Lisa Richardson | Longreads | April 2020 | 15 minutes (4,084 words)
On a Friday afternoon, pre-COVID-19, my husband dropped some ice-cubes into glasses, ready to make us screwdrivers and cheers to surviving another week of working/parenting/wondering where the hell the years were going, only, the vodka bottle was empty.
“Oh yeah,” I said, my eyes sliding sideways, trying to not cause a fuss, “I used it for medicine.” The previous week, the kitchen counter had been cluttered with a giant mason jar full of oily plant matter. “Balm of Gilead!” I explained, brightly, as he wiped away the breakfast crumbs around it.
“But what is it?”
“Cottonwood tips in oil.”
His eyes had flicked, then, over to the brand-new bottle of extra virgin olive oil that was now nearly empty, as I enumerated the medicinal benefits of this old herbal remedy (and all this from a tree in our backyard!). Twenty-four years together means I could hear the abacus in his brain clicking, as he wordlessly calculated the cost per milliliter of a gallon jar of plant matter masticating in top-shelf olive oil, against the cost per unit of a bottle of generic aspirin tables, overlaid with the probability of me losing interest in this project.
First the olive oil. Now the vodka for dozens of little jars of tinctures — garden herbs and weeds soaking in now-undrinkable booze. My midlife quest to attune more deeply to the rhythms of the natural world was starting to incur unexpected, but real, costs.
He was quiet, as he opened the fridge and pulled out a beer instead.
* * *
In my defense, I could have pointed my finger at Natalie Rousseau, a yoga teacher living in my 5,000 person village, who I’d first encountered leading a solstice yoga class billed as a way to survive the madness of the holidays (in slightly more gracious language). Thanks to her offerings of insight I did survive the commercial horror of the “festive” season, and a few months later, as the new moon entered Aries (whatever that actually means), I plonked down $200 to subscribe to her online 13 Moons course — my foray into “slowing down and being more present,” as I pitched it to my husband when he inquired about the strange entry on the credit card statement.
But I did not deflect the simmering tension between us by naming Natalie as the instigator of these “kitchen witch” experiments. Even though I am not a member of any kind of coven or cult, (I don’t think book club counts), I know deep in my bones to never throw another woman onto the fire for helping you. That has been done too many times.
But there it is. The word. Witch. The wound.
* * *
Every day, after COVID-19 entered our world, Natalie Rousseau has responded with an offering, a teaching — a meditation, an ancient mantra of protection, a yoga practice for managing anxiety, a how-to video on harvesting poplar medicine. It’s as if she’s been resourcing herself for this moment to develop the richest arsenal imaginable, to navigate, not the public health crisis, but the billion personal crises each of us is forced to confront as life as we know it slams into pandemic mode. It’s not what I thought a witch would do, if I ever thought about them at all.
Natalie doesn’t look like a witch either — not in the way I conceived it for last year’s Halloween costume, with my long black skirt, dollar-store pointy hat, and heavy black eyeliner, walking alongside my 6-year-old vampire-werewolf. Natalie is petite, just a few inches over five feet, her long blond hair still evoking the decade she spent living in a west coast surf town, her chest and lean muscled arms bright with full sleeve flowery tattoos and Mary Oliver quotes. She moves like a dancer, demonstrating yoga poses as if she’s transcending gravity. As a teacher, she speaks exactly, even in Sanskrit, and guides movement precisely, padding gently and soundlessly through the room, making an adjustment here, offering an instruction there.
So, I was surprised when she used the word “witch” to launch her new online offering, The Witches Wheel. The lure was irresistible. Natalie was claiming the word “witch” without flinching, without anger, without provocation, not as a way to reclaim feminine power and stick it to the men, warranted as that may be: It was essentially an invitation to observe the cycle of the seasons.
A threshold beckoned.
* * *
Natalie, a recent empty-nester, lives with her husband Paul and two dogs in a modest townhome, with a creek and a dozen rogue gardens installed by various residents running behind it. The garage is full of motorbikes. The porch is swept clean on the day I visit, six months into the 13 Moons program, wanting to talk with her about this radical word and why, in a world still unsure what to do with powerful women, she’s not afraid that she’s exposing herself to pitchforks and fires, haters, and trolls.
Even though I am not a member of any kind of coven or cult, (I don’t think book club counts), I know deep in my bones to never throw another woman onto the fire for helping you. That has been done too many times.
A tea blend of her own mixing — vanilla chaga chai — is brewing on the stove in an open saucepan. She tends to it, as I settle in, sneaking glimpses around the room, looking for evidence of witchcraft — pentagrams, cloaks, bottled frogs. Nothing. The space is uncluttered, a throw-rug on the armchair, a couple of stark white deer skulls are mounted, European-style, on a wall against a reclaimed barn board — definitely more Soho chic than occult-goth. Her husband returns from town, where he has picked up fresh croissants for us. He’s tall and strong, with a tightly cropped red beard — he looks like a guy you’d run into at the gym, at the surf break, at the hardware store.
“So, what’s it like living with a witch?” I ask him as Natalie attends to our tea, a light-hearted question sprouting out of the great compost of fears I am thinking. Is it impossibly hard to be with a woman who comfortably claims her own power, magic, cycles, voice? What kind of a man can love and honor a witch? And lurking deep beneath it all: Will my husband be one of them?
Paul rolls his eyes, overly-dramatically, pointing up to the light fixture in the kitchen — light bulbs housed in mason jars of all sizes, evoking summer cabins and fireflies and Kinfolk magazine dinner party lanterns. “I made this for her because everything ends up in jars. Have you seen inside these cupboards?” He walks around the house, in faux-exasperation, opening doors to reveal neat stacks of jars, full of dried petals, leaves, syrups, tonics, salves, salts. “And there’s more upstairs!” If it hadn’t been for the dinner party they’d hosted the previous night, most of their apartment’s horizontal surfaces would be covered in jars, he tells me, and the front porch would have housed a dead raven and a dead Cooper’s hawk.
“She’s always sending me out in search of dead things,” he jokes. He picks up roadkill in case she can salvage feathers or skulls.
“When he first met me, I was already a skull collector, and now he goes and finds them for me and brings them back,” says Natalie. “He’s gotten really good at living with witchy stuff.”
The two of them are remarkably self-sufficient — an animal lover (“he loves animals more than people”), Paul realized veganism left him tired and undernourished, so took up hunting to procure his own meat humanely; one of the deer skulls mounted on the wall was harvested this fall, its meat now fills their freezer. They grow a garden, wildcraft, eat well. There is an ease between them — a tidal push and pull as they navigate their modest shared space and the morning routine, without evidence of fake niceness, of power trips or struggles.
Witchcraft, in Natalie Rousseau’s mind, is too non-dogmatic and non-hierarchical to submit to a single all-encompassing definition. “As a practice, it’s so highly individual,” she says, “but across the board, it is very place-based, land-based and body-based. For me, it’s about cultivating a relationship with your own body, your own mind, your emotions, and subtle sensing faculties. It’s learning how to trust your intuition. It’s about reclaiming your own instincts, but also being able to feel: this is what stress feels like in my body, this is what relaxation feels like, this is what it feels like to say yes to something out of a sense of obligation or pressure, this is what it feels like to have a boundary. This is what it feels like when I’m safe. These cues come to us from our bodies. It has to be, for it to work well, otherwise, you’re always reaching outside yourself for another authority.”
This is what she wants to help women, particularly, to reclaim: their sense that they are the first authority on themselves, that they can trust their bodies’ wisdom.
“The biggest thing I want to share with people,” says Natalie of her teaching and online courses, “is how to trust themselves. Everyone can very easily make the medicines that their household would need for common household complaints — colds and flus and chest colds and menstrual cramps — so many basic things that anyone can make very simply, quite affordably. I’m not anti-pharmaceutical. There are many medications people have to take daily to live. And if I have a serious infection, I’m going to take antibiotics; if I am seriously ill, I am going to go to the doctor; if I have any kind of trauma, I’m going to be so grateful for that form of medicine. But I believe the role kitchen medicine has is in the maintenance and prevention of illness.”
One of her biggest laments, though, as she makes videos and handouts and shares them with her online community, is that even people who have paid to do her course don’t feel that they have the time to take it into their kitchens. “Making a tincture is literally pouring vodka over plant materials and leaving it on your counter for four weeks!” she says. But it is easier for most people to just buy one online and have it delivered to their doorstep. “I am saddened by how easily women give their power over. This is the biggest thing I’ve noticed as a teacher in the past couple of years — how quickly women will say, ‘but how do you do this? I don’t know how to do this! I’m afraid to try this because I might not be good at it, I might be doing it wrong. I’m an imposter.’ I really struggle with this. Where is it coming from?”
But she knows. We have relinquished our power, over a thousand years or more, of wounding, of witch-burnings, of patriarchy either convincing us we have none or forcibly stripping it away, (hello Harvey Weinstein), until all we feel empowered to do, now, in 2020, is consume. And we’ve been doing that with all our might.
We override the listening, we ignore the nudges, we push through, like good soldiers. “Most people are running so hard,” observes Natalie. “Our culture is so focussed on productivity. We are so overly heroic — it’s all or nothing. I can’t do something unless I’m an expert. I don’t want to try. But this is a craft. It’s a path of education.”
Natalie’s invitation is gentle, and she’s crafted her online course to serve that: Start with one plant and learn its taste, its smell. Spend five minutes a day on meditation or in conscious ritual and begin to notice what’s going on in your nervous system, in your mind, in your body.
“When he first met me, I was already a skull collector, and now he goes and finds them for me and brings them back,” says Natalie. “He’s gotten really good at living with witchy stuff.”
Don’t get so distracted by the word witch, that you fail to notice that it is connected to craft. Witchcraft, for Natalie, is a path of learning “how to trust and problem solve, from within, knowing that we are in a system of power that, for better, for worse, will strip us of any ability to trust ourselves and to always feel empty so we have to keep buying more stuff.”
When she says this, a deep thrill of recognition hums in me, accompanied by a shiver of fear. Those are revolutionary things to say out loud, to cast into the open air. I recognize it viscerally as the kind of talk that gets people in trouble.
* * *
Last summer, before I met Natalie, I had stepped from my backyard patio stones onto freshly cut grass and spied the sinuous form of a wandering garter snake. I leaned in quickly, excitedly, about to call my 6-year-old over to glimpse the garden visitor before it shimmied away. But it was eerily still. Ugly slash wounds marked its body. It was dead. Innocent victim to the ride-on lawnmower. Obliterated by our oblivion.
“Oh no,” I muttered. “I’m so sorry!”
I had already begun to wake up to the natural world, it’s rhythms, it’s offerings of medicine, it’s otherness, but it had come with a shadow side, a growing despair at what we were doing to the world. Even without a malicious intention, I was causing death and destruction — just mowing the lawn, drinking my coffee, wiping my ass: My actions, all our human activity, had compounding impacts that were destroying the snakes, the ocean, the atmosphere, the forests, the icecaps — beyond repair.
I wanted my garden to be a habitat. I wanted the bees to waggle-dance directions to my sunflowers to their hive-mates, I wanted the wandering garter snakes to nest in their hibernacula through the winter and bask in the long grass in the summer, I wanted to lie on my back and watch butterflies dance through the flowers and the hummingbirds zoom in and out, I wanted to inhabit innocence again.
I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. My penitence froze me in place, scared to make a move for fear of ruining something else. Then, regret overriding my squeamishness, I fetched the flat-bladed shovel and edged it under the dead snake. I carried her body over to the vegetable patch, and in a space between the beds, where the mower never goes, I laid her down. I picked marigolds and calendula from around the garden, where they’d been planted to keep the snails away, and lay the bright orange blossoms in a circle around her.
Grandmother snake, I whispered, hoping that some force that exists beyond the definitively dead snake at my feet, might spread the word among the entire species, “I’m sorry. We didn’t mean it. I will try to be more careful.”
It was a made-up ritual, the kind that a kid might perform deep in her dream world at the bottom of the garden, and it made my 44 year-old-self feel a little bit better. At least I’d made a gesture of repair, had expressed my desire to return into balance with the living world around me. If it had any effect, I’d never know. I went back inside, said nothing.
A few days later, out in the garden, my husband tripped over the skeleton of a decomposing snake, ringed by wilted flowers, half consumed by ants.
“That was spooky,” he confronted me. “What’s going on? Are you some kind of witch?”
* * *
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* * *
Natalie has always been comfortable with the word. Now she’s having fun inviting people to consider the archetype, circle it, unpack it, stumble upon some kind of recognition: Wait a second! Maybe I am a witch!
“It’s cool how people in the western world can take a description that has been used mostly as a slur, and turn it around to use as something empowering,” she says.
For thousands of years, witch was a term used to incite violence against women. By the most conservative estimates, half a million people, mostly women, were executed in the European witch craze between 1300 and 1650. Accusations of witchcraft were used against women, says Rousseau, “in ways that were extremely dangerous and terrifying. It was really about getting power from them, and getting land back. So, to use a word like that in an empowered way, even today, you have to know you’re safe to do it. And it’s important to realize that in many places in the world, it’s still not safe for women to say that. But if we can, in safe places, take that word and turn it around, that, to me, is extremely powerful.”
I wanted the bees to waggle-dance directions to my sunflowers to their hive-mates, I wanted the wandering garter snakes to nest in their hibernacula through the winter and bask in the long grass in the summer, I wanted to lie on my back and watch butterflies dance through the flowers and the hummingbirds zoom in and out, I wanted to inhabit innocence again.
Natalie herself embodies empowerment. Not in the traditional way I have come to recognize power — as someone standing over, dominating someone else, her source of power comes from within.
She doesn’t need to take any from her partner.
“Do you find this relationship at all emasculating?” I joke to Natalie’s husband.
“I don’t. Not at all. No,” he replies.
“We’ve always given each other space to be ourselves.”
But that’s not always a guarantee of safety.
If it is dangerous to be an empowered woman in the world, then it’s dangerous, too, for the men who love them.
Lyla June Johnston is an author and activist of Diné and European heritage. Her inquiry into her disowned European heritage led to a realization: The millions of women burned alive, drowned alive, dismembered alive, beaten, raped and otherwise tortured as so-called, “witches,” were not witches at all. They were the medicine people of old Europe. Her lens, as a contemporary indigenous woman, and as a survivor of sexual violence, helped her identify that those were the women who understood the herbal medicines, the ones who prayed with stones, the ones who passed on sacred chants. And the all-out warfare of the witch burnings didn’t just harm the women. It had a profound effect on the men who loved them, their husbands, sons, brothers. She recognizes the echo of this in the story of her own time, of her own people. “Nothing makes a man go mad like watching the women of his family get burned alive. If the men respond to this hatred with hatred, the hatred is passed on. And who can blame them? While peace and love are the correct response to hatred, it is not an easy response by any means.”
How many men have kept their women down, tried to keep them at home, have become the handcuffs that the women fought against because they were answering to their own unarticulated primal instinct to keep them safe?
Natalie Rousseau speculates, “I am sure historically you had lots of husbands telling their wives to tone it down, not because they didn’t respect their power, but because they were genuinely afraid. I’d apply that to any women described as uppity — getting involved politically, or getting involved in local stuff that’s happening, fighting for the environment: Stop getting noticed so much. This could be dangerous.”
Some dangers are too great to be able to protect each other from. And so we turn the fight on each other — little domestic power-trips that distract us from the fact that we’ve relinquished all our power any way to the Great Machine.
