Herbal Gifts

St. John's Wort DriedToday I finished the harvest of St. John’s Wort–all from plants that grew up wild in our yard, or down the street from our home.  I had cut the flowers with a little bit of plant attached, back when they were in full bloom, in early July.  I dried some of it in tied bunches hanging in the garage, and some of it in loose bunches on an extra window screen laid flat in the basement. (Take note: I definitely preferred the screen method for later processing ease.)

So today, I spread out some paper on the kitchen table, and put all the bunches onto it.  Then I sat and rubbed the leaves & flowers off the stems, stem by stem.  I was listening to podcasts about healing and self-care, which somehow seemed appropriate to the task.  Two hours later, I was still at it, and then I listened to a few short podcasts from an old friend, Lee Ann Hopkins, with whom I recently reconnected on Facebook.  I am not much of a podcast listener, (I usually like to read instead) but working with my hands in these herbs while listening to uplifting messages seemed just right.  The purpose of Lee Ann’s website, Hooray Weeklyis “to encourage and lift up individuals and communities in this time of resistance and change, both collectively and personally.”  She is a kindred spirit still.

It seems particularly apt since St. John’s Wort is an herbal remedy for depression and other mood difficulties, along with several other uses.  According to WebMD,

St. John’s wort is most commonly used for “the blues” or depression and symptoms that sometimes go along with mood such as nervousness, tiredness, poor appetite, and trouble sleeping. There is some strong scientific evidence that it is effective for mild to moderate depression. St. John’s wort is also used for symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes and mood changes.

If you are interested, there is a lot more information on that website.

With the cruelty and destruction we observe every day in the wider world around us, those of us who are sensitive to it can find ourselves very weary and down-hearted, heavy burdened by it all.  Isn’t it amazing that nature offers these bright yellow flowers in the midst of high summer, to bring with us into the long dark of winter?

St. John's Wort drying

St. John’s Wort plant freshly cut, hung to dry.

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Curanderismo

Open My Eyes left

[Open My Eyes by Catalina Salinas]

If there is a thread running through these days in New Mexico, perhaps it would be the book, Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya.  My friend Virginia Marie had told me before my trip about an event we could attend related to the book, so I got a digital copy and read it on the plane on my way here.  It is about a young boy growing up in rural new Mexico around the time of World War Two, and his relationship with the curandera Ultima who came to live with his family when he was seven.  A curandera is a traditional healer in the Mexican (and New Mexican) tradition.

The National Hispanic Cultural Center, has a special exhibit on visual interpretations of the book.  The event we attended included a talk by Toñita Gonzales, curandera and educator, and Dr. Eliseo Torres, author and scholar of Curanderismo at the University of New Mexico.  Virginia Marie is herself a curandera, as well as an Episcopal priest.  The talk began with a ritual to honor the four directions and the Creator and the Mother Earth.

Curanderismo includes the use of herbs for healing, and many other modalities.  It works in conjunction with western medicine, though for many years was viewed with suspicion, as most traditional healing methods have been viewed. It includes making a relationship with plants, treating them with honor and respect for their power to heal us. Ultima would always say a prayer to the plants before she dug them up for use in healing.  I think about the plants I have been getting to know back in Maine.

Back at Virginia Marie’s home, we also watched the movie that was made from the book.  Today, she will do a healing session with me, though in reality, this whole time has been a healing ceremony.

Open My Eyes right

[Open My Eyes by Catalina Salinas]

Healing Waters

Healing Mineral Waters Jemez Hot Spring

I am on retreat with my friend in Albuquerque, and we started off by visiting the Jemez Hot Springs, and soaked for an hour in their healing mineral waters.  All of our tensions floated away, and our bodies and souls felt renewed and relaxed. I loved that we were under the watchful arms of an ancient Egyptian river Goddess.

My intention for this time of retreat is to re-emerge myself in Spirit after a long hard winter, to prepare myself for the transition ahead as I retire this summer from my work as a parish minister, and venture into the next phase of my journey.

Times of big changes are liminal times, sacred times, but perhaps also times of anxiety and danger.  I want to stay true to the leadings of my body and spirit that have brought me to this crossroads.  One of those leadings came from the weariness of my body, its chronic illness and auto-immune flare-ups that left me bedraggled and exhausted. I know it is time to stop pushing it so hard.  How fitting for my first day here to bring my body to these healing springs.

