Of Pond Lilies, Patterns, & The Divergent Mind
by Kiva Rose Hardin
“A farmer wants his son to be afraid of beautiful women, so that he will not leave home too soon, so he tells a story about how one drowned his brother’s cousin’s friend in a lake, not because he was a pig who deserved to be drowned, but because beautiful women are bad, and also witches. And it doesn’t matter that she didn’t ask to be beautiful, or to be born in a lake, or to live forever, or to not know how men breathe until they stop doing it.” -Catherynne Valente
Fixated by moving water as a small child, I would watch the waves of the Atlantic beat against the sun bleached wood of my grandparent’s boat dock as a storm rolled in. Shredded remnants of plant life would roll in the foam – braids of fraying seaweed, glossy black seedpods, tangles of Mangrove roots – all emerging only to be submerged into frothy darkness yet again. More than once, I wrapped my short legs around a post to lower myself face and fingers first into the darkness, reaching into the sea to grasp some barely visible flower bobbing on the surface. Clutching it just in time before it disappeared once more.
So many years later, I still find myself fording flooded rivers just to reach some coveted vine creeping up a cliff-face or diving into mountain lakes to bring back a handful of Pond Lily rhizomes still fragrant from dark, sweet mud. In my life, it seems that I have always been reaching into dark water, grasping for those disappearing petals being pulled under even as I touch them. My own mind is not so dissimilar, where everything is fragments of information and images and feelings spinning and submerging and reemerging until the pieces fit together in the shape of whatever they mean to be.
Being autistic and a pattern-based thinker, I don’t conceive my thoughts in words or even complete pictures. Instead, I am forever searching for the invisible and visible currents, reaching out to nudge a sensation or memory into place until I see where they are leading me, what they might tell me about the person I am speaking to or the shape of the flower in my hands.
While I can easily fail to recognize an acquaintance by their face or not understand a simple graph due to my lack of visual thinking, it’s a fairly simple matter for me to find the flaw in a complicated line of code, key out an unfamiliar plants species from a field guide without illustrations, or even perceive what herb is doing what in the human body given the chance to experience it personally and observe its effects on others. I often wish that humans came with dichotomous keys to show me their defining characteristics and patterns so that I’d be more able to understand their habits, recognize their faces, and read expressions. Perhaps because of this difficulty with visual and verbal thought, words sometimes have a more profound effect on me than on those more comfortable with them. Pushing past my lips and into the open air, ordinary sentences can sound like a spell I never meant to cast or a secret I should have kept. I’m surprised by their abruptness when they spill out of me, and I have to peer at the listener’s face to see if I’ve said something out of place or possibly offensive without meaning to.
I also have a disturbing tendency to unconsciously repeat my own or other people’s phrases, something termed echolalia in developing children or those with neurological differences and/or disabilities. Often defined as meaningless repetition, echolalia can be comforting to the speaker but can also give the autistic brain way of pushing words and thoughts back into a discernible patterns, allowing us to navigate otherwise puzzling emotions and concepts into something that can be verbally expressed.
Struggling as I do with speech and auditory based communication, I have learned more and more to be silent when treating people, especially during assessment. Brief questions and intense listening with note taking allows me utilize my specialized brain to the best of its abilities. Without the distraction of chatter or casual conversation, I’m more likely to be able to find the patterns of dis-ease in my clients, and also able to have clarity as to what herbs are best suited to their constitution, situation, and context. While this is not exactly the clinical model I originally thought I should follow as a healer, I see that herbalism holds the capacity for a great deal of diversity in how we each practice and teach.
What I bring to the table as an herbalist is not simply my experience and skill, but my affinity for the other, for the less heard and rarely seen. I am fluent in the silent language of submerged Pond Lily roots and windblown Puffball spores even while I struggle with conventional social graces among my own species. In the past, I spent a great deal of time frustrated and attempting to fight through my awkwardness, always thinking if I tried hard enough I could force myself into a dynamic where I could at least pretend to be normal. Inevitably though, I’d find myself going nonverbal in the midst of a conversation from too much stress, or having an emotional meltdown under the pressure of trying to wear a mask of normality.
I’ve learned the hard way that while I’m technically capable of working as an office based clinician, everything in me rebels at the idea of regular hours, being trapped in a small room, and being expected to interact in a cookie cutter medical mold. I’m grateful for the many transformations my practice has taken over the last eleven years, but I’m just as grateful for having finally learned what I am and what I’m not.
From Dark Water: Speaking With The Other Than Human World
“As dreams are the healing songs from the wilderness of our unconscious – So wild animals, wild plants, wild landscapes are the healing dreams from the deep singing mind of the earth.” ― Dale Pendell
In fairy tales, runaway girls and lost boys wander the wide world to speak with selkies and tree people, are sheltered by blue skinned hags and goat men, are told secrets that save their lives by glowing flowers and poisonous toadstools. In the stories of the not so distant past, we were not so separate from the natural world, and the pressures of trauma and danger drove us more quickly to that liminal place where our language and theirs overlaps and merges into something ancient, necessary, and still wild.
