The Language of Herbs -
An Interview Part 2 with Susun Weed
by Susan Meeker-lowry
An MD on a menopause panel with me told the audience that no herb was safe to use unless its active ingredient was measured and standardized. What can I say? To me the active ingredient of a plant is the very part that cannot be measured: the energy, the life force, the chi, the fairy of the plant, not a “poisonous” constituent. To the healer/artist/herbalist, the active part of the plant is that part that can be used by the right brain to actively, chaotically, naturally, “jump the octave” and work a miracle. This active part is refined away in standardized products, for the real active part is the messy part, the changeable part, the subtle part, the invisible part.
- Susun Weed
As I listened to you speak Susun, I am moved to tears. Because what happened to you is very similar to what happened to me. For me it was women's voices that were whispering in the wind. And it was the trees. But it was the same thing. It was something that just happened. And it changed my life.
SW: And there's no going back. It's not like you can ever forget it.
A part of me awakened. Like opening up the third eye or whatever. It's actual hearing, not just a sense, it's actually a conversation.
SW: The opening of the inner ear is really magical. Until then, anyone can learn to translate the sensory language of plants. Look at the plant. Does it grow near you or far away from people? Plants that grow near to people want to be used daily. Plants that grow far away from us prefer to be used rarely.
Goldenseal grows far away from people; I hardly ever use it. Echinacea, on the other hand, has managed to insinuate itself in every flower garden in America. Now there’s a plant that wants to be used! Another example is Dandelion. Dandelion grows in your lawn so you can use it frequently, and it grows prolifically so you can use it in great quantity. Ginseng grows far away, individually, or in small groups, telling us to use small amounts of it as needed, not daily, as many folks do. Here in the Catskills, where ginseng still grows wild, I was taught to harvest only one piece of root, "the size of the last joint of your little finger." That one piece was to be chewed daily for six weeks. And that is all one should take for that year!
When we listen to the plants, we often have to change how we relate to them! It is part of my life work to help people understand that plants are perceptive and intelligent.
Each summer it seems a plant will call to me and I am aware that it will be my teacher. There's just something about it that particular year that compels me to hang out with it more and and get to know it better. To me this means, "You need me now."
SW: I've seen plants grow where they haven't been before, or even where they shouldn't, if the need is great.
Yes. Several years ago I planted St. John's Wort in my garden and it just didn't want to be there, so finally I gave up. Then last year I had beautiful St. John's Wort in my garden. It was a wet summer and St. John's Wort doesn't seem to like being really wet, and yet it was the most amazing St. John's Wort, and made wonderful medicine.
SW: I love Hypericum and use it frequently and in large amounts. But I call it St. Joan's Wort. First, because health depends on rhythm. My mentor, Jean Huston, says that timing is everything, especially when it comes to health, and I think that's true. The major rhythm of life on Earth is the rhythmic pattern created by the tilt of our axis in relationship to our orbit around the sun. You know how, if you're jumping rope, you stand there and move to the rhythm of the rope before jumping in? Imagine that the summer solstice, autumn equinox, winter solstice, and spring equinox are the points at which the rope hits the ground, marking the rhythm. For optimum health, we need to "jump up" and over the rope at these times. Our ancient ancestors knew this and created enormous structures to alert them to these moments. But our ability to do this has been subverted. The Catholic church put the winter holiday (Christmas) on December 25, four days too late, and the summer holiday (St. John's day), four days after summer solstice. So, I don't care for St. John because he interfers with healthy timing.
But, more to the point, and my second reason, is that this is a plant, as you rightly say, that likes it hot. It is a superb healer of burns. And I know St. Joan knows more about burns than St. John, so I think the plant ought to be called after her. Another alternative is to call it St. J's.
Whatever you call it, Hypericum (the botanical name) is an amazing ally for relieving
muscle and nerve pain, killing viral infections, and, yes, making your mood sunnier.
What do you think of plant spirit medicine? Which as I understand it is not necessarily using the physical plant but rather working with the spirit of the plant.
SW: There is a big sickness on this planet. I believe this sickness has ruined our health and the health of the Earth. What sickness? The belief that there's a difference between spirit and matter. Healing with only the the spirit of the plant makes us all sick. You wouldn't want to sit down to a meal that just consisted of the spirit of the food would you? Of course not. Because you are in a form, a physical form, and you need substance, other physical forms, to nourish you.
