song for the trees

Somehow this song by band Mandolin Orange seems to touch the sweetness and longing of trying to reconnect to all that our souls once knew, feeling that loss of connection with plants and earth that so many of us have inherited. Somewhere in these sounds is also some remembrance. How much smaller our forgetting is than the eternity of the earth’s memory, than the presence still of the voices of the trees.

Many of our people have long, long relationships with trees, these kinds of steady, careful, long-silence kind of people. Craftspeople, holy people. Also musicians. Our bright, old ones can help us remember the ancient dance. It’s not lost. Not lost in the least. And our yearning for it, too, is such good medicine.

“Cargo” by Greg Kimura

(For Malidoma Some’, Loon Lake 2000)

You enter life a ship laden with meaning, purpose and gifts
sent to be delivered to a hungry world.
And as much as the world needs your cargo,
you need to give it away.
Everything depends on this.
But world forgets its needs,
and you forget your mission,
and the ancestral maps used to guide you
have become faded scrawls on the parchment of dead Pharaohs.
The cargo weighs you heavy the longer it is held
and spoilage becomes a risk.
The ship sputters from port to port and at each you ask:
“Is this the way?”
But the way cannot be found without knowing the cargo,
and the cargo cannot be known without recognizing there is a way,
and it is simply this:
You have gifts.
The world needs your gifts.
You must deliver them.
The world may not know it is starving,
but the hungry know,
and they will find you
when you discover your cargo
and start to give it away.

How to Find Spirit Helpers and Protection

spirit helpers shamanism protection ghosts allies ancestors carol southworth

You already have spirit helpers. You don’t need a shamanic weekend workshop, or a crazy trance retreat, although of course many are helped by these things. All you need is to become aware in a new way, if you are not already, what well, beneficial energies support your life.

All of us come here with affinities and pre-existing relationships. Some of these are collective (for example, my people have only survived because of the blessing of our marriage with salmon) and some are more personal–like, me and owls have a thing. I didn’t make this relationship, it has always been around and when I began recognizing that it was a relationship and not just my projections, it began to get clearer and stronger.

When we engage in spirit work, especially in ancestral healing where ghosts are implicated, the first step is always calling on protection. But what does that mean, especially if you haven’t a lot of experience doing ritual stuff? Does everyone else have all these awesome ‘spirit animals’ of bear and eagle and just not you?

Nope, you too, have these kinds of support and relationships. It is a matter of finding out what they are.

For some, these are plants, like grasses or thistle, that slowly appear over time surrounding them and swaying in breezes when they tune in. For some they are animals, a fox who is always there keeping a keen eye, or–one of my favorites–one client has a circle of giant, Paleolithic aurochses linking horns in protection. A tree that you know, a creek, these are good, good allies to work with.

Getting to know these relationships is like getting to know your neighbors when you move to a new place–fine to just go knocking and see who is around. They will likely love to be recognized and to work together consciously instead of always showing up or helping you out without your nod of thanks.

Although animals and plants show up, if they are not, at first, good to tune toward and find the energies that you love being around, especially natural ones. Like sunshine, or mountains, or quiet, or rainstorms. Whatever energies you feel help you connect, feel clean, strong, and yourself. These are the ones to invite. You can call upon these ones by remembering their presence, the quality of their energy, whenever you need their support.

We feed our spirit work with our imagination. Imagining something is often the first step toward calling it to you.

Beginning to get to know the side of spirit and protects and blesses us can be a long road, especially if we have grown up in cultural contexts that don’t recognize or even stigmatize these kinds of things. But you don’t need to go appropriating anyone else’s culture, or copying anything, or having any mindblowing experiences…just look to what already supports and sustains you. These ones are your spirit helpers, and they are ready to give you support and help your boundaries whenever you need them.

Eating the Food of Your Ancestors

salmon ancestor food offering healing irene southworthThere’s something really great about eating things that you know your people have put into their bodies for generations before you. Knowing that our bones and blood recognize the blessings  of particular plants, animals, and minerals that we’ve eaten over time.

