Moving the Waters
The nights grow longer, and Orion, the Hunter, is mirrored in the lake’s dark waters.
Their flowers having turned to seed and fallen to the Earth, plants shed their leaves and send their remaining life force down into the roots, preparing for their long Winter Dreaming. Though there is frost on the yellow and red leaves each morning, the ground will still be soft enough to harvest roots for a little while yet.
Soil, roots, and mycelia are the fascia of the Earth. Roots and myeclia carry chemical and electromagnetic information between trees and fungi and understory plants beneath the forest floor. The soil is the medium through which they run.
Our own bodies are like the forest floor, just beneath the surface of our skin, the fascia relays messages. Collagen filaments carry photons and give structure to the fascia. Fluid flows between them, carrying kinetic and chemical signals. Neurotransmitters and hormones shape and reflect our experience. Our inner waters carry those molecules. I often wonder if astrology is really the measure of the subtle gravitational pull of the planets on the oceans and rivers within us.
Those waters are our own inner version of the dark, watery Otherworld, from which we all emerge and to which we all return, home of the ancestors and of all that was driven from this world by the onslaught of civilization. In the ancient Irish worldview, all the rivers of the world had their source in a well in that Otherworld, the dwelling place of the Salmon of Wisdom who knew the Mysteries of all the worlds. Journeying to that well, John Moriarty encountered one of those Mysteries – he wrote "It was at Connla’s Otherworld well that I learned that being human is a habit that can be broken." Shapeshifting is a foundational shamanic practice because it is a way of embodying the knowledge that life is fluid and flows from a single source.
Our own inner waters carry the essence of who we were before we learned the habit of being strictly human, what came before our cultural conditioning and will survive after that conditioning breaks down.
Several of my favorite autumn root medicines work on moving and cleansing those inner waters.
Black Cohosh is a plant with dark, gnarled, twisted roots that give rise to a tall stalk topped with a spray of white flowers.
Black Cohosh is indicated when someone is in despair, brooding over loss and pain and worry, grief hanging over them like a proverbial black cloud. There is often tension and dull ache in the trapezius, a hunched over posture, and a heavy feeling in the chest. There will also be a tendency to take on other people’s grief.
I think of the spray of white flowers arising high above the gnarled root as the stars at noon that show the way back up out of the well -- or at least bring the reminder that there is a world beyond the well. The well of grief can be an important place to spend time. To me the well of deep grief is that same Otherworld well from which all waters flow, and awash in its waters we release the meanings the world held before and prepare ourselves to create new meaning as we relate to the world in a new way. But eventually, we need to return to the world. And I have found Black Cohosh helps to shift the stagnant emotions that are weighing me down, and help me see the starry sky which reminds me that the iron in my blood and the iron at the core of the Earth were forged together in the first generation of stars, that I am connected with everything. As Alesteir Crowley wrote (or transcribed) in the Book of the Law, "Every man and every woman is a star." That starry nature is deeper than our conditioning of identity or gender.
Many contemporary herbalists speak of Black Cohosh as working on estrogen levels through various proposed mechanisms that shift and change as each model becomes outdated and presume that the depression Black Cohosh treats is associated with estrogen levels, pointing to the greater prevalence of this kind of brooding depression before menstruation, the role of Black Cohosh in easing menstrual pain and bring on delayed menstruation, and anecdotal evidence that this kind of depression is most common in women. But I have used Black Cohosh to ease this kind of depression in people of all genders with all kinds of hormonal profiles. If brooding depression is most prevalent among women it may be because our society asks women to take on the responsibility for other people’s emotions – especially those of men. And Black Cohosh’s role in bringing on menstruation can be explained as well through its action on nerves, muscles, fascia, and fluids as it can by a hormonal model of its action. I suspect that in centuries to come the idea of "male" and "female" hormones and of herbs acting differently on body tissues based on dualistic categories will be seen as the foolish fiction of an era that sought molecular confirmation for its limited ideas of sex and gender.
The great nineteenth century Physiomedicalist physician, William Cook, saw Black Cohosh acting primarily on nerves and the serous tissues (fascia).
Cook began his description of the plant’s properties by writing:
"The root of cimicifuga has long been known to American physicians as a remedy of decided and peculiar value; yet its true action has been enshrouded in so much uncertainty that the proper places to employ it have not been well defined. After much experience and careful observation in its use, I offer the following account of it, which I believe to be correct, though in many respects different from the descriptions usually given."
Those words are equally apt today. Black Cohosh tends to be pigeon-holed as a "women’s herb," a "menopause herb," or a "childbirth herb" when, in fact these specific uses are just extensions of the plant’s broader capacity to work with the nervous system (and by extension, the muscles) to restore fluidity to experience.
"Its power is expended chiefly upon the nervous structures, beginning at the peripheries and extending to the brain, including the ganglionic system; through the sensory nerves influencing the heart and pulse, and through the sympathetic nerves making a decided impression upon the uterus. [ . . .] On the nerves it acts gradually, yet in the end with decided power–soothing them, relieving pain dependent on local irritation, and proving a good antispasmodic."
A well-made Black Cohosh tincture has an earthy taste, like clean soil with a hint of bitterness – it grounds us in the body.
It has a hit of acridity, and the activation of the acrid taste receptor at the back of the throat sends a strong signal across the ventral branch of the vagus nerve, restoring coherent communication between the body’s major centers of neurological activity and consciousness (the brain, the heart, the gut, and the generative organs) and engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to relax muscular tension throughout the body. We are increasingly learning that anxiety, fear, and panic are not so much the product of an overstimulaton of the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response as they are an overwhelm or shut off of the calming, grounding, connective parasympathetic response.
