Plant Spirit Medicine: Relationship and Responsibility | L. LeBlanc
Wild Seed School of Herbal Studies, 2018
“You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”
– Ursula K. Le Guin
As a white settler living on the unceded (stolen) traditional territories of the Coast Salish nations of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, I have inherited a legacy of occupation from my ancestors. I lack intergenerational and profound cultural ties to the lands I inhabit. Both of my parents were born on the East Coast of so-called Canada. I am in the first generation of my family to be born here in the Pacific West.
Eliot Cohen, author of Plant Spirit Medicine, tells us that “…(Plant Spirit Medicine) produces healing purely through good relationship with the natural world.” 1 As plants are inherently connected to the people who have and continue to tend them, care for them and work with them to care for others since time immemorial, we as settlers must examine the relationship and responsibility of our access to Plant Spirit Medicine to the process of colonization and decolonization. This is the basis of a “good relationship to the natural world,” and will be central to this discussion of Plant Spirit Medicine.
Before discussing the applications of Plant Spirit Medicine, we need to look at if and how we
(settlers) can be in good relationship to plants here in this colonial landscape and how we can build relationships with plants and their spirits without appropriating or overwriting traditional culture and without replicating colonial culture by commodifying this relationship.
The land here is living through a war never won. This animals, humans, plants and minerals and soil have survived territorial, cultural, physical and spiritual assault. Joseph Trutch, the first Lieutenant Governor of so-called British Columbia, claimed this land as Terra Nullius “nobody’s land.” 2 We know that this is indigenous territory. We know that the colonial process aims to disrupt the relationships of people to their land.
This territory has been cared for by indigenous peoples and their relations forever. Colonization has violently interrupted this relationship through genocide, the law, privatization of land, removal of generations of children from families, imposed restrictions to accessing and tending traditional foods and medicines and so much more that is un-namable to me as someone who has not lived that experience. 3, 4
As herbalists who may be informed by the Western Herbalist tradition, it is important to acknowledge that this tradition comes from a mix of our own ancestors’ knowledge that has survived in the face of forces working against it, and been stolen through colonization from indigenous forms of medicine. It is critical to interrogate our practice and always ask ourselves how does our work with plant medicine interact with the ongoing process of colonization/decolonization.
“Do you really trust a codex or an herbal written by the colonizers who committed genocide? Do you really trust their understanding? Seems like they’d be bad historians.”
– Toi Scott, Non-binary, Knowledge and Tradition Keeper 5
If Plant Spirit Medicine involves listening to what plants have to tell us and being in good relationship to the natural world, this begins with knowing yourself, which is a process that for settlers needs to find its roots in decolonization.
Gitxsan warrior and healer Mel Bazil tells us that,
“Decolonization can occur, you are not just denying the colonial state, you are getting to know who you really are and that’s skill based, that’s based on your roots from your origin. If you don’t know those things then look back. One person asked me, “Well I come from an oppressive state.” No you don’t. That is not your origin. None of us are originated from oppression. We all come from a beautiful origin, we all do. That is what we are asking to get back to, that’s the knowledge of self I am talking about. That is what is helpful to other communities.” 6
“If you don’t know your own energy, you don’t know when another energy is entering into you. The first thing you do in order to understand the spiritual properties of plants is you have to know what your own energy is.” – Karyn Saunders, Co-Founder Blue Otter School of Herbal Medicine. 7
To have knowledge of where we come from is a privilege. This is not something everyone has access to and even if we do it can bring up a lot of trauma. For those of us whose ancestors came here and participated in the act of colonization, whose ancestors occupied territory, claimed the rights to resources, who flourished materially at as a result of the displacement, genocide and residential school systems, we must review our histories. We must acknowledge that our access to this land is predicated on genocide. We also likely come from places of intersecting oppression, as the absolutely powerful have always been a minority. In order to know ourselves (as white settlers), we must acknowledge the legacy of colonization and how we benefit and participate in it today. And also what we have lost.