It can be a comforting way to strengthen the connection between us and our bodies, and the well, bright human ones who lived long ago. It can also strengthen our relationships with the animals and plants with whom we have an inherited relationship.

Recently while re-reading Linda Hogan’s People of the Whale, I was so moved (all over again, she is a favorite writer) by her description of the relationships between the human community in the book and the traditional way of hunt that tied them to the whale people.

When they hunted, the women would be quiet the whole time the men were out. Everyone had to be pure in heart and mind. By then the whale would be coming gladly toward the village.
Oh brother, sister whale,” he sang. “Grandmother whale, Grandfather whale. If you come here to land we have beautiful leaves and trees. We have warm places. We have babies to feed and we’ll let your eyes gaze upon them. We will let your soul become a child again. We will pray it back into a body. It will enter our bodies. You will be part human. We’ll be part whale. Within our bodies, you will dance in warm rooms, create light, make love. We will be strong in thought for you. We will welcome you. We will treat you well. Then one day I will join you.” His wife sang with him.

All of us, no matter where our people are from, have relationships like this with the beings that we’ve eaten, that have made our survival possible. Both plants and animals.

If our current food choices (in the crazy, crazy and unjust food systems that we live within today) align with those traditional ways of our ancestors, how good to solidify those food relationships anew by eating these ones mindfully. Necessary to have a good dose of gentleness with all the energetics in our food–don’t make this a purist or stressed practice of perfectionism, but rather just let what you eat sometimes be what your people ate, and let the blessing of that happen fully for you.

For me, this might mean ocean salmon and trout of my Celtic ancestors, in seaweed soup, or maybe smoked and with tart berries alongside as my Scandinavian people do it. Might mean the grains we farmed–oats, barley. The root vegetables we dug, turnips. The wild fennel. Might be the mushrooms that we gather and stew from central Europe. Sheep’s cheese. All of our peoples have beautiful food cultures if we reach back a bit. Like all aspects of culture, many peoples today have intact, vital food cultures that continue since a long time ago. Some of us need to reconnect, or rebuild it.

If you have an ancestor altar, excellent to prepare the food, offer some to them first, and either sit with them to eat, or leave them to their party and then eat the food yourself. Notice how the taste is, how the textures are.

And if you’re really into it, see if you can remember the feeling that Linda Hogan describes–the feeling of that being you eat becoming part human, the feeling of welcoming that one to feed and be fed by the goodness in your life. Be easy with yourself, and with the process. Bon apétit.

how to choose a DNA test

ancestral healing, ancestors, geneaology, dna test, carol southworth

When exploring our ancestors, the subject of DNA tests will inevitably arise at some time or another. While there are lots of respectable reasons for not wanting to test one’s DNA (that I won’t go into here), if you are interested in testing, there are some things that I think are crucial to keep in mind.

haplogroup ancestral healing dna

It’s a good time of year to think about this because a lot of the main companies have sales right now.
(am absolutely not affiliated with any of these companies, and the opinions here are solely based on my own experience, and that of family, friends, and clients).

There are two main issues that you should keep in mind when choosing a DNA test:

 

  1. You really should choose one that includes mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA analysis.

    Our mitochondrial DNA has been passed down through the women in our maternal line since humans first became humans in Africa–and as such, we can trace the ancient migrations of our mother’s mother’s people (by the haplogroup associated with our mtDNA) throughout human history. For male-bodied people who have Y-chromosomes to go off of, the same migrations can be traced for their father’s father’s lineage.

    This is a huge deal! I have seen some very rich exploration, especially as combined with the ancestral healing work, coming from finding out about these ancient migrations, and the lands that our people lived in throughout and after the ice age, when we began farming, what animals we hunted…what’s lovely here is that many archeological sites where human bones have been tested have mtDNA correlations–so you can literally research the sites in which the people there are from your lineage, read about their houses, food, and even ritual.

