Wrapped in Nature: Tuning into the Language of Healing

Horse Chestnut flowers. Do you see the elephant heads?

This morning in late spring, rain falls with abundance and blessing. The plants continue their upward, outward surge. California poppies in cheerful petal-flame, the fireworks blossoming of Hawthorn, the cream-and-pink spires of the Horse Chestnut (shaped like tiny elephant heads!), the purple spires of Lupine. The field swells green, and as the earth welcomes dawn, the song birds erupt into music, weaving the landscape with this aural water.

Spring is well in motion, and has been for weeks now. Plants we harvested for spring cleansing and tonics (Nettles, Cleavers, Dandelion flowers, Violet flowers, Dead Nettle — or the name I prefer, Purple Archangel) are past their season. Red Elderflower harvest is also past — the time for Red Elder’s flowering is especially brief.

Douglas-fir spring tips

The young Douglas-fir needles are perfect for harvest, vibrant sunny-green, soft, pungent and flavorful, losing the bitter, sharp, and supremely astringent qualities of their earlier growth. Pluck some and dry them for a lovely addition to your spring teas, or for winter respiratory support. Add spring tips to your coffee as you make it, and then add a dash of honey, for a delicious and unusual Doug-fir spring tips coffee drink.

The days continue to lengthen, and we here in the Pacific Northwest have had stretches of heat. But with the rain’s return today, I might characterize the day, and perhaps even still the season in this way:

Moist
Warm
In movement upward and outward, yet still with some containment
Vibrant, alive, joyous

In addition to Douglas-fir spring needles, I have much to harvest at this time — wonderful plants whose expressiveness I wish to capture right now in order to bring their qualities forth half a year from now: Thyme and Garden Sage flowering tops in honey for a bit of spring lightness and cheer, plus the anti-viral, aromatic, respiratory supportive qualities of these plants to offer bodymind support in the cold and boggy times.

The plants themselves beckon to me to create with them, inventing new formulas that will bring forward some healing nature of this warm, moist, vibrant, enlivened season to aid us when we are in an opposite expression of nature — whether in terms of the land or in terms of our own physical-spiritual bodies. A certain strength and fecund beauty strides through the land right now, and I understand how Beltane/May Day is a celebration of fertility, and of the strength, beauty, and power of masculine and feminine energies.

Lupine.

Hildegard of Bingen’s sense of viriditas is so apparent at this time of year, at least in the Pacific Northwest ecology, in the land and in my bodymind. Viriditas in the medieval European mind and the Church Fathers of the time was the surging greenness of forest and field. But as Dr. Victoria Sweet points out in her doctoral thesis, Rooted in the Earth, Rooted in the Sky: Hildegard of Bingen’s Premodern Medicine, the Church Fathers also used the term viriditas as a metaphor for the fruitful expressiveness of a virtue or of the spiritual life. Here’s just one example:

Plant in me the roots of true virtues and the seeds of holy contemplation, and with the viriditas of good works make them grow and sprout …

– Thomas a Kempis, De elevatione mentis, vol 2. as quoted in Dr. Victoria Sweet’s, Rooted in the Earth, Rooted in the Sky: Hildegard of Bingen’s Premodern Medicine

Hildegard of Bingen spoke of viriditas as being the sap of plants, and as being a substance in the body. For example:

The menstrual flow of a woman is her generating viriditas, her flowering, because, just like a tree by its viriditas produces flowers and leaves and fruits, so a woman by the viriditas of menstruation brings forth flowers and leaves as the fruit of her womb.

Viriditas in Hildegard’s concept has wetness and heat, and is a potent liquid of both substance and power, entering us through the plants that we eat. While much more can be said about viriditas as a physical as well as spiritual substance, or as a greening force (and no doubt I’ll continue this conversation!), I want to go back to you, me, our personal experience within nature, and as nature.

