Southern Californian summers smell of sage and the sea. I know this because I have spent a lot of time recently up mountains overlooking the Pacific, gathering sage for the Sage + Clarity surprise box. On a cliff’s edge, my backpack full of white and black sage, I sit and stare out to Catalina island, getting lost in thought about the wisdom of sage. After a while of sitting and thinking and munching on crackers and cheese, topped with freshly gathered sage leaves (my current favourite hiking snack), I determine that sage's lesson is one of clarity: it helps to clear thought that is confused, it clears a sick room of microbes, it clears stagnation from digestion. It elevates, enlightens, broadens perspective. Content with my conclusion, I brush the crumbs off my legs, gather up my belongings and begin the hike back to my car. It was only this afternoon, when I was processing another batch of dried white sage, that I started to think more deeply about clarity itself.Read More
(on grounding, stress relief, and being a still point in a turning world) Two hours drive from here, out in the desert, about 1/4 mile off one of my favourite hiking trails there's a small hole cut out of a hillside. I used to tuck myself away there on a daily basis, for what I'd consider to be therapy sessions. For someone so often stuck up in my head, I hurtle forwards at a pace that tries to outrun my thoughts, very much like that hare in that story where the tortoise emerges victorious. Buried in the earth, in my little therapy hole, everything slows down and something clicks open and my body starts to, well, for lack of better words, drink it in. It drinks in the earth and it drinks in the slowness and it drinks in the darkness and for the first time in a long time I feel calm. And if I stay there for long enough then I would feel like I'd been plugged into a recharger. Now that I live nowhere near that little hole, I try to forge that connection wherever I can. Its not impossible, even surrounded by concrete.
Grounding, in a place like Los Angeles, where the very ground the city is built upon is shifting, is an interesting concept. Some places are more ‘grounded’ than others *waves at the North East*. Some situations are naturally more grounded than others-- a guy I know lives in the same house his family has lived in for 300 years: now that is some serious root-age. Me? Not so much. I've moved house and place more times than I can count. The earth and slowness and stillness is something I have to force myself to pay attention to, to connect to, to remember. And here, Southern California, where the air is light and the light is light and the earth is even light because its mostly sand, I find that ground and earth and attention are even more important. Grounding can mean so many different things. From being solid and ‘earthy’ to seeing the world the same way everyone else does (ie. ‘rational’), to being calm. To me, it means something like this: facing reality. Accepting what is. Having a body (you’d be surprised how many people think having a body is irrelevant in the grand spiritual picture of things). There’s an earth under our feet and to me, personally, connection to it is a visceral thing. And as somebody who’s naturally not very grounded at all, who also lives in a place that is not very grounded at all, finding that connection, paying attention to it and nurturing it is even more important.
One of the ways I do that is to pay attention. To seek out that feeling of rootedness and connection that I find out in places that are wild, and to drag it through the cacophony of information in the city, to plop it down in the middle of my living room and say ‘you belong here too’ because, quite frankly, I don’t see any reason for it not to, other than the terrible drivers.
Another way I do it is to eat grounding foods. Cooked foods, heavy foods, meats, and potatoes. Roots. This time of year is root time anyway. When everything is turning inwards, and the leaves are rotting on the ground, feeding their nutrients back into the earth. Today the clouds are hanging low over Los Angeles and it looks like they, too, are reaching for the earth, attempting to fall down, to curl over on themselves, to find a cocoon and curl up in it and drink in the rootedness of it all. To set roots that drink deep and feed everything that’s above ground.
Roots are tangled and roots are messy. In setting down roots, life, too becomes tangled and messy. Roots come up covered in dirt and sometimes holding rocks in them and these roots don’t let go of these rocks no matter how hard you dry and pry them off. You get to the root of a problem, not the seed. The seed would be the origin but the root is what holds it in place-- find the root of a problem and you can topple said problem until you're standing over it like a giant on top of an anthill. No problem is too big once you find the root and oust it. Roots dive deep and drink deep and pull from places we cannot consciously go. And roots sustain things: they give nourishment and they keep things upright, they drink in what's needed from those unseen places and pull them upwards. They support a structure with their invisible hold. A tree with shriveled roots will topple over and die. A human with shriveled roots starts to topple over, then gets her feet under her and runs to stay upright. In order to be still, one needs roots. Fact. The easiest way to do this is to dig down; drink deep.
