Cascara Sagrada: Sacred Bark of Letting Go

Cascara Sagrada: Sacred Bark of Letting GoMay 2010

A dream…

I am sitting in a room with a male forest being. He is brown with strips of bark hanging from his clothes. He looks at me with a glimmer in his eye, "You know Cascara is good for stubborn blockages."

"Yes, I know"

"No, I mean stubborn blockages." As he emphasizes "blockages" I understand that he means mental, spiritual, and emotional blockages.

He says, "Rhamnus, like the Ram" as he pounds his fist into his open palm.

I had long understood that constipation was somehow related to holding on in the mental/emotional sense. A plant had arrived in my life to show me how to transform these blockages…

Cascara Sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana) is a small tree that inhabits the forests of the Pacific Northwest. It bears the unique characteristic of having naked buds. Before World War II, it was the laxative plant for the United States. It is still official in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia. Due to ignorance of its growth habit by collectors of the bark, it was almost harvested to endangerment. Harvesters of Chittum Bark (as it is also known) would strip the bark from the trunks of standing trees. This girdling cuts off the flow of nutrients from the upper parts of the to the lower part and vice versa and the tree dies. If, however, one were to cut the tree down, it would re-sprout from the base and continue living.

For our purposes today, we can harvest thumb-sized or bigger branches (the "rule of thumb") or find a recently fallen tree. I try to artfully prune when doing so (e.g. trimming a branch that is growing inward or crossing over a branch from another tree) as if I were shaping a tree in my garden. This helps the tree use its energy in a more economical way.

Last year I was in the woods searching for a good Cascara tree to harvest from. I passed many smaller trees and finally came to one that seemed ideal to harvest from. It had many large branches in all directions. I asked for permission to harvest. It said, "No." I was slightly perplexed but continued on. The trunk of the next tree I came to had cracked in half at about eye level. It was still barely attached and alive. I asked for permission and got a "Yes!" Most of the barks that I harvest these days come in this way or from a fallen tree.

Harvest the bark when the sap is running; that is some time after the leaves have emerged. You know you've got it at the right time when the bark easily separates from the branch or trunk wood. After drying the bark, place it in a paper bag or burlap sack in a cool, dry, and dark place and let it age for a year before using it as a medicine. It is too strong and harsh when fresh and will cause intense cramping in the gut and dry heaves from behind—aka "intestinal griping." (Trust me. I've tried the fresh bark tea, and it’s not fun.)

I prefer to work with it as a tincture—dried aged bark 1:5 75% alcohol. You can give several droppersful before bed to ensure a full evacuation, but this can stress the large intestine and colon and, particularly in older folks or someone recovering from an illness, further weaken the bowels and exacerbate the root of the problem. I have found that 5-10 drops is a good dose to tonify the bowels. It may take a few days to get good movement, but the system of elimination will be left stronger and in better working order. Continue taking for a period of weeks to achieve the full benefits.

Here are some of my experiences of Cascara:

Why do you have naked buds? "We have nothing to hide."

Vision of me as I am today, but being molested from behind like I was as a young child. I can’t see what is behind going on behind me. I am bored, wondering when it'll end. My lower back is energetically releasing. I can't wait any longer. I get up and grab the man by the throat. It is a half-hearted attempt. I am bored even by this. I have no energy for it. Still I throw him to the ground and smash his head. I expect to feel his skull crush and his blood and brains to fly about, but he is made of paper. All the while a running commentary is playing in my head. I am bored of that too. Cascara is showing me the mind’s role in perpetuating the trauma through thoughts. The energy from my lower back reverberates in peristaltic waves through my entire being. I feel connections from the tension there to my legs, shoulders, and neck. "Sing, sing, heal," a voice says in my head. My second chakra opens and the void is filled. A part of me has returned.

I experience myself as the tree and see how, if only the outer layer is stripped off, the central core will die. With this inner part of me "cut" out, new aspects can emerge. I see my wife and son, and how this is the new trunk that will grow to support my life and being. I open my eyes. I see the group sitting in the circle. The area in the center between us is the stump of our culture and society. We are the new shoots that will grow in its place.

Several days later I am locked up again. My low back in pain. I again feel all of the points in my body where the tensions are linked: my neck, shoulders, legs, and the area behind my heart. I really feel into the tensions. I struggle to find the window of acceptance that Cascara has opened for me. It is there, but the waves of energy are much more subtle than before. I see the part of me wants to get pulled down into the mire of self-defeat and despair; the part that feels alone and unsupported.

The rest of my day goes on like this. I am watching my 17 month old son and finding it hard to tune in to the healing energies as he goes about his business, dragging me along. We take a nap together. The beings are there working with me. Later that night I have time to myself to sing and pray.

When I wake up in the morning I remember that it is an expression of family love that can fill in this space of locked up fearful expression. My son is there in bed with my wife and I—jubilant in the new day chanting "Buddy" (his name for me) and reaching his hand out to me and giving me kisses. I feel this love for him and my wife filling the void; this place where a part of me feels like it was let down by my own nuclear family. I know that I can protect myself, thanks to the work that I've done with Devil's Club. Now I can receive the love that needs to fill in the space where fear and distrust have occupied my being.

Working with plants in this way demands action. It is not a passive experience. The more we give ourselves over to the relationships, the more we can receive in healing and knowledge. The plants have told me that it is not enough to remove the places of wounding, but that we must allow the divine expression that is blocked by trauma to flow through us and to fill in the void left by the trauma's removal. We need to develop deep relationships with these new energies, relationships as deep and intimate as the ones that are being replaced. In these stuck places our greatest gifts lie in potential, and the Plant Teachers that surround us await our call, prepared to guide us into the depths of our beings and to places of great universal remembrance.

Forest Medicine Healing Chant:

During this experience last year with Cascara, I was gifted with this song. It works well for clearing stuck energy; particularly after a lot of energetic healing has taken place.

A-yay-ya-wik-a-chay (4x) A-yay, A-yay, A-yay-ya-wik-a-chay (2x)

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