Secrets of The Herbal Healing Deck is a blog series in which we will share some of the best stories of the deck’s creation. These include magical and mysterious experiences, synchronicities, and revelations about the plants that transpired as we (myself–Sarah Baldwin–and Ashley Verkamp, the deck’s illustrator) collaborated on the deck. We will also divulge some of the reasons behind the specific symbols and images that Ashley has included in the card illustrations. Below is an account of some of our experiences with Wormwood, which in The Herbal Healing Deck signifies Mystery.
Years ago, when I was in Oregon completing an herbalism internship, I became fast friends with another intern, Kristyn. Sometimes, she and I would escape intern life to explore the surrounding area. Toward the end of the summer, a few weeks before our internship came to a close, we happened to meet a shamanic hermit who began teaching us some interesting things.
The story of how we met this man (we’ll call him Pedro) is recounted in some detail in The Herbal Healing Deck’s guidebook, so I won’t spend too much time on it here. Suffice it to say that he had knowledge and abilities of an unusual sort. He was quite psychic and had a way of speaking that was simply enthralling. He was eccentric and mysterious, and he didn’t always explain himself fully, but we came to admire and respect him. We traveled to his little hideaway several times to hear of his wild stories and hard-earned wisdom. Pedro was a wanderer, and part of me, though I had responsibilities waiting for me back at home, wanted to join him on his travels and see what kinds of strange and amazing things would happen in his presence.
I’ve never had a guru. Not really. My spiritual teachers seem to come and go like seasons, or more accurately, like storms. They sweep in without warning, shake things up, and are gone again before I can make sense of what has happened. Even as I’m grateful for the sweet rain they have brought, even as I see my garden growing more lushly, I miss them. Sometimes, years later, they might visit in my dreams to give a message or impart encouragement. But often, I never see them again.
During our visits with Pedro, he shared many pearls of wisdom. One of these was his emphasis on meditation. For example, he encouraged us to visualize the merkaba, an ancient symbol of sacred geometry. The merkaba consists of two intersecting pyramids, and one form of meditation involves visualizing these pyramids spinning in opposite directions. I have since learned that this technique is used to reach higher dimensions.
Kristyn and I also spoke with Pedro of our herbal studies; he had a particular affinity for Wormwood. He spoke of the plant as a means of inducing telepathy and synchronicity, explaining it as a kind of lubricant for spiritual forces. It makes everything flow more smoothly and magically. It makes you feel inspired to talk about the very thing your companion was just thinking about. Or, you might be in the middle of saying the words, “I wish we had a drum,” just as your friend pulls a drum from her bag. It lends an air of magic to the atmosphere. As I write in The Herbal Healing Deck guidebook, “[Wormwood] seems to lubricate the mind and circumstances to favor synchronicity. It energizes the mystery of life itself.”
At the time, home-brewed absinthe was enjoying a kind of renaissance, at least in the Pacific Northwest. Of course, one of the main ingredients in absinthe is Wormwood. Pedro performed a ceremony for us with absinthe, using it as a kind of clearing agent and spritzing it over us as a blessing. This was my first encounter with such a ritual; I’ve since seen other shamans work with alcohol or perfume in a similar way–to cleanse, to clear, to protect, to drive away darkness. It was a powerful clearing, though at the time, I was fairly insensible of the honor being done me.
That evening, Pedro was hesitant to let us leave. I recall a long, somewhat awkward pause during which he would not speak, but he also wanted us to remain. Kristyn and I were tired, and we planned to see him again within a few days, so we sped off soon enough.
The farm where we were worked happened to grow a large quantity of Wormwood. As we interns discovered, spending a long day baking in the sunshine amidst a field of any singular herb can be quite an experience. While you may not think of a particular plant as being mind-altering, at the end of an eight-hour shift of working with that plant you might begin to feel otherwise. We would often perceive the plants acting upon us in strange ways–the entire group would feel giddy, or dizzy, or tired. Working in a field of Wormwood, a plant which has been used to alter consciousness, was pretty intense. The scent irritated my throat and made me cough. Meanwhile, it felt as though a few of the threads binding together my normal, alert consciousness were loosening slightly.
Before we visited Pedro again, I went to the Wormwood fields to gather a bundle. I bound and dried a smudge stick, which I intended to give to Pedro as a gift. (Here I must say “do not try this at home,” for Wormwood has compounds which can be harmful when inhaled. If you do use Wormwood as a smudge, be sure to burn it outdoors and do not breathe it in. In fact, always take care when working with Wormwood. Some herbalists discourage internal use at all. That being said, Kristyn and I have both used Wormwood internally with no ill effects (well, besides the intensely bitter taste). She travels a lot and brings Wormwood along as an ally for treating traveler’s indigestion and nausea. Nevertheless, do your research before working with Wormwood and make informed choices.)
The Storm Passes
When Kristyn and I again pulled up to Pedro’s hermitage, there was a strange, empty feeling. His vehicle wasn’t there. Neither were his belongings. He was gone. In my youthful folly and denial, I voiced the opinion that surely he would be back soon. Kristyn knew better. When we recounted our last visit, we realized that he had been dropping hints that he was about the leave the area for good and that we might never see him again–even as we made plans to meet up. In this light, his strange hesitancy to let us leave the last time we’d seen him made more sense.
