The Healer’s Tale

This is a piece that emerged from a vivid nighttime dream. In a not-so-distant future, I am living in England where, as a healer, I’m telling a group of people (herbalism students, I think) about a time in the past when the pharmaceutical medicines and antibiotics stopped working. Blurring lines of fiction and a shaman’s reality, I penned this initially for The Dark Mountain Project, for their “Ends of the Worlds” edition, but it was not accepted so I’ve decided to share it here. Come with me and step into something different; a slightly dystopian but healing vision from the plants in troubled times. ~ LRH


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I remember when the medicines stopped working. When those of us so long denied any license to practice medicine, dismissed as merely folk healers with little mainstream merit, became desperate people’s hope. As society’s infrastructure shook and crumbled, as Earth herself in a rapid and dramatic climate change hastened the fall of an unsustainable civilization, when our war on nature through a steadily mounting barrage of chemicals and poisons injected into the atmosphere, soil, water, and our bodies finally became too much, the manufactured antibiotics ceased to be effective.

It was then that we who walk with a foot in two worlds, who dream with the plants, feeling their soft but indelible touch in every moment like a lover’s caress, understanding that Earth is actually dreaming us, began to assume our long denied place as fundamental members of human communities, as teachers rather than peripherals.

Bittersweet, it was. The onslaught of diseases once thought banished or under control, a plague of bleeding and boils that inflicted more suffering on a world already heaving in the agonies of its final hours of troubled life, these brought people back to forgotten plant medicines while praising us to the heavens for the simple, natural cures that cooled the fevers of inner, cellular warfare.

Dartmoor (photo: Antenne Springborn, Flickr Creative Commons)

For ages, the witches, healers, shamans, and sages have dwelt at the unkempt edge of the village, leading a ramshackle life with the other undesirables, the lunatic fringe. The brooding forest or untamed moor at our doorstep, the wind rife with unhuman voices whispering not so silently, there at the threshold of two realms we quietly worked our arts, admittedly sometimes with a more nefarious intent than healing. Crossing to and fro into multiple worlds, knowing that our role was to bridge them, we have existed as intermediaries who conjure magic and transformation.

Yet when the sleek towers of glass and steel began to waver upon their foundations built only of fine sand and vainglorious folly, when the corporate-spun fabric of rampant consumerism began to unravel at its seams, and as chaos and sickness spread like wildfire, whether at the village cusp or in the wild, sheltering woods, a steady stream of visitors wailed and begged at our doors.

Help me! Please save this child! The medicines aren’t working any more!

So the great wheel turns.

We, who respectfully gather and drink the plants, honouring their medicine, taking in the bitter and astringent elixirs as a spiritual life force that transforms, comprehend that a significant difference exists between curing and healing. Similarly, a great divide stands between wellness and the mere absence of symptoms. Wiser beings have always understood that not everything is meant to survive, whether good or bad—what are these but constructs of the human mind?—that even amidst the turmoil of endings, tangled in joys and sorrows, all things are becoming.

Life, humans included, is evolving still.

As healers, we know that the root causes of sickness extend deeper and are far more complex than merely pathogens, or even genes. Indeed, the sum of factors exceeds the state or resiliency of our internal biological terrain, important as that is, and our fate is always interwoven with the environment in which we reside, as surely as grasses, soil, and cellular life.

Nothing is separate; everything is connected. Such is Nature’s first law, the oldest story of all, a rule that in our hubris mankind believed he was finally removed from or that it no longer held true.

More so than the medical doctors, healers know that humans are shackled with thought-forms and outmoded beliefs, past traumas and family karma, weighing down our emotional and mental bodies like heavy ghosts. These etheric distortions in the biomagnetic field equally constitute a cause of sickness alongside physical, genetic, and environmental factors. The overwhelming majority of people are disconnected not only from their own soul, refusing to hear or acknowledge its enigmatic summons, but also from any sense of wild nature—though wildness exists everywhere, in each breath, even down to the microbes of our bodies, and both soul and soil are intrinsic to it.

