Fall is the time to collect the seeds for sowing in the coming year. This includes the literal seeds of next year’s crops, as well as the kernels of wisdom gleaned from this past period of growth. We recognize what has served us well and what we can let go of. As we look toward the inward turn of Winter, we encounter darker, more contemplative days, and perhaps reflect on the things we value most, those things that sustain us in the leaner times. In many traditions, this time of falling leaves is also a time to honor our ancestors and acknowledge the unseen world around us. It is a time to recognize that the physical world is ephemeral and that all things in Nature will eventually wither and die.
People around the world use the smoke of burning herbs (i.e. as incense or smudge) to prepare a space for this sort of contemplation, as well as to honor and invite the sacred, in whatever way that takes shape. No matter our tradition, when we burn and inhale the smoke of leaves, roots, flowers, seeds, and resins of plants and trees, we can change our experience of the moment. We might use smoke to cleanse a space or affirm our intentions. We can use it to shift our mood, either to uplift or to relax, to focus or to achieve a dream state. Smoke can also be used to prevent the spread of respiratory infections in close quarters. In fact, incenses and strewing herbs were historically used to bring both a prayerful attitude and improve hygiene in the close quarters of worship.
At the end of the gardening and wildcrafting season, one of the last things I do is collect herbs for burning. This is a great use for those plants no longer quite perfect enough for teas or tinctures, but still vibrant and aromatic and eager to be utilized. I especially like mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and other members of the Artemisia genus, like wormwood and sweet annie. These are cousins of desert sage, a familiar herb used as smudge in the Southwestern US. The namesake of these plants is the Greek goddess, Artemis. She was a moon goddess, encouraging connection to the darkness within, that same inner darkness that we retreat to for contemplation and reflection. Carrying a bow and arrows, she was also a keen huntress, using her skills to protect the forest and all of its creatures. She was said to be especially concerned with the health of young girls and birthing women. But, just as she protected and brought fertility and health to those in her care, she brought also illness and death. And so, she helped mediate the natural balance of light and dark, growth and decay.
As the green slips away from the Vermont hills and the animals gather food and find warm dens for a long rest, Artemis is at work. Now is a perfect time to use the plants that bear her name to help us do the work suited to the season. I often call on mugwort , wormwood or sweet annie, whether as smoke, tea or small doses of tincture, when someone is having a hard time choosing what to nurture and protect and what to let fall away. Mugwort is known for bringing more vivid dreams to sleep, but I also think of this plant when someone has trouble visualizing their life-dreams or might know what they desire, but can’t fight to make it happen. Here, Artemis lends the skills of an archer: one who can select a target and then defend the path to its realization. I have also found that when someone is challenged to take care of themselves, especially if they’ve been nourishing others at their own expense, mugwort can encourage self-preservation, so that tending others is a sustainable act.
To reap some of these gifts of the plants, try making your own burning bundle. Simply cut 6 to 12 inch branches of your favorite aromatic herbs. In addition to mugwort and her cousins, I love hyssop, lavender, rosemary and evergreens, like pine. Once I have a nice mix, I put the short branches together in bundles that fit easily in my fist. Be sure they are at least an inch in diameter, as these will burn best once dry. You’ll need embroidery thread, cotton string or any natural twine of your choice, a length about 4 times the length of your bundle. Wrap the base of the bundled fresh herbs using one end of the string, but leaving a 6 inch tail. Using the long end, spiral up the bundle, pulling the string nice and tight as you bind the herbs together. When you get to the top, wrap around a couple of times and then spiral back down the bundle to where you began. Now tie your two tails of string together. These bundles will dry nicely in a week or so and can then be burnt as you like. They take some time and attention to light, but just keep blowing on the embers until the core burns on its own. Soon enough, you’ll have a steady flow of smoke to use for your intended purpose. When you are done burning the herbs, simply put the bundle out in a bowl of sand or soil and save for re-lighting later.
This is a wonderful way to bring the plants with you into the Winter, yet another way they offer themselves as allies and friends. May your dreams, both sleeping and awake, be rich and sweet.