Finding the Trail Head: The Story at the Heart of Plant Spirit Life

In 1997, I was a young massage therapist just seven months out of massage school. I was already a semi-knowledgeable aromatherapist, having used plant essential oils to support four years spent as a clinical hypnotherapist. It was this background in aromatherapy and clinical hypnosis that helped me land a job at a busy and successful massage clinic focusing on clients recovering from car accidents and sports injury.

At the time, I was keenly interested in exploring essential oils and their effects on injured muscle and connective tissue (soft-tissue). I knew all of the chemical components of each of the oils I used, and which oils could reliably reduce inflammation, decrease stress responses that caused muscle guarding, increase blood flow to local tissue, and act to reduce pain sensations. Clients would come in with an injury and I would carefully choose essential oils based on the level of inflammation in the tissue and apply the oils during the massage with the client’s permission.

Clients were intrigued by essential oils, especially the ones I used for soft-tissue injury, like German chamomile, bay laurel, sweet marjoram, hyssop, sweet birch, pine, eucalyptus, and helichrysum. These oils have real, earthy aromas and don’t smell false and overly sweet like the “aromatherapy” candles and fragrances people are used to from grocery stores and gift shops. Many clients noticed improved therapeutic outcomes when essential oils were used during their massages. They would ask me to make them blends to use at home in-between massages and I did, carefully recording blends and results with all the gleeful zeal of a scientist want-to-be.

Then one day I was in the break room with some colleagues when the clinic manager asked us to come out to the reception area. A potential client wanted to meet the therapists. I walked into the reception area with the others and shook hands with the potential client when it was my turn. I liked her instantly. There was something about her that said, “I am human. I am real. I am struggling. I am strong.” When we shook hands she looked me right in the eye with a searching gaze that asked, “Who are you?”

Later I learned that she had booked an appointment with me and I felt a surge of pleasure. The other therapists at the clinic were all highly skilled and exceptional and I knew without false humility that I was the least accomplished person on the massage team. I vowed to give my new client; I’ll call her Carole to protect her real identity, a massage to justify her choice, despite my inexperience.

Carole sat forward in her chair, looking at me intently while I conducted a by-the-book health intake interview. I could sense her impatience and I hesitated for a moment with my question about her current medications. She took a deep breath and said, “I’m just going to tell you flat out what I want – okay?” “Okay. Yes.” I said shaking my head. Carole spoke slowly in a calm, factual voice. She said, “Two months ago I lost my daughter. She was murdered in a freak incident – the wrong place at the wrong time – it wasn’t her fault.” I felt my stomach contract and the blood drain from my face but I didn’t say anything. I just shook my head that I understood. “My family fell apart – everyone is falling apart – and I have to hold it all together.” She pauses and looks at me with her unflinching eyes and I shake my head that I understand. “I want to lay on that table…” she gestures at the massage table, “and I want to cry. I can be strong for everyone all day long but when I come in here I want to cry. I don’t want any pity. I don’t want you to say anything calming or reassuring. I just want you to give me whatever type of massage you give and I want you to let me cry. Can you do that?” I shake my head “yes”.

For three months I give Carole a weekly massage while she sobs brokenheartedly on the massage table. Often, her grief overwhelms me and I find myself crying too and wiping my streaming eyes on my sleeve while I massage. We don’t talk much before, during, or after sessions, but I feel that I know Carole deeply and I feel a huge sense of honor that she shares with me her pain and vulnerability. Perhaps it is this false sense of knowing another spirit that makes me bold, because one day, as she is sitting up on the massage table and I am getting ready to leave the room so she can dress, I say, “Carole, I’m an aromatherapist. I use essential oils – they are natural plant essences – for healing. With your permission I want to make a blend of essential oils that represent the spirit of your daughter and use them in your massage. Would that be alright?”

Carole looks down for a moment, thinking, and then looks up to meet my eyes with her steady gaze. “How will you know which plants are like my daughter?” she asks. I hadn’t really thought about this. I didn’t actually know how I would pick essential oils to represent her daughter. I had spoken hastily, out of a longing to do more to support Carole in her grieving process. Now, I follow my instinct. “You tell me some of the things you like most about her spirit and I’ll pick plant oils that have those qualities.”

