Wise women, herbs, and the call of the plants

‘Something has happened this year. The plants have started calling louder than ever before. Those of us who have loved the plants since childhood and dreamed of a cronehood stalking the fields with a basket, kitchen windowsill a stained glass apothecary of sunlight falling through bottles of herb-infused oils and tinctures – a Church of Weeds – have heard the hedgerows calling clearer and more insistent this year than ever before. I wonder for how many of you the seasons’ turning this year moved something in you that had perhaps learnt over the years a handful of plant names and their uses and maybe collected many books on plant lore and craft, but not before with this new purpose and dedication wanted to know the whole great encyclopaedia of leaves?’ So writes my lovely and talented friend Rima Staines in ‘Weed Wife’, her latest blog post, and when I read it I shivered a little, and my heart started to beat a little faster.

Why? Because of course that is exactly what has been happening to me this year – and, judging by the response to Rima’s posts, to many of us. My intention to connect more deeply with the plant world and to work with herbs began many, many years ago, and the fuse was undoubtedly lit as a child, sitting in an overgrown cabbage patch communing with dandelions and intoxicating myself on the scent of windblown wallflowers. When I moved to my first croft in Lochbroom in 2003, I began to grow herbs in earnest. It was one of my first priorities on that croft, and the curiously urgent need for it could be traced back to the inspiration of a figure from story and from the folk tradition from half a world away.

That inspiration came from the Hispanic folk figure of the curandera. A curandera is a traditional Hispanic healer, herbalist and wise woman, and I became acquainted with her history while learning to fly in the south New Mexican desert in the year 2000. In The Long Delirious Burning Blue, the novel that I later wrote about these experiences, a curandera character plays a major role.

Why was I so inspired by the figure of the curandera? In good part because a poem that I read during that time, by one of my favourite poets – New Mexican Hispanic poet Pat Mora – slipped right into my heart, lodged itself there, and has never left.

Curandera

Pat Mora

They think she lives alone
on the edge of town in a two-room house
where she moved when her husband died
at thirty-five of a gunshot wound
in the bed of another woman. The curandera
and house have aged together to the rhythm
of the desert.

She wakes early, lights candles before
her sacred statues, brews tea of hierbabuena.
She moves down her porch steps, rubs
cool morning sand into her hands, into her arms.
Like a large black bird, she feeds on
the desert, gathering herbs for her basket.

Her days are slow, days of grinding
dried snake into power, of crushing
wild bees to mix with white wine.
And the townspeople come, hoping
to be touched by her ointments,
her hands, her prayers, her eyes.
She listens to their stories, and she listens
to the desert, always the desert.

By sunset she is tired. The wind
strokes the strands of long grey hair
the smells of drying plants drift
into her blood, the sun seeps
into her bones. She dozes
on her back porch. Rocking, rocking.

At night she cooks chopped cactus
and brews more tea. She brushes a layer
of sand from her bed, sand which covers
the table, stove, floor. She blows
the statues clean, the candles out.
Before sleeping, she listens to the message
of the owl and the coyote. She closes her eyes
and breathes with the mice and snakes and wind.

When I first read that poem I felt a jolt of recognition. A ‘Yes – that is it; that is what I am supposed to be’ kind of recognition. A strange mixed-up sense of longing and belonging. A strong feeling that I didn’t want to wait for my cronehood to stalk the fields with a basket, to build my Church of Weeds, and to inhabit that peaceful, deeply connected green growing world. I didn’t want to wait to grub amongst roots, praise flowers, caress leaves. I needed to do it now: to have that grounding, that hands-in-the-soil connection that in so many ways was (and is) the only thing that has ever seemed real. And I have carried the images from that poem in my heart ever since – except, of course, that I do not live in the desert: I live in a boggy place, sandwiched between mountains and sea. And my tradition is the native Celtic tradition: what little of my family background that isn’t Scottish is Irish, and I grew up on stories of henwives and wise women, not stories of curanderas. But nevertheless this image of the wise woman, connected to the land and communing with the desert, is something that translates perfectly into the Celtic and Gaelic tradition to which I belong.