In the beginning, I simply wanted to be an herbalist…. even though I didn’t yet understand what that meant in modern day America, or even to me personally. What I did know was that in my imaginings, it was already implied that a healer who works with the green world, who acts as a bridge between one species and the next, would not necessarily be a “normal” person. My understanding of the healers of many cultures was that sometimes what is commonly termed mental illness, whether inborn or trauma induced, could actually be of benefit when mending the wounds of others. My dreams were populated with the ominous yet wise visage of Russia’s fierce hag, Baba Yaga, as much as the graceful silhouette of Ireland’s healing goddess, Brighid. I was looking for what I saw as a lost archetype, of fierceness and otherness wrapped up in a deep, experiential relationship with place and other than human species. For a way of contributing to the health of humans while staying rooted in the wildness of the land and plants.
There have been few things in my life I have fallen into, head first, with little regard for consequence or effect. Being of a wary and vigilant nature, I tend to watch situations and people from the outside for a good long while before investing myself to any degree. And even then, I rarely commit myself to a cause or purpose for any length of time. My curiosity calls me in to explore an idea or experience before I retreat back to the edge of the woods to watch from a distance yet again.
Plants were always different, it was easy for me to fall in love with their delicately veined leaves and twining roots, to give myself up to the sweet scent of Russian Sage on a warm summer wind or to the touch of a gold flecked Cottonwood leaf tumbling from the sky as it fell into the river. After more than a decade of practice, the plants are so tangled up in my physiology and psychology that not a day goes by that I don’t have at least one tincture bottle or twist of root in my belt pouch. I can’t walk or drive anywhere without looking for familiar or new friends springing from dirt or concrete. My orientation in the world is based in where root meets earth and where blossoms meets sky so that the mycorrhizae has become my map into the waking world of humans from the depths of my very other mind. Medicinal plants and fungi give me much needed portal through which to communicate with other people in a way that matters and connects us past what stilted speech could ever accomplish.
Plants have the ability to change the way we perceive the world, the way we experience life through our senses, and even how we think and interact. Not just the overtly mind altering plants that humans tend to get so fixated on… but all of them. Even the gentlest herbs, a sip of Lady’s Mantle tea or a few drops of Rabbit Tobacco tincture, have the ability to tug at the corners of reality and reshape how we see and feel. To me, this is magic, but it is also the everyday practice of the herbalist and a skill to cultivate in even the newest herbal enthusiast.
Perception is not separate from our bodies, our neurology is our physiology. Our consciousness lives in the permeable membrane of our mucosa, in the intricate wiring of our nervous system, in the sensitive map of our fascia. Which means that our everyday interaction with the herbs can seep into our dreams, change the way we speak, heal longstanding illnesses as well as new wounds, and forever alter how we interact with the natural world and those of our own species.
Fairyfire & The Nymphaea: Baneberry + Pond Lily In The Waking World
“Is my voodoo working?
Hear my dreaming,
You’ll be drowning.”
-PJ Harvey, Long Snake Moan
As herbalists, we are not utilizing inanimate objects, but rather communicating with lifeforms far older than we. We are not simply pulling free pharmaceuticals from the landscape, we are interacting with those other than human creatures that we are bound to in every way. From the very air we breathe to the food we eat to the way we consciously or unconsciously alter our bodies and minds, plants underpin every aspect of our life as humans on earth.
The first time I tasted a drop of Baneberry root, Actaea rubra – a local mountain plant that is closely related to the much better known Black Cohosh, Actaea racemosa – I felt my heart speed up, my face flush, and my breath catch in my throat. There was that brief instant where all the colors in my vision shifted spectrum and everything with lit up like a swamp candle, like the otherworldly lights that flit across still water just past dusk.
Just past that ripple in my psyche was the acrid burn that I felt begin in my gut and creep outward as if waking up some sleeping piece of myself, and allowing for movement in a paralyzed part of my body. This brief yet vital experience was the beginning of being able to heal a chronic duodenal ulcer I’d been previously unable to address with more conventional herbal or pharmaceutical means.
And then there was the moment I chewed a fragile, transparent slice of Yellow Pond Lily rhizome, Nuphar (formerly Nymphaea) polysepala, still wet from the still, frigid waters of the mountain water I’d taken it from. The sensation of the insistent searing heat in my body so suddenly seeping away like footprints being stolen by the tide. It happened so quickly I wondered if I’d only imagined the pain.
The sudden absence of intense and ongoing pain is a mind altering experience in and of itself of course, but this plant offers more than moist, cooling relief from internal flames, it also draws energy and consciousness back down deep. Where your fire has lit up your head and your heart to the point where even the ashes incinerate into insomnia, racing heart, hearing voices, and Pond Lily can cool the fire, but also bring the energy of the body back down to its core, drawing it back to the womb, kidneys and general pelvic area to allow the reunion of the elements we are made up of.
To speak of the plant’s actions in a more straightforward way is to be reminded that Nuphar excels at restoring fertility where excess heat and fluid deficiency are an issue. The Nymphaea can also correct excess heat in the blood, especially where anxiety, overthinking, and hyperfocusing have caused fiery irritation in the gut (especially the small intestine), bladder, nervous system/heart, and lungs.
Lessons like these have taught me to never underestimate the profound power of working with plants not just as powerful phytochemicals, but as allies in a process beyond my own understanding, infinitely mysterious but somehow still accessible through the perceptual processes of our sensate bodies .
Reaching into the dark seas of my own mind, I am reminded of the flowers I sought so obsessively as a child, even now I am still seeking out the peculiar patterns of light and sensation that show me where I am rooted to person and plant as an herbalist. That illuminate deep water with sepal and seedpod, giving me a map back to the waking world from my divergent dreams so that I can bridge the here and there with the healing of the herbs.