This has not been my year. This has not been many people’s year. At first I tried to sugar coat it, telling myself that maybe things would get better… but they only got worse and then worse and then even worse. It all started with an outbreak of contagious walking pneumonia in my small town of six hundred people. There is only one bank, one pharmacy, one cafe and we all touched the same doors, the same bank machine… Walking pneumonia slowly takes your breath and energy away lasting from one to two months. You wheeze like an asthmatic, nap all the time, and can barely lift a finger. Everyone caught it, everyone. I had it for the full months of May and June and it turned into a sinus infection I couldn’t shake. I couldn’t plant my garden, I couldn’t clean my house, I couldn’t work my job. I would end up on the ground gasping for breath.
After multiple doctor visits I finally shook it at the beginning of July. My garden was late getting planted and a lot of potted plants died while they waited for me, but many more made it into the ground to my relief. And then the drought came. Don’t tell the farmers that climate change isn’t real. First they’ll punch you. Then they’ll weep uncontrollably. The Valley is known for its endless rolling green hills of fertile farms and many lost their crops this summer. My dug well ran dry. That was a bad day. My father hooked up the house to the cistern without checking the water first. It was contaminated and smelled like rotten sea water with maybe a dead snake or two in it. All the pipes in my house were contaminated, I had to wash dishes with that water and bathe my son in it even though it wasn’t safe. No filter would’ve been good enough. The cistern would have to be cleaned and bleached out but unfortunately it is pretty much inaccessible in my basement.
I put my foot down and we let the dug well recover, flushed out the pipes, and then restricted the well’s use to run the house only. The cistern later ran out from me using it only sparingly to water the garden. The plants loved the disgusting water. The rains still didn’t come. My only hope was to pump water from the creek to use for the garden… but the pump was broken. My father replaced it only to learn the whole line out to the creek was damaged. No water. It’s not a city person problem, but it’s real out here. I have three sources of water and all of them failed. Imagine not being able to even drink a glass of water from the tap let alone wash dishes, do laundry, take a shower, water your plants… My plants died. The ones that didn’t die from the drought died from worms and beetles. I lost not just my potatoes to potato beetles, but also all of my belladonna (they’re both nightshades, now you know). I lost my whole henbane crop and almost all of my root vegetables. The plants who did survive did poorly. I’m a plant person, so it’s like watching your beloveds die around you while you are helpless to do anything. I should’ve known it was foreshadowing.
August came with only more sadness. My mother’s mother, Grandma Mary, passed away a week before my birthday. I had loved her dearly and she was very special to me and always treated me like I was special too. We were both Leos and had many happy adventures together. She had been a teacher for special needs children and in retirement had travelled the world. She loved going to the symphony and art museums and always took me with her. I’d even lived with her in Toronto for a brief time when I was 19 before her Alzheimer’s had fully set in. She died a couple weeks shy of her 93rd birthday, in her room with family and her favourite music playing. Not even a week later my father’s father, my Poppa, died too. He’d been in and out of the hospital for years and had given us so many scares the priest had given him last rights seven times before. We thought this was just another scare because he always bounced back. But he didn’t wake up this time. Poppa was 83 and left behind his wife since the age of 19 and the huge family they’d created together and a close community full of friends and loved ones. Everyone loved Poppa, you couldn’t help it. He was so loud, disarming and friendly with his twinkling black eyes and Irish gift of the gab.
On my birthday weekend my family and I travelled to Montreal and Ottawa to bury them both. My Grandma was cremated and buried next to my Grandpa who’d died 3o years earlier. We each placed pink roses into her grave, said farewell and then went to a restaurant after and celebrated her life. It was simple and beautiful, in a beautiful part of Montreal full of ancient trees. My Poppa was given the full Irish Catholic funeral with the two day wake, the black limos and hearse, and the full service in his church just a walk away from his house he’d lived in for the past 50 years. The church was packed and four priests showed up, not because it’s required, but because they had all loved him. His four sons, grandson, and grandson-in laws carried his casket to the graveyard behind the church and we buried him. There was a big reception after in the hall. Then just family met at my grandparents’ house after everything else and my uncles drank the cask of 45 year old Irish whiskey my Poppa had saved for his funeral and we put on the old Irish music and sang and my cousin danced for us while the great grandchildren played.
Maybe a week later I found out I am pregnant with my second child. Unlike my son, this one is a surprise, but a very welcome one for me and my partner and our families. A week after finding out it was time to fly off to the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference in New Mexico. Three planes from Canada and a lot of vomit later, I made it the airport in El Paso, Texas… and then was stranded by my ride at the airport. Oh yeah, I panicked. I didn’t have any contact info for the event and don’t own a cellphone. I thought I was going to have to go home, but a lovely lady at the info booth worked hard for an hour to figure out how to get me to the event site and a shuttle driver even turned around to come and get me. I thanked him and then the old cowboy sitting next to him for coming back for me. The cowboy said “I’m nobody important and ain’t in no rush.” I’d never met a real cowboy before, despite having lived in ranch country in the Okanagan. This one was in his late 70s and still working. Both were the sweetest men and offered to drive me all the way up the hotel for free, but thankfully the organizers had sent down a lovely woman to pick me up for the conference. We drove through a monsoon, hail, and a double rainbow up further and further into the mountains until the dry desert turned into spruce and oaks and ravens.
I was supposed to tent because the hotel was completely booked, but the camping was much further away then insinuated and when I arrived the ground was completely covered in hail the size of golf balls along with an insane monsoon of sheet rain, thunder, and lightning. Luckily, the awesome organizer Kiva Rose found a solution. Another woman who was going to camp was able to get a room last minute in a hotel at the bottom of the hill from the conference site and was willing to share. And that is how I met the lovely Green Heart Woman, Gina. We were both so happy to get out of the weather and avoid tenting in the monster hail. We read tarot for each other and kept the room nicely smudged. It was worth it to have to hike up the mountain to get to the conference workshops. I taught my presentation on the history, folklore, and medicinal uses of Belladonna, Datura, Henbane, and Mandrake to a full room and let people try out samples of my ointments after. The presentation was recorded, but I’m still waiting to find out if it turned out well enough to be usable (there were a lot of recordings made). The paper I wrote for the presentation can be downloaded with the 2016 Conference E-book here.
