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.]

Midwinter

Midwinter is here. I feel it in my energy levels. I see it in the light. It’s been cold here: dry and close to freezing most days. Today it warmed up enough to rain. In the mornings we’re awake for the sunrises, but we don’t have to wait long. The days feel ever so slightly longer. The growing light is welcome.

The first part of winter always feels intense to me. It comes on the end of an autumn cull and the high holidays of Samhain. This year was no different. But the level of intensity of this winter has surprised me. I feel slightly at the end of my rope.

First, there was the deep and expansive work that my husband and I started. We took some huge risks, we dug deep, we started excavating old wounds. Second, I took a huge risk with my closest friend; it didn’t end well. Third, my son, typically emotionally intense anyway, is four and half years old and more intense than ever. I have been told this is normal for this age. Fourth, I just made a huge commitment to my tradition and spiritual journey by choosing dedication.

The first and second areas challenged me so deeply that I felt it was the opening and purging blade of Kali working open heart surgery upon me. I emerged with a blacker, bolder heart. Adam, my husband, and I have come out of this winter stronger and healthier than ever. The love between us is deeper and bolder, too. My friend and I are tentative, but healing. I do not know the future there, but it shines like a diamond.

Adam is convinced that our son is on the way out of whatever phase he’s been in. I’m taking his word for it, because I don’t see it. I’m just too tired. My patience is frayed. I don’t have the capacity to hold any more space for any more people. All of this deep winter work has expanded me – my heart, my energy levels, my capacity to hold conflict and tension and not knowing, my compassion, my understanding of people…… It’s beautiful, it’s deeply spiritualĀ  – but I’m tired.

The light I see growing in the mornings and lingering in the evenings is a hopeful sign. I don’t know if I’ll get to rest – do parents ever get to do that? But fresh, new air is coming. A few of the bushes have the faintest of new growth on them. There is new life around the corner, brighter light, stronger light. I need this hope and this encouragement from the land around me.

Chehalis Western Trail; Regan House Photo

Chehalis Western Trail; Regan House Photo

I don’t know what the spring holds for me. But the light is growing.

Collaging the year, part two: 2013

Yesterday I posted about my 2012 collage, what came to pass and what did not (click here to read that post).

For 2013 I did a tarot reading. I used the Mary-El tarot. I drew the 9 of Swords, the King of Disks, the Devil reversed, the 2 of Swords reversed, the Moon, and the Hanged Man. Basically, I have yet another intense year ahead of me. (What I’d like to do is take a moment to whine about how intense and challenging everything has been for the last few years and how I’d really love it if the Universe would cut me a break, but hey – I seem hard-wired for intense. I basically sign up for Challenging and Intense whenever I see it. I’ve done this to myself.)

Instead of feeling overwhelmed and depressed by my reading, I decided to collage what I wanted out of my year, using the reading as my guide. Here’s what I created:

Collage 2013

Collage 2013

The Olympia and 13 are self-explanatory, I hope.

First, we have the 9 of Swords: pressure, passing through challenges, the hero’s journey, facing fears, attending to business, dodging challenges with skill. Yet pressure creates diamonds. Facing challenges makes us stronger. Attending to business gets things done. I decided to use this period to focus on my work, with reminders to endure. To that end I have a picture of a study with lots of books – a reminder to read and write and think! A picture of an altar to Durga. I believe that picture of the naked lady and the owl is an advertisement for a band. It says ‘Tiger! Tiger! Cut them where they bleed.’ I like the art and love the contrast of wisdom, nakedness and passive posture with such aggressive language. That feels right and good at this time. Going radical speaks for itself… although I think I’ve already done that! It never hurts to have another reminder.

Next up is the King of Disks: the master of pleasure and his physical environment. The card in the Mary-El deck has a faun eating of Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – and liking it! I get a sense of ‘having one’s cake and eating it too.’ This is a reminder to enjoy the physical delights of life. Sex, for sure, as well as the bounty of this land – hence, the 5 oysters (maybe that’s my unconscious choice for a third child right there!). There’s a picture of a lake in Washington. The word ‘vacation’ is important here, because my husband and I have had only one vacation in our 9.5 years together. We desperately need another one.