Carole nods slowly and her face turns suddenly dreamy and she says softly, “She takes pleasure in little things, in little moments – things other people wouldn’t even notice. She is alive to all that is light and color around her. And she is brave.” Carol shakes her head decisively. “Not that she does crazy or dangerous things. I mean that she stands up for people, even when it is unpopular. She makes sure that everyone feels they belong.” Carole smiles at me now and a tear runs down her face. “She always has a big perspective on the world. It is as if she can hold the past, the present, and the future together in one moment. She never gets lost in a difficulty. She always views hard times as momentary – fleeting – something that will change on its own if you just sit still long enough. I learned that from her. I learned to sit still, even in this, from my daughter.” I shake my head and smile and my eyes fill up with tears. We look at each other for a long moment and then I leave the room so Carole can get dressed.

In the restroom where I wash my hands, I look at myself in the mirror and I panic. What am I thinking? What came over me? How can I create a blend to represent Carole’s daughter and if I can, what good will it do? How will it even help the situation? I consider telling Carole that I’m a complete fraud who overstepped the boundaries of therapeutic practice and apologize, but something stops me. I decide instead to give it my best shot and to offer aromatherapy with a sincere heart to another heart that is in pain.

I go to my library of aromatherapy, ethnobotany, herbalism, and plant medicine books. I ignore the well-referenced sections filled with essential oil chemistry, researched effects of essential oils on pathogens, and standard therapeutic practice. I’m looking for something different. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I can feel it out there and I can feel it inside myself. It lies somewhere in the history of our human bond to plants as food, medicine, pleasurable aromas, and as a means to control the forces of a harsh world on our fragile ties with life.

What I find in my quest to create a blend to represent Carole’s daughter is a trailhead for the path I’ve followed to the present time and will continue to follow for the rest of my life. This trail often leads through difficult terrain where fear and insecurity, where suffering and pain, where our associations with change, loss, and death leave us confused, numb, abstracted, disconnected, or exiled. But it also leads us to that place where the pleasure we derive from human relationships, from the beauty of the natural world, and from our wild, imaginative dreams for the future fill us with a deep sense of connection, with tenderness for ourselves and others, and with the most vital joy and feelings of belonging.

Here is what I know now – every plant has a history that links it to humans in a special way. Every plant has a story that can change your life. Each essential oil, or flower remedy, or herbal tincture has come from a plant that has grown in a place where the sun and wind and rain have traveled across the landscape in a particular pattern. It has been extracted in a precise manner so as to obtain a refined and perfected essence. Just as myths are sacred tales that explain the world, answer timeless questions, and reflect a collective wisdom about the nature of human experience, plant products give us guidance that help us interact with ourselves, others, and the world around us in deeper and more meaningful ways.

The blend I made for Carol’s daughter was bright with citrus, woody and spicy with cedar and clove, and green with the fragrance of silver fir. Carole connected with the aroma instantly and I made up a big batch set in a base of avocado and cold-pressed sunflower oil. We used it as the massage lubricant for all of Carole’s massages from that day forward.

About four months later, at the end of a session, I told Carole that I was almost out of her daughter’s blend and I would have to make up more before the next session. Carole nodded and I left the room so she could dress. I came back to process her payment and she looked at me with her unwavering eyes, gave me a big hug and said, “I’m done now. I’m done.” I nodded solemnly that I understood, handed Carole the very last of the blend, hugged her once more, and she was gone. I knew I wouldn’t see her again but I also knew that I had somehow helped. And even more than that, she had helped me. Carole had shifted me in a way that would influence my life forever. Today, I teach friends, clients, health care practitioners, and everyone who will listen, how to use plants to inspire positive change in their own lives, the lives of their clients and patients, and the lives of their loved ones.

I offer the information on this website in gratitude to everything that makes us delicate, breakable, and human. I hope that the lessons, practices, applications, and devotions, help you grapple with hard questions and feelings, confront yourself and your life, cope with losses, and then, miraculously find your way forward into new territory. I hope Plant Spirit Life supports you as you connect with your love ones and personal passions, celebrate your strengths, experience gratitude for all the good things, and dance in happiness. It is from a deep exploration and a turning toward those things that break our hearts, shift our consciousness, wake us from our walking trance states, or fill us with joy that we are able to hold our most profound conversations and live in a place of vulnerable and transcendent connection with the world. Here’s to plants! Here’s to our beautiful spirits! Here’s to our amazing lives!