Rain-Soaked Herbal Inspiration

Northern California Women’s Herbal Symposium

“Come on! This is supposed to be our fun weekend together. Let’s just all try to calm down and get along,” said Ciel, as she dumped another bag on top of the teetering pile in the driveway.

“I’ll be just fine,” I spit out through gritted teeth. “If I can just get this $#@! tailgate open so we can load up!”

The day had arrived. Our long-awaited mother daughter excursion to the Northern California Women’s Herbal Symposium. We’d been attempting to synchronize our schedules for the last couple of years without success, and this year we’d finally managed it.

I was appalled to realize it had been seven years since I’d traveled to Laytonville to join the sacred fire circle and this tribe of witchy, plant-loving women.

This year I’d be returning with both of my grown daughters. As wee ones they’d frolicked with the hordes of children that attend the gathering, crafting fairy wings and flower head wreaths or getting their faces painted in the childcare teepee, while their moms took notes on medicinal uses of herbs and identified the wild plants that proliferate on the land.

Later, as adolescents, they each participated in the rite-of-passage ceremony for maidens who have begun their periods. In this ritual the maidens are honored and sung to by hundreds of mothers and crones, welcoming them to the creative power of womanhood.

Now Ciel and Rosie looked forward to attending workshops as adults and learning about the healing powers of the plants from a diverse group of experts. We’d sunbathe by the river, painting our bodies with clay. We’d chant and dance around the campfire together.

But, as so often happens when trying to get out of town, we were getting off to a rocky start as we scrambled to assemble all the necessary camping gear, warm clothes to protect ourselves from the frosty night-time chill and load it up in Tim’s truck.

I’d awakened at first light to raindrops softly brushing the bedroom windows – usually a soothing sound, but not when I’m off for four days of camping in the mountains. It’s going to clear up, I told myself as I brushed my teeth and glumly watched the puddles filling in the driveway.

And, to my delighted surprise, by the time we pulled out the skies had cleared and temps had risen so high that I changed into flip-flops and forgot my jacket.

We picked up Rosie’s friend, Anna, who would be attending the Symposium for the first time, completed all those last-minute errands, and, although we were three hours behind schedule by the time we got on the freeway our moods lifted and excitement and anticipation once again reigned.

Getting ready to masquerade. Ciel, myself and sister Lisa.

How could I have stayed away for so long, I wondered on Friday evening as sparks rose up to the stars. I gazed at the open faces of old and new friends around the fire – women who’d traveled from as far as Colorado to be a part of this healing gathering.

One by one, we spoke up sharing the pain, the love and the stories of the last years. As each woman introduced herself we repeated her name in welcome. Tears and laughter punctuated the stories as we wove a web of safety and healing around ourselves. And though we shivered in our wool ponchos, scarves and stocking caps, an inner warmth flared in my belly.

I’ve really missed this, I realized. I tried to gather courage to speak out to the crowd. I knew I wanted to put my sister-in-law, Sheila, who is battling breast cancer and healing from a recent mastectomy, into the circle for some group healing. But I also wanted to express my own inner struggles, and my need to break free of the self-imposed restrictions that are holding me back from pursuing my dreams and realizing my own potential.

“Hi, I’m Ciel,” my daughter spoke up behind me. And choruses of “Hi Ciel, and Welcome Ciel!” responded.

Nervously, she proceeded, telling how wonderful it was to be back after enjoying so many weekends here as a child and young girl. “Tonight I have someone I want to put into the circle for healing,” she said. She explained about her boyfriend’s mother suffering from Stage Four pancreatic and lymphatic cancer.

Nymiah, an old friend and Symposium regular, invited Ciel to tell us what she would like us to all do for Laura, and Ciel was quick to respond.

“Well, when I was 10 years old I remember being around this fire and we would all sing the person’s name,” she said. “I guess I’d like it if we could all sing Laura’s name.”

And so we did, the melody of her name lifting to the night sky, infused with the good intention of all those women.

A bit later I did speak, and we sang Sheila’s name. I managed to share some of what I was feeling about my own life transition, but wonder why I struggled with articulating my feelings since I was in such a safe and supportive circle. The answers to that are another story I guess.

