by Janet Kent
One of the great joys of living in the woods year round is watching the seasonal changes of the plants and landscape. While fall and spring in the Southern Appalachian Mountains are famously beautiful, winter receives less acclaim, except when the hills and trees are covered with snow. Though the snowy landscape is undeniably lovely, so too is the skeletal beauty of the forest and fields during the rest of winter. From the dried seed pod rattles of evening primrose and iris to the wispy windborne seeds of clematis and aster, winter shows us Nature’s intricate and diverse strategies for re-generation. The trees of the deciduous forests shed their leaves, laying bare their own limbs as well as the lay of the land.
For those of us with land-base lives (herbalists, homesteaders, gardeners, farmers and more), winter also allows much needed down time for contemplation. When the weather is warm, I can scarcely find time to read, study, make art, and write letters. But the cold comes and I get to stay inside, attend to my indoor life, turn inward. I look forward to these cold months as much as, if not more than, I do any of the seasons.
For almost a decade, I wintered in New Orleans and lived at my mountain home in the warmer months. The years leading up to my permanent move were difficult in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city and those inhabitants that were left faced the effects of collective and individual trauma. Grief was palpable. Many had lost loved ones and we had all lost the city and communities we had before the storm. In addition to those losses, we saw what neglect and subsequent opportunism can do to a city. Once emptied of half her residents, New Orleans became vulnerable to the vultures of real estate speculation and neo-liberal city planning. This tragedy continues.
As all this trauma set in, there were spates of murders. Beloved community members such as Helen Hill and Dinerral Shavers fell prey to the arbitrary violence of the time. There were suicides, freak accidents. Death was all around us. As a bartender, I grew accustomed to the mask of grief a person wears who has just found out that someone they know has died. “Let me see the paper,” they’d say. “Need a shot?” I’d offer as I slid the paper across the bar. One death after another, never allowing us the chance to recover. No time to process the grief. Despite the frequency of exposure, I failed to develop a healthy relationship with death.
After moving to the mountains full time in May of 2008, I began the long, difficult process of healing. The calm of the forest, the way that gardening and medicine making tie me to the rhythm of Nature was/is an indispensable part of my recovery. Living connected to the seasons provides a healthy framework for understanding the cycles of life and death. Winter teaches us the importance of dormancy. Plants die back, creating mulch for their future growth and offspring. Leaves fall to the forest floor in a thick layer, feeding the rich mycorrhizal network, which feeds the herb layer and the canopy trees themselves. Every living thing is connected, in life, death and regeneration.
This winter, I was determined to finally make peace with death, to see death as it is, part of the cycle of life. After years of living immersed in the forest, it seemed possible. With this in mind, I spent a warm December afternoon hiking around, looking at dried inflorescences, lying on the crispy leaves, gazing up at the dendrite-like branches of the bare treetops. I tried to open myself to death as a part of life. While part of me could be present with the breath-taking beauty of the winter landscape, another part stayed agitated. For the landscape was not the only thing laid bare this winter. That week, yet another grand jury failed to indict a policeman for killing an unarmed black person, this time an 11 year old boy, Tamir Rice. I cannot see Tamir Rice’s death as natural. I refuse to see his death as part of the cycle of life.
In the past, I have viewed my issues with death as a personal shortcoming, a lack of spiritual substance. But on this afternoon, I saw the reasons for my block clearly. To accept his death and the death of all the other people of color at the hands of police, prison guards, border patrol, vigilantes and bigots would be to accept that this system of domination is natural, is necessary.
In our racist, classist, misogynist society, some lives are worth more than others. How am I to make peace with death when it comes earlier to those who have less? When it comes violently to those who are seen as dispensable, be they the women who work in the Maquiladoras in Juarez, Trans-women, Native women of the U.S. and Canada, or sex workers? When it stems from governmental policy that encourages toxic industries to operate in areas populated by the poor, from the coal fields of Appalachia to the refinery polluted lowlands of southern Louisiana, causing obscenely high cancer rates, birth defects and all manner of chronic disease? The peace of acceptance comes at a cost. Dropping out. Closing my eyes and ears. I don’t want that kind of peace.
