‘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.
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!