“We are all indigenous. At some point colonization removed us from our point of origin our place of home.” – Mel Bazil 8
For those of us with European ancestry, ancestor worker Galina Krasskova tells us we have two collective wounds. The first is the destruction of our own ancestral traditions and our own indigeneity and second is that
“…we have to look at what that turned us into. First our own traditions were destroyed and then, in some mad form of cultural Stockholm syndrome, we became the destroyer. We turned around and perfected the techniques of conquest and came across the ocean to do unto others what had been done five hundred years before to us. As difficult as this may be to look at, it’s essential that we do so. If our ancestors could undergo these things then perpetrate them, the least we can do is look at them cleanly and squarely. It is the first and perhaps the most necessary step toward reclamation: to be able to look at our own history good and bad squarely in its proverbial face without flinching.” 9
Many of us who come from and live within colonial states have lost connection to our beautiful origins, our pre-history, our oral traditions – our place. If we have the privilege to know the terrible histories we come from, we can also work to heal this by being honest with ourselves.
“We do have the tools to continue this work, if we have the courage to see our realities.”
– E.P., Clinical Western Herbalist 10
Krasskova shares methods for developing meaningful relationships with our ancestors (blood related, community based or otherwise), honouring them and holding them accountable. She tells us that whether we know our ancestors or not “we are our entire ancestor lines walking” and, with gravitas, “it’s going to take both sides of the equation living and dead to right the imbalances of our world…” 11
Transporting Traditional Knowledge in a Colonial Context
I was told part of my family comes from close to the Palatine region in Germany. From 1098 – 1179, Hidlegard von Bingen lived in the Palatine region. She was a visionary, a physician and the magistra (head abott) of a Monastary for more than half her life. According to Victoria Sweet “Her medical text Causae et curae (in 1859) provided historians with an example of Germany’s presumptive indigenous medicine.” 12 Von Bingen spoke of the four elements—earth, water, air, and fire— not as abstract, literary principles, but as concrete elements of land, rain, wind, and sun. Like plants, human beings were sustained by what she called viriditas, greening power. “The soul is a breath of living spirit, that with excellent sensitivity, permeates the entire body to give it life. Just so, the breath of the air makes the earth fruitful. Thus the air is the soul of the earth, moistening it, greening it.” 13
On a less positive front, Sweet also notes that “Nazism promoted such a völkisch perspective, and research on Hildegard was carried on enthusiastically during the Third Reich.”
Here in the Pacific Northwest, there is a ‘movement’ of white nationalists claiming territory for Aryan people who cite shared cultural beliefs and a common ethnic heritage. These people may tattoo Nordic runes on their bodies and, in the company of Western Herbalists, would probably share an interest in Hildegard. It is important when looking into our past we do not further the process of colonization by imposing – yes racial superiority, but also cultural superiority.
We must recognize that the information that we are learning about through texts, lacks the relationship to land and culture that exists here, and that we lack the context in which to live out the culture of our earth-based ancestors – place and time.
So instead of transporting and imposing our historical traditions, as white settlers, let us learn what we can of who we are and where we (may) have come from and listen with humility to what people of these territories, who have lived here since time immemorial, are willing to share about this land.
What is Plant Spirit
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer tells us that in the Anishinabemowinm language there is no word for “Bay,” rather there is the word “wiikwegamaa”, which translates as “To Be a Bay.” In English where a noun would be used for a person, place or thing, in Anishinabemowinm there is often instead an action of Being, a verb.
