from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

plant spirit medicine

I have recently been somewhat taken up in responding to my critic on 'reasons for jubilation' in a way that expresses my views as clearly as I can, given different paradigms (mine having a metaphysical content, his – I assume it's a he – as far as I can tell being materialistic) without being aggressive. If you have energy and stamina to read the conversation, I'd welcome other views. I'm so pleased now to resume my 'normal' blogging style! – though all such challenges are useful and fruitful in clarifying vision. (Should my critic read this post, below, I imagine he will roll his eyes in horror and leave in disgust immediately.)


Because of the time of year here in the UK, and because I've been noting with joy a kind of green aura around each of the young ash trees in an avenue along the brookside path (I say 'aura' because they are not in any visible way actually leafing, but from a distance there is a very distinct green tinge to the whole stand, as well as each tree) it's tree medicine, this time:

I've been involved intimately with plants all my adult life. I've used almost exclusively herbal medicine for self, daughter, animals and anyone else I can thrust herbs on. I used them also to make dyes for the garments I used to knit and weave from handspun wool in my early twenties, which was the way I made my living before becoming a shoemaker (and then, in 1991, a writer and workshop facilitator).

I remember blissful early-summer days on the North Devon coasts above Woolacombe and Putsborough, Croyde and Saunton, gathering gorse flowers for dye, with my baby daughter in a sling on my chest, intoxicated (me – and maybe her too) on the apricot and coconut scent of the flowers in sun. I remember the bucket of lichen standing lidded in the garden into which my then-husband had been instructed to pee, as ammonia gives a beautiful deep sunset pinky orange to a lichen dye. I remember subtle deep shades from various tree barks, notably the wild plum family.

And I have always foraged for food. I'm currently fixated too on the idea of our species creating, in the global community, woodland gardens based on permaculture and agroforestry principles with perennial foodbearing crops – this way reforestation and carbon soaks can happen at the same time as food production.

I long for the wild garlic season to come – and here it has. I gather it by the day, if I am passing the nearest lush patch, and we will eat it now for two or three months in salads, soups, potato tortillas, sandwiches, pies. Apart from its sheer pungent lushness, it's also an immune booster.

Soon too I will be collecting the tips of young nettles, very tasty added to leek and potato soup (what our garden is still offering in abundance), and a wonderful detoxifier and bloodcleanser, as well as being very rich in various necessary minerals and vitamins.

And young tree leaves, particularly hawthorn (a blood pressure regulator and heart strengthener), ash, birch and lime will find their way into salads and infusions.

The issue I want to speak of here is of sympathetic resonance.

This is not quite the same as the use of plants more directly and internally for altered states of consciousness. The latter involves the ingestion of hallucinogenic plant substances to alter consciousness, made public with the counterculture in the 60s, and with Carlos Casteneda's writings; these include peyote, mescaline, psilocybin, opium and LSD (originally derived from ergotamine, a fungus that occurs on rye grain) and the (less potent) cannabis, of course.

This isn't about ingestion of plant alkaloids in the physical sense, where with some of the above plants and others there are significant attendant dangers (I have myself used some of them but feel it would be irresponsible not to point out the realistic potential for harm, both physically and psychically); but rather that of sympathetic resonance: recognising a quality of subtle energy unique to each plant and with which our own subtle energy may harmonise, or which it may need for balance – or both. These plants are generally not toxic and may or may not be ingested. The way in which this works synergistically and/or symbolically with the human is subtle, and needs to be approached in a spirit of enquiry and interest, with commitment and intention, and direct open relationship with that plant or tree.

I conducted an interview for a journal many years ago with Elliott Cowan, a shamanic practitioner who works with plant spirit medicine and has written a book of that title. This way of working is twofold: learning from someone who knows; and through direct perception and personal experience.

I have had very particular experiences having spent a block of time in the vicinity of willow (a surprise to me), and more especially and continuingly the rowan, a magical tree in Celtic thought. I've always been drawn very strongly to the crab apple, under which I was once given a vision; and perhaps most of all the silver birch.

