Welcome to the Botanarchy Times: Have Yourself An Ecosensual Solstice Edition! Winter is a sacred pause of concentration and contemplation that marks the drawing inward and guarding our reserves, a time to tap the marrow of life and suck it deep into our bones to nurture and gestate the seeds of our will. In five element alchemy, winter belongs to the element Water. Water moves through the darkness with a flowing grace, navigating the unknown with the innate understanding that it must flow forward regardless, soft and yielding with patient puissance yet holding the strength to penetrate mountains and earth.
Winter has a bivalent nature that you can sense in the spirit of the New Year, as we simultaneously carouse with the ghosts of Christmas’ past whilst calling in the spirits of what’s to come. I learned from my mentor Lorie Dechar that the Water element’s dual directionality is encoded in a Taoist symbol, the two-headed white deer. As the animal spirit of Water, the two-headed deer resides deep within the old growth forests of the kidneys, looking into two divergent directions at once - in one direction, the past, and the other, the mystical darkness of the future. The work? Keep your eyes on what’s emerging, what’s gestating in the inner sea, what’s dancing in the rhythms of your bone marrow. This newsletter is dedicated to exploring those subterranean sanctums.
Water speaks to movement, current, adaptability, and flow. She is pluripotent possibility, a multidirectional wonder. As the Mother of Wood, Water carries the seeds of deep potential. In her poised quiescence as a reflective pool, she gathers the moonglow on her surface and stews the yin juices of mystery, a womb for creation to crawl out of. In her yang expression, she plunges forward with the wrath of a flood or the renewing geyser of a sulfury spring. One minute, she’s show-ponying around like a lacy icicle, then she changes into vaporous mist, just like that!
Water is the Great Equalizer, soaring to the heavens and sinking to the depths. Known to pal around with the hoi polloi of the underbelly, she has an affinity for things that lurk in the dark - shadow, obscurity, the sullied, the occult. The Tao Te Ching muses that water goes to the darkest places and is therefore closest to Tao, much like accidental TechnoTaoist Philip K Dick was fond of saying that the symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum. 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 how descent transforms into regeneration in the quest for equilibrium. Water is mercurial, spontaneity with equanimity.
For Water within us, think of sap and lubrication - bone marrow, cerebrospinal fluid, semen, blood. For these are the fluid matrices that yoke together the serpentine mysteries of DNA with the spiraling, fluid power of life. This realm is presided over by the Kidneys and Bladder, our conduits of the Watercourse Way, who control the quantity and quality of fluid reserves and bring equilibrium to the body temple en masse.
For this season’s newsletter, I hope to impart a bit of the depthless mysteries of Water and the winter season, and offer some rituals and ruminations for plunging its depths. In its pages, you will find AnarchaTaoist flower folklore for cultivating divine inner authority, an AcuSpell for embracing darkness, a Botanarchist booklist, and a winter solstice ritual for seeking the counsel of nature from my Icelandic ancestors. Það kemur allt með kalda vatninu!
My newsletters have been a bit like the branches of my sycamore tree as of late - somewhat sparse, a lot of space between them, with an occasional windfall of ochre leaves seemingly out of nowhere. I took autumn away from writing to get married in my backyard, in an intimate ritual I might share in a future issue for Botanarchists who long to create a wedding ceremony both reverent and irreverent - one that honors earth, cycles, time, the ancestors, and the five elements, whilst simultaneously incorporating bear pelts, knives, the Talking Heads, and pyrotechnics. Here’s my favorite pic from the occasion that really captures the High Goth Heathen Bacchanal vibe:
I spent most of my creative time this year in the throes of writing a book proposal, one that has since been shot with a poison arrow dipped in wolfsbane and then sacrificed to Hekate and her dogs. If you ever want to hate writing, the creative process, and maybe even yourself, you should absolutely write a book proposal. All of the handsomely pedigree’d folk that I enlisted to guide me in the process kept insisting that I strip the poetry, alliterative language, and storytelling out of my work, and replace it with clinical anecdotes, scientific studies, and punchy lists. This is ultimately what led to its demise.
