Of Serpents, Wildfires, & Lemon Balm: My First Journey into Aromatic Distillation

"I dedicate this distillation to my dear friend and mentor, Jade Shutes, who continues to inspire and support me in my relationships with the plants, my work, and my being. She who opens doors...she who holds up a kindly mirror so that I may see my reflection in a soft yet steady light." - Erika Galentin

 My first aromatic distillation in progress. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). The Medicine Garden, Hocking County, Ohio. September 9, 2017. 

My first aromatic distillation in progress. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). The Medicine Garden, Hocking County, Ohio. September 9, 2017. 

In preparation for the unknown...

Several months ago, in celebration of my 38th year around the sun, a dear friend of mine bestowed upon me the most extraordinary gift. Little did I know, until this day, that distillation offers such a unique and majestic opportunity to honor human-plant relations; I had yet to go solo on this profoundly medicinal journey. Now a proud owner of a spectacular yet humble 10L alquitar copper still, I was full of first-flight anticipation. However, just like with many plant medicine adventures, preparation is key.

First preparatory efforts led me to the hardware store in search of vinyl tubing, a garden fountain pump, stainless steel tubing clamps, and a pex ball valve to facilitate the pumping of cold water up to and through the condenser. Having all of my supplies at hand, I was ready to do a little plumbing.

Constructing the pumping apparatus was delightfully intimidating at first (plumbing is not my forte), but in actually it was a relatively simple and surmountable process. The pex valve, an innovative piece of the plumbing puzzle (shown in the middle photo below), was inspired by the ingenuity of Thomas Easley of the Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine. Without the pex valve to control the flow of water from my robust little garden pump, the condenser easily overflows...influx rapidly outspeeds outflux. Finding the right balance of water flow was indeed a balancing act. Lesson one in the art of patience required for aromatic distillation. 

From Left to Right: vinyl tubing; the trustworthy pex valve; the condenser with even water flow.  

Now that I had the water balance just so...and after tightening all the plumbing clamps to cease their initial leaking...I was ready to clean and prepare my still with a rye flour distillation. In addition to sealing and purification, this incredibly important first step was also an opportunity to 'learn my still' prior to a possible waste of plant material. I was able to assess my heat source (a camping stove with highly adjustable flame control); I mapped out where the high, medium, and low heat settings were located and practiced how I would need to monitor the flame for a slow and steady plant distillation. I was also able to get a handle on the flow of water to the condenser, a good set position for that trusty ol' pex valve, and how much ice I would have to add to the water source throughout the distillation in order to keep it icy cold. What size jar should I use to collect the distillate and how high would I need to stack my fire bricks to secure it under the spout? I took notes on everything to be referenced for my first actual plant distillation. This careful, thoughtful preparation was illuminating, confidence-building, and really paid off...  

From Left to Right: The camping stove burner (see the smiley face on the still?); rye flour distalite; taking notes about EVERYTHING!

After letting the rye flour run its course and rinsing out its residue from the inner anatomy of my still, I was ready and prepared for my very first plant distillation. The following musings are almost verbatim from my distillation journal...ramblings, thoughts, feelings I experienced on this shiny-new adventure. The following detailed account is incredibly personal, which I believe truly represents the safe, intimate space that a self-reflective practice like distillation can provide. 

A reason to distill...ritual and prayer.

I woke this morning prepared for my first distillation experience. I have yet to choose which plant to work with, but I am acutely giddy and excited. It is 7:00 am and I am sitting with my morning coffee in the back garden contemplating my intentions for the upcoming plant-medicine experience. I have asked myself, 'Why and for what purpose am I distilling today?' I feel as though I should give this process reason. 

Reason #1: It is the 9th of September, 2017 and hurricane Irma is devastating Florida and Houston, Texas is still drowning from her predecessor Harvey. Almost the entire western half of the United States is burning alive, my husband among the brave wildland firefighters doing what they can to control the devastation. White supremacists groups have removed their masks, being ushered into the limelight with support from our current political circus and its media groupies. Ethnic minorities and People of Color continue to be shot by police as they drive home with their loved ones. There is an epidemic of heroin and fentanyl overdoses piling up in morgues all across the state of Ohio. Transgender people currently serving in our military have been told that they are no longer acceptable, a financially burdensome blemish on the face of our rapacious department of defense...as if they ever truly felt accepted anyway, even as they put their lives at risk for us all. Hate, anger, environmental destruction...the existential shit storm is real. With my white cisgender heterosexual American privilege curdling under my skin, today's aromatic distillation, my first distillation, is a form of ritual and prayer that I dedicate to my country and all its inhabitants.