‘Women have always been healers,’ Jeanne Achterberg¹ tells us in her brilliant book Woman as Healer. ‘Cultural myths from around the world describe a time when only women knew the secrets of life and death, and therefore they alone could practice the magical art of healing. In crises and calamity, or so some of the stories go, women’s revered position as keepers of the sacred wisdom was deliberately and forcibly wrested away from them.’

And I wonder now, in these times of ecological crisis, whether the plants aren’t calling our souls back home, back to that state of deep connectedness with the rhythms of the earth and the nonhuman others that share it with us that once so many women took for granted. Maybe that is why we’re all hearing the call of plants now, together, before it becomes too late. There’s work here to be done, and it’s women’s work, and something is telling us to pay attention.

For me, the curandera figure – and I’ll be writing very soon about the ways in which it translates for me into my own native tradition, bringing with it a hearty, soil-scented form of bioregional weedwifery – remains an inspiration. An image that I hold in my head and aspire to, a moss-encrusted, feral version of the Holy Grail. A wise woman’s version of the Grail quest: no knights, no unearthly longings, just fingers in the soil and the nourishing beauty of the green earth. It’s been with me strongly for a while now, and especially during these past few days when I’ve been taking a break from other work – from the constant engagement, most of it by computer, which is necessary when you edit a thriving magazine and are embroiled in many conversations and activities with the wider community that you’ve brought together around it. These past few days I’ve been out there quietly with the plants (and sadly with the biting insects, in this sudden summer heat) reminding myself what it’s all for. And I’m reminded as a consequence that I read Pat Mora’s poem to a group of women at the first ‘Singing Over the Bones’ writers’ retreat earlier this year. One participant pointed out that I seemed to have a penchant for images of women stalking through life alone, and whatever happened to community? Wasn’t that supposed to be women’s great strength – to build community, form relationships, forge connection? Wasn’t all this stuff about women connecting with the nonhuman world from the comfort of their own solitude just another version of Kathleen Jamie’s classic ‘lone enraptured male’ (which she expounds upon in her gloriously ascerbic review of Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places in the London Review of Books, for the uninitiated)?

And yes, that’s curious indeed, because community and the need to build it is one of those threads that weaves its way strongly through all the different facets of my work. So it’s a reasonable question: how does that work? And it’s interesting: what has become clear to me over these last few days of my own solitude, with David away for a week, the computer mostly turned off, and mental and physical spring-cleaning well underway, is that the figure of the curandera, solitary as she may appear to be on first reading, for me precisely fills that role of community building. Her life is not some longed-for, far-off alternative to the life I live now, with every day spent talking to readers of EarthLines and writers and others who want to engage with this burning, essential question of how we go about changing the way we see our place in this crisis-ridden world. On the contrary: it’s the heart of that life. Because I believe that all of us, and maybe especially women – certainly especially me, who could always slip too easily into the role of hermit – have the need for time alone to build our strength, to develop the genuine, no-bullshit source of our grounding. But what is critically important, and I’ve written about this before, is both our need and our unique ability to bring back what we gain from our solitary journeying into the community. The curandera may seem to live alone in a house in the desert – but read those first lines again: ‘They think she lives alone/ on the edge of town …’ They think she does, but she isn’t alone, as the rest of the poem makes clear. She’s busy forging relationships not only with the nonhuman world of which she’s a part (owl, coyote, mice, snakes, wind) but the human community too: ‘And the townspeople come, hoping/ to be touched by her ointments,/ her hands, her prayers, her eyes./ She listens to their stories …’

The curandera, the wise woman, the weed wife – whatever you call her, she is an inspiration to all of us. All of us need to find strength from within ourselves; all of us need to delve deep, deep inside ourselves to develop the sources of our own belonging. We need to do this work on ourselves before we can ever hope to bring that wisdom out into the world and share it for the sake of the earth and the community. It’s one of the reasons why the wise woman was often imagined as a crone – or at least, well into the throes of middle age. That wisdom is hard won, and it takes time to cook it up into a thick, nourishing herb-scented stew. But the curandera and the weed wife are critical and integral parts of their wider community. They bring their knowledge, their skills, their wisdom and their love out into the world, and it seems to me that ultimately that is the only work worth doing.

