. I don't think it's any accident that the Universe sends you your favorite music and literature in swift succession just when you're feeling disappointed and free-falling in a small California airport.

No need to be afraid, Ursula Brangwen. It's real love. It's real.             


How many goddesses can you find in this post?

Last night in Experiential Anatomy class, a friend I hadn't seen in years said she enjoyed my blog.

Between two schools, two nights of classes per week and two jobs, I'd almost forgotten I had a blog! So here are some short(ish) updates:

Full Circle

The friend I mention above, Beatrice, was there from the moment I set foot on this path of studying herbalism. We spent many hours in class together, camping, driving, talking, eating in those days, and she showed me much generosity, both material and intellectual.

I can still remember one night when we sat in her van outside my apartment after school one day. I was trying to figure out where I was going with my future career, hopefully, in herbalism. I said, "I want to do something in herbalism that no one's ever done before! I don't know what it is, but it has to be different."

Beatrice sighed. "Oh, that's just your ego talking. When you get older you won't be so motivated by that."

I tell you, that moment has stuck with me all these years. Any time I feel the urge to be 'different' coming from some superficial ego place, I hear those words. It's made me a better student, a better herbalist, and hopefully, a better teacher in those rare instances when I might have some wisdom to impart to others.

She finished her course of study at our school before me, and went on to develop her career. When my school decided to offer an Asian bodywork program, she decided to go for it and expand her already formidable healing toolbox. How poetic it is now that she should return just as my long butt-in-seat academic journey nears its end. It seems a very auspicious omen indeed.

Hawaii and the 'goddess'

Lugh and I went on our (so far) annual trip to Hawaii last month. It was an odd sojourn, partly because it was so uncharacteristically cold (low 70s) on Oahu. Sweater weather, really, especially at night. I'd known this was going to be a working trip before going, and that I'd likely be stuck in the hotel most of the time, but I'd have appreciated at least the option of going out and snorkeling!

The one day we really had a chance to get any swimming in, it was still cool and windy. The waves at Waimanalo beach were wild. After eating pineapple and watermelon on the sand with my friends, I stripped down to my swimsuit and made my gradual entry into the water. My friend WaiWai appeared at my side.

We talked for awhile as we watched the waves trounce other swimmers. I'm no swimmer; she, on the other hand, was on the swim team in school. We are both Aquarians -- the air sign that carries the water of enlightenment. "That's the thing," I said. "We want to be able to carry the water and control how it flows. But we aren't comfortable being swept away by it." Of course in this sense I meant water in its broader aspect as the symbol for those often uncontrollable tides of emotion and dream. I think WaiWai agreed.

She taught me to dive under the large waves that day, flattening myself to the sand as the wave rolled over me. A useful tool indeed, in and out of the water.

We also talked about the old Hawaiian man who gave her her Hawaiian name. She told me he used to rub aloe on her shoulders, telling her how good it was for her skin. I asked if perhaps he didn't also just want to touch her. She said it wasn't unlikely.

"You know what the Sanskrit is for aloe, don't you?" I asked her. She didn't. "It's kumari," I said. "Kumari means 'goddess.'" It gave a new angle to her experience. "I have a big aloe in a pot on my doorstep," she said. "Maybe you are getting this piece of information about aloe so you can connect with it and the divine feminine more," I offered.

I may have been only half right.

That evening we were scheduled to go to a concert. It had been an overcast day at the beach and I was slathered with 70-SPF sunscreen. But after a few hours of resting in my hotel room, I started to get an itchy heat rash (along with a runny nose, headache and sore throat... Wind Damp invasion alternating between Hot and Cold). I asked WaiWai to bring me a few stalks of the 'goddess' when she picked me up for the concert. I put them in the mini-fridge and we departed for the show. Returning late from the concert feeling awful and exhausted, I went straight to bed.

The next morning I slit one cool aloe stalk down the middle, giving thanks. I told Lugh about my conversation with WaiWai as he drew the demulcent side of the plant over my shoulder, back, chest and face. It seemed a holy experience somehow.

"Wow, I wish you could see this," he said, as he smoothed the plant over my back. "The red bumps are going down instantly!" I'm convinced now that the best way to use the 'goddess' plant is to have it applied by a man who thinks you are a goddess, as well!

All Work and No Play Make Herbis Orbis a Very Dull (insert Homer Simpson drooling sound here)

I'm finished with the tedium and rigors of (acupressure) point location class, but that has been replaced by the aforementioned anatomy class. Which, so far, isn't anywhere near as maddening, though the tests are still challenging. This is joined by a shiatsu class and weekly 'client' intakes.

Meanwhile, I've got my big East West seminar experience coming up in a few short weeks, for which I am woefully unprepared. Basically we'll have three days of monitored clinic 'testing' where we interview, assess and formulate herbal preparations for various patients. Having fallen behind on other deadlines for work for the school, I will not be able to cram much studying in before I find myself amidst the California redwoods once more, feeling I don't know my own butt from a hole in the ground.