If you can, take a few minutes tomorrow morning (or each morning!). Settle into stillness and openness. Connect with your heart, express some gratitude. Nestle into the beauty and unfolding expression of the day, and feel — or imagine — yourself as Nature — and Nature as being in expression as you, but also as any plants around you, any birds or humans. What is the movement of the greening force in all this, the tangible expression of in the life cycle of the plants, in the activity of the land?

Inside you physically and emotionally, notice what you might describe as warmth or cold (or any temperature state), dry or wet (or any moisture state), in movement or stillness, tension or laxness/relaxed (or any state of tone or lack thereof). Nuances exist within all these sensations. Feel free to describe it in whatever way they appear to you. Where does viriditas move within you? Where do you feel life-expression, generative and creative expression, in whatever way that idea means to you?

Notice the same in the world and beings (human and otherwise) around you: hot/cold, dry/wet, movement/stillness, tension/laxity. Viriditas–the life force. Go ahead and ascribe emotions to your experience. Emotions are part of our language of perception.

Hawthorn in flower

Notice and experience. Let words go, find them again. Do you feel yourself as an expression of the nature around you or as out of step, in dissonance, separate? Or is there a music in the differences you sense between you/your bodymind and nature’s expression/mind?

Be playful, be poetic. Close your time in gratitude, and then make notes or journal about your experience.

You might repeat this process at noon, at sunset, at night. What shifts? What returns? What remains the same?

This sort of awareness and feeling state is at the heart of working with herbs and healing in the way that humans have done, and in many traditions continue to do, to this day. To work effectively with herbs and earth medicine ways one needs to begin or find oneself here: with Nature as truly our Mother, Nature as teacher, Nature as ourselves.

We root and unfurl from here.

~

Would you like to immerse yourself in an experience of nature, the plants, and yourself as nature? Gather with other women in a sacred circle as we open our senses to the delights of the land, source our body’s wisdom, and awaken our ancient relationship with plant intelligence in a day-long retreat, Gifts of Summer: Celebrating Body/Earth.  Somatic movement educator/therapist and nature immersion program director, Stacey Hinden, and myself will co-facilitate this beautiful journey on Saturday, June 29th, 10am to 4pm.  Find out more here.

Join Me at the Pacific Women’s Herbal Conference

Dear Friends,

The Pacific Women’s Herbal Conference is a magical gathering of women and girls of all ages. For a whole weekend (and longer, if you wish to attend the amazing pre-conference workshops) you can explore the wonderful, welcoming world of the plants and their medicine, and receive the medicine of one another with laughter, dancing, delicious food and nourishing infusions, heart-connecting song, and women’s wisdom —  all in a beautiful forest and shore location on Vashon Island. The Conference takes place on Sept. 20~22, 2019.

As a nature instructor, I happen to work at this location every week, and let me assure you, this 400 acre location (Camp Sealth) is a place where magic happens. Perhaps Eagle sings overhead, or Otter lets you glimpse him heading to the beach, or Deer bask in the moonlight. Perhaps the trees lean in to whisper a message especially for you. Perhaps you find a wishing stone, a listening stone, or feel the mist rising off the Salish Sea to welcome you into your ocean nature.  This enchantment and more opens to those who come together with intention, loving hearts, curiosity, playfulness, generosity, and gratitude. And that is what the Pacific Women’s Herbal Conference brings together from start to finish.

Here are the workshops I’m teaching:

Jane Valencia with the small dragon, Wings

Hildegard of Bingen’s Herbal Energetics for the Family Herbalist

The medicine of Hildegard of Bingen,12th century German physician, visionary, abbess, author, and saint, relied on an understanding of our bodies as gardens, and the work of healing as tending a garden In this introduction to a practical, compassionate, nature-based healing practice, we’ll adventure in the basics of herbal energetics to better support our family members and ourselves.

