by Kiva Rose Hardin
“Myth is not much to do with the past, but a kind of magical present that can flood our lives when the conditions are just so. It is not just the neurosis of us humans trying to fathom our place on earth, but sometimes the earth actually speaking back to us. That’s why some stories can be hard to approach, they are not necessarily formed from a human point of view.” – Martin Shaw
Oftentimes, fairy tales are thought of as taking place in the boreal forest, under the flickering expanse of the northern lights and across moss so thick your footprints are swallowed up even as you run silently through the once-upon-a-time of the greenest of green.
And yet … where the veil thins, and sometimes disappears, has nothing to do with national borders or human expectations. It would be difficult indeed to find one’s self in the canyons of New Mexico, surrounded by the fire-flowered and green-thorned silhouettes of ocotillo and not strongly sense the nearness of that which is just beyond normal vision and consciousness. In the seductively sweet scent of night-blooming Mirabilis longiflora is the longing for a place both just beyond the next bend, and infinitely distant from the world we know. There are few places on this planet that unnerve and enchant folk the way this dramatic landscape does … and few plants that draw people to, and sometimes through, the veil the way these do.
Outsiders visiting during the dry season sometimes call New Mexico strange words like ‘barren’ or ‘badlands’. Stark as it may sometimes be, this place is neither barren nor badland. What is true is that sometimes the landscape is so dramatically different that outlanders have no words to describe what they’re seeing, and just as often don’t have the eyes to see beauty outside of our culture’s idealised agricultural bottomlands or deciduous forests.
Herbalists visiting from other parts of the country or world are often surprised to recognise plants from their own homes, even if they also seem a bit alarmed by the difference in habitat and growth habit. Black cherries, evergreen oaks, wild roses, goldenrod, milkweeds and violets abound, and even rowan, elder and various orchids are not uncommon here. Solomon’s seal and hawthorn are rarer, but can still be found if you know the forests well enough. Wild mushrooms, including many edible and medicinal species such as as morels, ganoderma, porcini and lobsters populate our upper elevation coniferous forests.
Fairy slippers and coralroot orchids thrive far from roads in the marshes, ciénegas, bogs, playas, and other wetlands few know even exist in the high elevation. The canyons of the otherworld are also populated by the unfamiliar spikes and spines of cacti, and vulnerable human skin is easily caught on the thorns and razored edges of plants like beargrass nolina and ocotillo. Even seemingly familiar plants such as redroot may adorn themselves with unfamiliar spikes and the marked scent of wintergreen.
New Mexico truly is the land of enchantment. The magic here is palpable, dappled as autumn light through cottonwood leaves, vivid as the scarlet stain of volcanic cliffs against the lapis sky. We live in the liminal. On the threshold, in the borderlands, in the ecotones where ecologies overlap and interweave. Where the veil peels back so far it becomes difficult to tell which world we are walking in; not a momentary flash of an unfamiliar landscape but a physical sense of vertigo where we wake up from the dream of civilisation long enough to experience a complete immersion in the otherness of our primal origin.
On summer nights, the daturas’ ivory buds spiral open into ghostly trumpets in the canyon’s dusk, shimmering with shades of violet and olive, humming with insect wings, singing to us like uncanny horns of the otherworld.
Behind and alongside, overlaying and underlying, in between and woven throughout, is the otherworld. The Land of the Living is only a breath away, in the space between one heartbeat and the next. While human psychology is deeply tied to our understanding of the otherworld, its existence is born of the innate magic of the land and is not dependent on the notice or belief of humans.
There is a reason that many of the most powerful stories of all times are told by those who seem strange or don’t fit into society, and are often labeled as outright crazy. Our sages and shamans, fairy doctors and wise women, poets and priests, have often lived apart from their community. At the edge of the woods where the brave will venture when they need a cure, a charm, a story, a ceremony. Regardless of the categories we create for scholarly convenience, all of these folks are healers in the sense that they work to restore wholeness to the world, often through the reconnection of people to place in some way.
To see or walk the otherworld is to step through the veil, something that is considered more accessible for humans on specific days of the years as occurs on the last day of October, on or around certain events such as a death or a birth, and to certain people, such as the blind, the neurodivergent, the childlike, and divinely inspired poets, musicians and artists. Those who have been broken by life and sewn back together by the sinew of their own grief also seem to have easier access to otherworld, as trauma has a way of opening the mind to perceptions and experiences that would otherwise be unavailable.
Like many autistics who have a limited capacity to ‘pass’ as fairly normal, I’ve spent a good part of my life trying to convince myself and those around me that I was just a little eccentric, an artist, but not innately flawed or strange. Many of us with the form of autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome have used the term ‘Wrong Planet Syndrome’ for our particular form of neurodivergence, and expressing how very different we are from those around us. While divergence by choice has many merits, the neurodivergent are most often born different, and will spend their lives thinking, feeling, and acting markedly other than their peers.
After a lifetime of relative reclusiveness, it is teaching that has taught me exactly how ‘other’ I actually am. For much of my childhood and teen years, I worked hard to act as if I understood and related to the underlying motivations and basic premises that those around me acted and spoke from. I only did a borderline passing job of it, with therapists and other mental health professionals diagnosing me with numerous learning disorders and mental illnesses, prescribing copious medication, but stopping short of insisting I be supervised or institutionalised.
I have spent my life keeping to the fringes of society, living on the streets as a teenager, raising my daughter in the swamps of Appalachia as a young, single mother, and only ever engaging the middle-class norm when I was forced to by the need for medical care or the occasional desperate attempt at romance.
