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.


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.

Land as Lover

Inspired by The Spell of the Sensuous I want to explore more personally what Land and Place mean to me.

David Abram talks about geography as a container. More than just mountains that enclose or fields that spread out, land shapes our views of the world, our experiences with future places, how we perceive time and seasons, how communities function, and how we relate the non-human world. I see this so clearly from my own upbringing in Juneau, Alaska. It has so profoundly shaped me that, even though I’ve not lived there for a decade, I still consider myself an Alaskan first – even before being an American.

My friend Jennie came to visit from Seattle. She thought having an actual end of the road was hilarious. 1994.

Juneau is small-ish in population, but spread out over a 50 mile strip of land, clinging to 3- and 4,000 feet tall mountains, hemmed in by glaciers and water ways. You cannot drive in or out. It sits in a fjord, in one of North America’s largest, oldest rain forests. Black bears in your backyard, deer eating your garden flowers (that bloom for about 6 weeks), porcupine, whales, bald eagles, ravens larger than any I’ve ever seen elsewhere…. all normal inhabitants.

How did these things affect me?

The mountains and water, the ice fields and forests helped me feel safe. Of course, you could die if you hiked off trail or went boating in bad weather. I went on one epic hike when I was 18, a hike that was supposed to be about 9 or 10 hours (from Sheep Creek up and over the ridge and down Mount Roberts). It ended up taking us 18 hours. I nearly slid off one of the peaks into a gully from 5,000 feet. It’s not a gentle landscape! And yet…. I felt, still feel, that with proper respect (which includes preparation) I was safer there than in most other parts of the world.

A picture I took of my dad in 1987. On our boat somewhere in SE Alaska, fishing at sunset.

When I left Alaska for college I couldn’t wrap my head around how it was possible to cross a street and be in a different town. It took me many years to understand that. Perhaps this is why maps and geography are so important to me. I want to know the shapes and boundaries of towns.

I felt something divine in the land. I was a Christian in my teen years, and yet I still felt God’s existence and presence in the land around me. It wasn’t just an idea that God had made the land, but more that the land was an expression of God and he comforted me and spoke to me through the land itself. I’m not sure I could have articulated that then.

I grew up around people that used the land. They used it to feed their families; they used it for their occupation. By ‘using’ I mean, they worked with the land. The men and women I grew up around knew that the land was the source of their livelihood, whether that was building infrastructure during the opening of ANWR and the pipeline in the late ’70s, or working as fishermen. The land provided….. and the land, if not worked with, if not respected, could take away as well. There is no power over the land in Alaska, only power with.

Me, hiking the Chilkoot Trail between Skagway, AK, and the Yukon, Canada. Most people take a week to do this. My crew did it in less than 3 days. Not sure that was wise… 1999 (I think).

In fact, that’s one of the things that amused me when I lived in Wales – there was nothing that could kill you in the land. Sure, you could get too drunk and fall off a cliff. But the weather is generally mild and none fo the animals were predators of humans. If you got lost on a hike or walk, just keep going and you’ll hit some one’s farm. Get lost in Alaska and no one will see you again.

Our friend Tim (may he be at peace) took this of me and Jennie. He led us hiking under the Mendenhall Glacier. This part of the glacier has since melted far away. 1995.

Something else that has affected me my entire life is the disparity of light in the seasons. I never suffered seasonal affective disorder, though I know many people who do, who have, or have some variation of it. We have 18 hour days in the summer with extended twilight; 18 hour nights in the winter. Until only recently I’ve always felt that the days were never long enough in June, never dark enough in December. This was especially hard for me when I lived in California.

It rains so much in SE Alaska that autumn is truly only 10 days at the end of August. Spring is about 2 weeks at the end of May or early June. October was always my least favorite month. It wasn’t until I lived in Washington that I learned that October is AMAZING. It is now my favorite month. Perhaps this is why fall is now my favorite season. Autumn makes me giddy! Spring is also a joyous surprise every year. Grow up with only two seasons, and the 4 season climate is something of a revelation. Each year I get two extra seasons! It’s like nature gives me a present every three months!

Light, dark, rain, water, fish, mountains…. I was in love with my Land. In fact, for over a decade I felt like I was in an adulterous relationship. Alaska was my lover and I was cheating every time I flew to Washington to start another year of college. I was cheating when I moved to grad school in Berkeley. I figured Alaska was my childhood sweetheart and I’d be back when I was ready to settle down. I always, always intended to return.

Me visiting Juneau in March 2004. Mendenhall Wetlands and my then dog, Dawson, named after the town in the Yukon.

This rather dysfunctional relationship with my Land, as foundational and beautiful as it was to me, also kept me from diving deep into other lands and places. It took me a long time to settle into the Bay Area, into Washington. The only places that were never a struggle for me were Ireland and Wales. If I’m honest, that separation from Alaska made me feel broken.

What was wrong with me that I couldn’t adjust to other places? Why was I so overwhelmed in cities? I did just fine on an intellectual level: I loved the energy, the opportunities, the food, the excitement. But at a core level, I was so deeply overwhelmed, like there were was too much buzzing, too much noise, too MUCH all the time. Why did I need trees the way most people need food? No one else I knew (other than people from Juneau) wanted to return to their home towns. Everyone wanted to flee. Why was I unable to function in cities? I felt like I was failing as an adult. It’s not something I ever really talked about, but I felt it. My two-week vacations home once a year were not feeding my soul.