It was really hard to choose which presentations to attend. They all sounded amazing, but many were scheduled at the same time. My little moleskin notebook is packed full of notes. I enjoyed meeting and talking to Guido Masé, Dave Meesters, Jen Stovall, Rebecca Altman, and Jacques, a bone-setter and herbal healer from Québec. I met massage therapists, vendors, witches, herbalists in training, and fellow Canadians. Meeting and talking to all the wonderful people really made the event for me. So many green hearted plant people in one place and so many people shared their love of their favourite nightshades with me.
Guido fascinated me with the experiences of his medicinal uses of tinctures of datura and hemlock in his clinical herbal practice and urged me to speak up and go legit with my nightshade medicines. Because of him and one of his presentations on the future and legality of herbalism, I’m looking into willingly going through the formal process of asking Health Canada (our equivalent of the FDA) to scrutinize my ointments and creation processes so I can obtain NHPs (natural health product numbers) for my nightshade ointments. Dave, a fellow fan of Dale Pendell, talked about sun medicine vs moon medicine. Dave wrote this amazing piece called Dark Medicines: On Seeing Patients with ‘Bad Habits’ which I adore and I asked him to collaborate on some writing over the winter and he said yes. For those wondering or guessing, this was a very witchcraft, folk magic, fairy faith, and animist friendly conference.
After I returned home, caught up on endless shipping and product packaging, I thought maybe things would get better now. Maybe Saturn’s long retrograde had finally gone fully direct. I was wrong of course. This dark year took away a lot of my ability to hope. I was wrangling my freckled, curly headed toddler while trying to pack to go to a family reunion for Canadian Thanksgiving when I heard from a good friend back on the West coast in Seattle. He wanted to let me know our friend Seb had killed themself, he’d found them dead under a tree. Seb was one of my best friends and favourite people in the whole world. The friend you have who you want every other friend of yours to meet. An amazing artist in any medium they touched, an amazing cook, a forager, herbalist, gardener, shaman, healer, bone collector… Seb could do or make anything. They were awesome.
I looked at Seb’s prints and paintings on my walls and fridge, I looked at the woodcarvings they’d made me beside my bed, I looked at the perfect witch hat mushroom lamp they’d crafted, and I saw their homemade jams, vinegars, and pine sugar in my pantry. I cried and cried until snot ran down my face. Seb had had not just a dark year, but two dark years of constant bad luck and I think the heaviness of the hopelessness overwhelmed and crushed them. You feel so much more helpless when you lose a loved one over suicide than natural old age. There was nothing I could do or my friends could do. We all chipped in to pay for Seb’s cremation and memorial services. We all shared happy memories, our favourite works of Seb’s art, and gave comfort to one another. It’s still hard to look at facebook, it’s only been just over a week. Seb suffered from depression and PTSD. No matter how loved they were or how wonderful, smart, and funny everyone knew they were, Seb would never believe it about themself. I hope that part of them is gone now and they see it’s true: they are an amazing, wonderful, loving being who was well loved by everyone who knew them in life.
Seb is not the only one with a dark year, and I know I am not the only other one with a dark year. I have so many friends and acquaintances locally and afar who have had a very bad year in different degrees. My intent in sharing my year of death with you is not to depress you, but to make you realize your year could maybe have been darker. Some of my friends lost their children, some lost their water, their livestock, their health… One of my mother’s classic sayings is “life’s not fair and then you die.” She would say it whenever me or my sister were whining over something she knew was small in the grand scheme of things. This dark year has taught me life is short. Appreciate what you have and who you have because it can all be taken away. We’ve seen so much taken away from people across the world this year by earthquakes, hurricanes, war, and hate. Love deeply and fearlessly, spend more time with family and friends, learn how to say no to things that do not serve you, and yes to things that are good for you (even if you are scared or it means change). Learn how to ask for what you need from the people in your life and listen to them in kind. Life is short, so go live it.
Some of you may not be aware of this, but food is my first passion above herbalism and above magic. I am a mom, then a cook, then a plant lover, and then a witch. The artist is in there too, but often gets to create through food rather than illustration most of the time. My parents taught me to cook from a very young age, from the garden, from scratch, from whole foods. I cooked while I was going to school and then went to culinary school out of high school rather than university. I worked at hotels and restaurants all over the great cities of Canada: Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Victoria.
I saw the truffle seller come in the back door and peddle her fragrant wares out of a basket by candlelight in a restaurant in Montréal. I remember picking herbs fresh from the gardens of a lakeside hotel to cook dinner for a wedding in rural Ontario. I’ve cleaned endless fir needles out of pounds upon pounds of wild harvested chanterelle muhrooms for a cafe in Victoria. I’ve felt the steam of the line kitchen, the heat of the deep fryers, and the feel of flipping a pan of perfectly browned vegetables in my hand over a gas flame. My dream at nineteen was to become like my German-Ontarian idol Michael Statlander as famous chefs Magnus Nilsson and Rene Redzepi have become in recent years but with simplicity instead of their superfluousness… and well, maybe it could still happen one day.