It was a bitter truth–just as Wormwood is a bitter medicine. I recall the two of us wandering around rural Oregon, unsure of what to do with ourselves. We ended up stopping at a cemetery to regroup. This grave scene now seems appropriate, for the grief I felt at suddenly losing this teacher still touches me to this day. We didn’t get any contact information; we didn’t know where he was headed. His teachings had taken us by storm, and the storm had passed.
After Pedro left, I spent some evenings in solitude at the Wormwood fields, watching the sun slide beneath the horizon and meditating on the mystery. The long rows of these tall plants, with their wispy, sweeping arms seemed to epitomize the mystery of life itself.
Kristyn and I finished out the summer in Oregon, which was a bittersweet experience. An intense longing for home–for the familiar, for the arms of my lover, for my parents, for my friends–was mingled with a deep longing to live this way forever–in the presence of plants and plant lovers, in a kind of magical Neverland where we would never have to grow up or face the rest of the world, but rather, would be able to wander in childlike wonder at the magic of life for eternity. On our last day, Kristyn and I sat in a hidden part of the farm and listened to George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” as we wept for the beautiful summer that was coming to a close. I’m grateful to say that we are still close friends to this day.
A few years later, I ceremonially burned the Wormwood smudge that I had not been able to give to Pedro. From time to time, he wanders into my dreams to deliver a strange message or perform a mysterious act. I now see his brief cameo in my life as an initiation into the unknown. His teachings marked the beginning of many years of exploration in shamanism, plant spirits, meditation, and other spiritual practices. I feel blessed to have known him.
The Mystery Continues
While developing The Herbal Healing Deck, I would complete the written entry for each plant and give it to Ashley, along with some of the plant’s physical medicine for her to sample. Ashley would enter into a shamanic journey to visit each and every plant spirit and receive a vision which would form the basis of her illustration. She would complete this process and then send me her illustration, as well as a written journal entry of her journey experience.
When I first opened the Wormwood illustration, I nearly fell out of my chair. In the center of a very mystical and stately plant spirit, there was the merkaba. Unmistakable. I had not told Ashley about Pedro’s merkaba meditations, or even about his Wormwood teachings.
By this point in our collaboration, I was used to Ashley being able to pick up on various details of a plant spirit that I had never communicated to her. It was part of the magic of our creative process, which felt very guided from the beginning. Sometimes, she would be shown herbal information that I didn’t know myself. But these had typically been things that could be confirmed through research–in other words, they were associations with the plants that were more widely known. For example, in her Oak journey she picked up on the tree’s use in medicine wheel gardens, which neither of us knew about before her journey. Upon doing some research, we discovered that, sure enough, Oak is sometimes used in this way.
Never before had Ashley picked up on one of my personal associations with a plant spirit. How could she have known that the spiritual teacher who taught me about Wormwood was the same person who introduced me to the merkaba? She didn’t. I was left to stare off into space, slack-jawed, and wonder how this could possibly be. It was downright astonishing to have her pick up on a plant association that was personal to me, and that I had never shared with another person. In other words, I’ve never heard anyone else talk about Wormwood’s connection with the merkaba. I’m not even sure there is a tangible connection–except that there is now! Now, when people draw the Wormwood card, they will be greeted with a lovely, luminous merkaba. The plant and the symbol now live together, at least in the realms of The Herbal Healing Deck.
I am left to ponder the meaning of this strange synchronicity. I can accept that Ashley’s shamanic journeys were potent and authentic enough to allow her to tap into plant wisdom without ever opening a book. But what does it mean that the spirit of Wormwood showed her a merkaba symbol? Was it a message for me, specifically? Was it a message for the both of us? Is it a message for everyone who works with the deck?
Or, on another level–do we as humans have the power to not only pick up on, but also to create associations with the spirit world? Could Pedro, with all of his shamanic prowess, have had something to do with this? Or, does the association between Wormwood and the merkaba go deeper? Is this an ancient connection that I happened upon accidentally and mistook for my own association between the two?
As with any good mystery, I am left with more questions than answers. It seems only appropriate that this ineffable experience would happen with Wormwood, whose key word in the deck is Mystery.
What I do know is that when I draw Wormwood from The Herbal Healing Deck, some kind of magic is afoot in my life–whether I can see it or not. Sometimes, I think I know what it’s about–although, given the above story, can we ever really know the meaning of magic?
When you are lucky enough to draw the Wormwood card, my advice is to be as open as you can be to the strangeness of life. Trust in the unknown; embrace it like a friend. But don’t try to hold on too tightly, for magic cannot be bottled or captured. It can only be enjoyed and then released. All things must pass.
I will leave you with a photo of the very Wormwood field where I used to spend time during that fateful summer. The beautiful words come from the Wormwood plant spirit itself, as told to Ashley during her shamanic journey. Not only are they poetic, but they also encapsulate the ethereal, mysterious essence of Wormwood: