I recently completed my apprenticeship with the Boston School of Herbal Studies, which culminated with the exchange of all the various herbal products that students had been making throughout the year. I had made a variety of tinctures (in a nutshell: by soaking herbs in a menstruum, typically vodka or apple cider vinegar, for an extended period) and I received a variety in return, as well as teas, salves, soaps, and even a mugwort, lavender, and flax seed eye pillow, which I am never very far from in bed.
One of my favorite gifts so far has been a tincture of Indian Pipe, Monotropa uniflora, a strange little plant that grows in the woods in the Northeast. It lacks chlorophyll so the entire plant is a ghostly white, and instead of growing to face the sun the flowers bend over towards the earth. We learned in class that it is used for pain and especially intense pain, but it can also be used to induce or support meditative and strange, but not unpleasant states. The tincture is an unusual violet shade, and the flavor reminds me of sweet dark soil. It’s also taken medicinally as a nervine, antispasmodic, febrifuge, and likely other things as well. The roots are used, and the flowers are notoriously delicate; they essentially disintegrate upon handling.
I went for a walk in the woods a few months ago and kept spotting Indian Pipe. Herbalists believe that if one is drawn to a particular plant, then there’s something there worth exploring. Indian Pipe is hard to find if you don’t know what to look for, but my eyes kept falling on it. At one point I sat down with the plant quietly and just listened. There’s an idea in Islam that all plants and animals and even inanimate objects are engaged in the worship of God, that they are naturally in a state of pure submission (and various prophets and saints were acclaimed to have been able to tune into the speech and states of other created things), and that’s what I bring to these quiet little chats with plants. Believing that we are all here with a purpose, I asked the plant what it had to teach. The impression I got was one of black earth, the worms crawling inside, the secretive movements of life beyond what we could see and where we choose to look, and of connections between life and death. When I had the opportunity to try Indian Pipe as a tincture in class, I had a similar sense of the plant. I also had the feeling that my perception just sort of sat like a bird on my shoulder, and then went to the corner of the room and took in the space and conversations inside.
After weeks of constant work, I finally had a quiet few hours last night for prayers and zikr. I wanted to see what Indian Pipe could bring to this. In prayer, in ruku’, I kept thinking of these little plants bent over. It occurred to me that they are constantly in this state of ruku’, of acknowledging their smallness before the divine. This is the part of prayer where the words suhbhanna rabb al-adheem are recited, glorified is the Lord, Most-High, and I thought of them whispering this. I also felt that I was surrounded by these plants, praying in congregation with them. It was a lovely vision. Throughout, I felt relaxed and clear and engaged.
It’s not something that I would want to use regularly, but I’m happy to have it on my shelf and in my life.