THE MEDICINE JOURNEYS: NOURISHMENT AND RITUALS FROM THE PLANTS
I’ve been wandering in the desert for hours, shouldering a pack so heavy it feels as if my hips will split in two, up and down over boulders and unstable rocks in a dry wash, side stepping prickly patches of cholla and acacia claws. The sun is already down below the craggy mountains ahead, and a chill is taking hold already. I stumble on yet another loose tumbled rock in the wash, and find myself face to face with a soft, white, graceful and stately plant, last years dried flower stalks towering above me, its roots buried deep in the side of the arroyo underneath the stones.
She takes my breath away.
I had no idea she would be coming along on this journey.
I know the dancing ocotillos and boney cholla well, the gracious and abundant creosote and dazzling purple blooms of desert lavender a buzz with bees- my long time friends, teachers, allies, and healers of my heart in so many ways….but Mother Sage. She was an honest surprise. Maybe I should not have felt such surprise, wandering in the remote desert hills of Southern California, but I didn’t even know that beloved and queenly White Sage could grow among the parched rocks of the Sonoran Desert landscape.
As my heart melted in a brief moment of gratitude, hands still on the Earth holding myself up, I offered a small pour from my bottle of water, and placed a single leaf in my mouth, upon my tounge- fortitude for the rest of the walk to base camp in the growing dark. I had been feeling the possibility of not being able to take another step, as we were wandering, not quite sure how to find the base camp spot, but Mother Sage, she gave me strength. “Go into the places you fear are not passable.”
When I finally arrived, she welcomed me to my desert home among the crumbling mountain boulders in a deep canyon. Majestic spires of grey green fragrant leaves, on bushes at least 4 feet across, and 4 or 5 feet tall, tucked into sandy nooks between boulders, on the banks of a gurgling desert stream, a tiny oasis in the parched landscape.
Mother Sage was my sacrament for 10 days in ceremony, fasting, solitude, vision questing, dream working, praying, and crying. She came to my pillow at night, I tasted her leaves on my tongue or steeped in my water from the spring fed creek, I burned dried out leaves in prayer and offering, I sang her my songs, and gave offerings of cornmeal from my pouch. A small thing really, for such a gift she gave to me, simply in her presence for my sacred work.
And why should all this matter? It was purely a personal experience, one that felt profound to me, during a sacred time I cleared for myself both energetically and physically in my life. And it is a perfect example of how plants show up for us in just the right moment, how relationships of trust and magic between plants (and all of nature really) and people develop and grow, and story of how we Earth dwellers can learn medicine and healing directly from the Earth and the plants we encounter in our days.
Like most of us spiritually conscious folks, I have used white sage as a smudge, and even in some of my medicines, and usually I get it from someone I know who gathers it in a sacred and ethical way, or is growing it in their garden. The overpopularity and excessive harvest of this special and sacred sage mother plant is something that really bothers me, as a plant person. Not every single ceremony, and situation calls for burning sage. In fact, most of the time, I tell my students to smudge with the plant the grows near them...maybe it is juniper, or sagebrush, or sweetgrass, or pine, or rosemary or lavender. We all like and use more exotic things from time to time like frankincense, palo santo, or even white sage, when we live in a great frozen northland. To get it down to brass tacks, I think it is really more about the RELATIONSHIP you cultivate with your sacred plant helpers, and a relationship involves not just how and why you use it, but how you respect its needs, sensitivities, abundance or lack thereof, sourcing or harvesting from ethical and sustainable sources. Do you really know that plant? Have you spent time with it? Have you let its presence and environment inform your heart as well?
This wasn’t the first time I had met white sage in California, I’ve even tried to grow it a time or two (sadly not successfully yet, though I’m planning to try again.) Even though it was many years ago, I recall the same overwhelming gratitude and falling to my knees in her presence. Almost like a queen so beautiful and kind and powerful, you can’t help but humble yourself in her presence.
Her regal presence surrounded me every day, greeting her in the morning on my way to take a pee, or at night on my way down by the river to pump water for the next day, her whitish leaves practically glowing, even without the moonlight during the new moon.
What spoke to me the most during these days about that queenly sage mother, was her gentle reminder to me, day in and day out, to hold the purity of my intent in my spiritual and soulful work. I know and love sage as a cleansing smudge when the energy is heavy and dense, but there is really nothing quite like seeing and being with a living plant in its wildest home. She reflected to me the purity of HER intent in holding the truly special and sacred canyon I camped in in a beautiful and sacred way. Because she didn’t really grow all over, just in that one place….other washes and the alluvial fans were all full of cholla and ocotillo and brittlebush, but not sage. Of course, environmental factors are at work, but the energy of the land is always reflected in the environmental presence of a land, including its features, and its inhabitants.
Questing and fasting was not the easiest thing I’ve ever done, and I lost resolve on more than one occasion, and always the sage leaves I sucked on, and placed in my water containers, and burned in offering in my sitting and praying, reminded me to hold the purity of my intent, to empty myself and purify myself, and trust in the process. The queen sage mother felt like this presence watching over me, even when I felt like I was faltering, kind and strong. She perseveres and even thrives in the harshest and driest desert conditions. She makes all things sacred.
I’m finding it hard to even communicate the depth of her presence and strength that I experience so viscerally in the desert. No one else deigned to take notice of her, as far as I could tell, just another plant in the crevices, but she was singing to me the whole time. I suppose what I’m trying to express is how very important it is for us to LISTEN to our plant teachers, not just use them because of what we learned from a book or even what others have taught us. Mother White Sage is SOOO much more than that simple and overused smudging ally that most of us like the smell of and feel of in our sacred space. Have you really listened to her deeper song? Do you know the way she holds her space and holds space for you too. The way she exudes her pure presence without a shred of shame or hiding any part of herself. The way her leaves drop upon the Earth, creating a blanket of fragrant duff for tiny scorpions to hide from the sun, and to collect water dew moisture and hold it close to her roots, even in that brutal sun.
Listen now, to the SONGS of the plant teachers in your life, not just their human ways and uses, but the songs they sing when we aren’t looking, and the songs they whisper in our most open and fervent prayers.