Category Archives: herbs


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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On clarity and confusion. 

Southern Californian summers smell of sage and the sea. I know this because I have spent a lot of time recently up mountains overlooking the Pacific, gathering sage for the Sage + Clarity surprise box. On a cliff’s edge, my backpack full of white and black sage, I sit and stare out to Catalina island, getting lost in thought about the wisdom of sage. After a while of sitting and thinking and munching on crackers and cheese, topped with freshly gathered sage leaves (my current favourite hiking snack), I determine that sage’s lesson is one of clarity: it helps to clear thought that is confused, it clears a sick room of microbes, it clears stagnation from digestion. It elevates, enlightens, broadens perspective. Content with my conclusion, I brush the crumbs off my legs, gather up my belongings and begin the hike back to my car. It was only this afternoon, when I was processing another batch of dried white sage, that I started to think more deeply about clarity itself.sageboxintro

Most of us think of clarity as a preferable state to be in: something to strive for, and cling to; whereas the opposite state: the lack of confidence we experience when we don’t know, is one that leaves us in despair.  We avoid that confusion as much as possible, and when it happens become desperate to escape and get back to that state where everything (ourselves included) has a place. This extends into the other feelings that we avoid– sadness, anger, pain– in place of the easy ones: love and joy and lightness. Of course, love and light is not the entirety of existence (and I’d argue that anybody who says so is deluded), much like periods of confidence and knowing are not always an indicator that we’re doing life right.  Continue reading


Sweet sweet

(A brief pause with orange blossom and mint lassi)lassi

There is no observed without the observer. I know this is a given, but when it comes to panic states and times of uncertainty, I find it helpful to think about. In the microcosm of our personal history, we react one way, but in the macrocosm of the entire universe and the vastness of time, our perspective is so different that our reaction is also different. And the conflict of these two things— the minute and the massive, and how the reaction appears relative to both— well, to be honest I find it quite funny. The massive is a pair of eyes that rests on my left shoulder, and throughout the day it gives a little tap at my consciousness to remind me of my place: both small and big. Significant and insignificant. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise: it’s always both. Continue reading


Porcini + Chaga Black Cocoa

Its dark. Early morning. I’ve taken to waking up as early as I can drag myself out of bed to sit in the black-ness. It feels like a cocoon, the dark quiet, where my mind can wander without feeling over stimulated. And then, because that’s what I do, I started thinking about this whole ‘sensitivity’ thing.

Overstimulation can be a problem. There are some people for whom it feels as though there is no boundary or separation between them and the world. This can be a wonderful thing— the birdsong outside right now, while I type it is playing in my body, warbling over my upper abdomen. Cars drive by and blend into this music, their bassline cutting a diagonal from shoulder to hip. The construction a couple of blocks away is the percussion, an odd, arhythmic rhythm that hits in different areas depending on the note. And while this is going on there’s the electricity, which is a subtle but oh-so-audible ring. That’s the early morning. It gets louder throughout the day, and throughout the year, as the days get longer and the temperature rises. And when it gets to be too much, there is a natural tendency for those of us who are easily over-stressed to want to dampen the noise, provide a safe barrier between us and the world.


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Cold water: a seaweed gathering adventure

(on wild places, how to gather kelp, and things to do with it)


When I was growing up in Scotland, our summer holidays were spent on the west coast, staying in little cottages and bed and breakfasts that were out of the way, with plenty of things to explore. The edges of things and places, where wind meets earth and water, have always called to me like a siren’s song, pulled out a deep longing from inside me that expands and grows and bursts outside its bounds until I am so big I just become the world around me: sea crashing on shore, wind whipping up sea spray, shore simultaneously holding strong and giving over time. Needless to say, I’m lucky that I married someone who feels the same draw to stormy and cold seas, so every time we head north for anything, we find a way to get to the coast.

We’d been in San Francisco, hawking my wares at the Renegade Craft Fair. Early on Monday morning, we packed up the car, made ourselves coffees and packed a bag of cheese and apples and headed, from my brother’s house, across to Half Moon Bay, then down highway 1. I spent the drive thinking about how, if I didn’t know that the world was round and that there were other places out there, I’d assume that I was at the end of the world, at the edge of nothing, gazing out over the raging Pacific that even on a calm day feels untamed and enormous. The marine fog rolled in thick around us, as we drove through cypress groves with Spanish moss hanging down over the road and in the fog with the sea smells there were moments where time got lost. I love these moments. I live for these moments. Giant moments where you’re swallowed by the elements. These are good things. Continue reading

hawthorn bitters1

Bitter + sweet (Hawthorn and orange bitters)

Bitterness (serves 1) 

1 cup of anger
a heaping half-cup of powerlessness mixed with
a tablespoon of regret and a
big pinch of stagnation

Condense, over time, squeezing it hard into a tiny little ball that looks remarkably like a gall stone, then drop into the body and carry around for a long time.

hawthorn bitters1

‘Eat bitter to taste sweetness’ -Chinese proverb.

