Earth Angels

Now wait a minute,
I know I'm lying in a field of grass somewhere!

Branches shading my open mind
describe the shape of life and
hold the smallest of birds which,
informing me with a nod,
sings "All plants are Angels!
Praise God, Praise God!"

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sometimes Plants Whisper, Sometimes They Yell

Artemisia tridentata
Also known as Sagebrush, or Big Sagebrush.  It is not related to the true sages (Salvia), except that their distinct aromatic qualities might remind one of sage.  There are several subspecies, mostly ranging by local habitat, most of them being very similar in habit and aroma.  However, I've found that this "almost the same" aroma can range from citrusy, to minty, to dry, if anything can smell dry.  This plant owns the dry basins and lower foothills of the west, from Northern Arizona to Canada.  Although it is not a showy or even colorful flower, it is the state flower of Nevada.  This plant's aromatic signature connects with something deep in my brain, as if it were the oldest smell on the planet.  It is a clean aroma, like a sacred grandmother's earth perfume.  To be in the Sagebrush plains after a rain is Nature's ultimate aromatherapy treatment.  For me, nothing says sacred like the silent song that this plant offers ceaselessly to the western skies.

Artemisia is one of my most cherished plant familiars.  This is one of the friends that "cared enough" to show me how plants teach, how their schedule and agenda differs from mine, and how to get with the curriculum. 

One night in November 1989, the Raven's birthday, we pulled off on a side road near Grand Canyon National Park to get some sleep.  In the morning, stepping out of the VW van, we were greeted by the beauty of the everywhere scent of Sagebrush.  Yes!  We had just spent a season cooking at a retreat center where much use was made of dried Sagebrush bundles in "smudging", a "native incense" aromatic, often used for "clearing negative energies".  The smell of the fresh Artemisia is, of course, less smoky than when burned- something more like natural lovely laundry detergent.  Well, we knew we wanted this aroma in our van.  We picked the early flowers and new stems from scattered plants, leaving last years woody growth to re-sprout in the new year.  We got into the habit of doing this in this same area for many successive years and would indeed find vigorous new growth on the same plants we had respectfully harvested the year before.  We even began to be able to distinguish between certain familiar plants because of their unique aromas.

In that first year, we arrived a few days later in Tempe and went to our familiar food co-op, reeking with the beauty of Sagebrush smell.  People noticed, asked, liked it.  They wanted some.  We ended up trading several dozen fresh bundles that we had wrapped for food, a little $, some gas in the van.  Nice.  It was clear to me, an unrepentant weirdo, that the plant had done this.  We were grateful.  This chance occurrence in fact, eventually started a natural incense business which grew for many years.

By the second year of camping with, harvesting, bundling, drying, storing, using, and trading this plant, it had begun to impart data, mixed with feelings, or intuitions, to my little hippie brain.  Maybe the first, most subtle whispering was the immediate mood lift of the fresh fragrance of the unassuming leaves.  Even a tiny piece of leaf in the pocket works like an emotional Tums, or little invisible "stick-it note" to remember how beautiful The Mother...  

In the third year of living with this particular earth angel to the point where it would stain our hands, (sometimes pieces would fall in our food while cooking in the tiny van kitchen), my dreams began to intensify.  The effect was one of increased lucidity, or awareness that I was in a dream.  The plant had raised its volume to a loud whisper, but I, being a little dense, did not yet relate the 1st class, dreaming upgrades to the nature of the plant.

But that was about to change.  This was the year that we actually had received many orders from bookstores and whole-food retailers who consistently sold out of our moderately priced and beautifully wrapped "sagebrush sticks."  We were finishing up several days of camping, harvesting, and drying, and were preparing for our return to civilization.  Dried Sagebrush bundles in paper grocery bags were stacked each evening in the front seats of the van so that we would have enough room to open our bed and catch some Zs.  I remember the air in the van being so pungent that it almost burned the eyes.  Before I passed out from exhaustion I remembered wondering if I should get up and clear out the front so that it didn't smell so strong.  But I was tired and so I passed right out.

