On Authenticity

This is an essay I wrote for Plant Healer Magazine earlier this year. It’s a hot topic right now in the herbal community, and something that Kate Clearlight and I will be addressing at length in a class that we’re co-teaching at the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference next weekend. If you don’t know about TWHC, check it out (and book a last minute ticket) HERE

Authentic: noun.

Of undisputed origin; genuine.

Origin: late Middle English: via Old French from late Latin authenticus, from Greek authentikos ‘principal, genuine.’

Buzz-words. Like ‘forage’ and ‘artisanal’, and all the other words that take over our collective consciousness with a meme-like speed, these words start out meaning something. Then, because of how quickly trends spread in our current electronic age, what starts as a well-meant thought spreads to the next person, and then the next, until it seems like everybody is using it, and then it no longer has the weight it used to. It hangs there like a dead word, an empty shell of a word, and the original meaning has beat a retreat for the hills. The word and its repetitive re-use loses its authenticity. In an ironic twist of fate, ‘authentic’ has started to become a buzz word itself: meme-fied and scattered around the internet with happy looking people flinging their arms out and quotes about how to ‘be authentic’, or to ‘find your authentic self’.

I thought nothing of it until a few months ago, when an article a friend wrote was plagiarised (almost word for word) on a herbal website. We had an in-depth discussion both about the plagiarism but also that ideas don’t really happen in a vacuum, and I got to thinking about what it is that differentiates between copied content and authentic content, when so many of us herbalists have such similar goals. And also, on a deeper level, what is it that makes a person, their work, and what they contribute to the world, authentic. In this essay, I’m attempting to take a closer look and explore what authenticity truly is, why this is important, and also how we can all work towards finding it in our own work. Continue reading

Water + Benediction

Surrender. Our bodies feel water and surrender to it in a way that is almost archetypal: that feeling of stepping into a body of water gets us all on a cellular level, as though the amoeba that are at our ancestral root are still somewhere in there wiggling with joy at returning to state of one-ness with everything. There’s something so immensely healing about water, and how we let go and allow the greater world around us in when we’re floating in it. But, this is not something that we often do willingly or naturally. 

Most of the time in our lives, we push for things. We are in a hurry to get places, or to finish our to-do lists, and so we push ourselves forwards as quickly as possible, often with a running dialogue of everything we need to get done. There’s pressure there, and its immense, and it usually comes directly from us. What happens when we do this is that we extend outside ourselves: it’s a push forwards, a drive, an expansion.  Continue reading


On water: the phlegmatic temperament

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Water as an element:

Our planet is blue and that is evident mostly when you look at it from far away: the glow of the water that covers 3/4 of its surface shining out into space like a beacon. The clouds, comprised of that water’s vapour hovering above the surface as a harbinger of that which gives life, nourishment and sustenance to all of us here. It is the water here that makes this planet what it is, that allowed the first life, millions of years ago, to emerge from the waters an amoeba with feet, crawling to land and crying out its first breath. And so we do the same each time we are born, crawl to land and cry, removed from the water that sustained us. And throughout our lives, we are called back to the water in one way or another, be it the sea, the river, the lake, the snow.

It is water that represents us: not just our planet but our humanity, making up, as with the surface of the earth, 75% of our body’s mass. We are water, and we are the space between our cells, and yet for some reason, we forget this. It is the water in us that moves, constantly, ever changing yet always the same. Plasma, moved by external forces and pressure becomes interstitial fluid becomes lymph becomes plasma and all along the way it is the same substance underneath it all, despite the name change. Water in the world becomes vapour becomes cloud becomes rain or snow or sleet or hail and hammers its way back to earth, then moves, pushed by outside forces, moved by pressure, tumbling over itself to seek out its lowest point again, always seeking to settle, and yet never settling, because settling brings stagnation, and stagnation brings decay.

It is the water that contains our wildness: that which we cannot tame and cannot know in full. We’ve tried to understand the water, can algorithm-ise to our hearts content and think we’ve got it solved and then out of nowhere a rogue wave will appear and blow all previous theories out the water. Like trying to capture a wave, or capture something that is at its most alive when moving, to still it is to create stagnation. To hold it in is to kill what makes it a mystery, and so in this world of knowledge and understanding and dissection, I hope that we never solve the mystery of the wave. And yet it is this mystery that makes us fear, resent, trash it. Pumping all of our crap into it, as it absorbs and takes it all. We can’t see it so it’s not there and yet it is there and we are responsible for it.

