Sacred Plant Medicine by Stephen Harrod Buhner

Sacred Plant Medicine: The Wisdom in Native American Herbalism
Stephen Harrod Buhner
Bear & Company, 2006
208 pages

Reviewed by Ser/Ket

This book presented a lot of interesting, thought-provoking information, though it proved tough for me to get into. I believe the largest disconnect lay in the frequently referred to concept that the world we live in (the everyday, mundane world) is less “REAL” than the sacred world. For me, all is sacred in some way, even the rainbows of oil slicked across the parking lot, and doesn’t exist in a separate space. I’m not claiming any view is right or wrong, but it did require me extra work to stick with the writing.

The author explores a variety of belief systems and traditions used by indigenous people throughout history. This was enjoyable to me, as I’m not familiar with very many of these practices, though at some parts the writing came across as dry and, at times, repetitive. I enjoyed the second half of the book more than the beginning, however, where many of the plants have a lengthy discussion not only of what the plant is used for, but also their appearance, location, associations in other cultures and belief systems, and personal interactions with the plants through meditation as well as personal use.

The most resonant part of the story for me was a personal one from the author, describing his journey from doctor to doctor to determine the cause of his debilitating pain. I myself spent many years trying to root out the causes of my own pains and can empathize with his frustration and disenchantment with the world of pharmaceuticals. The author’s story ends happily, by discovering a medicinal plant and working with it to heal, and leading him on the lifelong quest documented in this book. Through his work, I can see others joining him on this path, learning to work with the plants both in their local area and featured in this book.

A final point I’d like to mention were the inclusion of occasional songs, including sheet music and lyric translation. Not something I was expecting, but a nice touch!

Overall, I would give this book a score only slightly higher than “average” due mainly to it’s writing style. For me, I need the style to move me through the material presented, and I felt this book’s style was a bit halting and difficult. The dryness, coupled with an initial difficulty to relate to the content, kept me from really enjoying my reading experience. Of the positives in the book, the songs weren’t numerous, and the author’s experience with the plants contained much of the “REAL” belief system that I’d had trouble adapting to.

Three pawprints out of five.

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Nature-Speak by Ted Andrews

Nature-Speak: Signs, Omens & Messages in Nature
Ted Andrews
Dragonhawk Publishing, 2004
448 pages

This is a book that I’d had my eye on for several years before finally picking up a copy. What Animal-Speak is to animal totems, so Nature-Speak is to plant spirits and landscapes. It follows much of the same pattern–some basic theoretical information about a particular set of beings or phenomena in nature, then some exercises to work with them, and finally a dictionary section. Andrews addresses some of the expected beings like trees and flowers, but also gives “weeds” a place in this veritable garden as well.

And like Animal-Speak, this book is written in a friendly, inviting manner. Andrews had a knack for writing to a wide audience, making the information accessible and interesting enough to make the reader want to try it out for themselves. This is a book that’s good both for the novice and for the more experienced nature pagan.

However, it also deviates into other areas of esotericism. There are rituals for the Sabbats, for example, drawing on Andrews’ rich experiences in nature. And he delves into such areas as work with angelic beings, as well as splashes of Hermeticism and other ceremonial traditions. In this way it’s a more eclectic text than Animal-Speak‘s quasi-shamanic flavor.

The only real complaint I have about the book is the proliferation of typos. It’s possibly one of the worst for that, to be honest. Every few pages I was picking out some misspelled word or grammatical error. I am unsure what Dragonhawk Publishing’s internal structure was like; it was Andrews’ own company, and now that he is sadly deceased I can’t simply ask. So it may be that he was editing his own work.

Still, for all that it’s a worthwhile read, and I highly recommend it for those interested in its subject matter.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Salmon Nation by Wolf and Zuckerman, eds.