The humble potato has been much maligned in recent years. I blame the paleo movement and the idea that a starch will somehow rot your joints and make your bottom big. My bottom might be a somewhat generous size for my frame, but I remain unconcerned about the potato’s insidious effects on my fat storage, simply because I love them and they make me feel good. Anything that I love and that makes me feel good gets filed under ‘health’ food in my own little mental tally of what is good and right and what is wrong and bad. Potatoes have the added benefit of coming from deep in the earth. Potatoes are comfort food and I am not entirely sure what came first— the grounding associated with comfort or the comfort that comes from grounding. Either way, when life gets hectic, when I start to feel frazzled, when my eye twitches for no reason and when a single cup of tea starts keeping me awake until 2am, I reach for the roots. Add to that a combination of my favorite plants— black sage, white sage, wild rose, California bay— gathered from the trails I frequent, and there’s a double dose of grounding: one in the earth and one in my place. There is rootedness and there is permanence and there is a still point amid all the chaos. And for that I, and my twitching eye, can take a deep breath and be grateful.
On that note, lovely people, tell me more about your grounding and stress relief techniques please?
This recipe is a simple variation on the roast potato. That is, its a roast potato cut into big chunky french fry format. I wouldn’t be lying if I said that we have them once a week and have done for the last year, although at one point they were happening daily. We serve them with roast chicken and ketchup and mayo for dipping. I have, on occasion, made myself a single potato’s worth when home alone watching Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time. I have also made ten potatoes worth for my entire family, and they went over a treat, although turning them all was a pain in the ever-growing bottom.
Seasonings can vary too. I use my Herbes De Californie most frequently, but sprinkled with Ras Al Hanout they’re quite spectacular (mix together equal parts harissa and mayo for a dipping sauce), and with Herbes De Provence they’re also delicious (aioli on the side), and sprinkled with ground up fir tips they’re also quite spectacular (homemade mayo made with fir infused olive oil).
Oven fries that are so much more than their name makes them sound like.
1 big russet potato per parsimonious person, 2 potatoes per person if they are very hungry or in great need of comfort
2tb butter per potato
2 tb olive oil per potato
1tb finely chopped herbs per potato (I use white sage, black sage, california bay and wild rose here, but as mentioned above the possibilities are endless)
salt, to taste
pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 375.
Get a big pot of water boiling on the stove, and put about 1/4 cup of salt in there. It should taste like the ocean (not the dead sea-- if you make the dead sea, that's a little overboard). While that's heating up, set to peeling your potatoes. Once peeled, set them on the narrow side (the side they won't stand up on, on their own) and cut it into three pieces lengthwise. Each piece should work out between 3/4 and 1 inch thick. From there, chop each piece lengthwise again, into 1/2-3/4 inch thick slices. See what we're doing here? Now we have long potatoes cut into thick french fry shapes.
Once the water is really boiling, dump in the potatoes and cook for exactly 10 minutes. While its cooking, set a strainer in the sink. After ten minutes, quickly strain out the potatoes. You see you want them as cooked as possible without disintegrating-- the more cooked they are, the fluffier their insides will be. Carefully dump the strained potatoes out on a roasting tray, and space them all so that there's an inch of space in between them all. Put the butter somewhere on top, then drizzle with the olive oil. Sprinkle the salt, pepper and herbs over the top then put in the oven for 35 minutes.
After 35 minutes, pull out the tray, and carefully flip each potato piece. They should be golden brown on the bottom. Flip onto their uncooked sides and cook for another 15-25 minutes, until they're golden brown all over. Remove from the oven when they're ready and serve immediately.
1. From the couch in my living room where I write, looking out the window, the flower stalks of my big white sage plant can be seen shooting up towards the sky, waving in the wind. Every morning I run outside to see how many new flowers have appeared. It is often the highlight of my morning until something else appears in the garden. I am easily amused, it seems.
2. My plant collection is growing. With each new arrival, I place them on the dining room table, and arrange a meeting, during which I shout ‘Welcome, Friends!’ and introduce them to each other. Then I show them around and show them where they will be living and ask if these accommodations work for them. I think this is an unnecessary step but it is now a part of the routine and so it stays.