When I think about the symbolism of this latter I'm aware that the birch is the first tree, in the northern hemisphere anyway, to colonise wasteland and scrubland, to re-establish itself after changes of climate, and is comfortable on the margins. It doesn't require rich soil, nor is it a prima donna about conditions. It's the first tree in the Celtic ogham tree alphabet, b for beth. It's a threshold tree, and, living as it does on the cusp of wildland and upland, has been considered to be a tree of initiation.  It is seen in shamanic cultures as a tree that will allow the shaman safe passage into the Otherworld, and some say the Siberian shamanic culture sees it as the World Tree*. (There are of course historically many more 'functional' uses of birch: its bark has been used for writing – the ancient Indian Vedas were scribed on birch bark, and it's been used for canoes and brooms.)

Some of the work I do in my courses is, or involves, subtle initiation in terms of consciousness, and an opening of perception to other realms of being. No surprise then that birch offers guardianship of thresholds; and right now my pull to it may suggest something I need myself at a time of great exhaustion following a lot of stress. (It's also the tree associated with Venus, the planetary ruler of my sunsign, Libra.)

My friend Fred Hageneder, who has written several books on the more esoteric and mythological meanings of trees, has this to say about birch, quoting George Calder, Celtic scholar, in 1917*:

'In Irish mythology,  the first ogham signs were carved into Birch, to warn the light god, Lugh, that his wife was about to be kidnapped by the underworld:

"...on the birch was written the first ogham inscription that was brought into Ireland, to wit, they wife will be taken from thee ... unless thou watch her. It is on that account b is still written at the beginning of the Celtic alphabet".'

('Lugh' is a significant Celtic firegod and light bringer; in England, place names that include Lud or Lug are likely to be remnants of spots once dedicated to him. His wife is represented by the graceful birch.)

The reason I'm mentioning all this this morning is because I am reminding myself, and anyone else who wants to listen, that this world is crammed full of 'helpers', as myth would say, human and non-human. We think we can manage, we humans, on our own with no help; maybe we overlook at our peril the other beings in this web of life who can offer us nurturing, if we wish to accept it.

And of course the workshop facilitator in me wants to say: take note of the plants and trees you are drawn to; observe them, learn about them, listen to them. Eat them, maybe (with thanks, of course!). Take ten minutes, or an hour, to lie down under a tree of your choice as its leaves are beginning to spring...


* The Spirit of Trees – science, symbiosis and inspiration, Fred Hagender, Floris Books 2000.
Fred has also written The Heritage of Trees and The Living Wisdom of Trees. He's also a composer and harpist, and has created a number of very beautiful pieces of music around the tree alphabet, and Celtic themes – plus accompanied performances of my own long River Suite poem. Apart from being an erudite esoteric scholar, he's also founded a tree charity.


  1. Hi Roselle
    another synchronous post! It often happens that you write about things we have been talking or thinking about.
    Yesterday afternoon we went walking through the woods, through the green carpets of wild garlic,and some early bluebells and down to the river. At a pertinent point in our conversation a wren and a kingfisher appeared just a few feet away. This got us thinking about how even nature religions are often divorced from nature, for example using oracle cards rather than seeking direct contact, or the cutting of mistletoe and bringing it indoors for a ritual...


    ps in response to your converstion with your critic I would just say that I don't have time in this lifetime to wait for the species to evolve...and will continue turning to the Otherworld.

  2. What a wonderful collection of knowledge I had no idea about! Much food for thought. I seem to be most drawn to the oak tree.

  3. David, thanks. My own personal feeling is that oak represents archetypal male energy, as ash the female. (Others may experience it differently.) I've learnt a lot from my relationship to the oak!

    And Jinny, thank you too. I love your to-the-point response! Am completely with you on our relationship to nature - cut off at the neck so often. Far too much theoretical indoor learning and far too little openhearted willingness to learn from direct contact with the non-human and not necessarily physical, or not physical alone, orders of being.

    A book on Zen I had as a teenager talked of the difference between the Western and Eastern approaches to eg the natural world. It might have been Suzuki, can't remember now; but he was saying how a Western poet, eg Keats or Wordsworth, eulogising a plant in poetry, might pull it out of the wall in order to take it home and observe it, then write about the observation; an Eastern poet would simply note its being and leave it alone, penning a haiku there and then.


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