Next, I'm in this white room with a white bed and it looks like it could be a hospital but there's a young girl laying prone in it that I recognized.  It was Lala, my first peyote teacher's granddaughter.  I had not seen her since she was young, her age at this time being about 20.  For whatever reason, she was asking me to lay down with her, not in a sexual way, just in a weird way.  Then she began to plead, beg for me to lay down with her.  I know, I'm in a dream here- but this freaked me out!  I thought I was there and I began to implore her to get up.  I'm saying, "Please Lala, get up, please!."  She was saying no, and I was crying and was going to pick her up and move her and right at this moment I heard a loud crash.  I knew it was her, but I simultaneously realized that the noise was in the van I was sleeping in, something very loud!  I bolted upright and screamed, "Lala?"  Raven jumped up too- it was weird.  I, for a moment was convinced that Lala was in the van.  Totally freaked (Raven was wondering what was up also) I turned on a light to see, which revealed that 2 bags of Sagebrush bundles had basically tumbled from where they had been and hit all our kitchen stuff and things, thus creating a jarring awakening.  I was still emotionally involved in the just vanished dream such that I recall muttering Lala's name a few more times even after I saw the cause of the racket.

I explained to Raven who Lala was and described the dream but it didn't make any sense, especially as I had not really thought of her for quite some time.  The intensity of the event left me laying awake for a while before eventually drifting off again, this time to an uneventful sleep.

Two days later we arrived at our food cooperative in Tempe.  Approaching the front door I saw this hand written notice taped on the door- "Please pray for Lala (then her full name) who was in an auto accident and is in a coma at such and such hospital."  So what am I to make of that friends?  I don't try to make these things happen, I don't even really want them to, but they do, and they demand that I become more ignorant or more aware.

I thought about this for some time.  But I'm not that good at thinking, so I decided to read all I could about Artemisia, reading being one of the activities I enjoy and excel at only slightly more than naked, fluorescent, black-light, Twister.  It turns out that Artemisias are all avid volatile aromatic producers, little factories of scent.  Certain Artemisias wre the basis for the legendary intoxicant, Absinthe, as well as being used in traditional "dream pillows" in Asiatic herbology.  It turns out that years later, our association with the Native American Church would bring this plant to us again as an essential ceremonial herb, a fresh bundle of A. tridentata being passed around the tipi following tobacco and preceding the Peyote.  This all makes sense to me now, but it took me a while to realize its special role in my life.  In following years I enjoyed using fresh sprigs next to my bed, lifting the nightime experience in a positive way, much like the summer aroma of night-flowering Sacred Datura can.

I eventually came to understand that the sacks of falling Sagebrush were just this being's way of getting the attention of a fairly slow starter, not the quickest flower in the bunch, not me.  But in this way, the plant did indeed, effectively communicate with me.  It got me to pay attention to the subtle of its ways but the solid of its presence.  This was the hollering part of its talk with me, I could not get the message from the whispers alone.

This also began to clarify my personal ethos of how to learn a plant, I mean really learn from the inside out, not from the head down.  Put simply, it is this:  To let a plant speak with you first listen.  If you can't hear anything, live with it, camp in it, sleep with it.  If you still don't get the message, find a sustainable means and purpose for harvesting it.  Lots of it.  Not there yet?  Taste it, eat it, accidentally and on purpose.  People like my friend Amanda at Tucson Herbs know how fun this is, the stalking, the finding, the capture.  Take it home after living where it grows, and lay on it.  Keep it where you live and appreciate it.  Do this for many seasons, and you will know what you know about this being without anybody having to explain it for you, guaranteed.  I have been very fortunate (and stubborn enough) to be able to get to know quite a few species using this method since my childhood.  Sometime soon, I hope to start to make a list- "Plants I Have Known and Loved," or "Total Plant Immersion Therapy, A Way of Knowing." :)

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