Herbalism and the Craft

Witches, midwives and herbal healers all have some history in common. Throughout history many midwives were also healers, shamans were healers, and many women who worked as midwives or healers might also have been considered witches. Their histories are often woven together.

In modern times, people who are attracted to witchcraft, in my experience, tend be rather independent and willing to learn about anything that attracts their fancy and/or will advance their craft. I never had an interest in herbalism and plants. I love plants, but have never wanted to learn to garden. I am very knowledgable of and interested in food politics and natural food ways, but don’t have any desire to grow my own food. I still don’t. But over the years, as my knowledge has deepened and my family has grown, I’ve come to see how learning about basic herbalism can benefit me, my family, my cooking, and my craft.

With that in mind I signed up for the Dandelion Seed Conference (held two weekends ago at The Evergreen State College in Olympia), put on by the people who run the Herbal Free Clinic in town. Can I just say, how awesome it is that my adopted town has a free clinic that focuses on herbal support?? I think it’s super awesome.

I’m not sure what I was expecting. I thought that I’d be completely clueless, but I was pleasantly surprised to find myself wrong on that assumption! I was completely delighted by the entire event. It was an odd mixture of people who use herbs medicinally, those that use them for intuitive and spiritual purposes, those that use them for food and cooking; crafters, gardeners, teachers, and just plain community members like myself.

I hit up several workshops and one plant walk. The first workshop I attended was led by Feri initiate and traditional herbalist, Sean Donahue. My notes from his talk are basically a reminder to myself to get outside more and to explore some of the plants that I have long loved in the coastal Pacific region: devil’s club, skunk cabbage, and fireweed. He told us the story of Thomas the Rhymer and related it to plant magic, which I found a fresh twist on a tale I hear told quite often in my tradition.

I took a class on joyful aging from a local herbalist. The plant walk was led by an herbalist trained in just about every modality of herbalism possible: Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, medicinal, and traditional herbalism. We talked about a few select plants and spent time with each one, feeling, smelling, tasting – using all of our sense to get acquainted with them. My last workshop was on traditional foodways as a source of healing. I was definitely the choir to the speaker’s preaching!

There were many other workshops, some focused on various aspects of communities that herablists might see in their practice. A two-part workshop on herbs for health and healing in trans* communities seemed particularly interesting. There were workshops on making, crafting, learning, and healing with herbs. Something for everyone! A market filled the hall, and I picked up the most amazing medicinal honey for throats and lungs. Truly the best herbal concoction I’ve ever purchased, as my daughter gets a rattle in her chest with every sniffle. Our pediatrician has given her a steroid inhaler to use at the first sign of a rattle (something to do with warding off asthma in the years to come). This honey, however, managed to that more successfully than the inhaler ever did!

This wasn’t a specifically ‘Pagan’ event. But I certainly expanded my knowledge and found several fantastic local resources for me and my family. I definitely plan to attend next year.

 

Harvest in the Pacific Northwest

At the beginning of August many of my Pagan friends celebrated the first harvest, commonly known as Lammas or Lughnasadh (from the Celtic calendar system). That observance has never meant much to me. I am not a farmer, and have spent precious little time in places where early August means first fruits of any kind. Now in Washington, it means the height of summer, and I spend my summer time waiting for the days to cool.

As August passed I began to have half-formed thoughts of salmon. Had my father said anything about his catch this year? A good catch means smoked salmon.

Lo and behold, a box arrived in the mail yesterday. 9 pounds of hard smoked, wild-caught Alaskan salmon, that my father caught, cleaned, filleted and smoked himself. I realized this to me is harvest. August is when the best fishing occurs in South East Alaskan waters; this is when the abundance arrives.

Vacuum packed for longevity.

Vacuum packed for longevity.

We’re not yet to the autumnal equinox for the spirit of the season to truly shift for me, but we’re now at the end of summer. In Washington the salmon are running, traveling upstream to spawn. The green chiles and tomatillos, strong bitter greens and garlic are appearing at the farmers’ markets. I stock up on these. I try to make as much salsa verde as possible to store through the winter. Something about tomatillos feels like edible sunshine to me.

But Salmon is the Life Giver to me.