* * *
My tentative inquiries into witchcraft, becoming fluent in my own moods and emotions, and paying attention to the seasons, barely prepared me for the abrupt slow-the-fuck-down order that came when COVID-19 landed in British Columbia, in my village, as school broke for spring break. The emergency handbrake was pulled. Everything came to a squealing stop — all my plans, canceled; all the stores, closing; the whole damn world, under house arrest and in a panic. The whiplash from the stunning speed of that shift has left my whole being hypersensitive to any sudden movement, to being jerked around. But the first things I have staked my trust in, in that space of uncertainty, were Natalie’s teachings: First, trust your body. Pause. Listen.
In self-imposed isolation with my husband and just-turned-7-year-old, I dance with anxiety and curiosity and disconnection and too-much-information. The well-trodden pathways we have all been racing along, flexing our power and exercising our entitlements as consumers, are suddenly bordered up with emergency tape. This invitation that Natalie has been dripping out, month after month, takes root. There is far more potency available to us, than shopping, driving, holidaying, consuming, endlessly moving around the planet.
There is potency in all the feelings that have been showing up at my door. Oh, good morning frustration. Ah grief, yes, I suppose you’d like a cup of tea. Hello there, existential terror, I wondered when you’d pop by. There is potency in sitting with my back against a huge cedar tree and listening, in slowing down so much that I can give my 7-year-old my full attention. There is potency even in my words, when I soothe him down from a tantrum by saying, “you know, this is a really hard time for everyone in the whole world right now because no one knows what’s going to happen and no one can play with their friends. I’m really proud of you.” And I can feel his body relax into this space of being acknowledged in his struggles and his efforts.
I don’t know if there are any medicinal properties in the tincture of St John’s Wort and valerian that I drop into water and hand my husband, to gentle his nervous system. Or in the jar of immune-boosting oxymel, that I brewed up with grated ginger and turmeric and orange peel, and shake every day. But even if it’s a placebo, there’s a relief for me in feeling I can do something, can offer my people some kind of healing intention in a little glass, that I can acknowledge that this is hard for my husband too, and that acknowledgment isn’t a concession that takes away from my own sense of struggle.
For decades, we’ve bought into the illusion that our power is as consumers. Now that stores are closing and the shelves are emptying and we have to stay home and not immediately indulge every whim that arises, we all feel powerless. But that was never our truest source of power. There’s another source that we can all plug back into, our deep relationship and interbeing with the life force. Maybe, this is our threshold moment. Maybe, this is a chance to craft a few little spells, to speak the words of the world we long to inhabit — a place where the currency of kindness and wonder flow, where humans return to a deep memory of belonging among the plants and creatures, and to brew up a cup of tea, light a candle, and dream it into existence. Maybe it’s an invitation to say, “I’m sorry, we didn’t mean to, I will try and be more careful,” and to build a little altar, even if you feel kind of cray cray doing it. Let your nervous system settle as you invent some small ritual, (just ask your inner 5-year-old for guidance, she probably remembers exactly what to do), and make a gesture of repair.
“I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have on my Apocalypse team,” I tell my husband, the night the global virus countertops 400,000. He’s been chopping wood, auditing the pantry, getting our kid across the finish line of the LEGO project that has absorbed him for four days. My husband was a farm kid. He’s always been practical, my polar opposite. Even when we have battled each other, (am I giving up too much of my power to him? If I acknowledge his pain and his needs, will that cancel mine out?) I’ve always known he would do anything to keep me safe. “Not that I can request an upgrade now,” I joke. “But I bet you’re glad to be stuck with me. One always wants a daydreamer at your side in a pinch.”
“Oh yeah,” he spoofs me: “’ The stock market is collapsing, let me just go check my Tarot cards.’”
We laugh. And hold each other. We can’t buy our way out of this. None of us. Our entire species, our global community, is being vividly reminded that we are all in this together, inextricably connected, epidemiologically entwined, in our vulnerability and our sweet potential. We didn’t need Amazon and airlines and online shopping to know what the witches have been telling us all this time. All the power we need is right here — between us, around us, within us. We just have to remember it.
Editor: Carolyn Wells