Salmon Nation: People and Fish at the Edge
Edited by Edward C. Wolf and Seth Zuckerman
Ecotrust/Oregon University Press, 1999/2003
80 pages

This is another one of those “not specifically pagan, but of pagan interest” books that I like to add in here every so often. Much is made of totemism, and the Land, and our connection to these and other elements of nature-based spirituality. Salmon Nation is a book that keenly illustrates those connections, and the roots of why Salmon is such an important totem to the Pacific Northwest. More importantly, it is just one example of how humans have taken a system that developed over millions of years of natural selection, geological evolution, and other processes that we often only barely comprehend, and changed it suddenly, violently, and detrimentally.

The book opens up with an essay from a member of one of the several indigenous tribes that fished for salmon and traded goods at Celilo Falls. A tradition that lasted fifteen thousand years ended when the falls were flooded by a downstream dam, despite protest. This sets the stage for showing numerous other ways in which technological progress has run over patterns that took an incredibly long time to set into place, to include the intricate migration patterns of multiple distinct populations of salmon. The book continues through descriptions of both wild and farmed salmon fishing and cultivation, the safety and health of wild salmon populations, and the impact that our current fishing policies have on the very existence of salmon.

To pagans, this should be an object lesson of why we need to take totemism beyond “My totem is a fish! Yay!” and tie our spirituality to the very earth and waters themselves. Many of the cultures we draw from revere(d) animals, not just out of symbolism, but out of survival. In post-industrial cultures, we are too often divorced from the processes that bring us food, and so turn a blind eye to ongoing destruction of our life support system.

Read this book as inspiration. Read it as motivation. Read it for grief for what has been lost, but also for the realization that we can make more of our spiritual practices than simple lip service to Nature. Meditate on what you read, and go from there.

Five fins out of five.

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Holy Smoke by Amy “Moonlady” Martin – new edition

Holy Smoke: Loose Herbs & Hot Embers for Intense Group Smudges & Smoke Prayers
Amy “Moonlady” Martin
Moonlady Media, 2010
110 pages

On rare occasion I will review a book a second time, especially if it’s undergone a lot of reworking. In its initial incarnation, this title was known as Spirit Herbs: Simple Recipes for Hibachi Herbal Magic & Sacred Space, and I gave it a glowing review because it was just so awesome. So a while back (longer than i care to admit, thanks to grad school eating my life), the author was kind enough to send me the new, updated, and even better version of the book! She removed a few things that she felt no longer fit, and added a LOT more practical material.

If you’re not familiar with the original review, this is a book all about alternatives to the usual sage smudging wand that everybody and their coven mother uses at the beginning of group neopagan rituals. Smudging is one of those practices that often gets taken for granted. “Okay, we’re going to waft smoke over you–and then get into the REAL ritual!” Yet this text takes what could be a brief step and goes into much more depth.

Some of the material is meant for the aforementioned group rituals. Beyond the initial “clean-up”, there are also smudges meant for much more intensive work over a duration of time, even a couple of hours. And whether you work with a group or alone, the “smoke prayers” are incredibly useful, both for offerings, and for focuses for meditation. At the center of all of these is the concept that scent is one of the most powerful senses we have; in fact, studies show that aromas are even more evocative than visual memories for bringing us back to a place and time, and Martin uses that to connect specific smudges to particular states of consciousness, ritual settings, etc. This is powerful stuff!

Better yet, she offers a variety of recipes for loose herb smudges. If you want a more organic alternative to chemical-laden incense sticks and cones, and especially if you’re big into DIY creations, this is a superb resource. The recipes can get you started, but she also takes care to familiarize you with a variety of ingredients and what they do, which will help you start making your own blends.

I thought I couldn’t say enough good about this book, but this new edition proved me so wrong–for which I’m quite happy! Whether you’re an herbalist looking for an addition to your library, a member of a group wanting more interesting material for rituals, or simply someone who appreciates the full use of the senses in spirituality and magic, this is a most excellent text to pick up!

