Summer Travel Journal: Maryland

Gathering and Growing: An Herb Journey

It was on a frigid spring day that I saw, tucked into the corner of a bulletin board, a flyer advertising a festival in late summer: The Chesapeake Herb Gathering.
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My interest in plants had been steadily growing over the last year. In my youth, I had enjoyed the practice of gardening, but I pretty much killed everything I grew. I lacked the presence of mind to tend plants successfully. Time passed and my efforts waned.
In 2016, as I started to focus more on my health, I came to a deeper understanding of the impact of food on my overall health. I made a commitment to myself: I wanted to not just eat better through wiser choices about food, I also wanted to have a direct hand in cultivating my own nourishment. So I started growing a number of herbs on my back porch — tulsi, fennel, curry, lavender, sage, rosemary. They were tiny plants in tiny pots, but I loved caring for them. The following year, I started to explore lesser known herbs such as ashwagandha, feverfew, and yarrow.
I wanted to learn more. I knew a little about the healing properties of certain herbs, but not much. And I had been seeking to work more in depth with plants: I wanted to make tinctures, salves, ointments, potent teas for a variety of ailments. When I saw the ad for the herb gathering, I knew that this was what I had been looking for. I wanted to be amongst others who shared my love for healing in communion with the natural world. I desired a deeper connection to my roots, so to speak.
Chesapeake Herb Gathering was monumentally, precisely, what I was seeking, and I bought a ticket immediately.
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Fast forward to the Gathering. I’m driving down Route 70 with a trunk full of camping gear, moving toward the mountains at breakneck speed. I round the last bend — the road turns to dirt. There’s a farmhouse up ahead and tents scattered around the shattered remains of a colossal tree. Upon further inspection, this fallen beast is home to an assortment of snake skins, as though the serpents had all slithered in unison, selecting this altar for their situs of rebirth.
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After I’ve unpacked, I wander downward, toward the array of workshops and vendors. I’ve made it just in time for one of the workshops, which is about flower essences. The workshop leader is an herbalist who spends a lot of her time working in New Orleans, helping indigent people of color recover their health and fortitude through plant medicine and energy healing. Helping the oppressed regain their strength and power through direct acts with the natural world.
She explains the reason we work with flower essences: because the spirit or nature of the flower can be a valuable ally. Different varieties of plants, just like different breeds of cats and dogs, evince different personalities and temperaments that, if we connect to them, can bring out those positive qualities in ourselves, such as bravery, resilience, or gentleness. She details how to draw out a flower essence, and leads us through a guided meditation on the sunflower, which she had connected to previously. And we collectively divine, asking questions and interpreting answers through an herb tarot. She tells us to ask:
What are you ready to let go of?
Then:
What will you need, after letting go, to restore you to your highest Self?
And finally:
What do you require for absolute resurrection — what will help you lead the utmost fulfilling life?
As all of these questions have been on my mind, I relax back, eyes closed, contemplating transformation and trying to go further. I envision the sunflower, its head turning eternally toward the sun, loving and longing for the warmth of the fiery body that gives it life and name. I crawl up the long stalk and up into the sunflower seeds. And I watch it wither as the chill comes, as the sunflower bows down, lidless eye dimming in the dull light of the fading autumn sun. Life, then death. All in love, all in service. An act of devotion, from a being of incredible stature.
And then — a workshop on ritual work, encompassing wise practices for the use (or decision not to use) mugwort and datura, two extremely powerful plants who have, much like ayahuasca, been abused by gentrified Westerners in ways that disrespect their power. Expanding on the ways in which we use herbs in connection with the elements (e.g., burning sage (fire); steeping herbs for teas (water); offering prayers and mantra to plants with our spoken word (air)).
And after that — a workshop where a woman danced, breathing, jumping, and running in place, symbolically giving birth, symbolizing life’s passionate struggle, finally learning the importance of self care. She passed on the wisdom of balance, with a little humor thrown in, communicating messages about balancing our need to give of self, to nurture others, with our need to care for the self amidst the fast-paced demands of a chaotic world.
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The mutual love and respect for every being present at the Gathering was palpable. Teachers, students, men, women, children — we were here to share and learn. And everyone welcomed learning, on every level and range of wisdom, with no subterfuge. There were no yogis on power trips bragging about what they could do. (I’ve been to a few yoga festivals. There tends to be an undercurrent of competition and elitism. Here, I attended an kundalini yoga session at dawn, which was humbly provided and collectively embraced, with no focus on perfection or obsession with physical discipline, simply given and embraced in love.) There were no vendors trying to sell you on snake oil cures. (From one vendor, I bought dried reishi and a young elderberry plant, after a leisurely conversation with the owner with no pressure on my interest in buying; from another, I expressed interest in an lion’s mane tincture, but after discussion with the owner, I realized that tinctures would not best suit my needs at this time.) This was a space for good people. I received a bear hug from a woman who had been talking about how much she loves to hug. (At that, more people started requesting hugs from her!) There was a dynamic of loving acceptance and genuine benevolence.
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Nightfall brought a chill upon the land, but we clustered around a firepit while a DJ spilled out deep beats and sonorous vocals. Later, in my tent, I meditated and recited mantra. I perused my notes from the day’s workshops. And slumbered deep, lulled by the moon’s faint light above my tent.
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The second day was no less enjoyable than the first. I was lucky enough to attend a workshop on womb wisdom. This was the sort of workshop that, five years ago, I’d have scoffed at. I’ve always hated the menstrual cycle, because I bleed heavily and experience severe pain. But the perspective on the womb as a place of fertility, both physically and metaphorically, as a place symbolizing the seat of creativity, was one I needed. To understand that it’s important to pay attention to your body when it is in pain. The physical suffering we feel can be meaningful because sometimes it points to whatever psychological and spiritual suffering we may be experiencing, too. I learned that certain types of pain may correspond to certain things that are suppressing the higher Self.
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And more lessons on self care, and self love, and of the equal necessity of giving thanks to beings which have given so much to us, but given little in return. And talks on working toward building relationships of longevity rather than making superficial grabs at personal gain.
In short, I found myself nestled in a community of healers who look deeper, think deeper, understand deeper. Given my lifelong struggle to love and accept myself unconditionally, being in this environment was restorative in a way that I *knew* I needed, but couldn’t fully *comprehend* that I needed.
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In a quiet moment, I realized I wanted to return home early to incorporate what I’d learned. As I drove away, I passed by the final ceremony: everyone gathered in a circle, celebrating unity in community.
I’m so incredibly grateful for the healing I accumulated through this incredible journey.
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