With passion for all things living, Kimmerer describes this realization:
“In that moment I could smell the water of the bay, watch it rock against the shore and hear it sift into the sand. A bay is a noun only if it is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa – to be a bay – releases the water from the bondage and lets it live.” 14
Kimmerer explains how in her traditional culture, Potawatomi, the language of animacy extends to rocks, mountains, water, fire and places. “Beings that are imbued with spirit, our sacred medicines, our songs, drums and even stories are all animate,”(55) she tells us, and that “the arrogance of English is that the only way to be animate, to be worthy of respect and moral concern, is to be human.” 14.5
The word spirit defined in english as the “animating or vital principle in man and animals,” is directly from the Latin spiritus, “a breathing (respiration, and of the wind), breath,” related to the Latin “spirare” which means “to breathe.”
This paper is limited to Plant Spirit Medicine, but as Kimmerer tells us geological forms have spirit too, that is to say they breathe! Rocks do actually respire, it’s a called “geological respiration” and involves a process of exchange between limestone, rainwater and volcanoes. Plants breathe as well. The photosynthesis of plants is cellular respiration. Plant respiration changes carbon dioxide to oxygen and helped to change the earth into an oxygenated planet making it a hospitable place for oxygen inhaling life (including us!). Respiration is spirit and spirit is animation. It is inhalation and exhalation: exchange, reciprocity, interconnectedness and relationship.
Karyn Saunders shares from her traditional teachings that,
“…plants are people. We consider them people and because of that we also consider them the oldest beings on earth. Plants were first so they hold the most knowledge, so we consider them our elders, and see it that way. If nothing else, how to respect plants? Just treat them as if they are your grandparents, if you are respectful of your grandparents, treat them like that…” 15
Cease Wyss, T’uystaanat, Indigenous Plant Diva, tells us that in her teachings,
“The rocks are our ancestors they’re our grandfathers, they are the oldest beings on the planet. The plants are the second oldest beings on the planet, they are our grandmothers… I treat all the medicines like they are all my grandmothers, so I feel very blessed, that I am covered, surrounded with ancestors all the time and I’m not alone in that each and everyone of us has that.” 16
Cease Wyss, T’uystaanat, took my friend and I to the village site of X̱wáýx̱way, in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh territory where her ancestor, Sexwalia Aunt Sally Kulkalem, lived until 1923. Aunt Sally was last person to live at X̱wáýx̱way, now part of the landscape that settler society calls Stanley Park. This place name reminds me who has lived with these plant populations for generations. Who knows how to care for them and to work with them to care for others. This reminds me that I am witnessing a plant community that has developed as a result of an indigenous relationship since time immemorial.
Cease brought us here to meet Licorice Fern, Polypodium glycyrrhiza, to bury our fingers under the mossy maples. We learned to trace the rhizomes of Licorice Fern and anchored the lesson in the sweet-bitterness of their flavour. Cease showed us how to greet the plant, ask permission, to wait for an answer, to make a promise to defend the place where they live, to make an offering in thanks and respect for the plant and their environment. You are coming to their home, bring something to share and learn how harvest without damage to the plants and their home.
Cease teaches that when you approach a plant as medicine you make an offering to the plant and you ask permission for your intentions. She taught me that you need to listen for a response and that you need to respect and honour the plant what ever the answer. We need to be able to hear “No.”
What does it mean to hear a plant?
“It’s not just going to be a voice. When I say talk to the plants or go sit with them to hear they don’t go, “Hi I’m Lemon Balm and I’m good for sexual dysfunction…” oh yeah they do talk to you sometimes, they do rap you on the head and talk to you, but for the most part its more in your mind you think that stuff or you feel it… so you want to pay attention to your energy, that’s why you have to do it quietly.” – Karyn Saunders 17
Developing Plant Spirit Relationships
After knowing yourself as best as you can and continue to do, “being and sitting is the first way to do it and I talk to them all the time I talk out loud I talk silently but I have conversations with them the same way I do with my to my animal or human friends I have whole conversations with them, so, they hear you know. There is a reason that the plants work spiritually when you take them its because they have this ability. And sitting is the best way to do it, just sitting quietly and feeling it and feeling around it.” 18
“Plant sits” are a method of learning about the medicine of plants just by spending time with them. This can be in the place where they grow, in their community, with their families. A plant sit could also take place with a photograph, a drawing or a part of the plant. This practice involves sitting, being quiet, asking permission to learn from them and listening with all your senses again and again.