    Having this knowledge is awesome, especially for those of us who have a big disconnect between our current known family and any kind of intact culture, whether that be because of migration or fleeing violence, oppression or enslavement, or adoption.

    The main tests that give you mtDNA and y-chromosome DNA results are 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, and the National Geographic Geno 2.0 . 23andMe is decent and they have an “Ancestry only” option (without health reports) that is more affordable. Nat Geo is better for ancient migrations, less good on recent ethnicity. FamilyTree is a little more complicated to use, requires some genetic jargon, but gives good results.

    Ancestry.com’s DNA test DOES NOT PROVIDE mtDNA and y-chromosome results at this time, such being the main reason why I do not recommend that you choose it.

  2. DNA tests tend to sorely lack decent information about ethnicity when it comes to entire regions of the world–so choose and supplement accordingly.

    Nothing is more disappointing than waiting on your test results and getting a measly sheet that says “You’re 98% East Asian!” with almost no further information. But sadly, (I’m trusting that I don’t need to describe racism and money and privilege in research here) for ancestry from entire regions of the world, you may need to choose a regionally specific test, or to supplement a test by taking your data from 23andMe or FamilyTreeDNA and plugging it into a regionally specific project in order to find more specific ethnic affiliations.

    I will be honest–looking into DNA tests and the possibilities is pretty disenheartening, as there’s just not good options at the moment for a lot of regions. Based on my limited experience, below are some ideas for different regional ancestry. As mentioned, mtDNA and y-chromosome haplogroups can also be helpful in all of these cases to find migrations and places inhabited by your ancestors.

    AFRICA:
    One of the best options, though more expensive, is a separate test by AfricanAncestry. This test gives pretty good regional and ethnic specificity, and awesomely it is black-owned.

ASIA:
A possibility here is to try out WeGene, a company based in China that has much more detailed ethnicity information than the main companies. You can upload your data from 23andMe or Ancestry.com in order to get their analysis of your test. I am not familiar with good options for South Asia, or the region of Indonesia and Austrialia, a place of one of the first migrations out of Africa.

AMERICAS:
Sadly ancestry from the Americas is the hardest to get specific about, and histories of racism, stealing, eugenics, etc. are all interwoven in approaches to genetic tracking.  I’ve heard that FamilyTreeDNA is the best mainstream option for tracking ancestry indigenous to the Americas. Do let me know if you’ve found other options for this that have been helpful!

Generally:
GEDmatch may or may not be helpful for narrowing down ethnic affiliations based on your raw data. It is free to use, run by volunteers, you just need a test where you can get ahold of your raw data (I know in Nat Geo you need to pay extra for it) to be able to load it into GEDmatch and see if there’s more info for you there. Requires some knowledge of genetics jargon as well.
Although 23andMe is good in some regards, it sadly has general categories like “Subsaharan African” and “Native American” without any further specificity.

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These are just some beginnings to consider when thinking about a DNA test. Wishing you luck and insight as you consider these ways to learn more about the bright, ancient, and beautiful people that you come from, whatever lands they are from.

dying and the dark of the year

dying winter death ancestors grief irene southworth

This is the time of year that there is an influx of people going to the spirit side of things, from our world of incarnated form. Many who are chronically ill, elderly, or just getting ready to go, leave in this dark of midwinter. The nights are longest now, and perhaps transitions across the river to spirit are easier.

Some of us may have loved ones, relatives, who pass over during this season, and I wanted to say a few words about how ancestral healing work can relate with this passing-over process. How can we help resolve and support the lives ending of people we know who die, whether they are well, or unwell?

