Herbs for Staying with the Trouble

by Janet Kent

Peach Blossom Elixir

Deep, long sigh. The heat is on. All kinds of heat with no end in sight. For future readers, I am writing this in late June of 2022. Here in Southern Appalachia we just experienced two back to back heat waves, the kind of heat that happens once in a hundred years. Denizens of the Deep South just experienced temperatures hotter than any in recorded history. All over the world, people face record, deadly temperatures. In other news, last week the Supreme Court of the United States overturned Roe vs. Wade, ending clinical access to  abortion in many states. Meanwhile, state legislators are passing laws to punish trans children and their families and to punish teachers for acknowledging differences in sexual orientation or for discussing racism. This summer has become hot and bothersome, and it’s not even August yet.

Last week I read over an old blog post from late November 2016, Herbs for Resistance, written right after the presidential election. In it I say “… you know exactly what I mean by resistance. You know what we are up against and you know what is at stake. You also know that the fight will be going on for a long time. Quite possibly for the rest of our lives. The thought is exhausting.” When I wrote that back then, I really hoped I was being hyperbolic. Unfortunately, it now reads as understatement. That was pre-pandemic. I did not yet know the full meaning of the word exhausted.

So here we are. Some of our worst predictions have come true. But there have also been other moments and movements we may not have predicted. The George Floyd Rebellion brought people together in the streets, fighting for the end to racist police violence. We saw the blossoming of mutual aid groups around the continent, as people came together to provide care and resources in response to the pandemic and the ensuing economic hardship. The bonds formed in these moments still exist. Many people are connecting and sharing and organizing for the first time in their lives. Not all of these newly politicized people are interested in collective liberation, of course, but there are many who are.

The title of this piece is a nod to Donna Haraway’s book Staying with the Trouble:  Making Kin in the Cthulucene. Staying with the trouble means being present for these challenging, chaotic, rapidly changing times. It means seeing possibility amidst the crumbling edifice of empire, connecting with others and acting together to shape the world to come. Haraway acknowledges that we may want to hide, or look away or pretend everything is going to be okay in the face of the troubles with the climate, with the extinction crisis, and with the rise of authoritarianism. The powers that be are hoping for just this mass lack of action and they provide plenty of distractions to make that the easiest path. Haraway urges us to instead recognize our response-ability, our duty to bear witness but also our capacity to act to shape the world. For those who are new to this work as well as those who have been at it for a long time, I want to share some herbs who are our allies in the ongoing struggle for collective liberation.

Here I will be highlighting herbs that are cooling and calming. Why cooling? At Terra Sylva, the herb school I co-facilitate with Dave Meesters and Jen Stovall, we teach an energetic approach to mental health. This means that instead of using psychiatric diagnoses, we consider the qualities of mental states and match the herbs that will balance these patterns. Using this model, we consider lack of affect and apathy to be cold/depressed states, conditions that are best supported with warming, moving herbs. Similarly, we consider many agitated states to be patterns of heat/excitation. Restlessness, edginess, emotional lability, excessive anger, reactivity and some forms of anxiety are all examples of hot, excited mental states that can be eased with cooling herbs. But wait, shouldn’t we be angry and agitated right now? Isn’t there a lot happening that should cause anxiety? Absolutely. But it is also important to recognize that prolonged states of agitation are bad for our health. Agitation interferes with our digestion, our sleep and our immune response.  Constant excitation can also lead to elevated heart rates and high blood pressure. In our communities, long term excitation can lead to strained relationships, as we become increasingly reactive, often adding more stress to our interactions with every overblown response. We use the expressions hot-headed and hot-tempered to describe people who regularly inhabit these states. And then of course there is the inevitable burnout that comes from pushing ourselves beyond our limits when we are running hot. One could argue, and many have, that the constant states of agitation many of us inhabit serve the powers that be. When we are constantly reacting, we seldom have time to process, connect with each other, strategize and move with intention. To offset the excitatory conditions we are in, we need to cool off and slow down. The following herbs help cool us down so that we can move towards action and away from reaction.

Peach (Prunus persica)

Peach, the peach you can buy at the grocery store, is a gentle but powerful nervine. We usually use the leaves and the flowers of the Peach tree when we can get them, but the bark and pits and fruit are medicinal as well. Peach leaves are sour and bitter, both cooling flavors. I first learned of Peach medicine from hearing of the rural southeastern tradition of bringing Peach leaf tea over when you need to deliver bad news, or when there has been a recent death in the family. Traditionally, this is medicine for the acute grief states that come with recent loss, but these days, I see a need for Peach medicine regularly when there has not been close personal loss. For many who are paying attention to the state of the world, we are in a constant state of grief. This feeling comes and goes in severity, as we tune in and out of the ongoing crisis, or as the violence hits closer or farther from home. I have noticed over time how anger and grief go together, how we sometimes use anger to offset grief as it can feel more active to rage than to mourn. This pattern may be part of the reason that Peach is good medicine for anger as well as acute grief.