I don’t mind the edges, for rare plants and odd folk grow here. Residing in these cultural and psychological borderlands resulted in some degree of internal normalisation of my own peculiarities. To the point that when I finally emerged from my own world to teach others about plants, I was entirely unprepared for the ways in which the average human thinks, speaks, and acts. Simple questions in class could alarm or confuse me for weeks at a time, and my personal interactions with students were frequently awkward as a result of my social handicaps and lack of cultural conditioning.
It has taken me decades to realise that, even after years of homelessness, sex work, and abuse, I am still incurably naive and unable to read or follow social cues in a functional way. As a child, I was certain I must have been adopted, or that I was from another world entirely. It seemed that every day my words, or lack thereof, continuously triggered anger or confusion in others. It was only when I worked in the garden or fled to fields and forest that I felt at all understood, or like I wasn’t plaguing others with my presence.
Even as a small child, feeling isolated and bereft as I attempted to communicate or share experiences with others. I wondered if I really belonged with my family. Having heard and read fairy tales as far back as I can remember, I clearly recall wondering if I might be a changeling. I imagined it would explain how troublesome I was, my mother recounting stories of how I never slept at night, insisting upon being outdoors all night long just to keep me from screaming. How I struggled to digest normal foods, and was sensorily overwhelmed by any unusual noise or movement, and hid from even friendly interest. How I loved plants above all things, and how my parents would find me half-buried in the root cellar as I sought to submerge myself in soil. How I walked on my toes and avoided human touch. It also occurred to me that somewhere or sometime there might be creatures more like me, and roused some hope that I might just be different, rather than broken.
Of course, as appealing as I found these stories to be, changelings are not necessarily a boon or a blessing to the humans they’re left with. Most readers will still remember that these change-children are fairy creatures substituted for human babies. And given the current Victorian interpretation of fairies as sweet-tempered, diminutive creatures with a penchant for love and light, you could be forgiven for not understanding why a changeling isn’t a desirable thing, or even a gift. But changelings aren’t cherubic replicas of humans born with a magic wand. Rather, they’re what was once called eldritch. As in otherwordly, as in something that doesn’t belong here and that humans usually perceive as sinister, or uncanny at the very least.
The change-child may be born wizened or deformed, may wail incessantly or take to speaking when only a few months old, may dance like a fiend or run away at every chance, may be forever silent or only ever laugh. Whatever they are, it is other. In the old stories, they leave changelings where the tide can take them, or stick hot pokers down their throats to the drive out the devil. These days, they’re usually medicated beyond recognition, although even now, it’s not too difficult to find stories of autistic children tormented by their caregivers, or even murdered by their parents.
Given my odd effect on people over the years, simultaneously attracting, bemusing, and riling them, often to obsessive levels, I have continued to identify with the term changeling. Perhaps at no point more than now when the standard for normal has become increasingly oppressive and insistent. Rather than fight it as I did in my teens, I’ve begun to embrace it. Here in the thorned forests of New Mexico, I finally feel at home in a landscape as wild and strange as I am. And as I’ve found my own small community of misfits and outcasts, folk born autistic as well as the willfully divergent, the scarred and the brave, I feel less adrift on the normative seas than I have at any other time in my life. In fact, I’m beginning to celebrate it.
One uniting factor in the herbal community seems to be among those practitioners who remember the importance of story as medicine, as was as originally recognised in many traditional cultures where wise women and fairy doctors were also storytellers. This thread of myth woven through the consciousness of these herbalists finds its way into their plant remedies as well, until the medicine of each become inseparable each from the other. Myth is seeded and sprouted from this place that is the ground beneath our feet, but oftentimes only seen through a rising mist or in times of deepest trauma or wildest ecstasy. It is those who are most other who are also most in touch with the otherworld itself.
Mythopoetic plant medicine
Mythopoetic plant medicine is engaging with the green world in such a way as to create, grow, heal, and live from a mythic dimension. It is the work of understanding life through the lens of adaptive myth, and contributing to the birth of new stories from the living land. This, in turn, can result in the healing of people in their connection to plants and planet.
The most profoundly powerful storytellers, and those who have the deepest connection to the otherworld, are those who understand that story is not static or a creation of the human mind, but rather a living thing born from our relationship with place, rooted in both current and ancient context. Mythmaking is not an artificial process as some academics claim, if only because true myth can never stem from an independent mind but is, by its very nature, the offspring of intimate relationship with place, story, and culture. The most powerful of all myths, from any time, tend to originate from the perspective of the more than human world. Through the eyes of a salmon, from the vantage point of a raven, from the memory of stones, in the murmured words of the water. Story is not strictly a human territory, it runs through world like sparkling veins of quartz in basalt rockface.
Walking beneath the centuries old canopy of ponderosas in my canyon home, I feel as if I am in a cathedral of remembering, being filled over and over with the myths that have been, are, and will be. The medicine of the sapphire-lipped sages and green-footed lilies is not only in their ephemeral bodies, but in the long lives of their kind, and the wisdom we two-footed creatures have received by living in relationship with them. In story, in ceremony, in community, in silence.
This is the evolving tradition of mythopoetic plant medicine that I call my own, the embodiment and expression of the stories that run through my veins and lead me, always, back to the plants. The daily devotion of not just recognising the stories, but sharing them in a way that brings other changelings back to the rooted wonderment of this work. Offering my hand to those who need healing not just in body, but at the deepest levels of the psyche, where so many have forgotten the remedy that binds us to place, that calls us home, and pulls back the veil between common consciousness and the worlds waiting beyond. The remedy that allows us to return through the rising mist to the land of the living.