3. Things are happening. I’m teaching two classes coming up: one with my friend Emily on May 5th (that’s next weekend, folks!) and one on May 25th at the Roots of Healing Herb Fest in Topanga Canyon. The first is on elderflowers and it will be spectacular; the second is on five local herbs that I use a lot, and I am trying not to panic at the thought of speaking in front of people. I figure 31 is as good as any age to rid myself of the residue of trauma caused by having to do an impromptu speech in Mrs. Leisk’s primary six classroom, and the humiliation of standing there for the full three minutes almost completely silent while people sniggered.*
4. Its been hot. Surprisingly hot. Ridiculously hot. Sit on the floor in your underwear eating ice cubes hot. Finally around 5:45 this evening the air cooled down enough for me to open the windows and throw the curtains back. A couple of hours of light and air streaming into the house, while the fires burn around LA, while the earth shakes (earthquakes and fires... is this the end of the world?), while the scent of smoke fills the air, and while Jam’s first day of directing (A real movie! His own movie!) is blessed with the flipside of the air-quality coin: perfect hazy light. While us Angelenos (yes I have finally called myself an Angeleno) sniff and scratch our irritated eyes and wonder about the fragility of this delicate balance that is life (at least I am). In our dry, parched state, gasping for water, gasping for air, with emotions on edge and the metallic clang of air conditioner units and screechy voices shouting at each other in the Friday afternoon traffic. That’s what today felt like to me: metallic, clangy, irritated. *coughs*
5. It was with great relief this evening that I slammed the front door and shut out the rest of the world. With greater relief that I threw open the windows to let some cool air in. Even smoky evening air, as it is. And even more so to make a strong cup of tea and open up the container of my new favourite cookies. The white sage seeds were sent to me by my friend Ginia who lives in Northern California and is a plant whisperer if ever I've met one. I've been holding onto them trying to decide what to do. In something sweet their flavour is delightfully delicate. I made one batch with those alone and another with one white sage leaf to enhance the taste a little. I recommend the latter and that is the version I am sharing below. If you don't have white sage plants, then you can use any type of aromatic plant. I think these would be delicious with any form of sage, or bee balm, or even lavender. But for this evening the sage was perfect: grounding and calming, and soothing to my dried out and cranky self.
*why do British teachers feel the need to torture children so, and does this still happen nowadays?
Acorn shortbread with a white sage icing.
Shortbread: 1 cup acorn flour 3/4 cup sweet white rice flour 3/4 cup potato starch 2/3 cup sugar minus 1 tablespoon 1/4 teaspoon salt 8oz (2 sticks) butter at room temperature
Icing: 3/4 cup icing sugar 1/2 cup water 1 tb white sage seeds 1 white sage leaf
Preheat the oven to 325.
In a pan on the stove, place the water, sage seeds and sage leaf. Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer until the water is reduced by half.
Mix all the flours together. In a bowl or stand mixer, beat the butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugar, then reduce the speed. Add the flours in two batches until well incorporated.
Grease the bottom of a 9 x 9 square pan, and dust with rice flour, then press the shortbread mixture into the bottom of the pan. It should be about 3/4" thick all the way around. Bake at 325 for 40 minutes.
Remove from the oven and keep the oven on. Carefully cut the baked shortbread into slices, about 4" long. Like shortbread fingers. Then wait for it to cool. Once cool, you can very carefully lift them out (apologies in advance-- the first two might crumble into nothingness until you have that space for leverage... I haven't been able to pry them out without causing shortbread damage) and place them on a baking sheet. Bake again, for another 15 minutes, until they're golden brown.
In the meantime, in a separate bowl, sieve in the icing sugar and pour in 2 tablespoons of the sage water, seeds included. Mix it all together- it should be a paste and if you take a spoonful of it and drop it, it'll pour off the spoon like thick paint. If its too thick, add a teaspoon of the sage water at a time. If too thin, add a little more sugar. When you remove the shortbread from the oven, drizzle the icing over the top. Allow to cool before eating.
(in which I get woo-woo, and eat a lot of potatoes) As I type this, the afternoon winter sunlight is streaming in through the front windows. Cat is, of course, asleep in a patch of it. I sit with one hand clasped around a mug of chai-spiced and chaga-infused lapsang souchang tea, its spicy warmth diffusing through both hands and stomach to the rest of my cold body. We've been back a week, I've sorted through photos, processed the seaweeds, the redwood branches and the wood sorrel, finished laundry, put it all away, and only now am I here to tell you this: if you're ever in California, rent a car and drive to Big Sur and sleep in your car if you have to but go. That's it: my edict for February.
