The Ecological Reclamation of the Self

In each of us, there are hidden, often unexamined, motives for why we are the way we are, why we become the people we become.

Stephen Harrod Buhner

Stephen Harrod Buhner taught recently at a workshop on the Gaian mind outside Charlottesville, Va.

After spending a weekend in early June with Stephen Harrod Buhner, author, herbalist, psychotherapist, teacher, generous spirit and more, I realize I need to examine just how much of my life has been driven not only by a desire not to suffer, but moreover not to see or feel others suffer.

A lot of healers, many people who serve as caregivers in our culture, likely have the desire not to see or feel others suffer as an overriding (or underlying) motivation, whether they care much or little about their own suffering.

I have no doubt that I’ve struggled with this my whole life: Why do bad things happen? A younger version of me wrote about the rights of crime victims on behalf of an academic publisher, and I was, during that time, intensely interested in why certain people were vulnerable to the actions of others. Another younger me was also intrigued by the culture of Russians—by their writers and artists and musicians—those people who seemed to be able to feel deeply around suffering and not have those feelings destroy them. I believe the act of creating something out of that suffering is what allowed many of them to continue living.

Suffering as a Window on Feeling
If I poke a little deeper around the issue of not wanting to suffer and not wanting to witness the suffering of others, I believe it is because it upsets us to feel. It upsets us to feel deeply, especially when the feelings are those of suffering. Take any tragedy—something that could have been prevented—Newtown or Columbine, 9/11 or the disasters involving the Challenger or Columbia space shuttles, or even the ongoing shredding of the fabric of life that manifests as habitat destruction, chemical contamination, pharmaceutical runoff, take any of these and ask yourself: How long can you “sit’ with the feelings these things stir in you? How long before you want to look away, before you go back to checking your e-mail or planning your next getaway?

My impulse is to try to distinguish between needless suffering and suffering that cannot be prevented (my way of looking away!). But where is that line?

The example that kept running through my head during Buhner’s workshop was that of Anniston, Alabama, and the residents who’ve lived with contamination by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) for decades and suffered untold amounts of cancers and death because of a coverup and lack of accountability by Monsanto. History and our current times are littered with such examples.

Part of Buhner’s “consumer warning” to those who attended his workshop was that we would have certain of our deeply held beliefs shaken. My beliefs around needless suffering were among the parts of me that were shaken.

“Gaia is not afraid of death,” Buhner said. “Suffering is built into the system. Because death is inherent, so is suffering—it’s what allows innovation [Buhner’s word for evolution]. You cannot avoid suffering.

“Part of the function of people who are older is to live in balance with suffering—it gives young people hope. Safety doesn’t exist. Shit happens.”

“You have to let the world have its own suffering,” says Buhner.

By degrees, I suspect I will learn how to let go, not of caring, for what kind of human doesn’t care? But to be able to feel through sadness and darkness and emerge more whole, less fragmented because of being able to feel. In fact, learning how to feel initially creates more fragmentation within us. Learning how to interpret what we feel is what helps us piece ourselves together.

Our ability to feel is what allow us as a species to innovate—to be able to adapt. If we do not change, Buhner says, we become caricatures of humans. Being able to feel forms the basis for what Buhner calls the “ecological reclamation of the self.”

What shreds the fabric of life is ecological degradation. Habitat destruction is probably the key here, because various species, large and small, need a certain amount of habitat in which to live—to breathe, to attain sustenance, to be able to defecate without fouling the nest, to be able to reproduce, to be able to raise their young.

The nonprofit Appalachian Voices focuses on minimizing the impacts of coal in Appalachia and improving the prospects for clean forms of energy. Visit them at

The nonprofit Appalachian Voices focuses on minimizing the impacts of coal in Appalachia and improving the prospects for clean forms of energy. Visit them at

Humans, too, face habitat destruction. Certainly, whatever we do to Earth—in terms of changing biology and physiology, changing the chemical and hormonal makeup, even changing the geology—we do to ourselves.

But our self-destruction doesn’t stop there. In fact, what is more sinister and more devastating for us is the metaphysical self-fragmentation that goes along with the physical destruction of the planet. The more we fragment Earth, the more we ourselves become fragmented.

The way out is to work on becoming whole humans, to focus on the ecological reclamation of the self. And the way to do that is by learning to feel…to feel everything.