Further in the past there was once a little girl who had very odd parents. On the surface they appeared normal just like every other child’s parents; they dressed normally, had normal jobs, went to church, and read her bedtime stories at night. But they were… odd. You see, they talked to plants and animals as if the flora and fauna understood them and were going to answer back. Her green-thumbed mother talked to and expressed love for all the plants in her garden and they flourished for her. Her father lovingly spoke to his cows and pigs as if they were friends and fed them better than most people and they loved him back, tamely following him around like he’d walked out of a Disney movie or was some kind of animal whisperer. These odd parents would take the little girl and her sister deep into the forest of tall, moss-covered trees with a floor of ferns and teach her the names of the wild plants and the animals they were lucky and quiet enough to spot. The girl learned how to say please and thank you to all the bushes she picked and ate delicious juicy berries from and to give a friendly hello to any forest creature she met.
Preparing a feast at my kitchen table for workshop attendees
These are my parents and it took me a long time to realize that they were rare people when it came to their ethics and philosophy regarding the natural world. My father loves his 83 acres of field and forest as if it were a person and he loved his livestock as much as his dogs and his children. My mother simply cannot live without her garden and being surrounded by the beautiful green of nature – the city just won’t do. It’s not that they grew up with a rural mindset. They both grew up in towns and cities, attended university, and have travelled extensively. This is the life and philosophy they have chosen to live, not one they were born into. And yet, my parents are Christians who attend church every Sunday who have never heard of animism and have never put much thought into environmentalism aside from recycling, not polluting, and generally not being a jerk to nature. Without intending to, through their own everyday actions, they had taught me ethical livestock husbandry and land stewardship.
It is my belief, that if most people quietly went on about their lives living and breathing such a philosophy every day as my parents do, no matter their religious denomination, that our severely damaged relationship with the natural world would slowly be repaired.
When the world was awash with animism, the people viewed food as sacred and precious. Nature was God and thus food was God. Little berry deities on the bush, succulent root deities in the earth, sweet deity blood as sap running from a tapped birch tree. Animals were deities too, presided over by the wild and fearsome forest gods who could curse or kill those who did not treat their realm with respect. Ancient hunters would ask permission of these wild gods before hunting their deer or boar. Ancient gatherers would ask permission before picking berries or harvesting the soft edible cambium or underbark of trees. All that is left of these beliefs and practices is folklore and prayers from both the Old and New Worlds, collected as anecdotes rather than as a body of living lore.
below: beets and carrots at a farmers’ market
foraged saskatoon berries preserved from the hot sun with sweetfern
Talking to Our Food
What if we didn’t strive to be like the ancients, whose true ways are long lost and whose skills are beyond many of us at this time, but instead decided to bring the philosophy of animism to the dinner table? What would it look like? To be honest, it would look foolish to an outsider as it would involve talking to plants and animals, talking to our food sources, as if they were sentient and could understand us. Most of the old prayers collected as folklore weren’t really prayers at all, they were people talking to plants and to wild spirits. What would it sound like? Something along the lines of: “Hey there beautiful thimbleberry bush. I’m not going to harm you. I’m just going to pick some of your berries to eat. Don’t hurt me and please tell your friends good things about me. Thank you for your gift of food.” It is informal dialogue showing honesty, politeness, and respect. Following up your words with matching actions completes the circle by practicing ethical wild harvesting or hunting and fishing methods. Somehow, saying such things aloud to a plant or a fish eventually feels less silly and more ritualistic, more necessary. It creates a connection between you and your food source – the natural world.
“Mistress of the woods, Mielikki, Forest-mother, formed in beauty, Let thy gold flow out abundant, Let thy silver onward wander, For the hero that is seeking For the wild-moose of thy kingdom; Bring me here thy keys of silver, From the golden girdle round thee; Open Tapio’s rich chambers, And unlock the forest fortress, While I here await the booty, While I hunt the moose of Lempo.“
The Kalevala is a Finnish epic, it’s true age isn’t known as the oral lore wasn’t written down until the 1800s. Above is an example of a hunter buttering up the guardian spirit of the forest so that she will show favour to him and let him hunt her caribou successfully. Below a travelling musician kindly asks that he may walk through the forest without being harmed by the bears who dwell within it.
“Otso, thou O Forest-apple, Bear of honey-paws and fur-robes, Learn that Wainamoinen follows, That the singer comes to meet thee; Hide thy claws within thy mittens, Let thy teeth remain in darkness, That they may not harm the minstrel, May be powerless in battle. Mighty Otso, much beloved, Honey-eater of the mountains, Settle on the rocks in slumber, On the turf and in thy caverns; Let the aspen wave above thee, Let the merry birch-tree rustle O’er thy head for thy protection.“
“O Lady Artemis, do not loosen your golden chains. See your hounds of plain or forest, white or coloured, let them not with open jaws seek out the fields of the plain, let them come empty and let them go empty. Make them run off, and let them not come to our farm, nor touch our cattle nor harm our donkeys.”
~ Latin incantation inscribed on a copper nail found in northern Europe
In a related tale from the highlands of Scotland a deer woman comes out of the forest and tells the hunters to leave a deer once a month as an offering at a cairn and when they do their hunt is successful, if they don’t leave the offering they bring home no deer. This mysterious woman’s own hunting hounds are often wolves and it is her in the Scottish tales asking the hunters to tie up their hounds (Davidson). Such themes and incantations are found across cultures and continents from the Coast Salish of the Pacific Northwest asking a Red Cedar tree permission to harvest its bark to the Amazonian Huacharia’s tea ceremony asking permission of the forest to hunt and forage to incantations from 19th century Scotland recorded in the Carmina Gadelica asking plants to lend their magical and medicinal powers to the forager. They all announce themselves and ask permission of the forest, or the individual flora and fauna who compose it, to trespass, to forage, and to hunt.
River may I cross your waters and fish them for food? Forest, trees, please reveal to me your mushrooms edible to humans and free from slugs and worms. Berries, shining jewels, may I pick you? Roots, deep medicine, may I harvest you and nourish my family with your starch? I won’t take too much, just enough for me and mine while still leaving plenty for you and yours who belong to the forest.