We jumped in an icy cold river. You would have too, if you'd just been on a 5 hour drive and got to your cabin and realised that the river down below was Icelandic blue and had a sandy bottom. You would have too had you been giddy on the quiet, and the woods and the smells and the sounds. I managed five seconds; Jam slightly longer. It was cold.
Walking on beaches at sunset, scrambling over sharp rocks to get out to the edges, where the sirens dwell, where the magic lies. And sea spray, and cold winds, and orange light and mist amongst the redwoods at dawn. And wandering around, coffee in hand, Victorian nightie and elf cape on, watching the light change, watching the violets and wood sorrel and the falcon swoop from tree to tree (obviously confused by this addition to its habitat so early in the morning).
A blur of a couple of weeks. And at the end of it, some redwood, hand-gathered seaweed, cold toes.
Since getting back, we've eaten oven roasted duck fat fries exactly six times. Apart from the fact that they're the best 'fries' we've ever had, I have another reason: smothered in my locally wildcrafted herb blend, I feel like its helping me to return my gaze to where I am. Its really easy (especially for me: eternal road-traveller) to fall in love with places-- places that have everything you could possibly want: stormy seas? Big old trees? Carpets of violets and wood sorrel? Dramatic landscapes that remind you you're miniscule? Craggy rocks and mountains and mists?. Harder to return to a smoggy city. Harder to return to every day life of doing laundry and paying bills and navigating the meanest drivers in the world.
When its your job to remind people of the earth under their feet, it doesn't do to be simultaneously wishing one were elsewhere. For that matter, it doesn't do any of us any good at all to wish we were anywhere (or anyone) other than where (or who) we are for the perfectly good reason that its just pouring energy into something that doesn't exist. (Disclaimer: this is my metaphysical woo-woo for the week) I feel like, in a way, the things we ingest become a part of us and we them. If we ingest apples from Chile then we have bits of Chile in us, and if we ingest bits of where we live then we have where we live in us. I think it helps, in our ungrounded, on the go, too busy to stop, gotta have it now world. That being rooted where we are does something intangible to the spirit. I can't tell you what it is, I can only tell you when I see it in people and how nice it feels to be around them. It was partly for this reason that I started using local herbs to flavour foods in the first place; we're not devoid of interesting flavours here anyway. My favourite blend is California bay, white sage, black sage, wild rose, sumac, and then a pinch of bee balm which is in the garden (also known as Herbes De Californie, which will likely be ready to go on sale again in about a month). Sometimes I add California sagebrush if what I'm making can handle the bitter. Sometimes I add more of one, less of another, but that's my general blend. Add that to the most grounding of things- the starchy root, yanked out of the dirty earth not far from where we live, and peeled and chopped within a couple of days, its a recipe for not just grounding, but grounding where you are. Which I think is an important distinction to make, especially when ones gaze is about a five hour drive north.
So it took a while. And a lot of potatoes and plant matter. But I'm back. And while it might not be the wildest, stormiest, sea-spray-est, most beautiful place in the entire world, its home. And that's what matters the most.
An especially rooting local-herb-flavoured oven-roast-French fry recipe for anybody who needs to re-feel the ground under their feet.
1 large russet potato per person
1 tb herb blend (I encourage you to get outside and find a local blend that tastes good to you but in a pinch you can always use Herbes De Provence which is available at most grocery stores)
2 tb butter per potato
3 tb duck fat per potato (or olive oil)
salt and pepper.
Preheat oven to 375.
Get a big pot of water going on the stove, and add a good amount of salt- about 1/4 cup per gallon.
Peel the potatoes, then chop them into thirds lengthwise (I'm assuming this is one of those gigantic russets- so you're basically making three big flat bits). Then chop each of those big flat bits into 1/2-inch long pieces. If super long, cut them in half again. Once the water is at a rolling boil, pop in all the chopped potatoes and set a timer for 8 minutes. This part is important because there's a delicate process here: the potatoes must cook to the point of being almost soft, but they must not break apart. So, when the 8 minute mark nears, start watching the water. If there are tiny bits of potato flying about in the boil, strain them immediately, if not then wait for that to happen; it should be around 8. Once strained, put them out on a baking sheet. Lay them out so that they have at least an inch in between all of them- this is for air circulation, so that they roast and don't steam. Dollop the fats on top, then sprinkle with salt, pepper, and your herb blend. Remember they'll be quite salty from the water already so it doesn't need a lot. You might need more than one baking tray.
