An interview with Jolie Elan and Jesse Wolf Hardin in Plant Healer Magazine. In this interview we discuss a sense of place and why it is imperative for herbalists to foster a deep connection to the earth and her medicines. In these times of great change, how does the Earth heal us and how can we tap into that healing power for the benefit of all beings?
I live at the meeting place of three mountain ranges in Southern Oregon. My home town nestles in millions of forested acres that are watered by clear flowing, salmon-bearing streams fed by icy snow melt. It’s paradise, until fire season strikes. Then it feels more like, well, that other place where you always want ice water.
When you live on forested land, wildfires are a natural part of the territory, but knowing this doesn’t make it easier to breathe. This summer the air quality has hung heavy in the “hazardous” range for long smoky weeks. Among my fellow townspeople there is rising collective unrest, a feeling of being smothered, cornered, preparing to evacuate.
In struggling through the smoke of the literal and figurative fires raging in these burning times, I feel not only my own anxiety and fear; I tap into the collective pain of our threatened and endangered world. In those dark smoky nights of the soul when I would give up almost any material possession for clean air and a few stars, I know beyond doubt that my body is a part of a living earth; the burning trees are my external lungs. I glimpse the natural intelligence behind this great turning of our times; I’m certain that these fires are natural and can offer healing not only to our Earth, but to humanity, if we allow our hearts and spirits to be kindled by the flames.
While global warming is no doubt exacerbating the local fire conditions, forest fires are natural and even necessary in this part of the mountain West. Our forests must have fire to regenerate. Burning clears out dense, overgrown areas reducing competition for prized water and sunlight; it removes the dead, diseased, and decaying trees, jumpstarting life. Many plants, like the California lilac (Ceanothus spp) actually need fire to thrive. Heat cracks open the hard seed casings making them permeable to water and air, enabling the seeds to sprout and bring forth future generations. And, while fires excruciatingly incinerate most wildlife who can’t outrun flames, to the hawks feasting on the exodus it’s a banquet by firelight.
Indigenous peoples the world over employed fire to manage the land. When John Muir first came to Yosemite Valley, he became an unwitting witness to native people’s shaping of the landscape. Gazing from one end of the steep-walled, then-open meadow corridor clear down to the other, he wrongly believed that the land had been untouched by human hands. But only scant decades later, after the Miwok tribe had been exiled and killed, the magnificent open cathedral of Yosemite Valley was choked with spindly, overcrowded, highly flammable underbrush.
Tribes in many parts of the continent practiced their own versions of the Miwoks’ land management regimen. Many indigenous societies believe that humans are an integral, and yes, even loved, part of a sacred, intelligent web of life. This way of grokking the world is rooted in humble belonging and grounded in respect and reciprocity. Through this lens, humans are seen as nature’s way of caring for the whole, employing opposable thumbs, fire, and song. From where our dominant European American culture sits on the sidelines of life, nature appears inert, inane, mechanistic and in need of control. We fail to see that what we narrowly perceive as our best interest – is nothing of the sort. Somehow, we have managed to forget that our well-being is inextricably knotted with clear flowing streams, an ample mountain snow pack, six inches of top soil, pollinators who get paid in sugary nectar, and healthy forests that act as our external lungs providing us with life-giving oxygen, without which, we could not live for a measly four minutes.
The official policy of the U.S. Forest Service was, until recently, to suppress forest fires indiscriminately, with the noble intention of protecting forests and profit. A century of this policy has resulted in crowded, overstuffed forests that are starved for light, nutrients and water: too many trees expending too much life force competing for resources. These weakened woodlands are prone to diseases and insect infestations. When we throw drought and record high temperatures driven by global warming on top of these already stressed-out forests, we have a tinderbox at the mercy of a lightning strike.
