Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Winter Herbal Meditation

Last weekend, we set our clocks back, and early sunsets ensued. This weekend, the temperature has dropped. Way down. Below freezing at night, and barely above during the day. Even though it's only the second week of November, winter has essentially set in.

For plant lovers, this can be a tough time of year, especially for those of us living in Northern climates. Without access to a greenhouse or some other large, indoor environment, we're left with a few windowsills to fill with pots. Knowing full well that despite our best effort, what we potted in October won't be what's left in the window in April.

And yet, there's something calming about this time of year. The darkness invites a slowing down that our hyper-speed culture rejects the rest of the time. The browns and greys that fill the landscape call out for us to see beyond the surface, to imagine beyond the image we have of being alive. Just because the trees have dropped their leaves doesn't mean they are dead. Just because this year's Yarrow patch is gone doesn't mean that it is gone.

Herbalism seems to attract a lot of literalists in a certain sense. Seeking solutions to the body's various health issues, it's understandable that this would be the case.

However, health is more than a material experience, and plants are so much more than demulcents, anti-inflammatories, and adaptogens.

Don't get me wrong. I love talking and learning about these things. It's commonplace that I get asked about beneficial herbs for various illnesses and conditions and, as a way of introduction to a plant, I offer it's specific, material gifts in response.

You're dealing with low grade depression. Maybe you could try Lemon Balm.

Your throat feels scratchy and you're worried about getting a cold, Elderberry might snuff it out.

But there's so much more to the story. There's so much more to our own stories.

I have overwintered Lemon Balm plants for several years now. What I've noticed is that they always grow to a certain height and volume, and then the leaves start to dry out around the edges. It doesn't seem to matter how much I water them, how large of a pot I offer them, or how rich the soil is that I offer them.

If I sheer off the growth, they slowly grow back during the darkest months.

If I let it go too long, they die.

Bountiful lemon balms almost smile at you with their bright and shiny leaves. They stand tall and proud, filling the air around them with a light, lemony scent. At their height, they bolt towards the sky and burst forth dozens of tiny, white flowers.

There is a slow build up, and then a reach towards infinity. Given just enough of the right conditions, they'll make greatness ensue. However, if the conditions aren't right, they either stay in check or wilt.

For the living, the winter months are mostly about building up and staying in check.

For the dying, regardless of the time of year, everything is wilting.

The difference is often subtle. There doesn't seem to be enough soil, so the roots stop growing, give up on seeking nutrients.

No amount of ingested lemon balm plant material will heal a person whose roots have totally stopped, and completely given up on seeking nutrients. It may kick start the body's engine, but it's only through re-cultivating the personal soil and learning how to stand tall and proud again that a depressed person will truly thrive.

Learning to see beyond the material world is a way to experience true health. Health beyond the immediate body symptoms or emotional ups and downs. The plants can be a guide for us. Watch them, take their medicine. And be well.

* This post originally appeared here.


Jeanne Desy said...

This prompted me to remember that when we bought our first house, I was so excited I went to the plant store and bought - lemon balm. I don't know what I had in mind. Maybe I was just attracted to it. And we were so eager that I planted it before we moved in - maybe before closing, since the house was vacant. Well, Nathan, you will laugh when I tell you it was not in a pot. And it just went everywhere in the other little garden spaces in that yard. It was funny.

Nathan said...

Several years ago, I pulled a single nettle plant from a field to add to the herbal patch in my garden. Now, there is so much, I have to beat it back every summer. I have more than enough to make medicine with. But like your lemon balm, it just keeps going and going.

Jeanne Desy said...

You have to admire their staying power.