Medicine can - and should - be a poetic act, because poetry is the language of the people and medicine should belong to the people. Medicine should - like all good poetry - ILLUMINATE. It has the potential to foster awareness, increase resilience, and embed us in a process larger than ourselves. But it does not do this if it serves a logirhythm that rewards the automatic and formulaic, moving everything towards a monoculture that eventually erodes the very soil itself. Medicine, like poetry, should seek universal truth, and cast light upon the cosmic ties that bind us all together in process and purpose while supporting and sustaining the discovery of our unique expression of humanity. In practice, it should impart a fluency of our inner nature.
I do not think that studies pertaining to Acetyl-L-carnitine’s effect on energy metabolism will outlast the decade. I do not think that 15 second videos on ‘5 Herbs 4 PCOS’ are enduring. I do not think that anyone cares to read my clinical anecdotes about what points and herbs I used to eradicate a stubborn fibroid (spoiler alert! Even if I told you, the results would not be repeatable en masse, for every body is a unique ecosystem). The Old Medicine knew this. The Old Medicine’s wellness celebrities were mostly hermits, poets, philosophers, and grandmas. As the Taoist sages unearthed a template for medicine in the balladry of the shifting earth, their poetry fleshes out the mystery in language, mirth, and metaphor. In the hands of the poet, the enigmas of the body are uncovered, perplexing symptoms are decoded, and the processes of the body become easy to understand. These truths are perennial. Every bit of advice I was given on book writing was fundamentally in opposition to how I view the (tainted) concept of wellness.
All of this ranting is just to say that in the year ahead, I will be writing again for spontaneous useless poetic joy. The book will happen when it blooms in accordance with its little tao, following the lead of the peony flower which you can read about in this month’s Plantasia column below. I hope to send The Botanarchy Times out once a season (there’s five in elemental medicine!), and a shorter email once a month with news from the plant kingdom and Botanarchist curations for a healthy sexy spontaneous useless poetic month. I am opening the proverbial suggestion box for your ideas - what would you like to see more of? Less of? Should I start a public access television show? Do you want me to write a column on Ecosensual Healthcare for Garden & Gun Magazine?!? Cause I will!
On the precipice of this new year, may we find contentment with the way things are, and an undying inquisitiveness into how we can make things more fascinating. Onwards, towards the mystery!
In health and solidarity,
Carolyn Barron Garcia
Currently, most of my patients are tired. VERY, VERY tired. The kind of tired that wills one to describe their body as a cyclopean cavern inside a petrified forest, filled with ashen snow and broken toys. While pathological tiredness often points to an underlying health issue like an unresolved infection, endocrine disorder, digestive or malabsorption issue, post viral fatigue syndrome, allergies, poor sleep, or a respiratory disorder (to truly name only a few), much of our collective tiredness comes from our will towards exponential growth and output at the expense of our own biorhythms. While I might prescribe you the dankest rubicund blood tonic that finally raises your ferritin levels FOR GOOD, I can’t heal capitalism on my own! It is in these moments that I must shift my focus to teaching my patients to recognize the need for quiescence, rest, and introversion, resisting the mandate to flower all year.
When a patient of mine is fighting against the will of their inner nature which is clearly telling them to slow down, I often share with them a flower parable from the Shan Dynasty while I’m needling their body for exhaustion and depression. This version is from a piece called The Power of the Golden Age Flower from the classical Chinese dance Company Shen Yun, who preserves traditional Chinese culture through dance:
“A legend tells of the Tang Dynasty Empress Wu Zetian giving the order that all of the flowers in her royal garden must bloom in the middle of winter. Afraid of her power, all the flowers bloomed, except one—the peony. Enraged, Empress Wu banished the peonies from the capital city of Chang’an to the city of Luoyang. Yet, after the move, the flowers bloomed beautifully in spring. In a fit of anger, the empress ordered all the peonies to be burned. Despite the destructive fire, one year later, the peonies beautifully bloomed again.