There are so many good answers to these questions, but here are a few that have arisen for me as I sit with it:

  1. Learn to engage with the spirit side of the river. This is one of the biggest aids to many of us who have grown up and spent our lives in cultural systems that do not recognize spirit and don’t have belief or comprehensive understandings of how things that are not incarnated work, and how we can relate with them. The ancestral healing work that I do necessarily involves learning how to do this in your own, personal, real, ordinary way. It’s a collaborative process to figure out how you know things, and it’s simply amazing to be able to work with folks to get the memory of how to do all this back online.
  2. Find your bright, old, well ancestors, who are connected to all that came before them, and who are in good shape to receive your loved ones. This one requires some context from Daniel Foor’s ancestral healing process, but it’s truly the best way I’ve found to make sure death happens in a good way. Without the bright ancestors to come get us, dying and getting to where we need to go is a whole lot trickier.
  3. Have simple ritual to honor anyone you know who passes, and ask your helpers for support in getting them all the way home. We all have energies that we receive support from, conscious or not, that are quite animist. This may even be sunshine, or a certain flower, or the ocean. The places we love to be, the times or seasons we love, these are energies who we have relationships with. We can hold simple ceremonies where we call on those relationships and ask that they help bless and guide our relatives or loved ones to where they need to be in order to become well, bright, not-incarnated humans. We don’t want them  to hang around.
  4. Let go of people’s unwellness when they die. For our dear psyches, this part can be harder, especially if we have trauma, emotional tangles, or difficult memories of the person who has died. But it’s an important and good intent to have, and thing to aspire to, just like forgiveness is, even though it’s not magically available just because we’d like to embody it. But really it is helpful for all things if we let people’s stuff go with them, so that it can be truly composted and closed. Because they’re not incarnated anymore, there is no body to hold their traumas, patterns, illnesses–and to be blunt, we don’t want our bodies to become the portal for all that stuff. They need to transmute it over there now. So good to really practice letting them go, with the support of our guides, helpers, and loving energies that we work with.
  5. Grieve. If it occurs naturally for you, please do the kind and good thing of grieving so that it doesn’t get pushed elsewhere, becoming another problem for us. Grief doesn’t mean you necessarily liked the person; you may grieve that they had such a rough life, or that they were so mean. Let the grief move and let it be fuel to take the person where they need to go. Grieving can be so much to carry and live, and in general I think grief is a highly appropriate time to get support, be that from a therapist, a group, or a practitioner of any kind who can hold space for you as you live through it. Get the support  you need so that you can let the grief move and alchemize all that it needs to. We live in a blocked-grief culture, and it takes intention and work to not go with that larger pattern. It’s worth it.

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I offer up prayers for all who die this season, that they might find their way all the way home to the bright, welcoming lights of their old ancestors, who have balm for all their wounds, and rest for the weariness of their walking on this earth. I pray for the healing, and remedy, and closure of the pain that they accumulated here, by nature of being human, and ask that no one living needs to inherit it when they go. May those who remain here through the season feel the earth beneath their feet, and find the resources to surround them with protection, and love, and may the grief move like water, washing the soul.

thoughts on angelica: queen of light

angelica herbal protection spirit solstice illness carol irene southworth

Some of our most important medicines, because they refuse to forsake us, go undercover when the empire comes, and will take on any cloak or name in order to retain their place in the community. Just like Our Lady of Guadeloupe–if she needs to put on a christian costume in order for her people to relate with her safely, she will.

Angelica is like this, a plant we consider to be from Scandinavia but who thrives all the way across, and down into central Europe as well. She is named for angels, because of her light, and because she can protect us when we engage with spirit work.

Norwegian, Swedish and Dutch names for her are versions of kvanne, and Saami names for her are fadnu and boska, according to the plant’s age. All parts are used, flowers, leaves, stalks eaten like fresh fruit in the summer, and of course, root dug later in the year.

She is a very generous plant–listing her ‘uses’ is a project, for she is a good help to: thickness and blood stagnation, emotionally emptiness or spiritual cutoff, mental dullness, anguish and fatigue, headache from stress; with flu, chills, lung congestion, digestion, appetite (bitter), colic, liver insufficiency, weak heart, blood pressure too high or low, imbalance of menstruation, prostate problems, arthritis, nerve problems, bruising (external), and cravings for tobacco and alcohol (these all gratefully from Matthew Wood’s findings).