With the Devil and the 2 of Swords, both reversed, I see me dealing with boundaries, demons, unresolved issues, and issues of identity. I don’t see this as necessarily negative. Dealing with these things can lead to more freedom and healing. The Economist (one of my favorite magazines) had an article on the history of Hell in its holiday double issue. I got the pictures of the demons from there. Why not have some explicit pictures of what I’m up against! I also wanted an image of strength, representing overcoming such demons, and that’s what the picture of Pussy Riot demonstrating in an Orthodox church represents for me. (It also never hurts to have bad ass feminists on display.)

As for identity, I love the photo of Audrey Hepburn laughing. She embodies grace. In this picture she looks like she might be in her 30s (appropriate) and I choose to face my challenges with as much grace and joy as possible. Also, ‘never hide’ – a reminder that while I don’t need to be all up in anyone’s face, I need never hide either.

After struggles of identity and demons, I have the Moon and the Hanged Man to look forward to. The Moon can be a time of instability, of dreams, of the un/subconscious bubbling up, taboos. It’s also a deeply feminine card, one of mystery, and can represent cycles. I wonder if this might coincide with an autumn birth? Or perhaps after dealing with my demons and identity and the inevitable challenge to taboos those things entail, I’ll just want some rest.

The Hanged Man is a card of chosen self-sacrifice. I would like to be more like Odin, who sacrificed himself to himself for the sake of wisdom, rather than like Jesus, who martyred himself to himself.

Both of the final cards indicate a need for retreat, rest, and contemplation. I could certainly use more rest. I’ve got a big picture of fresh, clean bed and a person meditating in a beautiful, serene spot.

There are other images: I think ‘wake up!’ shouts its meaning loud and clear; there is a person singing love into her surroundings (and I promised Kali I would sing); the hands releasing fire/magic; the altar image of Om and Ganesh is always an auspicious addition to any sacred art; the image of the Taj Mahal represents India and my possible trip there this year; the peaceful priestess.

What’s not on this collage? I don’t have anything overtly representing another child, nor anything regarding the possibility of buying a house this year. Adam and I are hoping to buy a house – maybe that big king-sized bed is a nice home waiting for us at the end of the year!

I do have other goals for 2013. I want to learn to wild harvest nettles and devils club. I want to get back to my yoga practice. I want to learn to make a variety of Asian cuisines.

Overall, that tarot reading for the year ahead makes me want to collapse on the floor and yell out ‘you win, Universe! Uncle!’ But my collage brings me joy and I feel inspired to tackle what comes.

What do you think your year holds for you?

Out with the old!

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of my leaving the UK and arriving in Olympia. This has been a big, exhausting, amazing year for me. I have learned so much. Let me share with you:

*I have an irrational love of the British Isles. The land there feels good to me in a way that makes no sense. It took me a good 2/3 of my year to stop waking up missing the Welsh sky.

*When you follow the magic, the Current, the flow, whatever you choose to call it, it will not disappoint.

*I have some work that I need help with, issues I feel ready to lay to rest. I am committed to going to therapy in 2013.

*Nothing is more important to me than relationship; nothing is more valuable in relationship than willingness to do the Work.

*I don’t cast spells often, but when I do they are remarkably effective.

*Perfection is a lie. So is self-improvement.

*Getting what you want is often WAY scarier than not getting it.

*I love bigger than I ever thought I could.

*What I feared most ended up feeling incredibly obvious and a lot less scary than I believed.

*I am not cut out for general teaching.

*I learned how to make rosehip jam, pork carnitas, and convert a lot of my favorite dishes in to gluten-free ones (I can’t eat wheat or gluten, or most corn).

*I need to sing again.

*I need a vacation.

*I am in the process of learning how to accept others without negating myself. I am also learning to trust my Fetch more (much work is needed around getting my Fetch and Talker to communicate more clearly – this will be a big chunk of work for me in 2013).

*Most importantly, I felt like my open heart surgery came to a close last night. Kali sat before me on her white horse, grinning happily from ear to ear, holding my bloody, severed heart in her hands. I looked down at my wide open chest. And you know what I found? I found a bigger, blacker, bolder heart was underneath all the time.

Let us ride forward in to 2013. Follow the magic!

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.