Reason #2: Working as an herbalist and supporting the healing processes of those who seek my council, I am keenly aware of my avid disdain for my own physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. I am constantly navigating the 'do it all now or die' tendencies of my choleric personality...burning the midnight and daylight oil until there is nothing left for 'self'. When it comes to my own ongoing path of healing, I have been contemplating rather than doing for far too long now. I am feeling fed up with my own excuses while simultaneously trying not to be too hard on myself (which is a ravenous skill of mine). Fortunately, or unfortunately, there are other plant-healers out there like me - the wounded healers, as Cathy Skipper and Florian Birkmayer have been explaining through their work with aromatic distillation, alchemy, and Jungian Depth Psychology. Today's aromatic distillation, my first distillation, is a form of ritual and prayer that I dedicate to all the wounded healers of the world, including myself.

Reason #3: Although potentially seen as illogical or fanciful to many and a form cultural appropriation to others, I am drawn towards interpreting 'messages' from the universe as divine guidance. Usually this guidance comes in the form of sightings or experiences with the natural world that provide a spiritual reflection for some query or conundrum I am currently experiencing. Just yesterday, as I entered my bathroom to put a load of laundry in the dryer, I was greeted by slithering, pulsating, mound of ringneck snakes massing for their overwintering journey into the walls of my home. I have never seen so many serpents in one place, especially indoors. Once past my initial disturbance and unsuccessful attempts at removing them one by one with nitrile gloves and glass mason jars, I became amenable to their intuitive and instinctive behaviors on my bathroom floor. I took a moment to recognise the unusual experience I was having as something to witness rather than disturb. And then I remembered the Staff of Asclepius, the serpent-bearer, student of Chiron, healer and physician. I felt as though I was being reminded that I am on the right path. Self-doubt can often get in the way of me feeling so. Today's aromatic distillation, my first distillation, is a form of ritual and prayer that I dedicate to the path, my path, the serpent path, the path of heart.    


9:00 am: Who shall come with me?

I am fortunate to be surrounded by such abundance of medicinal and aromatic herbs. For the past five years I have been building soil, managing the landscape, and introducing allies to my tiny little property on the edge of the woods. I am traversing the gardens...towers of passionflower vines, motherwort that has gone to seed, calamus root that appears to be enjoying the early autumn rains. I keep searching, remembering my reasoning. Who of you speaks to the prayers I wish distill? Who of you would like to come with me on this journey towards the light?

Just as the sun lifts itself over the ridge of the holler, the morning dew transforms into wafts of steam rising from large lime-green mounds formed at back of the garden. I pause, smiling from the tingling, warming sensation in my heart, in my guts. 'It is I...', spoke Melissa, 'I shall come with you this day'. A perfect companion indeed...      

 Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) glowing in the warmth of the sun. The Medicine Garden, Hocking County, Ohio. September 9, 2017.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) glowing in the warmth of the sun. The Medicine Garden, Hocking County, Ohio. September 9, 2017.

10:00 am: Honoring the plant, honoring the harvest

Instead of hastily rushing for my pruners and harvesting basket, I am taking a moment to reflect on the company of lemon balm. Even as a ‘rational’, scientifically-minded clinical herbalist, I am not in search for pharmacological truths today. I am less interested in ‘how lemon balm hydrosol can be used for my or others benefit’ and more focused on the meaning and intention that lemon balm brings to the ritual and prayer of this distillation. Although this herb and I have worked together before and I know where and how it likes to grow, its uplifting citrusy-sweet aroma, even its clinical applications, I am open to the reality that perhaps I don't know this plant at all. Not in this capacity, not in ritual or prayer. It is from this place that I search for supportive meaning. These are just a few of the sources I turned to this morning and some interesting excerpts that highlight and mystify why lemon balm is joining me today:

 A well-used stack of practical and esoteric advice...

A well-used stack of practical and esoteric advice...

