Kathleen Harrison

This work is protected by copyright.
It was first published in Sisters of the Extreme (edited by Cynthia Palmer and Michael Horowitz, 2000).
It is reproduced here with the author's permission.

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I had grown the plant—Salvia divinorum—for twenty years, and I knew the scant botanical and anthropological literature on this rare, sacred plant, but I'd never successfully had a visionary experience from ingesting the leaves. Once I'd tried putting thirty leaves in a blender with water and drinking the green slurry, but other than a headache and distinct empathy with a trapped butterfly, not much had happened. In the summer of 1995 I was ready for another in my series of solo ethnobotanical fieldwork adventures, and so I headed off for a month in the mountains of northern Oaxaca, Mexico. My son and daughter were staying with family, and I had work to do: not only investigating the folk uses and beliefs regarding healing plants, but also a health challenge of my own. For a couple of years following the dissolution of my marriage and the sad, slow death of my father, my heart had not been beating regularly I'd always had a heart murmur and the strain of recurrent anemia, but this was more disturbing, grabbing my breath away After one episode with a doctor, I decided I wanted to ask a Mazatec healer to do a ceremony for me with the Leaves of the Shepherdess.
        The Mazatecs are renowned for their ritual shamanism, made world-famous by the twentieth century “discovery” of their ancient practices using psilocybin mushrooms. The curandera María Sabina became the emblematic shaman who was revealed and unfortunately sacrificed to Western popular attention. The mushroom rituals intrigued me of course, but I was most drawn to the more elusive medicina of these leaves. I wanted to meet La Pastora, the Shepherdess.
        An anthropologist friend gave me directions to an old curandero's hut, perched above a tiny village in a remote valley of those tropical mountains. I came bringing greetings from our mutual friend and gifts of multivitamins and vegetable seeds. I was met with caution, which I felt was appropriate, and interviewed over two days as to my life experience and my intentions. The curandero and his son, who acted as our interpreter from Spanish to Mazatec, agreed to gather the leaves for a session with me.
        Shka Pastora, the Leaves of the Shepherdess, grows in small, hidden glades in the upland moist forest of the Sierra Mazateca. The plant seems to propagate itself from nodes of the fallen stems, perhaps with the help of humans who tend their private patches. It is speculated that the species diminished its ability to set seed through centuries of human tending. And perhaps this highly sensitive species—growing in light-speckled seclusion in such a small region of the world—would have long ago disappeared, had it not been for its lovely medicina and gift to human consciousness. Each healer's patch is a family secret, and the spirit of the plant is known to have a personal relationship with one who cares for her. Not just anyone can pick her leaves and derive benefit from her medicine. One's purpose must be clean and clear.
        Among many indigenous, nature-based peoples, significant plant species are each personified as a being with a name and particular attributes of character that relate to the plant's effects. The plant spirit is a persona, to be honored, solicited, and thanked for its gifts. Over the past five hundred years, a veneer of Catholicism has been laid over the rich indigenous animistic worldview, and stories of the helper-saints have meshed with the perceived primordial qualities of certain plant allies. The Virgin is often identified with plants that aid us; the Mazatecs recognize two species of morning glory (Ipomoea violacea and Rivea corymbosa) that produce “seeds of the Virgin,” used for vision and difficult childbirth. Another name for La Pastora is Santa María, again a variation of the compassionate Mother Goddess.
        We gathered for the session, a late night ceremony before a rough altar that held flowers, candles, pictures of the saints, and powdered tobacco. We sat, the family and I, facing the stone wall that emerged from the earth there, against which they had built their tiny abode of tin, tarpaper, and wood. La Pastora is very shy, they told me, timid like a deer. She will come only when we have eaten many pairs of the leaves and sit very quietly, perfectly still, in utter darkness, as in a glen in the forest in the moonlight. If someone moves or speaks suddenly, she will disappear in a moment. If we invite her, and are very clear and open to her, she will come, she will speak. She will whisper to us what we need to know and show us what she sees. She may help heal us, or bless us with good fortune. But we must pray and we must listen, and we must pay her our full attention. Do you know how to pray, really pray with all your heart? If not, tonight you will learn.
        The curandero unrolled banana-leaf bundles of hand-sized Salvia divinorum leaves, slightly wilted, and sorted them into pairs. Both mushrooms and leaves are measured in pairs, he told me, representing masculine and feminine. He doled out forty pairs to me, rolled them into a long wad, rather like a salad rolled into a cigar. He explained that after he said the invoking prayers and we stated aloud our intentions, I was to eat the leaves. I was told not to hesitate at their bitterness, not to stop until I had eaten them all, and above all, not to laugh throughout the entire session. Laughter, he counseled, would steal away the power of the medicine.
        The curandero held our leaves up to the altar, to the stone emerging from the mountain, and murmured a long prayer that included La Pastora, the Virgin of Guadalupe, San Pedro, San Pablo, and names of native deities I could not recognize. He signaled me to state my intentions, make my request.
        I greeted the spirit of La Pastora, identified myself, asked her to come be present with me that night. I asked, “Please help my heart to become strong and clear and without fear, so that it can pump smoothly.” I asked, as I always do when I enter into relationship with sacred medicine, “What is my work now? May I please see the next stretch of the path?”
        I took my first bite, staunched my reaction to the bitterness, and proceeded steadily through many bites to the end. By the time I had consumed almost the entire bundle, I was saturated with a taste that was sharp and fresh and ancient all at once. I had a momentary sense of how very long these people had been doing this ritual, the generations that had sought the wisdom of this plant spirit. Suddenly there was a shimmering, the curandero blew the candles out for total darkness, and within seconds I was completely in another realm, astonished. Some part of me ate the final bite “ and I relaxed into another place: I was in the presence of a great female being, a woman, twenty feet high and semitransparent. I was standing in her garden. There she was, some distance away, at the edge of her garden, near the forest, standing amidst her lovely plants against a small, white picket fence. There were butterflies and hummingbirds flying around and through her. Her great translucent face, the density of rainbows, leaned toward me and away. She moved through the garden, tending her leaves and flowers, leaning over them and standing again, beams of sunlight pouring through her. I felt a great longing for her to move toward me, to touch me, and I realized I could not move my feet from the earth where I stood. I felt the other human spirits around me—the old curandero, his wife, his son and the little granddaughter—and they were all giving her their full attention. I realized then that we were plants at the edge of her garden. She drifted slowly toward us, reached out and ran her hands through us, like a breeze, like a ripple, and I knew in those moments that my body was clear, that when she touched me I was in perfect order. I knew in my bones that if we ever asked for her to touch us, and we gave in exchange our most profound attention when she did, all would be well. I inhaled and exhaled her presence. She circled the garden again and returned to us. When she passed her hand through my chest a second time, I saw a tiny, ornate wooden door in my heart. It was carved with flowers and vines, and had an intricate golden filagreed handle and hinges. As her grand spirit fingers brushed it, I felt a strong breeze open the tiny door and a pocket of hurt blew away into the sweet air of the garden.
        There is this enduring memory of my own face gazing out of a plant, and the dark but not unfriendly presence of the woods nearby. As she faded from view and I returned to a sense of the present, I heard the words repeatedly, in both Spanish and English: Les muestra el borde del jardin. “Show them the edge of the garden.” That is my work.

Kathleen Harrison is an ethnobotanist who studies the relationships between plants and humans, particularly as expressed in ritual and story.