The second annual Viridis Genii Symposium took place this past weekend. Herbalists, alchemists, magicians, all fellow walkers on the green path, descended once again upon the Still Meadow Retreat Center in Damascus, Oregon to share their knowledge of plant magics, folklores, and customs – related here all in the plural to acknowledge the multiplicity of (human and nonhuman) people, positions, and practices that compose these realms.
A few friends and I carpooled from Seattle, and when we arrived at the venue, I felt a new temporal frame emerge around me. “What have you done since last year? Since the last time I saw you?” These questions floated through my mind as we crossed the tree-lined field to register and find out where our sleeping quarters would be. This sense of framing became more acute as I learned I would be staying in the same room as last year, and even in the exact same bed. In a very real way, I was back home. And more than that, I was with my family of North American plant people. Having just come back from an intense month in South Africa, a month I didn’t want to leave behind me, seeing my friends at Viridis Genii again assuaged any homesickness I had for the rural magic of the Transkei.
As the Friday Sun climbed down the sky, Dan Riegler of Apothecary’s Garden held court, and reminded all participants of where we are as a community. Academics often say, it is the mark of a young scholar to answer questions, researching and creating new knowledge, but it is the mark of a seasoned professor to pose new questions, shaping the ways those very questions are answered and the knowledge their answers produce. Riegler’s decades of experience in plant magic and alchemy have shown him, and through him us, where we need to be looking, where we can grow, that we need to learn not just about the plant lore itself, but that we need to coordinate and situate it and ourselves in larger frameworks of sustainability. As he says in his keynote published in the Verdant Gnosis anthology for this year:
How deep, how vibrant, how intimate and close is our relationship with the intelligences we work with? How well do we understand them, their physical and energetic needs, as individuals, as a family, field, or forest?
He sent us off with a refreshed awareness of the importance of the weekend ahead of us, “we are not only stewards of the earth, the green, and the planet, we are stewards of our collective ancient wisdom and technology. Nothing is lost that cannot be gathered up again and applied with new insight and direction.” With the Sun firmly behind the horizon again, the stars accompanied deep conversations with friends.
Astrologer Freedom Cole, from Grass Valley, CA along with Wonder Bright and Kent Bye from Portland, and I all discussed the various natures of time, and the ways we all appreciate and study the quality of time and temporal cycles from various traditions, old and new. Freedom shared that it would be Saturn’s birthday in a matter of hours, based on where we are in the soli-lunar cycle. When I asked him how old Saturn was turning, he said, “Saturn always turns 75.”
Throughout the weekend, while I played around with Facebook Live video to share the energies of moments such as these, Kent performed audio interviews with presenters and other persons of interest for his Esoteric Voices podcast. Together, alongside participants taking photos, and Rubedo Press’s production of Verdant Gnosis, which contains articles by the presenters, we all worked to capture the spirit of what was happening around us. Putting the Viridis Genii Symposium in a digital bottle to spread it out to our larger networks, and bring them into the fold, even if only through #FOMO. The event, only in its second year, has room for a slew of new friends to join our conversation and community. We want you. Come.
The talks are all held in a “sanctuary” room, which really feels like a secular chapel. We must remove our shoes inside all buildings on site, and so we are physically opened, grounded, as we merge our minds with the thoughts of the presenters. Corinne Boyer opened with a very moving transmission about the folk uses of funerary plants, and I performed a mental catalogue of my own experiences with these plants, if I had any at all, and reviewing my own beloved dead and the mourning I’ve gone through.
For me, these talks are somewhat different than the usual participant at the conference because I also edit our anthology, so I see firsthand how the presenters refine and revise their work and alter it for actual delivery. The enhancements made throughout the editing process have led to consistently high quality in the lectures given during the weekend. Sarah, a new friend, remarked that it was surprising that all the talks were fascinating and well put together, which wasn’t her typical conference experience. It’s a pleasure for me to see how our work behind the scenes before the conference circulates and distills the knowledge a number of times before it is circulated and further distilled with the input of the larger community. Each year, it seems, is reaching out and into future years, increasing the quality of everything it comes into contact with.