This proverb, or something like it (I remember something along the lines of ‘eat bitter to avoid a bitter life’), was thrown around a lot when I was at TCM school. Lately, when I’ve been making batches of bitters for the holiday shows I’m doing, I’ve been tossing it around like a hard candy. It’s got me thinking about bitterness and sweetness, and the balance between the two, both in taste and in life. 

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Hawthorn ketchup

(Things to do with hawthorn: on death, time, funny light, and change)


Paying attention to the seasons and to what I eat is a way of connecting to the cycles of life. The more connections there are in meaning, the richer life feels: there’s a history, a weight, a gravity that only deepens with each layer. These layers can be different things— they can come from your garden, or from the wild; they can be something you connect to your childhood, or maybe your ancestry. In the case of my obsession with hawthorn in the autumn, the layers of connection aren’t local or from my garden or even from the mountains where I gather the majority of my herbs; the connections stretch across a different sort of plane— one of dreams and magic and rings in the grass and mists that sweep in from far away in a matter of seconds, obscuring the path, making things look… different.  Continue reading

On ocotillo

The following is a monograph I wrote for Plant Healer Magazine, on one of my all time favourite herbs, ocotillo. Its one of the four herbs I’ll be focusing on in my class next week at the Herbfolk Gathering. I use it so frequently, for such a multitude of issues, and find that the changes it affects in a person are both long-term and profound. These are some of my thoughts on it, organised into monograph format.

If you’re interested in formulas containing ocotillo, check out this antimicrobial gut healing formula and this waterways elixir.

ocotillo1Ocotillo: Fouquieria splendens.

Energetics: warming, drying, moving.

Actions: Liver stimulant, portal stimulant, circulatory stimulant, lymphagogue.

I was hiking with a friend in the desert. It was night time, there was a full moon high in the sky, and we were making our way to a favourite spot of ours to sit and look out over the desert and chat. The wash we were in became a canyon, the cool grey walls climbing higher on either side. The scent of desert lavender and creosote filled the crisp night air. Silence reigned, punctuated by the crunch of desert floor under our feet and the occasional coyote yip in the distance.

Stillness. One of the things that always strikes me about the desert is how still it is. I don’t mean devoid of life, as once you learn to pay attention to small details you notice the life everywhere: a lizard here, a snake camouflaged under a bush there, small pieces of green shooting out between rocks. But deserts are still because they are masters of efficiency. Why move so much when it’s hot? Why waste water when it is scarce? Movement in the desert (as with most things in the desert) is subtle, and interestingly, in such a dry place, this subtle movement is about water. Water conservation, water movement, water storage. Water strikes the surface of the desert in a monsoon and within days the hillsides and washes are ablaze with colour as life springs up from every crack, every crevice. Fluid dynamics, when observed in a dry place, take on an entirely different meaning, as desert plants seize the opportunity to grow as soon as it presents itself.

There’s a narrow path that makes its way up the canyon wall, and at the top, barrel cactus sentinels stand as lookouts. We passed them, carefully, and came out onto a field of ocotillo. We walked in silence, the moon so big and bright that it cast shadows around us, and at one point, when we came into view of one of the biggest and oldest ocotillos in the area, she stopped, grabbed my arm and, staring directly at the big old plant with its bright red blooms ablaze in the night sky, she whispered ‘what. IS. that?’.

But in order to explain why this was such a big deal, I need to explain a little bit about ocotillo itself, and then about my friend’s health history…

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On water.

I’ll be teaching at the Herbfolk Gathering in Mormon Lake, AZ next month. My recent obsession with scarcity, excess and stagnation of water has led me to thinking about the lymphatic system, its relationship to the fluids of the body, and our relationship to water, as humans who are simultaneously drawn to, and terrified of it. Here’s a little snippet of what I’ll be talking about (water, the waters of the body, the darkness under the surface, stagnation, and herbs for it all), then a veer off into a direction I will not be talking about as much (emotions, oy!). A preview, of sorts. I hope to see you there!  (if you don’t know about the Herbfolk Gathering, you can learn more HERE)


“The river has taught me to listen, from it you will learn it as well. It knows everything, the river, everything can be learned from it. See, you’ve already learned this from the water too, that it is good to strive downwards, to sink, to seek depth.” -Hermann Hesse


As with most things, it starts with the sea: that giant mysterious amorphous mass of saline and minerals with things hidden in its depths and its unexplored territory. It starts with the sea, and with the interplay of elements, water evaporates and moves in cloud form towards land where it condenses and crashes down to earth, or floats down frozen, depending. And from land, with more elemental interplay, it finds a course, melts, moves, meanders and swishes downhill with ever increasing speed, collecting together, joining branches until it is trickle, brook, stream then river. River moves towards sea, and the cycle begins again.

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