(Originally published, January, 2016)
Suddenly, everyone was asking me what to do with their herbs, or how they should heal themselves, or what this herb, or that herb, was used for. I felt perplexed, yet empowered. I could scarcely believe I was who they thought I was. “What did I know, anyway?” I spoke to myself, disparagingly, in moments of doubt.
As they asked again I would smile and laugh with an air of wisdom, yet a deep disbelief in what I was to tell them, “I really don’t know much about plants. I’m just learning.” “Ah, but you know, Juanito. It’s different. We’re all learning. But you can see.” I couldn’t argue with them. They were there right beside me as the medicine man gave his proclamation.
However, I was the one most unnerved by it all. A shock ran deep within me, my spine became electrified, and I suddenly felt naked and bare, as if people could see right through me. I didn’t want to believe in what they were gathered for – I saw myself as separate. “This is not my place,” I thought. In fact, he had not run the egg over me, only the others in the circle. I had not yet been accepted into the group. Yet the feelings were undeniable. I was fiercely impacted by the medicine man’s actions and statements. And, to be honest, there was a ring of truth to it. I had been exploring working with herbs for several years. Completely on my own with no one to share in the joy of it – at least at first. Something from deep within was inspiring me.
In fact, it was not a simple choice. I had to travel beyond cultural and political boundaries to even encounter it. There was hardly anyone in all of my circles that I could relate to in this way. I had met one person who used herbs. One person. He had learned about some herbs in a nutritional program he’d attended in Manhattan. He had told me about yucca root for my knee pain. I followed the lead… or the golden thread, rather. It was not so apparent to me at the time that this was a ‘golden thread’ (isn’t that the way?).
I was struggling, daily, to find purpose, to hold my head up. I couldn’t go to sleep before I had at least a few beers. I was feeling lost. I got a DUI. I had just broken up with the girl I loved and moved out on my own. I was regularly depressed. But from deep within, there was something stirring. I was at the precipice. Each day, as I watched the sun set to the West between the Twin Towers of lower Manhattan I could feel the pull westward. There was a force calling me into the unknown, agitating my inner core towards movement in a new direction. My dreams were active, but I was allergic to my environment. I had very little relationship to my home, to the natural world, as I lived in an intensely urban environment. All of this was to shift and change as I moved myself across the earth in surrender; humbly, blindly following. I had a great and terrible journey ahead, but a journey I had to make.
Bill was wearing a bright red cloth over his head while hunched cross-legged before the tiny fire. Small, round rocks were painted red, white, yellow, and black and placed at the 4 Directions. Words were spoken in Spanish as well as a Mayan dialect. Something in me felt…. uneasy. As if a change was afoot, something I could not control, much larger than myself and charged with the power of unseen forces. The young medicine man-in training who had invited me to this ceremony moved around the circle in prayer and incantation while hovering an egg over the surface of each person’s body – except for me. He finished his work with the group in short time.
After several moments of silence, a grumbling came from beneath the red cloth. Before two words were spoken, I was startled by the explosive uncovering of his face to follow the pointing of his right index finger directly at me. The entire group was startled by this. “And I don’t know who this man is…!” – I was already beginning to feel fear, guilt, and apprehension creep in – “… but we know each other from some distant time, distant place, from the past. We were healers. You know about plants, you know how to work with them for healing. That is your way. We come from Pleiades… and we are only now reunited.” Now I was frozen stiff. Struck deeply by what he had said but, further, how it had resonated within me. Somehow his forceful words caused me to relax. He continued, “You didn’t just know what the plants were good for, but you understood how to heal with the plants – their energetic blueprint.” I was beginning to feel like I was floating above the earth, hovering, in shock. All eyes were on me. I wanted to hide. I thought this man was a freak. My programming kicked in and internal judgements began to isolate this occurrence so that I wouldn’t allow it to affect me. I was in a state of internal conflict as a consequence of his statements. “That is what I see,” he said.
The shock subsided and I allowed myself to explore this invitation to be who I am, without judgement; in fact, with support and admiration coming from my newfound peers. The energy stirred within me in this narrow, high elevation canyon looking straight up at the Cuchumatán Altiplano over 13,000 feet. I was told this was the valle de los chamánes and that many came here from miles around for healing, for the power present within these canyons. I went to what I already knew: movement. As the drummer played, I danced the capoeira on the rooftops allowing these feelings the space to move through me, snakelike, upside-down, and inside then out again… for the power to find its way. This was my ritual. Like Born for Water (from what I had read about in the Navajo Creation Myths) he had been cast out into the natural world to be raised in the wild, to find his way, while Monster Slayer stayed within the hoogan receiving the care and nurturance from Changing Woman, his mother, I, too was to find my own way in the wilds of these foreign lands.
I began spending my afternoons each day on the wooded slopes of a nearby canyon. Something pulled me to be there. I went on my own accord. The smell and feel of the soft pine needle duff was comforting, but the exercises I engaged in were arduous. I was often frightened to be there. I often found myself making excuses to not be there, or delay arriving. I felt alive when I was there, and as if I could be there fully engaging with life, endlessly. There was also delight in visiting the plant friends I was coming to know – by there Mam names and usage, their sight, smell, and subtle characteristics. Despite being on an accelerated path, this felt like a new beginning. As out of place as I was, and as unwelcome as I may have been, I was finally beginning to feel ‘at home.’
This sense of feeling ‘at home’ is an essential aspect of the bioregional herbalist’s approach. True, this term “bioregional herbalist” has a certain coldness to it, a formality, which belies the actual warmth and fluidity present within the feeling of connection to place which is embodied. But it’s my best (most widely understood) language to describe the position. For it’s inherent to place, and within this place exist plants, and these plants inherently relate to their place, and this place responds to, limits, and creates its plants, and this continual feedback is a greater part of the energy of the place. To step into this dance of Gaia’s creation is to become a true participant – an active player. To truly be “a part of it” one must continually respond through relation. Here is the spirit of the art, the source of inspiration and the gifts with which to express it all in one continuous flow.
The herbalist, one who relates with plants, goes out, participates, seeks, follows, expresses, then carries back, creates, responds, and shares. More feedback follows which informs the next steps – each one new and unique. As more people are brought into the feedback loop (people experiencing plants), the relationship deepens and strengthens, continuously. The inherent information within the experience is exponentially expanding – a living, growing self-organizing whole, continually evolving. As representation takes on new forms, the relationship of the person to the plants continually evolves, expanding and contracting.
Observing someone who has developed relationship with plants can be an incredibly eye-opening experience for those who have not. It certainly was for me. A glimpse of an entirely new world emerges where it once lay hidden in the background. As the process continues, a league of allies, teachers, confidantes, healers, and providers are now occupying your awareness when they most recently did not even exist. This is what began to open and expand for me in a new way in that “valley of shamans” of Todos Santos, Guatemala.