One spring I was harvesting Peach blossoms with a friend. When one is tending a peach tree, it is good to thin the blossoms so that the tree does not try to their overabundance of flowers into fruit. Harvesting blossoms is a form of tending in this case. I had been feeling low and harried that spring, though I can’t even remember why at this point. Picking those blossoms on that clear spring day lifted my sprits immediately and taught me a potent lesson about the medicine of Peach. While Peach cools agitated minds, they also remind us of sweetness and joy. Peach is one of my go-to allies for times I need to be reminded of the pleasures of life, when my perspective has been dulled from grief or from stress. They help me slow down, cool off and take my time.

Preparations

Standard infusion of dried leaves:  2-6 ounces as needed to 3x a day

Tincture of fresh leaves:  1:2 at 95%. You can also use glycerin as a menstruum,

Tincture of dried leaves:  1:2 at 50% Make sure the leaves are completely dry. Half dry leaves can be toxic.

Peach pit elixir:  Fill a jar with peach  pits. Do not crack them open, put them in whole. Cover with brandy. Let macerate for a month. Strain and add honey to taste. Take 1 -3 tsps as needed.

Peach Blossom Elixir:  Fill a jar with flowers. Cover with your menstruum of choice. Let macerate for one month. Strain and add honey to taste. A sip to a tablespoon as needed/desired.

Peach Fruit Cordial:  Chop up enough peaches to fill whatever size jar you have. Add  a dash of any spices you like with peach deserts, like cinnamon. Fill with brandy or your menstruum of choice. Let macerate for one month. Strain. Add honey to taste.

Blue Vervain in flower

Blue Vervain  (Verbena hastata)

Our societal emphasis on productivity rewards certain types of behavior.  Those of us who try to squeeze as much out of a day as possible, who schedule our time down to the minute, make lists on top of lists and try to do it all with little rest receive acclamation for our levels of activity.  This ability has many drawbacks.  Through avoidance of rest or down time, we wear ourselves down, forcing our bodies to make us take a break through illness.  In our personal lives, we can value efficiency over good communication, becoming tyrants of our own little worlds.  We are bossy and curt; we expect others to understand this manner as necessary for getting it all done.  No time for chit chat or checking in. We are watching the clock. 

Our overall health is also denigrated by this way of being.  We fail to make time to sit around, walk in the woods or call a friend.  This tendency to over work cuts us off from the rest of Life.  We can become isolated and one-dimensional.  We distort and mutate, becoming less human in our efforts to become super human.Those of us who work for change in the world, whether in social work or in environmental defense or in other forms of activism, are especially susceptible to this pattern.  We see how destructive this system is and see the urgency in our work.  This vision can also be our downfall. We have unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others.  We can be extremely critical for we see the world as it should be and expect everyone around us to follow suit. 

Blue Vervain is specific for this pattern.  It relaxes driven, idealistic folks who may inadvertently (or not) impose their will on others. Blue Vervain softens and sweetens as they cool us down, blunting our edge without making us dull.  For those of us with impossibly high standards of ourselves and others, Blue Vervain helps us ease up a bit.  They are especially helpful for those who hold their stress in their neck and shoulders, though it relaxes tension throughout the body.  Blue Vervain is also specific for the grudge collector, those who cycle through negative thoughts of who did them wrong, owes them money, never apologized.  Most of us could stand to be a bit sweeter and softer.  To leave off from thinking of all that’s wrong to make room to remember what we are fighting for. 

Preparation:  tincture of fresh herb in flower, 1:2 at 95%, or recently dried at 5o%.  5-25 drops up to 3x a day. This is a relatively low dose herb. Start with a few drops to see how that feels. You can work up to a higher dose. Too much will make you nauseous. You can make a tea of the dried leaves and flowers but it is really intense.

Linden, aka Basswood, aka Lime Tree (Tilia sp) 

Linden, sweet Linden, beloved by bees and humans alike. Linden is a tree in the Mallow family whose leaves and flowers are aromatic and mucilaginous. They are cooling, calming and moistening, making them an excellent remedy for those who run hot and dry. Some describe the smell and flavor of their flowers as cucumber-like and there is something to that. Cucumbers are one of the more cooling vegetables, coming in at the height of summer, just when we need them. In Southern Appalachia, Linden blooms in early to mid-June, right as the temperatures begin to rise. Standing near a Linden tree covered with flowers, with bees buzzing with delight all around, is such a sweet high summer experience. Being near one of these trees in bloom stops in you in your tracks. You slow down and may even forget whatever it was you were doing for a moment. The play of light on the silvery heart-shaped leaves is mesmerizing. You are reminded that slowing down allows you to notice more of your surroundings, to be more present in the moment, to just be.

