Amber Magnolia Hill aka Aquarian Dawn has been giving me Yuba River envy for the past couple of years via instagram. When we finally connected I was super happy to be able to interview her here. She is the herbalist behind the herbal body oil line, Mythic Medicinals She lives in the High Sierras near the Yuba River in Northern California. She is a writer who studies not only herbalism, but also a variety of topics spanning natural childbirth, ancestry and psychedelics. Aquarian Dawn came together to not only share healing medicinal herbs with the world but to bring knowledge about ancestry, psychedelic healing, empowered menstruation, sex and childbirth. Find my interview with her below.
I love that you pick all your own plants that you use in your products. The high sierras seem like a place of abundance. What kinds of herbs and medicinal plants grow in you area? Which are your favorite to use?
Yes, I feel so lucky to live in the Sierra. I grew up in the High Sierra in South Lake Tahoe, and now live in the Sierra foothills in Grass Valley, so I've gotten to know which plants grow at which elevations and how the extra cold or the snow effects them. I work a lot with St. John's Wort, pine, yarrow, and mugwort. These have been my closest plant allies for years, but this year I have been getting to know juniper, elder, and osha better. There are so many others too! Chickweed, miner's lettuce, plantain, cleavers, hawthorne, wild roses, blackberry, wild raspberry, mountain pennyroyal, California sagebrush- an endless number of new friends to make.
Where did this journey start for you in making medicinal healing oils? Was there a certain event or time that sparked this idea for you?
I almost dropped out of college the quarter I graduated (with a Religious Studies major from UC Davis). I wanted to run from academia, bureaucracy, and rational thinking and toward nature, healing, and intuitive thinking. I literally drove away from my final final and to the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, where I applied for a job in their Wellness Department. I got the job, and learned a lot working there, and also through taking classes and meeting various Northern California herb teachers through the Co-op. Studying later with those teachers is what confirmed this path forward for me.
You just wrote an amazing book on body oiling (which I loved by the way), for those that havent read it yet, how would you describe the ritual of oiling your body? Who should be oiling and how is it done?
Anyone who has a body and lives in the modern world should be using herb-infused body oils to nourish and reset their nervous systems. We are all bombarded every day with so much sensory input, much more than we evolved to expect, and our nervous systems need extra love and care. Oiling the body is the quickest way I've found to drop the body into a state of deep relaxation. And it creates a subtle protective layer around the body, through which we can process sensory stimuli in a more centered, less anxiety-inducing way. It's also a great way to keep the lymph moving, which has profound effects on the immune system, effecting everything from colds to cancer. Plus, the ritual of touching and nourishing your body can be absolutely life changing.
Its great to be able to get to know you a little more in your blog, and you recommend a lot of books on several topics spanning psychedelics, sex, childbirth, and herbs. For someone who might be just getting started with any of these topics what are some books that you recommend? What are some of the most influential books that you have read thus far?
My favorite herb books are:
Herbal Rituals by Judith Berger
The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines by Matthew Wood
Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Beyond the Doors of Perception Into the Dreaming of Earth by Stephen Harrod Buhner
As for the other categories you named, I'll just choose one book. For psychedelics, my friend James Fadiman's seminal book The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys. For sex, pioneering bad ass Nicole Daedone's book Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female Orgasm. For childbirth, Ina May's Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin (or, if you're a hardcore hippie at heart, her 70's classic Spiritual Midwifery- it inspired my daughter's unassisted home birth 9 years ago).
Psychedelics are something that have to be experienced to be truly understood. What do you see as some of the benefits that can be achieved through entheogens? There has been lots of research on the healing powers regarding mental disorders through use of psychedelics and even schizophrenia as being a healer in a state of confusion rather than a mental disorder. It has always interested me as a way of self healing that while unconventional is very powerful. Is this what got you interested in psychedelics?
I got interested because I had a full blown mystical experience on psilocybin mushrooms at age 17. I had no idea that was possible, and it took me years to understand and integrate what had happened. It totally changed my life, broke the spell of culture that had sedated me as a young child, and imbued me with a sense of awe and joy that has always stuck with me. But the years following were dark, because I had no frame of reference for what had happened.
It was finding the book Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals by Huston Smith at age 20 that gave me perspective, and let me know that my experience had been just as real as it felt. Smith wrote the definitive book The World's Religions that had guided my choice to major in Religious Studies in college, so to see this respected scholar taking psychedelics seriously meant everything to me.
Then a few years ago I became aware that many universities (Johns Hopkins, UCLA, NYU, etc.) were engaged in government-funded studies of psychedelics. Learning about the studies where terminal cancer patients were given psilocybin to alleviate the anxiety over their impending death got me really interested in this revival of psychedelic studies, as I was also studying conscious death and home funerals at the time, and so I attended the Psychedelic Science Conference in 2013.
