Gifts of the Forest
The forest has always felt like home to me. I didn’t grow up in the desert, and although I have adapted, there is still something that calls to me up in the Arizona forests. Maybe it’s the comparative silence, the sound of the soft breeze becomes enveloping as it rustles through the branches of tall grandmother pines. Maybe it’s the smell, the crispness of the air that is filled with countless layers or various leaves and pine needles and fungi and the alluring mixture of it all. Maybe it is the constant discovery, the endless wonder of beautiful rocks and new and old plant friends, and scenic views that are breathtaking in their limitless beauty. It is always calling to me.
In a recent trip to the woods, I was gifted some Usnea from a tree in the forest after a rain storm. It was sprinkled all around this one tree we were camping next to. Each time I walked by, I would see another piece laying there, freshly fallen from the tree tops, as if just for me. When I looked up, I could see this one tree had a whole colony of Usnea growing along its upper branches.
Usnea is a lichen, so part fungi, part algae. It is 2 organisms, in a symbiotic relationship, where each part benefits from the other. This is such a beautiful idea to me, as it creates something that beneficial the trees and the forest by purifying the air.
Robert Rogers quotes Stephen Harrod Buhner in his incredible book Fungal Pharmacy in speaking about Usnea, “Its healing qualities are specific for the lung system of the planet-the trees. There is an ancient compact between Usnea and the trees, and coming into contact with the deeper spiritual aspects of Usnea, one makes contact with ancient powers that existed long before humans.”
Truly, it is of ancient beauty and powerful potential gifts. It has many traditional uses, from stopping nose bleeds and staunching wounds, to diapers, and toilet paper. Yet its essence is something that should be held in high esteem. Usnic Acid, one of the isolated compounds inhibits the growth of many infectious bacteria including those present in conditions such as strep throat, impetigo, and tuberculosis. This is an important discovery as the danger of anti-biotic resistant illnesses is growing and this may be a viable alternative to some infections. Usnea works differently than synthetic antibiotics and according to Rogers, “Disrupts the cellular metabolism. Thus the cells run out of energy and die.”
Usnea also has some analgesic properties, which I am very interested in. It is a folk remedy for arthritis, so I plan to make an infused oil with my last year’s Fir needle harvest. Not only are both of these good remedies for achy joints, I can imagine myself back in the forest each time I use them. Before this, I have only used Usnea in an aqueous infusion, which is silly because Usnic Acid and other components are poorly water soluble. Surprisingly (at least to me), oil extraction is a great way to use Usnea, and can be used internally this way as well.
The spirit and essence of Usnea speaks to me of purity and protection. Not so much the kind of purity that is sterile and devoid of life, more of a natural purity that exists in natural places that are self-influenced through phases of decomposition & death along with life & growth. Dirt isn’t always dirty, and the wild contains a wholesomeness and innocence even though it can be viciously brutal.
There was Mullein in flower all around, and I gathered some to bring home. Although it is incredibly abundant in that area, I can only bring
myself to take a few leaves at most from each plant. Surely if I had some great necessity or illness I could have gathered much more, but out of respect to the plants and the Earth, I only take what I need.
Whenever I gather plants in the forest, or in the wild, I feel a different kind of relationship with these plants that is difficult to put into words. I wouldn’t say it is more or less than with my garden plants, just different. The energy of the forest is different of course than my small cultivated lot, but there is more. Maybe it is just being surrounded by so much intense beauty, but there is this extra layer of reverence and honor that overcomes me when I gather wild plants. Of course I am always filled with gratitude when I am able to collect plants to encourage healing, but there is something different about my role in the relationship.
With cultivated plants, I have more of a feeling that they are “mine.” This does not come from a place of possession or ownership, more that they are my babies and I love and care for them! If they need water or mulch or to be trimmed or anything else, that is my responsibility. I have the Mama mentality when it comes to my garden.
Yet with wild plants, I feel the reverse. I feel they are watching over and caring for me! Of course I try to be reciprocal in my gathering, and offer a gift or some kind of exchange to the plant or to the entire forest or wild area. I often get emotional with gratitude as I take time to connect with the plants in such a quiet, serene and sacred place.
Although I don’t live as closely to the forest as I would like, perhaps a bit of distance has made me appreciate those spaces on a much deeper level. It changes me, each time I visit, and I come home feeling reset and reconnected once again.