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Working with Herbal Allies

I live in an animated universe, where everything has a spirit. In my world, living things each have an indwelling spirit, or self-hood, as well as the collective spirit of the larger designations to which they belong. For example, in my home, each of my 5 cats has a distinct personality, color, body shape, name, and voice. Yet they definitely also all share certain qualities of 'cat-ness', including 'catitude', the love of chasing string and feathers, and wide, haunting eyes of doom that will bore into your soul when the food dish happens to be empty. So, when I think of the 'spirit of cat', I tend to think of those shared characteristics. And when I think about an individual cat, say my little Obi-Wan, I think of his particular version of catness: fluffy, opinionated, middle-of-the-night-singing, fetch-playing, prancing-with-joy-at-his-own-cleverness.

The same goes for my understanding of humans, other animals, crystals, and plants. Each has its own unique nature, but is also part of the great chorus of our kind in Gaea's song. The spirit of Willow has been an ally to me since I was a small child, and would swing in her branches with my friend Molly. Although I now live across the country from that Willow and she may even be gone from that yard by this point, I still consider her spirit, within the larger spirit of Willow, to be my friend. I have a good relationship with the whole family of Willow, wherever I go, with specific Willow friends in many cities and along country roads where I have pulled over and stopped the car, or departed from the footpath, to hug and greet these beautiful, gentle, healing trees. I made friends with the Willow on Allston Way in Berkeley when I lived near there, and would go visit her frequently, making full moon tinctures from the bark of her withes. There is a gorgeous willow above a gazing pool in Mountainview Cemetery in Piedmont where I go to commune with the dead water women and make wishes. There is one in the middle of a cow pasture in Occidental that I can't touch because she's on private property, but I gaze upon her each time I am on that lonely road and feel her comforting arms reaching out to me on the breeze. There is one in Avebury, England, that took my breath away, which I long to visit again.

Willow is known for many magical and practical purposes, and from a quick look at the lore, it is easy to see why she is quite a historical favorite among witches and other practitioners of folk spirituality as well as those who practice organized religions. Robert Graves writes in The White Goddess that Willow is sacred among the early Jews, who celebrated a festival called Day of Willows. The Willow is associated with the Underworld in Greek myth, particularly sacred to Hekate, Hermes, and Persephone, but also to Hera and Zeus. Myth proposes that a Willow grew outside the cave on Crete where Zeus was born. Willow makes a strong fiber and her bark eases pain. The dramatic majesty of her trailing, sighing branches are a haven for those who speak the language of trees and hear the music of the wind. She is the tender granny to children who build forts, sing the afternoons away, and play hide-and-seek among her locks. Paul Beyerl reports that, "planting a willow during your lifetime is said to protect you when taking final leave of your body. The willow (or direct descendant through a cutting) must be thriving at your death."

Working with Willow as an ally means many different things to me. It means taking the time to know about her distinct leaf shape and the sharp, sweet scent of her. It means leaving offerings of my own hair when I take any of hers. It means going on annual trips to visit her in various places, and to tie ribbons to her or to gently knot one of her branches without breaking it, adorning her with beauty as I whisper my heart's desires to her. It means making medicine from her in respectful ways. It means bringing sweets to the Willow and placing them at her feet each Spring in gratitude for the many times her medicine soothed my aching bones during the winter.

Finding one's way with an herbal ally is a lot like finding one's way with a new friend. Some are shy, and we have to tread gently in order to earn their trust. Some are bold, and will loudly come knocking in our lives. Some are gentle guides. Others, like narcotic plants, require strong boundaries. And some turn out to just not be who we thought they were, surprising us with the emergence of a vast inner world when we take the time to really listen to them.

Taking the time to really listen is, for many of us, the hardest part. We all know what it is like to want to feel better NOW, or for the magic to work NOW. Impatience is one of the qualities that many humans have in common. Learning to move beyond impatience into deep listening is one of the greatest skills an herbalist can have. Plants speak in their own ways, on their own terms, and at their own times. Like wise Elders, they possess great perspective. And sometimes, the only way for them to convey that perspective is via a long, long story that takes quite a while to tell. Such is the way of root and bark medicine. It is a long-term relationship.

Other herbs are little firecrackers who can give you a whole LOT of information in a very short amount of time! Pay attention before you touch your eyes after rubbing that cayenne balm on your aching back! You only have to learn that lesson once, usually. Such is the way of flowers and berries. Pay attention and heed their brief life cycle! Every lesson for personal transformation under crisis you will ever need can be seen through the lens of that cycle. In fact, if you grow tomatoes, you will notice that they tend to only get more prolific and abundant the more stressed they are. City tomatoes grow in cramped pots can be some of the sweetest and most delicious, because they adapted and learned to thrive under stress. What a helpful lesson for someone with a lot of responsibility.

In The Witch's Garden this month, we have been working on finding our herbal allies for our year of study together. I am strongly feeling plaintain this year. Her rich, full flavor is friendly to my tongue, and her benefits of calming the body's stress reactions and nourishing the eyes are in alignment with goals I am holding for myself this year. The more I read and research about her, the more she feels like the right choice for me. How about you? Do you have an herbal ally you are working with right now?

Here are some questions to consider in beginning to work with an herbal ally:

How shall I form a basis of experience that is honoring? Seek one out, grow one, join a community garden where they have one growing, contact your city arborist, look up photos and illustrations so you can begin to identify them in the wild, drink tea and make a ceremony of it, make a tincture, make art about it or write a poem honoring it. Use your imagination. Vest it with meaning and see what happens.

I can't really 'hear' any herb calling me. What do I do? Flip through a book of medicinal herbs or look at a list online and let your eye fall on names that sort of 'jump out' at you. Look them up and be careful of what is recommended- are there any prohibitions or warnings? Heed them. Proceed with care. Find samples of the 5 or 6 that you felt drawn to and make a medium-strength tea of each. Allow it to steep for about 10 minutes. Sample each without sweetener or any additives at all. Which one delights your tongue? Revisit the books. What did they say about that one again? Often, you will be delighted and amazed at how much this herb fits your life right now.

I've been drinking the teas, making the tinctures, and taking the herb for a while now. I'm not sure anything is happening. What should I do? For most herbal allies, in order to really cultivate a strong relationship, they need to be taken for 3 months. A minimum of 2 weeks is, well, quite the minimum. But most herbs need longer. Hence the warning to mark any prohibitions. Some herbs should not be taken consistently for that long. These might include purgatives or herbs that are linked with liver damage from long-term usage. But many herbs are gentle enough that they can be taken every day. And since they are that gentle, they also might need to take their time to have an effect on the body. Many of us are accustomed to pill culture, where popping a pill can have nearly-instantaneous dramatic effects. Some herbs do, as well, but think of it this way: sometimes you might need a paramedic, but other times you just need to have a regular office check-up. Both are essential to good health. Building a strong alliance with a gentle herb takes time.

This coming month in the Witch's Garden, we'll be discussing Teas and Incantations, and stirring the cauldron a bit! Check back for updates and recipes in late Feb. Blessings of Imbolc to you!

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Yeshe Rabbit is a practicing herbalist, collector of folk medicine wisdom, and herbal alchemist. Her recipes and remedies are based on everything from scientific studies to intuitive revelations and “old wives tales” that work. She teaches The Witch’s Garden herbalism classes in Oakland, California, and at her store, The Sacred Well, offers consultations in person and via telephone, and gardens by moonlight.

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