I keep up on the latest in psychedelic research through MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and also through the popular media! It's so exciting to see psychedelics get taken seriously again. And just in time; there is so much healing potential there.
Is herbalism something that you learned or do you see it as somewhat of an instinctual practice? Is studying something that was important to you or is it more through experience or a combination of both?
I think that having an innate sense of curiosity and willingness to be a self-driven learner can only enhance one's relationship with plants, but that there is definitely an instinctual aspect to herbalism. It just depends on the person, which side of them is stronger- rationality or intuition (which can change throughout life). And each feeds in to the other; it's really the two together that draw the inner herbalist out of a person.
Even though I wanted to escape the logical thinking of academia and immerse myself in natural healing, I soon found that I am much more of a rational, book-learning person than an intuitive learner. I've had to work hard to shut my mind up enough to have an instinctual response to, a conversation with, plants.
The whole idea of "Pick an herb to cultivate a relationship with and then just use it and meditate with it for a year without reading anything about it" is crazy talk to me. When I'm getting to know a new plant I run to my bookshelf and the internet to look up traditional uses and modern scientific studies and personal anecdotes. Slowing down and just being with a plant, tuning in that way, is much harder work for me.
Is infusing oil with medicinal plants the best way to achieve its properties? Do you prefer this method over using essential oils or is it just a different medium?
First let's be clear about the difference between herb-infused oils and essential oils. Essential oils aren't oils at all- they aren't fat based- they are volatile liquids distilled from a plant. If you get some essential oil on your clothing, it won't stain like olive oil will but will evaporate.
Herb-infused oils are whole plants finely chopped up and infused into a fat based oil (such as olive) over time. The medicinal properties leech out into the oil, from where they can be easily transferred into the body when rubbed on the skin.
Essential oils are one tiny chemical component of the plant, but are very strong because of the distillation process. There is a lot of plant matter waste that goes into the production of essential oils (for example, it takes 60,000 roses to produce 1oz of rose essential oil), and that thrown-out plant matter also contains medicinal properties that cannot be distilled.
So, using the whole plant allows a person to benefit more from the entire spectrum of a plant's healing abilities. To be clear though, I use products with very diluted essential oils in them every day, and am grateful for their potent medicine and scent. But I am cautious about their overuse (a lot of clinical herbalists caution that the liver and kidneys can't process the essential oil load some people put on/into their bodies every day) and am horrified by the practices of companies like Young Living and doTerra. So, in my herbal body oiling practice and business, I use whole herb-infused oils.
Besides herbalism, what are some other ways you nourish your body and mind? I know I read you have done sensory depravation/ float tanks, what are some other healing modalities you take part in?
I like water and sweat. Bikram yoga, the Finnish sauna in my town, hot baths, hot springs, and, yes, float tanks are big in my life. I also love cranio-sacral and myofascial release bodywork. I need deep, slow bodywork to undo my physical issues, pain and tension patterns, when they flare up.
Do you plan on adding any new products to your line or is body oiling what is most important to you? I would love to see anything you come up with!
Lately I've been kind of obsessed with infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance and have been learning a lot about the strongest antimicrobial herbs and ways to enhance immunity, so actually yes I do have a few possible future herbal products in mind ;-)
I never wanted to expand into tinctures (just feeling like the last thing the world needs is another "Digest Ease" tincture), but the more I look at the infectious disease crises facing the world today the more I want to get to know new plants with profound antibacterial and antiviral properties and how to grow them, to eventually formulate some tinctures that, who knows, could save lives someday.
Are there any new projects coming up that are exciting/ you can tell us about?
I am really excited about the workshop I am creating with my friend Milla. We met years ago through blogging (she's at The Woman Who Married a Bear), and our friendship and individual interests have blossomed together every since, including interests in both herbalism and ancestry.
Our workshop is called Root Medicine: Ancestral Remembrance & Folk Herbalism. We will be teaching it at both sessions of the 2016 Spirit Weavers Gathering, and hope to bring it elsewhere as well (you can learn more about it and/or request that we bring it to your area here!). Encouraging people to connect with their ancestry is so important to me, and I love how many connections there are to be made between who we came from and the natural world around us. This project has me super pumped.
I'm also feeling deeply nourished by the Herbal Self Care Phone Consultations I've recently begun offering. So many women today are feeling spun out and exhausted, and it's so satisfying to be able to connect with them and give them some simple tools for slowing down and taking the time to care for themselves using herbs. I hope to expand this practice in the coming months and years. (You can learn more about that here).
I also dream about starting a podcast! I even have all the equipment and the URL and opening music, it's just a matter of getting the bills paid every month and then allocating the remaining free time to do something "extra". But it's a deep desire and putting it out there like this encourages me to pursue it!