The weekend before last, I had a cherished opportunity to come together with the woman who led my herbalism apprenticeship in 2016, to attend a day-long workshop on Devil’s Club, or Oplopanax horridus.
Taking part in that workshop was highly emotional, not only because of the potent power of Devil’s Club as a plant medicine — and one I feel strongly drawn to at this time — but because it recaptured all the magic of those nine months I spent deepening my relationship with the plants, helping me realize how far I’ve come in the past year and a half since completing the course. There was even a moment during the morning, as we sat circled on the dock, basking in the novel warmth of sunshine against the backdrop of the lake, listening to our instructor mindfully describe the ways we can listen to the plants as we sit with them in meditation, when I had to coach myself past the threat of tears accompanying the swell of emotion washing over me.
Strangely, as a kid and young adult, I used to have an unexplainable aversion to plants. I used to cringe whenever asked to pick up the withered leaves dropped by our house plants, and I don’t recall ever once helping my mom to tend her well-loved gardens. This aversion was mostly triggered by plants that were especially lush, or viney, or large. I was unnerved by how swiftly the bindweed would creep across the backyard fence, and how, once picked, the flowers would practically shrivel before your eyes. It used to perturb me the way potted plants would send out aerial runners, this refusal to be contained, while gargantuan stalks of rhubarb could easily set off a quiet panic.
It was a weird phobia to have because it wasn’t every plant I was afraid of. We spent much of our youth outside in nature, building forts in the hedges, stealing flowers from neighbourhood gardens and fashioning grass skirts from sword ferns. I happily braved the prickly blackberry brambles for the promise of summer-sweet fruit, just as I dutifully attended (albeit, for a short time) my gifted cacti garden. I spent the majority of sixth grade utterly obsessed with the Amazonian rain forest, the strangeness of that colourful wilderness inspiring my childlike wonder. (One of my favourite movies was Medicine Man, with Sean Connery. I remember how hard I wept at the end, at the scenes of all that smouldering devastation.)
I’ve tried to determine as an adult why, exactly, I experienced this aversion. I honestly wonder if I had a sense, particularly as a child, of the innate sentience of plants, of their unspoken intelligence, of the fact they are just like us, but not. The plants intimidated me because I knew they were powerful. Maybe it was an unwillingness to face something I wasn’t prepared to understand. Perhaps it was to make everything I’m experiencing now that much more profound.
My initial forays into herbs as medicine started when I began looking at alternative ways to manage acute anxiety. Herbs represented a speck of a whole plethora of healing methods and modalities that I hungrily sought out in my efforts towards health and self-improvement, and while I felt their effectiveness was underlined by their having a tangible effect on my physiology, my early relationship to them as medicine remained fairly superficial.
Even as I prepared for my herbalism apprenticeship, my firsthand knowledge of healing herbs didn’t extend far beyond the familiar kitchen varieties, and I certainly didn’t have much experience working with the living versions of the plants. They existed as capsules and teabags I purchased from the health food store and, even on the occasion when I had purchased loose bulk herbs (because I’d invariably read an article suggesting an allopathic purpose for something), those dusty bits of root and leaf I brought home to tincture never succeeded in connecting me to the energy of that plant as a unique living organism.
That is what made the experience of my apprenticeship so revelatory. I was privileged to have been able to pay for my course by way of a work trade at the herb farm. I recall one of those very first days standing in the greenhouse, re-potting juvenile skullcaps and being completely blown away by the foreignness of handling a plant I’d been drinking as a sedative tea for years (I later learned skullcap is only effective as a sedative when the fresh plant is used). I remember working tangled, pale roots with my fingers, enthralled by so much power and potency captured in such a tiny, little plant.
That moment, with my hands caked in soil, is when everything shifted.
There was something entirely different about being invited to participate in the experience of plants, whether through cultivation, sitting with them to hear their stories or through the hands-on ritual of harvesting medicine from a living, breathing source.
Every single time I take a dose of Stachys officinalis, or Wood Betony, I am reliving the memory of how she looked and felt as I brushed my fingers over her dimpled leaves, of the early summer sun warming the crown of my head and of the earthy, green smell of her offering to me. When I feed myself spoonful’s of nourishing nettle soup this spring, I see in my mind’s eye the hairy, purple-tinged leaves as she emerges upward from the earth, the crunch of fallen maple leaves underfoot and the scurrying spiders I startled from their sun-basking reverie.
I’m no longer fearful of the plants. On the contrary, I’m consumed with them.
Last year marked some big changes for us. We listed and sold our condo, relocated to a rural spot outside the city and spent the latter portion of the year orienting ourselves with the demands of our new home and an entirely different environment. It meant there was very little time during those 12 months to spend deepening my understanding of plant medicine. And while I knew the importance of focusing on what needed doing at the time, I started to feel as though I was failing myself and the plants. I worried that everything I’d learned and absorbed up to that point would slowly evaporate, and I’d be left with nothing.