Just as our best engineers can’t stop the ocean from eroding prime beach-front real estate and roadways, it’s most often futile to try to suppress forest fires; in fact, efforts to do so often backfire. In this respect, fire and other natural forces resemble the forces of our own human natures. When we suppress our natural righteous anger at injustice, it smolders in our psyches, and even the most insignificant spark can ignite a fury that burns bridges and leaves all of us scarred. When populations of people are suppressed, it results in a demoralized society, abject poverty, violence, and over-stuffed prisons ready to ignite in riots. When we attempt to dam up the inevitable rivers of grief that flow from our broken hearts as we witness the great unravelling of our times, we have to deaden our spirits and our psyches, divorcing ourselves from our extended family circles made up of Syrian refuges and African Elephants. Severing our family ties makes us unutterably lonely, and many of us race around fiercely attempting to fill ourselves up with Netflix and consumer items, which just accelerates the unravelling—creating a vicious cycle of addiction and denial, adding more fuel to the proverbial fire.
And what of the real fires burning near my town? Yesterday I saw a magnificent bobcat in my neighborhood. She was lean and long-limbed, every muscly step a bulge, a grey ground squirrel swaying limp from her mouth. She lives in the blackberry thicket fifty yards from my porch. I wonder how she is faring with this bad air along with all the small spotted fawns with their tender developing lungs, each one with a straight line of white dots along their backbone. They can’t go inside and turn on the air-conditioning to filter the air. There is nowhere else to go. They are in it.
It’s the same with us and global warming: there is nowhere else to go; we are all in it. To respond by burying my head further in the sand as the sea levels rise is, while perfectly understandable and often desirable, it’s not really a productive approach. Even though I want to binge-watch Merlin with a big bag of barbeque potato chips, sometimes I have to hit the off button and sit with my fear, grief, and powerlessness, which can feel unbearable. And yet, after storms of tears and panic move through my internal landscape, I sometimes experience moments of grace in which I see global warming as our Mother Earth’s natural and healthy response to humanity’s forgetfulness of our place in the family of life. Our sacred Mother Earth is raising a fever to burn out dis-ease, overgrowth, competition, and the deadly belief that humanity exists outside the natural world, that we are separate.
And, really isn’t global warming the supreme teacher of our era? It’s obvious that we need technological and legislative fixes, like transitioning towards renewable energy; however it’s nothing short of a true revolution of the heart and spirit that will lead us through the dark bottleneck of the Anthropocene*. This shift requires that humanity pick up the ancient and evolving understanding that we are just one tiny, but important, part of a sentient, sacred, loving, interconnected living planet. It’s from this vantage point that real solutions will become evident and within reach.
How do we heal our relationships with the extended family of life? How do we shift from separation to belonging? It’s a lifetime challenge, one that I will be writing about again. But the short answer is that, just as in any other relationship, I find it best to show up with a soft, loving heart and an open, nonjudgmental mind. To bond fully with nature, we must suspend our disbelief in the ancient wisdom that animals and plants have their own intelligence, are really good at their jobs, and are capable of love.
A good gentle first step is to go on a leisurely walk, spending some quality with your Nature. As I often suggest to my students and my friends, out on the trail, we can more easily allow ourselves, like children, to be joyfully drawn into the dance of life. Maybe you partake in a timeless moment when the smoke finally lifts to reveal that simply miraculous blue sky that had be obscured for what feels like months; perhaps you find yourself up close and intimate with a fuzzy bee covered in golden pollen as she spirals around a sunflower sipping sweet nectar. Whatever, or whoever, calls to you, offer your rapt attention, your beautiful pink heart.If you feel blocked, great, you’ve noticed it. Feel into it. Sit with it. Recognize it, welcome it, accept it, investigate it, don’t get hung up about it, be gentle with yourself. Be interested in what might be blocking your connection to the world around you.
Or, on the contrary, you might find yourself in the flow of a raging river of emotions, which is also natural. Sometimes, when I feel most joyful, and at One with the more-than-human world, the dams of suppressed emotions bust open and I feel my intense pain for the world. I am overcome with compassion “suffering with” the elephants and orangutans, the orphans and octopuses. It’s impossible to be conscious in an endangered and suffering world without feeling pain. Pain is a necessary part of our collective healing. As in all organisms, pain serves the purpose of alerting the need for curative action. If you tap into the pain for the world, keep breathing, and know this is exactly what it takes to weave our hearts back into the fabric of the universe for the benefit of all life.
If, and when, you land in one of those eternal moments where manmade boundaries dissolve and you know in your rocky bones that you are but one golden thread in a mind-blowing, sentient, sacred tapestry woven with manatees and mollusks, take a deep breath from within your larger body of life and source your own natural intelligence. That natural intelligence is how the Earth will heal herself. What is your nature calling you to do in these unprecedented times? For better or worse, it’s a new era and old rules do not apply. There is no normal; there are no maps, and our wild hearts must lead the way.