¹ Jeanne Achterberg was a scientist known for her pioneering work in medicine and psychology. I first came across her work at the turn of the millenium, when I was training in a variety of creative imagination techniques, including clinical hypnosis, which then formed the basis of my therapeutic practice. Achterberg was the author of Imagery and Healing, in which she discussed psychoneuroimmunology as the mediating factor in healing through creative imagination techniques. Along with narrative psychology, that was my speciality in those days. Anything she has ever written is well worth reading!

19 thoughts on “Wise women, herbs, and the call of the plants

  1. Yes! Oh yes! I also suggest plant spirit meditation to connect with the specific healing qualities. I’ve done this only a few times but been truly blown away by the information that comes. My favorite way, though, to engage with the plants is making my own flower essence remedies. My Celtic ancestors would be ashamed at my black thumb, but the alchemy of the energetic workings of the plant world is available to everyone, even those of us who don’t tend our gardens well. Thank you, Sharon! I can’t wait for the further blogs and pages. much love, Jane

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    1. More on plants & herbs coming in current issues of EarthLines too, I hope, Jane. And agree that green fingers aren’t necessary for that sense of communion! – that’s what wildcrafting is for, after all …

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  2. Thanks for this lovely post Sharon. What it especially brings alive for me is a reawakened understanding of the place of the medicine person (man or woman, curandera or shaman, and by many other names), who lives literally or metaphorically on the edge of a community – traditionally as mediator between the human and not-human realms – yet is still very much there as part of, and in service to, the community. Although not a medicine woman, I’m yet someone who tends always to gravitate to the edges of communities (when not running away from them entirely …), so I’m in a long process of trying to accept and make sense of that by asking myself the questions: ‘How do I belong at the edge? How can I serve others from the edge?’ Turning that round the other way, I get more than a bit frustrated with images of community that seem to consist of being in constant extroverted contact with other people – meetings, pot-lucks, conversations, get-togethers, etc – and find myself with another question: ‘where and how do communities acknowledge and appreciate their edges, the people at their edges?’ Through the exemplary figure of the curandera / weed wife, you show beautifully how there’s much more to belonging, serving and community-making than a simple opposition between social hub person and isolated hermit; that people have different personalities, needs, gifts and relative distances in respect to community, yet all still belong.

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    1. Exactly, Cat; I thought you would understand :-). We need the edge-walkers too, never doubt it – maybe more than ever in this overcrowded communication-addicted world. I’m very much one myself, and often find myself thrown into community in ways that I find it hard to assimilate if it all comes too thick and fast. But that vision of serving from the edges is what carries me through, and the sense that yes, it is very much OK, because otherwise I would burn out and have nothing to give. What the edge-walkers bring is a unique gift and, as with all such gifts, very much needed in that great cauldron of belonging…

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  3. All of that resonates hugely. It does feel that the plants and hedgerows are sending out urgent cries. That poetry is truly beautiful and I will pass it on. Thank you x

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    1. Thanks, Marjory. All of these findings and sharings bring me to believe that there is much that we can do to heal our relationship with the world, in spite of a challenge which sometimes seems overwhelming…

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  4. Hi Sharon
    a wonderful post and I like Cat’s term ‘edge-walkers’ too. I was blessed this week to have an ecologist visit my small forest so have my head filled with getting to know the plants that are arriving since we have begun transforming our conifer plantation. I was thinking when reading your post of a simple old fashioned novel by Mary Stewart called ‘Thornyhold’ too (on the subject of a young woman learning her innate sensitivity toward healing plants and this morning I was checking out the Edinburgh festival to find that there is an upcoming exhibition on how witches have been depicted over the centuries in art – I hope its not all sensationalism and I hope to see it when I’m over for the ‘invisible scotland’ land art place symposia. Here’s the exhibition info http://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/witches-wicked-bodies/highlights-23496

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    1. Interesting – as part of my ‘relaxing week’ I’m re-reading a much-loved much-thumbed copy of Mary Stewart’s ‘Crystal Cave’, which the inside cover tells me I bought in 1979 … a fine writer! That exhibition sounds interesting … let us know what you think, if you catch it.

