Grief Medicine: Douglas Fir

Pseudotsuga menziesii

The soul was never meant to be seen completely, with brightness or with too much clarity. The soul is always more at home with a light that has hospitality to shadow.
—John O’Donoghue, Anam Cara

Ahhh…the Douglas fir. Just the thought of it…and I take a deep breath. I feel a sense of relief and my body relaxes a little. Such a faithful friend.

You can see its blue-green coniferous branches grandly reaching to even the highest canopies of the West from Northern California to Canada and even to Colorado (a slightly different species). It is one of the tallest trees around, higher on average even than the tiptop-high redwoods.

IMG_1894Some of my most evocative and fond memories are of collecting Douglas fir. I would go out on misty days in late March or April, with my trusty companion, Liam-the-Dog, hiking for hours far up into the hills of a property a friend had agreed to allow us to forage in. Being alone in a forest, surrounded by these slowly waving giants, is a feeling that almost cannot be described. Their presence is palpable, their medicine all around, dripping to the forest floor and floating in the fog. Always on the watch for the poison oak and minty yerba buena that can grow beneath, I let myself be drawn from tree to magnificent tree…the ones that had something for me. I felt that these old Douglas firs seemed surprised to see such tiny creatures below, scrabbling through the undergrowth to get to them. It must have been a rarity. They seemed pleased to be found, and didn’t seem to mind the interaction: me pulling fresh, bright green tips into my bag to use for teas and medicines.

When I was first getting to know Douglas fir, it felt light. The lemony scent and taste of the needles, and the almost lace-like fir fingers, seemed to dispel heaviness in me and bring a little lift. Luckily, I didn’t stop looking there. The Douglas fir has another side to its medicine, a complexity that holds both shadow and depth. In its capacity to hold both light and dark, Douglas fir can thrive in full sun or in shade. It is flexible and tenacious, growing at sea level and all the way to 5,000 feet. Unlike our mysterious and slow-growing lichen friend, Usnea, Douglas fir can grow rapidly, up to two feet annually.

I love to think of grief as a dance between light and shadow, a dance only aided by fluidity and the ability to relax into the waves of feeling as they come through. Holding only the light invites the shadow to go underground. You need a medicine that can help you hold the sadness as it does its dance within….and then, on the other end, days or months or years later, you can harvest whatever comes from the openings and understandings. Douglas fir will help you with this; its medicine is there for us, whether we ask for it or not.

For someone who is deeply grieving, I would not recommend a medicine that doesn’t hold both light and shadow. Aspen or cottonwood is too bright and direct. Oak holds shadow, but the magic there is ancient and has a kind of prickliness—not what you want when you are grieving. Redwood has so much shadow that it’s better medicine for those who have trouble slowing down and looking within.

For grief, what better medicine than Douglas fir? It has evolved to hold light and shadow, to tenaciously grow, reaching the highest canopies where insight and long vision prevail. There is nothing like getting a good view from high up to see the bigger picture and to gain perspective. And then to root yourself into the moist duff of the forest floor when that becomes too much.

Uses for Douglas Fir Medicine

Native Americans used Douglas fir in many ways. The needles (like many conifers) contain Vitamin C and were one of its few sources in the winter of that immune-boosting nutrient. The needles, bark, and twigs were used as anti-bacterial/ microbial poultices and infusions for wounds, colds, and coughs as well as for everything from rheumatism to bladder and kidney complaints.

Many tribes used the branches or bark ceremonially. One source describes that bereaved members of the Okanagan-Colville Tribes of British Columbia and Washington would scrub themselves with Douglas fir boughs as a purification ritual.

Today, though well embraced by wild food/medicine enthusiasts, Douglas fir is rarely used by herbalists. I’m not sure why. It is not a powerhouse, knock-your-symptoms-out kind of a plant medicine, but it is a great tonic and immune booster. I think it works on a more systemic and certainly more subtle level, reaching deep into your being and helping you to heal from the inside out. Those who do use it have found, as I have, that it is gently warming and immune boosting. As a mild expectorant for the lung, it allows the lungs to release mucus—and grief—held there. In a bath, it can be soothing to the joints and to aches and pains.

Preparing Your Own Medicine

Finding Douglas fir is not hard in the areas where it grows. If you find an “evergreen” tree, look at the cones and at the needles. As the saying goes, “Just remember that fir is flat, pine is in pairs (or 3s or 4s) and spruce is square.” Even though Douglas fir isn’t technically a fir, it does have flat needles, arranged like a pipe cleaner around the stem. If you see the needles in clumps of more than one, it’s not a fir. The Douglas fir is definitively identified by its cone, 3-5″ long, which has a unique pattern that looks like little creatures are burying themselves into the cone, showing only their hind legs and tails.

One of my favorite teas—and one that is requested by my friends—is a simple infusion of the fresh green tips of Douglas fir new growth with hawthorne berries and raspberry leaves. The hawthorne is nourishing to the heart and the raspberry leaves are nourishing to the body.

Besides in teas and baths, allow the Douglas fir medicine into your life by placing it on your altar, or spending time in forests where it grows. Diane Beresford-Kroeger, an Irish-Canadian researcher, scientist, and nature mystic, writes about the “ocean of aerosols” that we breathe when we walk in the forest. She writes:

Forest bathing or a short, leisurely walk through forests is a very old health practice. Thousands of years old, it is a form of natural aromatherapy where the medicinal aerosol load changes from north to south and forest to forest. The Japanese call it “Shinrin-yoku.” The Irish Celts called it “Tig allais.” The aboriginal peoples of North America used the aromatherapy in the more formal, clinical manner of the sweat lodge. Even the Victorians took “The Cure.”

In essence, just by being around a tree or plant, we are breathing in their medicine and taking their medicinal compounds into our own lungs to do their work there. In a beautiful exchange, we offer our carbon dioxide, which brings them life, and we offer our thanks.

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