Even in my resolve, this admission makes me angry. Not just angry at a society that kills those it oppresses, but at its interference with life for those of us who survive. Acceptance of the cycles of life is a basic need. Countless mythologies, religions and philosophies have sprung from this need. We want to make sense of our lives and our deaths. The violence and greed that fuel our socio-economic system preclude such sense-making. So we grieve. We grieve and before we’ve healed, we hear of another murder, another assault, another horror.
Pretty bleak. This is the place I found myself seven years after Hurricane Katrina. Despite a life grounded in the woods, growing food, drinking from the springs, living in a house I built, I could not recover. Sometimes, when we are locked in grief, we cannot recognize what might ease our pain even when it is right in front of us. Finally, after years of suffering, I turned to the plants around me. Though I would eventually make my way through much of the Materia Medica for mental health, the herbs known to ease grief were the first to unlock my pain and allow me to work through my loss. Of these, Hawthorn was my chief ally. And it is to Hawthorn that I turn now, as the news cycle breaks my heart every day.
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)
Hawthorn, a member of the Rose family, looks like a small apple tree with thorns and bears fruit called berries though they look more like crab apples. It flowers in late May near my house. The flowers are as medicinal, some say more so, as the berries. We harvest the flowers and flower buds in the spring and the berries in the fall, then combine the tinctures. The berries also make a delicious syrup.
Hawthorn is tonic to the heart and circulatory system. It strengthens and regulates heart contractions. I first came across the use of Hawthorn for the metaphoric heart in David Winston’s work. Among a host of other indications, Winston uses Hawthorn to treat long term unresolved grief. Long term unresolved grief is a good way to describe what many of us experience when we live in embattled communities or have empathy for others and pay attention to the constant stream of tragic news. Part of the reason that it took me so long to treat my own symptoms was that I didn’t want to feel less. I identify as a person who feels deeply, an empathetic person concerned about injustice. Why wouldn’t I be crippled by grief? This is an appropriate response to the world we inhabit. But if we can’t function, we can’t fight. The bad news isn’t going to stop.
Time for Hawthorn. Hawthorn doesn’t make us feel less; it makes us more resilient. Just as it strengthens the anatomic heart, it strengthens our spiritual heart. We can remain people with great capacity for emotion outraged at the injustice of our society. Hawthorn helps us avoid becoming overwhelmed by these feelings. It thickens our skin without making us callous.
In many traditional European cultures, Hawthorn thorns were carried to ward off depression and as protective talismans. This magical use resonates with its medicinal qualities. Hawthorn helps us heal from all kinds of heartbreaks: the end of a romance or friendship, the death of a loved one, or as I highlight here, the heart break of being a thinking, feeling person in an unjust and violent world. Hawthorn’s thorns point to its protective quality. It provides a feeling of safety and support. I add Hawthorn to formulas for clients who feel a lack of support from friends or family as well as those who need extra support while confronting difficult situations or recovering from trauma. Hawthorn also protects us from the grief and heart ache of others. It is difficult to support those we love without soaking up their pain. Vicarious grief can be debilitating, though we may not notice because we aren’t the ones “really” grieving. Hawthorn nurtures the nurturer.
Though it does have an immediate effect, Hawthorn works better when taken over time. Once you get to know Hawthorn’s medicine, you’ll be able to recognize when you need it. Now, when I feel an agitated despair, when I can hardly bear to hear the news, I reach for Hawthorn.
Preparation and dosage:
flowers, buds and leaves—standard infusion , 2-4 oz up to 3x a day,
tincture fresh 1:2 at 95% etoh, 10-30 drops up to 3x a day.
berries--standard decoction, 2-4 oz up to 3 x a day, cold infusion 1-2 oz up to 3 x a day,
fresh tincture 1:2 at 95% or dry 1:5 at 60% etoh, 10-30 drops up to 3x a day
*Hawthorn berries make a delicious syrup and elixir.
Contraindications: do not take in cases of congestive heart failure, use caution if using prescription heart medications
In the coming months, I plan to post a full monograph for Hawthorn, as well as some writing on the physiology of grief and more on herbal allies that support us in grief. As there seems to be no end in sight to the need for these remedies, for ourselves or those we love, we can all use more tools for support and self care.