Other ways of developing relationships with plants are growing plants in your garden or home, identifying plants where they grow, tasting them, smelling them, making tea with them and dreaming with them.
Samantha Spikenard, a student of Blue Otter School of Herbal Medicine, recommends to:
“Find out which plants live in the wild places around you and how they make more of themselves- by making seeds, bulbs, by spreading their roots? Go to them in the fall time and help them multiply. Visit plants throughout all seasons. Pick up any trash. Go back year after year and see how the stands you have helped along have grown and how that has changed the surrounding areas.
Stay abreast of the environmental degradation in your area, any degradation of the environment is degradation of their home. Find out about timber sales, industry polluting land and water, overgrazing of livestock, a.t.v. use. Being an ally to plants means fighting for them” 19
Responsibilities vs. Rights
Stephen Buhner’s book Sacred Plant Medicine suggests that we have a “birthright …to understand and enter this sacred territory.” 20
Mel Bazil and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief, Toghestiy, tell us that in Gitxsan they had no word for rights instead they “…have words for responsibilities.” According to Toghestiy, Gitxan responsibilities are “Take What You Need and Leave the Rest.” 21
Toghestiy explains that:
“Responsibilities give us [Gitxsan people] a chance to walk freely on our lands and we take our responsibilities very serious. That’s the freedom that we experience. The air that we breathe isn’t based on our rights it’s based on our ancestral responsibilities which go back thousands of years.” 22
On how to proceed in this modern society, Mel Bazil tells us,
“All of us as human beings can protect that finite world by asserting our responsibilities collectively around the world,” and that “it’s not new, what is new is remembering what those protocols were and what they can be today especially in the face of contemporary and future proposals by this capitalist society to access what they call resources. These are not resources, this is a life force. A life force that we have relationships to.” 23
As settlers, instead of understanding Plant Spirit Medicine as our birth “right,” we can understand our relationships to plants as “responsibility.”
Responsibility is from the latin noun respons- which means answered or offered in return. Among many gifts, Plants have given us an oxygenated planet, the foundation of our own spirit. At the foundation of Plant Spirit practice is the knowing that our relationship to plants is deeply reciprocal and this involves our active participation.
“These beings don’t belong to us, these plant people don’t belong to us, you have to respect them and ask for them to tend us and heal us and give there medicine to us and that’s something that is hard for people to get through is the entitlement factor.” – Karyn Saunders 24
Cease taught me that we have responsibility to the plant when we introduce ourselves before we begin to work with it. Cease showed us how to greet the plant, ask permission to go ahead with your intention, to wait for an answer, to make a promise to protect the place where they live, to make an offering in gratitude and acknowledgement for the land.
The responsibility to process the plant, to dry it, to store it, to use it as medicine and also the responsibility in the promise you make to the plant to ensure its continued survival and the health of it’s home.
Making Good on our Promise – Protecting Our Plant Relatives
“Plants have spirit. They are a nation in and of themselves and I apologize to them for not doing enough to protect them.” 25 This comes from Linda Black Elk, ethnobotanist, matriarch, water defender Standing Rock Lakota Sioux healer who literally stood in the way of pipeline construction. Linda Black Elk shared:
“The pipeline’s threat to water, sacred sites, and treaty rights is real, but so is the threat to the Lakota culture through these plants. Make no mistake – this is genocide.” 26
As herbalists who promise to protect the environment of the plants that we work with, how do we know that we can make good on a promise unless we have acted on it. I have friends who said they had courage, who said they would fight, but when faced with certain challenges they came to understand their courage was not for that fight. If you make a promise you need to know that you can keep it to the best of your abilities by knowing yourself and being honest. By deepening our relationships to plants and their homes we can strengthen our love for them and our courage to realize our promise.
