The Language of Herbs - An Interview with Susun Weed
by Susan Meeker-lowry
An MD on a menopause panel with me told the audience that no herb was safe to use unless its active ingredient was measured and standardized. What can I say? To me the active ingredient of a plant is the very part that cannot be measured: the energy, the life force, the chi, the fairy of the plant, not a “poisonous” constituent. To the healer/artist/herbalist, the active part of the plant is that part that can be used by the right brain to actively, chaotically, naturally, “jump the octave” and work a miracle. This active part is refined away in standardized products, for the real active part is the messy part, the changeable part, the subtle part, the invisible part.
- Susun Weed
For years Susun Weed’s books have been an important part of my herbal library, especially Healing Wise, published in 1989. My copy of Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year was long ago gifted to a young mother to be, eventually replaced by the invaluable Menopausal Years. So it was an honor to interview Susun, wise woman, green witch, and herbalist extraordinaire.
Susun explains that there are three traditions of healing. The heroic tradition sees the body as unclean and in need of saving. Techniques of healing have included purging, bloodletting, and the use of powerful and potentially toxic herbs and medicines. The scientific tradition, with which we’re all familiar, sees the body as a machine and disease as the enemy. Techniques of healing focus on powerful drugs and surgery, and trusting in the all-knowing doctor.
Contrast these with the Wise Woman tradition which sees the body as a wondrous manifestation and disease as an opportunity to move toward wholeness. Gentle herbs, especially those commonly thought of as “weeds” are most often the preferred treatments. The Wise Woman tradition heals with nourishment and love, and the goal isn’t necessarily to rid the body of a “bad disease” but to become whole and aware, to embrace change. In the Wise Woman tradition there are no diseases perse, which is difficult to understand, especially coming from the scientific perspective most of us do today. In Healing Wise Susun explains: Disease has no existence on its own.
Any disease is bound inextricably to the being and setting which expresses and embodies it. . . . Diseases are certainly recognized, and diagnostic skills are honored . . . [b]ut the focus is on the person as an individual, not on the disease as an entity. . . . Disease does not exist apart from the being manifesting it. Even a typhoid bacterium, a polio virus, is not typhoid or polio without a being to manifest it. And because each being is unique, so each expression of typhoid or polio is unique, and must be treated uniquely in the Wise Woman tradition.”
Susun is a wonderful story teller and often during our conversation I felt as though I was sitting around a campfire, enraptured, leaning in to catch every word. She sees plants as unique individuals with intelligence and spirit and the ability to communicate, even with humans if we would just listen. And this is what she does – helps people to open and listen with all of their senses, to let go of preconceived notions of what works and what doesn’t, of what’s possible and what isn’t.
One of the things I love most about Susun’s approach to herbs is she knows them as individual beings, allies in our quest for health and healing, not to mention Earth wisdom. You can’t get to know an herb by reading about it in a book or by purchasing some dried to make tea or tincture, though you certainly may purchase dried herbs, especially those that don’t grow where you live or that won’t thrive in your garden, and reading about them is a good thing too. For a plant to be a true ally, however, it must become a friend. And friendship doesn’t happen overnight. Susun suggests taking a year to get to know an herbal ally. Pick an herb that grows where you live so you can hang out with it. Perhaps dandelion, chickweed, burdock, red clover, mullein, or comfrey. Spend time with it. Invite it into your dreams. Get to know it in all seasons, in rain and sun, in day and night. Susun suggests keeping notes of your experiences. By the end of the year you’ll be amazed at the relationship you’ve created, you and your green friend, and how much you’ve learned.
Let's talk about the magic of herbs. How are they magical and what role do our intentions play?
SW: Magical plants fall into several different categories. Some plants that are magical because we think they are. If you hang a sprig of an herb by your door to keep away bad influences, that is the power of your mind, not the innate power of the herb. At the other end of the spectrum, there are plants that are magical because they have chemical constituents that change how the brain works. These are called psychoactive plants. They have the ability to so alter our perception that the way our brain works changes, thus our lives change. Exciting new work is being done with psychoactive plants in curing obsessive-compulsive disorders as well as helping those with post-traumatic stress disorder. In between, there are magical plants that have minor effects on brain chemicals and are also mind medicine, such as the Artemisias.
