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Archive for December, 2009

Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera repens) is a perennial orchid that grows on the bark of fallen conifers. Harvest (thoughtfully, for it is sparse in some areas, and doesn’t grow once a forest has been too disturbed) in the fall and you’ll see that it truly is an orchid, with spongy roots that thread their way through narrow passages in rotting pine bark. The roots are impossibly soft, and seem to wind their way into places unfit for heartier roots, and so its wisdom unfolds with its form, and we can see the brightness offered in this seemingly shy forest plant.

Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera repens)

Despite the environment of decay, or perhaps because of it, there is no more joyful plant in the forest than Rattlesnake Plantain. The rosettes, hugging the ground and hiding in the darker places, catch my eye like little jewels every time I am in the forests near Portland, even in late fall. It is a deep forest plant, not a city dweller, but not for a lack of agreeability. Its job requires solitude and darkness, as well as the home of an old pine tree’s body, and so a stand of largely undisturbed conifers where traffic is light is where you’ll find it. This signature makes it a good plant to give attention to as Winter Solstice approaches, for the promise of Solstice is Rattlesnake Plantain’s yearlong message: Light and Dark are in harmony and together they bring us life. Light consumes darkness and darkness is nourishment for light. Life is sponsored by death. They belong together, the most primal of couplings, and one we struggle to understand. But Rattlesnake Plantain is not struggling. Look to it and you’ll see.

Rattlesnake Plantain can be used topically for scratches, much like the more common Plantain of the great american lawn. It’s juice can be consumed or used directly for soothing eyedrops, but the most widespread use of this little orchid was as a childbirth aid. The native people of North America, as well as Northern Europe, all used the plant for the same reason according to Michael Moore, for “birthing women who [were] having more than the usual pain, discomfort, and panic” (217, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West). They would chew the leaves fresh according to Moore, although they can be dried and used later, whenever they felt the need for support in birth. My experience with Rattlesnake Plantain leads me to suggest it for birthing problems as well, but more specifically for the mental or spiritual kind.  For cuts and scrapes I can go to many plants who are plentiful and unthreatened in their habitat, including the little Plantain at our feet wherever the ground has been disturbed, but for the primordial darkness before the birth of something new, Rattlesnake Plantain seems specially suited. I feel a kind of birthing panic in the dark of the year before Solstice, when many things are dying, and the rebirth of other things seems far away, or difficult. The promise of a new beginning is not yet realized. For this existential discomfort, give your attention to Rattlesnake Plantain.

I stopped to sit with Rattlesnake Plantain in the forest this fall by accident, if you believe in such a thing, after I was caught by its intense joy on my way to the ever-demanding future. Stumbling through a small patch of woods towards more Elderberries on a bright day in late September, I found myself surrounded by dozens of Plantain rosettes, scattered about my feet like spilled treasure, and my mind turned to harvesting them for the first time. But when I bent over to make an offering to the little beauty, I was directed to give my acknowledgment to the large tree to my right instead. I was surprised by the request as I squinted into blue sky to drink in the magnitude of the nearby pine, and realized it was the largest conifer in this patch of forest. The pine, a remaining old growth tree that had been left untouched in the previously logged area, was a serious presence. As I looked the other direction, I saw the remaining upright trunk of the pine tree that had fallen, undoubtably the former elder in this small village of plants, whose body was sponsoring the many Rattlesnake Plantains now growing at my feet.

After acknowledging the pines, both standing and fallen, and feeling permission to harvest, I set about removing one of the rosettes from it’s home. It wasn’t easy removing the plant’s roots from the intimate pathways it formed in the bark. Soft and deeply embedded in the rotting wood, Rattlesnake Plantain partly lives inside the fallen body of the pine it so reveres, gently breaking down its mightiness with the most delicate softness. Why the plant would want me to acknowledge its benefactor instead of it was no mystery now. The joyful support of little Rattlesnake Plantain is the former grandeur of a mighty pine, and this debt of sweet gratitude is never forgotten as it grows. What has been is in harmony with the life that now is: they are deep allies, the pine and Rattlesnake Plantain, richly complicit in their life and death.

So Rattlesnake Plantain sings the body of its beloved elder back into the earth, and we step over such small and potent miracles nearly every time we wander off trail in the conifers of the Pacific Northwest. Here is the grace I hear in the voice of Rattlesnake Plantain as well as in Solstice: that just a small amount of light, if consistent and joyful, is enough to herald great change. Whenever you feel like you cannot shake your grief, that you are not strong enough to meet your dreams in the face of significant loss, consider Rattlesnake Plantain.