As for smoke, the fires will eventually cease. The autumn rains arrive, Spirit willing. Sadly, there will be lost houses, nests, hives, lives and a long string of ruined plans, but the losses incurred by catastrophes like fire often force us to reexamine our priorities – like what to take with us in case of evacuation. Fires force change in landscapes. Millions of those hard fire adapted seeds, dormant for decades, will crack open, put down roots and riotously blossom in the charred earth, heralding in a whole new reign of life in the forest. The big question now is: How will we relate to that that new life and will our hearts also crack open to welcome it.
If you want to connect more deeply with your nature join Go Wild Institute for some classes or mentoring.
*Anthropocene: relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
Comments from Deep Times Magazine where this article was published
|Learning botany is like going to a wild party where you don’t know many folks. At first, you may feel intimidated, then you bump into someone and you learn their name. But, a name is just an entry point. Each time you run into your new friend, you learn more about them: where they live; what job they have in the community; who they are related to; and so on. You learn their name so you can deepen your relationship to them and build your community.
It’s practically the same with plants. First, we learn their name, let’s say Angelica hendersonii. After that then we learn about Angelica’s uses, familial relationships, stories, and ecology. For instance, we learn about Angelica’s use in ceremonies and why its associated with the heavenly realm. We learn about the age old use of Angelica as a warming carminative and stimulant to digestion. And, before we know it we have made a lasting relationship and built community with the more-than-human world. Botany may seem like it is for geeks but the learning to really see a plant changes how you see your place in the family of life. As artist Georgia Okeeffe so wisely wrote “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time”.
Blue Elderberry (Sambucus nigra subspecies caerulea) is a tall shrub with beautiful lacy clusters of tiny white flowers that look like snowflakes. This fascinating medicinal and edible wild plant grows in North America, Europe, western Asia, and North Africa[i]. We have two species of elder in the western U.S.: blue and red. The red elder (Sambucus racemosa) is not customarily used and is said to be poisonous, although I know a very wise old herbalist who makes jam and medicine of the red berries without any ill effect. That said, it is not recommended to use the red Elderberry for food or medicine. The focus of this article is limited to the blue Elderberry.
Throughout history, there are few plants more revered than the Elderberry tree with its rich mythology and longstanding use as a food and medicine. For the animists of old Europe the elder was magical and enchanted. The European mythology tells us that trees were guarded by a dryad named the Hylde Moer or Elder Mother[iii] and should the tree be cut or burned, this tree nymph would haunt the perpetrators with misfortune and, as was believed in Romania, a toothache[iv]. The Elder Mother also reigns as Queen of the Underworld, an alternate dimension of Earth, where the spirits and fairies dwell. Because Elders were associated with fairies, leaving a baby to sleep under an elder tree could result in the child being stolen by fairies and replaced with a changeling afflicted with unexplained disorders. It was also told that those who stood under an elder tree on the mid-summer night could witness a procession of the king of the fairy land and his entourage.[v]
Elder is not just relegated to ancient folklore, in the not so ancient mythology of Harry Potter the Elder Wand is said to be the most powerful wand that has ever existed. It is able to perform feats of magic that would normally be considered impossible such as mending another wand damaged beyond normal magical repair. The wand is said to be worthy only of a wizard who had conquered death. [vi]
Elder stems are filled with pith and hollow out easily. The hollowed stems were used by Native Californian tribes and old Europeans alike to fashion instruments such as clappers, flutes, whistles and pipes. [vii] Most of the literature states that the common name “Elder” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “ellen,” meaning fire-kindler because Elder’s tube-like stems were blown into, coaxing warm flames from the embers in the hearths of the Old Country. However, Master Herbalist Matthew Wood posits that the name elder comes from the Icelandic word huldafolk meaning hidden people or fairies.[viii]
By any name, elder is an excellent medicine. By the time of the renown ancient naturalist Pliny (77 C.E.), the medicinal properties were well known and documented[ix]. So great were the curative powers of the elder that it was called “the medicine chest of the country people”.[x] Elder is an excellent fever reducer and back in the days when fever was a major killer, elder was a major medicine. It has been said that King Charlemagne directed all newlyweds to plant an elder tree in their yard as his form of Obama care.
