A Moonflower Named Datura

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Above: Photo of Datura seedlings taken today – they are locked inside a bird cage to keep them away from my free -flying dove who loves to eat greens

 

I first grew Datura many years ago after returning from the Arizona desert with seed. One afternoon I was walking in an arroyo and heard a rattling sound. I was startled and Investigated its source. A spiked pod popped open scattering seeds around my feet. I thought this behavior might have been some sort of sign suggesting that I should grow this plant! I gingerly pocketed a few ripe pods and brought them back East in the spring.

 

I planted the seeds in the sun, and a few twin leafed plantlets developed into low growing shrubs that flowered towards the end of the summer. The frost took the flowers and plant before any pods developed.

 

The only thing I knew about wild Datura (Datura stramonium) at the time was that it contained poisonous alkaloids – atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine – and that the entire plant was toxic although it had the most beautiful fragrant white trumpet – like flowers whose edges were sometimes tinged in violet.

 

A couple of years later I noticed that seed catalogues began carrying Brugmansia, plants which are closely related to Datura (the former being more tree –like with drooping trumpets that are apparently as fragrant as the bush –like Datura). Both plants can be grown in large pots, and today there are many magnificent cultivars to choose from (although I doubt any develop seed pods). Brugmanisa contains the same alkaloids as its relative. I was intrigued when I first saw these pendulous plants in catalogues but never tried to grow them believing that our season was too short to have flowers develop seed pods because that had been my personal experience. I am a dedicated seed saver, collecting ripe seeds in the fall from year to year.

 

Datura seeds remain viable for at least 20 years or more and if pods are harvested, a few can be planted the next spring and the remainder kept for the future.

 

In March I planted Datura seeds for a second time, this time in the house. I hoped that I could germinate the seeds early enough to produce plants with flowers that formed seed pods. Germinating the seeds was no small undertaking! I placed them in a wet paper towel, inside an open plastic bag and left them in a sunny window. I checked them every day and in about 10 days the first roots appeared. I planted the tiny rootlets in pots.

Currently, I have small plants with true leaves that are watered frequently and have access to strong light all day. In June I will start to acclimate the plants to the outdoors in Maine. Datura is sensitive to frost and I live in a north – facing valley where frost lingers on, sometimes into June. I plan to grow some in a pot and transplant other plants in the ground and see what happens. Obviously, I enjoy experimenting!

 

Datura has many common names besides moonflower. It is also called thornapple, devil’s snare, devilweed, and locoweed. The latter names probably refer to the results of ingesting this plant. Datura produces delirium if it doesn’t kill you. Although Native peoples have learned how to detoxify the plant so it can produce visions, the uninitiated die, so beware.

 

In Ayurveda Datura has been used to treat asthma symptoms. The leaves can be smoked in a pipe. In Ethiopia Datura is apparently used to “open the mind” to being more receptive to learning and creative imaginative thinking. In European medicinal journals there are references to Datura being boiled to treat burns. The Zuni used it as a paste to render a person unconscious so that bones could be set. Many tribes in the Americas – the Cherokee, Algonquin, Navajo, to name a few, use the plant for visioning.

 

It is important to note that the dosage required for visioning is only slightly less toxic than the dose used by sorcerers to kill people. Even more confusing is the fact that some plants contain more toxins than others, even though they may look the same.

 

The Chumash of California call January “the month of Datura” suggesting that Datura was ingested at this time of year because the effects of this perennial plant were less lethal during the winter and perhaps because it was part of some winter ritual.  Like many other tribes, the primary reasons Datura was used by the Chumash was to see into “the true nature of reality” and/or to establish contact with one’s animal/plant guardian(s). The Chumash approached the plant respectfully calling her “Grandmother.”

 

Sources differ on where the plant first originated. Some say Datura is native to this continent, others suggest the origin of this plant is unknown but either way it can be found growing in all parts of the world where the climate is moderate or tropical. The highest concentration of Datura is found in Tunisia, South Africa.

 

Datura prefers rich calcareous soil according to most sources but I think any organic plant mix will work. The Datura that I have seen growing seem to spring up in waste places and dry arroyos in deserts where limestone is present. For this reason I think that I am going to add crushed egg – shells to my plants to help put calcium carbonate into the mix.

 

I only learned recently that if you give Datura half a day of sun it may grow into a bush about five feet tall but this source made a reference to the deserts of the southwest where the sun is very intense during the summer months, so I am going to put my plants in full sun when the time comes.

 

Evidently, the pods can be harvested when they are bright green by cutting the entire bush back, stripping off the leaves and hanging the stalk/seed pods in a warm place to dry. The Datura that I have grown has come from plucking the seed pods when the whole plant is withered and brown.

 

While Datura provides nectar for honeybees, hummingbirds, and other insects in the food chain, it has formed a partnership with the Hawk moth, an insect nearly as large as a human hand. Datura furnishes the moth with nectar as a food source and shelter for its eggs.  The plant serves leafy meals to the moth’s hungry larvae (called tomato hornworms), so much, in fact, that sometimes the plant must draw upon nutrients in its roots to re-grow its leaves after caterpillar foraging. But in return, Datura is pollinated by the moth, and the plant (actually an herb) produces fruits and seeds for another generation. This co- evolutionary relationship between the Hawk moth and Datura is called “mutualism.” ( Scientists find interdependence between plants and animals occurring routinely in nature. The “man against nature” paradigm is outdated). When I researched Hawk moths I learned that my Datura could definitely be pollinated because we have plenty of Hawk moths in the state of Maine.