You might not even need to harvest this little gem for a significant effect; it seemed odd to try and tincture the little bit of it I brought home, honestly, like I was doing something very unusual. Perhaps the plant has no familiarity with being tinctured at all, and wondered, out loud if you will, at my methods. Looking in the photo below, you can see it has lost some luster just a few hours later in my bowl, probably mostly due to a loss of moisture, but the tincture has a notable energetic imprint, and one I’ve barely begun to explore. Even a few drops are soporific and relaxing, and make it easier for me to remember what is lovingly allied with me. Perhaps even an essence of the plant would offer the same wisdom. Consider your method before harvesting. Many subtle medicines are grandly healing, and a gross amount of this plant seems unnecessary, indeed, even its signature suggests otherwise.

Rattlesnake Plantain 4 hours post harvest

If available to you, sit with Rattlesnake Plantain in a shady bit of forest someday. Stop, at least for a moment, and try a nibble of the leaf: fresh, grassy, and a little nutty. It might be enough to help you remember that what has come before supports you now; something to grease the wheels of your grateful acknowledgment. Turn your reverence to the sweet harmony of the dead and the living so native to this Plantain’s life. Remember the joyful complicity of the mighty and the small. With the help of Rattlesnake Plantain, remember that Life isn’t a competition, a war, or a cause for endless lament; Life is a dance of gratitude, and everything that has ever been is invited to join.

Solstice Blessings,

Laura


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I awoke Sunday morning to the first snowfall in the Puget Sound lowlands.  The mountains have been getting dusted and accumulating thier white winter robes for the past few months. But Sunday the rain finally turned solid and floated softly from the sky and coated the trees and grasses in stark white.  It seemed appropriate for our Solstice gathering, even though it made driving out to Ellen’s peaceful cabin on Fidalgo Island a bit more challenging.

Seven of us braved the white roads but poor Michelle and Kelsie, who were coming the farthest, were forced to turn around after making it well over half way here 😦

In accordance with the season our gathering activities are relegated to indoor activities or nature communing  as there is little to be harvested this time of year. We planned to gather to celebrate the season change and try our hands at percolated tinctures.

Last month when Carrie and I were scouting Devil’s club harvesting grounds I mentioned to her that I was interested in attempting a percolated tincture.  I had researched the subject online and found very little information regarding how to make them.    As it turned out Carrie had made a few while attending a class with Micheal Moore in AZ and she offered to lead a demonstration for our little group.    I’m hoping she will update the site with a detailed post on the process but I’ll go over it briefly.

A percolation is a tincture that can be made fairly fast compared to an infused tincture.  The process takes roughly 24-48 hours from start to finish.   I was interested in trying it out for those occasions where a tincture is needed sooner rather than later and you do not want to buy a tincture from the store.  It also seems like a good choice for when a herb is out of season as you use only dried herb for this process.  If you are not familiar with percolations think coffee,  dried coffee beans are ground to the consistentsy of sand and a menstrum is poured over it and the resulting liquid that drips through is rich and dark and coffee laden.  In the case of a percolated tincture the process is very similar only the menstrum is high percentage alcohol instead of boiling water.

Carrie, a Montana native, drove fearlessly down the snowy highway hills from Bellingham with Shana and arrived with a large box of all the tools she had brought for the demonstration.  The night before she prepared the herbs we were going to be using.  She ground up dried roots of echinacea and burdock and then mixed them with alcohol until the ground herbs were as moist as sand for building sand castles.  That herb sat overnight and was slightly rehydrated.  She next brought out her Perc Cones which were San Pelligrino bottles with the bottoms cut off.

We proceeded to place a small bit of cotton in the neck of the bottle and then began lightly packing the herbs into the cone.  After they were packed we placed a bit of a coffee filter on top and some clean stones and poured the rest of the alcohol over them and waited… after a few minutes a dark, potent medicine began to come out the bottom, drip by drip.

Megan getting the first pull off the Echinacea Perc 🙂

It was a really exciting skill to learn and we were all thankful for Carrie’s well worded teaching and effort she put into guiding us through the process.  She is definately a skilled medicine maker.

After the demonstration we gathered around the table, food was layed out and then the really fun part began- Presents!  Trading gifts with other herbal enthusiasts is certainly a treat.  It was so amazing  because not one item was duplicated and each was certainly given with love.

Shana gifted us each with special blend of tinctures and oils she has made,  I ended up with a gorgeous styptic blend of calendula and yarrow.

Megan brought a lucious lemongrass cream made with aloe butter and clay masks made with French green clay, oatmeal, hibiscus flower and willow bark.

Ellen gave the group spray bottles of the awesome Hyrdosols that resulted from the essential oils she made this fall from geranium, cedar and rosemary.  And of course many of us left with green, cottony bundles of her specially crafted Moxa.

Carrie brought a selection of lovely lip balms in peppermint, rosemary and lemon, each in colorful containers reminiscent of their contents . She also gifted us each with oat heads that she and harvested.

I arrived with a homemade soap  made with cottonwood and lavender infused oil. I also brought an elderberry, rosehip, ginger and cinnamon syrup and dream pillows filled with lavender, pacific mugwort and desert sage.