The story teaches us that true wealth and prosperity blossom by following the natural way. The ancient Chinese called it, “living in the Tao,” and it means living in harmony with Heaven and Earth. Nature and the universe have their perfect timing, whether that means blooming in the winter or in the spring. Living life in tune with this universal, cosmic flow will bring you true happiness, joy, and a fruitful life—for, like, the peony, you are perfectly unique within this natural way.”
It is because of its refusal to act against its inner nature that I consider the peony the most AnarchaTaoist flower of all flowers. And that is saying something, because all flowers are benevolent punks that resist tyranny in their uncultivated beauty. The peony teaches us that we must combat imperialist tactics of coercion and forced assimilation. We must retain our feral nature, trust our rhythms of rest and regeneration, and fight the powers that long to control and contain our wildness. For in the canon of the taoist sages, natural impulses are never arbitrary - they are connected to a divine inner authority, one that must be protected and cultivated by fasting the mind, observing simplicity, and practicing non-interference. The crux of my work as a physician is to help you recover these capacities through acupuncture, herbs, and living in alignment with the seasons.
To live seasonally is to know when to flower and when to stay dormant. It is to know when to go out, when to stay in, get things done. Don’t take it from me, take it from the immortal David Bowie, who, as a prolific Capricorn that perfected the art of reverse aging, clearly knew a few things about the dichotomy of licentiousness and longevity. For in the Cult of The Peony, temperance, my dudes, is everything.
If you read the parable again through the lens of a crafty ethnobotanist (go ahead, do it!), it leaves a trail of breadcrumbs that point to the numerous medicinal qualities of the peony in East Asian Medicine. The white peony root, which Chinese herbalists call Bai Shao, has been cultivated since 900 BCE and is consumed in broths and teas and tinctured with companion herbs in hundreds of herbal formulas. Following the lead of the qi in winter, White Peony’s nature is acrid, cold, and astringent, and its medicine is all about fortification, finding flow, and preserving precious resources. As a blood tonic, White Peony fortifies the body and strengthens the constitution. As a yin tonic, it helps preserve our yin and protect us from dryness, keeping us moist, pliable, and puissant, like a plant with abundant sap. White Peony is said to ‘pacify the liver’, which means it soothes the surly impulses of the body that rise up, act out, and get stuck and stagnant when under pressure. In the physical body, errant liver energy is represented by sensations that surge strongly upwards and tighten with stress. Think headaches, neck and shoulder tension, TMJ, teeth grinding, PMS, high blood pressure, vertigo, and RAGE. By easing various physical and emotional pressures, White Peony helps cultivate the capacity for patience and helps us find peace with who and where we are in life. Clinically, White Peony is the darling of formulas used for reducing fever, inflammation, anxiety, depression, and pain, as well as gynecological remedies for infertility, endocrine disorders, cramps, and disruptions to the menstrual cycle.
Our DNA has been heavily designed by the environments our ancestors lived in for over thousands of years, and as much as we might live in a radically different reality divorced from flower fairies, ritual sacrifice, and famine, for most of human history our food supply dwindled in the cold. This signaled our bodies to enter into a period of energy storage and conservation. It is absolutely natural to feel less motivated right now. It is absolutely natural to want to move less and eat more. It is absolutely natural to not want to squander your precious qi churning out ceaseless content in order to keep up appearances in the hyper-yang war march of Late Capitalism. There is a profound impulse to rush the quiescence of winter and force an early spring. When you feel this impulse, take a pause, make like a peony, and revolt.
Rejoice in your wintering.
Resistance is fertile - Thwart imperialist tactics of coercion and forced assimilation.
Surrender to the larger order of the universe. Remember that the qi of nature grows life from nothing.
Follow your instincts instead of reacting to fears - this conserves and consolidates qi, and nudges your body out of sympathetic arousal into a receptive state where you can lean into the whispers of the tao.
Utilize your resources appropriately, drawing upon only enough to elegantly complete the task at hand, sequestering your most precious resources in your roots.
Reflection is everything - allow winter’s silvery stillness to illuminate you, listen to the messages in your aching bones, become secure in the absolute core of who you are.
Make your unproductiveness so flagrant that the aristocracy banishes you from their parlors & palaces. Congratulations! You no longer have to perform for anyone’s whims.