Scientists also suggest that Datura seeds are eaten by birds that spread the seed through bird droppings, but I couldn’t find a source that mentioned what birds might be carriers or how they managed to deal with seed toxicity. I know that domestic animals can be adversely affected by ingesting the unpleasant smelling leaves of this plant.

 

The white and lavender-tinted, trumpet-shaped blossoms of Datura promise a fairyland of delicate beauty, moths, butterflies, long-tongued bees, hummingbirds and mystical moonlit nights.  It gives rise to some of the plant’s other names, for instance, Angel’s Trumpet, or Belladonna (beautiful lady).

 

The blossoms open at dawn and dusk and are intensely fragrant especially after it rains. During the early afternoon hours the flowers begin to wither from the heat of the sun. I personally find Datura flowers intoxicating, although I treat this plant with deep respect, remembering to wash my hands after I have touched the leaves or collected its pods.

 

An unknown poet has this to say about Datura:

Full moon

Tonight my Datura bush blooms
with thirty-three trumpets.

The moon glides past a tree
spreading its silver glow on open flowers.

Suddenly sacred trumpets fluoresce
and seem brighter than the moon itself…

It is worth growing these plants just to stand beside a flowering clump under a blossoming white moon breathing in their fragrance. Indescribable.

Seed Ceremony on Earth Day

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(Above) The seed basket I was given to place seed offering – curiously I have a little dog basket like this one at my home in Maine.

On Earth Day I attended a Genizaro/Tewa all day presentation called “Seeds of Hope and Healing” which espouses a way of thinking that acknowledges the sanctity and power of untreated seeds to create uncontaminated food for all people.

In the pamphlet given to each participant it states that “The New Mexico Food and Seed Alliance was formed in 2006 following the Seed Sovereignty Declaration in which farmers from tribal, Pueblo, acequia communities, and other farmers signed a declaration to defend seeds from genetic contamination.

 The name of these annual gatherings in three languages beginning with Tewa recognizes Indigenous peoples as seed savers and guardians of countless generations of seeds. It also recognizes that land- based people have borrowed from and added to these traditions with seeds and food traditions from around the world. The Indo –Hispanic people who are mestizo, or of mixed ancestry (Genizaros) have evolved a land-based culture after centuries of growing food in their respective villages…

 The seed exchange and gathering is an affirmation of the unity that is possible between cultures and this unity is necessary to defend seeds so that future generations can continue… to save seed and grow their own food.…

Four Northern Pueblos participated in the 12th Annual Owningeh Tah Pueblos y Semilles Gathering and Seed exchange: Abiquiu, Santa Clara, San Juan, and Taos. The group’s mission statement includes saving not only seeds but extends to protecting animals, fruit trees, and wild plants for the purpose of sustaining a way of life that has been in existence long before Europeans set foot in this country. It is only in this way that The People can continue to resist the global industrialized food system.

In the large room a sacred circle was created by the women, who put beautifully embroidered wide sashes and hand woven baskets in each of the four directions on a beautiful handmade blanket. The women also sprinkled corn pollen in the circle. There were two empty baskets to contain the seed offerings. In the center a beautifully painted white and black clay bowl was surrounded by two ears of corn on each of its four sides. People were asked to line up in four lines choosing the direction they came from: North, East, South or West.

The ceremony began with the leader who blessed the space, and added a prayer for the dead. He called forth the four lands and four waters making offerings to each of them. We all sat in a circle around the simple altar. Small handmade baskets were handed out and we placed a few seeds in our baskets, and when it was our turn to enter the sacred space, we were asked to speak our names, state where we lived, and what seed(s) we were offering for a blessing. We moved around the circle counterclockwise (the indigenous way) leaving it after adding our seeds to the other offerings. The ceremony was solemn, and the experience was deeply moving.

What came next was a total surprise. The sound of drums beating in the distance gradually became more insistent as the Santa Clara dancers emerged from another room. Those that were gathered together witnessed an astonishing Rain Dance, (the first I had witnessed) that filled the room with its vibrant colors, sounds, and prayers that centered me so completely, that I too, became part of the dance. Every day we look to the sky in hopes that the rains will come.

The seed exchange occurred afterwards with people leaving with small envelopes full of seeds grown by another. A feast had been prepared for all the participants. Later in the afternoon three women spoke about the hope that comes with the seeds. How each contains new life, and that each seed is a miracle, a perspective that is also my own.

The young are the hope of the future and I was struck by the young women’s presentations from the Youth Alliance all of whom honored their mentors and were committed to passing on the traditions of the pueblos to which they belonged.

 

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The men spoke too and I remember mention of the spiral and how important this symbol was to the People. From the DNA spiral to the way a sunflower seeds up, to the shape of galaxies, the spiral is a universal life form.

Acknowledging “Truth of Place” one man spoke earnestly about how this land was their church. This land, her mountains her waters all sustained his people generation after generation.

One member of Abiquiu pueblo talked about the history of the Genizaros who until recently went unrecognized, although Abiquiu was given a Land Grant in 1754. Genizaros were Indian children and young women who were sold or traded and became Hispanicized, losing touch with their Native roots for a time. Today both Indian and Hispanic festivals are held in Abiquiu to acknowledge these once invisible people.

The day ended with Los Genizaros de Abiquiu closing the ceremony with an Eagle Dance. The two participants, Dexter Trujillo drummer and singer, and the Eagle Dancer, Maurice, dressed in flaming orange and red feathers were spell binding to watch as they moved towards and away from each other. The eerie sense I had was Maurice actually became an eagle.

A seed pot made by Indigenous artist Roxanne Swentzell was presented to Abiquiu Pueblo in recognition of its Genizaro status.

