When people come to see me as a therapist and an herbalist, they come with complaints of sadness, fatigue, grief, anger and shame. But after peeling back the layers it usually becomes clear that they have gone through quite a bit of trauma. Trauma comes in many different forms. Emotional, sexual and physical abuse are the most clear forms of trauma. But trauma comes in many other ways as well such as oppression, sexism, racism and homophobia. Poverty and lack of access to good housing and healthy food and clean water are common forms of trauma that is pervasive amongst most people on the planet. We are also living in an age where we are inflicting tremendous damage on the planet, leading to global warming, droughts, deforestation and mass extinctions. Corporate capitalist based resource extraction and industrial farming requires much of the world’s inhabitants to be part of ongoing systemic global trauma.
When we have experienced significant trauma, our physical body changes. Our brain maps experiences of trauma as memories that elicit painful emotional states of anxiety, fear, confusion, derealization and panic. Our body goes into shock and shuts down, dissociates, does what it can to protect itself from the horror of abusive and overwhelming experiences. Trauma becomes frozen in neuronal pathways and somatic sensations of anxiety and fear that can be triggered again and again by stressful stimuli, memories and dreams. Depression and chronic anxiety can take over as the body is conditioned to live in a state of heightened alert.
As an herbalist I am often in search of ways of helping people who are suffering through these states and there are certainly many herbs that help relax and nourish the body to help people manage stress and recover from trauma. Tonic and adaptogenic herbs such as oat straw, nettle seed, astragalus, American ginseng, schizandra and rhodiola are certainly useful for helping to strengthen resiliency. Nevines such as california poppy, lemon balm, catnip, lavender, passionflower and motherwort are certainly helpful for reducing tension and calming and relaxing the body. But as I have delved deeper into studying plants for helping people to work through trauma I realized I was missing something.
Trauma, Colonization and Devil’s Club
This summer I have spent quite a bit of time with a plant known as Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus) that grows wild in the NW and up through the West coast of Canada to Alaska. If you have ever come across this plant you will never forget it. It grows upwards of 12 feet tall with a tall sharply thorned stalk and wide branching palmate leaves that are also lined with spiky spines. The stalks climb along the ground in snaky decumbent stems that criss cross each other before climbing up to the sky. In early summer, a raceme of whitish flowers bursts forth and then turns into a cluster of bright red berries. This is a big beast of a plant which inspires both awe and frustration depending on the person.
I like to think of the early white colonizers who came here in the 1800′s and first named it. I imagine that one of them grabbed a stalk in his hand and shouted out in pain before naming it a Devil. The sharp thorns are brittle and easily break off and lodge in the skin where they easily fester and then can become infected. Certainly the early settlers must have hated the plant for that reason and also because it loves to group together in clannish thickets that are nearly impenetrable.
Though this plant was likely hated by early settlers, it has been universally admired by native nations all the way up the West Coast. With names such as “Most Sacred”, Devil’s club has long been not only as medicine for healing the lungs, arthritis, stomach complaints and sugar imbalances, but also for ritual and ceremonial purposes. Devil’s Club was considered a deeply important spiritual medicine for many of the Native nations. They used it for purification, to ward off curses, for supernatural protection, for healing and for dancing between the worlds. This is a plant that was seen entirely opposite to how white settlers saw it. For one it was a curse and for others it was perhaps the most important spiritual medicine.
Because of the indigenous love of this plant I began to spend a lot of time in its company and really sit with it, observe it, listen to it and get close (well as close as possible) to it. As I watched it over a period of time, I started to learn the story of this plant, learn its narrative and song. This is a plant that demands attention and care. One cannot walk brazenly into a thicket of Devil’s Club. One must walk carefully and guard oneself from the sharp thorns. I could see how white settlers, focused on building roads, homes and settlements would hate this plant. It is – in the way, slows you down, stops you from rushing on ahead. In that way it is in some way a metaphor for the entirety of the colonization experience. White settlers rushed in here, killed and pushed out the natives, quickly built a civilization and subdued the landscape with mono crop farms, highways and cities. There was no time for slowing down, paying close attention, breath or awareness. The land and its various obstructions such as Devil’s Club were an obstacle to overcome.