Working with Earlier Ego States—a.k.a. the Inner Children
If there is a key to being able to flow through feelings and allow them to flow through us, it is no doubt because of the inner work we do or the activities that allow us to enhance and expand our perceptions of the world around us—a walk in the woods while being fully present to all that is, or playing music or painting. We may think we know the world around us, but what do we really know?

Those who’ve grown up embedded in Western civilization are the children of the philosopher Descartes. Most of us have inherited his great misperception: “I think, therefore I am.” But it is time for us to mature, to move beyond this great fallacy, to connect with our hearts and to continue to deepen that connection. What would it be like instead to live in the mode of “I feel, therefore I am”?

No one said choosing such a path is easy. It’s hard to detach from the culture you’ve known your whole life. One method Buhner has used to be able to feel and be fully present is through working with earlier ego states. He spent 15 years, day in and day out, working with his inner children through each stage of development, allowing each one its voice and providing it the nurturing that his adult self can offer.

Going back in time, always with the question, “How does it feel?”, each feeling a variant on “mad, sad, glad, or scared”, this work allows openings in our “sensory gating channels”—the channels through which our perceptions and the meanings we derive from them are mediated.

Pine was one of five plants Buhner gave workshop participants the opportunity to "sit" with. Those who sat with pine almost universally reported feeling calm and peaceful in the presence of this tree.

Pine was one of four plants Buhner gave workshop participants the opportunity to “sit” with. Those who sat with pine almost universally reported feeling calm and peaceful in the presence of this tree.

“The narrower the gating, the less meaning [we experience],” he says. “The wider the gating, the more meaning.”

In the past, spending time in nature has helped me to open the sensory gates. And more recently, inner-child work has begun to bring changes to my perceptions of life as well as more meaning into my life.

I find it’s not always easy to talk to my “children.” Certain of them are stronger and louder than others; certain don’t seem to want to talk to me at all while others don’t want to stop talking. Despite the challenges, the importance of doing this work is clear to me, especially after spending some time with Buhner. The aisthesis—or heart-feeling-sense—in the room during his workshop could only have been as deep as it was because he had done that work and because we were interested in doing that work. I loved experiencing that feeling—it was one of comfort, of feeling safe enough to explore aspects of myself that are not often comfortable to explore. I hope to try to, though the inner-children work, maintain that kind of feeling.

Becoming Whole
If we look around us and we are completely honest, we see lots of people—holey people—who try to fill their holes by investing everything in their identities, or by buying things they don’t really need, or by chasing after new and different people with whom they want a relationship, however brief.

I’d guess most of us know about this. I sure do. I know because I used to be that way. My identity was tied up with my hobbies and interests. I used to buy art in order to, as Buhner might say, try to hang onto someone else’s aisthesis (or heart-feeling-sense), whatever glow emanated from the painting the painter had set down on paper or canvas.

But we each have our own heart-feeling-senses. We each have the ability to become whole. If we are to really grow—to conduct our own ecological reclamation of our selves—we’re going to have to make the time to do this work, the work of courting our heart-feelings. It’s long work and hard, but it’s probably the most important work we can do as a species.

Doing this work reinforces something that Buhner said, something that is coming to be second-nature and will eventually feel as though it emerged with me from the womb: “Just because we were abandoned does not mean we have to abandon ourselves.”

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.

Self-Care Tip #4: Crock Pot, Star of the Kitchen

As my beloved and I embark on a slightly different way of eating, I am reminded of the importance of my seven-quart crock pot. It’s been a good friend to me, cooking up delicious broths (vegetable, chicken, and beef bone) year after year. Occasionally, when I’m feeling unwell, I eat some of the chicken broth. But generally speaking, all of the broth (or stock) goes into making soups that we’ve come to love. In the weeks ahead, I expect to be making more soups as we eliminate grains and dairy and add even more greens and veggies.

If you’ve never made stock in a crock pot, I ask you: What are you waiting for?!

The process I’m about to describe calls for chicken, but I’ve also made mirepoix and beef broth. Any of these are easy.

This one yields stock on hand, anywhere from 3 to 5 quarts, depending on bird size, for a variety of uses, plus leftover chicken that can be made into chicken salad. Folks may have other ideas about how to use the meat (and I’d love to hear from you about how you use leftover chicken), but this is the best way I have found.

Here’s how I make stock (the crock pot, of course, does 80 percent of the work!):

Place a whole chicken in the crock pot. (I include heads and feet whenever I have them. They add collagen and make for a richer stock.)


We got this chicken from P.A. Bowen Farmstead in Southern P.G. County. These birds are not fed soy and roam on pasture.