For a person like myself, who has been something of an “earth mother” tending to, and saving seeds for much of my adult life, this ceremony felt like the first recognition of the importance of this work over the span of one woman’s lifetime; I am 72 years old. Even though I will be returning to Maine before the summer begins I will carry this ceremonial recognition close to my heart. I couldn’t help thinking about the datura and redbud tree seeds that I had tenderly been germinating for the last month. Most, if not all, will find homes here in the desert, but I am content, knowing that I have participated in the spring planting for one more cycle. I am absurdly happy that wildflower seedlings are popping up where there were none before! Soon, I believe, redbud trees will follow.

The Buffalo Dance – Easter Sunday

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I could hear the rain of the turtle rattles that are strapped around the legs of the men long before I actually saw them dancing in a long straight line outside one of the kivas. The animals are honored for giving up their lives so the People might live. My skin prickled in visceral response.

I noted the evergreen boughs that each dancer had attached to his arms with bright green bands, the dark gray earthen clay that covered each torso, the red – coral? – necklaces, some inlaid with shells, the sparse feathers that were attached to each man’s head by a colorful band, the moccasin clad feet beating out a hypnotic rhythm as the dancing/chanting continued. The men also wore deer-skin aprons with bright crimson fringe on the front and behind each had an animal skin of either fox, ringtail, coyote, and perhaps a badger (I couldn’t see well enough to be sure) attached to his body. Some of these animal tails almost reached the ground. In their hands the dancers carried rattles or bows and arrows – the latter to symbolize the hunt.

The evergreen tree in the center of the line represents the forest where the men once hunted the buffalo but I also saw the spruce as a “Tree of Life” as the men danced before the conifer. Some say there were buffalo in this area at one time, but Tewa oral traditions suggest that the men traveled to the plains to hunt the buffalo that provided them with meat, fat, and skins that would keep them warm during the cold months.

The Buffalo Dance (or any animal dance that is chosen for this day) marks the end of the hunting season and the transition to spring planting. The animals are honored for giving up their lives so the People might live. Prayers for adequate rain, and the hope for a bountiful summer harvest are danced and sung. Dance is Indian prayer.

These dances hypnotize me, transporting me to a place outside time, – a space in between – one might say, so whatever I have written here is surely missing important details. The dance itself is simple with the line of dancers turning one way and then reversing directions, never missing a beat, and it ends brusquely with the men retiring to the kiva. There are two kivas and two plazas in this pueblo.

During the first break, I was approached by a young man dressed in a tribal shirt with a rainbow of ribbons who introduced himself as the Governor.

“We think that you might be recording the dances,” he said, quietly and respectfully gesturing to my purse. I was stunned.

“Oh no, I would never do that, not ever,” I replied babbling on, incoherently no doubt, as I offered him my purse, explaining that I had Passamaquoddy Indian roots and came from Maine where the Native American traditions had been totally destroyed and that for me it was a privilege to be at this dance… Evidently, this  sincere outburst convinced him that he/they had been mistaken.

He talked about how difficult it was to monitor these dances that were open to the public because although signs were in full view telling visitors not to photograph, record, or sketch the dancing, people did not respect the rules, so members of the tribe were forced to monitor strangers. He told me that one of the most sacred of the dances, The Eagle Dance, led by his grandfather ended up being illegally videoed and had been posted on youtube. I groaned. He also told me that the Tewa are working to get these illegal postings removed for good. I asked him about tribal traditions and he told me that it was getting more difficult to hold the Tewa culture together, due to outside pressure, but that they were doing their best. Then he extended an invitation.

“Please come to my home for food after the next dance is over,” he offered kindly after he introduced himself to me and told me where his house was located. When I mentioned that I was with someone, he replied “please bring your friend with you.” I knew that it was considered to be an honor to be asked to join the Governor’s family for dinner. How could we refuse?

My second blunder occurred while I was sitting on a log watching the second round of dances in the opposite plaza. I picked up a pitifully sticky seed coated turkey feather, and carefully picked off the debris. At some point during this process I began to feel uncomfortable about the feather in my hand so I kept it visible. Sure enough, another “watcher” – I don’t know what else to call these men, but some had bows/arrows and all kept a large space between the audience and the dancers – approached me.

“To pick up a feather or anything else inside the pueblo even if it is on the ground is a violation of our rules,” he remarked sternly.

I quickly returned the turkey feather to the watcher, apologizing profusely. Obviously, I am still learning how to behave in Pueblos I thought to myself ruefully.

After the second round of Buffalo dances we made our way to the Governor’s house and sat down to eat with the family. A feast had been prepared and people were expected to come and go until the dances ended in mid afternoon. I was intimidated and had some difficulty making casual conversation although these family members were friendly, if reserved. The food was delicious.

Outside the Governor’s house I noted how warm it was getting. All the cottonwoods had deep crimson tassels already lying on the ground, and once again I felt deep misgivings because although most of the trees were either leafing or in process of doing so it was only the middle of April, the temperatures were in the high 70’s and the sun was very hot. Many early fruit trees like the apricot trees had been badly damaged by a couple of hard frosts according to one tribal member. I couldn’t help worrying about these disturbing weather changes and how they would affect these people who had so much invested in a good harvest.

We watched a third round of Buffalo Dances. Each dance had its own distinct chant and the third was just as mind-altering for me as the first two had been. Once again the dance ended abruptly and the men filed into the kiva.

Kivas are the places where the elders gather to enact the secret Native ceremonies that are held all throughout the year and each spring during Lent. After the secret ceremonies are completed visitors are invited to witness and celebrate the final dances that are chosen by the Governor of the Pueblo for the Feast Day, which in this case was Easter. It is believed that each visitor that watches, Native or non –Native, is participating in communal prayer – and that prayer centers gratitude to the Creator or Nature for life and in the hope that the rains will come so that the crops may flourish.

