My herbal teacher started every class with a recitation of lineage:
My name is Gina McGarry. My teacher was Rosemary Gladstar, whose teacher was Juliette de Baïracli Levy, whose teachers were the Romani gypsies.
I carried this opening recitation into my own teaching, working backwards through the generations of people who had refined and nursed the knowledge that allowed me and—through me—my students to step into deep relationship with the medicine plants.
In over eighty hours of herbal training, it was this five-minute recitation which cracked open hearts and most prepared students to step into the work ahead. Knowing they were part of a lineage of Medicine Keepers created a profound sense of trust and belonging.
For many, at odds with their families and out-of-sync with religious codes, this was the first time they felt a part of something which stretched back through the ages, anchoring them to ancestral energy.
At my first herbal conference, I briefly met Juliette de Baïracli Levy. I was awestruck not because she was a world-renowned writer on herbs and veterinary practices but because she was the twice great-grandmother of the Medicine I carried in my heart. I would not be the woman I am today if Juliette, whom I never knew personally, hadn’t shared her wisdom.
Within the herbal community, a deep reverence is nurtured for lineage and the lessons only many years of living can distill. The wisdom keepers who carry and pass knowledge, teacher to student, generation to generation, are honored and cared for. The elders at that first herbal conference had trails of young people refreshing their tea, bringing them chairs, and running countless errands.
As I watch the influx of new healers and baby shamans on my Instagram and Facebook feeds, a large part of me rejoices. Knowing that this knowledge—seeded by so many hands over so many generations—is in full burgeoning bloom brings tears to my eyes.
…one which we’ve worked so hard to establish. When we don’t link ourselves into the chain of knowledge passed hand-to-hand we lack a sense of support, of groundedness, on our path.
We lose the awe and honor of being a trusted keeper of hard-won medicine passed generation to generation.
And perhaps most importantly, we lose the person who gently chides us to work harder, to learn deeper, and to explore the vast reaches of our consciousness and come into a better way of being.
It was late autumn in Ireland when I began seeing dead birds in the cow’s field. I was gathering hawthorn berries and noticed the small black bodies under the power line. I remember coming in the back door, shucking hat and boots and delivering a basket of berries to Gina.
There are dead birds under the power line, I reported. Maybe we should call the power company.
Gina looked up from where she was sorting the berries. You left them there? she asked.
Um, yes? I said wondering what the heck else I was supposed to do.
Take care of them, she instructed. It’s time you learned to deal with death.
Building a cairn for small broken bird bodies was as much a part of my studies as memorizing the Latin names of the members of the Rosaceae family.
These universal metaphors and symbols are powerful stuff. They awaken ancient knowings within us by mere exposure. Your teacher needn’t have decades of knowledge: if she shares with you a bit about the patterns of nature, your own inner-knowing will spark and you’ll find your way to deeper relationship.
This allows for democratization of wisdom: those who are but a step further on the path can turn back and help the next person in turn.
It is beautiful and a bit miraculous: the symbols are the keys and anyone can pass you a set.
When I look at gorgeous photos of herbal mandalas on Instagram or hear a friend’s excitement about learning essential oils from the Sales Team Leader at Big Name Essential Oil Company, I can’t help but wonder:
Who will insist she bury the birds to learn the lessons of life and death?
Who will call her to task when she steps out of integrity with herself?
Which ancestors will whisper secrets as she moves into the dark forests of her calling?
How do we assure connection to the lines of lineage and pass on the tradition of honoring the elders of our sacred tribe?
Ever Wondered “Can Natural Products Hurt Me?”
I got a call a few weeks back from a local restaurateur asking me if I had any idea how to help one of her waiters detox from Kratom.
Kratom is an Asian herb which has become popular in the past few years for pain. Her server had started taking it, without much research or thought, ’cause “hey, it’s natural!”
This type of flimsy reasoning makes my head spin and fire shoot from my bulging eyeballs. Really, people? Have you not heard of earthquakes, and poison mushrooms, and those nasty little spiders which lay their eggs under your skin? Whatever convinced you that nature is kind?
Thinking things are safe because they’re natural is an idea which has grown out of three things.