Lake Superior from Northern Ontario
The more you do this the more you may start to notice that the natural world responds back. Maybe the forest will reveal its best berry picking and root-digging spots to you after your good treatment of its denizens, its resources. Maybe it will get less and less hard to find deer during hunting season after you’ve consistently asked for permission from the forest. Maybe you’ll end up with more fish from the river than you’ve ever caught before after years of giving it simple offerings, asking respectfully for a good catch, and cleaning up any garbage you find. If you dwell in a more sub/urban area, maybe it will be simply that your vegetable garden flourishes as never before and your chickens lay the best eggs after being treated with love. Perhaps you’ll find an incredibly productive blackberry bush in an unexpected corner of the city away from pollution that yields its fruits to you scratch-free. Whatever they may be, the rewards for your philosophy in action will become apparent and very much real.
There are other ways we can bring animism to the dinner table. Some are simple and already practiced by many of us such as choosing sustainably or organically grown local produce from a local farmer who cares about quality and about their land. A locally grown tomato, ripened on the vine in season will always taste leagues better than a tomato grown thousands of miles away out of season, covered in chemicals to kill pests and molds, picked green, and artificially ripened. If hunting or raising livestock for your own meat isn’t an option, then try your best to purchase local, ethically raised meats and eggs. The prices in shops and city farmers’ markets are always higher, but if you drive out to the country to pick up meat and eggs yourself, you may find the pricing more digestible along with a much healthier and tastier result.
below: a wild hare
The Grey Ethics of Killing to Eat
“An indigenous approach is more concerned with honouring the body of the creature by taking the most nourishment possible from it, where the modern attitude is to use only some of the creature’s body if it is convenient, sterile, and socially acceptable.” ~ Miles Olson
I was raised on a farm and in the wilderness with hunters. When I was a little girl I saw moose butchered in garages with every part to be used; meat for eating, sinew for crafts, bones for stock, the hide for leather, the skull and antlers for decoration. The locals’ favourite part was the tongue. I helped my Tahltan neighbour carefully pick sockeye salmon out of his traditional long pole net in the Stikine River and then gut them – some for smoking and some for canning. I sat by that same river alone with a fishing rod of driftwood with a hook and salmon eggs as bait and caught salmon, knocking them out with a club, gutting them, and wrapping them in newspaper to place them in the freezer. I lived on a farm with cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys. My parents named every livestock animal, talking to them as if they were human, and treating them well with good food, a good life, and a good death. Our love for them didn’t stop us from eating them. Through the actions of my parents I learned that as we loved and cared for our animals, they in turn cared for us by nourishing us with their fat, meat, minerals and vitamins.
“I feel a deep kinship with the animals I hunt; most hunters do. We get to know them in a far deeper way than all but a few other sorts of human: We know their personalities, their foibles, their habits. Where they like to live, what they like to eat, and what they might do in any given situation. Yet most of us take delight in being fooled when a deer or rabbit shows us some new quirk of their behavior. Hunt any animal long enough and it ceases to be the Disneyfied caricature of itself most people know and blossoms into a clever, free-thinking entity – an entity not so different from us.
My mind settled onto this seeming paradox the way a leaf settles onto the forest floor. Sitting in this meadow, in this place, as a hunter and a human animal, it felt serenely right in a way I find wildly incapable of explaining to those who have not experienced the same feeling.” ~ Hank Shaw
I saw and lived this way of life from a young age. I saw the good, but I also saw the bad. I saw coyotes pick off livestock when drought caused them to starve. I saw hunters come from the city to kill bears for sport, taking nothing but photos and the hide and wasting the rest. I saw chickens kill their own deformed chicks. I saw cows and pigs accidentally kill their own young by crushing them. I saw pigs locked in pens to grow fat leading to health problems and atrophied limbs. I saw pregnant animals killed without a thought, the fetuses thrown onto a pile of refuse. My father used to buy animals from farmers who treated their livestock like this to give them a better life. We took in cows, pigs, and chickens. I remember one time the vet came to our farm to inspect our animals and give them shots. He refused to vaccinate them because they were so healthy, friendly, and intelligent, he didn’t want to fix something that wasn’t broken “you’ve got some healthy organic meat here, you don’t need me.”
Butchering a duck into meat, fat for rendering, and bone & organs for stock
My parents taught me to care where my food comes from and when I became a professional cook it was just as important. I learned that the meat from a pig who lived a happy life with other pigs, was fed a good and varied diet, was allowed to run around, roll, in mud, and forage, and was given a good, quick death led to amazingly tasty meat. I learned that if that same pig was locked up in a small pen alone, fed only the same commercial feed and water, was never allowed to see the light of day, and was terrified before death, resulted in disgusting inedible meat.
Studies have been done on cows that revealed a good, quick death devoid of fear resulted in good meat, whereas a frightened and panicking cow before death results in bad meat; the adrenaline and hormones released from fear poisoning the muscle. I grew up knowing there were no absolutes in the ethics of killing for food, but that it’s our individual actions and treatment of our food that really matters.
I learned I should not kill an animal because I can, but because I need to and that when I do kill for food it should be the easiest, most painless, and best death I can provide. It is much easier to believe that animal life is not really life equal to ours and make ourselves cold to them so we can stuff them into slaughterhouses for frightening, painful deaths so we can have convenient access to mass amounts of faceless meat in supermarkets. It is much harder to admit animals deserve fair and good treatment with respect and reverence towards their feelings and needs and spend extra money and time making sure they receive that good treatment.
It isn’t so easy to give meat a good death, even if you are a farmer. Abattoirs (or slaughterhouses) are fewer and fewer with independent butchers closing up and retiring faster than they can be replaced. Where I live in Canada meat has to be federally inspected before it can be legally sold to the public. This results in many small farmers not being able to afford to send their livestock to a federally inspected facility and it’s often the meat farmers in any rural area I’ve lived in within Canada who go out of business first. There is simply no legislation in place for small meat producers and even for small egg producers. This is one of the many reasons we need change so badly. If we change the demand for how our meat is raised and slaughtered, it is more likely to lead to the necessary change in laws so we can legally and more easily access healthy, local, whole foods.
