Two part interview on December 7, 2010 by the Boston Examiner.
Read the interview here.
“It better benefit a man to know one herb in the meadow, but to know it thoroughly,
than to see the whole meadow without knowing what grows on it.” – Paracelsus
It is a well known fact that modern, Capitalist society is based on the principle of acquisition. According to this system of thought the more one accumulates the more successful and virtuous one appears. This attitude can easily spill over into the study of medicinal plants.
Herbalists, Naturopaths and Homeopaths today have a huge materia medica to draw from, and it is constantly expanding. The dedicated practitioner may begin with Western Herbalism, or the standard Homeopathic remedies of Boerike and Clarke. Soon they are made aware of Ayurvedic medicine, Chinese Five Element theory, Taoist medicine, the Bach flower remedies (and the one thousand or so new flower essences that have been “discovered” in the last two decades). There are the modern provings of Homeopathy to keep up with as well as folk medicine from various cultures, Native American medicine, Tibetan medicine, medicine from the Rain Forests, and Huna from Hawaii.
The enthusiastic learner can easily become swamped by the rising tide of information.
After being in practice and teaching Herbalism and Homeopathic First Aid for over a decade I found a sense of ennui setting in. Working with clients was never a bore but the constant incoming stream of new data was beginning to overwhelm me. I felt no urgent need to learn the botany of the Amazon, though I was glad that there were scientists and ethnobotanists out there cataloging the rapidly disappearing species. The several herbal magazines to which I subscribe were offering a constant parade of cures from Africa! and Brazil! and other exotic shores.
As a good Capitalist, dedicated to the philosophy of acquisition, I should have been glad of the tide of offerings but found myself seeking more and more the simplicity of using and understanding the herbs of my immediate environment.
There is, for example, a huge Rhus Toxicodendron (poison ivy) vine in my vicinity. It is a magnificent specimen, towering over ten feet high and producing the most beautiful profusion of shiny leaves in early summer and yellow berries in the fall. The vine grows next to a parking lot. Motorists park under it daily, unawares.
As I watched the vine change and grow over several years I began to develop a deep affection for the plant. I would smile each time I witnessed its healthy lushness, knowing that virtually every passerby, including the one who owned and maintained the parking lot, was unaware of the plants true identity. It was as if we shared a secret.
One day I “got out of bed the wrong way”. I was used to sleeping on an ancient, rock hard futon and as I swung my legs over the side one morning I suddenly wrenched my back. “Get the Arnica!” was my immediate thought. For two days I dosed myself to no avail. (Heretofore Arnica had handled virtually every pain I had ever developed from dancing or hiking or workouts at the gym). Being in considerable pain I panicked after the second day. I could neither sit in a chair nor lie in bed without extreme discomfort. And I remembered the dictum that it is generally best to have someone else “take your case” rather than attempting to heal yourself in many instances.
It was a weekend and only one local practitioner was available, an acupuncturist. He put me on the table and applied herbal poultices. Then he put in the needles, adding electrical current for good measure. I felt the current coursing down my legs but no relief from the pain. That night I was to sleep with plasters on my lower back.
I continued with the herbal plasters for two more days but could get no relief. Finally, in despair, in the wee hours of the morning, I found myself pacing up and down the living room. The only comfortable position I could find was walking. Everything else, lying, sitting, hurt too much. “My I am restless” I thought to myself. And then it hit me – “Rhus Tox!” I grinned and ran for the remedy kit. Within an hour nearly all of my pain was gone and I sank into a tranquil sleep.
The next day I visited the huge Rhus vine in the parking lot. I smiled at it and thanked it and its relatives for having helped me. I understood at that moment that I had been in deep communion with that plant for years and that it was a plant I needed. I was not sure if it needed me. My point is that we were in relationship.
Meditating on that vine I understood that most people were deathly afraid of it. Yet it overcomes “fear of pain through intimacy” according to one flower essence practitioner. I had certainly had my struggles with that one, after an abusive marriage.
Not long after a woman came to me who was constantly selecting inappropriate men because she was terrified of deep intimacy and commitment and this was her way of avoiding those. Being in deep communion with the Rhus vine I advised her to visit it frequently and to sit under it as a way to become clearer about her relationship patterns. On a psychic level Rhus has an explosive red energy that burns away the fear of intimacy if it is admitted into ones awareness.
Not long after that I read that in the rainforests of South America the medicine people believe that unless a plant has come into your dreams, waking or sleeping, you are not empowered to heal with it. I thought of the Rhus vine and understood that I had experienced a kind of initation. It was a plant ally that I was working with on many levels, both physical and spiritual.
I had a working knowledge of and a deep affection for many plants over the years but now I began to seek out the ones with which I was spiritually connected. Suddenly the ennui and overload that I had been feeling about constantly needing to acquire new remedies and cures began to evaporate and I found myself on a search within, to seek out the plants that were calling to me personally, rather than from the pages of a magazine or a book.
I remembered how in my conversations with Native American healers I was always struck by how few plants they were familiar with. I had felt sorry for them because I thought it was due to the loss of their culture that they were so limited in their materia medica. What I gradually came to understand was that they knew a few plants deeply, root, seed, leaf and flower. Because they were in relationship with those few plants the plants worked for them, in many different circumstances.
Another plant which had drawn my attention was wood sorrel, what I called “true shamrock”. I had never worked with it medicinally, though it is good for fevers. In my rambles through the forests of the Eastern U.S. it came to be a signature plant for me. Where I saw it growing in profusion I had a sense that the realm of Faery was near, it indicated a portal or gateway for the spirits, a place where they could be felt more easily and communed with. A place where heavy emotions could be lifted and a new lightness of spirit experienced.
When I visited Ireland recently I was taken to a nemeton, a sacred precinct recently built by practitioners of Nature Religions in Cork. They invited me to visit their newly erected cairn, built next to a flowing stream. As we neared the ritual space I observed a thick stand of shamrocks on the bank leading to and from the temenos. I “knew” then that this sacred precinct was a true place of healing and a place where visitors would grow closer to spirit.
Later on the same trip I was taken to “Altanadevan”, near Augher, county Tyrone. The site consists of a hill located in the middle of a larch forest. On top of the hill is a stone chair and a well. The chair is reputed to be the place where Saint Patrick heard confessions, yet the traditional name of the place “The Druid’s Chair” hints at far older uses.
The entire path up to the “Chair” and back down the other side of the hill is thickly set with shamrocks. The surrounding larch trees add their spiritual aid as well — the larch is a deciduous conifer meaning that it drops its needles in the dark of the year to let the light in. Larch too is medicinal, the natives of Siberia use its bark to staunch bleeding, both external and internal. Where seven larch trees grow in a circle is said to be a sacred grove.
The vegetation of that place is working in unison and conspires to open the spirit of whomever visits, the rocks of the hill likewise, lifting the visitor closer to the celestial realm. It is a place I would send anyone who was too earthbound and preoccupied with business or mundane affairs.
I have since developed my own materia medica of about twelve spirit plants. The temptation is to set them down here on paper so that others can “use” them. The key to this type of medicine is that each practitioner has to work on their own, searching out the plants that speak to them uniquely. And keep it simple. I suspect that even twelve plants is too many and am looking forward to a deeper relationship with my plant allies so that I can understand the ones I am truly empowered to share with humanity.
Slan agus siochain agus beannacht leibh
Saille/Willow (Ellen Evert Hopman)