Between talks, I like to mill about and check out the wares on offer by the vendors. I kicked myself last year for not getting some things from certain people. The products on offer here are usually not for sale in stores, or even online.
There’s a delight in the transaction made. I can meet the maker, speak about their process, the ingredients (learning more perhaps that I can put to use in my own workings), and then I leave with a heart connection and a product of superior quality. And I know the money being spent goes directly to the individual making their work. It is commerce driven from the heart. Next time I’ll save up more money so I can make sure to stock up on items that I can only obtain a few times a year. This year I got some resins brought back directly from Central Africa, some spagyric medicines, and some handcrafted talismanic oils. Gifting is also common, and gifts of a Devil’s Club stalk and a special oil were also shared with me.
Saturday evening Witch Bottle took to the stage, set up inside the same sanctuary where we listen to the talks, and I melted in the majesty of Bree’s saw playing. I thought at first it was her voice echoing into the darkness outside, but upon entering the incense-filled room, I saw her holding an antler affixed to a saw blade nestled between her knees, a bow in her other hand, caressing the metal into song. I didn’t think anything could top Soriah’s Tuvan throat singing from last year, but Witch Bottle hit the mark.
I cuddled with friends on the floor and competed with Katie to take a better picture of the band. Conversations extended until 3am, and I snuck, minx-like, back to my room so as not to disturb my three-and-a-half other roommates. Rousing a pregnant woman from much needed sleep was not on my late night agenda.
Early Sunday I read a message from Johannes, who was reviewing Verdant Gnosis 2. His review was live. I read it even before getting out of bed. Before caffeine. I am used to people reviewing works I’ve edited, but it is a whole other thing altogether when someone reviews your own writing. My heart rate increased, pre-coffee!, and it beat so fast, it almost leapt out of my chest. Hidden in the Rootdoctor’s review, in the section on my piece about astrological considerations for plant magic, he says,
this is the kind of article that, in 50 years, many people will scout global antiquarians to find and pay hefty sums to get.
Then my heart DID leap out of its cage. And I hadn’t even delivered my talk yet! Last month, while sitting in the depths of the transkei, meditating on my creative projects, I felt the call to expand this article into its own book. While writing I got the feeling that I didn’t have enough space to fully say what I want to say. Yet, feedback from others suggests I packed too much in, as Johannes himself says, “Halfway through the article I find myself aching, sweating and breathing heavily in effort to keep up with Zahrt.” The book will be more expansive, will give the reader time to follow along without breaking into a sweat, will provide more context, examples, and space to put the ideas into practice. Ultimately, I desire to see how my colleagues work with these ideas and what results they provide for facets of magical practice I alone have no access to. Together we can grow and learn. That was my joy in sharing my work in this venue. Empowering my plant family with my own corner of expertise so they can take what they find useful and apply it to make their work better, just as I can work with what they share with me to improve mine.
Sunday afternoon, I participated in Dan Riegler’s distillation workshop. All weekend long workshops were held in various side rooms throughout the Still Meadow venue, and this particular one took place at the same site as last year’s spagyric workshop with Robert Allen Bartlett. The students huddled underneath a tent, avoiding the harsh Sun as well as the myriad love bugs that had been fucking all over everyone’s wares and clothes and hair in the heat wave. Participants passed around their handcrafted Red Cedar oils and other hydrosols to keep the bugs and heat at bay, as Dan passed along the wisdom he’s gained as a distiller of essential oils.