Tree Secrets: A Walk into a Pacific Northwest Ogham

In the early medieval Irish Ogham, or “tree alphabet,” each letter embodies a particular tree or plant  spirit. In this Celtic-infused workshop we’ll pass time in the company of trees, both those named in the Ogham and our native trees. We’ll explore firsthand their energy, teachings, folklore, and medicine uses by way of our senses and connection, and begin creating our own Pacific Northwest ogham. If the trees are willing, we’ll even craft ogham sticks. Expect sweet enchantment and deep wild wisdom!

As an herbalist and practitioner of what she calls “Deer Medicine Ways,” Jane Valencia loves welcoming women and girls into the magic of the green world that surrounds us. Through forest and garden learning adventures, writings, and illustration, she helps the herbal curious to get down and dirty getting to know the plants and their healing ways and to discover what the plants reveal about our truest nature. An instructor with the Vashon Wilderness Program, Jane is the creator/ mentor of VWP’s herbal girls camps. Sacred plant medicine and traditional Western herbalism are her well-spring. Jane is author-illustrator of Paloma and Wings: a Kids Herbal Comic.

Find out more about about Jane’s herbal and healing ways offerings, including writings on her blog, please visit: SingingDeerHealing.com

Go here to find out more about the Pacific Women’s Herbal Conference.

~

I hope to see you there!

cross-posted on ForestHalls.org

Heaven and Earth: A Brief Walk with Hildegard into the Healing Nature of her World

Heaven

I’m not sure when I first became captivated by Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century German Benedictine magistra, visionary, composer, spiritual counselor, author, physician. I just remember back in the late ’80s, when I worked as a library specialist at Stanford University, standing in the Stanford University Bookstore at the Gregorian chant section, holding a book on Hildegard’s chants, Symphonia by Barbara Newman. As a former student of medieval and Renaissance music, this book represented a marvel. Here was not only a collection of plainchant by someone other than “anon.,” but this individual was a woman.

And when I listened to her music I found that her compositions held both the qualities of Gregorian chant that moved me so deeply, and also soared, dipped, and swept into unexpected realms. Her music is often described as “angelic.” But to me her music carries none of the New Age connotation of that word. Her music speak to me of Heaven indeed, angelic realms of power and cosmic reality, and also of her understanding of the element of Air, and Air’s qualities and physical life, Air’s own nature as part of a universal whole.

Here is a video of the early music ensemble VocaMe performing “Aer enum volat,” the chant in the image below.

Aer enim volat – “As air flies” (Psalm Antiphon for Psalm 148 at Lauds for St. Ursula and Companions) – composed by Hildegard of Bingen. Doesn’t the notation look like a bird song sonagram?

The lyrics of this antiphon are as follows:

Aer Enim

Aer enim volat,
et cum omnibus creaturis,
officia sua exercet et firmamentum eum sustinet
aer in viribus istius pascitur.

As air flies,
attending to all creatures,
the structure of heaven sustains it,
and the air is nourished through this enfolding.

If you enfold yourself in the music and attend to the words, feeling Air move around you, and also flowing in and out of your own body and moving with your breath, perhaps you too will feel the enfolding structure of Heaven sustaining and nourishing Air. And perhaps you’ll feel yourself sustained and nourished in turn, both by way of Air and other forces both unseen and physically perceived. What is your experience?

Earth

Two decades after meeting Hildegard by way of her music, I engaged in herbal study with clinical herbalist Heather Nic an Fhleisdeir. One of my first assignments was to read a text by an ancient herbalist. Included in the list of possibilities was Hildegard of Bingen and her two works Physica and Causae et Curae. Hildegard! The chant composer and visionary! I had no idea she had been an herbal physician as well.

I managed to locate a book that contained a section of Physica, and read it.  The very different understanding than mine that Hildegard’s words seemed to present of the plants and other natural substances blew my mind. Different understandings and perceptions — and yet, at times, the soar and dip and sweep of her language — like her settings of sacred text to melody — made her meaning enticingly clear. In some earth of my being I knew what she was talking about. At least to some degree.