Place in the oven and leave them alone for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, check them; they should be starting to sizzle on the bottom. Flip them all over and put in for another 20. Check them again at this point- they should be golden brown all over. If so, they're done. If not, keep checking back every 5 minutes until they're perfect.
(powerful and gentle: a trait shared by fantastic herbs and humans alike) My favourite white sage patch is a long way away. A 40 minute drive from civilisation, and then a 2 hour hike through yerba santa, juniper and pinyon forests, a couple of stream crossings, through some scratchy bushes, until finally you emerge into a clearing with a big old grandmother plant, surrounded by her little babies. And their babies too. In the late spring their stalks mark their presence up and down the hillsides like little beacons beckoning you forwards. I’ll spend the day visiting each plant, pruning off a few pieces of the fresh, thick-leaved growth, filling my bag as the day goes on. Later, I’ll pick a rock, or a tree to sit up on, and unpack my lunch and sit back and watch the world around me as I eat. Somewhere along the way, on my journey out and back, I find that I’ve become as affected by the plant I’m gathering as if I’d been taking it myself. My thoughts are clear, my circulation is strong, and I’m moving more efficiently. And I think, if I were to try and define what sage does in a few words, ‘efficiency’ would definitely be one of them. ‘Clarity’ might be another. And the last would likely be ‘deep water’, since that’s what it seems to act on, and it's often good at getting you out of it...
I use white sage, because it’s native here, because it's abundant, and because I have been tending the same couple of patches since I moved to LA (and the same few out in the desert for longer than that): spreading seeds, pinching off tips, and making sure they are growing more abundant not less. Also, I have a plant in my garden, just in case. But you can use any species of salvia- from garden sage (which most of the Western herbal literature is written about) to whatever your local species might be (if you have them). You can also pick up garden sage at the supermarket, if you can’t find any local species.
Every year I make big batches of oil, tincture and elixir, then dry a whole bunch more. The oil I use both in cooking and in salves (sage, yarrow and chapparal is my current best-seller for both wounds and fungal infections); the tincture and elixir I use for medicine, for myself and clients; and then the dried sage gets put in teas, food, and burned as incense or to disinfect a sick room.
While we’re on the topic of sick rooms and burning sage, I was aghast, the other day, to read an article on the subject by a woman claiming to have learned of salvia apiana's ‘energy clearing’ properties from a Cherokee man, as it was his tribe’s sacred plant. Sorry, but no. Salvia apiana doesn’t grow in Cherokee country. It is a Southern California native with an extremely small growing range, and while it IS the sacred plant of the Chumash people, it isn’t sacred to all Native American tribes. White sage is toted as a new age panacea for any kind of ‘negative energy’ and while that’s a really nice idea, it’s stripping Southern California’s hillsides to supply the world with ‘negative ions’. If it’s bad energy you’re worried about, try salt- abundant in negative ions, and much better at ‘clearing the energy’ of a space than any plant. If its the medicinal effects you’re after (of which there are many) try either garden sage, or a sage species local to you. And if its a nice smelling smudge you’re after, try any number of the gorgeous aromatic smoking plants out there in the world. If you are desperate for white sage, and white sage alone (I don’t blame you, its a gorgeous plant and I find it to be the stronger in medicinal action than garden sage) then try growing it, or make friends with a friendly wildcrafter who lives within its growing range and do a trade. Just don’t buy it in big swollen smudge sticks from new age shops: the likelihood of it being an ethical harvest is pretty slim: there’s money involved, and people are just grabbing the entire plant and yanking it out of the ground to harvest it. Plus its incredibly wasteful to burn a big old stick when a leaf or two do quite nicely, either for incense or to disinfect the air.