Carrot Juice is Murder
“Listen up brothers and sisters, come hear my desperate tale. I speak of our friends of nature, trapped in the dirt like a jail. Vegetables live in oppression, served on our tables each night. The killing of veggies is madness, I say we take up the fight. Salads are only for murderers, coleslaw’s a fascist regime. Don’t think that they don’t have feelings, just ’cause a radish can’t scream.“
~ The Arrogant Worms
The world is not our oyster and we need to change how we think and act when it comes to our food supply.
Many people’s solution is to become vegetarian or vegan to stop participating in the industrial machine that treats animals this way. We laud ourselves for being so ethical, but in doing so we can easily forget that plants deserve fair treatment just as much as animals do. We forget to think about the forests and wetlands destroyed so they can be replaced by fields of organic carrot and soy bean monocrops in California.
We forget to think about the environmental footprint of importing fruits, vegetables, and grains over long distances. We forget to think about if our produce has been genetically modified or altered or covered in herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides and what the health effects of such things are upon the land, its waters, the animals that live on it, the bees who pollinate it, the farmers that tend it, and our children who eat its fruits. We forget to think about if the produce was commercially grown on land raped of its nutrients and filled with fertilizers to compensate, leaching into the water supply and contaminating it for animals and humans. Yes, even organic agriculture is guilty of this.
We forget to think about if our produce was grown with long-term sustainability in mind. Farmers, animals, and whole ecosystems are dying so we can eat organic soybeans and corn we don’t actually need. How many people have to die and how much more research has to be done before we abandon the Frankenstein that is modern commercial agriculture? Even organic agriculture is not sustainable, not the way we are currently practicing it. How many studies must be done proving plants are intelligent and can feel pain before we start to treat them better and stop splicing their genes and covering them in toxic chemicals? How long until we realize maybe we can’t always do this better than Nature naturally does?
The answer is simple, but hard to accomplish. As a collective we need stop buying and eating the fruits of the commercial food industry. If we don’t feed the greed machine it ceases to make a profit and therefore will eventually cease to exist as it is. Money is the only thing big agri-business understands and the only language it speaks. If we demand change and vote with our dollar, we can all make that change happen. If you want to see organic, sustainable, permaculture, and forest farming based agriculture succeed, you need to buy produce from farmers who apply its methods or do so yourself. If you want fairer treatment of livestock animals, then raise your own or purchase your meat and eggs from local farmers who treat their animals well and feed them gmo and chemical-free feed. If it’s not an option where you live, you may have to hunt, forage, garden, or become vegetarian. Don’t let a poor economy or a low income get in the way of choosing how you eat. Food is power. If we can feed ourselves we have power over our own lives.
“I realized something had to be done; I had to take action! It was clear that I was a ‘food victim’ and it was time to take back control. I discovered it’s possible when you grow your own fruit and vegetables, raise your own meat, and know what to eat from the wild. This is how I made the switch.”
~ Rohan Anderson, Whole Larder Love
I encourage ecologically friendly agricultural practices and ethical animal husbandry because I always keep in mind the darker side of rewilding the dinner table. There are simply too many of us for everyone to return to foraging and hunting as our main food source. There would be nothing left in the wild in very short order. The remaining forests would be raped and pillaged with our good intent and Nature would have nothing left to feed their own. Farming, forest farming, permaculture, land stewardship, animal husbandry, and other forms of sustainable food production should never be cast to the side, but improved upon for the benefit of all –wild and civilized.
Colony Farms organic community gardens in Port Coquitlam, BC
Maybe you’re a conservative person and don’t like to rock the boat. Maybe you don’t understand politics, don’t care about politics, or don’t have the time to spend figuring out the system so you can effect change in your own life or in the lives of others. Maybe you still feel you need to do something regardless, to get your hands dirty to make a better world. One thing we all share in common, one thing we all care about, is food. Food is where we can start a peaceful revolution forcing the corrupt system to change. If the system isn’t working, opt out. Maybe no one told you it’s a choice before, but it is. You can choose not to participate. You don’t have to be a radical hippie living on a farm or in the backwoods.
You can live in the city or a small town and still grow your own food and choose where your food comes from. There are so many resources for growing food anywhere (apartments with or without balconies, rooftops, yards, containers, empty lots, community gardens, etc) that there’s no excuse not to try. Excuses are our way of opting out and not feeling guilty about it. “I can’t do that, I don’t have enough time or money.” We make time for the things we are truly passionate about. You may have to rearrange your life and give up some things in order to achieve your own food security. I personally think it’s well worth it whether you choose to grow and harvest your own food or simply to make more careful food choices.
Eating as Animists
Does this relate to bioregional animism? Yes! What better way to reinforce your practice and beliefs as a bioregional animist than to focus your diet on wild food and food grown and harvested in a way that sustains the local ecosystem? Besides shopping at seasonal farmer’s markets, you can learn about local wild berries, nuts, fungi, roots, and greens you can forage and eat. Discover native tea and coffee substitutes. Be ethical and sustainable in your foraging and wild harvesting practices so nature can continue to renew itself each year, producing the same wild foods in the future. If you’re a hunter you can learn which animals to hunt for food and what seasons to do so in. If you’re not a hunter, many cities now have butchers devoted to wild game meat – often locally sourced. To learn all these things you can research local wilderness schools, nature field guides, or foraging guides and sign up for a hunter’s licensing course. This new-old way of thinking about food is gaining popularity making resources easier to find.
