Learning the Green Ray

Soul Seed Realignment

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

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

I’m so glad I did.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flower Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(It was sweet cicely.)

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

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

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

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

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

Fiori d’arancio

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

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

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

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

“Do you smell that?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

California poppyResistance is beautiful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll see how it grows from there.

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

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)

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.


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? :)

Queen Anne's Lace


Hey kids, click on the graphic above for a free wallpaper of the lovely daucus carota, also known as wild carrot or Queen Anne's lace. (For my less computer-savvy readers, when the larger picture comes up, right-click and choose 'Set as desktop background' or a similar option. The size is 800x600... cropped from 1200+ by Typepad; I'll work on finding a way to post the larger option.)

If this photo does not help you appreciate the exquisite fractal symmetry of the botanical world, at least meditating on the deep purple flower at the center of the umbel will help you differentiate this medicinal herb from the deadly water hemlock (which lacks such a signifier).

I've got the "Herbis" covered; for a more "Orbis" wallpaper, check out Brian's shot of two Perseid meteors taken Monday night.

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.

Learning the way of herbs


Yesterday was the first evening I’ve had at home alone in weeks. I stopped at the Vietnamese bakery, picked up two banh mi and some chrysanthemum tea, and flopped onto the couch. It was good to be home, finally.

It didn’t feel that way for while, though. I was strangely emotional and actually quite sad upon leaving California after a week-long seminar coordinated by the East West School of Herbology. Even though I did miss home, I didn’t want to say goodbye to all my new friends and teachers, the beautiful redwood forest, and temperate California weather. There was some other component adding to my heavy heart which I’m still trying to put my finger on, but it could just be that emotional let-down you feel after something momentous has been completed. For me, this trip was pretty momentous. Life-changing, even, though I couldn’t tell you exactly why. But here’s an attempt.

A different way of learning

Being out of my element -- away from home, media distractions, my music, my friends, my husband, my caffeine, my wine with dinner – had the curious effect of making me feel more like myself than ever, while simultaneously causing me to do things completely out of character. Or at least I think they were out of character.

For example, I got sick for the first time in about four years. Here I am, in this beautiful setting, surrounded by all these lovely gentle people, about to meet my Herbal Aba (‘aba’ means ‘dad’ in Hebrew) and try to make a good impression, … and what happens?

I’ve prided myself on my long record of good health (no flus, colds or other maladies for over four years), so when the headache I had on the first day of the seminar wasn’t gone after 48 hours, I was concerned. I sat down to a plate of lamb tagine and lentils at dinner and couldn’t muster an appetite. I really started to worry. I was worried that I might have to miss classes. I was worried I'd fall behind. I was worried that I might get so sick, I'd throw up. I was worried that someone would know, and then I’d be remembered as “The Girl Who Threw Up.” My new friend Christina did reiki on me while her plate grew cold, which of course made me even more self-conscious, though I was grateful for her attention. The ladies at my table suggested I go lie down and see if the pain eased before our next class. Under any other circumstances I’d have pushed through, but I really didn’t feel right. I went to my room, turned off the light, convinced myself not to call my husband just to whine, and just cried there in my sleeping bag like a ninny while my heart raced for no apparent reason. I didn’t have any painkillers, and if I did, they’d have wreaked even more havoc on my empty, queasy stomach. I tried to tell myself that if I was going to get sick, I might as well do it here, where a healer was no more than three yards away at any given time.

A little while later there was a knock at the door. It was Christina, and she had with her Susan, an herbalist, author and teacher at the seminar. I immediately felt like a drama queen, and my heart sank at the thought of calling even more attention to myself, but I surrendered and tearfully sniffled through Susan’s gentle questions and acupressure. She helped me to calm down and urged me to stop being so self-judgmental. She also assured me that I didn’t have to attend every class; there are more ways of learning than just by being in class. She massaged my headache away, gave me some Rescue Remedy, a few capsules of tulsi, a hug, and then she departed.

Christina decided to sit with me while I decided what to do about the evening's class. Soon my headache came back with a vengeance. I decided to stay in. She decided to stay with me. I felt too sick to be uneasy about that. When the waves of nausea returned, I excused myself, calmly walked to the bathroom, and yep, threw up. Christina waited outside for me with a hot washcloth. I was so grateful. I went to bed and hoped that would be the end of it.

