Archive for April, 2012

Influences: The Forest by Roger Caras

Posted on April 29, 2012. Filed under: Book Reviews, Influences | Tags: |

Sage Butterfly came up with a great idea on how to show appreciation for Earth and combine it with a love a reading by having a blog contest for folks to “share what books inspire them to live or garden more sustainably.” (Sage Butterfly’s Earth Day Reading Project)

Since my passion for nature and books rank pretty high in my life, I I wanted to give it a spin and spent considerable time thinking about what book would I focus on. There were several contenders which I’ll talk about another day, but my first choice was The Forest by Roger Caras.

Cover to The Forest by Roger Caras

Caras’ book always held a special magic for me, because it was the book that really got me seeing the hidden and connected world in nature. It’s a narrative view of a forest exploring the life, and lives, of everything within it from the most microscopic to the largest plants and animals.

What made it powerful for me was the way it invoked the sense of how much life, connections and activity are essentially invisible to us. Its tales of the complex life in the soil to the animals that hide from us, the struggles and interactions that occur around us made me realize what we see and we think we know is only a portion of a much larger and mostly elusive whole.

The seed it planted, so to speak, grew over the years both connected to new understanding and old pieces of knowledge:

  • The way plants and fungi form communities sharing nutrients and information beneath the soil.
  • The chemical messages plants share
  • The language of scents, unnoticed by us, that animals and insect live in
  • The many times we attempt to shape the natural world only to have it change in unexpected ways
  • The complex community of life that lives inside us and our health depends on

From that I understood that we don’t live as part of the food chain we were foolish taught as children, with humans conveniently on top. Or even a food web which still sounds like something we master. Instead we are a thread in a much broader and vastly interconnected tapestry of life.

Pulling threads and altering threads has unforeseen effects. The more we alter it to suit ourselves, the more fragile the whole becomes. We need to live sustainably or risk unraveling it and ourselves in the process.

For me that powerful realization grew from that beginning of insight contained in Caras’ book.

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Earth Day – Strengthening Our Connections

Posted on April 22, 2012. Filed under: Nature, Random Musings | Tags: , , |

It is Earth Day today and the Earth more than deserves it. Sadly it is too easy to fall into divisions on how to think of the day. I see many folks seemingly fall into one of two camps – either a brief celebration soon to be forgotten like the many Hallmark style holidays that litter our calendars and trash the day after or a time twinged with feelings of guilt and anger.

I like to look it at as a time to start working on repairing and strengthening our relationship with the earth and nature. Because when we do that – we change the ways we are, the way we behave and our actions in the world. Then the two camps above aren’t so important anymore.

 Appreciate and Connect

You can connect with Nature with a capital N in the wild, parks, etc.:

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

And those places are magical and important. When you can go, then go. But it becomes too easy to see the magic of the earth as reserved to special places.

Everywhere is a special place. Celebrate and appreciate them all.  Even in the heart of the city you can see magic.

The wonder of mushrooms after a spring rain:

Spring Rain Mushroom Bounty (Image by Michael Blackmore Mad Crow Herbals)

Stop and appreciate them.

Or an indomitable lone mullein poking forth between the street and the sidewalk:

Street Mullein (Image by Michael Blackmore Mad Crow Herbals)

Relish those every bit as much as a distant pristine forest; for nature is all around us.

Nourish and Give Back

Find particular plants, either in the wild or the urban jungle – and connect with them by learning about them and nourishing them. Pick a plant you see regularly and if you don’t know it, then learn about it. Stop and talk to it and spend time with it. Nourish it by bringing a little water or fertilizer – or simply your presence and attention.

Watch the animals in your area and learn about them. See them, the plants and the people as part of the same environment and connected.

You can help things grow in new places like I have extra medicinal herbal seeds from my garden planning that I’ll “seed” around in appropriate areas (all local plants and not invasive exotics!)

Look for groups like this great one in Boston – Boston Tree Party which organizes events to plant fruit trees in public accessible places increasing the nature in the city and providing free abundant foods for folks.

There are bigger groups that not only do advocacy but also protect, nourish and preserve the environment. I’m fond of these:

Learning More

There are tons of wonderful books on natural history, learning to ID plants, animals, etc. – almost all of worth exploring. But here are some more philosophical ones that I’d like to share.

