Falling ill

It’s mid October, which means that the Fingerlakes region of New York has been elevated from strikingly beautiful to car-accident-inducing, stomach-aching gorgeousness. When I drive through the countryside, it’s all I can do to resist the urge to pull over and snap photos of the trees in every color ((Sometimes I succumb to temptation)).

It’s a inwardly focused time for me, as well as the plants. As they pull their energy down into the roots to overwinter, I find myself also drawn to the wells, finding the still-warm, dark places the coldness has yet to penetrate. I’ve seen it become a theme over the past few weeks in my blog-feed — that this time of year is more New Year-ish than dead-middle-winter. As a species, this is the season we would be evaluating our cold stores, but since survival in these harsher climates is no longer the dire concern it once was, the fall lends itself to contemplation instead.

There’s less to do now, for me anyway. Fewer Green friends to seek out along the skirted trails of the city parks. Holiday travel plans to make. Little apartment projects to put away before it gets unpleasantly cold (and it does here. Oh, it does).

I am sick. And I’ve been sick since last weekend, a good six days now into some horrific virus I no doubt picked up from my daughter’s preschool class. And yet, being sick as I am, I’ve managed to chaperone two field trips, get the kids ready and out the door for school, shuffled to dance class, Spanish club, and the ilk, grocery stores, vet appointments for the fur beasts, oil change and new tires, to say nothing of the worky work (which admittedly, I’ve really been taking it easy on the past week). I’m tired. And I should be resting.

So I was thinking that this is probably where we actually drop the ball on the families ((We, being Americans, specifically. Westerners generally, probably, though I hear it’s better in Europe.)). Because of… let’s just say reasons… I’m a single mother and I have custodial responsibility for my children 85% of the time. No one takes care of me when I’m sick, so it lingers.

I don’t have any answers or suggestions to fix the problem of tiredness, of unrest and the inevitable cycle of disease that comes from it. Obviously the issues are complex and deep-rooted in a culture of do-whatever-you-must-to-do. But I know many elders who have worn out their bodies with work when they should have been resting (my father included, is yours?) and renewing their wellness.

This weekend my kids are staying with their dad so I can sit on the couch and sip my hot water with lemon, elderberry syrup, honey and whiskey, fire cider and miso broth. Sit with my dog, who is snoring next to my thigh as I type this. Reach down to my roots and retreat from the world awhile.

Tapping the root

I am on day four of adding burdock decoction to my daily routine. Arctium lappa, Burdock, if you don’t know, is that low, large leafey plant that, in the summer, makes wonderful umbrellas for gnomes. In the fall, second year plants will shoot up a stalk with burrs that stick to everything (it inspired Velcro!).

Jennifer sits with Burdock in May at Heartstone.

The medicine I want is in the root, which are the huge, monstrous tap-kind. You learn a lot about yourself digging up dock roots (google for pictures of the beasts). It’s a plant we studied at Heartstone when we studied the liver — and we studied the liver the very first weekend. As an herbalist, my teachers instructed us to treat the liver first, because the liver functions to process toxins — that are both absorbed and created by the body (including hormones). And our lives are so incredibly toxic — down to the plastic keyboard that I’m typing this out on.

Burdock is a liver tonic, blood cleanser and nutritive. Alerative, anti-pyretic, rejuvenative and strongly diuretic. Burdock makes you sweat. And you sweat through your skin. It’s amazing as a skin clarifier and that’s why I’ve added it to my regime.

To make the decoction, take one palm full of the dried root and cover it with water in a stainless steel saucepan. Simmer for 20-45 minutes, strain and enjoy ((We add the Enjoy! part even though it usually tastes like feet and no one really enjoys that.))!

Unfortunately, it tastes about how you think it might. Like health. Like earth. And like it sounds — B U R R R R R D O C K. I shudder, just thinking about it. But that’s part of the problem of knowing all this stuff. You can’t unknow it and perhaps there’s some ignorant bliss in using Noxema on your face every night. Drinking a decoction that requires all kinds of preparation ((omg! Putting something on the STOVE!! IN WATER!! and giving it time to simmer??)) is a dedicated effort, but your body is a funny machine. It knows, innately, when you’re doing something that’s good. Your nutritive baseline shifts and after a few days, you find yourself craving it.

Herbal medicine is an exercise in patience, but at day four I already feel the subtle shifts. I don’t choke it down like I did on day 1 and my pores seem smaller in the mirror. I’m happy to report back later, but Susan Weed says in Healing Wise that, “Burdock is not for people in a hurry, or most acute problems; burdock works thoroughly and slowly.”

