Welcome to the Botanarchy Newsletter: Metal Magic Edition! Nothing hearkens the return of autumn like a sweet, sorrowful saudade chased down with a requisite crying jag. Just yesterday, a book came in the mail from a poet who attracts bears to her like suitors, and I cried upon opening it from the synchronistic shock. For it was a book Kerrilynn Pamer (who is infamous for her glorious book curations) recommended to me just a week before, a book I longed to read more than any other book in the great goddess’ etheric dossier, but out of principal would not buy (I was scared it would distract me from writing my own book). So I cried again, for old time’s sake! The book was ravaged by the poet - the inimitable Edie Tsong - and filled with annotations and bathtub scars, and I unabashedly wept when I opened it for there is nothing in the world I love more than beholding the holy writ of a loved one’s margin notes (better, dare I say, than books themselves). The book is Joy Harjo’s Poet Warrior, so of course an extravagant shower of tears beseeched me when I read:
“At some point we have to understand that we do not need to carry a story that is unbearable. We can observe the story, which is mental; feel the story, which is physical; let the story go, which is emotional; then forgive the story, which is spiritual, after which we use the materials of it to build a house of knowledge.” 😭.
Lavish in the pathos of your loves & losses, my languid lachrymose handmaidens, for Metal Season is upon us!
The progeny of heat and pressure, the Metal element embodies the magic of time, its innate preciousness an exposé of the Hermetic rituals that occur in the mysterious depths of the underworld where life, death, and transformation happen. Metals are comprised of matrices of minerals, which are catalysts for action and necessary for all organic life, sustaining and empowering all processes from mushroom to man. It’s one of the first things we pounded and shaped for use, and in this sense, has always been emblematic of alchemy and transformation. Metals are, in essence, what make things valuable.
Metal embodies the archetypal energy of Autumn - releasing, refining, and stripping down to what's essential, like leaves being cast from the tree to return to origin as mulch. Through their pivot of beauty and loss, they let us understand the indispensable allure that lies within, allowing this transformation to uncover who we are without our fruits and flowers, exposing the silvery crone core in all of us and letting her luster be untarnished.
The Metal element’s emotion is grief, and the repository of grief is the Lungs. To understand the Lungs relationship with grief, think about the somatic sensation of sadness. Sadness brings us down into ourselves, like Persephone retreating into the underworld… our chest tightens, we grasp for air, our will collapses, a fine mist shrouds our lungs until the tears cascade and break like clouds. This is the same pull of gravity deep into Earth’s core that creates and shapes precious metals, if we allow ourselves to surrender to the process. Grief unprocessed is an interruption to the flow of our vitality, like a fine mist clouding the lungs, blocking inspiration and the magic of change.
To be sad during Metal Season is to have a harpy collect your tears in a pewter vial and carry them off to the underworld in her talons like tender prey. It is to have your grief beheld as if it were a lover’s face reflected in polished obsidian. It is to worship Miseria, primordial goddess of misery and depression, daughter of Nyx, the goddess of night, and Erebus, the god of deep darkness. It is to reach the summa of despair and plant your flag atop its sullen heap. It’s to weep like Morrissey is watching (and Nick Cave is filming you over his shoulder). The Capricorn in me wants my weeping to serve a purpose that is useful, utilitarian, chic. I pray that Miseria’s attendants are mining my tears for bitcoin and democratizing wealth throughout the realm. My hope for us all this Metal season is that we can jubilate in this weeping like the exquisite gift of human alchemy it was intended to be. You see, I take the Art Of Weeping very seriously. It was a pleasure denied to me as a small child who got water thrown in her face if she ever succumbed to crying. The heavenly mandate of the autumnal Death Holidays welcomes us to exult in this great release, and like a sickle-bearing reaper cut loose our burdens to fall heavily unto the barren ground.
A bit of context on all this grief, for those of you who may not know: I have spent the better part of these last few weeks caretaking for my father, who was hospitalized for what looked like a stroke, but turned out to be something more nebulous and mysterious. He is home safe and regaining his faculties day by day, but there are paralyzing moments of bodily strangeness that no one seems to understand.
