As I step out of my car and place my eyes upon landscape…
…the cool morning dew is rising into a mystical fog dispersing promises of a warm, sunny, Spring day. My journey here has been full of firsts; Even though I have haunted these old country roads of Ohio’s coal country for many years, there are always new routes to new places awaiting exploration. Lushly forested hills and hollers are interspersed with expansive hay fields and wasteland clearings. These clearings are the kind of spaces that look beaten into submission and amiss with the type of vegetation that shouts ‘Keep Out!’ so loudly you wouldn’t dare approach. On my way here I passed through several old coal mining towns so small if you blinked you would miss them. One might even call them ghost towns if it weren’t for the folks still living in them. Many of the buildings are only half alive or only held together by the firm the grip of poverty. With my windows rolled all the way down on this cool morning, the air smells sweetly of Spring’s blooming things yet feels heavy with the history of abused land and its people, of the patriarchal systems of resource extraction that leave death and destruction in their wake. ‘Not much has changed’, I think to myself.
I grab my copper still and a few other supplies that I need for the day and take off towards a large ramshackle barn perched upon a cleanly-mowed grassy knob and lovingly decorated with the rainbow flag of Pride. In order to get there, I meander through a grove of elderly apple trees and while dodging the hectic activities of honeybees, I realize that I am only a stone-throw downstream from the infamous Millfield Mine Disaster. We are just a few months shy of 89 years since 82 men lost their lives to that cave-in; it’s remembered around these parts for being Ohio’s worst coal mining disaster.
Yet just down the road from this sooty-dark history, I find myself surrounded by 151 acres of reclamation radiating like a beacon of better days and better systems. Purchased in 1979, this property is known as SuBAMUH (Susan B. Anthony Memorial Unrest Home Women’s Land Trust). It is a feminist, women-centered, intentional community in outskirts of Athens County, Ohio which is currently being stewarded by a powerhouse group of LGTBQ+ inclusive folks.
They have invited me here to guide an aromatic distillation workshop which I have keenly titled Distilling the Feminine: Exploring Archetypes through Aroma, Plants, & Landscape. I have taken a liking to leading these types of community distillations all over the country. On the surface, they serve as a primer on the ‘anatomy and physiology’ of distilling aromatic plants. However, diving more deeply into the experience, as I do when I distill on my own, these workshops provide a richly potent opportunity for both personal and community-wide self-reflection. Let me explain…
Aromatic distillation is an alchemical ritual of self-reflection…
Aromatic distillation is alchemical in nature; it is a process that relies on the four elements of earth, air, fire, & water in the transmutation of plant material from one form into another. The Alchemists of old believed their practice to be spiritual work and modern alchemical scholars have interpreted this work metaphorically; alchemy can be considered a collection of psychic processes shared within the totality of the human experience, or what Carl Jung termed the 'collective unconscious'. In this interpretation, the 'lead into gold' of the Alchemists becomes an inspirational allegory of the work required for the refinement of Self and emanation of the Soul.
The aromatic distillation workshops that I lead are, therefore, an attempt to foster a deeper relationship with the plant kingdom, a relationship full of metaphor, story, and personal myth, while simultaneously developing deeper relationships with ourselves and our unconscious. As the plant material is transformed into hydrosol and essential oil, we too are transformed. In this regard, each distillation provides a platform for self-discovery and exploration of the natural world and our place within it.
People gather for these workshops to open their hearts to interacting with the plants, the landscape, and themselves in a deeply meaningful and personal way. Each workshop is uniquely themed in this regard, and today we will be using the ceremonial process of aromatic distillation as a road map through the four elements of Earth, Water, Fire, and Air for they can so beautifully articulate the many archetypes of the Feminine that we will seek to explore; Earth will represent the Feminine in matter. Water, the Feminine in feeling. Fire, the Feminine in action. And Air, the Feminine in spirit.
A sense of place…
As I head back up to the car to gather more of my workshop supplies, I turn my head to look out over a beautifully planted and cared for prairie filled with milkweeds and other native plants about to burst into bloom. Paths have been thoughtfully mowed through the tall graceful grasses providing many enticing opportunities to admire the prairie’s wildlife up close. They meander across a few bumps and swells, down to an idyllic pond that is complete with a dock for jumping off into cool waters. Rumor has it that an old snapping turtle lives there. She is the ‘Queen of the Pond’ and has claimed that space and title for many years.