I needed to break up with Alaska. Moving to Wales, not moving back to Alaska, was a good first step. And finally, at some point while there I realized that Alaska was a part of me and I took my Land with me where ever I went. I may have to spend the next 25 years working to know the land I’ve chosen as home now, but it’s possible. I no longer feel broken. I feel full and blessed to have been given the gift of Place and Land in a way that seems rare these days.

The best non-magic books about magic, part 1

My two most favorite books about magic aren’t explicitly about magic at all. One is a philosophical work in the ‘deep ecology’ vein, the other is a young adult book about Vikings and Saxons.

In this post I’ll review (oh, who am I kidding? I’ll praise) David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. I first learned of this book three years ago, during my first autumn in Wales. My friend, Haloquin, loaned it to me. I was thick into my PhD studies, so I did a ‘grad school skim.’ I loved it and knew it was a book I’d come back to. Fast forward to my Place quarter and I wanted to re-read and review this book for that quarter. However, the book is so lush, so dense, so thought-provoking, and I have so few long, uninterrupted reading moments, that it has taken me the better part of four months to finish it. It’s not a long book: about 300 pages with extensive notes. It’s not you, book, it’s me being the parent of small children.

The Spell of the Sensuous is a book to savour, to read in sections and then ponder while you do the dishes, sit under a tree, or walk around your neighborhood. It’s a book whose ideas about connection, listening, reciprocity, and relationship demand meditation.

The basic gist of the book is this: language and the written language has separated us from being in relationship with the land and other living things; our surroundings do communicate with us, but we have come to privilege only a few ways of knowing, learning, and communicating, and are therefore shut off from the wisdom that is all around us. This leads us to devalue the natural world and inevitably run roughshod over it, in extreme cases silencing the Land permanently.

Humans are story tellers. We long to communicate and be heard. Oral cultures tell stories in certain ways, and while we are no longer an oral culture, we continue to tell stories all the time. We use movies, novels, television, and blogs to tell each other stories, to tell our own stories. We use fandom and social media to bond over and engage with these stories. Our religious systems use stories too (narrative theology), whether that’s to help us feel part of something bigger and more timeless, or to control us and keep up in check.

Abram presents us with an idea that the Land tells stories and humans participate and engage in those stories through creation tales, the cycles of seasons, the ebbs and flows of tides, populations, and epic life events. The Land becomes a container: a moral, communal, temporal, as well as physical container for communities. Abram cites many examples from many different kinds of oral cultures. I find it fascinating to see how modern society tries to recreate the same things, only using different methods.

That’s the larger scale. On a smaller scale, we seem to have lost the art of observation. We forget that a patient and skilled eye can notice incredible subtleties. This is part of wisdom. Careful gardeners might learn from experience which fertilizer works best in their particular soil, which flowers draw the bees, might start to learn the cycles of flowers and birds in ways that books can’t teach. Some one who is outside a lot can learn to anticipate rain long before the clouds roll over and drops fall – just from the shifts in the air. This is a form of communication. Realizing that we are in relationship with everything – I touch an ant, it senses me, I sense it – isn’t to make the non-human world into gods (although you can go ahead and do that, and I think this book will give you fodder for it). It is merely to realize that other living things sense and respond to us, just in different ways than we perceive.

And that very perception is at the heart of magic! Do we have ears to hear? Eyes to see? I’m guessing most of us could use some sharper ears and eyes – I know I do. How can we hone our sense and spirits to perceive the magic that is all around us? For those of us that do believe in gods, might not they be trying to communicate with us, but we’ve just gotten dulled? Unable to see them or hear them as clearly as we could?

For those of you with little patience for eco-apocalyptic tales, have no fear, this is not one of them. It does create a sense of urgency to engage with the world and live WITH the Land and all non-human creatures, as opposed to OVER and AGAINST the Land. What I walk away with is a beautiful, sensuous encouragement to listen, to look, to feel, to engage with the wider world around me, to “reinhabit” my surroundings. It makes me pained for the all too loud hum of my refrigerator and the neighbors’ perpetual too bright porch light.

This is not a religious or spiritual book. It’s not an academic book either, even though Abram has used phenomenology, a branch of philosophy, as his methodology. You could skip those sections and still get a lot out of this book. Abram does not present himself, nor even come across as, a religious person in any tradition. Yet he finds a sense of the numinous in the wider world, and this work speaks so deeply of magic that I cannot help thinking ‘yes, this!’ over and over again, even in a magical, spiritual context.

My backyard, taken just after I wrote this post

This is a book that sits on my desk, asking me to pick it up and reread sections. I have several other blog posts stewing my head, based on passages from this book! I cannot recommend this book enough. Want to jump start your magical practice? Want to shake up your usual way of thinking? Want to go deeper? Read The Spell of the Sensuous. Are you not spiritual or magical (or don’t consider yourselves such) but just want a beautifully written, philosophical book to explore a new way of thinking about our surroundings? Read this book.

I am reminded over and over again how profound it is to listen, to observe, to just be with what is around me. This book makes me want to go hiking, to go out into the fjords of SE Alaska again, but it also makes me want to sit out in my backyard and listen to the bugs and trees and birds. And to get dirty. To be more in touch with my primal, non-verbal self. I’m certain the gods approve.

Another land I love: the view of the Chilkat Mountains, as seen from Paradise Point on Shelter Island, Alaska