Eric Zvonchenko brought amazing lab equipment, and most of us had little envious orgasms watching the still at work. It was made of copper, so clearly Venus was present for this orgy of resin, water, steam, love bug, handcraft, and knowledge transmission. We distilled Frankincense resin (a solar material) during the day and hour of the Sun. The oil flowed plentifully, becoming darker yellow as time wore on, and we all passed around the resulting oil/hydrosol mixture, intoxicating ourselves in the revelry of the bounty. Resins are loaded with essential oils, so for those of us used to extracting from plant matter with 1% yields, this was quite a boon. I can’t help but think our timing also had something to do with it. The specific form of Frankincense was called Frankincense neglecta, and Dan had brought it back from Africa himself. A true distillation of essential oil with this resin would take 6-8 hours, but we only had 3, so at the end of the workshop, Dan poured the resin/water mixture into the grass. As I watched the steam smolder from the sticky brown clod, he said “You can still use that as incense.” I made a mental note. Come back later and gather. If it’s meant for you, Jenn, it’ll still be there. But it had to cool down, and I had to get back to the room and prep for my own talk.
Presenting somewhere new always gets me nervous, so I was trying to find ways to center myself and get into the zone. As my talk began, rays of sunlight pierced the window and hit my face like a spotlight, reminding me of an important moment during my PhD research. Spontaneously, I chose to lead my presentation with a story:
In 1920, Hans Poelzig, a famous architect, did the set design for Paul Wegener’s film, Golem: Wie er in die Welt kam. Now, this was early in the history of cinema. All the special effects had to be created manually. The problem of getting specific rays of sunlight, as shown in Poelzig’s drawings, to register on film was great. The most powerful lights at the time, aptly called Jupiter lights, couldn’t achieve the task. After a period of experimentation, Carl Boese, who was responsible for organizing the special effects, realized that the Sun itself would be powerful enough.
This meant they needed to build the set oriented toward the ecliptic at a specific angle, and, as he relates in a document preserved in a film archive in Berlin, because of the movement of the Sun, they only had about a two hour window to film. When the rays streamed through the window, they threw fistfuls of mica (silica) into the air and rolled camera. This entire exercise is akin to when people wait for certain planetary hours and alignments for their work(ings) to have the right quality. And here was a palpable example literally shining on my face as I began.
So there I was, in the thick of it, presenting some hardcore astrological and hermetic lore to a room filled with some of my favorite people, Sun perfectly entering the ceiling window and lighting up my topic. The same cadence and comedy returned to my body that I used to get when I taught German at Berkeley. Astrology is a foreign language for most people. My skills at teaching German to beginners have translated to good use in my efforts to teach astrology to people unfamiliar with its nuts and bolts. I could see people in the room light up with insights. Our question session flowed around the room. Rich nuances on the topic unfolded and spread out before us. By the time we ended, I was nostalgic for the days on UC Berkeley’s campus, when I would walk out of the classroom into the campus greenery, filled with the energy of a class gone well – I used to light up like a neon sign for the rest of the day. (This is why I prefer to teach in the morning. It’s better than any other stimulant I know!).
Conversations that Sunday evening went well into the midnight hour. We sat, ensconced in the silent, darkening green of the Still Meadow forest with a canopy of stars above us. Again, the topic of the strong spirit of sharing emerged. Everyone I spoke with that evening seemed to be filled to the brim with new ideas and feelings of joy with what they’d learned. It was impressive to see the spirit of connection and openness flowing freely, but not entirely unexpected. Catamara and Marcus have held space for a genuine community to emerge, filled with authentic craftspeople dedicated to respectful work and sharing. I’m deeply grateful for their vision, their follow through, and their heart.
On Monday morning I went back to collect the liquid gold that Dan Riegler had poured out. It was still there, disguised as a heap of dirt. My thankful heart brimmed as I filled the 12oz coffee cup with this treasure. The clods of resin contained bits of grass, soil, and dew from a day and night on the grounds. The resin I brought home with me is no longer just Frankincense neglecta, it is now also Frankincense viridi.
I am already eager for next year, penning presentation proposals in my mind, and working out how to nurture my small contribution into a larger one. I hope you are inspired to join in what we’re building.
Feature photo: Dan Riegler distills Frankincense neglecta in a gorgeous copper still.