If we want to make good on our promises to the plants to protect their health and home, and enact our responsibility that we have assumed through our relationship building with the medicines, then it is our responsibility to act in solidarity with traditional people defending their land and culture. As Linda Black Elk illustrates, Lakota culture is threatened when the plants are threatened and the culture contains knowledge from time immemorial how to care for them and their environment. It is not something, as a settler, I can learn in a lifetime.
“In the flowers, which reflect all aspects of human experience, one can find and heal the lost mother, the absent or abusive father. One can learn to knit body and soul, and call back the lost parts of the self” – Mimi Kamp 27
Flower Essences as we know them in Western Herbalism were first developed by Dr. Edward Bach in England in the 1930’s. Flower Essences are energetic liquid extracts generally used internally taken by oral drops to address emotional and spiritual well-being and mind body health. Bach developed 38 specific essences which work to address complex presentations of emotional and physical experience. In addition to the common oral use, Flower Essences can be applied externally in localized areas, used in baths, or misted in the environment on the body.
Flower Essences are generally made by infusing the flowers in spring water in a crystal vessel in direct sun without a shadow ever passing over the medicine. 28 (see the reference for the Bach method). The Flower Essence Society has an expanded repertory of Flower Essences. There are also smaller flower essence medicine makers like Essence of the Desert and Alaskan Essences.
Mimi Kamp, an herbalist, botanical illustrator and maker of Essence of the Desert flower essences, speaks to the method of making Living Flower Essences, a method of special note due to it’s extremely low ecological impact and strong basis in relationship with the plants themselves. According to Mimi, Living Flower Essences,
“Are made without picking the flower or any part of the plant, rather setting the bowl close to the plant and, after a meditative attunement or entrainment, asking that plant being to bring its healing influence into the water, to make it available for those elsewhere, those in need. I often touch the water to the flowers, sometimes to those on different plants of that species, before setting it down – sometimes in the sun, sometimes shade, sometimes moon or stars – to “cook”. Every plant is different and each releases in its own preferred way. Learning these ways comes from observation and time spent with the plants, watching when flowers open and when they close, when they release their perfume, etc.” 29
“The spiritual properties of plants is their strongest medicine” – Karyn Saunders 30
Spirit Dosing is a method discussed by Western Herbalists, although I am not sure of it’s origins. It involves using 1-5 drops of a plant extract: a tincture, glycerite, oxymel etc. and the plant medicine works for people on a spiritual/emotional level rather than a physiological level, although the spirit dosing can affect people in physical ways. At the Wild Seed School of Herbal Studies, Jasmyn Clift shared what Bursera microphylla, or Elephant Tree, told her. Bursera is “for people who wound easily and heal slowly, both physically and spiritually.” 31 In the case of Bursera the spirit medicine has some overlapping indications with as the physiological medicine. For more on this subject attend a workshop with Jasmyn Clift. Furthermore, Matthew Wood is an herbalist that has much to say on spirit dosing and a number of books in print.
There are many more forms of Plant Spirit Medicine than discussed in this paper. Quite a lot of them are culturally specific. A few other plant spirit related modalities that Western Herbalists may find relevant are Botanical Astrology, from Nicolas Culpepper, which views body systems and plant properties as interconnected to the cosmos, and Homeopathy which uses a homeopathic dilution to treat a patient, the more dilute the stronger the medicine.
Remember when you are handling medicine, the plant can feel your energy because plants have spirit. Cease says,
“The purpose of these (medicines) is to feel good. In my own way I am still praying when I am blending when I am talking to that medicine and I’m wishing nothing but goodness for whoever receives that and uses them, and that’s really the trick.” 32
Relationships to plants can be very personal. While there are lots of suggestions above on ways to build these relationships and offer reciprocity, people will develop their own ways. Talk to people whose territory you reside on. Talk to plants. Locate your responsibility.