Uplifted by our first evening campfire circle, I tried not to complain too much as Ciel and I snuggled into the tent trying to get comfortable. Our teeth chattered despite being fully layered in down jackets and two pairs of pants. We’ll warm up, I assured her.

But icy drafts crept in through the cracks in the covers and neither of us grew remotely warm for the entirety of that first night. Memo to self:  do not use an air mattress without insulating it underneath when the temperatures are dipping into the low 30’s.

So, at Saturday breakfast my mood was less than cheery as I huddled in my camp chair, spooning up cold oatmeal and pulling my scarf tighter.

Rosie, Anna and Ciel attempt to stay warm on Saturday morning

Then I felt the first drop.

That’s just some dew, I thought and I gazed up at the leaden sky.

“I just felt a drop,” my friend Joanne said, looking up.

“That’s not rain!” Rosie declared. “It’s going to be sunny and hot today.” Rosie had insisted all week that we would be enjoying bathing suit weather for the weekend, despite forecasts to the contrary. She’s a strong-willed girl and I almost believed she could will Mother Nature into submission.

But…not today. Those first few sprinkles quickly became a downpour sending me sprinting for my tent for my raincoat and boots.

A flurry of activity ensued as rain flies were staked down, and canopies (held up by nine women, one per pole) were moved into place to cover outdoor workshop areas.

“Site 3 is moving to the Wellness Tent,” a voice shouted.

Now, I’m the first to admit it: I’m pretty much of a wimp about camping in the rain. And camping in the cold rain….well, let’s just say if it wasn’t the Herbal Symposium I would’ve already been packing the car. But, if there’s anyone possibly even more wimpy than me, that would be my daughter, Ciel. With Rosie taking up a close second.

“What are we going to do?” Ciel wanted to know.

“Well, let’s just see what happens,” I replied, now fueled by a hot cup of coffee.  “You never know, this could end soon and it might be clear and beautiful in a few hours.”

We all sloshed over to the “Aromatherapy for the Nervous System” workshop taught by Arcata herbalist Christa Sinadinos, which had thankfully been moved inside to the Wellness Tent.

The rain beat down on the tarp, leaking through tiny holes, and causing Symposium workers to periodically appear with long poles which they poked up along the edges to slosh pools of water over the edge, thus preventing the entire tent from collapsing.

Christa rubbed her hands together, pulling gloves on and off to open each bottle of essential oil, or to write on the board and struggled to be heard above the thunderous downpour. We all shivered on our blankets and camp chairs as we passed around the oils.

But, amazingly, I ended up with pages of notes and renewed inspiration to pull out my oils and begin using them again. Rosie kept looking meaningfully over her shoulder at me as she recognized her own anxiety symptoms. Thanks Christa for inspiring us with some great new ideas!

And then it was time to pull up our hoods and step out into the freezing rain again. We stood on the muddy path waiting for lunch to be served and our friend Raven walked up.

“How’re you guys doing?”

“Well, as best we can, considering,” I gestured around to the hunched over crowd and streaming rain coats. “At least we have decent gear.”

“Well, my feet are soaked,” Raven said, looking down at her tennis shoes. “These are supposed to be gortex, but…”

“Oh, no! No boots?” I asked.

“We’re thinking about getting a motel,” said Raven.

“You mean, pack up and bail?” I asked.

“No, just leave everything set up and go get a motel, then come back tomorrow. A nice warm motel room, dry off and have a shower. Eat a hot dinner…”


“Mom, let’s do it!” Ciel urged.

“We-el, we’re definitely interested,” I told Raven. “Let’s see how things are looking after lunch.”

So tempting. And so privileged.

“I think we should try to tough it out,” I told the girls. “But let’s just see if this keeps up.”

“Actually, it looks like the sky is getting a little lighter,” Anna said.

I looked over, the heavy grey did appear to be shifting to a lighter hue. And the rain had mellowed to a drizzle.

“There’s a patch of blue!” Rosie cried.

A group of us spontaneously broke out into the strains of Here Comes The Sun, then followed up with a kid’s song, led by Anna, “Hey Mr. Sun, Mr. Golden Sun, please shine down on me-e-e-!”