Growing up my family was a subsistence fishing family. I don’t think I thought of this way until long after I’d moved out of Alaska. Many families fish all summer to fill their freezers. In a land where food costs are exorbitant (everything is shipped in from ‘Outside’), salmon was ‘free.’ I remember sitting at the dinner table thinking ‘UGH. Salmon? AGAIN?!’ Not until I moved away to college did I discover that fresh salmon was a meal of privilege. I imagine that Montana ranchers feel similarly about grass-fed beef.

Salmon, halibut, crab – these are gifts of the Alaskan waters. They nourish me, the salmon especially; they connect me to my roots; they remind me that the waters and livelihoods of Washington are intimately connected with those of my homeland. When Celtic legends speak of the Salmon of Wisdom, I understand that deep in my bones. When Northwest Coast peoples tell stories of the sacrifice that salmon make for the people and how important the salmon are to traditional ways of life, I understand that. In a Christian way of thinking, every bite is a Eucharist.

So I offer up first fruits to the gods, to the Spirits of this place, and to my family. I thank my father for sending me this annual gift. I thank the Salmon and the Waters. I work toward preserving those waters. I nourish my family with bounty of this Land. We are what we eat, and we are people of Salmon.

Hail to the Harvest! Thanks be to the Mighty Salmon!

Maxim Monday: Listen to everybody

The older I get the more I see the wisdom in this maxim. Listen to everyone. Don’t just smile and nod, but listen.

As some one who is a very quick learner, I spent countless hours itching to get started on assignments or tests, having read the instructions myself, but forced to wait while the teacher spent 15 minutes on directions and trouble shooting tips for the rest of the class. That attitude has carried over into other aspects of my life and I hate to admit it, but I’m often chomping at the bit, waiting for people to get to their point or to relay the information that I need to I get on with things. (Patience is a virtue, and it’s one I am working on.) This attitude excludes quality listening.

As a parent I’ve learned to listen in entirely new ways. Much of American culture completely ignores kids’ needs and desires. In fact, advertising to children is designed to cause them to nag their parents (I see nagging as a symptom of poor communication and listening). Learning to listen to my kids has taught me so much. I have learned to listen to body language in an entirely new way, since children must express themselves physically until they learn to speak. Even in the first years of language learning they are still expressing themselves non-verbally a great deal of the time. And what they are expressing is often of great value. Really and truly listening means we often can avoid pitfalls before it’s too late – for example, ‘Mama, my tummy hurts.’ My kids know I’m going to stop and listen, not just assume they don’t know what they’re talking about and continue on. We’ve saved getting covered in puke several times! But I’ve also learned more about how my children work and think, and that knowledge opens my mind to new ideas and creativity, too.

It’s much harder for me to listen to people I don’t respect, those who aren’t particularly articulate, or who refuse to communicate. If I can slow myself up, I find that not making assumptions on someone else’s part can ease our communication – as well as move things along more smoothly and quickly! Listening is a sign of respect, too. Even those who refuse to communicate are communicating something. In fact, those who can’t communicate well are often those to whom extra efforts ought to be given. The articulate and those with the resources to make their voices heard can do so – but those you can’t need us to listen a little more closely.

I think this maxim is one of enlightened self-interest. While I am often not genuinely interested in what every person has to say, I still recognize the value of listening (even if I’m still not very good at that in every situation). Listening builds allies, helps solve problems with solutions that work for more than just a few people, and creates an environment where people feel safe to express themselves. That’s an environment I’d like to exist in.

This listening also extends to our non-human world too. That’s advanced listening! Just learning to listen to other humans is hard work! Hopefully, once we start practicing listening to the humans around us, we can start learning to listen to what the other inhabitants of our communities are telling us.

Imbolc

Tomorrow, or maybe the day after, or sometime in the next week to ten days, depending on how you follow these sorts of things, is Imbolc, cross quarter Sabbat of Celtic origin and propagated via Wicca and various witchcraft traditions.

I have tended not to observe this holiday very much. I resonate a lot with all things Celtic, but I admit I’ve been intimidated by the heavy academic bent to much of Celtic Reconstruction practice. Now, I’d like to expand my practice and start incorporating something festive into this dreary part of the year.