I grow Artemesia vulgaris by my doorstep for her magic, for her medicine, and because Artemis is the protector of the herbalist. "I am not mugwort," she told me fiercely. "I have nothing to do with the drunken fantasies of people who have their nose in a mug." Then, softer, she told me: "Look. See my white hair on the back of every leaf? I am an old woman, a wise old woman. So call me cronewort, in honor of old women." Cronewort tonifies. It aids digestion, the uterus, the bladder, and the urinary tract. Throughout the Orient, burned as moxa, Artemisia is a prime healer and magical plant. The sign of the herbalist is Artemisia growing beside her door. If it can't be grown, then a dried bunch is hung on the door or it is painted on the door.
Artemesia vulgaris is said to cause vivid dreams. When I first read this, I put some under my pillow and, sure enough, I had vivid dreams. This is mind medicine. I think something has an effect, so it does. Wanting to be more scientific, a couple of friends and I made little dream pillows and sent them to our moms for Mothers' Day. We told them to put them under their pillows, nothing more. Within a week of getting our gifts, each of our our moms had called to share one or more incredible dreams!
One apprentice found a bag of cronewort I was storing in her room. Knowing it could be used as a smudge – it is related to sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) – she burned some and went to sleep. At talking stick the next morning, she related a complex, interesting dream. Each day, talking stick was longer as apprentice after apprentice began to have vivid, memorable dreams, influenced by the nightly smuding by the one apprentice, who had no idea what was happening. Finally, I asked, "Is somebody burning cronewort?" "I am," she replied, "but what does that have to do with our dreams?"
Odors have the ability to trigger the release of brain chemicals and evoke memories. When I smell frankincense and myrrh, I remember being at Mass. Cinnamon evokes happy childhood memories for many people. Everywhere in the world, people use strongly-scented plants – such as copal, sage, lavender, and cedar – to create and strengthen their magic, their spirituality, and their connection to unseen worlds.
Earlier you mentioned what cronewort said to you. How did your ability to talk with plants come about? And how do you help people hear the plants for themselves?
SW: I spent several months sleeping in a tipi on my land. At first I was kept awake by the sounds of the frogs and insects; they have quite the nighttime chorus going. After some nights, I began to hear "monsters" in the night. All those huge hulking things tromping about outside the tipi turned out to be nothing more than mice and other small creatures, not the scary things of my imagination. Just as I was thinking I could finally get to sleep, I began to hear the oddest sound yet: "hehehehe" (Susun giggles delightedly). In my mind I said, "Who's laughing?"
A voice, actually multiple voices, replied: "We are laughing!" giggle, giggle, giggle.
Giggle, giggle, giggle. "We are, us, the plants."
"Hello plants. Are you laughing because life is fun and you're enjoying yourselves?"
Peals of laughter. "We're laughing at you!"
"Oh? Am I particularly funny to you?"
Belly laughs. "You are funny when you tell people that herbal medicine was discovered by trial and error."
"How else could we have learned which plants to eat and which to use as medicine?"
"What other way is there?" I demanded.
"What do you think? What is happening right now?"
"You're talking to me."
"Yes, that's how human beings learned about plants!"
"You talked to them?"
"Yes! Just as we are communicating with you!"
You can imagine my delight. I didn't have to teach herbal medicine, I could just teach people to listen to the plants and the plants would explain to us how to use them. How simple, how easy.
"Can everyone hear you?" I was eager to know.
"Of course. All they have to do is three things. One, take their shoes off and get their bare feet on the ground. Two, stop putting themselves in little metal boxes that travel at high speeds. Three, sleep on the Earth in a round structure."
While these are reasonable preconditions for hearing from the plants, I realized that very few 21st century students would be willing to walk barefoot to class! There had to be another way to help people be in touch with the plants' own wisdom. I realized that the vast majority of modern human beings were not going to fulfill those things. The plants told me that hearing the plants the way I am talking about it, and the way I think you are talking about it is the hardest skill to develop.
"Hearing us with your inner ear, the way you are now, is difficult," the plants informed me. "Instead, smell us, taste us, touch us, look closely at us."
All summer long, the plants schooled me in the many ways they speak to us through our senses.
To be continued next month...
From an interview in The Spiritualist’s Spectrum: March 2007
Editor’s caution: This is for the mild, wild herbs Susun swears by. Herbs like nettles, chickweed, dandelion, oatstraw – herbs that are basically foods. Do not do this with potentially toxic herbs like goldenseal or lobelia and certainly don’t do it with any herb you’ve never taken or are not familiar with.
From Volume 7, No. 1 & 2
Photo: Lani Philips