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Flood myths, dating back to the beginning of human history, sent by a deity to cleanse the earth, rain crashing down for 40 days and 40 nights, a giant wave swallowing us whole, wiping away everything that was, leaving a clean slate. In the watery depths exist entire civilisations, covered by water, cleansed from history. And we do this on a smaller scale when we perform ritual purification, be it a bath, a swim, an ablution, a baptism, a mikvah. Religions worldwide hold the water sacred, from the Ganges to the Tiber to the Styx, water marks boundaries, passages, the divine. It carves canyons into the desert, laps at mountains and turns them into sand, contains the deepest mysteries on this planet at a crushing depth. Water doesn’t have a time scale; it encompasses time, remaining the same through its changes, holding age-old mysteries in its depths, the archetypal myths of our planet that never really age.

Simple in its configuration, always there in the background despite solutes, salt, dirt, debris, plastic, blood cells, hormones, sewage, lipids. It is all that stands between life and not-life on this planet is one little molecule, passive in its surrender and movement and yet capable of sustaining all life as we know it, of giving life or ultimate destruction, all encapsulated in a single O and two little H atoms. Changing but the same, polar and yet constant, moving but still, and that from whence we came and to which we will always return, like a wave lapping the shore then tripping over itself to return, again, to its source.


Water in the personality. 

Water, so open and changeable, is the hardest element to write about in the personality. Mainly because it manifests in so many different ways. We’re all influenced by our environment, the place we live (places have overall temperaments too!), our families, our upbringing, but phlegmatics appear so different based on these variables that it can be difficult to tell sometimes, until you look deeper at their motivations.

Did you know that all the trigonometry skills in the world cannot explain rogue waves because water it still too unpredictable? I know this is frustrating to the science nerds, but as a human who loves a lingering mystery, this makes me happy. Looking out at the sea and its un-measured depths gives me a sublime sort of pleasure: there are places that we still have not tamed. Emotions, as with waves, cannot be predicted or controlled. They move of their own volition and they, too are untamed. I think it’s one of the reasons that the rational sect gets so irritated with emotional types— there’s no structure to it, no reason, it doesn’t make sense. If you’re the type of person who can push emotions aside to get the job done, that’s fantastic, but to the phlegmatic that simply isn’t a possibility: emotion is the filter through which they see the world, and in order to get the job done, the emotions must return to their neutral baseline first.

Phlegmatics navigate the world through their feelings. Where a melancholic will think something through and make sure it makes logical sense, a phlegmatic won’t act until it feels right. This can be confusing to those who operate based on logic, but understand that this is simply, like reason, another way to see the world; another language. It is as alien for a phlegmatic to forge ahead when something doesn’t feel right, as it is for a melancholic for whom there is no rational reason to do something. This language of feelings is one that phlegmatics use to navigate the world around them: cooking by feeling, playing music by feeling, taking driving routes by feeling. It’s often a finely tuned art, a response to stressors in the environment that others aren’t aware of. I know a phlegmatic cook who never sets a timer for her steak but always knows when its done. Always. You could study it, see if maybe she’s sensitive to a different sound, or a change in smell, or just accept that when she feels the steak is done it is and leave it at that. A phlegmatic painter will paint until the painting feels right. I, in formulating, do so feeling as though my insides are on the outside, and know that a formula is done when it clicks into place, and settles into a calm. How can this be explained rationally? It can’t, of course, and this is one of the reasons that phlegmatics often feel so incredibly misunderstood in our rational society.


Water, in its natural state, is open and receptive. The universal solvent which absorbs everything that comes into it. Phlegmatics, too, are incredibly open and receptive, solvent, seeping out in to the world around them, taking on the things they come into contact with. Easily influenced by their environment, sensitive to sounds, smells, colours, and even things like wifi signals, chemicals, the emotions of those around them. And the thing is, these things affect them, often deeply. This is both the phlegmatic’s strength and their weakness. For it is in the openness that they feel the world around them and understand things that lie beneath the surface, but because of this openness they are incredibly sensitive to overstimulation.