Five pawprints out of five

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Earthwalks for Body and Spirit by James Endredy

Earthwalks for Body and Spirit
James Endredy
Bear and Company, 2002
200 pages

One of the things I have always appreciated the most about James Endredy’s writings is that he takes spirituality and roots it very firmly in the physical world, perhaps more than just about any other author on shamanism and related topics. It’s a much-needed reconnection in a time and place where too often “spirituality” is focused on ethereal, untouchable things of the mind and imagination, with little hooking them to the “everyday” world. So having exercises and concepts that remove the gap between this word and the other one (if there is even a distinction) is a really welcome change. This, his first book from nearly a decade ago, is no exception.

The premise is simple: walking meditation. For a lot of people, sitting and being quiet simply isn’t a good option. Walking meditation is a way to focus the mind while also allowing the body a chance to settle down and move more intently. However, this book is not simply about focusing on the body, but focusing on the body as being an integral part of the environment it is within. The ability to be aware of both within and without simultaneously allows one to break down the barriers until there is no within or without, only what is.

This isn’t just the same steps made over and over, however. The book contains dozens of unique and incredibly useful ways to walk, starting with the most basic Walk of Attention, which trains the person to be aware of how the body moves and what it’s moving in, to more elaborate group walks, and walks that are aimed at focusing on specific elements or other parts of the environment. In fact, one could work with this book for months, if not years, and not get bored.

Very little of it could be misconstrued as woo-woo; this is spirituality grounded constructively and healthily. Any beings of spirit are encountered in their physical forms, for the most part, and the animals, plants and other phenomena behind the spirits are what are brought into focus. Yet the wonder and awe is not at all lost; on the contrary, Endredy’s walks encourage and facilitate the most fine and complex amazement at the world around us, as well as the bodies we wear. Even the final Walk for Vision only calls for a vision after an entire day immersed in the beauty of physical things.

This is an extraordinary book that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. Anyone practicing shamanic practices–in fact, anyone who professes a nature-based spirituality–would do well to pick this book up. And even those who are not particularly spiritual but who would like to reconnect with nature and the world at large may very well benefit from this text.

Five walking pawprints out of five.

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Shamanic Wisdom by Dolfyn

Shamanic Wisdom: Nature Spirituality, Sacred Power and Earth Ecstasy
Dolfyn
Earthspirit, Inc., 1990
184 pages

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I want to not like it, because there’s a decent helping of cultural appropriation in it. Lots of “medicine” and various appropriations of watered-down indigenous concepts that have become so common in new age neoshamanisms. However, there are also some useful rituals for practicing a nature-based animistic path. I think it might have been a better book framed as animism rather than shamanism, and without the pseudo-Native trappings.

The good stuff includes practices for connecting with the directions, animals, plants, the sun and other celestial bodies, and various other denizens of the natural world. They’re designed to recreate awareness of these things we often take for granted, and the author does have a nice ecological flavor in her presentation of the material. The rituals are also not too difficult to enact, and this would be a great book in a lot of ways for a newbie pagan just learning to reach out to the world around hir.

However, as with so many other neoshamanic texts, there’s an element of entitlement, as though Nature will automatically always help us. While the chapter on eco-magic does emphasize giving back, the overall approach is fairly lightweight and says nothing about any of the potential dangers of connecting with these spirits. And there’s not really a discussion of the differences between what is presented here and indigenous practices. There’s the usual brief and somewhat stereotyped animal totem dictionary, just as a bonus.

Taken with some cautionary salt, this can be a useful text for beginners to nonindigenous animistic practices. Be skeptical, but also be open.

Three pawprints out of five.

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Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown

Coming Back to Life: Practice to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World
Joanna Lacy and Molly Young Brown
New Society Publishers, 1998
224 pages

I first encountered Joanna Macy’s work when I began to learn about ecopsychology. While she is not expressly a psychologist, her work in systems theory and deep ecology in particular tie in very nicely with ecopsychology, and her writings are considered foundational to that field. Her work with exploring and working through grief, as well as broader ritual practices, give her a solid place in the study and practice of modern rites of passage.