Sitting with him as he agonizes and chokes on his food has taught me a lot about grief, an emotion I bro down with on the regular and thought I knew well enough to call a friend.
I am learning that grief requires witnesses and attendants, that grief requires chambermaids and godmothers and stewards and scribes to behold it, bear it, shepherd it, and transform it. My father wants and deserves to be in pain and have a community behold his wailing. This is our birthright.
In the years since my mom’s death, my father’s grief has gone ignored, stagnating somewhere in the recesses of his body where it transformed into an anxiety so profound, it is paralyzing his facial muscles and weakening his will to swallow, breathe, live.
I didn’t know if I should call an ambulance when he couldn’t breathe over lunch and his head began to droop over his bowl, or if I should attempt to calm him and soothe him. The best I could do was the latter (the guy hates the hospital), and my partner and I engaged him in a rare conversation of depth and friction, touching upon his grief, his lack of joy around eating since he lost his swallowing reflex, and what being 83 is like when you can’t drive anywhere and get panic attacks inside CVS. A half hour into this, his eye muscles stopped twitching and his breathing became deep and generative. The next morning my brother said he was in good spirits and able to eat without issue. Over the week things have continued to improve, and my dad is softening into new states of being. I’m not saying that confronting grief can cure Myasthenia Gravis (or can it?), but there is an undeniable surge of life force that happens in the wake of purging emotional states. In our medicine, health is measured by the ability for this life force to flow unencumbered through the tributaries of the body. Emotions unexamined erode the qi and stagnate its movement. The Ling Shu, one of our classical texts on acupuncture theory, tells us that grief weakens, depletes, or dissolves the qi, often leading to tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, and impaired circulation. Over time, this can lead to severe yin-yang energy imbalances, abnormalities in the flow of blood, qi blockages in the meridians, and impairment of vital organ function.
Once upon a time, I wrote us all an Acupressure Spell for Transforming Grief. It’s a moldy oldie, but if there ever was a time for moldy oldies to prevail, that time is certainly now. In the honorable autumnal tradition of mulch and rot, it is offered below. Drink deep its woebegone medicine.
A little housekeeping before the requisite barrage of poetry and magic: As a caretaker, there are new requirements of my time and qi, and though I raised my rates on paper many moons ago, I never implemented them in the clinic. As of January 1st, appointments for existing patients will be $135. As always, a quarter of my practice will be reserved for sliding-scale patients with financial need. Please inquire to be enrolled in this program (and don’t be shy about it!).
In health and solidarity,
By Carolyn Barron
It’s autumn 1987, in the backyard of an old craftsman nestled betwixt an Altadena Dairy and the Studio City Golf Course. You flaunt your orthodontic headgear like there’s no tomorrow, and practice the ‘hellcat gyrating on a Corvette’ dance moves native to the era in your driveway to Van Halen’s 5150 like it’s your full time job. A strange, alien bloom arises in the garden bed beneath the bedroom window, regaling you with the come hither glances of a carnivorous plant and a staggering height that eclipses your 6-year-old frame by at least two feet. Full of Little Shop Of Horrors panache and growing grander with each moment, the rogue specimen sports a towering orange phallus emerging from the fronds of what looks like a giant burgundy mushroom. ‘If Van Halen were a flower, this would surely be it’, you think to yourself.
My mom, an ardent gardener who knew the parlance of her yard like the back of her hand, did not plant this beastial behemoth, but loves it as if it were her own child. We all fawn and obsess over this thing with the WOW, thank you for choosing US mentality of our humble working class homestead. These days, if a strange bloom shows up in your yard, you google it. But back then, you just… watered it.
At some point thereafter, our homestead was beseeched by a stench so rotten, it almost provoked synesthesia. Vaguely graverobber-esque, it made comic stench clouds that smelled like an autopsy or trash can sex. We looked everywhere for the cause… under the porch (was there a murder?!), in the rafters of the house, in the alleyway, in all the trash cans, until we realized that the smell was emanating from none other than the preening alien lily. The smell took up precious real estate, it was so dramatic it ensconced our homestead such that we couldn’t even keep the windows open. Trash plant seemed to be winking, and the whole thing felt like a giant, cosmic joke.