Thorns and Wounds: Bringing Trauma to Light
The thorns of Devil’s Club offer the potential for wounding, for the plant world to pierce the boundary of the human world. For settlers that thorn represented a potential danger but for native communities that intense thorniness presented its strength, the ability to protect and guard. It also presented the boundary between the is world and the next- it had the ability to pierce the veil of normal human reality and allow entrance into transcendent realms. Indeed, if you sit with the plant long enough you can feel a presence that is quite startling, a sort of fierce power. My wife, who is not one to sit with plants too often, came along with me one day to hang out with the plants and became astounded at the feeling around D. club. She would say ” I have never had the feeling before of being watched by a plant.”
After sitting with the plant for a long while one has the sense of the plant exploring your own wounds and depths. It seems to find where a person has experienced trauma and brings it to light. Sometimes this can be painful, especially if one is not prepared or does not want to see those painful experiences. It also seems to bring to light the places where we ignore, cover up and fly from this trauma, where we cover up our own pain with poor habits and addictions, where we hide.
As the plant burrows into our deepest recesses, it seems to be asking questions. I often hear the question “How are you walking?” from this plant. It seems to ask if we are avoiding and hiding from the pain, covering up and running. But ultimately its intentions seem quite lovely. It asks us to shift, to change, to no longer hide- to face that pain as a warrior with integrity, strength and grace. And at its core that is its beautiful secret medicine. To gather the medicine of this plant you have to cut the stalk and gather the root bark. This bark is sweet, pungent and bitter. The plant is in the same family as American and Asian Ginseng (Araliaceae) and has similar adaptogenic compounds that bring strength, deep nourishment and resiliency. Underneath that gruff and hard exterior is a sweet ally that can support a person who has been worn down by trauma, anxiety and fear. ”How are you walking?” it says. Can you stand upright and strong like me? Can you remember and nourish the sweet beautiful part of you that is whole and untouched by that pain and sorrow?
Sitting with this plant has taught me a few more things about trauma and recovery. We live in a world where emotional distress, pain and suffering are treated primarily with medicines that we ingest. In the psychiatric model we take antidepressants, benzodiazapenes and major tranquilizers to suppress the pain that arises from trauma. And in the holistic world, we take vitamins, supplements and herbs to help calm and strengthen us. But as I sat with Devil’s Club I felt that there was something that the plant was asking of me. Devil’s Club likes to live in groupings and clans of tall rising plants, often connected by rhizome. They live as one organism, one plant, constantly working to gather sunlight and carbon and exchange that for oxygen in a beautiful dance of photosynthesis and gas exchange. There is constantly a give and take, a pulling in and a letting go. When we take medicine or go to a healer it is generally a one way street. We are asking for something to help us, change us, heal us.
But truly, plant medicines are asking more from us. They are asking for us to dance with them, to not only take but give as well. They are asking us what we can do, how we can give back. Even in the depths of our pain, our brokeness and despair, we can give back. Plants are asking for that from us. How can we honor and reciprocate? This may take the form of leaving a small offering when we gather plant medicine. This may mean honoring and trying to rectify the traumas that we as humans inflict in the form of oppression, racism and ecological damage. It may mean giving back by “tithing” and financially supporting Earth based healing. It may mean simply honoring our own bodies as innately tied to the web of all plants and animals on this Earth.
As I sat with Devil’s Club this summer, this plant taught me some of the deeper mystery of how our individual suffering from past trauma is interlinked as a collective global trauma in need of healing. And Devil’s Club teaches me that the road back involves slowing down, paying attention, honoring, giving space and then co-creating healing in a partnership model where both humans and plants work together in harmony. Ultimately we are trying to heal the primary traumatic rift of our disconnection from the natural world. When we slow down and listen to the plants, they are singing the songs that can help us to recover and come home.
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