Information processing is something that happens on multiple levels in our bodies: our senses take in information, our digestion takes in information, our circulatory and respiratory systems exchange information constantly. We have barriers and boundaries in place to help us disseminate the information coming in in a usable way. For example, the gut lining is that which separates self from not-self in terms of food being digested. These are the front lines of the body. Boundaries, and ability to separate self from not-self, are what make us comfortable. If the boundaries get too lax then too much information gets in and this leads to systemic overwhelm. This happens in the digestion, in the mucous membranes, even in the capillaries, and it also occurs in the senses and nervous system.  Phlegmatics, tending towards openness in the first place, often have a lot of trouble with information processing, be it in the world (as sensory input) or in our guts (as food). Laxity in the membranes that separate self from not-self means open floodgates and a whole bunch of information coming in all at once. Which is often uncomfortable. To deal with it, they will then, often, make themselves tense and stressed as a means of holding off the world, so that they don’t notice as much information. That is, they make themselves more choleric to survive. 

We’re all subject to adrenaline stress, but for the phlegmatic, it can be completely detrimental. The tunnel-vision that accompanies adrenaline stress shuts down the open-connected-to-world feeling, and as a result, the phlegmatic is cut off from that which gives them strength. Humour me for a second and picture the last time you were super stressed out. Did you expand into the world around you then? I’m assuming the answer is ‘no’ because, by nature our stress response is constructed to narrow our focus. Conversely, however, too much stimulus when feeling wide open can lead the phlegmatic to feel complete overwhelm by all of the information coming in. Because of this, phlegmatics have a hard time living in places that have a lot of sensory input, because this overwhelm stresses them the hell out.  Which isn’t to say that the phlegmatic person needs to live in a bubble but they need time to recharge, time alone, time in nature. They need to feel relaxed and safe enough to unfurl their feelers back into the world, because that is where they draw their energy. If they have to curl in on themselves for protection for too long, they will start to feel incredibly out of balance, exhausted, emotionally volatile, and panicked.


‘You’re too sensitive’ is something phlegmatics have been hearing their whole lives. At some point, often they’ll try to hide this sensitivity, make it seem less prevalent, because it’s something they feel persecuted for and eventually ashamed of. In our highly choleric society, the receptive, open state is dismissed as pointless, excessive, un-productive. If we could only look at the world rationally all the time then our problems would be solved. And yet, without this sensitivity we have no empathy. Without empathy we don’t have bridges built between people, we don’t have compassion and understanding. We don’t *actually* build on what came before, but just continue to move forwards in our own, often opposing, directions*. Where cholerics move forwards, phlegmatics connect. They connect, themselves, to the world around them, they connect people to other people, concepts to other concepts, they make people feel understood, accepted, heard. It’s not that they even need to care, per se, but that it’s something they do naturally.

Phlegmatics are often described as incredibly empathetic, and yes, when they’re in balance, they definitely can be. But instead of calling phlegmatics empathetic, I’d say that the phlegmatic has the most natural potential for empathy: they are the most likely to emotionally understand where someone else is coming from. Because of this, people will seek them out to talk about their problems. In communication ,the phlegmatic often searches for common ground and emotional understanding. Think of this— water seeks to settle itself, to mold to its environment. It is influenced by pressure, becomes agitated, but its individual molecules will always draw downwards and seek calm. It’s not something that they consciously do, and in fact if you were to describe them as peacekeepers they’d often not realise it or even think about it in that way.

But phlegmatics ARE natural peacekeepers, not because they actually, naturally want peace, but, its because they have this natural ability to get along with people. It all goes back to that molding thing: a body of water between two different shores will unite those shores, despite their differences. Because it seeks to mold to one, and the other at the same time, in that middle water is an understanding of both. Each side feels comfortable with the water, because the water, molded to it, says ‘I get you’. In interpersonal communication, this is something the phlegmatic does naturally too. Chat to a phlegmatic about something difficult and you will feel understood— they’ll nod and say ‘oh that must have been so hard’ or ‘I get it’ or throw out a comment that makes you think that they have been there too and then only later realise that they might never have been there at all, but have made you feel so acutely understood that it eased your burden anyway. It’s healing, on such a basic and fundamental level: truly connecting with someone and making them feel heard, understood, and not alone. It’s utterly genuine too, which makes it even nicer. Because of this, people naturally seek their phlegmatic friends out when they need someone to talk to, and because of this, a phlegmatic, if out of balance, can often feel like the universal dumping ground— the person everyone comes to to vent. This is one of many reasons that it’s important for a phlegmatic to have healthy boundaries.