Be beautiful on your own time, and maybe just flower for approximately 7-10 days per year, the rest of which you can use to don your woolens and languish in cultivating your inner nature.
Once you look beyond the glitz of tinsel, Bing Crosby, and the ever elusive ‘getting what you want’, the winter season is all about the discomfort of a precipice, the exploration of the liminal boondocks between darkness and light where uncertainty and chaos swirl together. Liminal means “relating to a transitional stage” or “occupying a position at both sides of a boundary,” and the shadowy magic of liminal states lies in their ability to be brazenly nebulous, threatening the sense of equilibrium that our binary-bound, homeostatic fleshsuits crave. Our ancestors turned the distress and unease of lying in wait under the shadow of a darkened sun into ribald celebrations of death and rebirth, where social hierarchies were reversed or temporarily dissolved (here’s looking at you, Saturnalia!), and bloodied sacrifices were made to hasten the return of the sun. Perhaps I’m no more than an aging goth with a penchant for taoist alchemy, but this to me is the true spirit of the winter holidays. Under the black cloak of Nature’s gravity blanket, we can access a wisdom deeper and more ancient than the Sun God himself: through the disorientation of decomposition, divine light emerges. It's the tale of the winter solstice as written upon the human body.
The prospect of taking a step into a sunless forest is often met with overwhelming fear to the point of terror. It’s not uncommon for first time acupuncture patients to be profoundly uncomfortable with the depth of awareness that an acupuncture session brings. Your body is a microcosm of the universe, and the universe is infinite and full of mostly darkness and negative space. As the needles work their magic moving stuck energy throughout the meridians, our awareness expands beyond the surface of the body to the cyclones of swirling stars, darkness, and space within. The body feels less and less like a solid form tethered in space, and more like space itself. For those of us bound to binary thinking that constricts us in a vise of “this is where my body stops and the world starts,” the effect can be quite jilting. In these moments, I come back to the words of Five Element Acupuncturist Lonny Jarrett:
When my patients have a resistance to encountering the worlds within them, I use an AcuSpell that helps them trust in the generative, healing capacity of the dark. The wisdom of this point combination perfectly encapsulates the medicine of the Winter Solstice - if we allow ourselves to plunge the depths, the darkness becomes a subterranean sanctum where we tap into reservoirs of life force and pluripotent potentiality. For after the giant breath inward of Winter comes the juicy exhale of Spring. Or as Nina Simone croons,
For this AcuSpell, I suggest laying down in the dark with an eye mask, burrito’d in your finest blankets with your abdomen open to the elements.
Before you’re sequestered in your Cocoon of Sacred Chaos, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the locations of our AcuPoints, Ri Yue: Gallbladder 24 and Guan Yuan: Conception Vessel 4. That way, when I direct you to the AcuPoints, you can sink right in.
Ready? You can follow along below in this video I made with my girlfriend, filmmaker Erin Smith!
✿ Arrange yourself in a comfortable position, be it laying down or sitting in a comfortable chair with your back held and supported.
✿ When your body feels ready, take a deep breath in, and a deep exhale out. And another deep breath in, and another deep exhale out. And a few more, just like that on your own count, inhaling and exhaling deeply, feeling the vast expansiveness of the heavens above you, and the grounded embrace of the earth beneath you. Your body like a horizon line, intersecting the two, simultaneously lifted, light, and infinite, while also stabilized, secured, and supported.
✿ Settle your hands upon the sides of your ribs with your fingers facing inward, meeting your diaphragm with curiosity and exploration.
✿ Bring your hands to rest upon AcuPoint Ri Yue 日月: Gallbladder 24. This point is located in the 7th intercostal space, directly below the nipples. To find Ri Yue, slide your fingers downwards from your nipples until they fall into the tiny divot two ribs down, in the space right between the two. If your nipples stare in two different directions as nipples are want to do, imagine them staring straight ahead, and plot your line down from there. No need to be dainty or precise, you will certainly know when your fingers have hit the right point, as you will feel a unique sensation emanating from the spot… tension, ennui, a dull ache, a pinch, a pain, an all-pervasive saudade.