"But haven't you been working in clinic for the past several months?" you may ask. Well, yes, but not with Chinese herbs or patents, which I'll need to know. Suffice it to say, I'm going to rely on the books I'll bring and hope for a talented clinic partner.

And if I don't 'pass' -- well, there's always next year.

Or clown school.

Circling Beltaine

Unbelievably, I'm staring right into the wild eyes of Mayday again, which this year I will spend with my group here in the Midwest. Sometimes I wonder if anything could top the gentle magic of my Beltaine spent last year in the redwood forest, but I have no doubt it will be wonderful in its own way. It always is.

Beltaine is that incredible time of wild blooming desire -- desire on all levels. As I approach May in a much more subdued, introspective way this year, I wonder if I am just so full of desires for all aspects of my life that I'm having trouble focusing; or if the flowers and fruits of last year's desires have depleted and exhausted me so much that I need to lie fallow for a year.

We shall see what blessings the season brings. I submit to the tide, but I acknowledge that this time around, I am not bending to the wild hunt; I am Persephone emerging from my mysterious, dark time with Hades, rushing reborn into the strong, garlanded arms of a goddess who loves me even so.


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)

Froggie
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.

Yikes.


Beltaine 2008: Mora et Amor

Mora: Latin for "delay" or "linger"

Amor: also Latin, "love"

Forgetmenot
A Beltaine reveler amongst the forget-me-nots 

I type now in the last minutes before midnight on the eve of Beltaine, from a cabin in the redwood forest above Santa Cruz, CA, where I am attending the annual East West School of Planetary Herbology seminar. I have looked forward to this week all year, and now I find myself bewildered and saddened to know that it is quickly coming to an end. Today in particular was unforgettable and awe-inspiring. We hiked into a beautiful nature preserve to meet new plants, each one more beautiful and unique than the last, led by our guide on hilly, sandy, winding trails, under the trees’ gracefully arching branches. Finally the already enchanting setting gave way to unbridled fairy tale measure, and we were suddenly surrounded on all sides by endless waves of violet-blue lupine in an open, sun-drenched meadow.

I spent almost all four hours of my flight here writing out a Beltaine essay by hand, full of my philosophy of flowers and their special significance on this particular holiday, notes about the alchemical marriage between the Red King and the White Queen, the softening and blooming of the earth and the strengthening of the sun… etcetera.

But I’m not going to use any of that. You can read a bit about flowers and ritual in last year’s Beltaine post, and search for and find any of the plentiful and excellent content on the Internet about Beltaine folklore.

Instead, I’d like to talk about how Beltaine in its unique position on the calendar symbolizes mora et amor – suspension and desire.

Like its crossquarter partner Samhain on the Celtic wheel of the year, Beltaine is a point of no-time and no-space; a liminal place belonging to no temporal or geographic realm. One way of looking at Beltaine is that the year has one foot in youth and the other in adulthood. Not coincidentally, it’s exactly how I feel now, having been absolved of all my usual obligations except to get to class on time and soak up information like a sponge. Despite the academic direction of this gathering, my focus and concentration easily evaporate into dreaminess and disconnection here, where I am as likely to have a conversation with a flower or a caterpillar or a fawn as I am to have with one of my fellow students. As they say of Samhain, Beltaine represents a time when the veils between the worlds are thin.

So what does one do in no-time and no-space?

Pause. Take a long pause and pay attention. In my opinion, there may be no better time to be still than on Beltaine Eve, respectfully stopping to drink in the delicate and earnest beauty of the young goddess under the guise of the Earth. It is now that we see her in her early summer lingerie -- the frilly white and pink blossoms clinging to the still-visible sinuous forms of the trees; it is at this time that we are enveloped in her very first perfumes, coming sweet and clean from the ruffled lily of the valley at our feet or the heady romantic lilac brushing our shoulders.

The maiden goddess puts on this ravishingly lovely display in response to, and for, her consort, the god –- who, under the guise of the Sun, awakens her and draws near. This is the great, eternal romance, the never-ending dance of opposites: female and male, dark and light, moist and dry, still and moving, tame and wild, familiar and foreign, solid and etheric, yin and yang.

All my life I have felt my senses filled with the charge of anticipation at this time of year. Just think of the great shift at whose heart we sit: The Sun will reach its zenith in a few short weeks, while boughs heavy with nectar-rich blossoms herald the plethora of tightly closed buds and churning seeds waiting to explode onto the riotous summer scene. The Sun brings light and warmth but with a heat that is not unforgiving; the forest is still clad lacily enough so that we might see through to some other side.

We’re on the brink of great change.

