The first imperative of survival is to move away from what seems dangerous to us. We keep trying to move away from it unless and until our relationship to it changes. Civilization has sought to move us further from danger by walling off the outside world. Beyond the boundaries of the first cities were the wild beasts and the people the citizenry thought beastly because of their rejection of the wall that divided them from the wild. But when we lock away the wild, we also lock away our own wild nature, cursing our own bodies and the body of the world. In this way, we separate ourselves from the divine. And from each other.
Preparing to be on a panel on lingering symptoms of COVID-19 with a group of herbalists hosted by the Matthew Wood Institute of Herbalism, I looked back at what I wrote in March, just before I got sick myself. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is little I would change, but there are several things I would like to add, drawing from the lessons lived through my own illness and lessons learned through working with others with both confirmed and suspected COVID-19 infections.
St. John’s Wort is fading, giving way to Goldenrod. In the early mornings, Bears gorge on Blueberries in the fields up the road, while in the forest the Blueberry’s strange Otherworldly cousin, Ghost Pipe, blooms, and across the ocean in my ancestral homeland the hillsides are purple with Heather. Soon the Rowan will be laden with berries, both here and there. As summer dies slowly into autumn, the bright half of the year giving way to the dark, I mark the old holiday of Lughnassadh, festival of the first harvest.
Many Christian Churches celebrate Midsummer, as the feast of John the Baptist, blazing eyed prophet of the Jordan River, who prepared the way for a great soul to enter the world. But before there was John the Baptist, the Manx knew this to be the holy day of Mannanán mac Lir, son of the Great Ocean of Time and Space, honored by the people of Ireland and the Isle of Man.
Traditionally in Ireland, on the morning of Beltaine, the old celebration of the Earth’s ecstasy, when the Hawthorn was in bloom, dew shimmering on its blossoms with the splendor of the fine raiments of the Gentry, people would tie ribbons to the tree with prayers for abundance, and hang cloths from its branches that would be saved for use as bandages. But the thorns of the Hawthorn suggested the wrath that would be visited upon any who dared to damage it.
Hawthorn stands at the boundaries of darkness and light, death and rebirth, fear and ecstasy, this world and the Otherworld. In Ireland it grows along the edges of the last remnants of ancient Oak and Yew forests, beside sacred wells, and atop the “Hollow Hills” beneath which the Daoine Sidhe, the faery people, sleep. In this season of pandemic, it brings profound medicine.
We have mistaken balance for a static state, an absence of chaos, an imposed order, and so we have made our lives and our society rigid and precarious. But rigidity always gives way to flow. Every dam breaks in time – and when it does, after the deluge floods forests and fields, the soil left behind grows richer and seeds awaken. True balance is fluid in nature.
The ancient Greek word “apocalypse” means “revelation.” In that sense, the pandemic we face is truly an apocalyptic event – one that reveals what has been hidden: In a time when the boundaries of our remaining wildernesses are being breached, a virus spreads from wild animals being sold in rural marketplaces into the bodies of people living under an authoritarian regime...
John Moriarty, said: "To learn to speak is to learn to say 'our river has its source in an Otherworld well,' and anything we say about the hills and anything we say about the stars is a way of saying 'A Hazel grows over the otherworld well our river has its source in.'" Within this framework, there is no distinction between physical and metaphysical geography...
Though I mark time more by the rhythm of changes on the land that the seasons bring than I do by the calendar of the dominant culture, I still love the opportunity that New Year's Day brings for reflection and transformation. Any holiday or festival being celebrated by the people around you is an opportunity to partake in mutual blessing while the community is focusing on gratitude, hope, and joy, whether or not you share others' conception of "the reason for the season." No matter what calendar you follow, the turning of the year is a liminal time, a time of putting the past behind you and stepping into new ways of being.
We live now in a time of rising waters, when the sun is obscured by the smoke of burning forests. We stand vigil, uncertain if the sun will return. We place lights on evergreen trees to bring brightness and the memory of life, marking a festival that carries echoes of the tales of a Winter-Born King, a bright light born of the darkest night, harbinger of hope. The night is not over, and there is time yet to dream anew, to dream each other Winter-Born Sovereigns, who come in the darkest hour to restore the wasteland with our wild love.
In winters of snow and ice, winters of the heart, and winters of our collective experience, Damiana awakens the memory of the invincible summer within us. Bitter, warming, and aromatic, Damiana grounds us into our bodies, stirs our heart to quicken the rhythm of the movement of our blood, and relaxes the tension we hold to allow the blood to flow freely to all of our parts -- and where blood flows, awareness goes.