I live in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce in the western part of Montreal, a borough full of gardens, alleyways resembling country lanes, and gracious old trees—sugar maples, white birches, red ash, white oak, elm, and pine. Walking up my street, Rue Royal, I pass Lower Canada College with its spacious sports fields surrounded by numerous hardwoods, home to kills of crows. Rounding the corner onto Monkland Avenue, I arrive at our local Jean Coutu. Above the pharmacy on the second floor is the healer Liddy Flewwelling. She often treats me with herbal tinctures, but more importantly, with plant spirits.
Modern medicine tends to see the universe as an inanimate machine. In our post-industrial world, researchers assume plants are to be disassembled and their extracted properties used for the pills, creams, or powders sold at a Jean Coutu. Like many shaman from the Americas, Liddy also believes every plant has a spirit. More than the sum of its chemical properties, this spirit is its most potent aspect. Liddy’s approach to plant spirits is similar to that of the Mohawk who live on the outskirts of Montreal in Kahnawake and Kanesatake. Aside from the Great Spirit, their most important deities are called De-oh-ha-ko, Our Sustainers. These Three Sisters are the spirits of Corn, Beans, and Squash. The Mohawk traditionalists still honor them in planting and harvest rituals, pray to them, and propitiate them for their blessings.
For a treatment, I lie down on Liddy’s massage table, guarded by a huge jade plant, and she will evoke, say, the spirit of nettle, sunflower, dandelion, or burdock, placing their energies into my body with her hands. Her balcony door open, I hear the soft, repetitive bounce of tennis balls on a clay court. Their hypnotic rhythm often melds with that of a Jean Coutu delivery man singing French hip-hop to the back beats of his truck radio. Little Grey, the shaman’s apprentice, curls over my belly, purring. Gradually more and more plants and trees begin appearing in my poetry. I begin reading local plant guides and wandering about Parc Angrignon, tricked by nettle to stumble into its stinging patches. Strangely too my new pups—a Rottweiler and a Pit Bull—get named Iris and Lily, instead of Alligator and Diggums.
A plant spirit shaman first contacts the plants she works with in the wild, sits with them, sketches them, gets to know them, before journeying to meet their spirits who teach her their medicine. When attending Liddy’s Eastern Township retreats, I go out for a nature walk with the intention of contacting a plant spirit that can speak to my immediate concerns. I wander about alone until I feel a plant call to me. This is similar to how a photographer, out for a city stroll, might be drawn to take a particular photo. Something reaches out to be met.
One time on the shore of Lac Memphremagog, I began considering if I should sit in a ditch to sketch a delicately white flowered, branching plant. Vigorous bugs started buzzing around my neck and head. I threw out my arms, gesturing that suffering is part of getting where I want to go. I would suffer them in this muddy ditch. Bingo, they vanished. I was steadied by a deep drone; fat bumblebees were visiting the plant’s cascading blossoms.
I took out my “Vermont Flower Guide” and identified it as a Goldthread. Its blossoms have five white petals, and at its centre are many tiny golden threads. Very delicate. Lying in the ditch to draw Goldthread, I was struck by the value of Quebec ditches: sitting in them renders you invisible. A man and a child walked right by, a jeep passed, even a cop car. The only person who noticed me was a man in white shorts, who got puddle-splashed by a passing van. Shocked, he looked my way and cried, “Tabarnac!”
Back inside our cottage, I journeyed into the Underworld, where plant and animal spirits reside. I did so to acquaint myself with the spirit that had called me into that wet, black fly-guarded ditch. Goldthread appeared to me as a woman in a white frock sewn with gold ribbons. She said she was a weaver, and I saw her loom in the back of her root-filled cave. She explained that she weaves tapestries and at the time, I was writing a poem about a Mille-fleurs tapestry. These 15th and 16th century Flemish tapestries were woven with threads covered with silver and gold. Her message was not to let go of my poetry-writing thread. I was also to craft each line of a poem, wrapping it with self-expressive gold. Uncannily, Goldthread was referring to how I often free-write about each line of a poem skeleton, in order to have “stuff” to enrich and develop it further.
Pursuing my interest in what shamanism and creativity have in common, I have sometimes attended a weekly drumming circle that Macdonald Tobacco heiress-turned-shamanic-practitioner Cathy Heiss holds in the Scottish Rites Room of the Montreal Masonic Memorial Temple. Passing the illuminated globes perched atop ionic columns fronting its majestic Greek temple facade, more specifically a temple modeled on that of King Solomon, I enter the Saint-Marc Street side door. Here a stern gatekeeper asks the purpose of my visit before escorting me to the 1930s caged elevator commandeered by a crisply-uniformed attendant. The silent attendant’s white-gloved hands work the controls of our slow, smooth, quiet ascent.
Arriving at the top floor, I often encounter aged Masons completely covered in medals that jingle as they walk, reminiscent of the tinkling bells, nails, and clacking bones sewn onto a Mongolian shaman’s costume. I am soon in the cavernous Scottish Rites Room, suitable for a Jacobean banquet with its oak beams, thrones, lions, and mystical signs. Insulated from sound and light, this ritual room is perfect for some 20 of us to drum, dance, and sing in order to open our hearts. We then lie down, glancing up at huge oil paintings of bearded, 33rd degree Masons, festooned with their fraternal badges, ribbons, and charms. Masons are known for their love of antiquity—that of the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Jews, but what would these refined gentlemen, so regally depicted in these imposing paintings, think about animism? Would they have been willing to shake a gourd rattle along with their booty? As the huge, deerskin drum begins its trance-inducing beat, we cover our eyes and let it carry us into Otherworlds.
The plant spirits had led me to Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, leaving me to stagger through its complex charts and murky explanations of Celtic tree alphabets. As heavy-going as it is, The White Goddess inspired me to journey to the tree spirits involved in one of its alphabets. To do so, I asked the tree’s permission, held its image in my mind, and imagined a hole near its roots to spiral down, rather like Alice, in order to meet its spirit. Like Blake’s “mental traveler,” I did so in my small studio on Rue Royal, writing down an account of each journey. The result was an acrostic, based on 8 trees from Graves’s alphabet, Celtic trees whose names spelt out the word, Montreal:
Part 2 of Charlotte Hussey’s “A Montreal Acrostic” will appear tomorrow.