✿ AcuPoint Ri Yue translates to Sun and Moon. It speaks to the potential energy contained within polarity, the all-embracing vision of the sage whose is able to find the unity in apparent opposites. It destroys binary thinking, merges the sun with the moon, and if we listen closely, teaches us to not over-identify with light and order, allowing us to find medicine in the lunar darkness, the unconstellated chaos.
✿ When we dive into the deepest depths, there is no beautiful/ugly, light/dark, form/emptiness, masculine/feminine, good/bad. The mind splits the world apart into categories, and in its quest for cosmic order, severs our connection to supernal source.
✿ Ri Yue removes the shackles and constraints of judgement, freeing us from its binding trap. It opens the belly and the diaphragm to unfettered flow. In this state of perpetual flux, there is no black or white, light or dark. We reverse entropy by destroying binaries. This is the potential energy contained within polarity. Tap into it now.
✿ Imagine your fingers like keys unlocking the steel gates that keep you bound and tethered in constricted ways of thinking and being as you begin to work the point. Wiggle your fingers in circles, applying steady pressure to Sun And Moon. You might start to sigh, yawn, stretch laterally, or feel your diaphragm loosening and surrendering. Revel in this sensation, as if you were unfastening the bindings of an ephemeral corset.
✿ Keep working it.
✿ Take deeper and deeper breaths that expand your ribs to worlds heretofore unimaginable. Feel the breath dissolving strictures, stuckness, and stasis. Swallow your breath as if you were imbibing the elixir of freedom itself, casting off bondage hither and thither.
✿ Take one last breath, and let your body come to a natural pause.
✿ Bring your hand to rest now upon AcuPoint Guan Yuan 關元: Conception Vessel 4. This point is located about 4 fingers below your belly button on the midline of the body. This point rests over the cauldron that fuels our physical and emotional labors, connecting the kidneys to the organs of sex, birth, digestion, and elimination.
✿ AcuPoint Guan Yuan translates to Gateway Of Origin. It speaks to absolute beginnings - the pluripotent potential of chaos where all life is constellated. The Gateway Of Origin opens us to the inner fertile gardens that are sowed in darkness, seeded in chaos. It holds the rich, vital essence of dank soil where enumerable wonders can be planted and gestated, a stable center from which all things can flow.
✿ As you start to apply slow, steady, rhythmic pressure to Gateway Of Origin with your fingertips, attune to the swirling abyss deep within the inner recesses of the body. Feel energy moving in serpentine spirals, swirling like tiny cosmos, stars being born and destroyed. Touching the wild infinite brings up our innate fear of the internal world swirling within us, of darkness, disorder, immeasurable space. Allow yourself to feel fully into this terror, to let it beseech you, to greet it wide eyed with awe and reverence.
✿ Feel within your center how allowing yourself to confront this fear shifts its very density. You may notice a softening, a sinking, a spaciousness come to rest deep in your center. Allow the energy of chaos to shift from anxiety and trepidation to elation and possibility. Continue to work your fingers over Guan Yuan until you feel the Gateway Of Origin fully open.
✿ As you float through the Gateway Of Origin into the abyss of infinitude, you can incant this Mantra Of Chaos from Henry Miller:
As a mushroom yenta that connects people to fungi in ways both medical and mythological, I often get asked what my favorite mushroom books, tools, kits, and objects are. Consider this my answer!
Much like mushrooms themselves, avant-garde composer John Cage’s work is mostly tenebrous & underground, worshipped for its ability to defy genres and invoke rare moments of ecstasy. Imagined as an extended mushroom-foraging expedition where you encounter the unexpected in a lush landscape, Variations on Mushrooms is pure mycoporn, filled with Cage’s assorted photographs, compositions, and contemplations on mushrooms, and artfully illustrated with lush botanical drawings straight outta Beatrix Potter’s parlour. This is the best book you could ever give someone you are in love with.