Bridget – either Saint Bridget from the Irish Christian tradition and/or Brid from the earlier pre-Christian Irish tradition – is the patron saint of this holiday. The historical person of Bridget dates to the 5th century. She established a convent at Kildare, supposedly on the site of an ancient holy well, and the nuns there kept guard of a flame that was never allowed to go out. Brid, as goddess, is the patron saint of three of the major aspects of witchcraft (in my opinion): poets and communication between this world and the Otherworld; forge and smith, those that make weapons and tools, and warriors; and healers, herbalists, and midwives (birth is a liminal space of its own). All of these involve fire, which is Brid’s sacred element.

Fire brings transformation, illumination, and heat. It refines and inspires. Metaphorically, we can ask Brid to light a fire under us! With this element we can cook, warm ourselves and our family at our hearth, forge the tools we need, light our way, and the fire of our spirit is what creates art.

I don’t have a relationship with Brid. It’s strange to me that she is a central figure of this holiday and then is generally forgotten about for the rest of the year. (I’m guessing Celtic Recons have more of a working relationship with her.)

On Saturday I’m heading to Seattle to observe the Sabbat with my teachers and fellow Feri students. We’ll call to Nimuë, another figure I don’t have much experience with or knowledge of! This time of year we look toward the light, and heavens know I need more light in my life! despite being a pretty happy, cheery, silly person, I take myself way too seriously. I love my ‘dark’ goddesses and gods. But there is light in everything. Light and dark exist side by side. Even Kali – she of terror, fierceness and bloody tongue, is a loving, tender mother to those who honor her. Nimuë, the youthful, child-like goddess, is unpredictable and feral!

Tonight I’ll leave out some oats and water for the Land spirits. On Saturday, I plan to prepare for the ritual with a cleansing bath and kala (cleaning off of outside and inside) and meditating on my words, my art, my weapons (which are often my words), my home and my healing. How can I be both the agent of these things and the recipient of them? How can I hone my skills for myself and my work, and for the better of others too?

The bright fire of summer and the external energy that engenders is far off – many months away. The fire is kindled in the middle of winter, to offer us inspiration and to prepare us for what is to come. Nothing but hard work lies ahead. May Brid or Nimuë or whom ever you look to, light our way!

For more information, may I recommend Alexei Kondratiev’s excellent book The Apple Branch and Traci’s post over on Patheos, (Traci is living in Ireland and knows far more about this stuff than I do!). Check back on A Sense of Place tomorrow for my post, which also continues with the Imbolc theme!

One year ago, Wales

Today, if the world hasn’t ended, marks one year since my family packed up and drove away from Lampeter. We pulled out of the driveway before dawn. We watched the sun rise on the incomparable Teifi Valley. Our car was headed for Cornwall to spend Christmas with friends before heading back to the United States. (I linked to my last real post in Wales over on today’s A Sense of Place.)

Teifi River valley; courtesy of Autumnsonata on flickr creative commons.

Teifi River valley; courtesy of Autumnsonata on flickr creative commons.

I find Washington to be far more wild than Wales. It makes sense: it’s not been as cultivated for as long as Wales has. The mountains are taller and there are more things that can kill you here. But the magic in the Welsh land hovers so close to the surface. The magic in Washington is more embedded in the tangled weeds and thorns. Maybe it’s hiding out, away from the freeways and masses of people. Most of Wales is comparably less populated. There is more space between people there.

Before we left Wales I did a tarot reading for us. The results included a rocky time financially, followed with material success. Overall it was a positive reading, revealing that this was a good choice for our continued growth. Those predictions ring true. We depleted our savings by moving across the world and getting back on our feet, but signs look like improvement in that area is on the way. Much of the magic that has occurred in the past year has been the inner work of shedding old friends, old patterns, old fears. I don’t doubt for a second that we are supposed to be in Olympia.

Tonight I’m hosting a small gathering to celebrate the return of the light, and I’ll raise a glass to Wales and my friends there. I’ll leave an offering for the Fey and spirits of the Land of here. They’ll get the first serving of the mulled wine and spiced cider I like to make. Most importantly I’ll get to celebrate the long night and the slow growth of the light with the people I love most in the world.

May you be with ones you love this season. There is nothing more important.