We all got quite a take if you ask me 🙂

I watched happily as Coralie was passed from the arms of all of these wise, strong women. The gathering activities were to include time in the wood fired sauna in Ellen’s circle of cedars, but snow kept falling and we parted a bit early to avoid trecherous roads.  But as always, we enjoyed a lovely early winter day in shared company, each of us working to build community and share our love of the plants with one another.

Happy Solstice!

January Gathering- Reunion with Suzanne from Good Natured Earthing and Cedar Mountain Herb School

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The Slightest Idea

At our gathering on Sunday, Carrie ended the meeting by reading this poem.  I thought it was a beautiful contribution.

The Slightest Idea
The moon
and I call each other moon.
And the sun and I call each other sun,
all while this truth also
exists:
I have been so crazy in love with the earth for the last fifty years
that not for one second have I lifted
my head out from beneath
her skirt.
Who
is that
wild looking character then,
who can shop in the market and tend for his family,
that some may call
Kabir?
I don’t have the
slightest
idea.

~Kabir

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It’s taken a while to realize I don’t know what healing is… really, at all. It’s a bit like sitting in yoga class and realizing I don’t know how to breathe, or what breath really is. How could something so basic escape my attention? Many of my attempts to “Know” healing have some virtue to them, but they also expose a kind of well-intentioned arrogance in me, and some heady naivete. But whenever my effort to know is met by an acceptance of my own ignorance, then a relationship begins to form and the wisdom that is ever present becomes clearer. If I know I don’t know, then the plants become my teachers.

Rattlesnake Plantain

Rattlesnake Plantain near Mt. Hood

People often talk of moving towards or away from healing, as if it might be a location, or a direction. There seems to be somewhere to go when many of us speak of healing. To that end, there are many guideposts pointing the way to healing, and so many of them seem like fine ideas. There is no doubt of the value of structure and theory, but the philosophies always overlap in my mind, cluster and spin, and ultimately collapse. Holding the idea of healing without injuring it is difficult, if not impossible, ironically. There is less active relationship inside intellectual understanding, however valuable it is in other ways, and relationship is essential to healing.

For this reason, like many others, I return to simple experience to find healing. For experience, there is nothing better than a walk in nature, as Kate describes so eloquently in Verdant Healing. The forest is unfathomably true. And truth, in all its evolving diversity, is the calibration point for us all. How could it be otherwise? And how could a plant be anything but true?

Elderberries

Elderberries in October

But I also want the truth of nature to be portable. To move around with me wherever I am. I wonder about and work at bringing the truth of nature into the city where I live. How do I do that? It can’t always be literal, as in a garden, and gardens do not capture wildness, do they, so what do I do? Like many herbal healers, I attempt to carry the wisdom of a plant in a bottle. It’s easy to pack, easy to pass on, and gives form to something exceptionally abstract. But what, exactly, does that bottle contain that makes it healing? The question is less naive than it sounds.

I entertain many answers, but I come back to one simple truth: I must form a relationship with plants for true healing. I need to form a real relationship, and feed it daily, then the bottles I fill, or whatever I do with the plants to heal, will have meaning. At it’s best, the prepared herb is more than alkaloids, certainly, more than an archive of memory, and more than a packaged intention (which is magic enough), what the medicine also provides is a focal point for a living relationship.

The relationship I speak of is not significantly different than forming a relationship with a person. It takes time, devotion, and patience. The plants already embody these traits, it is I who must learn them, and keep them with me, even as I move. I have compassion for how difficult this task of keeping relationship is as a person. All this moving and trying to remember. All this dreaming without losing the present. It’s not easy.

To form this relationship I devote time to meditation, alone and in groups, focusing on a particular plant until I can experience it in my body and mind. I keep pictures of the plants I spend time with, for surely their images are part of their healing power, and they evoke powerful memories in me. I keep memories of time spent with plants in the woods in my mind, and I call on them when I feel myself getting lost. I drink tea, and I carry and use tinctures, but these days the tinctures feel more like a locket worn around my neck than medicine. The power of the healing seems to lie in what the tincture helps me to remember, not in a series of constituents which act on my physiology, although surely both are happening. The unseen and seen worlds mirror each other, yes, but it is the unseen world we are likely to neglect.

Red Belted Polypore

Red Belted Polypore near the Salmon River

So the plants give of their bodies and spirit, and I give of mine: relationship. They remain in truth always and when I drop some tincture on my tongue, or sip some tea, or burn them in fragrant bundles, I am enveloped in an experience with them again. I always have a choice: I could drink a cup of constituents that have some effect on my body, true enough, and no harm done, but the sacredness of healing is not in that act. When I choose instead to open my spirit and acquiesce to remember the plant, and let it be my experience one more time, then I am in relationship and I find healing. Healing surrounds me again and I know it has never gone anywhere, but it is I who have wandered, and I return, however briefly, back to everything.

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