It was. I showed up at 7 a.m. for qi gong the next morning and after our hour was up, I felt like a million bucks. And I earned interest on that million the rest of the week.

Susan was right – there are more ways of learning than the academic kind. That night, I missed class, but I learned to be humble while at the same time acknowledging that I was worth healing, attention, and the loving concern of others. In a way, I learned to be sick.

Is my glass half vacuous*, or half full?

What else was out of character? Locking my keys in my room. Very-nearly-accidentally-possibly-maybe-let’s-not-talk-about-it setting my room on fire. Forgetting my nametag every other lecture. Singing out loud (whether I was in tune or not is another story) and smiling at others while doing it.

And, finally, regressing into some very unpleasant sixth-grade headspace.

To wit: I met Aba a couple of times at the beginning of the seminar, and he called me by name at least twice. Then, the morning after our first class with him, he’s standing behind me in the breakfast line. I say, “Good morning, Michael,” and he returns my greeting, followed by, “Tell me your name again?” He might as well have used a magic wand to turn me into a toad! At least, that’s how I felt. It’s totally irrational and certainly oversensitive and probably not at all understanding of how he must be inundated with dozens of new, goofily enthusiastic students at these things.

So I found myself over the next couple of days wishing I could be a good student and stand out, but not wanting to look like I was putting any effort into it. Result: lots of effort put into trying to appear effortless, namely, doing nothing extraordinary at all, which I think was the point. I decided to ignore the self-esteem Pac-Man and just be myself. Overall it worked, but I had to pull the choke chain on myself when I found myself keeping score. I’m glad I can at least be honest about that and look at where it all comes from.

The heart of the matter

Some months ago I had some very pronounced symptoms of what traditional Chinese medicine calls “Heart Yin deficiency” (or "Heart Yin vacuity," in *Flawsian parlance – a running joke at school because some people feel judged by the word “deficient”). Bits of wisdom and reminders about the heart kept coming up throughout the seminar (see the strawberry and Miles’ blackboard in the last post, and read further down in this entry about a special kind of tincture). Our Western energetics teacher, Spirit Bear, began his class talking about his own heart issues and the luck he’s had with linden flower. It’s just the sort of ‘there there’ herb I need.

One night, while I sat with Spirit Bear talking about humility and confidence in clinical practice, I spied a large black spider creeping from the dining room where we were into the kitchen. Spirit Bear noticed me watching it and divined the creature's appearance. First he commented that it didn't look like a "friendly" spider and considered catching it to toss it outside; he didn’t. "Not an altogether auspicious sign," he said. "Moving in the direction of the south. That's the heart and fire. Relationships. Emotions. I'd be careful around those issues and not make any quick decisions."

Looking back, I think this had to do with some of the difficulties described above. But I think I was pretty successful with damage control and prevented my sometimes hypersensitive, self-judgmental emotions from running away with the treasure.

I feel that my time spent at the seminar helped to break my heart open a little more. Somehow I feel more confident about the path of learning that I am on, even though the destination doesn’t necessarily seem any clearer. The commitment seems more solid and more joyful (appropriate joy being the positive emotion of the heart in traditional Chinese medicine), and that’s what I really need now.

But what would a healer say?

When I got home, my husband, Lugh, asked me if the seminar changed how I feel about studying herbalism, and if I can picture what my future with it will be. After all, I'd been paving this road slowly with Ima for the past few years. Had anything changed?

I told him that when I was on the plane coming home, feeling truly sad to leave, I tried to think of a comforting thought about not seeing any of these nice people for a year, and about this path and why I was on it, and the very first thing that popped into my head was, "You'll have all this time to spend sitting with the plants in the garden, and learning from them the way you love most." And I felt instantly better.

I also kind of thought that that wasn't the most noble and certainly not the most practical thing to come to mind. It wasn't, "Yes, I am here on this planet to heal others with herbs!" or "I vow to become a truly effective and spiritual healer of my generation because that is most certainly my vocation and that is how I will make the world a better place." There I was, seeing my near and far future consisting of sitting and meditating with plants.

At the close of the weekend, my new Herb Mom Lesley led us in a medicine wheel ceremony. Among other things, we journeyed astrally into the wheel to find a plant ally and were invited to bring another person in with us to heal. Lesley encouraged us to share our experiences. Many of my fellow classmates sensed overwhelming pain and suffering, and they saw themselves and fellow students donning armor and weapons to fight whatever was causing the suffering. Several brought in friends and relatives for healing and had very profound experiences around that.

