I AM THE WILDERNESS BEFORE THE DAWN
Seasons Greetings from the Botanarchy Hermitage!
If you are reading this missive of solstice mirth, then congratulations my comrade! You have made it through the year with your faculties intact. You have learned to see in the dark, honing your night vision like the spotted owl to whom dusk brings both illumination and sustenance. In a year of thresholds that seemed to appear one after the other like a hall of mirrors, we learned that there is always a region more nether than the furthest boundary we thought possible, and one by one we leaped through them into spaces less and less trodden. Lao Tzu, our anarcha-taoist Bard of Boundlessness (who might not have been real and is possibly a woman) is famous for saying “I am the wilderness before the dawn”, and shucks if we don’t all fall somewhere on that spectrum after a year spent in the liminal boondocks. Immense, pathless, shaggy, remote, lunar, lawless, ancient, and a little unyielding… these aren’t just adjectives I underlined in my recent re-read of Nathaniel Hawthorne (did it for the ancestors), they describe the very sensation of the precipice we are dancing on between darkness and light, the wilderness before the dawn. I think of another gender-bending mage of mine named Iggy Pop who crooned “In a world gone crazy, Everything seems hazy, I’m a wild one.”
A few nights past, I dreamt that my shepherd Athena leaped upon the roof of my shed and devoured a squirrel whole, and in waking life the next day I awoke to find an injured squirrel on the brink of crossing over, nestled in the very space he trod upon in my dreams. When you become the wilderness before the dawn, the wilderness gossips with you in the remote primeval night, telling you all about the comings & goings upon her craggy countenance. My mentor and alchemy teacher Lorie Dechar is fond of saying that “alchemy is the art of using your night vision in the daytime, and your day vision in the nighttime” (stop right now and go procure her new book The Alchemy Of Inner Work, which lands on New Year’s Day). If you forge a relationship with the waning of the light, she courts you right back and bestows upon you great gifts, like night-vision goggles that enable you to pierce through the veil into the beyond.
In ancestral traditions that sweep across continents from the British Isles to East Asia, these are the months of the year we are closest to the Underworld and the currents of mystery that arise from darkness and origin. The chthonic yank of the Underworld is ever present (hello mortality, my old friend), but in the leafless bower of winter we feel its gravity and sense its power most. The falling leaves banished to the bowels of the earth, the condensing of ice as if touched by the hand of the Ice Queen herself, the reversal of sap, the opacity of Nature’s pantyhose… this is the time of year that obscurity and descent make their medicines known, and in the disorientation of decomposition we reckon with gravity and the waning of the light. Our ancestors turned the distress & unease of lying in wait under the shadow of a darkened sun into ribald celebrations of death and rebirth, where social hierarchies were reversed or temporarily dissolved (here’s looking at you, Saturnalia!), and bloodied sacrifices were made to hasten the return of the sun. This is the time of year we honor that which has passed, that which is yet to come, and that which may never come again, like a triple-headed goddess looking in three directions at once. The Underworld - like fate, tao, and the matrix of qi that animates and moves through all of life - is a web that has no weaver, existing both within and throughout, a continuum of contraction that permeates all things. Can you feel its hastening tug?
In Five Element Medicine, winter encapsulates the archetypal energy of the element Water, a sacred pause of concentration and contemplation that marks a drawing inward and guarding our fluid reserves, a time to tap the marrow of life and suck it deep into our bones to nurture and gestate the seeds of our will. No stranger to the Underworld, water has an affinity for the shadow realms, sinking to the depths and encompassing the mysteries of life and death. As the water element throughout the cosmos brings reserves, raw power, and a will to move forward undaunted whilst tapped into a mystical current of flow, the water element within imparts fathomless resources and the discretion to use them justly, moving in sync with the will of the universe to ensure that we remain in right relationship with the needs of the body and the needs of the land. You can read up on her myriad medicines here.
The Water element is embodied in our kidneys, sex organs, bones, and bladder - the seats of our ancestral life force that flow like a river onward from one generation to the next. The kidneys store what we call Jing, one of the three treasures bestowed unto humans by nature, where the imprint of the ancestors rests in the body, the seed potential of our inherited constitution. The primordial dark matter known as Jing 精 is loosely translated as ‘essence’ but best understood as the alchemical marriage of DNA and sexual energy, serpentine stockpiles of lifeforce that provide the blueprint for the material basis of the human body and the nest egg for fueling all that we long to gestate in this lifetime. Along with Shen - spirit - and Qi - energy - Jing is one of the Three Treasures of the Eastern Medical Arts, and it is the will of this work to nurture, protect, cultivate, and sustain it. I’m fond of thinking of Jing as the liquid substrate that yokes together one lifetime to the next, the commingled essences of my ancestors coming together to weave the strands of fate, like the ancient Greek Moirai who spin, weave, and cut the fabric of life.
"In heaven, Jing is the milky way. It is the light of the sun, moon, and the stars. It is the rain and dew, sleet and hail, snow and frost. On earth, it is water, streams, rivers, oceans, springs, wells, ponds, and marshes. In people, it is Jing, the root of essence and life. The body of blood and flesh."
-Immortal Taoist Ancestor Lu
-Immortal Taoist Ancestor Lu
This time of year, I shack up with my ancestors and drink up from the ancestral well of Jing flowing through me. In the liquid substrate deep within my bones and in the otherworld that is tangled with ours, distant yet imminently present, there are stories in the dark, and in tending them through stillness we recognize the inherent strangeness of life upon this planet and can rest a little easier that the sun always returns, undaunted. Their potent symbols live inside us, and it is here we can look as we navigate the liminal. In placing our awareness in these labyrinthine places we can feel the pluripotent possibility of the wilderness before the dawn. What strands of continuity live through you?
Botanarchy Herbs + Acupuncture will be closed this week as I zhoosh my Jing in the redwoods with my dogs & my love. Botanarchy continues to soldier on through the pandemic as a safe space to navigate tumult & discomfort by the grace of the five elements. In the New Year, there will be a smattering of new offerings, such as alchemical acupuncture & dreamwork sessions, a book (goddess willing), and a monthly publication on plant magic & seasonal alchemy. If you know anyone that longs to read orphic hymns to mushrooms or wants to forge a relationship with the cycles of the land, then please - forward them this email and let them know they can sign up for these mythopoetic passenger pigeons here. I judge how closely I am living my tao based on the quality of patients in my practice, each of you a sparkling mushroom cap dotting my forest. Thank you for the numerous blessings of your miracles & company.
With evergreen boughs of empyrean endurance,