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.

 

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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!

Not of this world

On my way to the grocery store I pass two churches. The first is a Lutheran church, an open and affirming one. I visited it last year, and while I thought highly of it, I couldn’t sit through an entire service. These days I barely notice the large brick building with its stained glass and preschool playground. Until it hosts the farmers’ market in its parking lot. Then I am there weekly, even if I bypass its front doors and sanctuary.

The other church is much larger (churches here seem to be large compounds, in general). It’s got a huge Christian school attached. Lately this church has been getting a new roof put on, so I have been noticing it more than usual. What’s interesting to me is that I get…… flashes of memory as I pass it. Phantom feelings. Misplaced muscle memory.

When I pass this second church I remember being a Christian in college. There is no specific associated memory, just a remembrance of what it was like to be a Christian in Washington state in the 90s. I remember the way these churches view the world and interact with it. I remember the way everything is ordered, everyone has a place, both in the church and in the world. I remember the unspoken gender norms. I remember how ordered the world seemed and how everything had neat boxes and a rather simplistic theology to explain it. I remember the plaid shirts, the goatees, the bible studies and fellowship groups. Judging by the people I’ve seen enter the building and by the website, nothing seems to have changed. Well, now there areĀ  wireless mics and power point, rather than an overhead projectors.

Sometimes I think it would be so easy to slip back into that way of being in the world. We’d have automatic community and make friends right away. The kids would have activity groups. Our Sundays would have focus. I’d easily find a musical outlet, what with praise bands and worships groups. More importantly, attending evangelical church would make sense of modern American living.

One of the things I’ve found is that modern American living (commuting, box stores, overconsumption, CAFOs, gas guzzlers, social conservatism, Calvinistic social ‘darwinism,’ heteronormative gender hoo ha, etc) is really difficult to reconcile with Pagan values. But mainstream American Christianity fits right into it. They are peas in a pod.

I’m a Big Umbrella Pagan. By that I mean, I want as many disparate groups to identify as Pagan. I want that term to include Heathens, witches, Wiccans, Ceremonial Magicians, reconstructionists of various stripes, Druids, neo-Pagans, polytheists, Voudousaints, and others. Not all Pagan faiths are based on earth reverence. Not all of the values espoused in one group are endorsed by others. But I find that I have more in common at heart with most Pagan groups than I do with mainstream Christianity, even though my family superficially appears more similar to the latter than the former.

Christianity has at its core an idea that humanity/our souls/ Christians (take your pick based on your theology) are ‘not of this world,’ that we belong in Heaven. Not all Christianity thinks this world is evil or tainted. Some say it’s just humanity, but some say that everything is. This idea creates a world where you’re either a Christian or you’re not. You’re either with them or against them. The world is fine in the here and now, but in the Last Days it will be destroyed anyway (so don’t go getting all worked up about environmentalism) and Yahweh will create a new world. Plenty of other traditions also view the world/matter/humanity as a problematic and something from which to detach.

Yet Christianity is at home in this world. In the US Christianity is the norm. Its values pervade government and morality. Christian culture is everywhere. When I was in college pastors talked a lot about how the Pacific North West was the most ‘unchurched’ region in the US. I am pretty sure it still is. But if this is unchurched, well, I’d hate to see how many churches are in a ‘normal’ town. But for some one raised without religion at all, I feel like churches are everywhere here!

Most of Paganism embraces the world, but is at odds with the overculture. Most Pagans have a different set of values – or the same things are valued but for different reasons. While family, worship, devotion, and service (things Christians hold dear too!) may be honored, they may be expressed in entirely different ways or for different reasons. I find that most of the values of Paganism don’t sit well with mainstream, overculture values. At least, my values don’t.

I think how much easier it could be to sink into a ‘normal’ mainstream way of being if I’d go back to Christian life. I’d have more in common with my extended family. I could get involved, have leadership positions, a social network, a more obviously ‘god-driven’ life. But I know full well how miserable I’d be. I remember chaffing at the expectations. The tedious ‘god language’ and Father God prayers (“Father God…. I just…. I just want to thank you for just raining down your blessings…”). The bad theology. The confusion of culture with religion and vice versa.

I can’t do it. The same muscle memory that remembers what those churches feel like – in all their goodness, and there was good – also remembers just how unhappy my soul was. I remember how hard it was to find God there. I remember the cognitive dissonance. I remember I didn’t fit in.

[There is actually an entire Christian brand called NOTW, not of this world. I tried to upload an image of its logo and it kept displaying ERROR. I’ll take that as a sign.]

Magic to the People

If you’re not familiar with Drew Jacob, let me introduce you. He’s the Rogue Priest and a professional adventurer. His blog was one of the inspirations for mine. He’s planning on walking to and through South America from Minnesota. He’s already made it to New Orleans, where’s he been wintering. It hasn’t been some idle winter for him. He’s been working as a magician, studying Vodou, and is now creating Magic to the People, a pay-as-you-can community magic shop!

I think this concept is rad on several levels. First, I love it when people see a need, take initiative, and then go carve out a niche to fill that need. Second, accessible magic is a need many people have, but it can also be out of reach, and I love the idea of bringing more magic to more people. Third, I love magic.

While I believe that anyone can make magic, it takes skill and training and learning. Because of these things, if you approach a practitioner or witch (or whatever label they’re using) the spell, working or tincture may be more than you can afford. Maybe you make magic, but you need advice or a kind that is outside your area of expertise. Magic to the People is a place that New Orleans folk can go to for advice.

I don’t live anywhere near New Orleans – I’ve never even been there! – but I like the idea so much that I want to support it. Free clinics of all sorts are important parts of diverse communities. I find them to be critical to the well-being of alternative communities. The magical community is no different.

I want to help bring magic to the people. You can learn more and contribute to the Indiegogo campaign if you are inspired.

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.

The end is also the beginning

The calendar year is winding down. Does anyone ever feel restful at this time? In the United States we seem to have a full six weeks of holidays, events, family gatherings, and shopping madness. While I go light on the last two (my family of origin are in Alaska and Australia), I’ve got more than my fair share of Other Stuff going on right now. Much of it is really exciting, so let me share some news with you!

Firstly, you might notice that my avatars have changed, both here and on the Facebook page. I took some time to get professional headshots taken with Rebecka at Regan House Photo. So worth it! I feel significantly more professional.

Secondly, I’ve written from time to time for Sarah Whedon over at Pagan Families. This week the blog moved to the Patheos family of blogs! I’ll be continuing to write for Pagan Families as the topics and spirits move me. Hopefully in the next week or two I’ll be posting about life in the NICU. This is an exciting move for a very specialized blog.

Thirdly, I’ve joined yet another group blog over at Patheos! I’ve been asked to be part of A Sense of Place, a group blog where four writers from around the world talk about the intersection of spirit and place. I’ve written quite a bit about that here and hope to move some of that to the new blog, as well. You might see some old posts once in a while, but look for a brand new post from me over there on Friday! Fridays are my days.

As for My Own Ashram, I’m still committed to this blog. It’s a wonderful place to gather my thoughts, challenge myself, and reach outside of my head. Thanks for being patient as I sort through some considerable Stuff in my wider life. I have a list of ideas to write about, as well as some more possible good news in the new year!

Life is really challenging right now, but truly, it is all good stuff. Like I said in my last post (more or less), if you’re not willing to let go of what no longer serves to make room for the new, don’t pray for abundance; if you’re not ready for the slice, don’t go asking Kali to slay the fears that limit your spirit!