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Wounded Healer: Songs of the Earth Shaman


My wife and I watched Oliver Sacks: His Own Life the other night, an American Masters documentary on PBS,. The so called “poet laureate of medicine,” who died of liver cancer in 2015, was a strange figure, a genius outsider plagued by harrowing emotional weirdness. An older brother descended into schizophrenia; he was prone to chemical dependency and suffered from prosopagnosia or “face blindness,” a condition which made him deeply shy and removed from intimate contact (he refrained from sexual intimacy for 35 years).

Yet Sacks was a brilliant physician, and perhaps because he had suffered much mental anguish that he felt an intense empathy for patients suffering from a horrorshow of neurological afflictions. Convinced that deep within every patient was a living, yearning consciousness, Sacks re-wrote the literature of patient care with classics like Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Cat and Musicophilia.

Oliver Sacks and patient

Sacks’ nature was dual. He was first a passionate observer. “In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology. In examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life.”  He also saw the importance of narrative, for the case study as the more faithful, direct and humane path to successful diagnosis and treatment: “To be ourselves we must have ourselves – possess, if need be re-possess, our life-stories. We must ‘recollect”’ ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.”

The jury’s out whether Sacks was a better physician or writer. (Perversely, he was not well accepted in the medical community until the movie Awakenings came out in 1990.) But must we decide? And whatever the case, neuroscience has received a warm and tempering light from Sacks, and the general public has gotten some great books.

What strikes me here for an earthweal challenge is the figure of the wounded healer, one who can heal because h/she has experienced themselves the deep springs of life and death. There is something about the wounding experience which qualifies one to heal (and, in our case, to write poems). Rilke put it best in his Sonnets to Orpheus:

Is he someone who dwells in this single world? No:
both realms are the source of his earthly power.
He alone who has known the roots of the willow
can bend the willow-branch into a lyre.

(I.iv, transl. Stephen Mitchell)

Wounded healers go deep into our prehistory with the figure of the shaman. Many have written on shamanism and what we know of it is based largely on practices still in evidence a century ago. Mercea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy is one good study.

Figure in shamanic trance, Lascaux Paleolithic cave

Shamanic practice even a century ago varied widely, but some core elements are consistent throughout. The shaman’s initiation ordeal was often fatal but reconstitutive. Typically at early adulthood they were “soft-minded,” prone to neurosis; rejected by their hunting peers, they were loners who preferred wilderness solitude. Their initiation began by falling sick and swooning into what now would now be called a schizophrenic episode. In the initiate’s story, the madness is described as departing from the upper world and travelling to a dark and forbidding place where they were dismembered and boiled in a pot until just their bones remained. The spirits then reassembled them, adding an extra bone of sacred medicine, and sent them back to the living.

As wounded healers, their medicine songs called out to the spirit of a particular ailment. Many did not survive their initiation ordeal, and those who did were weird figures — wise fools, soft minded warriors, dancing like women and dressing like animals.

As mediators of the sacred; shamans would be replaced in more complex societies by the priest and savior. St. Columba was a wounded healer; an outcast from Irish dynastic ambition after causing a bloody battle over the right to a psalter he had copied in secret, he was exiled from Ireland, told to settle on an island so far away that the coast of Ireland could not be seen. Founding the Iona Abbey in 563 AD, Columba spread word of the new faith to pagan Scots, was said to have copied some 300 books and was himself a prolific poet. St. Columba only returned once to Ireland, for the Council of Drumeceatt where the fate of the old filid class hung in the balance. Columba made an impassioned plea for the traditional storytelling arts, saying, “humans of dust, you are nothing but a story.” As a result, the poets retained some of their rank while being instructed to work with clerics in committing the old tales to writing.

Sacks’ embrace of narrative as the royal road to care reminds us of the vital need to preserve our stories. (In AA it is said, your story is your sobriety).

Detail, Gundestrup Cauldron, ca 1st century BC

With the advent of the scientific age, the doctor would play the same role. Paracelsus was one of the early bridges from alchemy to medicine. “In extremis things reveal their nature, become visible,” he declared, which is the modern approach to diagnosis. (The tools for magnifying that sight grew from polished glass to magnetic resonance imaging.) Yet Paracelsus also believed like shamans that like cures like; a disease could be physicked if you knew its name, for you could brew a palliative of the same essence, a tincture which communicated with the god in the disease.

The formula for madness works somewhat in reverse, as the early modern psychiatrist Carl Jung discovered. He used an alchemical formula for treating alcoholics — spiritus contra spiritus or “it takes spirit to counter spirits.” (That became a founding principle of Alcoholics Anonymous’ Third Step —”Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Old-timers point out that AA doesn’t try to tell members who that God is, only the need to have one.)

The poet was another wounded healer invaluable to the tribe. Traditional poets were initiated in a manner similar to shamans, lying flat as if dead in a dark room while waiting for their poetic inspiration to come. They also learned the oral tradition in that manner, in a darkened singing hut as they listened to the voices of time. The ecstasy of song is like birdflight, capable of transporting the singer (with us listeners in tow) to the upper branches of the world tree. Buile Subhne was a seventh-century king who was cursed with madness and fled to the wood; his sufferings and songs of the healing wild must have been a powerful alembic in the harrowing time known as the Dark Ages, for they were largely intact when they were finally written down in the early 12th century.

In our late age, the wounded healer has been articulated as an internal health; shaman, savior, doctor and artist are myths or masks of emotional health. Whatever great wounds we all suffer are the very wombs of their healing, if we find a way to approach them and name them, let them sing their litanies and tragedies, grieve them and let them go. And go on.

Yet few are yet capable of successfully mediating such individual physic. The disrepair of our society is the clearest indicator. Anyone viewing the awful footage of mass pyres burning in India must feel the torment of their inner shaman. A Hindu priest walking among corpses in the Ghazipur crematory in New Delhi told a reporter the other day, “If I fall sick and die, I will go to heaven.” He then paraphrased a popular reading of Hindu scripture: “Death is the only truth.” In the year 2021, that’s hard to embrace, but where the air was recently fouled with the mass death from wildfires, now the cinders of the human dead fill the air.

And who or what is the wounded healer of the Anthropocene, witch doctor to climate catastrophe, mediator of rising tides and burning skies? Who says prayers for the soul of The Lady of Wild Things as she hovers near extinction? Who is being crucified for our global sins—the poor, the flooded, the critter—and what is the music which will yet awaken us to understand we all have to take a place on that cross so that the Earth might be saved? Such sacrifice takes place deep in the heart where wild and God are one.

I can’t help wondering if the wounded healer for such global malaise is the Earth herself, a damaged wholeness, borne of human madness and the terrible spells of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice — air conditioning and solo vehicles, plastic wrappers and nuclear bombs. Maybe the song we need to hear and emulate is the wounded Earth’s? We would need a story for that, a case history of the world assembled from diverse locations.

Something we could do here …

Back in 2005 I wondered if the damage and addlements of my youth fed and blossomed my adult into poetry. If that is so, why not the world? What and where are the wombs formed in the wounds of sea level rise and wildfire, mass extinction and ocean acidification?

What then are the Songs of the Earth Shaman?




earthweal weekly challenge: APPROACHING BELTANE (BRIGHT FIRE)


by Sarah Connor

Welcome to the Beltane prompt. Beltane, or May Day, is the second of the druidic cross-quarter festivals that we will be looking at this year.

I always feel that Beltane is “my” festival. I was born on May Eve, 30 April, so I’ve always had a public holiday linked into my birthday. I felt most affronted a couple of years ago when that holiday was deferred just because Kate and William were getting married! And now I’ve ended up living just outside Torrington, a small town in Devon where May Day is massively important.

Beltane means “bright fire” and fire is really important to this festival. Animals were purified by being passed between two fires, and couples could jump a fire together to pledge themselves to one another. Sacred wells and water were also an important aspect of Beltane.

Our local celebration is pretty rough and ready. There are other May Day celebrations in the south-west of England that are more famous (and more touristy) – like the Obby Oss festival at Padstow, and the Helston floral dance. Interestingly, I can’t think of anywhere within easy travelling distance of Torrington that celebrates May Day. I do have a theory about that. On the western edge of the town, just outside the cemetery, there is a sacred well. I wonder if in pre- and early Christian times that well was a place of pilgrimage at Beltane. Knowing Torrington as I do, I suspect that if that were the case there would have been somebody in the village who would have been happy to provide cider and pasties – and a local celebration was born! That’s all conjecture, of course, but in this wet and rural area where springs and wells are two a penny, I can’t think of another local sacred spring.

So, what happens in Torrington for May Fair? The whole town attends.  The town is decked out with furze, bright yellow flowers hung above every window in the town square. The primary and secondary school are both closed for the day.  The last year of the primary school elects a May Queen. She is crowned in the square at about 11 o’clock, by which time everybody has already had a couple of drinks. She sits on a throne under the maypole and the children dance a weaving ribbon dance around her. There’s some raucous entertainment from the local men, there’s a funfair behind the market, and everybody has too much to drink. Kids run a little wild, teenagers sneak cans of cider behind the ghost train. I suspect more than one local lost their virginity at May Fair – and I wonder if there might be a January baby boom in Torrington.

And that is as it should be.

Beltane is a celebration of fertility. The purification of animals and the jumping fires is about ensuring fertility. Traditionally young people stayed up all night celebrating in the woods. Some people will try to tell you that the maypole is the tree of life, but it looks pretty phallic to me.