Healthy boundaries are so incredibly important for phlegmatics— not only so that they can prevent total overwhelm from happening, but so that they can interact healthily with the world around them. Phlegmatics who lack boundaries in a clear way will, well, they’ll seep into the world around them. But there’s something deeper than will go amiss when a phlegmatic’s boundaries fail: in not knowing where they end and the rest of the world begins, they will feel as though the connection they seek is missing, and feel incredibly lost as a result. When a person has intact boundaries, they are aware of where they end and the world around them begins. Where they end and another person begins. When boundaries fail, the world can get pretty scary to a phlegmatic, and they’ll seek out boundaries, pushing further and further to try and connect with another person. I think of it in this way: water naturally seeks the edges that contain it. It’s a natural thing, as it spreads. It’s passive, moved by pressure. When contained it will move within that container, but not run into the world around it. When the container smashes, the water goes everywhere, seeking to settle down, seeking that edge that will hold it. When a person has strong boundaries, aware of where they end and another person begins, they can connect with another person without feeling lost, and don’t necessarily feel as though they are losing themselves.


The phlegmatic side of people has been systematically shut down, for years, in society. For a lot of phlegmatics, this leads to an imbalance of sorts: not feeling like they have a RIGHT to feel things, if there’s not a rational reason that comes along with it, that can be explained in point by point detail. One of the things that happens when a person can’t express their emotions is that they build up, until they start pouring out in a deluge. It’s the phlegmatic who gets pushed and pushed and pushed until one day they lose their absolute crap and start screaming and crying and unleashing YEARS of pent up emotional buildup. This is one of the main points of contention between phlegmatics and cholerics: the choleric loves pushing for fun, because that’s their natural state; the phlegmatic HATES being pushed, because it makes them feel pressured. Eventually it’s not a joke anymore and the phlegmatic loses it at the choleric, and then the choleric is hurt because it was taken out on them in a personal manner. But that’s the thing, when you push a phlegmatic, it IS personal to them. Because we don’t get much practice in society in expressing our feelings clearly and directly, it can be really hard for phlegmatics to learn to do this. It can feel terrifying to them, and it’s often easier, instead of expressing it directly, to let it leak out the sides, or to radiate off them in waves. It can feel frustrating to those around them, because they want to just hear it directly, but understand that after years of being told that their feelings aren’t rational, or having them dismissed entirely, it can feel like an invalidation of their very self, and to re-train themselves to just come out and say something can take a long time. The best thing you can do for your phlegmatic is to allow them the space to feel things, without trying to explain it or make it better. The flip-side to this is that some phlegmatics don’t take the time to figure out what’s underneath their emotion, which makes it really difficult for people to understand what’s going on. For all of us, emotions are more of a guide to let us know that something is wrong, not the actual thing that is wrong. But because phlegmatics filter life through their emotions, it often feels like the end point to them. It’s not, there’s always some sort of reason for the emotion, and figuring that out before communicating it makes life a lot easier for the people around them. With regards to this, here’s a hint: ‘I don’t want to’ is a perfectly valid reason.

And therein lies the crux of things: being so fluid, a lot of phlegmatics have a hard time figuring themselves out. On top of being influenced so easily by the world around them, there’s also years upon years of being taught that their point of view isn’t valid. When it comes to the point where they do start to express themselves, it often doesn’t even occur to them to think of their own free will as being a valid reason. “I like it that way”. “I don’t want to do that”. “I hate crowds and would be miserable so I’m not going.” We don’t need there to be reasons other than our own desire to do something, or not do something. To a lot of phlegmatics, figuring this out can be a revolutionary act, but its the beginning of a process that strengthens their sense of self, and in turn their boundaries. This sense of self is strong and powerful enough to handle the constant information onslaught. They also have coping mechanisms: ways to express or drain the excess when it gets to be too much.  There is this point where the force driving movement starts coming not from outside but from within. In this regard I cannot stress how necessary it is for the phlegmatic to find, and move at, their own pace.

