I went into the woods to find answers to life-long issues that have kept me from feeling completely at home, grounded and connected. I participated in a ceremony with powerful plant medicine and traveled through time, lived in the present and past, inside my own mind and in others’. I called upon my ancestors and family. They joined me. With help from long passed grandmothers and grandfathers, the metaphysical, unconscious, subconscious, a Shaman and others who shared this sacred space: I saw, experienced and understood. It demanded much from my body. It was exhausting work but I was prepared. Fear and pain that had lived in me far too long were literally wrung from my body.
After the first night of ceremony, I joined a group walking in the woods. Their quest? To find the largest tree on the thirty-acre property. We descended into a ravine, down a steep slope, to a river filled with November’s chill and rocks that rose above the current, allowing us to traverse the shallow yet wide expanse. On the other side, we climbed out and entered a leafless but densely packed forest. There, I saw, in the middle of a clearing, a tree so wide that four of me could not have reached around fully. I hugged it anyway. Yes, I’m a tree hugger. That’s who I’ve become.
It was a Black Locust, a member of the pea family, it has flowers that can be eaten and that contain the same nutrients as legumes. It was also the same species I had on my balcony. Months earlier, I found and inoculated locust logs with Reishi mycelium. The mycelium converts remnants of dead or dying trees into the shiny, red, fruiting bodies of the Reishi mushroom, also known as “The Mushroom of Immortality”. Immortality in a Tree. This mushroom works on the immune system, ramping it up or calming it down depending on what is needed. It also works to quiet inflammation – what scientists now believe is the cause of all disease. Used by Chinese and Japanese Herbalists for 4,000 plus years, it was once reserved for Emperors. Now, I offer its medicine to family, friends and others in my herbal shop called Spiral Herbal Remedies, which can be found on my website.
It is uncanny how much this walk reminded me of another ceremony I experienced a month earlier. When I finished my Herbalism Apprenticeship, we gathered to celebrate. A fellow healer in a white needlepoint dress chanted in Spanish and led us in ceremony. We traveled down through the earth, through a body of water and into the woods, where I came upon a clearing with another giant tree. In my mind, I walked into the tree and met my ancestors. They said, “We have been waiting for you.”
How strange that this place could reproduce my previous experience so perfectly. How strange that the tree in the clearing is the same tree I use to grow my medicinal mushrooms. These are the mushrooms I had been “walking with” as an Herbalist for the previous six months. The mushroom that transforms dead trees into medicine, brings life to the dying, and in my vision, my ancestors to life.
Large trees often symbolized The Axis Mundi – the conduit between worlds, levels of consciousness, The Tree of Life, a Cross, a Temple on a hill, a Steeple, a Minaret, the Caduceus.
The second night with the medicine was different. In my mind’s eye, I experienced a wall of light, patterned with pink iridescent lines and yellow dots. From the wall emerged a three-dimensional rectangle and it began to spin. Then, more emerged to the left and right of me, spinning in unison. After a while, it all became liquid and I felt like I was floating in a boat on a rough sea. I am sensitive to seasickness. This was not pleasant.
The visions shifted when the shaman laid his hand on my forehead. An ancient text appeared in my mind; parchment colored with faded black lettering. Hieroglyphs? They were symbols, not letters. They appeared, disappeared and reappeared when his hand met, released and was again placed on my forehead. So odd. So brief. I remember wishing I could have snapped a picture so I could look them up. But that wasn’t the point. Sometimes working out the puzzle is the point. Weeks later, I had a dream about them – upside-down pine tree shapes, a pyramid on edge, a feather, a spiral, slashes like falling rain in high wind, a flattened/widened “n” and an eye. I’m still deciphering them.
There was more work to do when the visions cleared so I set my mind to forgiving ancient wrongs. The physical experience of the medicine brought forgiveness into my body in the same way the pain and fear had been extracted. It was intense, felt deeply, a stretching, torquing, lifting. When the ceremony was over, I knew things had shifted.
The next day we talked. Breakthroughs were shared. Coincidences discussed. Healing. We ate and talked for hours, moved from person to person, listened, gained insight. The stories were different yet the same. Pain and fear carried since childhood, pain and fear from the recent past, pain and fear in the present, pain, and fear that had its origins generations ago.
Scientists have found that trauma is carried generationally. It changes our DNA and is reproduced in our offspring. It moves forward unchecked until we heal it. But we knew this before science. Some of us need proof, however. As a former Registered Nurse, I appreciate proof. I was there that weekend to end the pain and fear in me which would, in turn, heal the past and prevent it from moving into the future.