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  5. I’m very excited to read this article, having read Rima’s blog a day or two ago (and ordered a print of Weed Wife…).I’ll certainly be an avid reader of your planned future additions.
    Like a lot of women, I have a real and often urgent need to be quiet, solitary, to dig and delve literally & metaphorically, to listen, breathe, on the edge, on the outside, beyond…
    I find this personal space so vital, to hold a still point, to absorb wisdom, in order to both nurture myself and, in turn, stay strong for the phone calls, the visits, the supporting of aged parents, daughters, grandaughters, friends, husband, colleagues, animal companions and the other-than-human companions that are often felt rather than seen. When women reach 50+, in my experience, we frequently find ourselves supporting so many others, in so many ways; the very time that our society often perceive older women as being of little interest, grey-haired, invisible almost.
    Personally, I relish this time of my life – I have been working towards it for many years (the Baba yaga has been with me since my childhhod nightmares) – connecting to the landscape, talking to my herbs, listening to the stories of cats and birds, water and stone. However, I do think that there are many younger women who fit the “crone mould” – it’s perhaps a state of mind/consciousness rather than physical age.
    I look forward to your forthcoming articles regarding the Crone in the Celtic tradition.
    Rock on, Sharon!

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    1. Thanks, Kate. We should all form a club of ‘Weed Wife’ print owners 🙂 And yes, that 50-plus age group is interesting me greatly too. Not just because I’m now in it, though of course that does focus the mind a little! But that concept of elderhood, which is so devalued in our society, and wondering about the ways in which we can reclaim it. And like you, I’ve longed for cronehood for many years and agree that it is also in part a state of mind … though changes in the body, physical ageing are also a key part of it, I believe. Learning to manage the depletion of physical and mental energy levels is the hardest thing; the psychological change is arguably the easy bit!

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      1. The trouble is that society – employers – often don’t allow us the flexibilty we need to manage our changing bodies. An afternoon nap would be so helpful!! 😉

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  6. I’ve been an avid reader of Rima’s blog for a long time now. And have recently been following yours. I thought I’d note that I too, as a man, have felt the same thing that you are both writing about. Our mother is indeed calling through the plants more loudly. I hear it and feel it as well.

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    1. That’s good to know too, Dan. As ever, I really am not intending to exclude men when I focus on what is rising up for women. Jeanne Achterberg, one of my heroines, was very clear in her ‘Woman as Healer’ book: ‘…To return exclusively to the feminine myth in healing is to return to the Dark Ages. It is to be expected, then, that women healers are being joined in their mission by compassionate, nurturing, intuitive men who desire balance in their lives and in their professions.’

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  7. What a rich treasure trove this entry and the comments is! I love the phrase ‘edge-walker’ and consider myself to be one too (as a strong introvert) – I like the Arthur O’Shaughnessy poem…

    We are the music-makers,
    And we are the dreamers of dreams,
    Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
    And sitting by desolate streams.
    World-losers and world-forsakers,
    Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
    Yet we are the movers and shakers,
    Of the world forever, it seems.

    Seems like the perfect definition of ‘serving from the edge’.

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  8. Wonderful post, I am also one of Rima’s regular followers, and loved her Weed Wife blog post. And it made me stop and think, that I’ve been feeling this stronger pull as well. I’m not the most wonderful gardner, and when summer hits here I usually sit inside as the temperature climbs higher and watch out the windows in despair as my attempts to create a garden shrivel in the heat and die. But reading your post and Rima’s reminded me that even as a child I felt drawn to make ‘potions’ out of herbs and flowers and water, that I felt they held some kind of magic, and I watch my daughters doing the same now. When I was a teenager I bought a Herbal book for my mum (ostensibly!) for her birthday, and it was the first of its kind I’d seen (though I’d attempted to create my own ‘spell/herb-lore’ books) and I was fascinated and felt that same sense of both recognition and sacredness/magic. In the last couple of years, I’ve been drawn to finding out more about the flora (and fauna too) of Australia, about the healing plants, the bush medicines, the food plants, and along with it a strong to desire to live closer to the bush, to observe it and learn its ways, to try and ‘belong’ a little better. To listen.

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    1. That’s exactly what brings on that sense of belonging, isn’t it – getting to know the land in ecological terms, as well as its cultural history. It’s one of the reasons why (although I’m certainly not fanatical about it) I have a much greater interest in plants that are native to this place where I live, rather than plants from other traditions. And little is more exciting than finding and identifying a new one!

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