On the other side of this welcoming prairie flows Crone’s Creek; once terrorized by acid mine drainage, water-loving critters are safe to settle back in again. Its bubbling waters are shaded by the companionship of a green wall of old white pine trees (Pinus strobus). Likely planted as the land was being reclaimed, these pines emanate protection for the miles of wooded trails that lie beyond them. In those young woods you will find a resurgence taking place; trilliums, fire-pinks, may apples, and goldenseal have taken root once again. However, just like wounds mended by time and care, this beautiful landscape still bears the scars of deforestation and coal mining brutality. Nonetheless, the healing taking place on this property is an awesome sight to behold. I can feel the decades of apologies, commitment, and love placed back into the landscape. In fact, I can almost hear it like a song sung for centuries in honor of ‘Mother Nature’ and her regenerative, life-giving powers.
One of mowed paths through the prairie also leads to a tall, stately Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Its presence is so grand that it almost looks alone in this landscape. Eastern Red Cedar has a very long history of human interactions; relationships with this species were formed long before the peril brought by colonialism but persevered nonetheless. There are traditions and folklore surrounding its use as a smudge to keep evil, greedy spirits at bay. I think to myself, ‘A fitting choice of aromatic plant to distill’, and we will do so in honor of the history and healing of this land.
We finalize the last-minute details of setting up for our guests as they begin to arrive. They trickle down the hillside, through the apple grove, and into the Pride-flag-adorned barn which itself is held together by decades of heart- and body-strong women stepping outside of society’s notions of gender and gender roles. I have prepared a distillation alter space, as I usually do whether in community or distilling on my own. I have instructed participants to bring with them an object of significance to place on this sacred space as a symbol of their intentions for the day. Moment by moment the distillation alter becomes ever more alive with the stories we are about to share with one another.
The ritual begins with sharing personal narratives…
It is the full moon of May, appropriately placed in Scorpio, a sign of the zodiac well-known for its resilience and emotional endurance. This full moon is about truth and transformation, both of which are the products of hard, honest work. I look up to the heavens asking Scorpio to hold space for the watery nature of an emotional moon and the ceremony I am about to facilitate. I whisper to the sky, ‘dear Scorpio, grant us all the steadfastness to see it through’.
We each sit down forming a large circle and begin the ceremony by introducing ourselves and the object we have placed upon the alter and its significance. Person by person, a collective story is being woven from the common thread of deeply needed healing in our personal lives. Tears are being shed, faces and hearts are softening, minds are opening. I can feel it.
Introductions have made their way around and now it is my turn; I look down at my notes to ensure that I leave no detail of our purpose together unspoken. I explain to everyone my personal ritualistic approach to distilling aromatic plants and suggest to them the notion that our time and work together on this day will be captured by the distillation itself and become a part of the aromatic medicine we make.
I remark that today our intentions should remain focused on exploring ‘the Feminine’ as an archetype rather than just an engendered or embodied experience of ‘female’ or ‘woman’; that indeed the ‘the Feminine’ has many archetypal faces, reflections of which we will be seeing in the mirrors of the four alchemical elements of the aromatic distillation process: Earth, the Feminine in matter; Water, the Feminine in feelings and emotions; Fire, the Feminine in action; Air, the Feminine in spirit. I insist that there are no right or wrong expressions, questions, thoughts, or words, as long as we are not intentionally hurting one another through hatred, intolerance, and exclusivity. I comfort those who are perhaps anxious about diving into their personal narratives, feelings, and experiences within a group setting by reassuring them that creating safe space for all is at the heart of my work with aromatics.
I take a stack of recycled note paper and pass it around the circle asking each participant to take a moment to conjure up something within themselves that they are wanting to transform and write it down. ‘Just like with the plant material, this process of distillation will also transform us’, I explain. I tell them that what they write on that piece of paper never has to be shared with another soul. When they are finished writing they are to fold it up and place it in a safe place. We will be retrieving them later on in the ceremony.