Mother Nature and the Goddess were smiling indeed, because by the time we held plates of food, the sun shimmered on the raindrops. The crowd whooped and roared, and murmurs rippled estimating how long it would take to dry up the mud.

I set up my chair on a sunny patch of grass for the next workshop, and peeled off the raincoat, then the down jacket as I began to sweat.

But within a half hour dark clouds blocked the bright orb and a few minutes later new drops were falling. Our group hurriedly gathered our things and moved en masse to a spot underneath a tarp.

Oh well.

The afternoon continued with half-hour downpours punctuated by ten tantalizing minutes of sunshine which would only give way to a fresh and freezing rainfall.

Ciel and Santa Cruz friend, Carmen, ready to masquerade

So much for the planned masquerade party to celebrate the Symposium’s 21st birthday, I thought. How was that going to happen?

Well, those Symposium organizers it pulled off with aplomb, despite the downpour. Some women tossed away concerns about warmth and dryness and donned celebratory plumage and glitter on bare skin. Others like me, threw on some trinkets and colorful scarves over our multiple layers.

More masquerade fun.

We all squeezed into the Wellness Tent, plates brimming with an Ethiopian feast. After dinner, one corner of the stage flashed with a slide show of photos and video footage from past Symposiums while organizers and attendees shared their favorite Symposium memories.

For the promised evening entertainment beloved songstresses Francine and Nymiah took the stage harmonizing heartfelt songs of love, resistance and healing.

“Do you think Nymiah remembers me dancing around the living room when I was 7 and doing splits while she played drums?” Ciel asked, while we swayed to the familiar tunes and sang along with the choruses.

Rosie gazed on starry-eyed. She recognized the songs from babyhood but had never seen the duo perform live.

“That was sick!” she proclaimed after the set, raising her fist in the air. (using the word ‘sick’ in a positive way of course.) “I want the CD!”

More women stepped up to the mikes, singing and playing as the night wore on, a new take on the campfire talent show of former years.

Slices of chocolate cake were passed around, a Saturday night dessert tradition. And in a special 21-year-birthday treat, popcorn popped in a giant cauldron outside the tent. Women milled around, some arm-in-arm, eating, sipping tea, singing and chatting.

By the time we wandered back to bed, eyes beginning to close, stars glimmered in a cloud-free sky.

“It’s definitely going to be sunny and hot tomorrow,” Rosie proclaimed.

And this time, she was right. Sunday morning the only things sunnier than the skies was the smiles on all of our faces.

Ciel shops for feather hair clips during sunny Sunday afternoon marketplace

Sure, it didn’t heat up enough to strip down and dive in the river, but handmade goods sparkled in the afternoon marketplace, and not a down jacket could be seen.

Later, we welcomed the Maidens to womanhood in the annual ceremony, the Crones waved their hand-made brooms in celebration and the women drummed, danced and chanted into the darkness

Terri drums in the spirts as we parade before Sunday’s maiden ceremoney

around the blazing fire.

No way was some freezing rain going to stop this crowd of wild and witchy women from enjoying their weekend together. Another year of ancient wisdom shared and living on.

A motel? What were we thinking??

As we circled up to say goodbye on Monday afternoon, tears welled up as we held  hands and moved in a spiral singing to each other. One of my favorite Symposium regulars, Copperwoman, led us with her guitar:

Older, Wiser, Stronger, Lighter
As the winters and the summers
Pass us by..

We are blessed indeed!

2 Responses to Rain-Soaked Herbal Inspiration

  1. Lovely, Sarah. How sweet to enjoy that weekend with your girls. Wow. It reminds me a little of the Spare Change dinner that I just came back from. It’s amazing what a gathering full of positive people can do to a person’s mood. That kind of focused, intentional meeting of people who are committed to being authentic and real with each other… it always seems to lead to gratitude and grace–no matter the weather. Love to you and yours, and I’m so glad you had a beautiful time!

  2. I felt like I was there!

    What interesting things you must have learned. If you ever feel like sharing some secrets of plants and oils, please do; I’m fascinated.

    The camaraderie of female friends and our daughters is priceless.

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