Pine

Week 32 of the PBP.

Pine. The native peoples of this area called the white pine the “Tree of Peace.” Standing in the white pine grove on the shores of Brewer’s Brook, it’s not at all difficult to imagine how the name came about. There is a deep stillness in the swampiness of the pine grove.

My home state is famous for its Pine Barren in the southern reaches. It’s where the dreaded Jersey Devil lurks. I’ve camped down there more than once, and it’s a powerful place. There’s little wonder that tales of otherworldly beings continue to perpetuate.

Now entering the deep of winter, I’m struck by another pine, this time a balsam, gracing my household. The scent is so wonderful, filling the room with memories of song and feasting. Every year my landlady does her traditional Danish tree, complete with live candles and paper ornaments. We went and cut it from a local tree farm on the Solstice, something I had actually never done before, but which I found quite moving. The evergreens of the holiday season bring families and friends together in peace, if only for a little while, as they watch over our celebrations of the light reborn.

Hemlock

First off, in case anyone here is reading from Europe, I’m not talking about the stuff Socrates used to end his days. Why the shared name? Supposedly, when the needles of Eastern/Canadian hemlock, or Tsuga canadensis,  are crushed, they produce a smell similar to that of poison hemlock. However, Eastern hemlock is a slow-growing, long-lived tree that, unlike many conifers, actually needs the shade of taller hardwood trees to grow well. It is very sensitive to sun, wind and moisture variation, all of which can cause die-back during the winter.

name? Supposedly, when the needles of Eastern/Canadian hemlock, or Tsuga canadensis,  are crushed, they produce a smell similar to that of poison hemlock. However, Eastern hemlock is a slow-growing, long-lived tree that, unlike many conifers, actually needs the shade of taller hardwood trees to grow well. It is very sensitive to sun, wind and moisture variation, all of which can cause die-back during the winter.

Sadly, Eastern hemlock faces a moderate level of threat from the wooly adelgid, which was introduced from East Asia (those Tsuga are resistant to it, happily). The major problem with the death of a single hemlock is its shallow and wide-spread root system: if a large tree falls, it is very likely to take many younger trees with it as well.

Because of its longevity and love of damp places, Hemlock is what I replace Yew with in my Northeast ogham set. Interestingly enough, none of the magical authors whose books I own address Tsuga, though plenty mention poison hemlock. Astrologically, because of its slow development, I associate it with Saturn, and with the element of Earth, though she embodies Spirit as well to my mind, particularly since male and female cones are formed on the same tree. I’ve always found Hemlock to be very open to humans, both curious and sassy. She’s a wonderful tree under which to meditate, and for those working the Ovate grade of OBOD,  she can be a wonderful candidate to watch over both the Rite of the Tree and the Rite of the Ancestors.

The Planets: Saturn

Saturn

I somehow feel like the further out one goes in the solar system, the longer it takes for the energies of a planet to reach us. I have a suspicion this is all in my head, but for the moment, it seems to take ten to twenty minutes for me to synch with the larger planets, even after their planetary hour has begun.

I’m quite pleased with the way Saturn turned out, to say the least, even if it took some wrangling to get it there!

Englishman’s Foot (Plantain)

And, you, Waybread [Plantain], mother of herbs, open to the east, mighty within; carts rolled over you, women rode over you, over you brides cried out, bulls snorted over you. All you withstood then, and were crushed; so you withstand poison and contagion and the loathsome one who travels through the land. —Nine Herbs Charm (trans. Slade 2002)

This week’s Pagan Blog Project post was originally going to be about echinacea. I spent most of a week trying to figure out how to write about a plant that I actually don’t care for in the least, rooted in the fact that cone flowers were all the rage with perennial gardeners when I worked at the greenhouse, and I got sick of the damned things. I was grumbling about this to my husband, who gave his standard helpful advice of “why don’t you find something else to write about?”

So, having exhausted the scientific names that begin with “E,” I began browsing common names and found that plantain was sometimes called “Englishman’s Foot.” Bingo! This little guy is ubiquitous in the Northeast, often unfairly maligned as one of those pesky “broadleaf weeds.” In fact, “the ability of plantain to survive frequent trampling and colonize compacted soils makes it important for soil rehabilitation. Its roots break up hardpan surfaces, while simultaneously holding together the soil to prevent erosion” (Tilford & Gladstar 1998, 163). Like so many “common” plants, the role plantain plays in local ecology is often overlooked.

Plantago major

We always had an abundance of the stuff when I was growing up since my father, bless him, refused to use weed killer (of course this mean most of the summer he or I was in the gravel driveway pulling out weeds by hand). I would gather it up for my guinea pig, who couldn’t get enough of the stuff; eventually, we just put Mr. Pig out in the drive (under a laundry basket so he couldn’t escape) and let he eat his way through the vast quantities of plantain. I still put it in spring salads, before the leaves become too tough to be tasty.

I don’t remember when or where I first learned about Plantain’s medicinal properties,* but I remember crunching up the leaves as a kid and putting them on bug bites to help stop the itching. Beyerl cites broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) as a cooling herb, used to reduce fevers, treat burns, and sooth minor wounds and rashes (1984, 143). A weed walk guide told the story of how plantain came to be called Englishman’s or White Man’s Foot, how native peoples knew a European settlement was near by the presence of this plant. It’s interesting how an herb so important to the Anglo-Saxons became the identifier for their descendants as they colonized new lands.