We traced the alien lily to my uncle David, a notorious prankster and infamous thrillseeker who I can only imagine procured the specimen in some salacious fashion while filming a TV show in the South Pacific. The appearance of the lily in our backyard was, in essence, an epic, long-form prank of Homerian proportions. He hauled it halfway across the world - and planted it under a cloak of darkness - for the singular purpose of vexing us with vomitous vapors at an indeterminate moment somewhere down the road.
And it was a good prank, too.
It wasn't until a decade later in 1999 that we realized we were shrouding an inexplicable treasure in our garden bed, one that defied geography, reason, and all the things that glue the joints of consensual reality together in a tenuous miasma. In a “can you even f%&*^g believe this?!?” moment, we flipped open the LA Times to a photo of a titanic bloom similar to that of our very own prankster meat puppet, hailing over an article titled...
“Forget about the 15th century edition of “Canterbury Tales.” Don’t set foot near “Blue Boy” and other masterpiece paintings of Gainsborough. Skip right by one of the few surviving Gutenberg Bibles, a mere 544 years old. The crowds Monday at the Huntington Library, the largest one-day tally in the San Marino institution’s 71-year history, came on a strikingly less cultured mission: They wanted to see and sniff a massive flower that smells like road kill.
They swarmed like dung beetles in the jungle, thousands of people converging for the rare two-day blooming of the Amorphophallus titanum plant - one of the largest and most putrid flowers in the world. They jammed the usually quiet streets nearby and poured into the library and its botanical gardens until officials were forced to close the gates at midafternoon. Inside, visitors waited at least two hours in a line that snaked through the stifling, smoggy heat. Two people passed out and were treated by paramedics.”
It was nice to see a familiar face, since our rancid behemoth had become compost a decade before as our home made way to developers who plopped a 1980’s stucco condominium atop it (a grander abomination than her own stinking flesh, I reckon). But why, we wondered, would visitors wait two hours to behold a flower? As we scrolled through the article, it hit us: A titan arum has bloomed only 11 times in the United States.
The titan arum, also known as the Stinking Corpse Flower, is an endangered plant that grows on Indonesia’s island of Sumatra, with fewer than 1,000 plants remaining in the wild. Technically, the bloom is a cluster of miniscule flowers huddled together in a putrid cuddle puddle, but it is generally regarded as the largest flower in the world. It imitates a dead animal to attract pollinators like dung beetles and flesh flies, with a fragrance that resembles rotting flesh and a core temperature that warms up to a sultry 98 degrees fahrenheit. Per floriculturist Tim Pollak of the Chicago Botanic Garden “the insects think the flower may be food, fly inside, realize there is nothing to eat, and fly off with pollen on their legs. This process ensures the ongoing pollination of the species. Once the flower has bloomed and pollination is complete, the flower collapses.”
A chemical analysis of the Corpse Flower’s stench done by Pollak (bless you, Tim) found that it consists of:
He even made this cute infographic to drive the point home:
I know that this whole story reeks of a tall tale spun by the likes of Carlos Castaneda. I’m a grandiloquent dandy descended from egregious viking war poets, after all. But I solemnly swear on Peter Tompkins The Secret Life of Plants that there was - with certainty - a prankster Corpse Flower blooming in a garden bed behind a wilted craftsman on Whitsett Ave in 1987, and the entirety of the Barron clan (and perhaps a rogue shoebox snapshot) can attest to it.
The Corpse Flower is having its day in Southern California right now, or shall I say, two days. Throngs of tourists have been flocking to the San Diego Botanical Gardens to behold the blooming of Stinking Beauty, who was manually pollenated with pollen collected and donated by the Huntington Botanical Gardens. The spectacle will only last 48 hours before it begins to fade. At the beginning of the month, its sibling, Jack Smellington, bloomed on Halloween night. These 14-year-old sibling plants last bloomed in October 2018.
Mostly, this Plantasia column is a place I write about the egalitarian ethos of my favorite plants and our symbiotic relationship with their myriad medicines. But what if a plant’s primary allure is that its sporadic florescence smells like a rotting corpse?