And it's fantastic at disinfecting the air- all salvia species are- it kills germs, bugs, bacteria and viruses leaving your respiratory tract happy and healthy. Wondering what else you can do with sage medicinally? Here's a nifty list:
For a flu-ridden feverish sick person, make a hot sage, mint, yarrow, elderflower and bee balm tea. To be drunk hot. While wrapping up warm. Burn a sage leaf, to fill the air with that anti-bacterial smoke, and sweat it all out.
Slice yourself while out in the garden? Slap a sage leaf on it. I was out hiking once, years ago, and sliced my thumb up pretty badly. I’d been harvesting sage, so I wrapped the wound with a big sticky leaf, and by the time I got back to the car, it had formed a perfect little line of a scab, and was totally healed within a week.
For a wiry, frazzled, exhausted person with a strung out nervous system and a tendency towards the shakes, a few drops of sage elixir (maybe combined with oats and rose) can work wonders, grounding, calming, soothing and restoring a worn out fried system. Or drop a couple of sage leaves in a mug, with some rose petals and a peach twig, cover with hot water, and then add a dollop of cream and honey. Sip slowly.
After a big heavy fatty meal, brew a sage and mint tea. Stir in a dollop of honey and serve it to your guests before they fall asleep at the table: it’ll help them digest, and wake them up enough to drive home!
When in need of focus (which is quite a lot), combine it with basil in a strong tea, for a great concentration-aid (if you have gotu kola, add some of that too).
And for a hungry person, in the middle of the afternoon, who is looking for something to munch on with some fresh jam and a cup of tea, look no further than sagey oatcakes. The crumbly crispyness of the oatcakes combined with the bite of the sage is perfect for a combination of cheese and sweet things. Goat cheese and apricot jam is my current favourite, but I’m not too picky right now...
White Sage Oatcakes
1 cup steel cut oats
1 1/2 cup rolled oats
4 nice dry white sage (or whatever sage you have) leaves
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp salt
1/3 cup sage infused olive oil*
1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp honey
Preheat oven to 350.
Put the oats in a blender, and blend until they're smaller- the rolled oats will get mealy, and the steel cut oats will reduce in size. Probably about 15-20 seconds. Then mix all the ingredients in a big bowl. It might be a bit dry. Very slowly, start pouring in boiling water from the kettle, in teaspoon size increments, mixing it until it's doughy but only slightly sticky.
Roll them out, and cut out individual little oateycakes. I use Jam's favourite Stella glass, but you can use whatever you have on hand.
Bake for 20 minutes. Eat when cool.
*No sage infused olive oil? Take a small handful of sage leaves, cover in a pan with olive oil and heat up gently for about 40 minutes. Don't boil.
I'm sending this post into the Wild Things Roundup- this month's topic is the mint family!
Lately, I've been too restless to get anything useful done. In my mind there are these lists of things to do. Newsletters and website updates and blog posts and dealing with traffic tickets (*cough*) and parking tickets (*cough*) and returning phonecalls. I think it's the coming spring; I want to be outside so much that all this other stuff makes my brain short-circuit. The words all swim together and stop making sense. Cursors blink on white pages and minute hands tick by and become hour hands and I'll type a sentence and delete it then go to the kitchen for another snack and a cup of tea. On Wednesday, instead of repeating the process, I went to the Farmer's Market in Santa Monica with Carly. Early. While it was still cold, and while the day was still yawning awake. I'm giving her cooking lessons, so each week she's armed with a list, and each Thursday night we get together and I unleash my inner dictator while she does exactly as I say*.
As we were picking some very handsome carrots, she mentions that she wants to buy some white sage to 'cleanse' her apartment, and asks if I believe in that stuff. And it got me thinking. Because although there are plenty of people who see these things the way I do, my opinions aren't necessarily the most popular in a city where people talk about 'energy' like everybody should understand what it is. But Carly was obviously asking me because of my superior intellect and rational thought process. So I did what any normal human being would do with an opinion that might counter that of others: I'm putting it on the internet. So, a bit more about smoke, smudging, incense, clearing bad energy, and all that stuff...
Smoke is sacred. Look at the way smoke from incense curls through the air, fluid, like water or fire, shapeshifting and changing and bringing that scent with it. It's hypnotic, it reaches into stagnant corners, it can alter minds and intoxicate senses. But when it comes to 'clearing bad energy' as an isolated function, I think this is a belief that has rolled over into our time from the dark ages**.