Grounding in the body and improving the flow of communication between our major centers of consciousness makes Black Cohosh an ideal herb for bringing a person into calm, centered, embodied presence. It is through the heart that we take in the information that forms our emotional felt sense of the world and through the ways in which the enteric portion of our autonomic nervous system reads the signals of tension and flow across the fascia that we gain our visceral sense of the experience of body and world in this location in time and space, so bringing these centers back into alignment and coherence fundamentally shifts our experience of embodiment. I think of Black Cohosh as re-aligning a vertical axis of embodied consciousness that also becomes our own Axis Mundi. We can extend our awareness along that axis all the way down into the core of the earth where we can anchor and re-orient and remember who we are.
From this state, someone is better able to address and process the grief and pain and fear held in the body. Here too, Cook’s insights guide us to seeing how Black Cohosh can restore the body to healthy flow.
Cook writes "On serous tissues it allays irritation, soothes excitement, and relieves sub-acute and chronic inflammation."
We can gloss the nineteenth century use of the term "serous" tissue to refer to what Ida Rolf would call the "fascia" and stodgy anatomists would call the connective tissues, interstitium, and adipose tissues.
The fascia hold our bodies’ memories of tension and motion, and especially of patterns we have been unable to release.
Osteopath Paolo Tozzi writes:
"Memories in the body may be also encoded into the structure of fascia itself. Collagen is deposited along the lines of tension imposed or expressed in connective tissues at both molecular and macroscopic level Mechanical forces acting upon the internal and/or external environment, such as in postures, movements and strains, dictate the sites where collagen is deposited. Thus, a ‘tensional memory; is created in a particular connective tissue architecture formed by oriented collagen fibres. This architecture changes accordingly to modification of habitual lines of tension, providing a possible ‘medium term memory; of the forces imposed on the organism. However, this type of signallng may be altered in pathological conditions, […] the release of substance P from nerve endings, particularly driven by the hypothalamus following emotional trauma, may alter the collagen structure into a specific hexagonal shape, referred as ‘emotional scar’;. The entirety of this phenomenon may be interpreted as a highly structurally and functionally specific process of encoding memory traces in fascia."
Our bodies are mostly water, and the fluids flowing through the collagen bundles of our fascia are a medium of consciousness -- carrying hormones and conducting electricity and light including the biophotons produced by the DNA in the nucleus of our every cell. The tissues they flow through are like layers of soil, holding the memory of emotion and sensation – and just as water absorbs the substances contains in layers of soil, so too those inner waters take on the chemical reminders and electomagnetic patterns of the past experiences encoded in the collagen structures.
Dancer and occult publisher Alksitis Demich writes:
"The matrix of connective tissue is the repository of our individual and ancestral memory (cf. Freud’s notion of an ‘archaic heritage’ and Jung’s description of archetypes as ‘biological instinctual constellations.’). It is attuned to motion and emotion, which it registers and retains, submerged in and holographically distributed throughout the liquid crystalline continuum. This body memory, which is always oriented to the future – that is, to survival and evolution – is engaged directly through the dynamics of the living body. "
Where the body holds patterns of tension and constriction – – tissues tend toward low-grade inflammation (creating the dull aches for which Black Cohosh is specific) which, creates swelling that further obstructs the flow of fluids, and emotions stagnate (contributing to the kind of dark, heavy, stagnant, brooding emotional state that Black Cohosh is specific for. My best guess is that Black Cohosh is bringing down the inflammation in the tissues, allowing the fluids to flow again.
Time and time again I have watched Black Cohosh bring sensory and emotional memories to the surface to be processed and released in ways similar to deep body work. The difference I observe is that Black Cohosh’s soothing action on the nervous system usually prevents the surfacing sensations and emotions from becoming too much for the person to bear.
I frequently combine Black Cohosh with another of my favorite autumn root medicines – Solomon’s Seal.
Solomon’s Seal with the graceful arc of its stem suggests fluid motion. Its juicy roots, sweet with a hint of acridity, promote the secretion and flow of synovial fluid, lubricating the fascia. It is profoundly helpful in releasing old patterns of holding tension in the body – and the places where we hold physical tension are places where we lock in memories and emotions. Restoring fluid movement of our fascia can help to restore emotional fluidity. (The roots of its Asparagus family cousins – False Solomon’s Seal, Shatavari, and Asparagus – have similar properties.)
Solomon’s Seal propagates by runner, and jim mcdonald points out that where it is locally abundant, you can harvest Solomon’s Seal root medicine without killing the plant by taking just the center section of the runner and replanting both ends.
Warming, aromatic roots like Angelica and Elecampane stimulate circulation, making them a perfect adjunct for Black Cohosh and Solomon’s Seal in moving the inner waters. Their aromatic nature also stimulates engagement of the paraympathetic response in our bodies which evolved to recognize the scent of plants as the sign of the presence of wild kin.
Autumn roots are perfect medicines for the journey within that the dark half of the year calls us to.
Portions of this essay previously appeared in Plant Healer magazine.
Want to learn more about the magic and medicine of this season?
Seán has recorded an hour-long talk exploring Samhain lore, bone medicine and bone memory, and medicines for navigating the dark time of the year. It ends with a meditation focused on sending gratitude to our ancestors.
Seán is also available to provide personal guidance and counsel for your healing journey.