Where cholerics have a natural understanding of time (I daresay it was cholerics who decided to divide the day up into uniform quantities in the first place), phlegmatics (and sanguines) have a much more fluid sense of how time works. Where you’ll have cholerics in society say that being late is disrespectful of other people, phlegmatics simply don’t see time in the same way. It’s not a matter of respect or lack of respect, it’s that time does not move in measurable increments to phlegmatics (and sanguines). Have you ever lost yourself in something and time just disappeared for a minute? Or noticed how some things feel SO much longer than they do on the clock, and some things fly by? Imagine that your life was like this constantly. While time moves in strict measurable increments for cholerics and melancholics, for phlegmatics and sanguines, it’s a bendable fluid thing. To a choleric, time is important. Time is money— a choleric phrase— and so every moment spent waiting is a moment that is costing the choleric. Time is not money to phlegmatics. Time is an arbitrary measurement of something that is fluid. Often, phlegmatics are so used to moving at society’s pace, while being incredibly stressed about it, that they don’t even realise they HAVE another pace to move at. When left to their own devices, however, they’ll tend to meander more, maybe spend longer getting ready than most, or walk at an entirely different pace to that which they would with other people. When left to explore this pace idea for themselves, they’ll start to find a place of internal time motivation, where they can move quickly or slowly as they please. People often assume that phlegmatics are slow, and yes, some are in comparison to cholerics or sanguines, but really, phlegmatics just need to be self-motivated in terms of speed, to move at the pace they see fit.

When I picture a healthy phlegmatic it is this swirling mass of feeling that stands separate from the world yet connects to it intimately. That ability to see, connect and understand is something that we need more of in society, and that we need more of in a strong, powerful and healthy way. Contained by its boundaries, lit up from within by its strong sense of self, the phlegmatic temperament is the feeling, noticing, expanding soul that heals not because it wants to be a healer, but because that’s simply the effect it has on the world around it. It’s a rich inner world, a rich underworld, where numbers don’t fit, and rationality is left at the door and there are monsters under the bed, and shapeshifting, mysteries and mythical creatures. The phlegmatic’s inner world, their sensitivity, openness, serious nature is something that we all have within us to varying degrees, and something that at its most basic, keeps us human. Connected to the collective, the dreaming, and the world of myth, it is the phlegmatic state that opens us up to the hidden. It is from here that we feel the most deeply, connecting to each other and the world around us. While the choleric state is the great ‘I’ of separation, the phlegmatic is the ‘we’ of the universal— that which is under the surface running through all of us. Different yet the same, coming from and returning tot he same place again, just like that single drop of rain that eventually becomes an ocean.

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In balance: 

A balanced phlegmatic is incredibly easy to talk to, putting people at ease, making them feel comfortable, understood and accepted.

Balanced phlegmatics are often open to hearing other peoples’ points of view, and find it easy to understand where others are coming from, even if they don’t necessarily agree.

Out of balance: 

An out of balance phlegmatic can have this thing with no boundaries, where they constantly seek stronger connections with people: longer hugs, deeper eye contact, the things that make a ‘connection’, while at the same time, making the people around them very uncomfortable.

Because of their aversion to expressing things directly, it can feel really manipulative when an out of balance phlegmatic wants something, because they won’t ask or express things directly.

Out of balance phlegmatics often think that they are being empathetic, but are in fact projecting their own emotions onto a situation.

What to know if you are a phlegmatic: 

Pay attention to the way that other people communicate. While it’s perfectly natural for you to communicate in terms of feelings, not everybody does this and it can actually make people uncomfortable. 

Take some time to figure out your feelings, figure out where they are coming from and why, before communicating them to others. This serves a couple of purposes: first, it clears it up for you, but second, it gives others something concrete, because people need concrete. 

If you’re meeting someone choleric, be aware that they see time differently to you, and make an effort to be on time for them. 

Find and do some sort of self-healing method. It will help you differentiate yourself from the world around you, but it’ll also give you more clarity and confidence. 

What to know if you have a phlegmatic in your life: 

Phlegmatics hate arguing. If you get to the point where they lose it with you, then you’ve pushed them far far beyond their comfort level. This is important to keep in mind because some temperaments (*cough* cholerics *cough*) enjoy the feeling of having a fun heated discussion, but this just plain sucks for a phlegmatic— it makes them feel cornered and attacked.