My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilizationby Chellis Glendinning  – A very influential book for me that talks about how damaged psychologically we have become by being so disconnected from nature. And how valuable it is to connect to nature and spend time in nature.

Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings by John Seed and World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal by Joanna Macy – both of these are great books for learning to see our connections to nature and importance of that oneness and actions to recognize it.

Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor by Leonardo Boff –  a little more obscure but interesting book connecting Latin American Liberation theology, advocacy for the poor and environment.

Last Thoughts

Lastly, just go and spend time standing barefoot on the earth. There’s something powerful about connecting your skin to the skin of the earth that is lost in daily life. Try it every day if you can.

Earthing - (Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbals)

Love you Mother Earth! Thank You! THANK YOU!

the Earth - NASA composite image

P.S.  Check out the awesome collection of Earth Day Posts that the ever awesome Lucinda at Whispering Earth assembled for her Earth Day Blog Party!

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Saying Goodbye to The Lone Tyranny of The Mind

Posted on April 17, 2012. Filed under: Random Musings, Spiritual Practice, Yoga | Tags: , , |

My mind has been a semi-benevolent dictator over myself and my life pretty much as long as it can remember. In the past, my body and spirit have been quiet, placid passengers on my mind’s adventures.

(Still from the movie The Brain From Planet Arous)

Actually, sometimes it feels like my mind is that big and hovering over me like that….

But thanks to yoga, paired with spiritual practice, that is changing.

I really felt the shift more powerfully in my daily yoga practice recently, where more and more I let go of watching the timer. (My mind really likes the timer, and clocks, not only because it wants to rush through those icky non-mind activities, but because time is information and a way to organize things. Measuring, counting, judging is one of the mind’s great tyrannies and ways to control.)  And more and more I simply find the joy of exploring the asanas and my body’s actions and presence while doing them.

Bit by bit in my practice of yoga my body has been waking up. Parts of my body long tight, invisible and ignored – loosen and awaken. Connections long severed, or at least underdeveloped, grow. And slowly I feel present in my body and enjoy being active in it. I continue to surprise myself by learning what I can do and striving to do what I couldn’t before but can now or what I can’t do yet but now have faith I will be able to do in the future.

While at the same time I’m experiencing a subtle awakening of my spiritual self as I develop different spiritual practices in complement to my yoga ones. Since I’m not studying under any particular teacher like I am in yoga those explorations are varied and haphazard but nonetheless growing dramatically in their impact too. Meditation, journeying, energy work, prayer and more all becomes delightful tools for unlocking new treasures of the spirit and heart.

Sometimes traditions emphasize practices aimed just at quieting the mind and ignoring the body to develop the spirit. But I’ve never been one for that because I believe we have bodies and minds  for a reason and part of the experience of life is developing them and working with them. You can achieve a balance and a quieting of the mind’s control by also strengthening the body and spirit. Then you can have a partnership.

In the brave new world that I’ve been entering via yoga, I’m finding that my body and spirit want to do things for development not just the mind desires.. My mind wasn’t happy at first, but learning that doesn’t have to run the show and that nothing bad will happen has been part of its growth too. 🙂

I can’t say it is always a beautiful symbolic blending of mind, body and spirit…more often it is very much like the Odd Couple wrought with amusing and bemusing pulling in different directions, but I know I’m having way more fun with all the new things in my life this brings.

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Herb(s) of the Week: Violet

Posted on April 10, 2012. Filed under: Herb(s) of the Week |

I’ve been having a passionate fling this week with Violet.


No, not Shrinking Violet from the Legion of Super-Heroes. (Of course, she never called after that magical weekend in Maine, but those fictional characters are so unreliable in relationships – not that I’m bitter…Call me Vi!)

But instead I mean the plant Violet (Viola odorata) aka Sweet Violet.


She’s been calling to me a lot lately including every time I make a tea blend I find my hand pulling toward her like a compass aiming north.  I keep finding her everywhere I look. Not only the plants but the name, pictures, the scent, etc. So I felt it was well past time to write a little homage to her here.