Most Tewa pueblos along the Chama and Rio Grande have assorted dances that culminate the Lenten season on Easter Day including this one at P’o – Wah – Ge – Owinge or San Ildefonso which is located on some juniper strewn hills that surround the pueblo and the spectacular Jemez mountains. Modest (mostly) pueblo housing, and well kept yards dot the hills around and in the pueblo.

In March there are no public dances at any of the pueblos, but the Katchinas, or holy people have been praying for rain and have been present for the People since the winter solstice. They will return to the mountains or to a sacred underground lake (depending upon tribal oral tradition) sometime towards the end of July. Because all these ceremonies are secret, no one outside the pueblo knows exactly what goes on in March or any other month even when the public is invited to a dance. And even then people are expected to experience the dance through their bodies and not ask questions about what is happening. This is the only way the Tewa people believe they can keep their oral traditions intact. Although nominally Catholic there is an absence of iconic Christian images that attests to the fact that the central beliefs of these Indigenous peoples do not revolve around Catholicism but are much older and rooted in the natural world and the cycle of the seasons.

Perhaps this is why I am so deeply moved and feel deep gratitude after attending one of these Tewa dances. My personal beliefs echo those of the Tewa who were amongst the first peoples that inhabited this continent. My fervent hope is that Native peoples will find a way to adapt even more efficiently to an increasingly alien world where Nature is seen as a commodity to be exploited and not a Living Being on whose life we depend.

Katchinas come to life on April Fools Day

 

 

Hopi-Clowns.jpg Illustrations of clowns from: “Hopi Kachina Tradition Following the Sun and the Moon.”

I awakened this morning thinking about the sacred clowns that belong to the Hopi and the Pueblo people. These unmistakable black and white striped clowns are one of about 400 – 500 different Kachina spirits. Clown figures are present at many of the pueblo dances where they mimic individuals and help keep the people away from the dancers while interacting with individuals in the audience.

My first Pueblo experience with katchinas occurred at one of the winter dances. It was unnerving to watch as two appeared as black and white masked individuals, dressed in animal skins complete with coyote tails who struck the ground repeatedly with whips. One made a peace sign to me. Thrown off guard I had no idea how to respond. When I mirrored his action he laughed uproariously but also struck his whip on the ground! These “Whipper” or guard katchinas are scary individuals that are impossible to ignore.

The origin of kachinas is unknown. There is some evidence that points to a Mesoamerican origin; the similarity between the Hopi and the Aztec culture is striking. There are a few archeological hints that indicate that katchinas were present by the time the Hopi settled in Arizona in 1100 AD. The first katchina masks and dancers appear in rock art around 1325 AD.

By the 15th century masked dancers and carved katchina dolls had become part of the culture of various Puebloan tribes in Arizona and New Mexico. The masked katchina dancers impersonated the spirits who originally brought rain for the corn, beans and squash but eventually left the people and returned to the underworld (some Pueblo people believe the holy people return to the mountains).

When each dancer “becomes” one of the many kachinas, – chief/ elders who take part in the nine day ceremonies, warrior/guards, ogres/disciplinary function, runners/race with the men during dances, clowns/entertainers, and female katchinas/ mothers and sisters of other katchina spirits (all portrayed by men) are the six general categories of katchina spirits – it is believed that the spirit of the kachina portrayed enters that person’s body during the sacred rites that occur in the kiva before the ceremonial dances begin. To protect the individual from the power of these sacred forces many dancers wear a bear fetish under their regalia.

Katchina dolls are given to young girls by the katchina dancers. These dolls are hung on the walls to educate all the children about the functions of these powerful spirit beings (the boys receive bow and arrows from the katchinas instead of a doll). Ironically, early Christians perceived the dolls to be manifestations of the devil.

Although we have seen that there are both male and female katchinas only one katchina is actually danced by a woman. These generally all male ceremonies suggest to me that for the Hopi, although the clans may be matrilineal in terms of lineage, all spiritual power belongs to the men, strengthening the theory that the kachinas may have originated in Aztec culture. All other Pueblo cultures are also patrilineal.

According to the Hopi oral tradition these mostly benevolent spirits emerged from the underground with the Hopi people when Spider Grandmother caused a hollow reed to grow up towards the sky. The reed emerged from the sipapu into the Fourth World. The people were able to climb the reed and enter the present world escaping from darkness. Today Spider Grandmother seems to have been replaced with Tawa, the sun god.

The katchinas (more correctly called katsinas) emerged with the people and taught them how to hunt and grow crops, how to behave properly, and how to heal illness by collecting and using plants and herbs. These spirits may represent virtually anything from the sun, mountains, clouds or rain, animals, trees and plants to crops like squash, beans and corn. Sometimes they manifest as flowers like morning glories or squash blossoms. Animal katchinas like deer, white bear and great horned owl act as advisors, healers, and educators. They teach the people specifically how to use herbs for healing and how to avoid danger. All 400 or 500 katchinas provide guidance of some kind. Each one has a particular set of characteristics and a distinctive personality.

Katchinas appear just after the winter solstice and remain with the people until the crops are harvested in early August at after which they return to the spirit world underground. While staying with the Hopi/pueblo people the katchinas help to bring precious rain to the desert so that the crops will flourish. The Niman or farewell Hopi dance of the katchinas occurs in July and is one of their nine – day festivals that includes sacred rites in the kivas and a public dance at its close. Messengers are sent on long journeys for sacred water, pine boughs and other objects. In other pueblos a similar dance takes place.

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I am finishing this article on a day when the rains continue to fall sporadically gifting the red earth with precious moisture. I think this year the katchinas must be working very hard, because the spring (female) rains have turned our desert a thousand shades of sage green.