As with so many plant medicines, we can see the plant’s generosity and breadth in this list, and the modern mind may have trouble with how a plant might mechanically do all these things. She can do them because she doesn’t do it mechanically alone–she works with energy, and a single kind of energy can help us with a spectrum of sufferings. These spectrum of sufferings, too, if we choose to see them this way, are all things that can be related to unwell presences or beings hanging around us, and our bodies’ responses to that. 

All of these are true, and you can see why she is so important to my northern people, why they would care so gracefully for her along wild roads, and why “a home is not a home without an angelica in the garden.” Why she was named for the holy spirit.

angelica herbal protection spirit solstice illness carol irene southworthFor she is a queen, she has that kind of command. She offers psychic and spirit protection–not by fighting others for you, not by absorbing things for you, or any of the other myriad ways that protection works–but rather by being so queenly and so bright that the unwellness is intimidated by her. Toxic energies don’t feel like being around her, they leave when she arrives. What a good and specific kind of protection this is.

She’s considered a ‘shamanic herb’ for the Saami and we can see why, because when traveling among the worlds, or when engaging the side of spirit, where, let’s be honest, there’s as much scary stuff as there is here on the side of incarnation, it’s good to have a queen with you, one whose very accompaniment will send the slippery unwell beings scattered, so that you can journey with safety and confidence. She does this. For these purposes, the dried root is worn, or hung in the house, or burned a bit like incense. Perhaps a little tea is sipped, but an infusion, not decoction–decoction will bring out her earthier, more bitter qualities, great for the physical ailments, but with spirit stuff, we want a light tea or smoke.

There’s tales of her helping people face the plague, and I believe it. She frightens away not-beneficial external influences around us, as well as ones we’ve swallowed, too, ones that have become part of us. Her light chases away all.

She’s a good friend to have in these darkest days, when we feel the cosmos tip toward all aspects of the darkness, both the fertile womb as well as the nightmares, the illness, the ghosts. Power is here in the dark, on sides of both illness and health. We need powerful allies to make the whole journey productive. Queen of light, root of the holy spirit, is one such relative.

I’ve gotten some beautiful angelica root this year from the beloved Sonoma County Herb Exchange. I have made a small number of root-amulets, protection for your house or to carry with you. Should you want to purchase one, let me know by email.

ritual for midwinter solstice

solstice ritual

Here we are, in the center of the three days of the year where the sun stays still and the days pause in length before they begin growing again.

All of our people, no matter where they were from, and for most of the time that we’ve been humans, have had ceremony that is important to do now. The old stones speak of it on all continents–people have always built ceremony grounds through which the midwinter solstice sunrise plays magic with the built prayers.

There is power here, a chance to grow, and even to submit our dreams and hopes to the universe for consideration.

So what is needed ritually, to meet this important moment?

This is a good question for all of us to sit with. According to the old stories, both remembered and forgotten, now is the time of pause between cycles, a time when we must shed and release so that when the new cycle starts, we are lighter, and ready for what is to come.

Pause.

Quiet, or chanting, or a long hike, can all be a pause. What is needed ritually is a stop, wait, and be, a moment to step outside of your normal hum and let your body and your spirit align with the rhythm of the earth, the skies, all the waters and stars and animals and amazing beings that are all, right now, part of the orchestral movement.  Pausing allows recalibration, grounding, and truth to take hold. We make ceremony, in part, to pause.

Face the Power.

There is a lot of power here at the solstice, and it might seem a little unwieldy, a little scary even. Dark can be sacred and safe, like the womb or the soil, but dark can be frightening, too–we have only to look at the news to know what kinds of energies are spinning around our world at the moment. This is all true, and it’s intense.

But your gifts are needed and your life is precious. A lot of folks, known and unknown, are betting on you. Your life deserves the power behind it, supporting it. So finding a way to be with the power in a way that harnesses your life force toward what you yearn for (as opposed to being overwhelmed by the power, turning to the side, and letting it slip into the non-conscious) is essential.