Billie Potts in Witches Heal summed up my feelings and shift about violet as well:

“The sweet woodland violet was a charming spring ‘fairy food’ plant that I did not take too seriously as an herbal healer till recently. I owe this modest but powerful plant an apology.”

The flowers and leaves are most commonly used (avoid the roots because they are emetic – unless you enjoy that… who am I to judge) and have been a traditional remedy for such things as:

  • Coughs, chest colds and congestion
  • Breast and stomach cancer
  • Good for digestive system stomach and bowels
  • Good for, and has a special affinity with, the lymphatic system

One way I like to think about it is connected to an affinity I’ve seen in the wild. I’ve yet to see it in nature without some snails on the leaves. I’ve found snail shells in the dried I’ve bought from herbal supplies stores. (Heck I almost think snails should be part of the ID for the plant!) And just like how it is good for slimey/mucusey (so not a word but it should be) snails – it is good for anywhere there’s mucus in you (lymph system, respiratory, digestive, etc.) I’ve never seen any reference to it as such, but I find it balancing to mucus systems myself.

It’s great energetically and spiritually and serves to nourishes spirit, heart, as well as the body and the flower essence is used for shyness. And it was a traditional ingredient in love potions, but I can’t say I’ve tried that aspect of it myself – perhaps I should give it a try. It was also supposedly cultivated by monks as ward against evil. Overall it is a special friend to women but also a powerful one for men if they will let it work with them.

One of the best and most poetic descriptions of violet I’ve seen comes from the book Herbal Rituals by Judith Berger:

“Violet restores the element of comfort to its primary place as a potent, transformative power in easing grief and illness. Rocking us in her watery arms, violet leaf infusion loosens tightness in the lung area, coaxing sorrow out of the chest, receiving our tears as she soothes the broken heart. Once the heart has been unburdened of pain, violet leaves and blossoms keep the heart light by strengthening our emotional expressiveness. With violet as an herbal ally, feelings flow rather than hardening or becoming trapped in the tissues of the lungs, breasts, and belly.

Violet’s healing style follow the pattern of the April rain. Steady, rhythmic, and frequent, violet slowly nourishes the terrain of our bodies with vitamins and minerals.


Like the rain, violet cools and moistens the environment in which she is present, slowly dissolves hardnesses in the glandular and lymphatic channels with her flowing nature.”

I just love that and the rest of the section on violet is just as good (as is the book in general.)

But before I finish I found a couple of poems about violet that I wanted to share.

“A greedy girl
pulls violets
up from their roots”
Kaga no Chiyojo (1703-1775)


“The Violet

A violet in the meadow grew,
blushing quietly, quite unknown;
a pretty little violet.

A young shepherdess drew near,
with tripping foot and merry heart,
she came alone,
singing through the meadow.

If only, the violet mused, I were
the finest flower int he world,
just for a little while,
until the dear girl picked me
and pressed me to her heart ’til I died,
if only, if only for a quarter of an hour!

Alas! The girl approached
and paid no heed to the violet;
she trod it underfoot.

It sank and died, yet it rejoiced:
if I must die, at least I die through her,
through her, here, ‘neath her feet.

Poor violet!
It was a pretty violet!”
Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832)

Interesting that in two very different poets from roughly the same time but two separate cultures were writing about women mistreating violet. Yet violet still gives. A tad co-dependent but so awesome. 🙂

References of Note: My favorite three were Herbal Rituals by Judith Berger (informative, poetic and beautiful), A Modern Herbal by M Grieve (great historical overview, growing tips and many wonderful preparation ideas) and Healing Wise by Susun Weed (much love for violet and many uses covered.)

In the more traditional reference vein the Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine by Andrew Chevallier and Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants by Matthew Wood cover what needs to be covered but lacking the passion of the first three. And I found The Magical Lore of Herbs by Marion Davies and Witches Heal by Billie Potts food for thought in a more energetic direction.

Lastly even though it’s an old site the American Violet Society has lots of fun stuff on it.

My Own Take: Violet is a gift of a plant with healing properties physical, emotional and spiritual. Really one to spend a lot of time with. It blends fairly well with other herbs – I’m loving it with hawthorn lately myself. It’s beautiful to gaze upon, splendid to smell, yummy to eat, healing and abundant. What more could you ask?