Above: “Warriot Woman” (danced by a man) courtesy of Bruce Nelson’s Katchina Collection.

Silver Maidens of the Garden

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Above: big sage drying – picked middle of March 2017

Artemisia is a large genus of plants that appears in one form or another in gardens or in the wild throughout the U.S. It grows in temperate regions of both hemispheres. I first fell in love with Artemisia in Italy where I gathered large fragrant bouquets of wild wormwood from the hills of Assisi and brought them back to perfume my room. When I moved to Andover I planted the same species and within a couples of years I had huge swaying seed tipped plants springing up in the fields around my house. If Artemisia likes an area you can plan on its ability to re –seed itself and eventually takeover your garden.

Common names include mugwort, wormwood, silver mound, dusty miller, sweet annie (an annual variety) and sagebrush. Most species are perennial. These plants are known for their hardiness and the powerful chemical constituents present in their essential oils. Most species have strong scents and are bitter tasting which discourages some herbivores like our cottontail rabbits from eating them.

Artemisias are often grown for their silvery – gray foliage and for their aromatic, culinary, and medicinal properties. They have alternate, sometimes deeply divided leaves and the flowers are hardly noticeable. These plants are a great choice for rock gardens and other sunny, dry landscape sites.

The aromatic leaves of some species are used for flavoring. An example is tarragon, which is widely used as a culinary herb. However tarragon has difficulty wintering over in our climate.

The plant we call “garden sage” and use in cooking is not an Artemisia/sagebrush but a European Salvia. Although it doesn’t taste or smell minty, you can call it a mint because it is in the mint family, Lamiaceae. It is related to a host of important culinary herbs, not just clary sage, spearmint and peppermint, but also plants as diverse as lemon balm, catnip and oregano.

Members of the mint family can be recognized by the combination of a square stem and aromatic leaves, both of which garden sage has. No other plant family has square stems and aromatic leaves. Flowers of all mint family plants are similar in structure, if you look closely.

Artemisia absinth is used to repel fleas and moths. I notice if I rub the plant on my skin it gives me some protection from bugs. (most pungent Artemisias are natural flea and bug repellents). The fragrant stalks when picked in the fall make a wonderful sweetly scented smudge. This species also re-seeds itself in odd places. It is also used in brewing beer and wine. The aperitif vermouth was once made with wormwood. Absinthe, a highly potent spirit also contains Artemisia. Some teas are made from the leaves of these plants. Other species besides Artemisia absinthe are grown as ornamental plants and they can all be recognized by their lovely gray – green leaves that provide such a wonderful contrast to other garden plants.

The compound Artmisinin and its derivatives taken from Artemisia annua are used today to treat malaria.

The same Asian Artemisia, sweet annie in English, and qinghao in Chinese is widely used in Chinese medicine.

I cannot write about Artemisia without discussing the sagebrushes although we don’t have any of them growing in the wild in Maine.

Sagebrushes or sageworts, are a large genus in the same daisy and ragweed family, Asteraceae.  Common American Artemisias include prairie sagewort, Afrigida. big sagebrush, A. tridentata, and Louisiana sagewort, A. ludoviciana. There are 37 species of Artemisia native to the lower 48 states, and another 7 in Canada and Alaska. They are herbs and low shrubs of dry regions with aromatic leaves, some pleasant to smell, some not. Like other members of the aster family, what looks like a flower is actually a group of tiny flowers. The Artemisias are wind pollinated, so the flowers are inconspicuous and usually the color of the leaves. (Note that, although the leaves are aromatic, the stems are not square). Prairie sages’ closest relatives are ragweeds and asters.

Sagebrush is not a desert plant but is a resident in areas that get 7 to 14 inches of rain a year. Big sage and other Artemisia species are dominant plants of the Great Basin covering some 422,000 square miles in eleven western and Canadian provinces. The shrubs are found from 4000 to 10,000 feet in elevation. Sagebrush ecosystems have the largest habitat range in the United States. Big sage often grows in areas like the cold desert shrub or in juniper and pinion pine woodlands. The perennial shrub (that often looks like a small tree) grows from 2 -7 feet tall. The young stems are smooth and silvery but as the plant matures the stems turn gray and the bark starts to grow in long strips. The plant provides food and habitat for a variety of animals like the sage grouse, pronghorn, birds, the pygmy rabbit and mule deer. It also creates habitat for many species of grasses and herbs. Besides providing shade and shelter from the wind, the long taproot of sagebrush draws water up from deep in the soil, some of which becomes available to these surrounding shallow rooted plants.

Damage to sagebrush and other Artemisia species that grow in our gardens results in the release of volatile chemicals that are used to signal a warning to nearby plants, so others can protect themselves by increasing the production of repellent chemical compounds. This plant to plant communication extends over long distances, and is probably not the only way these plants converse. It has been argued by some that the actual “brain” of the plant is in its underground root system where most exchanges take place (see Stephen Buhner’s work). What I find so compelling is that sagebrush and many other Artemisia species appear to behave altruistically putting the lives of the whole community of plants before that of the individual.

Many Indigenous peoples use big sage as a medicinal herb, most notably for smudging. Zuni use the plant vapors for body aches. Navajo use big sage to cure headaches. My three favorites for smudging (when I am in an area where I can find them growing wild) in are Artemisia frigida, Artemisia ludoviciana, and Artemisia tridentada, (big sage), but none of these plants grow in Maine, and I refuse to buy Artemisia because I don’t know how the plant was harvested.