Contemporary science has confirmed the age old use of this ancient medicine. Elderberry extract has been proven effective against ten strains of influenza. Studies show that the bioflavonoids in Elderberry inhibit viruses from attaching to cells, increase the immune response to viruses, and reduce healing time from the flu by half. [xi] Elderberry also has significant antioxidant properties and may help prevent damage to the body’s cells, lower cholesterol, improve vision, boost the immune system and improve heart health. In fact, Elderberry outranks blueberries, cranberries, goji berries, and blackberries in terms of total flavonol content[xii].The lacy flowers of the elder are also useful in treating diabetes; research has shown that extracts of Elderflower stimulate glucose metabolism and the secretion of insulin, lowering blood sugar levels.[xiii]
While Elderberry syrup is readily available from most natural food stores, I recommend ethically gathering some berries in late summer and making your very own syrup (see below for syrup recipe) Homemade elderberry syrup makes excellent gifts especially during the winter holiday and cold season. The syrup is also good on pancakes and your kids won’t mind taking their medicine. In addition to healing colds and flues, the act of respectfully gathering your own medicines and building a real relationship with the living nature around you is empowering and weaves you deeper in in the web of life.
And, what a web the elder weaves by joining the winged and web-footed, the finned and furry, the scaled and the slimy. Elder shrubs connect the ground level stream banks to the taller riparian trees in a vibrant vertical display of textures and strata rich in sustenance and habitat for different members of our animal society. This diversity of vertical homes is a popular spot for wild lives. It is quite democratic, this Elderberry thicket. Deer browse the elder foliage, while a colorful palette of our avian allies love the berries including the Western Bluebird, the Red-Shafted Flicker, the Ashthroated Flycatcher, the Black Headed Grosbeak, White-Crowned Sparrow, and the Ruby Crowned Kinglet among others.[xiv] Streambank elders also take good care of fish: their shade cools the water while their roots knit soil in place to keep the water running clear.
Elder is not just a great food for wildlife it is also fantastic food for humans. The tiny flower clusters are delicious and beautiful in fritters. The flowers can be easily made into a lovely Elderflower syrup that when added to gin and bubbly water is a perfect summer drink. The superfood berries can be used like blueberries in baked goods but should never be eaten raw. And one could write a whole book on Elderberry wine…
So many of us long to live healthier lives in deeper connection with nature; this is why some of us choose to live in in the Pacific West. As the elder illustrates, nature heals us, she feeds us, and she fills our minds with wonder and story. One excellent way to transform your local habitat into your true home is develop relationships with the plants and creatures who live around you: Learn their names, their stories, medicines and who eats them. Follow whatever golden thread that ignites your wonder for the natural world. Just maybe, this grand adventure can begin with learning to love our Elders.
How to Make Elderberry Syrup:
The best way to make homemade healing elderberry syrup is to gather your own berries. I suggest you make an offering of tobacco or cornmeal and ask the Elder for its medicine. Sit quietly and wait to see if you get an answer. It is during this quiet time with the tree that you begin to build your healing relationship with the elder.
You might ask, how do I know if permission is granted? Sometimes you just don’t. However, after enough practice you might find that you feel an indescribable connection with the plant that lets you know if you should gather. This practice helps to build your relationship with nature and your intuition, which are essentially the same thing. Intuition is really just connecting to the deep nature within us. Anyhow, once you gather your berries it’s time to make syrup.
The secret to making great elderberry syrup is to make a very concentrated tea and then add a good amount of honey to the concentrate to preserve it.
Four cups fresh elderberries
(If you want to use dried berries, use four cups of water for every one cup of berries)
Four cups water
One stick cinnamon or (optional)
1.5 cups honey
Put elderberries and water in a pot and bring to boil. Reduce to a simmer. Let simmer for 60-90 minutes until the liquid has reduced by half.
Strain the berries from the liquid and compost them. (I try to put the berries back on the Earth and thank them for the medicine. Ideally I offer them back to the tree.)
Measure the concentrated elder tea. You should have about 2 cups.