“Taking back a little bit of control where your food is produced makes life tend towards the simple side. That’s the idea anyway. Simple doesn’t mean you don’t put in effort or that you just lay back and watch things happen. Simple can sometimes mean more work, more planning, and even more thought put into your philosophy of life. The work comes in the form of getting soil under your fingernails, blood on your shirt, and beads of sweat on your forehead cooking over a hot stove.
The planning comes in the form of seasonal preparations and annual events that keep your food stores in check and your vegetable patch happy and productive. And finally, bringing it all together, is your approach to life in general. My philosophy is basic: nature rules supreme. We are only little gears that make the bigger machine do its thing. Although, fools that we are, as a species we often live as though we are the operator of the machine.”
~ Rohan Anderson, Whole Larder Love
As spiritual people who pride ourselves in being reverent of nature, we should care where our food comes from and how it is treated. We should care about plant life just as much animal life. We should care with the deepest passion from our hearts and souls. As a pure animist I see no difference between catching a salmon and killing it for food and pulling up a beet root and cooking it for dinner. No matter what, it’s a life for a life so I can eat and live. We are all eaters of spirits and those spirits deserve to be treated well. All life deserves respect and reverence. How do we show it? Show it through your food choices. Show it through growing your own food and treating your plants and your land well. Show it by giving thanks to the spirits on your plate before each meal. But most of all, show it by teaching your children to care too. If we teach our children where their food comes from and how to make good choices, the next generations will learn from our mistakes and change how things are done to the benefit of all life.
It’s not up to anyone else, it’s up to us. No one is going to do this for you. Look what has already happened when we let the government and agri-business do it for us by monetizing food; something which should be a basic human right and not something we can’t afford to farm or purchase. Take back your power as a living being on this earth and feed yourself and your family. Share the excess with your neighbour and when we all source our own food sustainably and take care of ourselves and each other, then we will have food security and a food system with an ethical philosophy. Then we can start to become part of the earth and its natural food chain once more.
“I ha’ been plucking plants among Hemlock, Henbane, Adder’s Tongue, Nightshade, Moonwort, Leppard’s-bane And twice, by the dogs, was like to be ta’en.”
~ Ben Johnson
I have been growing henbane, datura, and brugmansia plants from seed since late winter. I have been harvesting wild mugwort and wild lettuce. I have planted wormwood, belladonna, and datura inoxia in the garden behind the raspberry patch. I am waiting on a new crop of dried henbane leaf from my local supplier which should arrive from Toronto soon. I have been writing about flying ointments for publications and researching their solanaceous herbs of belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake to compose detailed monographs, I have been interviewed on flying ointments by a journalist, and I have been talking about them at local events and will soon talk about them at the Herbal Resurgence Conference in New Mexico. What I have not done is make any of this more up-to-date information available to the general public… time to remedy this!
below: pallid henbane baby plants and a datura inoxia seedpod
A Witch Who Cannot Curse Cannot Heal
A poison that can harm is often also a medicine that can cure. Journalist Chas S. Clifton interviewed me about flying ointments recently and I admitted to him that after all my research and experience making and using these ointments it is my impression they survived as medicine, not as ritual entheogens. Right now I know there is a granny in Germany who makes a wild henbane leaf oil for her arthritis and sells it to her townsfolk just as there is a herbalist at a market in Mexico at this moment selling peyote and datura salves for pain made with pig’s lard. Perhaps the line between medicine and magic used to be more blurred and perhaps the psychoactive effects were once thought to be part of what made the medicine work. Perhaps it really is why the medicine is so effective and future scientific research will reveal this.
I think modern occultists tend to compartmentalize too much and be too serious — flying ointments can be medicine, intoxicants, and magic all at once with no need to separate out each application. Occultists and scientists have been trying to “recreate” flying ointments for centuries usually using instructions from a “common person” as with Agrippa and della Porta. This tells me they may have been in use all along, but the actual makers and users were likely just taking advantage of the psychoactive effects of a common medicinal pain ointment to achieve trance or soul flight the same way a group of pagans would get a bit drunk on wine during an ecstatic rite.
above: black henbane blooming in my garden
It is my own conclusion that “flying ointments” are indeed real and have a historical basis in medicine, ceremony, and for recreation, but they would definitely not have been called flying ointments or witches’ ointments and would only have been used for astral flight by a teeny tiny percentage of the population at any given time in history… but who very likely did not identify as witches. When the solanaceous ointments were used, it was probably for medicine, otherwise our ancestors were much more likely to have been smoking or drinking them to become intoxicated for the pleasure of it alone. Granted, we now know ingestion is not a good idea as the toxic tropanes build up in your system, your heart doesn’t gain tolerance, and you will eventually wear our your body from heart and/or kidney damage… So as much as it is my goal to help revive the traditions and preparations surrounding European entheogens, it’s usually best to stick to external use only.
above: datura inoxia in bloom, below: double trumpeted white datura seedpods
A Resurgence of Old World Medicine
Belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake have a storied mythology as baneful herbs of witchcraft, poison, madness, and death thanks to the tales spun in literature by the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare to today’s fantasy fiction authors. In having spent the better part of the past decade growing, preparing, and using these plants in my herbal practice I have found they do not deserve their tarnished reputation and instead should have a place of honour at the table of respected plant medicines. I argue that the witches’ flying ointments of Europe’s Early Modern Period are largely just the church propaganda and fear mongering of the times. Flying ointments were just medicine, powerful and intimidating yes, but medicine nonetheless. The recipes for witches’ flying ointments are uncannily identical to the recipes for soporific sponges in common use of the physicians of the same era for anesthesia during surgery: opium poppy, mandrake, and henbane and sometimes belladonna and cannabis in even older recipes.