Here then is my “herbal review,” written almost a decade ago. I see how my upcoming workshop, Hildegard of Bingen’s Medicine, is a continuation of a quest begun with this brief report, a quest in which I now have amassed enough experience and practice as an herbalist to have both more answers and more questions. I’ve added two quotes, drawn from the book Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica – translated from the Latin by Priscilla Throop (as that is the edition I own now) so that you can better understand my discussion in the review, plus a couple of notes from me in brown. In my next blog post, I’ll take more time with one or two of Hildegard’s entries, unfolding more fully the world that her words may contain.

I’m curious to hear what thoughts arise for you as you read this herbal review and glimpse something of Hildegard’s medieval and singular world. Feel free to comment below!

HILDEGARD’S HEALING PLANTS: From her medieval classic PHYSICA
translated by Bruce W. Hozeski

I was and am delighted and intrigued by this text. From the very beginning (the introduction) I’m plunged into a whole world of perception and understanding about plants that is different from my own 21st century America point of view. Certain phrases and word choices point to an understanding of the nature of the world that I can’t really grasp (or don’t right now!), such as “The moistness of the stones is comparable to the marrow of the bones because when a stone is moist, it is also warm.”

I’m tantalized that as I strive to decipher these metaphors — translate them
to or connect them with my own understanding, I might deepen my sense of the world in general and various plants in particular.

Hildegard’s advocacy of certain herbs, and thoughts upon them — their nature, what they are good for, and how they might be used — are invariably of an ‘alternate reality’ from my own. In some cases, I recognize that we’re talking about the same plant, and my perceptions are widened and deepened, or satisfied in some way. In other cases, I just to observe the words and wonder: her experience of the plant is not mine at all! … Or at least not on the surface. But then it’s that “common name” syndrome: are we indeed talking about the same plant? Examples of the former (deepened or complementary understandings of a plant and its uses): Lavender, Garlic, Nutmeg, Cumin, Violet, Yarrow ….

Lavender (lavendula) is hot and dry, having very little moisture. It is not effective for a person to eat, but it does have a strong odor. If a person with many lice frequently smells lavender, the lice will die. Its odor clears the eyes [since it possesses the power of the strongest aromas and the usefulness of the most bitter ones. It curbs very many evil things and, because of it, malign spirits are terrified]. [from Hildegard von Bingen’s Phyisica, trans Priscilla Throop]. –(Note from Jane, 2/19/19: I’ll unpack this entry more in the next blog post, but if you’re familiar with lavender you may sense how your experience with lavender may correspond with the words here).

I’m intrigued by her negative descriptions of various herbs and foods that I consider “good” and “nourishing”, such as eggs, and various grains like millet, and leeks and Welsh onions (why are leeks a national symbol of an entire country — Wales — if they have “swift and useless heat in it”?). On the other hand, closer reading of preparations of, say, leeks, bring the writings into clearer sense for me.

But if one who wishes to eat a leek raw should first temper it in wine, with salt added, or in vinegar. It should line in the wine or salt long enough for it to be so tempered that the evil powers in it are destroyed: from morning till midday, or from noon till evening. So tempered, it is good or healthy people to eat. [from Hildegard von Bingen’s Phyisica, trans Priscilla Throop]

In reading all the entries I grow enamored of the idea of warming the herb in some wine, and/or cooking various herbs in a little vinegar and honey, and/or making them into a paste to spread on bread. Mmm! The writings here definitely open my world to alternate possibilities and understandings. I suppose the big ‘ah ha’ for me is that sense of enlarged possibility for having different perceptions of the same reality, and a musing about how a different culture, climate, soil, land might cause a person or people to experience herbs differently than I might, due to living in another climate, place, and time — that some herbs might have negative effects to a people because of their living conditions, while the same herbs might be healthful to another group of people.

I am also intrigued by the many comments on herbs being useful for helping heal a broad spectrum of mental and spiritual ailments. (as noted in the quote on lavender above)

Ah, the next time we have wine, I’m going to set aside some to warm an herb within and try it out for myself …..!