But my journeys were very lonely. No one was there besides myself, not even animals or insects. I traveled under a bright but cloudy sky along a somewhat dry stream alone, with no vegetation for miles except for these reeds and rushes which covered everything and whistled in a stiff wind. Then I found myself rather literally in the center of the wheel we'd created with stones on the floor; except I'd shrunk down to about an inch high. As such, I sat on a long, flat, porous stone and just waited there by myself. The wind disappeared. The stone's pores began to breathe all around me and under me. I lay on the stone and just sensed it breathing. Then these beautiful green reeds (they somewhat resembled horsetail but were smoother and greener) began to grow out of the pores of the stone, one to each pore. They gently swayed and rippled, animated by themselves and not by wind. It looked a lot like live coral. I got up to examine one of the reeds more closely and was "instructed" to drink. Indeed, the reed was like a straw and I sipped from within the heart of the stone. The cool, sweet water ‘tasted’ ancient -- like it came from some untapped primeval spring. And that was it.

So you see -- it's not exactly the 'right' thing for a student of herbal medicine to say. It's not selfless, or about service, or harmony. It's not about alleviating the suffering of humanity. But what is it? And does it mean I’m not meant to heal others? Maybe I’m reading into this a bit too much, but I’ve never been one to take messages from Spirit lightly.

Five flavors and then some

On the much lighter and happier side: I love food. Eating is probably my favorite thing in the whole world to do. I worry sometimes, if I’m going to a convention for work, or a retreat where I won’t have much opportunity to escape the premises, that I’ll be subjected to poor cuisine. These fears were allayed at every single meal prepared for us by Ben, our chef. Bravo, Ben! Maybe next year I’ll have to do some food photography to entice even more people to come to these seminars.

I can’t call this entry complete until I tell you about a little something called “Penetrate the Heart.” Back story: I was first introduced to Ben online as a sometime-leader of our Friday herb student chats. One day in early February, he logged on and wanted to tell us about some aphrodisiac products he’d been concocting at his pharmacy for Valentine’s Day. One of these was a “cardio-genital tincture” called “Penetrate the Heart.” He wanted to know what we thought of the name. I can’t remember exactly how blunt I was with my opinion (probably very) but I told him I thought the name sounded painful, reminded me of the dreaded Three of Hearts, and in general could stand to be more sensual (for the love of sales, if nothing else!). I could sense Ben sniffing disdainfully and rolling his eyes over the Internet. He replied, “I used the word ‘penetrate’ because it was meant to be ribald.” Frankly I thought it was kind of ridiculous. I also was pretty sure I hadn’t won a new friend in Ben. (A dodgy move; I think Ben grades our tests and essays.)

Fast forward to the seminar, when I spy several of these little pink-labeled bottles of “Penetrate the Heart” sitting in a neat row on Ben’s sales table. Of course, I had to take a taste of the stuff.

Guess what. It’s fantastic. Truly a delight. And this is coming from someone who hates the perfume-y taste of damiana (second on the ingredient list). I shared some with my friends at school back home and they all had the same look on their faces, after taking a dropperful: “…What the…?” It was an epiphany for us poor souls raised on Everclear simple tinctures knocked back with a cringing yet hopeful “Well, I must do this for my health.”

I have two bottles of “Penetrate the Heart” left. I’m not a different person yet, but at least I know that the road that will (hopefully) take me there will taste sweet. Order some for yourself and tell ‘em Herbis Orbis sent you: Five Flavors Herbal Pharmacy.

Need simulacra? See pictures of my week in Santa Cruz here.

Next up: Last weekend’s Beltaine report, plus a very humble recounting of a brilliant, inspiring and breathtaking treatment Ima did of the Psyche/Eros myth.

Learning by heart


Above: Strawberry on my plate from lunch, photographed and then consumed last Tuesday in a redwood forest near Santa Cruz, CA.

Below: A small but satisfying nibble of Taoist philosophy offered by my teacher Miles before qi gong class this morning, consumed and then photographed today in the same redwood forest.


I'm currently finishing up a week-long seminar with Herbal Aba. The closing ceremony is tomorrow. My brain is full and my heart is open. More details to come.