The medicinal members of the nightshade (or solanaceae) family are some of the most potent drugs we have available to us on the planet and extracts of their alkaloids such as atropine are still incredibly important in modern medicine for which belladonna, datura, and brugmansia are grown on an industrial scale to be turned into pharmaceuticals. The herbs I use in my ointments (belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake) are aphrodisiac, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antisialagogue, antispasmodic, anticholinergic, euphoric, hypnotic, narcotic, and sedative. It is a very incredible range of actions which makes them a great resource for herbalists if they are able to grow their own for apothecary or clinic use.
atropa belladonna in bloom
In having built up a goodly amount of first and second hand feedback on my flying ointments over the years, I have found that the majority of my patrons who purchased my ointments for ritual almost always end up using them medicinally or recreationally instead… mimicking our ancestors’ preferences perfectly. People of all ages and walks of life are using these ointments, it’s not just traditional witches or even necessarily witches at all. They are powerful medicine and everyone is drawn to them because of it. I have baptist grannies in town using my flying ointments to relieve their arthritis (including my own mother), the florist is using them to help her with her insomnia, a friend to cope with the pain of her cancer, a lady the next town over to relieve the pain of bruising after hip surgery, and they’ve made both christian and pagan sufferers of fibromyalgia incredibly happy.
The solanaceae aren’t just medicine for physical pain, they are also medicine for the soul. Friends and patrons alike use the ointments to treat anxiety and depression. Scientists are still trying to figure out why botanicals with both psychoactive and pain relieving properties are so effective in managing mental illness. Not nearly enough studies are being performed with cannabis, magic mushrooms, medicinal nightshades, and other euphoric analgesics.
I got into this because I was fascinated with flying ointments and the sabbat imagery. I wanted to help people achieve trance and soul flight, and I most definitely have, but these plants have taught me so very much they’ve humbled me and turned me into a healer on a scale I would never have predicted or sought out. As the solanaceae continue to reveal their seemingly limitless power and potential to me, I am ever more in a state of awe. It is my goal to continue making these ointments, but with a heavier focus on their varied medicinal applications, and to teach as much as I can about them so their uses can be reconstructed within modern herbalism to the point we regain the lost knowledge of our ancestors regarding these powerful healers.
Nightshade Ointment FAQs
1. Yes I still make and sell them!
2. No, they are no longer labelled flying ointments because my customers use them for so many different purposes (mostly pain & sleep), and I do not like people treating Fern & Fungi like a head shop. I am a herbalist, not a drug dealer.
3. They are not consistently available in the shop because the herbs are difficult to get firstly because they are rare, and secondly because crop failures are common. The nightshade ointments often sell out before we have herbs to make more or are able to finish new batches… which often makes it appear as if they are always sold out.
6. Head’s up: I’ll likely only be making simple recipes from now on! I have moved to a bible belt and can’t get away with products named “Witches’ Flying Ointment” or “Saturn Flying Ointment” at my farmers’ market booth. Look for: Belladonna Herbal Ointment, Datura Herbal Ointment, Henbane Herbal Ointment, Mandrake Herbal Ointment, and Wormwood Herbal Ointment. Massage oils may become available as well.
7. Do you miss my witchy instructions and write ups about the plants? I’ve included links below to my current body of public writings on nightshades (please note that any shop/product info in these posts is outdated). You can also search for their names in the entheology.com database for good, solid articles or use Erowid – both are free and online. If you are as passionate about these plant healers as I am you can read up on them using books recommended in my Poison Path Reading List.
Writings on Nightshades & Flying Ointments by Sarah Anne Lawless
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, witches came from miles around to meet in the woods and learn from each other about cursing and warding magic. I remember walking a dense spiral path formed by trees and earth alone, the mossy ground slimy under my feet and covered in mushrooms and the tiniest of toads. I caught the toads and they baptized my hands with their poison. There was a clearing with four stangs in each corner adorned with skulls and antlers, their feet covered in offerings. It was a place full of genius loci and magical potency, but I spent most of my time on a forest path sitting at the door of the sacred mound of gnome home, offering smoke as well as blood via mosquitoes to the nisse.
I remember cooking in large iron cauldrons over a hot fire under the hot sun and needing to jump in the river to cool off. I remember people feeding me bannock dripping with honey and my fingers bloody from eating a rare cow heart cooked over the flames, the women shouting “Khaleesi!” Words fell out of my mouth and sang a song of henbane; its history, folklore, magical uses, medicinal uses, how to grow it, what to harvest, and preparations for the pleasure of the herb alone. I remember the witches dancing wildly around a bonfire and casting a powerful curse of protection as the sun set and the world grew dark.
As the hour grew late, I remember wearing my floor length red dress and putting on red lipstick, my long dark hair curled from the heat and humidity. I remember a man sharing the good whiskey with me possibly because of these facts. I remember the hem of my dress dragging across the dirt path as I led the midnight procession of endless people dressed in white into the pitch black of the forest. I led them with no lantern, just my night-seeing eyes and my voice singing a chant of cleansing (strong like the ocean/gentle like rain/river wash my tears away/aphrodite).
We turn right at the crossroad and curve like a snake around sacred groves until we come to a sandy clearing with some stars visible through a clouded sky. The sound of the frogs is so loud it drowns out all other sounds. There is a large fire with a darkly bearded man in black standing next to it holding a large staff and at his feet is a deer hide with a skull, a bird wing, bottles, bowls, and herbs. The people’s eyes widen, but the man is only the firekeeper and steps back into the shadows. To the left of the fire are two large candles struck into the ground, with white and red rose petals on the sand forming an entrance way into an unseen pool of water; all that lays beyond is a heavy darkness. It is called “The Cauldron” and is fed by an underground aquifer. It goes deep.