Magically speaking, most of Plantain’s attributes correlate directly with its physical healing properties. Cunningham cites it as being feminine, belonging to Venus and the element of Earth (2003, 207); however, Hopman also associates Plantain with Saturn (133), an argument which I can see being made as it both cleanses and protects.  Both Cunningham (2003, 207) and Hopman (1995, 182) name it as an herb for protection, hung in the home or car to keep out evil spirits. When using plantain leaves in spells like these, I like to balance the feminine Venus qualities with red thread (for Mars and action), something Cunningham mentions in his cure for headaches (2003, 297).

In many ways, Plantain and its fellow weeds like Dandelion and Mugwort embody the purpose of the Pagan Blog Project for me: paying attention to the sacred that surrounds us. These aren’t the “big gods” of the plant world, the immortal Yew or mysterious Datura. These are the everyday beings who are so often overlooked in the search for the powerful and exotic. Plantain represents the daily work, the daily practice that lays the foundations for the more occasional peak experiences. These “weeds” are our altars and our discipline, cultivated over time—our daily prayers rather than high holy days. The lessons Plantain and its fellows provide are often times the most relevant to our continued spiritual progress. Weeds may be small, but their tenacity—a quality I wish to emulate in my own practice—is mighty.

*Usual disclaimer: don’t take medical advice from a druidry blog without checking with a professional first.

 

Datura

In America it is called the ‘Devil’s Apple,’ from its dangerous qualities and the remarkable effects that follow its administration. When the first settlers arrived in Virginia, some ate the leaves of this plant and experienced such strange and unpleasant effects that the colonists (so we are told) gave it this name by which it is still known in the United States. It is also known very commonly there by the name of ‘Jamestown (or Jimson) Weed,’ derived probably from its having been first observed in the neighbourhood of that old settlement in Virginia. (Grieve 1931)

This is actually Datura metel, but the wiki picture was prettier.

This is probably the most awkward plant for me to discuss in this series, for the simple reason that I have no direct experience with it. I am not a big fan of entheogens and prefer meditation, drumming and art to reach altered states. Quite simply put, I do not walk the Poison Path, though I respect greatly those who do.

Yet here I am making a post about datura. And the reason for this is very simple. She gave me a dream.

One of the advantages of keeping a journal (electronic or otherwise) is that you can go back and find out when things happened. This particular dream took place in November of 2011, but it made quite an impact as I can still recall it vividly to this day. What I had seen was Datura stramonium, common called thornapple. It was entwined with work I was doing with the Spider mysteries at the time, and shook me to my core, to the point that I became obsessed with the plant for nearly a week.

I researched everything I could find about this purple-blooming beauty. First and foremost, she is deadly. To quote Grieve:

The whole plant is poisonous, but the seeds are the most active; neither drying nor boiling destroys the poisonous properties. The usual consequences of the poison when taken in sufficient quantity are dimness of sight, dilation of the pupil, giddiness and delirium, sometimes amounting to mania, but its action varies greatly on different persons. Many fatal instances of its dangerous effects are recorded: it is thought to act more powerfully on the brain than Belladonna and to produce greater delirium.

Aside from being extremely toxic,* she is associated with Water and Saturn, and by extension with breaking spells and curing insomnia if placed in the shoes at night (Cunningham 2003, 100).

Before we go any further, let the following be said: I have a family. I have a husband, a son, and a cat, as well as a household and the family business to run. I know where my obligations lie, and to say my plate is full is something of an understatement. Even toying with the notion of embracing a powerful entheogen put me off balance. So I did what any good druid does when the way is not clear: I divined some possible outcomes.

Regarding taking datura into my physical body, I received a resounding, “NO,” or at least a warning that doing so would result in an upheaval of family life, destruction of the mind, and becoming lost in illusions. In other words, not a path I wished to walk. However, when it came to working with the spirit of Datura, the signs were quite different. She could help me overcome my ambivalence towards my own power, though it would be difficult work. Creativity and growth would result.

And that was, in fact, what happened. The dream came to me during the Samhain season, the beginning of the Celtic year, and I began working with the Thornapple spirit though trance and meditation shortly thereafter. 2012 was a year of boundary-pushing for me, and I truly feel Datura helped me get out of my own way to let Awen flow. This summer, I would like to find a place where I can cultivate her, but this is tricky as we have quite a few toddlers (including my own) in the neighborhood, and I am responsible to their safety before my own desire to grow exotic poisonous plants. So, I’ll just have to wait and see what this year brings for the thornapple in my life.

Next week, everybody’s favorite anti-sniffle herb, Echinacea.

*Honestly, I would not recommend anyone work with datura physically unless you are a) single, with no family members dependent upon you be they children or aging parents, and b) deadly, deadly, serious about it, and are fully aware that you may kill yourself in the process. Even then, I would never begin study of the Poison Path without a mentor who will sit there with you as you struggle with seeking, preparing, and courting your allies. I’m not saying this to make it oh-so spooky and mysteriously enticing (though it doubtless some will take it that way). This plant can kill you. Full stop. If you’re still Hel-bent on working with her, find an herbalist local to you who can guide you through the process, and don’t go about it half-assed.