Unfortunately, some areas of big sage are under siege because the plant is picked, bundled and sold indiscriminately by entrepreneurs as “the” Native American purifying agent. In the Northeast we can gather Artemisia plants from our own gardens to make a smudge by bundling the stems of Artemisia vulgaris or Artemisia absinth together in the fall. We also can gather cedar bundles to purify the air in our homes like local Indigenous peoples once did. I put sprigs of cedar, Artemisia, or balsam on my woodstove to clear the air. Each is an effective antibacterial remedy for airborne bacteria, and also purifies by putting negative ions back into the air.

In mythology the Greek Goddess Artemis is Mistress of the Wilderness, protector of wild animals, who apprenticed young women to become “bear women” that is, young girls who learned how to become self directed individuals before they could marry, or dedicate themselves as priestesses to one of the temples. This is a practice we would do well to resurrect today for young girls who often lose themselves at adolescence. This goddess who presided over childbirth was also a protector of all women, and all animals. With so many restrictions being lifted off the protection of wild animal species I am invoking Artemis’s power by writing about this plant that has been named after her. Animals and plants need all the help they can get. Dark days lie ahead.

I also find it curious that Artemisia, (wormwood) is the name of the star in the Book of Revelations. This star is cast into all the waters (by an angel) making the water bitter and undrinkable. When we recognize that water is the source of all life this prophecy becomes a chilling reminder that we must not continue to pollute our waters.

Big Sagebrush

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Recently a friend and I took a trip to the monastery on a cold gray March day. Without the sun’s glare I was struck by the myriad of greens and grays that dominated the landscape. When I first noticed that the sage I was looking at had new leaves I felt puzzled because I didn’t expect to be seeing new growth on three foot tall plants this early in the year, although new growth is present in wild plants that are huddled close to the ground. I had already glimpsed two flowers, a dandelion and a deep magenta heron’s bill elsewhere, both of which were practically hidden in between sun warmed stones.

Happily, I gathered some sprigs of the sweet pungent sage, and climbed back into the car with the fragrant camphor and other volatile oils wafting through the air. Looking around the steppe I noted that a sea of sagebrush stretched out in front of me until the shrubs met red willows that lined the bank of the river. This protected riparian area was completely surrounded by cliffs, and I wondered if that was why the sage had sprouted new leaves so early in the year.

When I looked up big sagebrush I discovered that it was classified as an evergreen shrub because it keeps some of its leaves all year round. With leaves remaining on the plant during the winter big sage can photosynthesize later in the year and earlier in the spring than many other plants. Sagebrush takes advantage of the long growing season photosynthesizing even when temperatures are close to freezing. This information answered my query as to why the plants seemed to be in an (early) active growth cycle.

The size of these plants indicated to me that this land was arable, suitable for cultivation, and indeed the monks had an extensive garden not far from the field of sage. This coarse, many – branched shrub has pale yellow flowers, and silvery gray leaves. A deep taproot coupled with laterally spreading roots near the surface allows sagebrush to gather water from both surface precipitation and from the water table several meters down. It prefers deep basic soils. This sage is very long lived once it makes it through the seedling stage. A hundred year old shrub is not uncommon. Big sages’ pale yellow flowers appear in the late summer or fall. Its fruits are seed –like. This plant also reproduces through sprouts that shoot up from the underground rhizome. These daughter plants have a much better chance of surviving because they are attached to the mother plant that has adequate moisture, no matter how dry the season. Of the two strategies for survival daughter sprouts have the edge. A seedling has to find its way alone and will die without enough moisture.

Sagebrush is not a desert plant but is a resident in areas that get 7 to 14 inches of rain a year. Big sage and other Artemisia species are dominant plants of the Great Basin covering some 422,000 square miles in eleven western and Canadian provinces. The shrubs are found from 4000 to 10,000 feet in elevation. Sagebrush ecosystems have the largest habitat range in the United States. Big sage often grows in areas like the cold desert shrub or in juniper and pinion pine woodlands. The perennial shrub (that often looks like a small tree) grows from 2 -7 feet tall. The young stems are smooth and silvery but as the plant matures the stems turn gray and the bark starts to grow in long strips. The plant provides food and habitat for a variety of animals like the sage grouse, pronghorn, birds, the pygmy rabbit and mule deer. It also creates habitat for many species of grasses and herbs. Besides providing shade and shelter from the wind, the long taproot of sagebrush draws water up from deep in the soil, some of which becomes available to these surrounding shallow rooted plants.

Damage to sagebrush plants by grazing herbivores results in the release of volatile chemicals that are used to signal a warning to nearby plants, so others can protect themselves by increasing the production of repellent chemical compounds. This plant to plant communication extends over long distances, and is probably not the only way these plants converse. It has been argued by some that the actual “brain” of the plant is in its underground root system where most exchanges take place (see Stephen Buhner’s work). What I find so fascinating is that sagebrush and many other plants appear to behave altruistically putting the lives of the whole community of plants before that of the individual.

Some Native peoples grind the seeds of big sage into flour but ordinarily the plant is considered toxic for human consumption because of its oils that are toxic to the liver and digestive systems. Many Indigenous peoples use big sage as a medicinal herb, most notably for smudging. Zuni use the plant vapors for body aches. Navajo use big sage to cure headaches. I collect a couple of different types of sages and use them to help with headaches or to clear a room of stale winter air. I also put sprigs in vases in the late fall.