I briefed everyone before we began the procession. They were to wear white or be naked if they were comfortable doing so. This was to be a purification ritual, a spiritual cleansing. It may seem reverent to some and playful to others, and it will be both. I told them to focus on a prayer and hold it in their mind when they go in the water and put their heads under. What do they wish to be cleansed of? A curse, an evil eye, an attached spirit, unhealthy thoughts, illness, stress, frustrations, unhappiness, bad experiences… I told them the cleansing may have consequences. It could result in your wish coming true in unexpected ways: a broken relationship or friendship, the loss of a job or living situation… that most people would be fine, but those at major crossroads in their lives may have some fallout. My warning came to pass for some and my heart goes out to them.
At the sandy shore of the Cauldron in the darkness, I loudly called to the directions of east, south, west, north, above and below and asked the spirits of the land to witness and guard our rite. Juniper, Janine, and I cleansed the participants. Janine smudged them with burning sage and the bird wing to purify their spirits. I passed forth a bottle of my blackcurrant mead and had them paw at a jar of raw honey with their hands and lick it off. “For sweetness in life,” I repeated.
Then Juniper and I sprayed their faces and bodies with fine mists of red wine and mead spat from our mouths. We looked at each other for a moment with wicked smiles, turned and sprayed each other head to toe. It sounds cruel, but it is a common folk practice of spiritual cleansing around the world. In Scotland, the healer’s mouth was sacred and their saliva could turn water or alcohol into holy water. Most people laugh, some frown. To be sweet again I had them all dip their hands in a bowl of deliciously scented rose water and white rose petals and anoint themselves with it, rubbing it on their faces and necks… but then after I splashed the remains wickedly all over their feet so they were cleansed from head to toe. I sweetened them and cleansed them so they would feel clean after a hot, humid, and sweaty day, but more so to cleanse them so their human-ness would not offend the spirits of the spring.
How many miles to Babylon? Three score miles and ten. Can I get there by candle-light? Yes, and back again. If your heels are nimble and light, You may get there by candle-light.
~ Mother Goose
Divided into three groups, I instruct each to follow the path of rose petals and run into the darkness through the tall candles. I pull my dress over my head and lead the first wave of naked and white-clothed people splashing into the depths of the black water. The water is glorious and pleasurable, perfect. They hold their heads under for six seconds and pray. They come out again and the next wave goes in, and the next until they have all baptized themselves –I’m proud to say: even the ones who were afraid of the water. I look into the darkness with my cat eyes and make sure each person comes back out. I bless them: “May you be cleansed of your curses, your evil eyes, your unwanted spirits, your problems! May you have happiness, prosperity, love, and laughter!” And they laugh with joy and their eyes sparkle. Some of us go back into the water because it is so perfect and the stars are so beautiful and the chorus of frogs is incredible. People linger and hug and then we all slowly walk back into the forest and off to the dreamtime.
I return home recharged and full of joy, feeling ever more the strange and wild witch-like creature I am. Happiness is being in the company of witches and knowing nothing you do or say will upset them because they are the same type of strange creature. I feel blessed to have such a gathering only a blink away from my home and hope you will join us one year to celebrate your own strangeness.
The other day I had a serendipitous morning of finding datura and brugmansia plants at a local nursery and the ladies who work there gave me all the seeds they’d collected after hearing about the pain ointments I make with them. Shortly after, I had another “hmm this can’t be coincidence” encounter. I went to a local farmers’ market to get some of my favourite pig’s lard and lye soap from a local blacksmith and went home with the recipe and a traditional Irish “nine irons” amulet instead. He learned how to make them online, but after bringing them to a farmers’ market last year, a local little old Irish lady made a happy fuss over them and gushed out lore form her childhood. She told him the farmers and farm hands would put the amulet on their belts before going to work the farm or go into the woods and at the end of the day would hang it up by the door or over the bed. It was for luck and protection and was used in folk magic charms of healing, curse breaking, and keeping away evil spirits and fairies. The amulet seemed to have the biggest popularity in the 1800s, but the old woman told him no one was really making them anymore. He sent me home with a homemade pamphlet of its folk uses.
The nine amulets from right to left: Skillet, saw, plow coulter, spade, plowshare, cross, axe, horseshoe nail, and shovel. The skillet was heated to red to ward off enemies, the saw and axe ward off evil spirits, the plow coulter and plowshare were used to soothe children who had trouble sleeping, the shovel and spade were used to find lost or stolen property, the cross to bless holy water and protect from spirits, and a horseshoe nail was worn for good luck.
This is a farmer’s charm, crafted and consecrated by a local blacksmith who is also a farmer, made with re-used iron from antique farm tools. What blew me away even more about its magical potency is how much it resembles early Scandinavian tool amulets from archaeological digs. The one on the left is an 8th century piece found in Hesselbjerg, Denmark and the axe head amulet on the right is from the same time period. I saw many such amulets with different every day tools on them at the touring Vikings exhibit at a museum when it was in Victoria; some for the gods, some just for luck and protection like the nine irons amulet. The possibility of a connection between Ireland and Scandinavia fascinates me as my father’s father is Black Irish and the Lawless name supposedly originated from the southeast coast of Ireland where Vikings raided mercilessly…
I love seeing folk practices with early modern and ancient roots still in use here in the Ottawa Valley. I told the blacksmith if he were alive a couple centuries ago he’d be as good as the village priest: blessing babies, consecrating tools and amulets, and protecting people from curses and evil fairies. “And don’t forget the old practice of marrying people over the anvil,” he added. I told him my friends found a dried cat purposely sealed into the wall of their home when they were renovating. He told me when he was renovating an old house in the Glebe in Ottawa he pulled up the lintel of the front door, which hadn’t been moved since the house was built, and found a corked witch bottle with hair in it and an old leather shoe. The blacksmith isn’t even Pagan, he is just a local farmer. Magic is bizarrely normal out here and my rural area is full of ghosts, vampires, fairies, witches, folk magic, and epic crossroads superstitions that the Irish, Scottish, Polish, and German settlers brought with them. My curiosity is only just wetted, now to hone the blade with more research on local folk magic and folk belief.