Pair it with:
Since having Cage’s book on your coffee table will inevitably grant you entrance to the MycoAesthete elite, you will need to surround yourself with beautiful things that allow you to contemplate the jaunty poetry of mushrooms on a daily basis. Eric is a friend and brilliant woodworker who gifted us one of his marquetry mushrooms for our wedding. It has since become my favorite thing in the house.
It is rumored that mycologist David Arora once incited a fury at the otherwise docile SOMA Mushroom Camp (sadly not any of the years that I was in attendance) by instructing amateur foragers in the art of cooking with the iconic red and white-spotted Amanita Muscaria, a legendarily toxic toadstool that has a skull-and-crossbones marked upon it in every field guide from here to Middle Earth. Anyone that knows how to render poisons edible is a bona fide warlock, and you should always take their advice and read all of their books, for warlocks are a dying breed, and we need to keep the magic alive for our children and their children’s children. This is my favorite field guide on mushrooms!
Pair it with:
Since your new life as a mushroom forager will have you traipsing through the underbrush and scavenging in the sediment, you’ll need a foraging instrument with shine and sex appeal to scour the shiitakes from the shinola. Come hither, Opinel Mushroom Knife! I keep one in my pack at all times.
To read Dale Pendell is to walk a blustery, brackish coastline with your hands stashed away in the coat pockets of the numinous. Dale was a fugitive of beyondness, the Poet Of Plants, the Patron Saint of the Poison Path and of trespassing psychonauts the world over, a modern day Paracelsus with oodles more panache and peyote and infinitely more charm. A poet, DIY pharmacologist, living exemplar of ethnobotany, and anarchist, his work is a compendium of mythology, pharmacology, neuroscience, poetry, and anthropology, and his books on psychoactive mushrooms & plants are sweeping prayers to the arcane, mythopoetic field guides to navigating plant medicines like an alchemist bandit.
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Because I give copies of Dale’s book out like candy, most of my patients think I am a cavalier cosmonaut that spends my weekends sampling rare psychotropic Bavarian poisons, but most of my visionary practice these days is centered around bird watching with a hot toddy. These sexy bitters make me want to use the phrase ‘chthonian mouthfeel’ even though mouthfeel is an utterly abject maxim that should never be uttered in my company. Dank up your holiday hot toddy bar by adding these to a mug of Japanese whiskey, black tea, and a dash of maple syrup.
While not strictly about mushrooms, everything you need to know about turning your foraging finds into salves, tinctures, honeys, poultices, fomentations, medicated wines (highly recommend), syrups, honeys, oxymels, and electuaries can be found in this righteous tome, a perennial classic for DIY kitchen witches the world over. Be the Strega Nona you long to see in the world!
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Since you will have a smattering of fine glass vessels filled with birch bark, brandy, and chaga conch overtaking your cabinets, you may as well turn your entire kitchen into an alchemy lab and grow some mushrooms on inoculated wood. Olga at Smugtown Mushrooms is a friend and national treasure, and her mushrooms are showy and formidable, as all the best mushrooms are.
There’s nothing I love more than a flamboyant scientist who is not afraid to quote Peter Kropotkin right after throwing down some hot intel on lichen morphology. If you long to read a book about the complex and brilliant behavior of our mycorrhizal network that’s exploding like a puffball with astounding facts about fungi, this book is your kindred. As infectious as an aspergillum spore!
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The Theodore Payne Foundation is the hottest club in LA right now as far as I’m concerned, and their continuing series of mushroom walks & talks with self-proclaimed ‘Myconaut of the Mycoverse’ Aaron Tupac will satiate the longing for a solid fungal bro-down that Entangle Life coaxed forth. This workshop asks the questions: “How can the teachings of fungi help us heal our broken relationship with the land? How can they teach us that we are not alone?” Join Aaron on an expedition into the mycoverse to find out!
Peter McCoy is the founder of the Radical Mycology Convergence, a bubbling cauldron of science, art, and community that was born of his cherished zine Radical Mycology, which will go down in the annals of history as the most stolen item in the Botanarchy zine library (way to go, little legend!). His new book features skills for identifying common mushroom types, foraging tips, recipes, a growing guide, mycoremediation (using fungi to treat contaminated areas in the environment), mushroom-based crafts, and ruminations on deep ecology.