Now, after nearly eight months of settling into our new surroundings, I realize that the foundation of knowledge I’ve held so precious wasn’t slowly slipping away; it had simply turned dormant until I was able to coax it back into being.
I knew all that energy I spent last year pouring into the move would be worthwhile once we’d made the transition, and oh, has it ever! We live now at the edge of the woods, which means I spend hours each week exploring the diverse ecosystem thriving around us. Over and over again, I’m overwhelmed with the awareness of having ended up where we did, within the glorious proximity of so much nature, so much plant life.
Over the winter months, I traipsed along soggy trails gathering fallen Usnea longissima tangled in tree branches. I marvelled over the curious formations of mysterious lichens and paused to study the peculiar mushrooms and fungi that popped up seemingly overnight. As we segue into spring, I stop to stroke the vibrant branches of red osier dogwood, pet the furry catkins of budding willows and admire the first glossy leaves of what I guess must be our native Fritillaria affinis, or chocolate lily.
And the nettles — oh, the nettles! I started searching in February for the first tender, hairy shoots of nettle, practically buzzing with elation after having discovered a small cluster breaking through winter’s detritus. I thought, perhaps this is the only spot I’ll find them growing, and that’s okay. But still I spent my walks fervently scanning my surroundings for more signs of its arrival.
Then, one day, we were all out for a walk and discovered a hillside teeming with nettle, a vast community, and it was like all the energy we’d focused on finding our place outside the city, all the strange and serendipitous steps leading us to this very spot, were affirmed yet again by that bounty of nettle.
I’ve been back three times already since, a part of me wondering if I’m getting too greedy as I circle the round the ancient maples, filling my basket to the brim with visions of nettle soup and nettle pesto and nettle infused cupcakes. (The sprawling patch can certainly withstand my return visits, the plants seemingly multiplying with every visit. Still, I take only a little from here and there, choosing the more robust plants over the ones that have yet to fully savour the glorious warmth of sunshine on their broadening leaves).
Maybe it’s the closeness of nature to us now, and the ability to intimately witness and observe this environment in a way I wasn’t able to before, but I feel as though my knowledge and relationship to the plants and their medicine has suddenly expanded. The information and experiences I collected during my nine-month apprenticeship laid down the foundation, and now, I am finally beginning to cultivate my own uniquely personal relationship with the plants.
It’s become a matter of intuition. Unlike before, I don’t consciously decide, “And now I’m going to take my skullcap tincture, because skullcap is said to be a good nervine.” Instead, a plant will randomly pop into my head, arrive through meditation or appear to me in a dream state. Earlier this year I was struggling to cope with an increasingly demanding schedule, feeling myself grow resentful of the many things I was fighting to juggle. Motherwort, is what my mind said. Leonorus cardiaca. Medicine for the heart. She was just the ally I needed to guide me through the turbulence.
Lately, it’s been a matter of trying to restore my energy and make sure I have resources to manage the things I both need and want to do. Holy Basil, I heard. Ocimum tenuiflorum. I don’t go poring through my herbal library to affirm that this is herb I should be taking. I have a general understanding of its effect of my body, and it’s more important to me that I have the opportunity to get to know the plant medicine through my firsthand experience of it.
This is exactly what I’ve been doing with Artemsia vulgaris, or Mugwort, another plant that popped up repeatedly for me this winter. I can tell you it’s used as a digestive aid and can stimulate the menses, but reducing a plant to strictly its allopathic — drug-like — actions is, I think, a major error we so often make when it comes to defining herbal medicine
What I can tell you about taking a nightly dose of Artemsia vulgaris over the past month or so is that not only are my dreams more vivid, I feel as though there’s a tremendous amount of healing taking place in the dream state and filtering its way into my waking life. I had a vivid dream one night of my grandmother, and felt certain it was the Mugwort that connected me to her as I slept, then invited thoughts of her into my waking world.
I made the decision to shred the tattered teenage journals I’ve been packing around with me since I first left home at 18, a decision that arrived fairly suddenly and needed to be dealt with quickly. I tore page after page out from my journals, running them through the paper shredder, and didn’t once regret my choice. I feel lighter for having done so, in fact. Was it Mugwort’s influence that spurred this unexpected purging of past energies? I seem to think so. Certainly, since taking her medicine, I feel more grounded than I have in the past three months, and I reckon that’s no coincidence.
During last weekend’s workshop, as we talked about the guilt we sometimes feel harvesting medicine from living plants, our instructor reminded us, the plants like being able to help us. They want to be of service, and its our responsibility to honour that, and to do so while holding the utmost reverence and gratitude for our plant allies.
I feel my whole experience so far of plant medicine summed up in that sentiment. We’re not here to ungenerously take from the plants and ascribe our innately human systems of category and rank. We’re meant to engage with our allies, to hear to what they have to tell us, to experience their medicine in our own unique ways and allow a relationship to build from that.
They have lots to say…and I’m keen to listen.
(Originally written March 2018.)