1. One hundred years of pharmaceutical companies campaigning hard to convince us that natural remedies are ineffective.
Why do they need us to believe this? Because they can’t patent an herb and, one hundred years ago, their competition was herbs and homeopathics. So we’re told that natural remedies don’t do much; what we really need is a patented and scientifically-proven drug.
They’ve done a great job with marketing! So much so that even people like you, who regularly use natural products, are muddle-headed about it: on the one hand, you believe they work. On the other hand, you’ve subconsciously bought into the drug companies’ schtick and it’s softened your view of the efficacy of natural products. Your conscious mind translates this mishmash as “natural products are safe.”
2. Living in places that are relatively tame.
Most of us no longer live in a world dominated by wild things, unless you count rats and humans who have gone feral. If you were foraging for food, you’d know for certain that Holly and Yew berries, despite being plump, pretty, and oh-so-natural, can kill you.
If you were a farmer and watched coyote eat your sheep and sat up at night with a cow sick from munching butterfly milkweed, you’d have no delusions that natural means safe.
3. Trusting experts instead of ourselves.
Another by-product of our current medical model is trusting experts to the point that, in a pinch or a hurry, we’re gonna trust someone else instead of thinking and aggressively researching for ourselves. We learned from a young age to listen to our doctor even if it went against the wisdom of our bodies.
Medically-speaking we’ve been conditioned to do as we’re told which, unfortunately, means we’re predisposed to give credence to some random-ass internet site.
These three proclivities are a dangerous combo ’cause I’ve got news for you:
Kratom, the herb I was called about, contains alkaloids in amounts similar to opium and to hallucinogenic mushrooms, which makes it no better for daily use than other opioids.
Here’s how I teach about the potency of different herbal preparations:
Imagine fire. Start with the smallest of flame, a lit match or a tea light. Now grow the flame to fill a lantern or fireplace. Finally, picture a glassblowing forge, heat crackling the air.
In terms of herbal products, your most gentle product—a flower essence—isn’t even the lit match. It’s a picture of fire. This energy medicine reminds your body that it knows fire, that it can remember how to be warm.
Next in strength is a tea or a vinegar, a gentle candle flame. It takes a lot of candles to light a room!
Then there’s tincture—alcohol extract—this is a hearth fire, capable of lighting a room and cooking your dinner. In other words, capable of catalyzing transformation.
Finally there are essential oils. These are concentrates. They’re the forge, able to melt metal and glass, to quickly shift substance from one form to another. While metaphorically speaking that sounds very exciting, I know you don’t actually want to melt your insides—some oils will do the equivalent of that if you ingest them.
The airborne volatiles from essential oils penetrate the mucus membranes in your nose and hit your bloodstream pretty quickly, which makes inhalation the preferred therapeutic method. I’m not gonna say you never want to ingest an essential oil but, because they’re a heavy-duty concentrate, you need a high level of knowledge to do this safely. If you’re not willing to put in the years of study to make these decisions from a place of wisdom, stick to inhaling!
Beyond preparation of the herbs, there’s the chemical composition of the plant itself.
This is were Kratom comes in. Alkaloids are pretty tough on the body for a number of reasons.
I think it’s important here to remind you who I am: Hi. My name’s Maia Toll, registered herbalist with The American Herbalists Guild. I own two herb stores—one in Philadelphia, one in Asheville—and an online shop at www.herbiary.com. I LOVE botanicals. I spent a year in Ireland studying with a traditional medicine woman and have taught everywhere from the jungles of Peru to the University of Pennsylvania. Most importantly: I don’t want you to be scared. I want you to be smart.
A few days back, I got an email from a past student who is creating an herb and permaculture program for the prison system. She wrote “the act of making medicine from something you grow is a profoundly powerful act of self care.” I couldn’t agree more.
Something deep, profound, and ancient happens when you step into this medicine with your mind and your heart, your body and your soul.
Botanical medicine is an entry into alchemy. It’s a way to remember yourself and to re-engage with healing on all levels.
I invite you to step into this wisdom. To remember that plants have personalities and potencies, just like people. Nature is a myriad of things: kind is only one possibility.
I always love to hear from you: scroll down to share your experience working with plant medicine.