Beltane is the joy of fertility, and potential. It is also a time when opposites come together: fire and water, the goddess and the horned god. It’s a time for love.

It’s a time, too, to reflect on what we are planting spiritually. Are we planting seeds that will grow into a crop that we want? Or are we planting things that will harm us? Do we need to change?

Let’s remember, too, that May Day is International Workers Day.  We associate it with big parades in Russia and Eastern Europe, but it was chosen to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago, when workers gathered to demand an 8-hour day – so Americans can rightly claim it as their own. I was brought up in a heavily unionised coal mining town in South Yorkshire, so International Workers Day was definitely on my radar. Meanwhile, over in Catholic Ireland my husband would have been gathering lilacs to put on the classroom altar to Mary, because May was her month. It’s hard not to connect a celebration of Mary with a pagan celebration of the goddess. And the workers? Well, all that fertility is hard work. At this time of year my apple trees are covered in worker bees, busily pollinating, and I’m right next to them hovering over my seedlings.

How do you write about this? Well, you can think about the joy of the union of the horned god and the goddess. You could think about how opposite energies work together to bring about something new. You can think about the work that goes into fertility – not just those busy bees, but also the planting, watering, fertilising that we do to ensure yield; the energy plants put into their blossom and their fruit; the way a male bird feeds the female as she sits on the eggs; the way a mother cares for her young. You could write about water, essential for life – falling as rain, flowing as river, rolling as the ocean. You could think about fire – the sun itself, giving energy to everything that grows on this planet; the fires that are essential for some seeds to germinate; the fire of inspiration and life that burns inside each one of us.

Whatever you choose to write about, remember that this is a celebration, of new life, of love and of the endless bounty of this planet.

— Sarah

earthweal open link weekend #66


Happy Friday and welcome to earthweal open link weekend #66. Link a favorite poem and visit your fellow linkers to comment.

The link forum stays open until midnight EST Sunday, when our next weekly challenge rolls out. You won’t want to miss Sarah Connor’s May Day challenge.

Happy linking!



earthweal Earth Day challenge: RESTORE OUR EARTH


Earth Day is this Thursday, April 22. The annual environmental awareness event was first held on April 22, 1970, with more than 20 million pouring onto streets in the US in protest. Since 1990, it’s been an international event coordinated by Earth Day Network (earthday.org). The theme this year is Restore Our Earth and features five primary programs: The Canopy Project, Food and Environment, Climate Literacy, the Global Earth Challenge, and The Great Global CleanUp. Leading up to the day, three separate parallel climate action summits will focus on climate literacy, environmental justice, and youth-led climate-focused issues.

US President Joe Biden is convening a global climate summit on Earth Day 2021, where the US will formally accelerate its emissions reduction goals for 2030. The US is working with the major economic powers to bolster carbon emission targets; global climate envoy John Kerry has had success with Japan, South Korea and Canada, but deals with Brazil, India and China are thorny. 40 world leaders have been invited.

The Earth Day Network set 10 climate proposals for the new Biden administration and they suggest the terrifying scope of the problem. Besides rejoining the Paris Climate Accord (which Biden did as soon as he was inaugurated President), the list includes:  reversing the tide of plastic pollution, making climate education compulsory and science-based, reverse more than 100 Trump administration environmental rollbacks, create a clean workforce by establishing a Climate Conservation Corps, reforest the United States for carbon sequestration and habitat protection, ensure clean air for marginalized communities through zero-emission vehicles and fight for environmental justice. (There’s even a request to increase the whale population; if they can rebound to pre-commercial whaling size, they could sequester some 160,000 tons of carbon a year.)

A tall order, but they suggest a psychological tipping point has been reached ahead of the climate tipping point not that far ahead. People are ready to act.

That willingness is apparent in Paul Greenberg and Carl Safina’s op-ed in the April 13, 2021  New York Times, “We Don’t Need More Life-Crushing Steel and Concrete”. Responding to the announcement of Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, the write, “Nature has its own infrastructure. What nature needs is for us to get out of its way and let its systems function in the manner that billions of years of evolution enabled them to do. “

Nearly 4 million miles of roads highways thread the United States, resulting in the deaths of a million vertebrate animals every day. “So before we rush out to fix our crumbling roads,” they write, “perhaps we should let a lot of them crumble. Let’s favor only those roads that carry significant amounts of public bus transportation or are essential links to getting workers to and from their places of employment. Let’s have more electric vehicles but also focus on making roads work better. And let’s build transport that more feasibly, desirably and efficiently carries electric vehicles.”

Greenberg and Safina also suggest using up the built environment before tearing down for new construction; empty shopping malls, for example, could be converted to solar farms. “A forward-looking plan must heal what is broken before breaking more ground,” they write.