Seek permission for the work you do from the people and the plants. When you don’t have those relationships, work to build them and always be ready to hear no, not here, or not now.
In the humble words of poet Mary Oliver,
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
Into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass…” 33
1. Eliot Cohen, Plant Spirit Medicine, page xvii.
2. This harmful idea doesnt deserve citation.
3. Gord Hill, 500 years of Indigenous Resistance Comic Book, (warriorpublications.com)
4. Findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, Honouring the Truth Reconciling for the Future.(http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Honouring_the_Truth_Reconciling_for_the_Future_July_23_2015.pdf)
5.Toi Scott, We Are the Sum of Our Ancestors (http://www.decolonizingyoga.com/we-are-the-sum-of-our-ancestors-decolonizing-herbalism) – read more of their writings at http://www.afrogenderqueer.com
6. Mel Bazil, Anarchy, Indigenous Sovereignty, and Decolonization, 2014, (https://thefinalstrawradio.noblogs.org/post/2014/06/27/part-2-of-mel-bazil-on-decolonization-anarchism-solidarity-indigeneity-june-15-2014) Audio
7. Karyn Saunders, Herbal Highway, June 17, 2004 (https://kpfa.org/player/?audio=50358) Audio
8. Mel Bazil, Tranceding Rights, 2012 (http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/audio/transcending-rights-worskhop-mel-bazil-part-1/12672) Audio
9. Galina Krasskova, Honoring the Ancestors, A Basic Guide, 2014, Chapter 5, pg 47-48 (Sanngetall Press)
10. Ember Peters, (soon to be published text)
11. Galina Krasskova, Honoring the Ancestors, A Basic Guide, 2014, Pg 12 and 22, (Sanngetall Press)
12. Sweet, Victoria. “Hildegard of Bingen and the Greening of Medieval Medicine.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 73 no. 3, 1999, pp. 381-403. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/bhm.1999.0140
13. Hildegard von Bingen, Causae et Curae, 1859.
14 & 14.5. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 2013, (Milkweed Editions), pg. 55 and 57
15. Karyn Saunders, Herbal Highway, June 17, 2004 (https://kpfa.org/player/?audio) Time: 2:50-3:20
16. Cease Wyss, T’uystaanat, Indigenous Plant Diva, Interactive Medicine Walk with the Indigenous Plant Diva – 2016.09.27 (UBC Learning Circle)
17 & 18. Karyn Saunders, Herbal Highway, June 17, 2004 (https://kpfa.org/player/?audio)
19. Samantha Spikenard, Plants Gone Wild! Taking Care of Plants in the Wild, (https://unsettlingamerica.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/plants-g-wild.pdf)
20. Stephen Buhner, Sacred Plant Medicine, 1996, Roberts Rinehart Pub.
21, 22, & 23. Mel Bazil and Dini ze Toghestiy, 2004, Rights versus Responsibility ft Mel Bazil and Toghestiy, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w43j30S1yDI) Video
24. Karyn Saunders, Herbal Highway, June 17, 2004, (https://kpfa.org/player/?audio) Audio
25 & 26. Linda Black Elk, Plants Have Spirits, 2017, (https://vimeo.com/192010989) Video
28. Kalli Liddick, How to Make Your Own Flower Essence, Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism (https://clinicalherbalism.com/how-to-make-your-own-flower-essence/)
30. Karyn Saunders, Herbal Highway, June 17, 2004, (https://kpfa.org/player/?audio) Audio
31. Jasmyn Clift, Wild Seed School Intermediate Materia Medica 2018, (Authour’s notes)
32. Cease Wyss, T’uystaanat, Indigenous Plant Diva, Interactive Medicine Walk with the Indigenous Plant Diva – 2016.09.27 (UBC Learning Circle)
33. Mary Oliver, The Summer Day, House of Light, 1990.