Pagans ought to be very aware of her works, especially those who enact group rituals. This text, cowritten by Molly Young Brown, herself a practitioner of ecopsychology among other disciplines, is a great starting point for those unfamiliar. It is a book for leading and guiding group rituals, without specific spiritual or religious trappings, that are designed to facilitate connection with the self, with others, and with the world around us. The context for the rituals is explained in great detail, from the feelings of grief, loss, and other emotions that often go unspoken in polite society, to the importance of caring for the emotions of ritual participants and how to help them through difficult catharses. Much of this may already be known to seasoned priest/esses and other pagan clergy, but there are some useful guidelines nonetheless.

The rituals themselves are fantastic. There’s the classic Council of All Beings, in which participants speak as various nonhuman entities. There are also exercises like Tape Recording to the Future and Letters From the Future which help us to place ourselves in context of the enormity of Time As a Whole, but also bring us into immediate awareness of the effects our actions have on those who will come after us. Narrative, art, and other forms of expression feature prominently, and there is much to utilize in working with pagan groups.

I highly recommend this as a guide to ritual practices, not only for eco-centric or politically minded pagans, but those wishing for inspiration for more emotionally involved rituals. There’s plenty to think about and even more to do, and I am nothing less than amazed by the creativity and effectiveness of what is presented here.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Witches & Pagans Magazine, Issue 19

Witches & Pagans Magazine
Various authors, editors, artists and other contributors
BBI Media, Autumn 2009
96 pages

First, a little background: Witches & Pagans is what happened when BBI Media merged their prior publications, PanGaia and newWitch. PanGaia was their more “serious” pagan publication, with a heavy eco-friendly slant and a target audience interested in ritual practices and spiritual experiences. newWitch came about a few years ago, and was met with some skepticism since its general themes were “sex, spells and celebs”. Some feared that newWitch would manifest all the worst stereotypes of image-obsessed teenybopper witches, and yet the publication managed to hold a fine balance between entertainment and facing controversial topics head-on. As a disclosure, I have written for both publications, so my potential bias should be noted.

Witches & Pagans has managed to blend elements of both magazines. This issue, for example, features interviews with musician S.J. Tucker and author R.J. Stewart (the faery AND initial issue!), something that newWitch was keen on. However, articles on 19th century mystic Ella Young, a surprisingly well-researched article on Cherokee fey beings, and several other in-depth writings on a central theme of Faery hail back to the best of PanGaia.

The regular columnists provided me with some of my favorite reading overall. Isaac Bonewits explored the practice of magic at different stages of one’s life, and how factors ranging from physical health to years of experience and knowledge can shape one’s energy and thereby one’s practice. Galina Krasskova did an excellent job of tackling the practice of celibacy as part of the ascetic’s path, something that a heavily hedonistic neopagan community may not often give much thought to. And I love Archer’s article on connecting to the wilderness through forests and their denizens, both physical and archetypal.

Those who were used to reading only one of the parent publications that merged to create this one may feel disappointed that there isn’t more of “their” stuff in there. However, one thing I appreciate about Witches & Pagans is that it brings together two potentially separate demographics in the pagan community–the more “serious” practitioners who look askance at the supposed “fluff” content of newWitch, and the energetic (though not always neophyte) envelope-pushers who might see their counterparts as muddy sticks. Both groups have much to offer in their own way, and Witches & Pagans does a nice job of showcasing the best of both worlds.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Sacred Earth edited by Jason Gardner – July BBBR

The Sacred Earth: Writers on Nature and Spirit
Edited by Jason Gardner
New World Library, 1998
172 pages

This month’s Bargain Bin Book Review is a collection of quotes from various nature writers’ previously published works, ranging from Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold to Thomas Berry and Paul Shepard. The general theme is spirituality, and what makes Nature sacred; however, the many ways in which “sacred” manifests for the writers are lovely to read. The book is divided into four sections: experience, texture, practice, and belief, and this creates a nice progression of thoughts from one subtheme to the next.