An herbal remedy without the spirit of the plant is not much better than a drug. The spirit of the plant is part of the plant, not something that can be separated from it and used without regard for the plant. When we separate we cause disease. There is an idea that physical is somehow dirty and spirit is somehow pure and holy. I vehemently disagree. Health is wholeness. Wholeness means we need it all: matter and spirit. Matter is as holy as spirit. Together, matter and spirit create health; separated they promote sickness.
That's almost like the Catholic church. I was raised a Catholic and we were taught the body needs to be purified.
SW: Exactly. This is the Heroic Tradition. Health comes from subduing/purging/cleansing the sinful, toxic body. We strive to be pure spirit and toward that end, we abase the body, it needs, and its "filthy" desires, as filthy. In the Wise Woman Tradition, the spirit of the plant is in the remedy. My apprentices learn to pick nettle barehanded as the spirit of nettle is offended by gloves. I harvest skullcap naked during a thunderstorm because that's the best way to connect with the spirit of that plant. I'm not in any way denying the spirit of the plant or putting it down. What I am taking a firm stand on is that it is not to be separated from the physical matter of the plant. Neither matter without spirit nor spirit without matter can create health. Wholeness/health is nourished by
those things which are themselves whole.
I want to ask you about the Earth. We all hear how doomed we are, how doomed the planet is. Are the plants saying anything to you about all this?
SW: Yes. And they're not saying what you might think. Fifteen years ago, I was teaching in an area where there had been large citrus orchards. Heavy frosts had killed the trees. Instead of replanting, they developed those acres and paved them over. I found myself sitting in the airport and crying. The loss of the trees and the Earth made me sad.
As I cried, images of plants appeared in my mind and I heard them ask: "Why are you crying?"
"Because you're gone," I sobbed.
"Oh, no, no, no," they countered. "You don't understand. There were huge amounts of chemicals being used in those orchards. What you see as loss is protection to us. We're happy to see houses and people and pavement. It's like an armor that protects the Earth."
My goodness, I thought. What a totally different way of looking at things.
May I suggest that perhaps it is our ego when we say that we have to save the Earth? I do not think the Earth needs to be saved. I think the Earth is just fine. I think the Earth is far more powerful than we are. I do think that human beings might be in trouble. I think it is quite possible that if we don't pay attention we might create a place that is unlivable for ourselves, with no bees, no fish, no fertile soils, no fresh water. But the Earth will go on without us, if that is what happens.
Our new challenge is to learn how to make decisions based not so much on what we want for ourselves right now, but on what we want for the whole world, our vision of health and wholeness for all of life. The Wise Woman Tradition acknowledges that everything works, everything has the ability to cure us. So, given that everything works, we are free to chose those things that make us healthy while promoting healthy families, healthy communities, and ultimately, a healthy planet. Green blessings.
Stinging Nettle - Susun’s Favorite Herb
Stinging nettle has about 10% protein. It’s a very rapid re-builder of beautiful skin and beautiful hair and is loaded with high quality minerals. A cup of stinging nettle infusion can contain up to 250 mg of calcium. That same cup can have over 1000 IU equivalents of vitamin A and is one of the richest sources of chlorophyll. I don’t take any kind of supplement or pills, any kind of vitamins or minerals. I depend on drinking nourishing herbal infusions which are much stronger than herbal teas. To make an infusion steep one full ounce of the herb or 30 grams by weight in 1 quart or 1 litre of boiling water for four hours. I usually weigh the herb - the dried herb always, never the fresh herb - and put it in my container, fill it to the top with boiling water and let it steep for four hours, tightly covered, or overnight, whichever works.
That large amount of herb will yield a large amount of nutrition. If we just make a cup of nettle tea with a teaspoon of herb brewed for 5 minutes, we get about 5 mg of calcium. If we used fresh nettle to make our tea we’d get 1 mg of calcium. Using dried herbs (drying concentrates the herbs’ goodness and nutrition), and by using a lavish quantity of herb (30 grams or 1 ounce by weight is usually between a cup and a cup and a half) is how we get the most nutrition from it.
read interview Part 1...
From an interview in The Spiritualist’s Spectrum: March 2007
Editor’s caution: This is for the mild, wild herbs Susun swears by. Herbs like nettles, chickweed, dandelion, oatstraw – herbs that are basically foods. Do not do this with potentially toxic herbs like goldenseal or lobelia and certainly don’t do it with any herb you’ve never taken or are not familiar with.
From Volume 7, No. 1 & 2
Photo: Lani Philips