Add apple cider vinegar. I use at least two and sometimes three or four large spoonfuls. The vinegar helps to draw minerals out of the bones.

I generally use an organic apple cider vinegar for this step.

I generally use an organic apple cider vinegar for this step.

Add water to cover. Usually, the water does not quite cover the entire bird, but it’s pretty close. I am careful not to overfill the crock after having had some greasy mishaps.

We use a Berkey dual-stage filter to take the chlorine and fluoride out of our water.

We use a Berkey dual-stage filter to take the chlorine and fluoride out of our water.

Cook on low setting for 10 to 12 hours. Others say to cook the bird longer, but this is what I’ve found works best for me.

Once the cook time is up, I move the ceramic pot into the fridge where it can cool. (I have also taken up the stock immediately, pouring it into glass jars that I then let cool in the fridge. But I’ve gotten a little lazy, so letting the bird and stock cool in the ceramic pot is a happy compromise.)


It’s a slimy job, but somebody’s gotta do it!

When cool, take out the bird and pick. We remove the skin and the bones.

Many soups call for one or two quarts of stock. These containers make it easy to measure those amounts…or approximate, which is what I usually do.

Ladle the chilled stock into quart-sized plastic tubs. I don’t much care for plastic, but this is what has worked for us. Someday, when I have time, I will experiment with filling glass jars half-full with stock and freezing those. I’ve heard it works, but you have to be very careful about not filling too much lest the glass breaks.

Label the tubs and freeze.

Once the chicken has been picked, make chicken salad.

I almost always use tarragon in chicken salad.

I do this by shredding the chicken into smaller pieces, blending in the spices (tarragon, curry powder, coriander) and salt to taste, cutting up and blending in apples, along with the all-important mayo. We may look for something else to use in lieu of the mayo on the new diet.

A “side” effect of chicken stock!

It is wonderful to have a ready supply of stock on hand when the soup-bug bites! You can also make medicinal broth with the addition of various herbs and mushrooms. It’s nice to freeze these and have them ready to be thawed when someone comes down with cold or flu.

P.A. Bowen Farmstead in Brandywine, Maryland, is a grass-based farm that offers soy-free, pastured poultry and eggs, among many other pasture-raised animal foods.

Barriers to Self-Care, Continued

This is the second of a two-part article. The first can be found here.

Seasonal depression—or plain old depression. This is a tough one, because it touches on all levels of a person’s being, not just the emotional/mental, but the body’s physiologic processes, the spirit and sexuality. If not addressed quickly, one ends up in a vicious circle where there’s no physical energy to do much of anything. Then, that lack of motivation feeds back into the other aspects of oneself, further depressing the body, etc. Aside from standard treatment—which may involve overprescribed meds that don’t really address the underlying causes—what can one do?

I can speak only for me in this. When I get the blues, my go-to is often music—listening and singing, sometimes dancing. Sound is a vibration powerful enough to shift our perspective, and some people practice sound healing and music therapy, both of which may include the use of singing bowls. I don’t have singing bowls—though they are lovely!—nor am I a music therapist. What I have found that works for me runs the gamut from Jimi Hendrix’s Drivin’ South to songs by Heart. If I have the energy to get up and listen to these and to dance or sing, then I am generally all right. (I listen to sad songs if I feel I need the catharsis of tears—Poulenc or Janacek, or the Duke Ellington/Mahalia Jackson version of “Come Sunday.”)

If I can make it out the door, my other go-to’s are walking and observing nature. The latter I do most of the time, anyway, and it seldom fails that I don’t see something that lifts my spirits…usually in the form of winged creatures: turkey vultures riding thermals, robins running, wrens picking at berries, cardinals cleaning themselves.

The kinds of distractions I love include watching the interaction between insects (honeybees, in this case) and plants like this meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria).

The kinds of “distractions” I love include watching the interaction between insects (honeybees, in this case) and plants like this meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria).

When I stay indoors, whatever pall I may be working under also tends to stay put.

Sometimes having commitments to others also helps to pull us out of our funk, so having regular activities can be helpful in combating the blues.

But now and then, we just need to feel sad and to know that that is all right. The pain often moves us in a direction different from the one we were going. Giving ourselves the space to feel down can be part of good self-care.