Other ideas for natural infrastructure include distributing the power (utilities are terrified of losing central control of our energy needs, but home rooftop solar is the way to go) and broadening public transportation while widening wildlife corridors.

Most radically sensible they propose an infrastructure based on abundance “The Endangered Species Act sets a floor to protect at-risk plants and animals rather than a goal for them to flourish,” they write. “…Since (its) passage, extinctions have indeed been slowed, but wild bird populations have declined by a third overall in the past half-century, and the numbers of insects that pollinate our crops, gardens and wild landscapes are plummeting. As pressures on wildlife rise, we need to protect populations before they decline. We need an Abundant Species Act, whose goal is ensuring that wildlife on the land and in the waters and skies are as visible as roads, rails or wind turbines.”

They conclude, “What is the point of a country with an infrastructure that seamlessly, silently and electrically flits us from place to place when those places have nothing left for us to see? The infrastructure of America — the guts, if you will — is a certain wildness that is essential to who we are. Without those guts, a new American infrastructure will be an empty package.”

Seems like everywhere we turn, astonishing levels of work are needed. The good news is that the willingness seems so much larger at hand.

And where much energy has been spent trying to dislocate denial of the crisis, now the battle is equally against own defeatisim and despair. Michael Mann makes that point in his new book The New Climate War.  In a recent interview about the book in The Guardian he said, “doom-mongering has overtaken denial as a threat and as a tactic. Inactivists know that if people believe there is nothing you can do, they are led down a path of disengagement. They unwittingly do the bidding of fossil fuel interests by giving up.

“What is so pernicious about this,” he continues, “is that it seeks to weaponise environmental progressives who would otherwise be on the frontline demanding change. These are folk of good intentions and good will, but they become disillusioned or depressed and they fall into despair. But ‘too late’ narratives are invariably based on a misunderstanding of science.”

David Montgomery looks at hope in the face of climate despair in an April 12 essay in the Washington Post Magazine.  Climate change had hit him in a real way; a recent mudslide in California (caused by the wildfire season) killed his brother and niece. The reality of grief underscored the reality of climate change. “My personal losses have made me examine what hope I have for every other living thing. After all, isn’t hope essential? It gives us a sense of agency against vast forces and suggests the possibility that our actions matter. Its opposite — despair — is paralyzing.”

He consults many voices in the environmental movement “who come at hope from different angles” — climate scientists, natural philosophers, artists, activitists — and each had a slightly different take. The poet Naomi Shihab Nye had been feeding mourning doves who were huddled against the freak cold snap recently in Texas. For her, hope was doing what was needed right in front of her. Marine scientist Nancy Knowlton is part of the Ocean Optimism movement, looking for “glimmers of resililence” in the tide of pessimistic news about the state of oceans. “It’s not even a complete and accurate picture to simply talk about all the bad news,” Knowlton says. And according to advocate Terry Tempest Williams, “it’s not so much about hope, but knowing where hope dwells.” In her 2019 essay collection Erosion Williams writes, “If we are to flourish as a species, an erosion of belief will be necessary, that says we are not the center of the universe but a dynamic part of an expanding and contracting future that celebrates and collaborates with uncertainty.” Hope cannot be unvarnished.

Montgomery’s conclusion?

When I set out in search of hope to conquer my despair at our seeming inability to head off a climate catastrophe, I’d had it backward. True hope is not an opiate whose purpose is to make us feel better. And despair is not something to be explained away by science, or dulled by communing with nature, or vanquished by action. Hope takes root in suffering and sadness. To move beyond despair, we need to fully feel it, admit it to a place deep inside, and then it becomes our superpower. So if you feel defeated or disheartened about the climate, I say: Good. Embrace your despair. And then step into the hope of your next move.

For this week’s challenge, celebrate Earth Day with local affirmations of restoring our Earth.

Let’s show Earth Day the earthweal way, where the grief is real and so too the hope.


PS: May Day is coming next week, and Sarah Connor has prepared a challenge that will get us celebrating the deep Earth. Don’t miss it.


Wendell Berry

What we have been becomes
The country where we are,
Spring goes, summer comes,
And in the heat, as one year
Or a thousand years before,
The fields and woods prepare
The burden of their seed
Out of time’s wound, the old
Richness of the fall. Their deed
Is renewal. In the household
Of the woods the past
Is always healing in the light,
The high shiftings of the air.
It stands upon its yield
And thrives. Nothing is lost.
What yields, though in despair,
Opens and rises in the night.
Love binds us to this term
With its yes that is crying
In our marrow to confirm
Life that only lives by dying.
Lovers live by the moon
Whose dark and light are one,
Changing without rest.
The root struts from the seed
In the earth’s dark — harvest
And feast at the of sleep.
Darkened, we are carried
Out of need, deep
In the country we have married.