2014: New Growth on the Horizon

Every autumn when I assess my feelings around what I’ve been doing, I often come to the conclusion that whatever I’ve been doing is “never enough.” Seldom have I felt that wherever I am is exactly where I am supposed to be. Is this feeling of “never enough” a particular—and peculiar—artifact of Western culture or, more specifically, American culture?

Not 2010! Not as much snow...yet, but lots of growth predicted.

Not 2010! Not as much snow…yet, but lots of growth predicted.

In my life, I have found it difficult to step outside of the existing culture, but more and more, I know I need to. The culture at-large does not tend to support anyone who feels content with their life.

Living outside Washington, D.C., I am ever-cognizant of the hustle-bustle involved in “the American way of life,” in which discontentment plays a starring role. I used to participate more fully in that way of life, having had a decent-paying job, having spent about a third of what I earned on rent (many people spend much more than a third). When I moved to Annapolis, I then spent a minimum of an hour, often more, commuting to that job in Virginia. I did not enjoy driving; it seemed like a colossal waste of time, and yet, I felt I had to. I felt caught in a bind and as the months of commuting went on, I grew angrier.

That said, as long as I was learning something new, I enjoyed the work. And I enjoyed other benefits: having money to hear live jazz, money to take whatever classes I wanted to take, paid vacation, money for a painting now and then.

I’ve experienced a see-saw effect between that life and the one I now live: It’s as if when I had more money, I had larger holes to fill and I filled them with incessant activity or spending on things I thought could fill the holes. Now, I work to examine the holes, be with them, shift my patterns into viewing myself as whole and healed—as the way God or Creator sees us humans.

Sandhill cranes...and other animals just are. How can we two-leggeds just be?

Sandhill cranes…and other animals just are. How can we two-leggeds just be?

This is not easy work, but it is the most important. If I still had that job and that commute, I probably wouldn’t be doing this inner work and, moreover, I would not be attempting to find or do work that I enjoy.

Life to me is a continual cracking-open of our hearts, which is meant to soften our hard edges, make us more vulnerable so they we can experience greater intimacy, with ourselves and in turn, with others and with Spirit. The cracking-open happens through our experiencing our own difficulties as well as those of others. It comes through pain and suffering, and yet we, especially Americans, I think, have quite a dualistic view of suffering: It’s horrible or it’s great. Seldom is there a middle way when it comes to suffering. We don’t want to suffer and we don’t want to see others suffer. Or, in some intellectual way, we know we need to suffer, but it remains an exercise of the mind while the heart goes untouched, because we are still protective of our hearts.

At this time, for me, everything is up in the air. It’s like the dry snow outside, swirling on eddies of wind large and small. Lately, I’ve explored a little of farming, something I’ve wanted to do since I was very young. I’ve learned that cheesemaking doesn’t necessarily resonate with me, at least on a commercial scale. I know I’d like to learn more about greenhouses and chickens. I know from what I’ve seen and the stories of friends who farm that it is especially difficult to make any kind of living that way and, maybe even worse for those who concern themselves with inner work as I do, there’s little time. So, I don’t know what will happen in that arena.

When I set out to be an herbalist, I had this idea that I just wanted to practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. They call it a practice because the practitioner never knows everything, everything that can help herself or her clients, but you practice, so you constantly learn. I thought it would be practical enough to build a business around herbalism.joe_pye_composite_icon_final_Web

But what I discovered is that many people don’t necessarily know what an herbalist is or what an herbalist does. Perhaps they believe that we have a particular “plant of choice,” such as marijuana—which, at least for this herbalist, could not be further from the truth. I like weeds—nettles, dandelion, plantain, plants accessible to most everyone, if they know what to look for.

I finish 2013 unsure how I can best help to educate people as to what herbalists do, I guess because for me, herbalism is akin to ecology and akin to permaculture; it’s a way of looking at life and at health, of looking at death and illness, of trying to understand how best to support oneself and others in the most healthful way possible, the most whole/holy way possible.