As previously noted big sage is part of the extensive Artemisia family and has been associated with humans for a very long time. In every state in the U.S. some form of the plant can be found in most flower gardens  and can easily be identified by its pungent odor (although the scent differs from one species to another), as well as its lovely blue gray foliage.IMG_1165.JPG

Above: a few sprigs of Big Sagebrush

 

Re – Visioning Medusa

All through my childhood a self – portrait, painted by my mother hung above my parents’ bed. I was fascinated by this image of the stern face of my very beautiful mother with her long wavy chestnut hair. In the painting my mother’s body was buried in the sand up to her neck. Behind her, churning waves cascaded onto the shore. A blue sky was visible. A few seashells were scattered around and a large shiny green beetle was crawling over the sand. On the surface this image of my mother with her long curly hair seemed quite serene but as a child the painting disturbed me. It was as if this painting held a key – but to what? My father loved the painting and often commented on it…

I can remember playing at the seashore. My father would dig holes and bury both his children up to their necks in the warm sand that also held us fast…

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I had one reoccurring childhood nightmare of waking up and not being able to breathe.

I first heard the word Medusa when my mother mentioned her in relationship to herself in jest? Did I ask about her? My memory is silent on these two points, but I knew Medusa’s hair was writhing with snakes and that she was screaming. I also knew my mother was terrified of snakes. Because my mother was an artist, it is possible that I saw an image of Medusa in one of her art books (when I looked for images for this essay one seemed too familiar).

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I had another re-occurring childhood dream. My mother and I were locked in a bathroom. There were snakes crawling all over the floor. My mother jumped on the toilet seat and I was left alone on the floor with the snakes. I awakened screaming…

Once, walking in the woods a garter snake slithered across the path separating my mother and me. When I screeched in terror my mother turned on me viciously. Stunned and humiliated I endured her tirade, hopelessly confused…

When my little brother encouraged me to touch a snake in his terrarium one day, I agreed. I was amazed at how silky the snake’s skin felt. This animal was quite beautiful with his red tongue and golden eyes and the snake seemed unafraid and friendly. After this encounter my fear of snakes vanished…

As an adolescent I started to call myself Medusa.

Any time I acted out, losing my temper I berated myself. In time self – loathing became the mask I wore.

I hated my body.

I told anyone who would listen that I was “a lousy carbon copy of my mother” because that was how I saw myself. No one challenged me on this statement except my grandmother who told me once that she didn’t understand why my mother treated me the way she did… My grandmother intercepted my mother, but never confronted her openly.

In my early 20’s my brother’s suicide and my grandmother’s death severed me from any roots I might have had to the earth and any relationships including those with my children; I entered the dead years.

I couldn’t leave the house.

For my 39th birthday I bought myself a gold serpent ring. When I placed the ring on my left hand (on my ring finger) I intuited with amazement that on some level I was “marrying” myself. I also thought of my mother who was still afraid of snakes and experienced a peculiar sense of power and freedom. The hair on my arms prickled and I shivered involuntarily. I didn’t know what this insight meant but I believed I was prepared to journey into the unknown.

Steeped in mythology and the world of the Great Goddess, shaped by the scholarship of Marija Gimbutas and fascinated by her powerful images of snakes and women, the serpent came to life as an aspect of self and I had married him.

I went camping and re – discovered the forest, and moved to the mountains where I began to write…

I kept shallow clay bowls full of water for the snakes around my house. I kept their skins after they shed them in the woodpile.

When I dreamed about two iridescent blue snakes my dog died. I came to understand that snakes had both a powerful positive and negative charge, and that both involved the body. I recognized that it was important to be aware of this holy aspect of snakes because they embodied life and death of the body in the Great Round. My respect for all snakes deepened.

Last August I came to northern New Mexico and became acquainted with Avanyu, the Indigenous Tewa name for the Horned Serpent that is pecked into many rocks as a petroglyph. Avanyu, the Spirit of Water and Life lives in Si –pa –pu (the underworld) and is a powerful supernatural being for the Tewa. He is unpredictable, presiding over endings and beginnings. He represents change, transition, and transformations. According to the Tewa, in the beginning Avanyu fought the spirit of drought (a fiery comet) and rain fell creating rivers that were shaped by his sinewy body. Every spring at the pueblos the bow and arrow dance is done in his honor.

Recently, I was given a wonderful gift, a small shiny black pot with Avanyu’s image carved into its micacious clay surface. I have become enamored by the images and the mythology around this powerful serpent. Every day I look at my pot and wonder what specific message Avanyu might be trying to convey to me.

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As I began this essay I also wondered how Avanyu’s serpentine aspect might relate to my writing about Medusa? Was he guiding me? I certainly believe he is highlighting the importance of needing to live through the truth of my body.

When I first began researching Medusa I was appalled by my own ignorance regarding the actual myth. I had never studied this tragic story because I thought I knew it.

In the earliest record, Hesiod’s Theogony, Medusa was one of three sisters, the daughter of Earth and Sea who “lived at the world’s edge,” the only sister that was mortal. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses Medusa became a virgin priestess (devoted to celibacy) dedicating her life to the goddess Athena. In some versions Medusa was also vain, and Athena couldn’t tolerate her beauty or the conflict that this engendered. Either way, Poseidon desired Medusa and she broke her vows. In some versions Poseidon raped her in Athena’s shrine.

Athena’s fury was limitless, and she punished Medusa by turning her into a frightening figure. Her beautiful long hair became a tangle of hissing serpents, her face was contorted into a mask of hatred. To gaze directly upon this distorted countenance was to be turned to stone. As a final punishment Athena saw to it that Medusa was shunned and cast out; she wandered alone in despair and torment, and in some accounts she was banished to a desolate island in the sea.

Eventually Medusa escaped her mortal misery, meeting her death at the hands of Perseus who slew her because he used a mirror and did not look directly upon the dreaded face. He saw Medusa as a reflection in his shield. (To look directly into the face of human evil is to be possessed by it, to reflect is to see evil without being swallowed by it). Perseus took her severed head to Athena who attached and wore it on her shield. In addition to her other powers Athena could now deflect the powers of female rage/hatred in her mind, if not in her body.

