These ancient tools give form to the human capacity for feeling and reverence.
by Merry Lycett Harrison
Theresa Vuihill is the curandera for her small village in a remote area of northeastern New Mexico. I met her over a decade ago, when she kindly agreed to speak to me about her work with herbs and show me her garden. After offering me tea, she explained that few of her neighbors could afford traditional medical care with doctors, and even if they could, the nearest hospital was 40 miles away. She acts as the first and possibly only responder to the health concerns and emergencies in her community. She carries the deep wisdom, experience and confidence of her traditional role.
The town’s small, poor population is a unique blend with ancestors of Mexican, Spanish and Native American descent that has been able to retain many of its old ways and customs. The architectural pride of the town is the elegant Catholic cathedral on the highest point which looks huge and opulent next to the tiny small homes nestled at its base. One can sense the great degree of spiritual devotion by observing the well-beaten dirt path and worn stone steps that lead to it.
Theresa was generous in sharing her story and experience with me. She emphasized how important it was that she understood the ways and traditions of her community so that she earned their trust. I could tell people really counted on her, and she was proud to serve them. By way of illustrating how she works, she told me this true story.
One night, she was called to come to a home at a very late hour. A man was panicked that his elderly mother had died. When Theresa got to the home she found the man drunk and the woman on the floor in a puddle of water, soaking wet and unresponsive. The man explained that he had come in and found his mother lying on the floor so he threw a pail of water on her in hopes of reviving her.
Theresa went to work to assess the situation. She was able to rouse the woman and get her to sit up. But the old woman was frightened and clutched the necklace around her neck so firmly that Theresa was unable help get the wet clothes off of her. Theresa promised she only wanted to get her out of the wet clothes so the woman could get dry and warm again. The old woman finally eased her grasp and Theresa could see what she had been clutching: a silver medallion of a Christian saint, and a locket. The woman was petrified of losing her charms, but Theresa calmed her fears by telling her she understood.
What she understood was that the locket held the root of a highly prized plant with strong healing and spiritual value. It was an osha root, Ligusticum porteri. Osha grows above 7,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains and has a very long history of curing illnesses as well as significance as a sacred herb used in ceremonies, sweat lodges and as smudge to bless and clear energies.
Sacred herbs are respected and cherished allies to the people who use them traditionally and as prescribed. A relationship with the plant is established and maintained, often by the healer or shaman who requests the plant’s participation for a purpose. Engaging with the spirit of the plant is part of the process. We do this, albeit in a primitive fashion, when we recognize the refreshing qualities of mint and we know how to grind up peppercorns to connect with its flavor. That said, there is something “other” about the spirit of plants traditionally regarded as sacred. How is it that tobacco was the herb of choice to carry prayers to the Creator? What is it about white sage that grabs our attention and allows us to accept its clearing properties?
Egyptians burned frankincense in their temples and the Queen of Sheba imported the trees as a gift for King Solomon. The tree from which the resin is harvested only grows in certain arid regions—Oman, Somalia, Ethiopia—so Sheba’s trees did not survive. The fragrant resin was a popular, profitable product on the spice trade route. The “tears” are acquired by wounding the tree so it oozes the resin. In three months it is hard and dry enough to pick off the tree. The resin from the third harvest is apparently of the highest quality. Quality is determined by the degree of opacity. Religious use accounts for the largest demand of it, but is has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and analgesic properties and is used in the perfume business. It repels bugs, too.
Myrrh, too, is a resin from a different species of “balsam tree” (Burseraceae) that grows in similar regions. The Egyptians used it in embalming; it has great antibacterial properties. That is why it is so effective as a mouthwash. It was burned at funerals. When I say burned, imagine a burner the size of a table top and how much smudge smoke that would produce. It was more like a fumigation. These resins were considered the life blood of the plant that held its soul. When burned it was imagined that the fragrance was being offered up to the gods in a fashion similar to the way we enjoy perfume.
Stephen Buhner writes in his book “Sacred Plant Medicine,” “Ceremony may be self-derived, it may come from vision, it may be given by a teacher, it may be cultural. But from all sources it has the same underlying root. It is a process in which the human capacity for feeling and reverence is given form and expression. One tells the earth, one tells Creator, what is felt and thought through specific actions and movements and intentions….in the process humans, the spirit world, the different elements of Earth are bound together in a living fabric that is alive, vital and new.” Shriveled roots, bundles of leaves, braids of grass, brews of vines and scatterings of resins are ancient tools that are used in service of this process. Sacred herbs at this time of transformation and solstice can help mark a moment, lift spirits and prayers, and ground an intention. When using herbs for these purposes, tread carefully, honor the plant, ask it for what you want and say thank you.
Merry Lycett Harrison, owner of Millcreek Herbs, LLC, is a clinical herbalist, teacher, author and wild guide and a professional member of the American Herbalists Guild. www.millcreekherbs.com