The Corpse Flower is - by the standards of a classically elitist Eurocentric botanical hegemony - repugnant and useless. It can’t be plopped in a vase, has no known medicinal value, and its fruits are poisonous to humans. But it doesn’t matter that it smells like a raccoon that took an endless sleep under your porch and looks like a raunchy plant pin-up from a vintage Playboy, it has its own reality TV show live-streamed 24/7 and throngs of botanists making mecca to kneel worshipfully before its fetid flowers. It is the face that launched a thousand road trips, the perfume that becharmed a thousand carrion beetles. Fathers dangle toddlers into its mouth for photo ops. For every rose that is adored for its grace and elegance, there is a Corpse Flower glamouring us to the fringes of ecstasy with necromantic revulsion.
The Corpse Flower’s magical allure makes me think of Julia Kristeva, my favorite Bulgarian-French philosopher, semiotician, and feminist psychoanalyst. Our obsession with beholding its grotesque potpourri illustrates with inimitable funk & flash Kristeva’s concept of the abject. In her Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Kristeva tells us the abject is everything that is radically rejected by the self. It is “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules.” Within the domicile of the abject lies everything taboo that inherently disturbs conventional identity and cultural concepts. The abject exists on the edges, defining the self by creating a boundary between the ego and the non-ego. Our horror and repulsion of the abject is a source of protection to maintain this boundary and uphold order. In Kristeva’s words,
Beholding the abject theater of the Corpse Flower reminds us of our own transient materiality with an arresting drama that shakes us out of the styrofoam packaging we cushion ourselves in. It blurs the separation between human and animal, between culture and the primordial stew that preceded it.
When I think of embracing the abject as an act of wellness, my mind travels next to Lao Tzu, the philosophical magus of Chinese medicine who believed that by thwarting cultural mandates of acceptable behavior, we return to the purity of origin, the feral grace of Tao. The Tao Te Ching muses that
much like accidental TechnoTaoist Philip K Dick was fond of saying that
Both tell an alchemical tale about divine intelligence lying in the periphery where no one dare to look, about investigating areas of discomfort and neglect and mining them for alchemical gold. The moral, if there is one:
In five element diagnosis, physicians are trained to hone our powers of observation by watching the interplay of elements in nature. In our intake, we utilize all five senses to flesh out which element is out of balance, or may be speaking through the patient. Each element has a corresponding taste, color, sound, and odor that fill the room like an ether unlocking the secrets of the body. The presence of the Metal element is signaled by a rotten odor. Just ask the Corpse Flower, who’s septic stank teaches us to surrender to the magic of rot, not fight the funk of our essential nature. In the Taoist classics, our metal organs - the lungs and large intestine - are said to impart ‘purity’ to the body temple. Metal’s purity isn’t the unsullied immaculateness we usually associate with being cleansed, it’s about EMANCIPATION. In returning to the Earth what no longer serves, our metal organs keep us true to ourselves, not full of proverbial s#^t. My wish this Metal Season is for each and every one of us to allow our essential nature to shine like an untarnished nugget, cleansed of the chaos of culture. May we preen putridly like the rarest Stinking Corpse Flower, and may the world worship us for it.
You can watch a 24 hour live stream of Jack Smellington, the San Diego Botanical Garden’s Stinking Corpse Flower, here.
By Carolyn Barron
Sadness, like all emotion, is a transient energy, and as water vapor turns into clouds when it cools and condenses, it passes and transforms into other feelings. Taoist doctors use the metaphors of matter shifting through space and time to inscribe meaning and mythos to the capricious seasons of the body, as the natural world provides a cipher that we can all decode within the template of our bones. They speak to grief as embodied weather, a migratory emotional climate that is described as a cloud or mist that clings to the Lungs, obstructing the qi of heaven from penetrating our inner chamber and sitting upon the heart like leaded smog. In Taoist Tales of Acupuncture Points, the weather of grief is spoken to as Autumn rainclouds -
Things get a little treacherous when the weather is denied its season, when we bury the grief and don’t allow the clouds to swell and burst. I’m thinking a ton about grief these days (or rather, FEELING IT, as grief by its very nature is anti-intellectual), because I’m tracing my ancestry as a devotional to my mom, who never got to finish this work before departing this world last year. I’m mourning her, and beneath and beyond that grief, I’m mourning all of the ancestors I never got to know, the grief extends itself to the stories that lie dead and buried that I’m trying to witch out of the ground. This is a BIG grief - collective, even - and I’m having to revisit the rituals that got me through her passing in order to stay afloat. This one - an AcuSpell For Transforming Grief - is stop, drop, and roll Anarcha Taoist qigong for when sorrow clings like a mist to your deepest core. It will require to you embrace the sorrow, then use the mojo and moxie of your own hands to break up the clouds and allow the storm to rage as it may.