How can I help people get interested in making their own medicine—especially if the kind of medicine I’m talking about may not have anything at all to do with dandelion root, and everything to do with having an intimate conversation with a friend or family member?

How should I market what I do? How should I charge for it? What I do is energy-intensive, because it’s my goal with every client to be present to that person, to give her or him my full presence. Can anyone put a price on that kind of energy?

As I said, at this time, everything is up in the air. I’ve long viewed my business as an extension of all of the work that I do—the work on myself, the work in the garden, the work with family and friends. In 2014, I’d like to spread the word about herbalism, about the permaculture principles of Earth care/people care/fair share. I want to increase my sense of community where I live—to find people with whom I can garden and wildcraft. I have some new health and plant-medicine activities that I’ll share in the coming weeks. I expect that I’ll write more about health. I am open to what comes. I know whatever comes will be an adventure and, ultimately, fun.

Sometimes medicine is experienced just by being with a plant, such as castor.

Sometimes medicine is experienced just by being with a plant, such as castor, a pet, a place, or a person.

If you live in the Annapolis, Md., area and want to learn more about herbalism or want to focus on what your health means for you, please send me a note by e-mail at artofearth@yahoo.com. If you’d like to hear more about the activities of Art of Earth, you can join my e-mail list. I don’t bombard anyone with e-mail, though I do send out more e-mail if there’s a scheduled event. If you find it’s not for you, you can opt-out anytime.

I wish you a happy, healthy, soulfully prosperous 2014. Most of all, I wish you love and peace.

Cascade Anderson Geller: A Tribute

I knew about herbalist, teacher and all-around good soul Cascade Anderson Geller long before I’d ever met her. It was in passing, in a class my teacher Kathleen Maier was conducting, after an herb conference she had attended. I cannot recall exactly what Kathleen said, but whatever it was, I knew that someday, I wanted to take a class with Cascade. Even transmitted through another person, she just sounded wise, knowledgeable and kind.

Mostly, I wanted to go on a plant walk with her and I got that opportunity in 2011 at the International Herb Symposium when she led a walk through the woods on the campus of Wheaton College in Norton, Mass.

I am sorry that I and other herbalists—long-time or aspiring—and just anyone who cares about Earth will no longer have the opportunity to meet, see, listen to or spend time with Cascade. She journeyed to the ancestors last Saturday. I was stunned when I heard this, because it’s so hard to believe that someone with such vitality could be there and then, not there. So, I’d like to share some of the things I learned from Cascade, because these kinds of things need to be shared and because it is a fitting way to honor her.

Cascade Anderson Geller at the ruins of Inca Pirca, Ecuador, February 2012

Cascade Anderson Geller at the ruins of Inca Pirca, Ecuador, February 2012

On that walk at Wheaton, it was immediately obvious that Cascade loved trees—and for good reason, for, as she pointed out, they have long provided humans with some of the safest medicine around. She approached a witch hazel, which had galls in the leaves. These galls are made by a wasp. She explained how the leaves with galls would actually be higher in medicine, tannins perhaps, than others, because of the tree’s production of secondary metabolites—the things a plant typically makes to defend itself and which humans often use medicinally.

Tannins, she said, are a good place to start in one’s herbal education. So, if you have poison ivy, she said, you can make a strong black tea or a witch hazel wash. Both are high in tannins and “tannins precipitate proteins,” which means they form a seal or a scab.

So, trees/shrubs are the “first line of protection” and most are ‘non-toxic.’

Speaking of “toxic,” Cascade related a story from a 1996 visit to Ecuador. The group was visiting a shaman and someone asked a question about psychoactive plants and which were “toxic.”

The shaman had nothing to say…at the time.

The next day, though, he came back with, “No toxic plants—only fools.” In other words, know what you’re doing when you’re using plants in any way, even if you’re using them for food.

