This month our gathering fell on November 1st, the day after Halloween and the day before lunar Samhain. Here, in the Pacific Northwest, there are still yellow leaves clinging to trees, the weather is cool but not yet cold, and the recent rains have made the water in the rivers run high and brown. Samhain is the time that many of the creatures in the Northern realms have died or have gone dormant. Considered the Celtic New Year, it is a time to honor your ancestors, those that have been put to the ground and returned to the earth. It seems fitting that Samhain be the time of root gathering as we pull from the dirt those things that have grown and flourished from the remains of the death and decay that has come before.
This time of year the power of the plants are returned to the roots to be held until the time of regrowth in the spring. Root medicines such as dandelion, burdock, Oregon grape and red root are at prime harvesting time. If you are lucky enough to live in the area where the powerful plant of Devil’s club grows, sit with it , dig it, scrape it, and honor it.
We met this morning at Carrie’s super cute house. Her sweet dog Lucy met each of us at the door. I arrived with Coralie and Ann showed up soon after driving all the way from Quincy (a 4.5 hour drive.) Shana joined us as well, she took the same apprenticeship class that many of us did only a year before, however she has years of herbal and wild crafting knowledge, she is definitely an asset as well a pleasure to have join us. Carrie had also invited Michele, owner and proprietor of the really amazing and quaint Living Earth Herbs in downtown Bellingham. If you’re in the area stop by and peruse her great selection of dried herbs, tea blends and herbal products. Although the forecast threatened rain we were graced with clear skies and fair weather as we loaded into two cars and began heading down Mt. Baker Hwy towards the Nooksack river.
Devil’s club, or Oplopanax horridus is a sensitive plant, growing mostly in healthy forests with lots of moisture. Its range is relatively small found in south-central Alaska to central Oregon, and sparsely east to the Rockies. It is a relative of ginseng and is often referred to as Alaskan ginseng. The very best information I have found on this plant is located on Ryan Drum’s site. Considered and ethneogen, a substance used in a religious, shamanic or spiritual contexts, it is a well honored plant of the native people’s. The plant is very delicate growing, so if you intend on harvesting it take only what you need in thick stands leaving the tall standing grandmothers to stay and propagate more plants.
Carrie and I had used our intuition to lead us to area we thought was appropriate for harvesting. The place we chose was also a harvest site for cedar bark, one hopes that the bark stripped from these trees was done with reverence and respect. We alighted from our cars and descended down a hill leading to the rivers edge where several stands of the magical plant stood. Entering a grove of devil’s club is akin to entering a deep forest cathedral. On this November day the leaves were yellow and appeared illuminated from the sunlight above.
This plant begs reverence. A heady spirit mover, silence rolls over you as you near it in quiet recognition of the it potency. This plant does not so much bring presence as it does call us into the spinning corridor of the earth, a grounded entrance into the unseen. It is a plant that demands healing and offers it to those already committed to doing what is necessary to achieve that health.
The five of us, accompanied by little Coralie in a bundle on my chest and Lucy, the sweet puppy, approached the plant and sat in silence for few moments. Carrie offered a strong tincture to sample and help connect us with the gorgeous if dangerous plant. We carefully pulled a small portion of recumbent stem from beneath the forest duff and layer of moss and gently pealed portions of the root bark and cambium from the stem. Each of us chewed a small piece and Michele offered to lead us in singing a hymn to the Cedar trees. After pausing in silence for a space we separated and each found our own places to harvest.
We engaged in sweet conversation while the river roared heavy with the recent rains behind us. The strong smell of the plant permeated the air as the day slowly darkened beneath the canopy of cedars. We joined in song once more and offered thanks to plants and the forest and returned home.