In his book Sacred Plant Medicine: The Wisdom of Native American Herbalism, Stephen Harrod Buhner describes the vital role that songs play in the shamanic healing practices of Native Americans:
Many of the dreams that indigenous people experienced contained songs. These songs represented a particular kind of personal power, a holy possession, which were used for as many purposes as the sources from which they came. Songs came from the elements, directly from the plants, and from the animals. Often such animal dreams might concern power in war or hunting or healing.
Because songs were considered to be a source of personal power they were actively sought as possessions. Songs were sought through visions, rigorous apprenticeships with others, or they might be bought, though they were often very expensive. Within some cultures each plant was thought to have a specific song. In such a culture, an apprenticeship in sacred plant medicine might require that the student spend long periods of time with each plant and learn its song. To complete training, the student would be expected to sing the song of each and every plant being used.
Kathleen Harrison remarks on the belief among the Mestizos of Peru in the pervasive nature of individual plant songs and their importance: “Every species has a song. If you are granted the song in a vision state, or by just submitting yourself to the presence of a plant and opening up, then it’s a real gift, and you are able to remember that song forever and share it when it seems appropriate. That song has power, healing power, and there are some which are handed down from one curandero or curandera to the next, and there are others which come to us as individuals. But they are part of an encyclopedia on the sonic level of the same thing that seeds represent on another level.”
Dreams and one of their specific manifestations, songs, represent an access point to nonlinear and non rational aspects of the sacred, a fact long recognized in indigenous cultures. Holy people who specialize in sacred plant medicine — recognizing the access that songs allow to the powerful, non rational aspects of the sacred — actively seek dreams and dream songs to increase their encyclopedia at the sonic level. The songs in their turn help facilitate entry into the territory of the sacred and their accumulation increases one’s capacity to cure, heal, and teach.
Each sacred song represents a time when a human being entered the world of the sacred and brought back something from that place for help in the human world. It has been my experience that the most powerful of sacred songs come during particularly potent experiences of the sacred. At such times the power of the sacred impacts intensely on the structure of the human psyche, the person is caught up so strongly in the territory of another world that it causes deep changes in how the psyche is structured. The more secular portions of the psyche are changed and the person experiences this as a “stripping away” of parts of the personality that are irrelevant to a sacred life. People, when subjected to the peculiar stresses and forces of encountering the sacred, when feeling deeply the joys, sorrows, and tragedies of human life, are forced into realms where language falters and fails. At such times, as Orpingalik told Rasmussen: “Songs are thoughts, sung with breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices.”
Because ordinary speech is not sufficient, the resolution of conflict or stress through song represents a unique solution to a problem. At the point of resolution, a person is tapping into the particular sonic encyclopedia that exists and is pulling out of it a nonlinear manifestation of a conflict’s resolution. When that solution is again expressed in song, it can touch another person who is also in stress, and who can somehow use the song to effect cure.
When I express prayer through song, the universe seems to listen in and — in some fashion unknown to me — I and all things around me seem to come together. There is a lessening of the duality that is an inherent aspect of the human condition and, for a time, I and the environment in which I live become one. In this process, when I sing the song of a plant in the rhythms that have come to me, the spirit of the plant comes alive. It rises up out of the slow pattern of life it knows, from its embedding in the life web of Earth. I, too, shift and together we seem to enter another realm, one in which interspecies communication is possible. In that moment and time there is a facilitation of my ability to speak with the plant about what I need from it and for the plant to hear what I have said. And then, in the process of making medicine, this living spirit that infuses the plant is shaped, formed, focused and goes into the body of the sick person to heal.
I find that the rhythms of the plants (and indeed that of the rocks, the Earth itself) and their individual songs infuse my own life more and more over time. I am rarely lonely, for all of life has its own song and it carries me along it its patterns of sound. I never knew in what a great emptiness I lived until I began singing the sacred songs of the Earth. Perhaps, even more than the surfeit of touch that so many human beings experience, it is the lack of Earth and plant song that causes so much alienation and emptiness.
Photo by Calvin Teo, Orchid Flowers in bloom. (Singapore)