I am also already absorbing so much nurture from deep conversations with a sister in spirit who understands the call of ministry and justice, and who understands the lessons of the body, the lessons we learn from limitation and illness.  I am nurtured by this sister traveler into the country of elderhood.  River Goddess

 

Cedar

cedar leavesI seem to have unleashed a thirst for learning the names of all the trees who live with us on this land to which Margy and I belong. Today, I am exploring the cedar tree in our southeastern boundary area. I had always wondered about the difference between cedars and arborvitaes, and now I know that they are the same, really, here where we live.  There are a lot of names for this species which is native to southeastern Canada and northeastern United States–Eastern White Cedar, Northern White Cedar, White Cedar, False Cedar (because it is not related to European cedars).  Its Latin name is Thuja occidentalis.  

Cedar trunkIt was first called Arborvitae by French explorers when Indigenous people gave them tea  made of its leaves as a treatment for scurvy.  Arborvitae means “tree of life.”  Now, arborvitae is the name used by horticulturists, and there are many cultivars of the tree that are sold for landscaping.  The Anishinaabe people called the tree Nookomis Giizhik or Grandmother Cedar, because of its importance as a sacred and medicinal tree, associated with one of the four directions.

This has been a special tree to me personally in most of the places I have lived–Michigan, Chicago, northern New York state, Massachusetts, and Maine, and I appreciate that my matrilineal ancestors also knew this tree in Quebec/Nitassinan.  The Innu word for this tree is Massishk.  The tea from its leaves contains an abundance of Vitamin C, and can be used as a medicine.  (Note–being cautious, it is recommended that pregnant women should not use cedar tea because the compound thujone within it.)

From Sean Sherman (The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen):

The tea of simmered branches is used to treat fevers and rheumatic complaints, chest colds, and flu. This brew is delicious warm or cold and is simple to make. Just simmer 2 cups of fresh cedar in 4 cups of boiling water for about 10 minutes until the water becomes a golden color. Strain off the cedar and sweeten with maple syrup, to taste.

 

Red Pine

Red Pine[Edited: I learned 2/12/18 that this is actually a pitch pine. See my new blog post.] There is a red pine in the middle of our back yard… the only big tree (40 plus feet) that is not at the edge of the yard. But I have been struggling to create an affectionate relationship with this tree. I have had other very special trees in my life, and I loved the many trees that surrounded our home in North Yarmouth.  So why is this one hard?

I have been reading a lovely book, The Garden Awakening by Mary Reynolds, which is focused on creating a relationship with our land. She talks about trees as the guardians of the land.  So if we want to go deeper with the land, we need to go deeper with the trees.  That got me thinking again about the challenge of the red pine.

Perhaps it started when we first moved here, and were concerned about trees possibly shading the solar panels.  Or perhaps it is tied to my grief about the maple tree that was by the side of our house which we did have to take down because of dangerous branches and solar shading.  I loved that tree, and felt the contradiction so acutely: even though the maple tree was willing, and its wood became the ground layer mulch for our future orchard.  We decided that the solar panels would be okay with the pine tree’s slight shading, but it did get us off to a wary start.

So here it is.  It was identified as a red pine by an arborist who came by.  Right now, I have an intention to go deeper with this tree.  I want to understand all the dimensions of this relationship.  Some things that feel difficult to me:  The branches are all too high to reach, so it feels rather aloof.  When the pinecones drop, and there are lots of them, the ground underneath becomes difficult to walk on.  All around the tree there are old pinecones half buried in the grass from many years past.  If I could pick one word to describe my feeling of the tree, it would be “prickly.”

What helps? Last spring, we held an introduction to permaculture design course at our house, and many of the participants commented on the loveliness of the pine tree. There is a beautiful asymmetry in its branches. Their appreciation of the tree helped me to see its beauty.  The red pine is native to North America.  They can live up to 350-500 years.  Some sources said pine trees are symbols of longevity and wisdom.

Red Pine BarkOne website mentioned that its roots “are moderately deep and wide spreading. The lateral root masses also send down “sinkers” which anchor the tree very well in the soil. Red pines are very wind firm because of this dense root system.”

Okay, deep roots and anchors in the soil. I like that. I am investigating medicinal uses: one might be pine needle tea, which is good for immune function, bronchitis, and many other ailments.  More to research here.  This morning, I took pictures of the pine, and stood next to it, leaning against the bark.  What do you have to teach me, dear red pine?