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Mycological Societies hold local forays, invite guest lecturers, provide cookies, and typically have a handful of resident nut job mycologists who are just chomping at the bit to help you classify your mushrooms. Bring in your haul! High five your brethren! Best of all, you will enjoy the company of sympathetic folk who know their way around an artfully-placed mycological pun, and swoon at the curves of a bodacious Bolete. In LA, we are blessed with LAMS, the LA Mycological society. Botanarchists afield can find their local chapter online at the North American Mycological Association.
Finally, a People magazine for people I actually care about! Nary a Prince Harry in sight. Be still my heart!
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If you plan to spend the winter holidays like I do, curled up in front of the fireplace classifying mushrooms whilst knocking back a few jiggers of Chanterelle Vodka, I hope this newsletter provides you with stellar fodder to live your best knotty crone life. And I hope you swaddle yourself in this blanket whilst doing so!
Reader queries into the mystic wilds of the body can be submitted to email@example.com. Time permits but one answer a month at this juncture.
This season’s query goes out to all of my patients who’ve recently asked:
Ahhhh, winter… The unseen, what’s coming but isn’t yet known. Earth as seed, latent upsurging. Primordial realms, the unconscious, pluripotence, potential. Invisible landscapes, mystery schools, the mythic imagination, mushrooms, mud. The smell of wet wood, the mycelial blanket - deep, dark, damp, secretive. Sleeping, storage, silence, survivalism. Obscurity, twilight, shadow, the occult. Rock out with your crock out for yin time beckons, and the Season Of The Crockpot casts its glare upon us.
The winter solstice is a celestial event that marks light emerging from maximum darkness, a sort of cosmic Groundhog Day where the sun peaks out from the bowels of the earth and decides if it wants to bless us with its perpetual return (spoiler alert - it does!). On Winter’s Birthday, our ancestors would utilize the liminal largesse of abundant darkness to hone their night vision and seek counsel with nature, who, if you haven’t noticed, gets very loquacious this time of year. My matrilineal ancestors are viking settlers in Scotland and Iceland, and their practices of nature observation play a large part in my spiritual life and healing practice. A old Nordic solstice tradition is to ‘sit out’ in nature overnight, and ask for vision, inspiration, and advice for the coming year. As such, this time of year I honor my ancestors by slipping on my celestial night vision goggles and having a solid bro-down with the local landvættir.
The ancient Nordic shamanistic practice of ‘sitting out’ in nature to commune with the spirits of the natural world and the spirits of the dead is called útiseta. Útiseta was traditionally begun at sunset and concluded at sunrise the following morning, and often involved a pilgrimage to a wild place or ancestral burial mound, as well as ritual fasting and singing. Questions were asked, omens were reverently witnessed and noted, and offerings were made in thanksgiving for the wisdom so easily given by the natural world. You will find that sitting out at night enhances your visionary sight, and enriches your life with a deep connection to supernal source. While sitting-out, you learn to make friends with the darkness and your myriad shadows. In the lonely magic of the night, you can sit undisturbed and awaken to the ever-present messages swirling around you at all times - the patterns of birds, the braille of the winds, the codices of leaves, the stillness of rocks, and the tiptoes of the local fauna. All of these are a love letter unopened until you slip your finger through the seal and look.
While it’s been difficult in recent years to find the time and space to take a full night in the wilderness (ask me what happened the last time Gabriel and I tried), I often practice a shorter vision quest called Varselstagning. Varselstagning, or taking counsel, is a ritual you can practice any time you need an answer to a difficult question, or want advice and guidance from the nature spirits. There is no need to sit out overnight in the wilderness - you can take a question with you to a tree or a rock in your backyard and sit in the dark until you get your answer. The last Varselstagning I took was under my Sycamore tree a week before I was going to get married underneath it. Because it was very important for me to have the blessing of the ancestors and the spirits of the land that I humbly tread upon, I set out an altar to them below the sycamore’s trunk, and spent the early hours of the evening communing in silence with our departed moms, Betsy and Marion, and some fabulously tousled ochre leaves. The next morning, this majestic creature crawled out from behind the sycamore to greet Gabriel over coffee:
It was the first and last time a deer has ever visited our yard.