Distractions. Funny, I was distracted by something when writing this post, something I can’t remember that seduced my attention away from the screen (maybe another screen?). It’s easy to be hard on ourselves when it comes to this one, but let’s put this in perspective: Our ancestors would not know what to do with all the things that demand our attention. This is something we need to evolve through, to choose between what we allow ourselves to be distracted by and what we don’t. Not easy. Especially if it’s one of those, “Oh, this will just take a minute” kinds of things: answering a text or e-mail or taking on a chore that we think will only take a few minutes.

Maybe the best thing to do here would be to give regular attention to our self-care. Maybe it’s a small thing: Washing and cutting up leafy greens for supper the next night, or taking five minutes to clean up part of our space. But the point is to just do one thing toward our self-care every day.

“I’ll start tomorrow.” Why wait? You are worth starting today. This is one that has stumped me from the standpoint of concern that I will fail—that tomorrow will come and I won’t be able to continue something I started today. But this sort of thinking gets us in trouble, because we could also start something that would feel so good to us—a bath or a foot soak—that we’ll want to make sure we do it again, if not the next day, then soon. Any care we show ourselves, our body appreciates.

Sometimes, things cannot wait. I don't mind sharing some figs with ants, but it seems somehow disrespectful not to pick them and eat them. They are such a gift! This, too, can be an example of good self-care.

Sometimes, things cannot wait. I don’t mind sharing some figs with ants, but it seems somehow disrespectful not to pick them and eat them. They are such a gift! Harvesting and enjoying them can be an example of good self-care.

“I don’t know how.” This one gets back to self-intimacy. But if you really don’t know, look to people and resources in your community, for they are there. Annapolis has people who can teach you to meditate, people who can show you how to care for your skin, how to eat well, get movement into your life, laugh and have fun.

Inability to ask. As a former reporter, I take for granted my ability to ask questions. But asking for help? That never has come easily. Most of this is pride, no doubt: If I can’t handle something myself, doesn’t that make me weak? Lesser, somehow? There’s also a “pride of ownership” involved in trying to do everything oneself.

It often takes greater self-assuredness and self-knowledge to know when we need help and to be able to ask. We truly have only so much time, so asking someone for help with something they are skilled in and we are not helps us become more integrated, both into our communities but also with ourselves.

Ultimately, self-care arises, I believe, from healthy self-love, and it is through acts of self-care that we grow our love for ourselves. Like a depression spiral, developing the process of caring for ourselves and loving ourselves is self-reinforcing. It often goes against all the imagery we see around us, but the images—whether of elite athletes or supermodels—are false. Our bodies are not machines, to be used up, then taken in for some work, then put back “on the road.” It is for us to learn to work with our bodies—and all they contain—not to override them until they wear out.

Self-Care Tip #2: Coconut Oil, Meet Mary Poppins!

We all have bacteria in our mouths, and many people suffer—sometimes unknowingly—from systemic oral infections. Gingivitis (gum disease) and periodontal disease are our most prevalent forms of microbial infection. Left unchecked, they kill. Who among us was not touched by the story of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year old from Prince George’s County who lacked access to dental care and whose untreated tooth abscess led to his death following an infection that spread to his brain?

Aside from the usual tips—brushing and flossing after meals—there’s a fairly easy way to clear up oral infections and, in the process, actually protect other areas of the body, including the brain and heart, and turn around certain illnesses.

The way is oil pulling, which comes from Ayurvedic medicine and is an old method. Various oils have been used over time, but coconut oil works best, says Bruce Fife, N.D. in Stop Alzheimer’s Now! How to Prevent and Reverse Dementia, Parkinson’s, ALS, Multiple Sclerosis, and Other Neurodegenerative Disorders. (Fife also has published a book specifically on coconut oil pulling.)SpoonfulCoconutOil

Just a Spoonful of Coconut Oil…

First thing in the morning, before breakfast, put a spoonful of coconut oil into your mouth and begin to swish it around. Don’t gargle! You do this for 15 to 20 minutes. Although this seems like a long time, it goes quickly when combining this with other things. Oil pulling has worked best for me when I’ve combined the swishing with washing pans or preparing breakfast or lunch. Just like the oil in your car’s engine, the coconut oil “sucks up bacteria, toxins, pus, and mucous,” says Fife. When finished swishing, spit the oil into the trash—do not swallow! Spitting it into the sink may clog the drain over time.

You can use oil pulling two or three times a day. Just make sure you do it before meals on an empty stomach.

Taking oil into the mouth this way will certainly feel uncomfortable at first. But stick with it, for at least a week. People who have done oil pulling have reported seeing progress, a little every day.