 

Finding Inner Wisdom

Woodstove Fire

Wood stove Fire-Photo by Margy Dowzer

During our ritual celebration yesterday evening for Imbolc/Groundhog Day, we scryed with the magic of the fire in our wood stove.  Scrying is a form of seeking wisdom, by gazing into some sort of medium–such as a crystal ball, tea leaves, a bowl of water, a candle flame.  It gets a bad rap on Wikipedia as “unscientific.”  But as one person mentioned last night, while meditation may sometimes be difficult, there is something about quietly staring into a fire with each other that brings one to a state of stillness within.

When we find that stillness, we have access to our own deeper wisdom, and the wisdom of the deeper mystery. Some people see images in the fire. Others notice whatever thoughts or feelings emerge in the stillness of gazing.

Here is what I noticed on the way to the wisdom in me:  First of all, a sense of deep weariness.  Then, a desire to stop doing so much out there in the world, to pay attention to what is happening within.  Then, a feeling of how difficult it is to say no to invitations to activism on issues that are important.  There is so much hard stuff in our world right now, and so many good people are responding.  How do I know when I should be taking action, and when I should be in stillness?

Then, a fear that if I choose to say no, I will disappoint people, lose their love and acceptance. Then, a realization that that motivation, that fear, is not a source of wisdom, but rather a wound that needs healing.  I sat with the fear for a while, gazing still into the fire, opening my heart to the healing energies of the mystery.  We were celebrating Brigid after all, who is a Celtic goddess of healing. We had brought into the circle a small bottle of water from one of Brigid’s wells in Ireland, and I anointed my forehead and heart and hands with some of that water.

Deeper still, I realized that I am in the midst of a profound change.  I am shifting from one identity, one chapter of my life–as the minister of the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church, to another identity, another chapter–as yet unknown.  What I most desire is something like a cocoon in which to make that transformation, just as the caterpillar encloses itself for its transition to the butterfly.

This “enclosing myself” is not the same as doing nothing at all.  There are activities that directly relate to this transition–processes of ending, closing down, completing the work. I notice how hard it is to turn my attention away from the usual activities of my current/former self, to pay attention to the transition.  And in understanding this, I realize that I have to be courageous enough to say no to some good and important activities and activism. I have to say no, so that I can be courageous enough to say yes to the transformation.

Groundhog Day

IMG_4560

We’ve made it half-way to the Spring Equinox–Groundhog Day, Candlemas, Imbolc according to the Celts… Whatever we call it, I have always liked this festival. Even the birds seem to know that something is up.  On my walks the last couple days, they have been singing so that I notice it.  The height of the sun? The change in the light?  Even though it’s been cold, and today snow was covering everything, they sing.

Today, in my neighborhood, the groundhog would not have seen his shadow–so that means that spring will come early.  But in fact, groundhogs are still in hibernation here, and since technically, it will still be six weeks until spring no matter what, I don’t actually count on the groundhog to confirm the weather.  But this day still awakens the hope that winter won’t last forever.

I was happy to learn that the Groundhog Day tradition comes from Americans with German ancestry–since that is part of my own heritage.  Back in German-speaking lands, it was instead a badger, and originally a bear, whose emergence would predict the weather on Candlemas Day.  Candlemas was a Catholic feast, but was retained even after Protestant Reforms, likely because it was an even earlier pagan feast that had been Christianized. There are sayings in English, French, and Latin as well that correspond to the myth: “If Candlemas is fair and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.” This attests to its antiquity as a European tradition.

Imbolc is the feast of Brigid, the goddess of smithcraft, poetry, and healing.  When Margy and I visited Ireland, we visited more than one Brigid’s well where the waters are known for their healing properties.  But I also think of this festival as a celebration of fire–fire is the key component of welding and smithcraft, and it is also a symbol of creativity–the inner fire that inspires poetry and art and music.  It is the fire which inspires social change, transformation, and healing.

Years ago, this came together for me in the poem by Cherrie Moraga, “The Welder,” in the book, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.  It concludes with these lines:

I am now
coming up for air.
Yes, I am
picking up the torch.

I am the welder.
I understand the capacity of heat
to change the shape of things.
I am suited to work
within the realm of sparks
out of control.

I am the welder.
I am taking the power
into my own hands.

Thank you Cherrie Moraga!  And thank you to the singing birds!  Thank you dear neighborhood groundhog for not eating my kale last summer!  And to all of you reading this, may your day be filled with creativity and healing.