Archive for January, 2012

Random Musings: Can You Hear Me Now?

Posted on January 27, 2012. Filed under: Path of the Healer, Random Musings | Tags: , , |

Originally, I had a completely different idea of what I was going to write about this week. But after reading the latest always wondrous post by Lucinda over at Whispering earth, I decided to go in a different direction. (As well as a different direction from her post!)

At the end of 2011, I had decided to spend part of my time in 2012 on a particular goal, learning how to become a healer who is an herbalist rather than just an herbalist (who may or may not be a healer.) This goal arose as I looked at the advanced training options at different herbal schools and, as I did, there were several small things that nagged me about them.

Two Paths (Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbals)

The one aspect that’s relevant here is the focus on diagnostic systems – ways to box, label, access clients and their conditions but by itself it seemed to be missing something important – listening and being present. Medical schools have been struggling with this and are working to incorporate such things into their curriculum. It’s one area where the “alternative” healing arts have traditionally been strong that has disappeared in contemporary Western medicine. And it is something I would loathe to see lost as some herbalists try to be oh so more formal and official.

IMO, being heard, truly heard, is a key part of the healing process. And listening well is a key skill for healers of all stripes and anyone in general. Yes, you need your knowledge and connection to plants. As well as your diagnostic tool sets. But there needs to be a space before then where you are present and actively listening. I believe that hearing, not just the symptoms, but the experience the person is going through gives a context for the situation and can lay the groundwork for real healing, rather than just alleviating the symptoms.

But first one of my favorite Zen stories:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Beautiful on so many levels….

Now there’s a difference between passive listening (say like the veal like passivity people have watching TV where you listen but aren’t so present and engaged) and active listening where you are present and engaged. I tend to think of real listening as being present, letting go of your inner chatter and being open and focused. And for most of us that can be hard work.

Make no mistake. It is a skill that takes work and practice – especially in this culture which is almost antithetical to developing that skill. For me, studying and practicing various Buddhist techniques is invaluable in working on my listening skills and learning to be present. I personally find meditation an amazing aid as well.

Here are some books I’d recommend if anyone has interest in some of this:

In a more Buddhist vein focused on mindfulness:

Some may go, but what does this have to do with herbalism?  A whole lot if you really want to be a healer rather than just be an herbalist.  Which is the question that helped begin my journey this year.  😉

But I think that is enough talking. Time for me to practice what I preach…. 🙂

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Herb(s) of the Week: Burdock, Chickweed and Red Clover

Posted on January 19, 2012. Filed under: Herb(s) of the Week | Tags: , , , |

I’ve been working over the past few weeks mostly with the same trio of herbs together – Burdock , Chickweed and Red Clover as my ticket to dealing with the arrival of real winter while springing into a new year.

And great combination it has proven to be. Stabilizing, supporting, cleansing yet energetically leaping forward.

Let’s start with Burdock (Articum lappa),

Burdock in Flower (Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbals)

but first a song about burdock:

Burdock (to the tune of the theme song from the movie Shaft – with apologies to the ever cool Isaac Hayes!)

Who’s the plant that sticks
But cleans the blood when you are sick?
BURDOCK!
Ya damn right!

Who’s the plant whose leaves make a tea
that helps keep you cool?
BURDOCK!
Can you dig it?

Who’s the plant that helps out
When the liver’s health is in doubt?
BURDOCK!
Right On!

They say this plant BURDOCK is a bad mother
SHUT YOUR MOUTH!
I’m talkin’ ’bout BURDOCK.
THEN WE CAN DIG IT!

It’s a complicated plant
But no one understands it but herbalists
BURDOCK!

I just had to get that out of my head. 🙂

More seriously, burdock is a plant I’ve come to appreciate more and more over time. I had been acquainted with it from the beginnings of my studies but never felt particularly drawn to it. But over time I’ve come to really recognize its strength and find it frequently a valuable addition to medicinal teas. One of the particularly nice aspects is its strong support for the liver. Given how valuable the liver is for our health supporting that is generally a good foundation for dealing with a variety of ailments. Burdock blends well with other plants and is safe enough to use regularly. And its blood cleansing pairs well in particular with Red Clover in this combination.

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)

Red Clover (Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbals)

No song for Red Clover. It does deserve one though, because it’s a great herb that is easy to take for granted and is helpful for so many things. In this particular case it stands out for its cleansing action in the blood and lymph as well as its good liver support. In some ways I think this passage in Judith Berger’s book Herbal Rituals captures the essence and wonder of Red Clover:

“Red clover is considers an alterative herb, possessing the ability to send its medicine into many areas of the body at once, providing deep and lasting change in chronically stubborn conditions. In addition to restoring smooth function of various organ systems, alterative helps help the body assimilate nutrients and eliminate metabolic wastes. In general, alterative herbs are helpful in working with infection, blood toxicity, and skin eruptions. Red clover’s alterative strengths are most directly experienced in the lungs, the nervous system, the lymphatic system and the hormonal system.”