I reach for Culpeper first:

"It is an herb of Jupiter, and under Cancer strengthens nature much in all its actions…it causes the mind and heart to become merry, and revives the heart…and drives away all troublesome cares and thoughts out of the mind..." - Nicholas Culpeper, The Complete Herbal and English Physician Enlarged

Hmmm...more about Jupiter?:

"The most essential element of Jupiter’s symbolism is expansion – the capacity to fill space. Jupiter is the planet of spiritual cognition and revelation…vision and communication with the Divine, and realization of the omnipresence of creation...Jupiter represents the power to make things move and happen.” - Dr. Samuel Sagan, Planetary Forces, Alchemy, and Healing

Putting Jupiter and Melissa together:

"Melissa…allows for a sense of space to come into an individual’s life again if she has been feeling trapped and hopeless. The herb is for those who need to be loved but are unable to receive, as well as for those who give out so much to others that their needs get put second place…Melissa works on the heart chakra, opening out this centre and allowing for love to enter and for the possibility of unconditional love to exist…It is for those who feel aimless or are having a crisis of meaning in their lives." - Elizabeth Brooke, A Woman's Book of Herbs

Safe space, expansion, acknowledging and accepting love, tending to one's own needs, clearing the mind, healing to a wounded heart, communication with creation, alleviating hopelessness, making stuck or aimless things move in the right direction, honoring the path. Jupiter. Lemon balm. YES!!! Kismet! How serendipitous! 

With that, it is time to harvest...it is now 11:00 am. The dew has lifted and the warmth of the sun has dried all signs of moisture from the surface of Melissa's leaves. 

12:00 pm: Distillation begins with fire and ice...

I have set up my still outside next to the fire pit off the back porch. The belly of the still has been filled with a measured amount of filtered water, perched upon a camping stove with multiple extra fuel cells (don't want to run out of fuel!). The grill and column are in place, where the column slides into the cauldron (what I like to call it) has been wrapped with plumber's seal tape to prevent the escape of steam and precious aromatic compounds. It is ready to receive Melissa.

Based on the nature of the plant material, I have decided to do a steam distillation (as opposed to a hydrodistillation). Despite its inherent strengths, I have found lemon balm to easily bruise and rancidify. I begin to gently yet thoroughly pack the harvested lemon balm upon the grill inside the column, making sure to not overdo it. To be honest, I have not weighed the total amount of herb I am adding to the still...even though I have been instructed to do so. I just wanted to feel it...feel how much the still would hold.

Several times now I have advised myself against being too zealous, packing too much plant material in...I want to keep adding more and more and more! However, I am reminded that with too much plant material I will inadvertently clog the system, preventing steam from passing through and risking a total blow-out fuck-up of epic proportions. So, I have to be slow, patient, embracing and acknowledging that more is not going to be better. This is hard for me to do.

I finish packing in the lemon balm, giving thanks with every handful as if placing my heart song into the still with it. It smells amazing already and I haven't yet turned on the flame! I fit the condenser onto the column, making sure that it is level so the water will hold evenly, finishing up with plumber's tape around the seal. It is time to turn on the pump and get the water flow balance right. Thanks to the rye flour cleaning, I have done this before and am feeling inspired, accomplished, confident. 

I attach the vinyl tubing in the inflow and outflow, and submerge the garden pump into the icy-cold water of the large canning pot I am using for bucket. I have plenty of ice on hand...and will likely need at least another bag to sustain the temperature of the condenser water throughout the entirety of the distillation. I have noticed with this particular style of copper still, the condenser can get very hot, significantly warming the water passing through it and it behooves the distillation to keep that water as cold as possible.  

I cross my fingers and plug in the garden pump. Water is rising at a steady state, quickly filling the condenser. I jiggle the pex valve around to slow the inward flow and allow water to drain through the outflow before pouring over the sides of the condenser. It takes a minute to get the flow right (if that's not a metaphor for life, I am unsure of what is). Now that it is right, it feels like the perfect, steady rhythm of a drum and the perfect, steady movement of the dance. Everything flows.  

It is now 12:55 pm and time to light the fire. I set the flame to medium and commence the next stage of my ritual.  

1:00 pm: The ritual of waiting...

The flame is set to medium heat, and it will be some time before the water heats up and distillation begins. This is a perfect opportunity to record my experiences in my distillation journal, a kind and safe way to speak my truths.

I write about the trouble in this country, across the globe…the dark and terrible trouble. I write about my gratitude, my privilege, and how fortunate I am to be in this place and time...with lemon balm by my side. I think of the fruition of Sovereignty Herbs, an absolute landmark in the geography of my journey as an herbalist. I write about my work as a clinician, mentor, writer, course developer, teacher, and student. I delight in the reality that even though it is a painstaking road, every day is about the plants. I am on the path of heart and I have not faltered. I am not alone. I write of believing in myself and paying more attention to self-care and nourishment, just as I have always believed in the plants and how I strive to do right by them in all my actions.