Sadness and grief, can become physically embodied as phlegm in the lungs, chronic cough, constant dripping sinuses, eroded immunity, porous emotions, hyper sensitivity to one's environment, wheezing, and unresolved bronchial infections that can’t be kicked with antibiotics alone. Grief also has a home in the body, and likes to rest its oh so weary head upon acupuncture point Lung 2 ‘Cloud Gate’ 雲門. Cloud Gate speaks to the aspect of grief that feels like living under a cloud, where one can’t see the vast expanse of the sky. Located in the tender depression that your finger falls into whilst tracing the underside of your clavicle outward where it meets with the shoulder, Cloud Gate can be used clinically to help break through the clouds so as to be inspired once again. It’s helpful to make yourself familiar with the location of this point before we begin, which you can do here.
When I think about the alchemy of loss and grief, my mind inevitably rests upon Poetess Gloria Anzaldúa and her concept of the ‘Coatlicue State.’ An incarnation of cosmic processes and embodiment of the sacredness of paradox, Coatlicue is an Aztec goddess that represents the conflicting identities of Life-Giver and Death-Bringer.
To Anzaldúa, the Coatlicue State describes a moving closer to knowing that means embracing moments of despair, desconocimiento, and failure. Those activities or Coatlicue states which disrupt the smooth flow of life are exactly what propel the soul to do its work: make soul, increase consciousness of itself. Anzaldúa teaches that
Reader queries into the mystic wilds of the body can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Time permits but one answer a month at this juncture.
A patient asked me:
“Is it true
crash your libido and dry out your vagina?”
Which gave me pause and an occasion to wonder:
IS SEX A HISTAMINE RESPONSE?
Rosy, rubicund, blood vessels bursting and bubbling,
A cauldron of itches that cannot be scratched,
Fire, fire, fire in the blood, hot blood that traces its shadow
Glands swell and body parts leak leak leak
I am a faucet,
I am a cytokine storm.
I have hives, I have hives,
I have a fever that won’t break,
I have a lover’s sweat-drenched shirt clenched in my teeth
crawling through the Cahuenga Pass
on all fours,
basal cells spewing histamine.
There is nothing over the counter to block this.
Beseeched by forces,
My body is a plaything of The Elements,
a flash of mast cell activation:
Fire: I will invade you
Metal: I am a boundary
I choke, I choke, my throat is closing like so many things that close
hands around my neck.
is tinged with hypoxia.
An invisible Goddess’ is holding her shimmering athame
firm against the jugular.
Contraction of smooth muscle
Accelerating heart rate
organs starved of vital blood,
a cutaneous coma.
Is it any wonder,
that histamine is in insect venom?
The little death,
like a shot of epinephrine,
opens up airways,
and breath fecundates the body anew.
YES, my histamine-hearted brethren, the rumors are true - antihistamines can crush your libido, AND take your sexytime fluids, erection, and joie de vivre right down with it! Gross, right?!
As long as plants have sex and cast their sperm powder into the air with wild abandon, antihistamines are a necessary evil, else many of us would be beseeched by hives spewing tears and phlegm hither and thither. Benadryl, Claritin, Xantac, Dramamine, and Phenergan do the goddess’ work of blocking histamines to make the world a more breathable place, which is no small feat - have you even seen the world these days?