One of the things I like about it is that its supportiveness works well cumulatively so taking it regularly over longer periods of times is increasingly helpful to a larger variety of things. Sweet!

And, for me, red clover has a great way of showing up in my life when I need it but have forgotten all about it. Always the gentle and supportive reminder.

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Chickweed (Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbals)

Ah, Chickweed. We have a special relationship, because Chickweed was the very first plant I ever had a dream about when I started studying herbalism. (But certainly not the last.) In it, the flowers of the plant (which are teeny tiny in real life) were enormous – as big as a dinner table. And let’s just say the rest of the dream was worthy of having Salvador Dali looking at me, rolling his eyes and pronouncing me weird!

While it is often praised for its use externally (for skin problems and damage), it is a very worthy medicinally – especially as a tea.) Great for cooling warm and inflamed conditions with a special affinity for the respiratory system. It also as a historical association with weight loss, but I’m not sure how useful it really it in that respect. It is good for toning your system and generally nourishing you. I find it has an uplifting spring like feel to it as well.

References of Note: I think my favorite single book that talks about all three of these is Herbal Rituals by Judith Berger – informative and oh so fun and inspiring in general. Backyard Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal has very nice encyclopedic cover of all three covering the essentials of what you should know, preparation, etc. and lots of nifty photos. And even though it doesn’t talk about Red Clover (such a sad omission!) Susun Weed’s Healing Wise is most definitely worth reading in its discussion of Burdock and Chickweed.

My Own Take: In combination, I’ve been finding these three work wonderfully well together this time of year. I’ll definitely return to it again and again. Especially when the winter dreariness hits me badly.

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Book Review: Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief by David Winston and Steven Maimes

Posted on January 12, 2012. Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , |

I  recently finished reading Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief by David Winston and Steven Maimes – and found a valuable reference work.  It certainly is an apt topic for most of us, particularly in mainstream America., because unlike the Cybermen*:

we have emotions and thus stress and often need to mechanisms to cope with that stress. So Winston’s and Maimes’ book is extremely useful for most of us. And not only useful but a very good book as well – informative and thought provoking.

The first part of the book (representing more than 1/3 of the book) is an enormous, and enormously valuable, info dump covering the history of herbal medicine and adaptogens, the definition of them and theories about biochemical and physiological mechanisms involving stress and them. All really interesting and useful stuff. But very much a large dump of information so there’s a tendency to be a bit dry. Almost like a collection of related dense essays – heck any of them would be excellent separate essays on any of the individual topics. All of it excellent though, but the chapter on the physiological aspects of the stress response is just outstanding and fascinating (well, to me at least – YMMV.)

I like how they quote the different definitions of adaptogens to show the approaches to the concept. I particularly like the one by Israel Brekhman and Dardymov back in 1968:

  1.  An adaptogen is nontoxic to the recipient
  2. An adaptogen produces a nonspecific response in the body – an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical, or biological agents.
  3. And adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor.

In my mind, that’s how I tend to think of them. They do however point out that there is no officially accepted one in the herbalist communities. Which allows things like some herbalists I know that include things like nettles as adaptogens. I can see what they are thinking, but that doesn’t quite work for me. Because while yes they can help I see the mechanisms as more indirect. They are nourishing and the dietary help is supportive in adapting. Good and useful but the same argument could be made for any healthy food in your diet, exercise, meditation, etc.

The next part of the book is Materia Medica and is excellent as well. But what is nice about it is that it is not just about adaptogens, but covers herbs that works well with them. I think that is a great concept. Because once you get past the easy catch phrases about plant spirits and healing, some herbs play together well, some play well with only certain herbs and others are very much lone stars. There’s a nice focus on nervines which have always been a favorite class of herb for me. And you can’t go wrong with formulas that blend adaptogens and nervines (and throw in nourishing herbs) for helping to generally support most anyone.

Overall, an excellent reference book. It can be a bit dry but still very much worth owning. It ends up being a book that I refer to frequently when dealing with any adaptogen (and sometimes even for their takes on nervines.)

And for the record my personal favorite adaptogens are:

  1. Schisandra –- I make a yummy tincture of the berries which I take a lot, but even more often I’ll just grab a handful of the dried berries and eat them. (I also make a mean Schisanra honey!)
  2. Reishi – I add powdered Reishi to my breakfast every morning. It’s awesome. Sometimes I’ll just make a tea of dried slices with some Chaga.
  3. Asian Ginseng – generally I’ll take a shot of infused red wine I make with it. (Hmm, time to make some more!)

 * Yes, I could have gone with the Borg from Star Trek. But I like Doctor Who better. Besides the Borg are so based on the Cybermen – so deal with it! 🙂 Of course the Borg “adapting” would have fit better and would have been pretty cool then….but I stick with my decision, darn it!

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Bracing for Winter Part 1 – Food!