Empathy doesn’t mean agreement. That is, just because your phlegmatic makes you feel understood doesn’t necessarily mean that they feel the same.

If your phlegmatic starts leaking emotions, if its like being around an emotional storm cloud. Ask them what’s wrong: they often have to *learn* that it’s safe to express these things and that can take time. 

Give your phlegmatic space to feel. It can take them some time to sort out why they’re feeling the way they do, and in that space, there might be lots of emotional outbursts. If you’re, say, a choleric, then it can sometimes feel excruciating, sitting with a phlegmatic who is [often crying] and trying to sort through why they feel so wretched, but in allowing that, without trying to fix it, without trying to tell them what’s wrong, just being there while they sort through their feelings, you’re showing that you support them in their natural state, and this is one of the greatest gifts you can possibly give. 

*Case in point: American politics right now. 


****Extra special thanks to Val Paul and jim mcdonald for hashing this one out with me****



On fire: the choleric temperament.

Keep in mind, that nobody is 100% any temperament. We all have aspects of all four in us, but we’ll tend more towards some than others. That doesn’t mean they’re solely like this, and depending on what the secondary temperament is, these traits will change. Paired with air, for example, choler becomes much more flexible, more easy going. Paired with earth, choler becomes harder, more set in stone. We’ll get into the combinations in a couple of weeks, but I wanted to put the reminder here because it’s easy to forget that this stuff, like everything, is not a set-in-stone science. We’re all different, have different combinations of things, different life experiences that bring them out, different socialisation patterns that make our behaviours different. It’s all in the nuance… 


Fire as an element: 

A flash in the pan, a slow-burn, the thick slow crawl of lava as it crawls down a hillside. A meteor, a lightning strike, a raging churning forest fire. Fire as an element is ferocious in its display. Place matter in front of it and it’ll burn through it on principle, because it can, because that’s what it does, the very purpose of its existence is to consume. But what comes after that consumption? Volcanic ash is fertile ground, the scorched earth rich with ash and minerals. Forest fires leave room for plants to sprout; some plants can only sprout after the seeds have been burned.

Let it get out of control, however, and it is all-consuming its ferocity: a supernova, blasting through forests without a back-thought, blasting through homes and collected memories with the flick of a wrist. And let’s not forget about man-made fire: an abomination, really, in its ability to decimate, melt structures, leave a crater in the earth and our collective history. Our world’s collective shell-shock for the atrocities we can commit with fire rattles through us and serves as a warning: never again. Fire out of control is a horror because it doesn’t just destroy, it decimates. It melts skin from bone and building from foundation and is the alchemical force that renders substances unrecognisable from their original form: something we want in small quantities but on a massive scale is abhorrent.

Transmutation: it’s the fire in alchemy that turns lead into gold;  it is the holy fire that purifies, and it is fire that transforms: dough into bread, house into home, lead into gold, lump of rock into liveable planet, affection into passion. A fire in the hearth heats water, bakes bread, warms a house, is the light around which we gather at the dead of winter. It is fire at the center of the earth and fire at the center of our solar system. Without it, life as we know it would not exist. It is that burning passion that drives all life forwards, the fire of will; the fire in the drumbeat of the heart, rapping out the rhythm of life with each ferocious beat.  Continue reading

On Air: meet the sanguine

Need to catch up?
Temperaments part 1.
Temperaments part 2. 

*When it comes to temperaments, we are never just one. It takes a combination of all the elements to give something life and complexity, so we all have elements of all of them, however we’re going to have much more of some than others. So if you read this and you think ‘this sounds like me but I’m not ENTIRELY like this’, then that’s good because it means you’re a complex human with nuance, not a robot. We usually have one primary temperament, a secondary that influences the first, and then a tertiary that influences the primary two slightly. Depending on who we are, there might be evidence of a fourth and there might not. I, for example, display very little earth/ melancholic characteristics at ALL, however I have surrounded myself with them in my friendships, most likely an attempt to balance myself out! This is one of four basic temperament explanations.  