It is always when life is imbalanced that illness manifests.

Dartmoor (photo: Jeff Owen, Flickr Creative Commons)

Walking with rustic baskets beneath the outstretched grey-brown arms of quietly singing, munificent trees, or moving carefully amid the jumbled but fragrant gardens we tend, gathering the tender plants that so willingly give themselves when asked for healing, we sadly observed that the whole of modern civilization had fallen out of balance. Isolated in technology, stupefied in an electrical trance, people had forgotten the very strength and essence of their own bones and breath. The Earth’s sickness, showing in acid rain and poisoned rivers to unpredictable and destructive weather, merely mirrored society’s own dis-ease.

Nothing is separate.

In a pathological domestication, people grew weak, fat, and dulled in senses, not so unlike those poor animals held and slaughtered in “concentrated animal feeding operations” of industrial farming. Distanced from the cyclical turn of nature, removed from shifting moods of light and fresh air playing upon fields with owls hoot hoot-ing amid the oaks, and sedentary rather than moving naturally through a living landscape that yields softly underfoot and teems with life, our bodies have atrophied in subtle ways. And the consumption of packaged, inert products marketed for consumption and corporate profit, “food” as severed from any roots or connection with place or season as most humans are while substituting synthetic vitamins for living life force, resulted in a weakened energy field and internal organs that similarly lack vitality and health.

Any healer who can “see” or sense into a patient’s body will tell you: those who forage from mossy green riverbanks and tangled woods, whose tongues know the sweetly pure taste of spring water rather than what is dispensed from metal or plastic pipes of a city tap, possess a different quality to their tissues. Eyes gleam clear and bright like a bushy-tailed fox, while their elan vital shimmers and hums like soft thunder.

Wildness feeds both body and soul in essential ways.

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I will tell you that healing is profoundly mysterious, no less so than the unfurling of a rare blossom. It is a process that unfolds slowly, sloughing off outer layers as its course moves inward and deeper, working backward in time, guiding us eventually to the undimmed, sacred essence at our core. What a humbling privilege to assist others in this way, knowing that grace and miracles arrive from somewhere beyond, often like a bolt of lightning. Healers are merely conduits and instruments for something much greater. It is as if we simply raise a stream’s gate and then guide the water as it floods the furrows of a field, working with our hands or some chosen tool to help the flow along, occasionally stooping to move a stone or pull a weed here and there. The body is just a different sort of field, really. And we are devotedly in service to the plants, not the other way around as most people mistakenly think.

Dartmoor (photo: Antenne Springborn, Flickr Creative Commons)

Often I sit alongside a favourite brook as it sings sweetly and sparkles across the moor alive with voices, listening to wordless stories of wind and stone, of earth and water. Hours have I wandered, lost but oddly content in a swirling silver fog that cloaks the heather and gorse, dancing with spirits. Dreaming with our oldest teachers, feeling the plants with my heart’s field while simultaneously being dreamed awake by these wise and humble healers, I am granted visions and understanding of their gifts.

A barefoot sage communing with Birch, Rowan, the singing wren, and a host of ones unseen to the eye, casting prayers and laughter into a tumbling weir, some might call me a green prophet. A holy fool, perhaps. Or just a wild soul. Removing my rumpled linen shirt when the day is warm, at times I half expect to discover glistening scales, reddish fur, or tawny feathers instead of skin. How often I have pulled a pale emerald leaf growing from my inner ear, or a thin green tendril snaking through my unruly, greying hair. It’s possible that in my gradual rewilding over the years that I’ve become something not entirely human—or perhaps in this innate otherness, I’m more fully human than what most people understand is necessary. I know only that I am inseparable from the living realm that enfolds, infuses and sustains.