Earth, the ‘Feminine’ in Matter…
Our journey begins with the element of Earth, the Feminine in matter. We set out in a single-file line, walking slowly and without speaking in order to give ourselves space to contemplate the Feminine as it exists in the physical world; in our bodies, the plants, animals, and landscape. After several meditative minutes we arrive at the stout Eastern Red Cedar standing alone in the planted prairie that just hours ago was covered in a magical morning fog. We surround the tree as I give a short biological and ecological history of the species interspersed with information regarding its modern aromatic and medicinal use. I invite everyone to pinch off a small section of one of its scaly leaves, give it a good whiff, and then place it in their mouths to chew on. Words such as ‘sharp’, ‘clean’, ‘pure’, and ‘potent’ are used to describe what we are smelling and tasting.
Each of us are going to harvest from the tree’s lower branches but before we do, I open up the discussion regarding the Earth element and the archetype of the Feminine as it may exist physical form. I begin by speaking of ways in which the resilient leaves of this evergreen tree withstand the freezing temperatures of winter. I share how they regenerate themselves every spring in repeating patterns of growth derived from the depths of the tree’s root system. I share what I know about harvesting ethics; the ‘leave no trace and take less than you need’ approach to gathering precious resources from the environment and how this land ethic stands in sharp contrast to the ‘extract and destroy’ approach of capitalism and other such domineering and deeply ingrained patriarchal systems.
I remind everyone what decades of coal mining can do to the landscape and conversely how decades of love and care can heal it back to life. Others in the group chime in with thoughts from our walking meditation; softness, like that of an animal pelt, a baby’s skin, our internal organs, or a stone worn smooth from raging waters. Sweet smelling flowers that attract noses and honeybees alike. Fertile soil, climate change, permaculture versus monoculture, imperfection versus perfection; these and many other themes were traversed as we each harvested leaves from the Eastern Red Cedar.
With 30 people harvesting, each taking a turn, it doesn’t take long to fill the copper belly and the column of the still. As the discussion continues, I take a minute to sprinkle a gift of dried mugwort around the base of the tree and whisper my gratitude, ‘Thank you, sister Cedar, for being such a beautiful vehicle for this work’.
Water, the Feminine in Feeling…
With the pot and column full of plant material we again take off in a quiet single-file line, this time heading for Crone’s Creek to collect water for the distillation. The element of Water is an ancient metaphor for the emotional realm but it is also honored in alchemy, as well as in modern chemistry, for being the ultimate solvent, the solutio. And just like water, if directed intentionally, our emotions can dissolve what has hardened within us.
Using turtle shells that were found on the property, one by one we scoop water from the creek and pour it over the plant material. As we do this, we discuss ways in which archetypes of the Feminine may be present in our feelings and emotions. Rage, protectiveness, unconditional love, vulnerability, and bravery, amongst other emotional states, are brought to the surface of our discussions.
I take a moment to share my thoughts with the group about how water has a memory and how absolutely vital it is to consider your source of water when making aromatic medicine. ‘I always tend to go for wild water’, I state, ‘rather than water that has only seen the inside of treatment plants and other people’s bodies’. They all laugh, but the reality is wretched and so the conversation turns to the Water Protectors of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the ongoing battles that Native American communities across the continent are still having to fight against the forces of colonialism and the capitalism it drags along behind it. We speak of Flint, Michigan and the children who will never be well after years of drinking contaminated water. I can feel it rising in my bones, an ancient ferociousness to defend what life is left, and I see it in the eyes of many in the group. They are feeling it to.
Fire, the Feminine in action…
The copper belly of the still is now laden with the elements of Earth and Water and the time has arrived to put the still together and invoke the element of Fire in commencement of the distillation. It takes several of us to lug the heavy pot up the long hill back to the barn where our journey started. Once we arrive, I finish putting the still together and place it on the burner. ‘Before we light this fire, let us take a minute to explore what the Feminine in Action might mean to each of us.’ The discussion vibrates with fervor as we illuminate the work of activist groups across the country and the planet whose sole missions are designed to dismantle systems of systemic oppression. Oppression of the people and of the land. Many are listed, even the intentional community of SuBAMUH who have been our gracious hosts.