I think about my dear friend and mentor Jade, many times over, and how fortunate I am to have her in my life. I write a dedication to her in my journal…'this one is for you Jade’. I think of my handsome and courageous husband out in Montana battling the bewildering wildfires. He is good with fire and enjoys the element immensely. I should know...I am made of fire. How fortunate I am to have found a partner in life who loves me so ferociously, so unconditionally. It is not an easy job, managing the wildfire that is Erika, and he does it well. I write of my  friend, kindred spirit, and business partner Brooke and how she continues to teach me about being a better human being, speaking softly with strength, connecting people with each other. I think of how she gracefully tolerates my intensities, my overwhelm, like the softest rock I have ever known.

From Left to Right: Brooke Sackenheim of Sovereignty Herbs, Jade Shutes of The School of Aromatic Studies, and my husband of the US Forest Service.

It is now 1:23 pm. The cauldron and column are getting hot to the touch…any moment now the lemon balm will emerge transformed...and so shall I.

1:30 pm: Transformation in its most delicate form...

It was if the still was giving birth. At first just a drop or two at a time. Then suddenly an outpouring of empowering fragrant distillate indicated to me it was time to turn the fires down. In this exalted moment, with all my excitement and anticipation, I knew that I needed to keep a close watch on the events taking place. I put my journal down, enraptured in the present moment, and like a metronome kept pace of the process unfolding. There is little doubt now on how quickly fire can destroy, even in its purest attempts of transformation. Note to self…too much fire burns until there is nothing left to thrive.

 The first drops from my first aromatic distillation. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). The Medicine Garden, Hocking County, OH. September 9, 2017.

The first drops from my first aromatic distillation. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). The Medicine Garden, Hocking County, OH. September 9, 2017.

The aroma was intoxicating, sweet lemon drop candy, honey for the heart. I could feel it in every cell of my body.  It was like inhaling a spring sunrise, cool and bright and crisp and vivacious. I was reminded of my own vitality…in fact, it was illuminated. I was experiencing the sensation of peace brought forth by believing in it.

It is almost 2:00 pm and my half gallon mason jar is half full. I am realizing this is the same glass mason jar I was using to collect the ringneck snakes in my bathroom just the day before (yes, I had washed it thoroughly since then). I recollected the experience of leaving them be to manifest their desires. The sleepy serpent energy was rising and once again I envisioned the Staff of Asclepius.

"May the aromatic compounds released on this day, carry my prayers on the farthest reaching winds; those that can reach me in the deepest parts of myself, and those which can reach the darkest corners of humanity."

I turned off the heat at 3:00 pm after a quart of luscious lemon balm hydrosol had emerged. I touched the glass to judge its temperature, and then quickly moved it away from the still to place its lid on tight. I would have to wait for a while for everything to cool down before dismantling the operation.

 Halfway through the distillation. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) hydrosol is illuminating my vitality.

Halfway through the distillation. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) hydrosol is illuminating my vitality.

What had I just experienced? I have been so deeply moved, so deeply present. Yet it was such an intimate, delicate touch. I can feel it all over and around my being. In this moment the peace is more real than the struggle.      

Closing the circle...

During the time I was waiting for the still to cool down, I had space to write down and reflect on my first aromatic distillation experiences (an invaluable experience in and of itself). However, the ritual of this distillation did not end with me turning off the heat. I won’t bore you with the details of cleaning my still with water and citric acid. But what I will say is that the cleansing process provided me with much needed space and time for contemplation, assimilation.

The cleaning of the still is part of the ritual. I could honor its anatomy, shining the way only copper does. I could experience the memory of sweet Melissa’s whispers to my heart when we found each other this morning. I envisioned her spirit quietly returning to the garden…turning back towards me with a wink and smile in the dusky light of the holler I call home.

My first aromatic distillation proved to be as profound as I imagined it would be. Although I have heard and am working with the power of my prayers to ‘self’, I am uncertain if they have made it to others or as far as my intentions had planned. Nonetheless, to those who have followed my journey thus far, I will leave you with a song that has been stuck in my head ever since. There is hope for me, hope for us all. This lemon balm distillation has reminded me that there is a silver lining...