Want to learn more about temperaments? Come to jim mcdonald’s class in LA at the end of January!*


Air as an element: 

It’s an easy matter because the gravity of air is so small, but when the winds shift, they do so rapidly and without great thought or effort. It is this lightness that we love air for. Inhale deeply as a breeze carries upon it the smell of orange blossoms on a warm spring day. On that warm breeze comes good tidings, chattering of news, the rustling of grass, and it bolsters you with its good spirits. That breeze picks up, lifting your hair, and how can you not lift your arms up out to the sides and throw your head back with abandon. This is the universal pose of freedom, and it is the air that is in many ways the most free: while other elements have to fight gravity, inertia, lack of fuel, the air is unencumbered by the solidity that inhibits movement. The air can move as it pleases, when it pleases. Freedom.

The air brings good tidings, news from afar, storms, fog, dust clouds. Air is a ripple, a tinkle of laughter. The sound of the air is a great howl as it gusts down from the mountains kicking and uprooting everything in its path. And then it disperses, changes direction with the beat of a butterfly’s wing. Continue reading


On Earth: the melancholic temperament

(Temperaments, part 2)

If you haven’t read it, here’s part 1.

*When it comes to temperaments, we are never just one. It takes a combination of all the elements to give something life and complexity, so we all have elements of all of them, however we’re going to have much more of some than others. So if you read this and you think ‘this sounds like me but I’m not ENTIRELY like this’, then that’s good because it means you’re a complex human with nuance, not a robot. We usually have one primary temperament, a secondary that influences the first, and then a tertiary that influences the primary two slightly. Depending on who we are, there might be evidence of a fourth and there might not. I, for example, display very little earth/ melancholic characteristics at ALL, however I have surrounded myself with them in my friendships, most likely an attempt to balance myself out! This is one of four basic temperament explanations.  

Want to learn more about temperaments? Come to jim mcdonald’s class in LA at the end of January!*


Earth as an element: 

Earth: the solid, the stable, the structured. In symbolism, it is represented by the number four, which incidentally is the number of the carbon atom which makes up everything in the organic world, and at its most condensed, the diamond which is the hardest thing there is. Earth incorporates both stone and soil, and on one side it is that which gives life to everything and on the other is it that which provides the structure for it all. Which is to say that earth, while often in the background, is very important indeed.

While air is quick, and fire is fierce and water is timeless, earth operates on a time scale that is is geological. Not measured in minutes or teaspoons or days or even years, the earth’s time is in aeons, and its voice is the slow rumble that growls from its big mouth reluctantly, deeply, at a frequency often too low to hear. To understand the earth you have to get down on your hands and knees or even your belly and really look at the details of things, of the lichen that grow on the surface of rocks, at the minute variations in soil colour as you climb in elevation, and the tiny individual pieces of sand that were once mountains and rocks and still contain the sleeping giants within each pearl. Speaking of pearls, the pearl itself is an earth-like protective shell built to protect the soft belly of the oyster from harm. The time scale and slow pace of the earth is sometimes unfathomable until you see the streaks of limestone along a mountainside and realise that was once the flat earth. To understand this however you have to stretch your timeline: To think of the rocks and soil as inanimate is to not get close enough to truly hear them and see what they are capable of: rocks speak in a language so low they are hard to hear unless you yourself slow down; soil gives birth to life in a pattern so slow that if you don’t slow down to observe it you’ll get frustrated. If you slow down enough to observe it, you’ll uncover a world within a world, layer upon layer of interesting thing that you might never discern if you just give it a quick glance and then walk away.

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On temperaments. Part 1.

I learned about humoral temperaments from jim mcdonald, who learned about them from Christopher Hedley, who learned about them from Galen, though not directly. As with all teachings that flow from teacher to student, at each level of dissemination, these things become filtered through the mind of the interpreter, which is to say, that the following is not directly Galen’s humoral temperaments, nor is it Christopher Hedley’s or even jim’s. Though I hope it honours their teachings, this is my own interpretation. I hope it gives you enough of a primer that you can then go to Jim or Christopher and find out more, and maybe in turn make your own filtered version. My purpose here is to explain (in brief) my own perspective on temperaments, and that the information be usable. Or, in the words of Bruce Lee: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”  -Rebecca