What irony that we, the ones who dream and walk with the Plant Teachers, often dismissed as “mad” by those who cannot see that everything about their own lives is utterly unnatural, found them beating at our doors and windows once the medications and medicines stopped working. Who is mad? What is sane? And what do the plants say?

The plants tell us that we need a new story to live by.

Like the artists, visionaries, and myth-tellers, we healers know that the tale humanity requires is one as old as the great standing stones. We need a return to the “uncivilized” wisdom of our ancestors, both human and other, upholding the sacrality of all things. For when we comprehend that everything in the world is our teacher, not simply a “resource,” the transformation begins. And the source of true healing is right under our feet, meeting us at every turn in the timeless forms of forest, meadow, stream and shoreline. The lichen-crusted boulder and gnarled, elegant tree both have gifts to offer those who seek. So too with the modest green shoot, hidden rhizome, and tenaciously twisting vine, for they are the makers of medicine.

Dartmoor (photo: Antenne Springborn, Flickr Creative Commons)

Plant teachers grow and sing wordlessly everywhere. Indeed, nearly everything that humans depend upon is a gift from them, including the very air that we breathe. Truly we are indebted, not masters, and the new narrative is one of gratitude, not greed. In that story, we acknowledge rooted ones, furred ones, scaled ones, winged ones, and the living earth as ancestors, allies, and brilliant collaborators. Naturally, like all good tales, the very heart of it beats with magic and mystery, for that is the true, secret nature of life.

The most compelling plotline is one where we finally recognize the living web of intelligence and creativity into which we are inextricably bound—right down to the rivers, rocks, microbes and mycelial mat—because nothing is separate. We are, each of us, steeped in a suprasomatic sentience permeating every breath and living cell of our being. This fresh, cultural mythos is simply the ancient one that most humans have lost but that nature always keeps telling, from flower petals to fractals; it is the pattern that connects, within and without. And the plants can teach it to us.

We “plant dreamers” and visionaries are among the ones who have relearned the story that truly defines our interwoven lives, the form behind the veil that shapes the world we see and touch. We can detect, feel, and sense it everywhere, this pattern; we weave it with our hands, carry it in our bones, our voices and songs, whilst offering ourselves forward with gratitude in the hopes of giving something back to the land itself.

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Why do I tell you this, about when the medicines stopped working?

Because the spirits and plants want humans to know that what we perceive as the end of the world, or the threat of it, is simply a difficult, painful birth. Something is dying, yes, but a new thing is also being born. And though we may wail, weep, pull at our hair and gnash our teeth in what seems an ongoing lament, the plants will eventually heal the land we have destroyed.

I share this because like storytellers and artists, healers remember and carry the story forward, offering sustenance to ease the deep, bone-gnawing hunger. And we are the ones who know that even the humblest of so-called “weeds,” like the lowly but oh so mighty Dandelion, bestow healing and protection in their own right. So too for Nettle, Hawthorn, Mugwort, Elder, Plantain, and a hundred more, each effective on a multitude of layers from physical to energetic, banishing microbes alongside ghosts and trauma of the past, restoring our damaged bioelectrical pattern. Truly, it is not only the mind-shattering psychotropic plants that are entheogens, connecting us to the god within, but many of the common, garden-variety medicinal plants too when taken in a ceremonial manner. Approached with respect, with an attitude of openness and welcoming, these plant teachers are capable of dismembering and reassembling us on unfathomable levels of body and soul.

Standing with the story and song carriers, healers know that the soul’s true path always entails an Underworld journey of death and rebirth; an initiation of sorts, it forms a crucial part of the accounting that society has conveniently chosen to forget. Others have said that what is to give light must endure burning, but it is only in darkness that we fully discover our luminosity. The soul’s quest and the search for healing and wholeness often mirror each other; indeed, in the mythic tale of life, these are often the same passage, or so closely entwined that they are inseparable from each other, like tangled roots of the same tree.