And so with that in mind I offer to you another way of looking at Beltaine, one not literally about seeking dalliances with a secret partner while going a-Maying in the wood, or about hopping the fire for fertility or even about sex in general.

Well, all right, it is always sort of about sex.

But what I have learned about Beltaine this year is that it is about tension. It is about the forces that hold us in suspension –- mora --, the opposing energies that at once draw us near and keep us distant -- amor.

Seeing some opposite force outside of ourselves attracts us because oftentimes it is an energy we crave to have or to be, or one that can help us express something inside that has of yet found no outlet. This amor, or love, may be a person, state of being, a level of achievement, or even an object. The recognition of the distance between oneself and one’s inamorata defines the desire, and one seeks to close the distance, thereby lessening the feeling of tension. In other words, you go after what you want and claim it!

On the other hand, the same tension can hold things in suspension and act as a preserver of dreams or fantasies not yet born or set into motion, and it is a dynamic that sets a magnifying lens to our current place and time. By this I mean that the space between the desirer and the desired may do well to keep them apart, and that one may actually find nourishment in the tension. Gratification is not always the name of the game, and anyone who reads this blog could guess that I believe mystery is a nourishing component of one’s relationships with spirit, self and others. A full life is aligned with mystery -- to let go of one is to let go of the other.

This last bit is even more abstract, so practically speaking: Are you ready to take that leap? Did you set into action a plan that will carry you safely to your love-to-be, your idea of health or contentment, the next level in your career? Are there other contracts at stake? Risks are exciting but should be handled with care. If it is not the right time to bloom, the mystery may sustain you for now . . . or even forever.

One gift I see is that the dance and tension of opposing forces symbolized at this time of Beltaine serves as an opportunity to evaluate which way to go forward (or stop, or change direction… in any case it is a going forward). After all, the brink is often the best place to pause and study the lay of the land, and the silence before the music begins is the best place to find your center before taking your first step.

For me, personally and practically -- seeing so many successful herbalists and teachers created a real and tangible tension between where I am now (perpetual student) and where I wish to be (having cultivated enough wisdom from plants to be able to help myself and others heal and stay healthy). Quite literally, as an intermediate level student at our gathering, I am safe within the mora -- the cozy in-between, the suspension. I was not an anxious beginner facing the unknown, nor was I an advanced student under pressure to prove my skills.

But soon the scales will tip and I'll have to either deliberately move forward or choose to entertain the mystery of what would come with a year of waiting before gathering enough confidence, sensitivity and knowledge to treat anyone under the watchful eyes of my mentors. It was funny; we had finished eating the most divine chocolate ganache, fresh strawberry and whipped cream birthday cake when I suddenly realized that at this time next year I'd be sweating bullets!

Lupine
My classmates in a field of lupine 

I hope that whether you let out the slack, walk carefully the tightwire, or find another way around to view your desires from a different perspective, you revel in your loves and lovers this Beltaine and every Beltaine. Men and women alike: wear the seductive mantle of the early summer goddess and be the rousing, warm and activating Sun – and in any case let yourself be attractive in the most guileless way, in the way that is your true nature.

I was away from my own group this May Day, but I am pleased to say that I had a wonderfully gentle and magical time in the forest with my fellow herbalism students and teachers. We celebrated the end of our week of study by singing and dancing and telling stories, playing music, eating ice cream and luscious strawberries and playfully rejoicing in each other’s unique energies.

And at the end of that long, lovely night, I slipped back into the silent, starlit wood, holding a purple flashlight borrowed from my tenderly beloved teacher . . . who in so many beautiful ways illuminates for me the path back home.


Photo Post: Medicine-Making: Pills, Liniment, Oil

Ddjwhole Ddjtincture
Pillswholeherbs Ddjpowder
Pillshoney Pillswet
Pillsfinished Brahmioil

Some people spend frosty weekends inside baking cookies. I make herbal medicine.

Last weekend I restrained myself from computer work so I could catch up on some medicine-making projects required for completion of the East West Herb Course.  It was gratifying to return to working with herbs in the less cerebral sense. After months of flash cards, charts and reading, the opportunity to smell, touch and taste plants was a welcome change.

Click on the above photos to see larger versions. The top pair are the herbs and newly-macerating tincture of Dit Dat Jiao liniment, a topical treatment for bruises and other trauma. The second and third pairs are different stages in the production of some tonic pills including licorice, lycii berries, black atractylodes, astragalus, dang gui, and panax ginseng, bound with honey. The first of the last pair are the completed pills rolled in slippery elm powder. The final photo is of gotu kola, calamus root and sesame oil, the ingredients for a simple Brahmi Oil, which is an Ayurvedic topical preparation that treats nervousness and exhaustion, among other things. When it was finished, the golden oil shown above had turned a lovely shade of green.


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

Snowy

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!