Fire, the element of transformation, is capable of making sweeping change across the landscape. Even though it has the power to destroy, to decimate, the destruction it causes feeds the soil and the potential of new life within it. The same is the case within the still itself. The vital plant material will be destroyed by the fire’s heat, but in the process, it will yield the most incredible aromatic medicine.
I encourage everyone in the group to think about the power of Fire within themselves, a potent force, as we walk silently in a single-file line to an adjacent bonfire pit which has been lit and is now aflame and awaiting our approach. It is so hot it is hard to get close, so we stand silently for several minutes watching the flames devour the fuels beneath it. As the fire settles down, I ask everyone to pull out the piece of scrap paper from the beginning of the ceremony where they wrote down their inner longings for transformation. I ask them to read what they have written to themselves and, when ready, to throw the paper into the flames and watch it until it disappears into ash. The looks in people’s eyes have changed since we stood in Crone’s Creek with our rage and vulnerability. We walk back to where the still has been set up and I light the fire beneath it.
Air, the Feminine in Spirit
Depending on the plant material (and many other factors), it can take several hours for the still to heat up to the temperature required for aromatic distillation. When I am on my own distilling, I use this time to focus on the metaphors, myths, and stories I would like the hydrosol to imbibe. This is usually accomplished by looking up folklore about the plant or plants that I am distilling and journaling about my experiences with them. I also tend to incorporate special stones and other earth elements such as feathers and bones that I have found in the forest surrounding my home. They are used to decorate the distillation alter space and the condenser of the still itself. Lastly, I always pull a Tarot card or two. In this context, the Tarot is yet another reflective surface which provides the opportunity to see more deeply into myself, the plants, and the process of transformation unfolding. It is uncanny what those cards will uncover as I am distilling.
Back at the old barn, we encircle the copper still as it is heating. The condenser is decorated with a doe skull that I found in the woods in Michigan while teaching a distillation workshop there. It accompanies me on most of my distillation adventures these days. Down its forehead and onto its snout, I have inscribed the alchemical symbols for the four elements as a reminder of their metaphorical presence in all things.
I look around at the people who have gathered with me today and remark that we have come a long way together since the ceremony began hours ago. Our perseverance has guided us to the final stage of our distillation where we will meet the aromatic molecules of Eastern Red Cedar as we explore the last element of Air and the archetype of the Feminine in Spirit. Just like how we started our work together, one by one each participant is asked to share what they have learned, what ideas and feelings will be imprinted on the memory of our collective journey. They each remind us of the significance of the object they placed on the distillation alter and offer up a prayer out loud that is dedicated to both the world at large and their future selves. As they are speaking, I am shuffling my deck of Tarot cards, intently focused on their words and their entire beings. Before we move on to the next person in the circle, I pull a Tarot card and pass the image to them explaining its possible significance. Unwavering messages of love and acceptance are dancing around the circle as the first drops of Eastern Red Cedar come out of the still. We continue on like this in the final hour of our ceremony until we have collected enough aromatic hydrosol for each person to take a bottle home with them to use as needed in support of their personal, ongoing work.
Before I put the fires out, I take a moment to quiet the group and ask for their focus one last time. With our eyes closed and our intentions directed at the heart of ‘Distilling the Feminine’, I shuffle my Tarot deck and ask it for an irrefutable symbol of inspiration for us all. I draw the Three of Wands, a powerful card which suggests an active desire to learn, grow, and gain a higher perspective. In the closing moments of our ceremony, I interpret this card out loud as a symbol of commitment to the transformation the four elements and the archetypes of the Feminine have invoked. I suggest that the aromatic hydrosol we have created together from the Eastern Red Cedar of SuBAMUH is now deeply enriched by our prayers for our future and the future of humanity. I remind them the aroma can be used to support their personal convictions for moving forward towards their authentic selves and embracing the change that this brings to the world, its people, and its landscapes.
Erika will be leading a 6-day Aromatic Distillation retreat in Costa Rica in April 2020…
Distilling the Feminine
Exploring Archetypes through
Aroma, Plants & Landscape
March 30 - April 5 2020 (6 nights) ~ For more info: wildgingerherbalcenter.com