Robert Graves believes that the myth of Medusa preserves the memory of conflicts that occurred between men and women during the transition from a matrilineal to a patriarchal society. According to Graves, the function of Medusa’s head with its writhing snakes was to keep men at a safe distance from the sacred ceremonies performed by women that celebrated the Triple Goddess as the moon. He suggests that Orphic poems reveal that the full moon is also the head of Medusa.

Scholar Camille Dumoulie postulates that Medusa is the Great Mother because so many texts illustrate Medusa’s affinity with the sea and the powers of nature. I see Medusa as one aspect of the Great Mother, the wild untamed aspect of Nature, and the great sea of the unconscious, a source of positive or negative power.

Dumoulie also perceives Medusa’s head to be a mask and a mirror. According to this scholar the mask of Medusa represents collective violence and death energy. I think that Medusa is an image of woman’s rage/outrage/hatred/grief that needs to be expressed in a healthy way by taking concrete positive actions to deal with negative feelings while inhabiting and listening to one’s body (as well as one’s intellect). Although she doesn’t mention it, I think it’s important to note that this “mask” aspect of woman can also be removed at will as long as one has developed some conscious awareness and an ability to contain feelings and emotions.

As a mirror, Dumoulie fails to explain what’s behind the rivalry between Athena and Medusa beyond stating that Athena needs to separate or split away from her double in order to hold on to her identity. I think the core of the issue between the two is Athena’s envy. Envy can result in hatred of women by women; Athena turns her priestess into a monster and then, after her death, puts Medusa’s face on her shield revealing the intimate relationship between the two. Athena “wins” acquiring power over her victim. Athena does not develop the powers of self – reflection; instead she persecutes her servant. Medusa’s head then becomes an aspect of Athena who is associated with the power to annihilate, to turn others to stone, but this power lacks a body.

Medusa and Athena are two aspects of the same goddess. Athena betrays this truth by taking Medusa’s head and placing it on her shield so she can kill without having to own this vicious feeling aspect of herself. Feelings and emotions have their roots in the body.

Dumoulie believes that “whoever seeks Athena finds Medusa’s head.” I believe that this statement of hers contains a warning for every woman. Athena is a goddess of war; she is associated with patriarchal “power over” and is also associated with the masculine ideal of wisdom. She was born from Zeus’s neck, not through a woman’s body. She is a daughter of intellect who risks reversal – snapping into her opposite (Medusa/feeling) without grounding in a body that will help her mediate unbridled power and hubris.

Medusa is also sometimes characterized as a symbol of male castration. Yet Medusa’s ability to annihilate is a result of the violence imposed on her by Athena who is characterized as a female hero figure. Medusa didn’t choose this mask – it was thrust upon her by Athena, a female goddess who victimized her. I think the story of Medusa is more about woman hatred. The result of her abuse was that she was abandoned as an outcast and died in a state of terrible despair. Her terrifying loneliness is evident in the images of Medusa that reveal female misery, not the face of female evil.

I would also argue that the snakes in Medusa’s hair are symbolic representations of woman’s power. Women and Serpents have a long history together, one that stretches back to Neolithic times when serpents were seen as wisdom figures, embodying the life force within women and in Nature. Like the Minoan Snake goddess or the snakes in my life that contain both life and death aspects in one serpentine figure, Medusa’s head is covered in serpents suggesting that the potential for women’s wisdom is also present. Medusa needs a body in order to express this potential.

For most of my life I had identified my anger/rage with Medusa condemning myself without ever knowing anything about this story or the context in which Medusa lived out her (mortal) mythic life. Today I see Medusa in a very different light and feel great compassion for her, and for myself. This female figure was brutalized first by seduction or possible rape, and then betrayed by the goddess she had dedicated her life to – Athena, who blamed the victim and not the perpetrator. Twice. This heinous act would be shocking if one didn’t recall that Athena sprang from Zeus’s neck, (an unholy birth if there ever was one) and was as a result, a male identified woman, one who may also become a woman hater.

I believe that Medusa can help us as women to stay in touch with the archetype, as in a force of energy/and information, so that we have a choice. Women can allow themselves to feel rage, contain it, and express it in healthy ways. We don’t have to act out destructively towards others or ourselves after we have been brutalized or betrayed.

I am finishing this essay on the day after the Women’s March on Washington (and everywhere else around the world). The massive world wide protest highlights how effective women’s anger/rage can be when it is mobilized into a peaceful collective movement that has at its core the belief that women, and the sensible/sensitive men that support them, will not put up with more abuse – verbal or physical. We say NO to giving up our hard won rights. We say NO to the destruction of the planet and its non –human species, to misogyny, to rape, to privileging one group over another, to restricting reproductive rights, to building stupid walls, to isolating one group of individuals from another. We embody Medusa’s outrage, and begin to fight back. This misogynist who became president partly because 53 percent of white women voted him in must be stopped. First we need to own the proliferation of women hatred and other hatred that abounds in our country, and then we need to take to the streets to protest in huge numbers. Our greatest challenge is to keep up the momentum. Women must gaze with the eyes of Medusa on the monster lurking behind the doors of the Oval Office. Women and men everywhere must turn him to stone.

I conclude this essay with a personal note on serpents. I believe that the serpent saved my life because by “marrying” him I opened the door to the unconscious waters, the wisdom of my dreams, and to living my life authentically. My greatest challenge then as now is to live my life through my body as well as through my intellect. I don’t choose as my mother once did, to bury my body in the sand. Perhaps Avanyu will continue to guide me…