‘Chaotic Neutral’ in nature, Histamine isn’t intentionally trying to disrupt your life, it just distrusts authority, doesn’t like following orders, prefers to live life on it’s own terms and throw you a few curve balls for kicks when you’re inhaling a freshly mowed summer lawn. In its valiant expression, it signals to our immune system how to protect us from foreign invaders like parasites and bacteria. Unhinged, it rebels against the body and mistakes innocents like peanuts and shellfish for nefarious insurgents, and when it unleashes its wrath upon us, a bevy of symptoms like headaches, respiratory duress, nasal congestion, fatigue, hives, itching, and digestive melee may occur.
Like a concupiscent henchman of Eros, histamine makes Erotic City come alive by helping smooth muscle contract, dilating blood vessels, and accelerating your heart rate. While sex might not be an actual histamine response, arousal mimics it with deft precision. To understand why antihistamines might sink your proverbial battleship, they work by suppressing vasodilation and mucosal secretion, which are very much necessary for healthy arousal and moisture production. And though antihistamines’ libido-hexing effects are transient, if you are part of the population that needs to use them on the daily to function, you might be walking around in a haze of perpetual low-grade cockblock.
But fret not! There are sex-positive ways to mitigate allergy woes! And depending on your body, some of them work better than OTC antihistamines for both prevention and maintenance of allergies. Read on for the edit.
Chances are, if you have ever showed up to my office with a histamine response, I have shoved this chalky, salty Elixir Of The Gods down your eager gullet. Antronex is a whole food supplement made by the inimitable Standard Process that contains a special liver fat extract that acts as a natural antihistamine by enhancing the liver’s blood filtration and detoxification pathways. It has ascended to legend status because it repairs the histamine response instead of blocking it, meaning it actually strengthens your bodies resilience against allergens if taken consistently over time.
Some of my patients that take Antronex find they can come off the Claritin they’ve been using semi unsuccessfully for years, and joyfully encounter allergens in the wild with nary a symptom in sight. I once watched my mentor sit a patient down in the waiting room who was covered in the most egregious hives I have ever seen - we are talking giant, raised welts over her entire face and body - and administer Antronex every 15 minutes until her rash went away. It was pure magic!
Another patient of mine that was inhaler-bound for decades no longer has asthma attacks with seasonal changes and dairy exposure. I have an entire dossier of such stories, and a photo from a patient who scrawled the words THANK YOU in inch-deep east coast pollen over the hood of their car. Antronex is available in-office and through my online pharmacy (holler at me if you need a prescription).
The BDSM dungeon master of the plant world, Nettle’s notorious sting is eerily similar to the sharp pain of a whip lash. Your resident Etymology Slut and former National Latin Scholar wants you to know that Stinging Nettle’s latin name - Urtica Dioca - has the same root as hives, whose medical name - Urticaria - both stem from the latin word urere, meaning "to burn.” Hot, right?!
The Nettle has sharp hairs on its leaves that contain chemicals that can irritate the skin and cause stinging, itching, and redness. If you’ve ever rubbed against these on a dank river path, you know the searing scorch of Nettle’s ire. Here’s the fascinating ruse: Nettle hairs contain, of all things, histamine, which brings to life my favorite medical paradox: “the poison is the cure.” Test-tube research shows that Stinging Nettle extracts can inhibit inflammation that triggers seasonal allergies. This includes blocking histamine receptors and stopping immune cells from releasing chemicals that trigger allergy symptoms.
Not that you should ever ask the rapacious Romans for medical advice, but according to Rodale's Encyclopedia of Herbs, they were known to thrash men "below the navel" with Nettle leaves to improve virility. Not only will Nettle not crash your sex drive, it is often used in cases of decreased sex drive & function due to its ability to keep testosterone bioavailable in the body. Low libido, prostatitis, vaginal atrophy, erectile dysfunction… they all fall under Nettle’s purveyance, along with common allergy woes like watery, itchy eyes, congested lungs, runny nose, sinus pressure, and eczema.
In Traditional East Asian Medicine, Nettle is a yin tonic that strengthens the vital organs, especially the kidneys and liver. My favorite way to take tonic herbs is daily in an infusion.
May we all flit through this metal season with our forcefields intact by the might and moxie of these extraordinary herbs.