1. On digesting the whole universe. 

Reality. The ‘real’ part of reality is something that few, if any of us ever get to experience: a mass of swirling, shifting, oozing primordial soup that takes form for a while and then shifts again. It’s likely that if any of us were simply thrust into seeing it exactly as it is, our minds would explode and we’d suffer some sort of nervous breakdown. It is outside of time, outside of form, and outside of reason. Every mystic tradition under the sun has a word for reality as it is, and the general consensus is that its something you cannot describe, cannot fathom, can’t pin down and definitely can’t communicate to your friends over tea on a Sunday afternoon. By the time it trickles into our consciousness, reality has passed through filters. Our emotions and awareness filter reality, our ability to perceive through our five senses filter it, and then our minds and personal history add a twist. While this applies to the whole, it applies to the smaller parts too, be it an apple, a rock, or a human. In order to make sense of the large amount of information we encounter when meeting, say, an apple or a rock, or a human, for the first time, we naturally start organising this information into patterns. Thus, apple, very quickly goes from being a strange round thing that may or may not be edible and may or may not taste good to ‘apple’. And the more apples you get to know, the more you can differentiate types of apple: that is a Macintosh, that a Granny Smith, and that [atrocity], a red delicious.

Humans are more difficult to differentiate because we are a lot more complex than apples. Each time we encounter a new human we rapidly start assimilating information to try and understand the person in front of us better. As a herbalist, but also as a human being who interacts with other people, it helps to have some sort of understanding of the patterns in reality that apply to the humans, to help understand them better, quicker. This is where the constitutional model comes in handy.

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(on darkness, winter, setting intentions, and a recipe for winter gin) 12310029_10156391001075601_253023689337495405_o

I listened to a podcast last week, in which physicist Lisa Randall was being interviewed about dark matter. A relatively newly discovered substance, dark matter is at the forefront of physics research. It moves through us as it moves through everything, and is responsible for making up the majority of the universe. Yet, it is completely invisible. Dark matter doesn’t interact with light, and because it doesn’t, we can’t see it. What it does can only be inferred by the gravitational pull it has on other objects around it, but it has a strong effect on the workings of the entire universe: without it, nothing would exist.

As I was listening, I started thinking about in their own way, our myths, planetary cycles and mysteries have all described this kind of thing already: that which cannot be seen but is nonetheless important. We don’t really hold on to our ancient myths as a means to keep ourselves connected with the cycles of nature anymore, but this delving into the invisible darkness in science gives me hope that we might somehow come back around to appreciating that which is hidden.  Continue reading


On productivity: one piece of the exhaustion puzzle

-the state or quality of producing something, especially crops.“the long-term productivity of land”
-The effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input.
-The fertility or capacity of a given habitat or area.


I. More.

I have this image in my head of us as a society, as this gaping maw of hunger that chants its war-cry into the night as it devours its way forwards. ‘More. More. More.’ it says as it chews its way through forest and ocean and pristine wilderness. ‘More!’ it chants as it gnaws through black rhino and ice cap. ‘MORE!’ it cries as it gnashes at spirit and joy and free will, leaving a wake of emptiness in its shadow. We beat our resources into submission, be it the planet, our employees, our own bodies, demanding more: productivity, energy, youth, attention. And rarely, if ever, do we stop to ask if what we are and what we have is actually enough.

During classes about crofts and the Highland clearances (a good Scottish education for you) when I was young, we learned about crop rotation. It was all perfectly logical: nutrients are being sucked up from the land into the plants and if you don’t rotate the crops and leave one field fallow each cycle then the land has nothing to give and eventually the crops fail. At some point, this changed. People discovered that you could keep pouring chemical nutrients onto the soil and spray chemicals to kill the insects that have taken advantage of the plants’ weakness. On the surface the crop still looks the same: big and plump and ripe for the picking. But underneath the surface, the crop is a sad replica of what it could have been.  Continue reading


Moving forwards

(On facing down the abyss)


About six months before he died, my stepdad’s best friend sat me down and said ‘Your life is nothing but a series of choices: the most important thing you can do is to make good decisions. And don’t think that not making a decision is an option— that’s still a decision, and its a bad one.’

I thought about it a bit, and then he died, and then I thought about it a lot. Sometimes we’re so overwhelmed by all the choices that it seems easier not to choose. To click again. To refresh the page. To look at how Kim Kardashian did her hair this week*, because it saves us from having to act.

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