Cascade shared many such stories and I was fortunate in February 2012 to be able to travel with her, herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, and Kathleen Maier on a visit to Ecuador co-led by ethnobotanist/herbalist Rocio Alarcon, a native of Ecuador. I had many a “back of the bus” conversation with Cascade, who spoke about the importance of activism within the herbal community and the natural products industry. In fact, that was the subject of the last talk of hers I attended at the Medicine of the People conference (a.k.a. Herbal Resurgence) near Flagstaff, Ariz., last year. Cascade’s activism—whether on behalf of plants or people or the waters of her adopted home town of Portland, Oreg.—was a reflection of her deep love for this place we call home.

Cascade, Rosemary Gladstar and Rocio Alarcon, Ecuador, February 2012.

Cascade, Rosemary Gladstar and Rocio Alarcon, Ecuador, February 2012.

I’d like to share some of the things I learned from Cascade:

“If you have nature, you have your life—no matter what happens.”

Speaking of the protective waxy cuticle that trees and shrubs form early in the spring season: “Wax before going into the sun; people learned from plants.”

On the “courting” relationship of human and plant: Say, “ ‘I’m interested in you. Would you like to share your medicine?’” This is a daily practice, Cascade said. “What’s necessary is the heart connection—learning how to ask the right questions. And just like a child again—start over.”

“ ‘The most important thing for human beings is to sing and dance,’” she said, quoting an Ecuador shaman.

On harvesting plant medicines: “Don’t pick the first—bless it. Take some good, leave some good.”

The oil from poison ivy can stay viable up to five years, she said. If you’re harvesting in an area full of poison ivy, be sure to bring along some isopropyl alcohol and make sure you wipe everything down once you return to the car.

Hot water makes a better extractor for things that fight infection, she said.

Cascade recounted how growing up in her household, someone with a headache would have their head wrapped. She said they would use sassafras leaves to encircle the head, but that we could also use lobelia or tobacco leaves, and then wrap the head with a “headache scarf.” This was not only to help resolve the headache, but also to indicate that the person wearing the scarf was not feeling well and should be left to rest.

About marijuana as medicine, Cascade said it was “Not taken by smoke. There was no smoking in the old world that we can find.” The chillum pipe, she said, was designed by Caribbean Island Indians and was used in Asia for opium, where they would “eat smoke.” The point of smoke was communication: You would inhale and ask a question and release the question in the smoke. Instead, medicinal use of marijuana involved extracting the medicine in fat—“whatever was high-quality fat of the land,” she said, and this could have been an herbal oil. This, Cascade said, was taken by rectal or vaginal injection. Taken orally, it broke into its components and was “more confusing,” so Cannabis tinctures are not as effective.

For heat stroke, she noted that it’s helpful to make sunflower seed tea with honey, with slightly crushed seeds, soaked for 15-20 minutes minimum or overnight.

So many more teachings of Cascade’s I could share. But perhaps the greatest one was her simple presence. On our last full day in Cuenca, Ecuador, after I and many others of our group had not been feeling well, I awoke early feeling better. I wanted to go out and have a look around.

This night-blooming cereus grew in the courtyard of a convent in Quito, which was our "home base" in Ecuador. This was one of many plants we met that Cascade seemed to really love.

This night-blooming cereus grew in the courtyard of a convent in Quito, which was our “home base” in Ecuador. This was one of many plants we met that Cascade seemed to really love.

Cascade was up, too, and we ended up walking to a church on a hill. It was too small to be called a cathedral, but more ornate than a simple church. It was Carnival season and a band outside the church was playing jazz. We popped in to have a look and just be, but that whole time I was with her was about just being.

I know many others, no matter how much or how little time they spent with Cascade, feel the same. Such a loss for our herbal and Earth-loving community. And yet, those of us who take this presence we felt—and feel in our memories—to heart have a huge opportunity to carry on Cascade’s work and her Spirit.

My heart goes out to Cascade family, to her husband and children. And love to you, Cascade, and the kindest and sweetest of blessings on your journey.