In Eastern Europe, Linden trees are associated with dragons who are said to spend a third of their long lives lying beneath these beautiful trees. Dragons, fire-breathing reptiles, the embodiment of dry heat go to the Linden tree to cool off. In the same cultures who associate dragons with these trees, town halls and community meetings were traditionally held under the boughs of Linden trees, planted in the town squares for just this purpose. These communities knew that Linden would cool hot tempers, soothe angry hearts, soften words and ease relations. Linden makes us less reactive while opening our hearts and increasing our capacity for compassion. If you have ever participated in community organizing, you can see the benefit of all of these actions! Linden eases nervousness and irritability, supports cardiovascular health and good sleep. And importantly, as I mentioned earlier, they help us slow down and be more in the moment, facilitating appreciation and presence. Such good medicine for these times.

Preparation: Standard infusion of dry flowers, bracts and leaves – 4-8 oz as needed or in a tea blend. Linden flower infused honey is delicious as are elixirs made with brandy and honey. You can also tincture them in alcohol or in glycerin. Fresh 1:2 at 95%, dried 1:5 at 50%. 1/4 to 1 tsp to 3 x a day.

Rose (Rosa sp.)

Rose, Rose, Rose, Rose. This plant is beloved around the world for their beauty and their medicine. Rose is cooling and calming, but also uplifting.  In Arabic medicine, classical and modern, Rose is considered an exhilirant, an herb that brightens the mood and lifts the spirit. They bring an uplifting hint of possibility when we need one. For folks who have run hard and hot for years working for change, or just working to survive, burnout can come with an almost unshakeable cynicism.

This world can make us hard.  Heartbreak and disappointment start early.  We learn skills to offset the grief; we become toughened and distant.  If we expect the worst from people in our lives, and from society at large, we will not experience the pain of disappointment. We can congratulate ourselves on our realistic outlook, relish the moments when our low expectations are confirmed.  Ah, the life of the cynic.  Nothing to lose if we do not allow ourselves to care. 

This strategy of self-protection may be understandable, but it is incredibly selfish as there is still so much to lose.  Whether we allow ourselves to care or not, the forces of domination continue to wreak havoc on Life.  What do we have to gain from smugly watching from the sidelines, saying we saw this coming?  What do we gain from isolation, from allowing past pain to keep us from loving or opening up to connection?  The walls we build for protection close us in; we live in an isolated, dimly lit space that may feel safer, but is it?

Rose is the medicine for this state.  Rose helps us open our hearts after periods, or even lifetimes of heartbreak.  When we have grown accustomed to despair, or have become apathetic to offset the effects of despair, Rose reminds us how to experience joy, how to appreciate the beauty around us.  Rose gently urges us to open ourselves to experience, to risk disappointment, to hope against all odds.  In hard times, when it becomes difficult to see the good in our lives, Rose dispels the gloom, brightens our perspective and sheds light on our lives. When we are running hot Rose cools us down, reminding us to go slower, to stop and enjoy life amidst our work.

Preparation:  Fresh tincture of aromatic rose flowers 1:2 at 95% either etoh or glycerin. Dried flower tincture, 1:5 at 60%.  15-60 drops up to 3x a day, or as needed. Dry Rose can be extracted in glycerin as well.

Tea, standard infusion:  works best in blends. Combines well, with oat straw, tulsi, hawthorn and chamomile.

The aroma of Rose is a significant element of the medicine, so keeping the flowers around, using Rose oil or Rose water are all ways to have Rose’s cooling, brightening medicine in your life.

Rose infused vinegar is a powerful topical cooling remedy. Infuse vinegar with Rose flowers, let macerate for a few weeks. Strain and dilute 1 part water to 1 part vinegar. Spray on sunburns, or red hot skin.

This is part of a larger compendium of herbal allies for these times. Herbs are not going to fix the ongoing disaster we are experiencing; we have a long and arduous road ahead. They can however, support us in many ways, from easing our interactions with each other, to brightening our moods, to helping us remember joy to getting us to slow down and appreciate the beauty around us. We have to continue to make lives worth fighting for or our struggle will destroy us. Connecting with our more-than-human kin lends us their wisdom: lessons of cyclical time, of the necessity of interdependence, of the power of co-creation and the importance of pace. All of these teachings have the potential to transform how we relate to each other and to our work.

If you want to hear more about Donna Haraway’s book Staying with the Trouble, check out our podcast, The Book on Fire, Season 1. If you want to learn more about how the current crisis began, check out Season Two on Sylvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch.

If you want to learn more about our herb school, check out the Terra Sylva School of Botanical Medicine.We will announce our plans for 2023 in the fall.

Some of the write-ups here come from my zine Under Pressure: Herbs for Resilience, a collaboration with artist Roger Peet. It is currently out of print. We will make an announcement when it is available again.

Rose Arbor by my House

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