Which is to say, this simple and reverent ritual of observation can yield profound results. Once the portal between you, the ancestors, the elements, and the land spirits has been opened, you can use it all year round to deepen your connection and hone your night-vision. This is the basic ritual I use when I take to the night, which draws from Nordic shamanistic traditions and my day job as a Land Witch Poet Doc & Elemental Emissary. Feel free to adapt as little or as much that resonates with you. I have a profound connection to Old Norse (which I am trying (and failing) to learn), and begin all of mornings & ritual workings with the Sigrdrífumál Prayer, but you can easily replace it with any words that feel reverently bombastic.
Prepare ahead of time a question to ask the night. When not getting married, I am privy to asking the sprits advice for the coming year.
Warmth and comfort is key, so you aren’t beseeched in the cold by the needs of your paltry little flesh suit. I like to drape myself in blankets and pack my pockets full of mugwort hand warmers.
Assemble your ritual accoutrements, in the form of an offering, a pad of paper, a pen, a lantern or flashlight (for writing in the night), and a ritual libation to share with the flora, fauna, and landvættir. Props if you fill a drinking horn with mead (this mead is the unofficial sponsor of my household).
If pyrotechnics are permissible at your Varselstagning, bring some wood, kindling, and a lighter to your fire pit, but don’t light them just yet - they’re for the after party.
At dusk, bring yourself and all of your provisions to your Nature Theater, be it a Sycamore in the Hollywood Hills, a geothermic pool beneath a volcano, a mossy patch in a local park, or the terminus of your favorite hike.
Open the ritual with a prayer that speaks to you. This is the Sigrdrífumál Prayer from my favorite Poetic Edda that you can borrow for the occasion:
Heilir dags synir!
Heil nótt ok nift!
lítið okkr þinig
ok gefið sitjöndum sigr!
Heil sjá in fjölnýta fold!
Mál ok mannvit
gefið okkr mærum tveim
ok læknishendr, meðan lifum.
Hail Day, Hail the Sons Of Day
Hail Night and Daughers of Night
With eyes of kindness, look upon us
And grant those that stand here victory.
Hail to the all-giving fecund Earth.
Eloquent speech and wisdom give to us, Ancient Ones
And healing hands as long as we live.
Give gratitude to your Counsel Folk, placing an offering on the dirt after each invocation. This is how I give thanks and invoke my kin:
With honor, respect, and gratitude I honor the Landvættir and the Spirits of Place that I tread upon
With honor, respect, and gratitude I honor the benevolent ancestors of my matrilineal and patrilineal lines
With honor, respect, and gratitude I honor the elemental spirits of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water
With honor, respect, and gratitude I honor the Old Gods and Goddesses, may I be a vessel for your magic to pour through.
Speak aloud your intent and purpose for coming to the witchwood. Be as verbose or succinct as spirit allows. Invite any guides you would like to have join you on your mission. Singing is welcomed and relished.
Sharpen your night vision and become wildly engrossed with the movements around you, the comings and goings of the creatures of the night. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, should be revered as if it were holy writ and charged with meaning. Did a lichen caress your toe? If so, how did it feel? Like the menacing poke a Lovecraftian creature, or a beckoning invitation from a larking gnome? What memory did it invoke? How does it relate to the query at hand? What happened in the wind shortly thereafter? If you are used to linear meaning this practice may feel a little clunky at first, so just relax into it and keep at it.
Stay as quiet as possible and stay radically present.
When you feel nourished by the wild parade of the animate world and the messages have come to a natural pause, give thanks. Ask the land what you can do to honor it in the year ahead. Vow to be a better neighbor to the more-than-human world, a more generous ancestor.
Light your fire, pour a ritual libation (and some upon the earth so that you have a drinking partner), and write your experiences by firelight. Rest well in the rekindled remembrance that the whole of the world is an altar alight with meaning and magic.