The editor, Gardner, made some very nice selections. Some, like Leopold’s “green fire” in a dying wolf’s eyes, are fairly well-known. However, he also did some digging into more obscure works from some of the writers, and while hardcore environmentalists may be familiar with most of the writing, there were some surprises for me, and no doubt for other readers as well. The topics that the writers covered included all of Nature, from animals and plants, to the weather, to the stars and other heavenly bodies. Yet while many of the quotes spoke of connection and immersion in Nature, and even identification with it, a few spoke of personal disconnection, and distraction, and wishing for better connection. And, of course, the general cultural disconnect from Nature found in the United States was critiqued a number of times. But it was the ones that showed that even these dedicated writers had their off days made me feel better for not being connected to Nature 24/7.

This would be a lovely collection for those pagans for whom Nature is the central part of their paganism. There’s a wealth of quotes for inspiration, and perhaps even for ritual recitation. However, it’s the imagery conveyed in the words that really touched me, and this didn’t require formal meditation, or ritual practice, to appreciate. This is one of those books that you can pick up and open at random, and find something lovely inside.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Beyond 2012 by James Endredy

Beyond 2012: A Shaman’s Call to Personal Change and the Transformation of Global Consciousness
James Endredy
Llewellyn, 2008
220 pages

Leave it to James Endredy to write a book on 2012 that actually makes sense. I’ve liked what I’ve read of his work, particularly Ecoshamanism (which is one of my absolute favorite books on shamanism). It took me over a year after I first learned about the book to get it and read it, but I’m glad I did–it came at a good time.

Most of the books on 2012 are gloom-and-doom–the world is coming to an end in 2012 because the Mayan calendar says so, and all the bad things in the world are just more reasons to sit and mope and/or pontificate about this. And yet….and yet….this always struck me as really nowhere near constructive–especially since the end of the world had been predicted numerous time and had never happened. Beyond 2012 completely reframes the 2012 situation. Not only is the world not ending (except, maybe, as we know it) but 2012 is a good marker for a shift in consciousness and the way we make our decisions regarding the very real world we face right this moment, rather than some apocalyptic fantasy near-future. Endredy takes the root information on the 2012 phenomenon and manages to make a great deal of sense about it.

While Endredy’s shamanism does play a significant role in the material in this book, it is not strictly a book on shamanism. The techniques that he includes are more open than that, and are practices for those who wish to put forth conscious effort in making a better world in the face of environmental, social, and other destruction. Building altars, for example, is a fairly common technique in modern spiritual practices, and many of the techniques he provides for self-reflection aren’t so different from many of the concepts I’ve been learning about in my graduate-level psychological training.

What Endredy does provide is a keen awareness of the interconnectivity that humanity has with all of the rest of Nature, and a thoroughly developed, deeply-felt series of relationships with natural phenomena. A large portion of the book is written to reflect dialogues he’s had with the various phenomena of Nature, some of his most important teachers. What has always struck me about his work, both through his writing and in the occasion I was able to participate in a rite of passage he facilitated, is how sincere it is–he’s about the least pretentious person I’ve ever run into, and this includes within his shamanic practice. The material in Beyond 2012 reflects a primary focus on rebuilding that connectivity and awareness on a greater scale, and offering people a variety of tools to choose from. I know I’ll be keeping this text in part for work with my therapeutic clients, because there’s a lot of versatility here.

And in fact, this book has a lot of potential readers. In addition to shamanic practitioners and pagan folk in general utilizing this in spiritual and other manners, environmental activists and mental health professionals both can take the ideas into the wider social sphere. Additionally, I would love to give a copy of this to every person who’s convinced that the world’s going to hell in a handbasket come 2012, to show them that there are much more constructive ways to look at this potentially transitional period. I never thought I’d give this rating to a book on this subject, but here goes:

Five optimistic pawprints out of five.

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