To understand this, we have to know a bit more about what this 'bad energy' is, what needs to be cleared in the first place. Back when pathogens were unheard of, sickness was often thought to come from 'evil spirits'. Great ceremonies were made to get rid of said 'evil spirits' and herbs were often burned to aid in the process. Fast forward 2 thousand years and people are burning herbs to 'clear energy' in houses and such or to perform appropriations of Native American ceremonies without fully understanding what's going on. Evil spirits, back then, were airborne pathogens. Burning aromatic plants is fantastic for killing these airborne pathogens. If you've got a bunch of people in close quarters, smoke is great to have around- burning frankincense in a church, for example, or hinoki wood in a temple. Palo santo, that treasured Ecuadorian wood, myrrh, white sage, juniper, mugwort. The list is long, and effective. Having these herbs around to burn when someone's coming down with something is really useful. Having them just to burn in general because they smell good and because smoke is pretty is fine as well. And yes, you can use them in ceremonies to 'clean' the energy of a space, but it doesn't need to be a specific type of herb, or something that someone else has deemed 'sacred', and it doesn't even need to be smoke in the first place, if that is your purpose.
Ever walked into a place and it just felt weird? Ever had something horrible happen in your house and you just want to clear the walls of those memories or the space of lingering horrible-ness? When it comes to getting rid of that kind of thing, few things beat salt. Plain old fashioned salt, a little sprinkled in the corners, will get 'bad energy' out of a place quicker than you can say BOO. Open all the windows and chase out the stuff you don't want with a broom or by clapping your hands but most of all with your intention to get rid of it. Then, close the windows and sprinkle salt in each corner, intentionally (whatever your intention is). Let me be clear- I did say that you can use smoke, but the smoke in itself isn't what's going to chase out the stuff you don't want. YOU are. The smoke isn't powerful, the person guiding the smoke is powerful. Clearing a space is an active endeavour, not something that happens by default because stuff is burning.
White sage is overused. Even in this area where it actually grows it's overused. Walk down Hollywood boulevard or the Venice boardwalk and you'll see stoners selling piles of smudge sticks for people to buy, bring home, clear the energy of their houses, and do their own ceremonies with. White sage itself IS sacred to one tribe in our area (it has a very small growing range) and its so sacred that they burn one leaf at a time, not massive smudge sticks. Sacredness, with plants, is something that happens, not because someone else deems it so, but because of the connection you have to that plant. The fact of the matter is that any plant can be sacred, any ceremony can be meaningful. You can burn rose petals and have an effect on your space just as much as you would with sage leaves.
When it comes to a sick room, however, smoke excels. On its own. As a force in itself. Those compounds that smell so good are often antiviral and antibacterial and in inhaling them, you breathe them directly into your respiratory tract, which then goes directly into your blood stream, and before you know if you have all these little fighter compounds in your blood and in your lungs. When one of us is sick at home, we'll burn a combination of things- my favourite is white sage and juniper (which grow around here and thus are easier to come by, cheaper, and more sustainable), but frankincense smells pretty darn amazing too. There are tons of other burnable resins available commercially, and other things you can try with what you have around. My recipe for sage and juniper incense is ridiculously simple- it's not a complex scent or kyphi, but a simple mix of herbs with medicinal properties for the purpose of killing airborne pathogens and keeping folks healthy. But, as I've mentioned before, medicinal doesn't need to mean gross, or single-purposed. You can burn it anytime, for any purpose, it's all about the intention.
Also, for more information about sacred smoke and making your own incense, please see Kiva's recent article. I've been lucky enough to try her hand-made incense and it's mind-alteringly intoxicating. That right there, is sacred stuff...
White Sage-juniper incense
1 part juniper berries
2 parts white sage leaves
1 part pine resin (I get mine from the tree in my front yard which is an araucaria not actually a pinus)
In a pestle and mortar, grins up the juniper berries. Add the sage leaves and pine resin, and grind it all until it's a pretty even consistency.
Light a charcoal disc and wait for it to be hot, then sprinkle your incense over the top. Inhale. Walk around the house letting the smoke get into the corners. If someone is sick, let them inhale the smoke, brush it through sick person's hair, then leave it for the smoke to fill the space.
*I think I missed my calling. I'm a very good dictator. You can refer to me as The Chairman from now on.
** Speaking of which, did you know there's a flat earth society?