Posted on January 7, 2012. Filed under: Food and Cooking, Seasons and Climate | Tags: , |

Here in Boston we just recently had our first real blast of wintery cold with lows in the single digits and wind chills below zero. The kind of days where you feel the cold creeping deeply into you and you can feels parts of yourself withdrawing inward.

All of which got me thinking about things that I like to help deal with winter’s onslaught.

Ice Fortress of Doom (Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbals)

For me, it boils down to incorporating three types of things into what you eat, take and do – things that are:

  • Grounding,
  • Nourishing, or
  • Warming

are so important.

Let’s start today with food because one of the foundations of health and happiness is what you eat. Let’s look at a soup I made the other day.

Root Soup (Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbals)

It was really a thrown together soup of assorted root vegetables including daikon, potatoes, golden beets, celeriac, garlic and onions with some seaweed and spinach thrown in – and seasoned with a bit of gluten freed tamari and maple syrup.

Non Recipe (I don’t “recipe” but instead tend to just throw things together and they work): I started with about a quart of water (I added more water as it looked like it needed in the course of things), threw in a couple of tablespoons of tamari and a 1/2 cup or so of dried seaweed. I love the stuff from Maine Seaweed I turned it on high and while it was warming up, I chopped up a half a garlic bulb and a couple of yellow onions and threw them in. I left it to simmer while I peeled and chopped a couple of each of daikon, potatoes, beets and celeriac and threw them in. Then washed, chopped and threw in a bunch of spinach. Simmered for an hour. About half way through, I threw in a couple of table spoons maple syrup. When done – pure awesomeness.

Root vegetables can be very grounding (and nourishing!) and I like incorporating them in a lot of things. Beyond the ones above parsnips, carrots, turnips and rutabagas work well for soups.  I also love incorporating the wonderful varieties of winter squashes around.

I also like  bakes like the one I made the other week:

Root Bake (Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbals)

(This was just some peeled and chopped winter squash sweet potatoes and walnuts with a little olive oil and water to keep in moist baked for just around an hour at 400 F)

Other great things for winter bakes are beets, parsnips and carrots.

As part of the nourishing, I like to also have greens in things – plus they can add that feel of spring’s hopeful return.  Never underestimate the awesomeness of spinach, chard, kale and collards in things. Plus if you can get them dandelion greens, are a great addition.

I also love cooking with seaweed and I keep a variety of dried seaweeds around. The easy to cook ones like dulse, I just throw into potato bakes or stir fries. The longer cooking ones I put in soups, cooking rice and cooking beans (Paleo pals can just ignore the last two and just cook it with your meats but soak them well first – all day or overnight – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.)

The better mushrooms (like Shiitake, portabella, etc.) are nourishing and grounding. I like putting them in where I can find the excuse – and when I have them around! You can use them into just about anything or centerpiece them like maybe make a mushroom based soup with a couple of varieties and throw in some leeks, greens and maybe serve over some quinoa! (I’m going to have to try making that, it sounds great!)

It’s not thought of in this way, but sweet is nourishing to your spirits in proper amounts. (Wean yourself off adding processed sugar to things. The less of that crap you have in your diet the more you appreciate the nourishing ones in cooking.) In winter, I like throwing a touch of maple syrup in soups, bakes, stir fries and sautes. It really makes a difference. And throw in honey with tea or a little with heated cereal in the morning!

For warming things – garlic, onions, leeks are my frequent friends. I sometimes like turmeric, mustard and even a dash of curry in things. Or I put some sliced ginger root in bakes, soups, etc. for just that extra kick. If some of these things bother you, try smaller amounts and pre-cooking them by starting them cooking in with the water and sauce on a low simmer while you chop and prepare everything else, then cook them with the rest of the food as normal. That way the warming effect can suffuse through, but mellow a bit so it is easier to deal with.

Wow, that’s a whole lot about foods in winter. Part 2 will be either be about herbs or about actions – with Part 3 being whichever I don’t do in part 2! 😉

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2011 Looking back at a Magical Year, 2012 hints of things to come…

Posted on January 2, 2012. Filed under: Random Musings, Site News |

Magic Tree (Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbals)

2011 was a turning point year for me, because it was when I got bit with the herbalism bug big time and by the end of which I was on what I knew to be my path as an herbalist and healer.

In the course of the year I completed an herbal apprenticeship and, while I was doing that, I had also been studying with two other herbalists so that was like doing two and half apprenticeships. It was a year filled with attending numerous plant walks, herbal workshops and my first herbal conference

It was the year which began with informal consultations with others about their own healing and the year when people started asking to buy my tinctures, glycerites and herbal infused honeys and I started selling them. And the year I started to be asked about teaching private lessons and workshops.

The year I started wild crafting, building my herbal library, collections of medicinal herbs and herbal medicines that I had made. And more.

A beginning but what an amazing and magical one!

And in 2012, I’ll be teaching, consulting, growing medicinal herbs, assisting other herbalists in their teaching and much, much more.

I also started this blog very informally in 2011 at the encouragement of others and in 2012 I’ll start the more formal work here and developing this site.

So magic just grows!

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