Doing any ritual act with heart, no matter how simple, can accomplish engaging with the power of the season in an eyes-open sort of way.

Clarify.

Clean out your life. Take stock, and turn in the homework that you are complete with, let go of things no longer right-fitting for you. Without doing so, there will not be enough  space for the new cycle to bring in medicine, challenge, and beauty afresh.

Your home, your relationships, your work–look through all of these and give away what is no longer working, let it compost, let it wash, or burn. Make room for what will call to you in the new year, what is yet in mystery. Your life, and your purpose here, are worth it.

Commit.

Telling the power of the moment what we devote ourselves to in the year ahead is helpful. Showing up and claiming what we intend to spend our time and energy with is a big deal. Be careful, though, because what you commit to in ritual space may hold you to it, even when the long, warm days of summer may find you forgetting. So, commit simply and truthfully, and with an open heart, that you may be able to stand by your promises.

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By remembering the solstice in this way, you turn away from the dripping sicknesses of the overculture, and you turn toward that sunrise, you choose the fertile soil, you choose your own, single, precise way forward. When this turning and facing has happened, you might find, it is then time for the real celebration to begin. A celebration that is not built to ignore and placate, but one that arises from the deep comfort of a soul that has been allowed time to recalibrate with the cosmos.

the memory of wholeness: chaga mushroom

chaga ancestral healing indigenous

In the western herbal world, there is a class of plants that we call adaptogens. Among anti-inflammatories, emmenagogues, nervines, and so on, this class is quite mysterious and defying to the typical reductionist approach to treating plants by their scientifically studied constituents or biochemicals. The very nature of these medicines lies in their ‘inexplicable’ ability to help us be whole and effectively functioning. Some explain this as “they help us adapt to stress,” and truly of course many of them are great immune support, nervous system tonics, and the like.

But what I love about these medicines is that they simply turn our (western) forgetful issue of mechanistic understanding–treating everyone and everything as though we are machines with programming bumping into one another–on its head. These plants seem to beautifully and in a complex manner support our vitality. Help us be who we are more cleanly. Help lower the constant drain on our deep essence that so many aspects of our lifestyle ask from us.

Chaga is one being that fits into this realm, who will fill that deepest well. I wanted to take a moment to speak to the spirit of this medicine today. The results may be called anti-cancer, might be called immunomodulating, any one of these. All of the medicinal mushrooms live and work in this beautiful way, but today I wanted to just focus a bit on chaga, since it is such a beloved and beautiful ally to my people and has been for a long time.

The chaga mushroom grows on the birch tree, and so it is said that when we receive the medicine of chaga, she is also bringing a gorgeously alchemized form of the birch’s medicine along with her own. What we use as medicine is where she is bursting, like a burning ember, from the side of the tree. We use the wood matter of the tree with the chaga living in it.

Chaga has many applications, and as one of these adaptogens she will likely see right where you are and meet you with what you need (so many plants do this, but the mushrooms do it in a particular way, so eloquently and with lasting force behind their support).

Mushrooms like chaga support our essence, that deepest well, in Chinese medicine our kidneys, blood, brain, nervous tissue, and bones, which are all of the same energetic frequency and which are the most important part of us to be resourced. This is our base energy, our basic vitality that allows us to be incarnated. Our basic inheritance from our ancestors.

Chaga comes to that well and in the steady way that a woody mushroom grows, she boosts from underneath, in a way that can’t be swept away by tides of change and life troubles.

Like all mushrooms, chaga is best decocted, or simmered for some time (at least an hour, if you are following old country standards), and it makes sense, since it takes so much energy to make this medicine, that we use every bit of it. I am one who will double decoct my chaga and get a second round out of it, as well.

A wonderful way to make winter decoctions is in the crock pot.

Chaga truly remembers our blueprint for wholness, and walks us slowly toward it. She is one of our ancient medicines, and one of the most revered.

If you welcome some of her medicine this season, pray to her with heartfelt thanks for what she carries through the many centuries, to this worried present, what she remembers for us.