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Book Review – The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Herbal Medicinal Plants by Matthew Wood

Posted on April 2, 2012. Filed under: Book Reviews |

I just finished The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Herbal Medicinal Plants by  Matthew Wood and given that it is more than 500 pages I feel I’ve accomplished quite a task in doing that! Mind you, it is an extremely worthwhile time spent doing that.

Right in the introduction of the book as he provides a look at philosophies of herbalism, as well as his own, he sets a tone I can completely respect:

“The selection of medicinal herbs was originally base on “tradition only, with shrewd guesses, and close observations,” as Dr. W. T. Fernie (1914,8) wrote. Or, as Nicholas Culpeper (1653) would say, Dr. Tradition, Dr. Reason, and Dr. Experience. These are the foundations The Earthwise Herbal particularly cherishes, and attempts to build upon. Modern knowledge is not ignored or trivialized, but the latter has in recent times been pushed with great zeal, at the expense of tradition, shrewdness, and observation, and it is time that we begin to value experiential and traditional wisdom.”

Philosophically I like at lot so it made for a very promising start.

The first few chapters of the book covered overviews of Energetics of Traditional Medicine, Herbal Actions, The Art of Herbal Practice and Preparation and Dosage – which gives a useful skeleton to hang the rest of the book around. While each of the chapters are good they clearly aren’t meant to be real how to training but just a quick introduction. The bulk of the book is the Materia Medica of numerous individual plants and that part is extensive and fascinating.

In the introduction to this section he describes not only how it is structured but more importantly his approach and intention in writing it:

“It was not my intention to write a formulary, or workbook giving specific preparation methods, formulations, and standard dosages. I have instead merely handed on a collection of notes on preparation from my own or others’ experience that should prove useful and may, in the future, provide material for a formulary.”

So while, of course, an excellent reference book when you want to look up a particular plant, I think its greater value is as a basis for exploration, inspiration and experimentation. The text is sprinkled throughout with ideas of different ways herbalists have worked with and prepared the various herbs discussed. What really shown brightest for me though was not the ideas of the contemporary herbalists but those of previous generations where I’d stumble across something that would cause my eyes to gleam and a deep smile to press across my lips as I thought “I have to try that!” (Like garlic infused brandy which is seriously on my agenda for future explorations!)

It is also great for drawing your attention to plants you may, or may not, be aware of but simply haven’t worked with as much. For example, I was reminded how much short shrift I give to the medicinal and healing properties of what are more commonly used as culinary herbs (basil, oregano, sage, thyme, etc.) Definitely thyme (sorry I couldn’t resist!) to give them the respect they deserve as long time healing allies by working with them more and getting to know them outside the kitchen! 🙂

I think my only frustrations revolved around getting all excited to see discussion of a plant I wanted to read more about – only to find there was very brief coverage of it and much longer ones on others I wasn’t nearly as interested in. But realistically, it would be nearly impossible to cover everything so extensively and meeting the interests of every single reader would be quite impossible.

Even though, I knew going into it from his description (which I quoted above) that it wouldn’t necessarily go into depth on formulations. There were times when he’d discuss the use of different plants and I really wanted to know more details and had to step back and remind myself that wasn’t the goal of this particular book. Those would have to be just enticing tidbits for my own future herbal journeys.

And one thing that amused me terribly – these two entries in a row:

“Spiraca ulmaria. Meadowsweet.
Refer to the entry under the modern name, Filipendula ulmaria.”

“Stachys officinalis. Wood Betony.
Refer to the entry under the old name, Betonica officinalis.”

I can kind of rationalize why, but still it struck me as laugh out loud funny. But I’m weird that way.

Overall, a wonderful reference book that I have, and will continue to, referred to often. It’s a great foundation for research and future adventures in herbalism. I certain made a great deal of notes of things that I plan to look into more and explore – and who knows what new ones I’ll find as I return to it.

One final great quote from the book:

 “I do not feel that is a good idea to copy the United States Pharmacopeia or National Formulary slavishly. Herbs are like condiments; they can be prepared in subtle, beautiful, and almost countless ways.”


I think you can make magic working with the plants but to do so you have to embrace that free form, magical creative energy in yourself.

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