Dartmoor (photo: Antenne Springborn, Flickr Creative Commons)

The most skillful guides, whether herbalists, shamans, or poets, have undergone not simply an apprenticeship but also a true initiation. Dismembered in some manner, we have cleansed ourselves of sickness, vomiting up the darkest shadows and malevolent spirits. Now we walk a challenging, beautiful, and wilder way, with grubby rhizomes and healing talismans stuffed into pockets, a blessing bowl carried in outstretched hands. And we sing.

Friend, I know this; everything is alive. Everything dreams and speaks, even if we cannot hear or understand. And whilst it remains hidden to those with numbed senses and shuttered hearts, the world is still full of wild magic for those who can see, listen, and truly feel. The song and soul of the world are not so different than our own. Nothing is separate, after all, but intimately connected. Microcosm mirrors macrocosm. The healing that each of us seeks, this too resides in the heart of the sentient world where plants and distant constellations dream us awake, teaching the new-but-ancient story of the pattern that reconnects.

Gaia gives so much to us, but what do we share with her in return? Gratitude, hopefully, yet perhaps we can somehow offer more than that and move closer to sacred reciprocity with our animate Earth. True, the practical aspect of this exchange is more challenging to embody than an abstract ideal, but possibly we might begin with stories and songs offered alongside our daily thanks, or delivering flowery words of praise for the beauty of creation that embraces us on our earth walk. I ask, is it madness to sing to an old oak or simply love? As surely as children, the trees and elementals delight in hearing people sing and talk to them, acknowledging their presence and generous gifts both of light and shadow. Too, we might consider how our ceremonies and celebrations may feed the soul of nature itself, planting magic seeds in the fertile field of possibility.

When I peer into dulled, flat eyes so full of pain, I sometimes ask my patients, what would it be like to love the world?

If I see even a brief spark in reply, I know there is hope for them. For all of us.

A healer will tell you that at the very least, we mustn’t take by force for it doesn’t build love. Ask the plants—or whatever thing we seek to gather and employ—if they are willing to share themselves with us. Their answer will usually be yes, and if you listen and pay attention, you will feel the affirmation in your body as an openness, ease, or alignment, even if you do not hear actual words in response. This respectful asking constitutes a very simple aspect of building a relationship with place, and those of us who remember the new story know that there are no “things,” only beings, each of which deserves our gratitude.

I’ll tell you that in cultivating relationship with where we dwell or wander, as with being out on the land that sings and whispers, in opening our senses and heart, allowing ourselves to be flooded by thunderstorm, bright sunshine, or the scent of wet, failing leaves, we begin to imbibe the healing, wild “medicine” of a place.

And we must understand that despite humanity’s stupidity, ignorance and greed, we are loved by our Earth Mother who gives boundlessly. The plants, too. In their endless generosity, they remind us that nothing is separate and that the wellbeing of one is connected to the wellbeing of all. Surely part of our role in upholding a sacred reciprocity must be to honour what we have been given, or what we have taken, while finding ways to offer our own gifts in service to something much larger and infinitely mysterious.

Dartmoor (photo: Rob S., Flickr Creative Commons)

The new story beckons, calling each into the secret heart of the changing world. Into ourselves. The old medicines don’t work anymore. Life has shifted and adapted, catapulting us forward along the spiral and arc of evolution. The knots that for too long bound society to an extractive, caustic, one-sided existence have finally loosened and come undone, too frayed to be retied. Yes, life is harder now and less convenient, but like a long simmered soup of broth and vegetables, it is also far more enriching to the bodysoul. Let us end our long lament, for in the midst of all the destruction and loss, something new arises, tender and green. Timeless. And dearly precious.

Both within and without, find the pattern that connects, the plants tell us. We have new medicines for you from an older, wiser story. If you will listen with senses and heart ajar, hearing a language other than words, we will help you dream a better life, healing the present, the past, and future generations.

All things are becoming.

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