And that is the way I would prefer to work as well. Maybe this is why, despite myself, we’re getting along so well.


In his forward to Pam Montgomery’s Plant Spirit Healing, Stephen Buhner writes of people who attend herb gatherings:

Those who gather there do so because once upon a time a plant saved their life. And once that happens, nothing is ever the same again. Something has entered inside them, something invisible, something that changes their lives and how they, in their lives, perceive and relate to the natural world around them. They have connected the most primal survival part of themselves to the wildness of the world. They have eaten the Wild Redeemer.

That is how I would sum up the last six months of my apprenticeship at Heartstone. My beautiful teachers, Kris and Tammi, offered up the Wild Redeemer each time and we tasted it’s divinity. The wildness of the world touched my heart and I am forever altered.

The changes have been both subtle and startling. There were moments in lecture when I was so disturbed by what I was learning — about our bodies, our lives, our world — that I felt compelled, compulsed ((Moved to the extreme of emotion so that the standard rules of language are no longer adequate.)) to action. Over the last six months I gave up shampoo, unfermented soy and Advil. For good. Other differences I only noticed secondary. When I would reach for an oil I had infused over a hand lotion I had purchased. Or when I could administer a plant directly to a scraped knee at the playground, instead of scooping the little ones up and trucking them home to clean, bandage and kiss their boo boos.

There’s a confidence I’ve discovered that comes from knowing who is growing around you. Like knowing who your neighbors are, the plants are there to watch over us as well. On the very first weekend of my apprenticeship, back in May, Kris told us that the medicine we most need is always right outside our door. And I see the truth in that statement whenever I survey the backyard, saying hello to friends, as has become my habit.

At the Sacred Fire on Saturday night, we were (however unwittedly) entrusted with passing what we know, returning to center, for seven generations. And returning to center, knowing what that place was, also became a theme for me. As we walked over the land, in every changing season, I became more and more aware of where it is I find myself.

It’s so easy to get lost at home — I don’t live an idyllic life with my children in a cabin in the woods. We work to pay rent, we miss the bus, we forget to plan dinner, we don’t get to the laundry, someone pukes. And we do it, more or less, without a community of supporters.

But nature doesn’t work that way. And seeing that, feeling that odds between my muggle life and my Heartstone experience, showed me where my center was. And knowing this is salve for tired spirits. The field, the forest, the pond, the stream, the hill, the valley, the fire and the rain exist because of their intricate connections to all other fields of energy. And we can not divorce ourselves from that equation.

On Sunday, the morning before our graduation ceremony at Heartstone, I sat in a quiet spot near the pond and watched the heavy dew from the pines press ripples onto the surface. The ripples extended and connected, catching whatever light they could through the heavy morning clouds and sending it out across the dark water. I had a vision of my cohort around the fire. People that I had confided with over the past six months, that I shared this journey with — and that tested me; showed me my limits. And in that moment, I came to understand that my apprenticeship was as much about people as it was plants; that I could no more hide in the woods from human company than the goldenseal; that we all are endangered in our ways.

When I picked up my kids on Sunday I told them that I finished my last weekend at herb school. They were immediately thrilled, of course. Sullivan asked, “Are you a MASTER OF HERBS now, Mommy?” (he knows the phrase Master from our Reiki Master and my other teacher, Diane). Sort of, I tried to explain. It’s closer to truth say that I am now charged with serving the plants, and the gifts they share with me, I will spend a lifetime receiving and regiving. And that this experience was an initiation, rather than a graduation.

Catnip and Rosa Rugosa

Made a good deal of medicine today. I stopped by my community garden plot to find that my neglect had caused it to become completely overgrown with “weeds”. So I harvested a good deal of those for salad (purselane, lambs quarters and some rogue blue kale that volunteered itself), along with comfrey for oil and catnip for tincture.

I have a grove of catnip growing behind the house, but the plant that I found in my garden square was so beautifully soft, I couldn’t resist taking it home. My kids are away for the week, and I don’t require catnip for sleep, so I tinctured a jar for later.

See how beautifully soft?

I think of catnip as a relaxing, stress-relieving plant friend. It’s wonderful for stomach upsets as well. It makes a lovely addition* to tea, fresh or dried (I prefer fresh herbs for tea now though) and a beautiful tincture. I’ve cut and dried some of my backyard patch for my mom’s and brother’s kitties (I don’t have one, believe it or not!).

I also made comfrey infused oil for salves and ouches. It was… oily though, so I didn’t bust out the camera for that. I’ll go back and harvest more comfrey tomorrow though — along with some beautifully soft mint and some calendula (more oil! Yay!).