Add 1.5 cups of honey depending on how thick and sweet you want your syrup. The higher the amount of honey the less likely it is that your syrup will mold.
After adding the honey, cook on very low heat for an hour or so or until you have about 2.75 cups of syrup.
Remove from heat and let cool. If desired, you can add a 1/8 or ¼ cup of brandy to the syrup to extend shelf life.
Pour into bottles and label well. The syrup will keep in the fridge for a year or so depending on how much honey and brandy you have added.
Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Fill in ; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
[i] Sambucus Nigra, Kew Royal Botanic Gardens online at http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/sambucus-nigra-elder
[iii] The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines by Matthew Wood
[iv] Elder in Profile by Kat Morgenstern online at http://www.sacredearth.com/ethnobotany/plantprofiles/elder.php
[v] A Modern Herbal by Maude Grieve online at http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/e/elder-04.html
[vii] California Indians and Their Environment by Kent Lightfoot and Otis Parrish.
[viii] Earthwise Herbal by Matthew Wood
[ix] Essential Facts for Elderberry by Herb Society of America online at https://www.herbsociety.org/herbs/documents/HSAElderberryFactsheet.pdf
[x] A Modern Herbal by Maude Grieve online at http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/e/elder-04.html
[xi] The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines: I. Inflammatory cytokines European Cytokine Network. Volume 12, Number 2, 290-6, June 2001, Recherches
[xii] Elderberry, University of Maryland Medical Center online at http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/elderberry
[xiv] Plant Guide for Common Elderberry, United States Department of Agriculture, National Resources Conservation Sciences, National Plant Data Center online at https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_sanic4.pdf
We often hear stories that begin with “A long, long, long time ago, humans and Our Relations in Nature lived in harmony and spoke a common language…” This is not just the stuff of myths and fairy tales; the language of nature is not a dead language of a mystical time; it is a vital living language of our day. This is a story of how to rebuild our fluency.
Having just moved to Ashland, Oregon, and not knowing many folks yet, I initiated a talk with my neighbor who is a Red Tailed Hawk. The conversation ended with her tossing down an offering that consisted of one decapitated ground squirrel. The discussion began like this….
The land where I get to live now is a gorgeous piece of earth, about twenty-five acres, right on the banks of a salmon bearing creek. The private drive is lined with oak trees and there is a metropolis of ground squirrels that dart across the drive frenetically at all angles. Driving home through the arc of oaks feels a bit like being in a Disney video game where you have to avoid running over the cute wildlife running at you from all directions. Of course, this squirrel megalopolis is where the hawk hangs out because the oaks drop acorns, the squirrels gorge on acorns and the hawk feasts on the squirrels.
It’s late spring now and given that acorn season is a few months off, I suspect that the squirrels’ nut caches are running low. Being new to town, I want to make new friends and many, of late, are of the non-human variety. I have around one hundred pounds of acorns squirreled away for my Wisdom of the Oak program. My movers thought I was a bit “nuts”, as they hefted the acorn boxes labeled by species: valley oak, black oak, tan oak, golden… Since all new friends appreciate generosity and good will, I have been making frequent acorn gifts to the squirrels on a flat boulder that sits in the middle of a circle of dark stones under the oaks.
I leave a small palm full of valley oak acorns on my way to town or a little mound of golden cap nuts under the brilliant full moon of spring. Many evenings I have set out with a pocket full of nuts and a warm-hearted desire to build my community.
The day I met the resident raptor, she was in the oaks hunting for acorn fattened squirrels. This is almost exactly what I said to her out loud, “Hello beautiful hawk. You are a gorgeous creature. I am so happy to be living here. I know that this is your home and I really want to be respectful and be a good neighbor. I hope it is okay that I live here with you”. She perched, eyed me and moved her head side to side. We both stood there for a minute in an easy silence and took each other in. Then, I walked on.
Several hours later, I returned lugging my groceries, thinking about something else entirely, when I felt the push of wind off large wings, I heard a loud screech, and then a thump. The bird tossed a headless, bloodied, plump squirrel three feet from where I stood. My new friend flew back to her oak perch and in that telepathic language of nature that I only comprehend when I am present, quiet, and bursting open with love for all of life, I swear she said: “You are welcome here. You are welcome here”.