When the weekend was over, I walked the short distance to the river, breathing deeply, relaxed, grateful. I spotted the ancestor-tree on the other side and smiled. In that very moment, a small flash of light blinked from its center. A reminder. They were there. They remained with me. It was the same flash of light I had seen in my mind’s eye before the healing ceremony started, before I took the plant medicine, sitting quietly, waiting, eyes closed. An LED blue, in the center of my mind’s vision; all black except for that single flashing light. The flashes surprised me, keeping time with my heart. On and off, on and off. What is this place, I thought? How is this possible?
I’ve grown accustomed to strange happenings, coincidences, confluences. I’m paying attention and taking note so they don’t flutter through, forgotten. I find myself saying, “Of course,” often. Of course that happened, of course I met this person, of course I ended up in this place, of course things fell apart or fell into place, of course. It gives me peace in the toughest times and multiplies happiness.
Healing happens when we pay attention. Healing happens in our minds and in our physical bodies with the help of plant medicine. Most bio-medicine has its origins in plants and fungi. Herbalists work with the entire plant because they contain everything we need. As if the plants know. What if they do?
It’s important to remember that plants are food and food is medicine too. What we put in our bodies can poison or heal us. We have forgotten what food is, what plants are, why they exist, why they need us and how very much we need them. WE ARE INTERDEPENDENT. But we have bought the con – (con)venience. What we consume with our mind is equally directive. We have been sold on the quick and easy solutions to our hunger and longings. We fill our bodies and minds with things that make us suffer. The mind-body connection exists. That’s where ceremony comes in. And belief.
In the middle of that second night, I remember thinking I made a mistake. “This is not who I am, not what I do.” But that thought passed through me. I was spending the weekend with a powerful healer, a Shaman of many years, a Shaman that, coincidentally, a friend had known since childhood. I was spending a weekend in a space between the conscious and unconscious, between the real and unreal, the metaphysical and physical, the unknown and known. I was meant to do this but I was overcome by fear. Fear had made its home in me. It was my job to shed it. So I did.
I calmed myself by realizing I had come to a place where I had lived my entire life. The place where artists find inspiration, where imagination thrives, the place of daydreams, of remembering, déjà vu, premonition, of feeling deeply. It is a place where we perceive threads that link us to everything in the universe. Where we are able to see the big picture. When we’re not rushed, when we slow down, when we pay attention.
It is the place of magic, of wisdom and knowing. The place my ancestors spoke of. The place where coincidence is reality, where the uncanny sits comfortably, where the unexplainable makes perfect sense, where things overlap and people share the same story. It is inside of me, inside my neighbors, my family, my city, my country, and other countries. It lives in people who look like me and in people who don’t. In those I know and those I don’t. It exists in plants and animals, the soil, stone, water, air. It lives on this planet, in the stars, the moons, other planets, the galaxy and whatever exists beyond. It is in the patterns that repeat around us, patterns that remind us that there is something bigger.
It goes by many names. We have all experienced it. We don’t need ceremony or medicine to access it but they remind us. When we pay attention. When we listen. When we respect and honor it… we thrive. It can’t be controlled, it is always there, we all have access when we pay attention.
I spent the weekend with powerful medicine, healers, and a Shaman deep in the woods surrounded by others who had also asked to be there. This was foreign territory. I skirted along the edge of a space I dared not enter before. The unknown, the unfamiliar, and the ungrounded conspired to lift me from myself.
I remember saying out loud that night, “This is my home.” I had come home.
About The Artist
Donna Cleary's interest lies in traditional healing practices. A descendant of Irish Healers, she reclaims knowledge that was scrubbed from her familial consciousness due to the British occupation of Ireland and her family's emigration during the famine. Donna's adult life started as an RN working in a major teaching hospital in Boston. After 13 years, she left to raise two children while studying and making art. In 2010 she returned to school, studying undergraduate art and then received her MFA in Fine Arts in 2014. Coming full circle, she is now a trained herbalist, focusing on the belief systems, rituals, ceremonies and objects that accompany medicinal vehicles. She creates fertility sculptures from crocheted yarn and 1950's era domestic paraphernalia, (symbolizing the cyclical patterns of existence), videos culled from documentation of healing ceremonies, photography of ephemeral objects left in the Irish landscape, ceramics and social practice. She reflects on the ways of the ancient Healer, Wild Woman, "Witch". Cultural anthropological investigations restore and affirm the inherent power of the feminine and the unseen labor of the domestic space. Donna's work questions perceived boundaries between instinct and cultural construct. Heterotopic spaces are engaged as her work hovers between the physical and psychological, external and internal, past and present, mythic and real.
These sculptures reference women’s work and are a celebration of making, care based activities and labor. The maternal, the Healer, the body, functionality, weight, stretching, expansion, and distortion are encapsulated in these tactile, human-scaled objects. Duchampian gestures are found in unaltered objects from the domestic space, marked only by years of use and being discarded. These objects are coupled with labor-intensive appendages or skins that obtain meaning in their process.
Find out more about Donna's work at www.donnacleary.net or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.