Healing Ancestral Trauma with Plant Medicine
By third year Cecemmana student, Kara Wood.
Several years ago I had a lightning bolt message from my ancestors that I needed to live my truth and combine all the things that I care about (plants, ancestors, genetics, herbal medicine) and really live who I am. That is when I found Ancestral Apothecary School and the Cecemmana program. I am in the third year and what I have learned and experienced surpassed any possible expectations. So much of what I had always been doing, that I didn’t yet recognize, was preparing me for this.
In this life do any of us really escape trauma? It can affect us at any time in our lives from in utero on. We also experience ancestral trauma, sometimes referred to as transgenerational trauma. This trauma is the one that inhabits each of us in some way. Each generation before us imprinted information and trauma on sperm and eggs which are then passed down to the next generation. These imprints can influence our likes and dislikes, our talents, phobias and fears. We inherit so much more than just eye and hair color.
Also affected by trauma are the end caps of our chromosomes, our telomeres. Telomere length corresponds to our longevity. When we are born our telomeres are at their longest. Oxidative stress, sugar, smoking and toxic environment all shorten our telomeres. Sometimes we are born with telomeres already damaged from ancestral trauma. This could be from a grandparent’s or parent’s trauma, or from our mother feeling fear during her pregnancy. We all process trauma differently according to our personality, our environment, our genetics and past traumas. All these factors create our “trauma load.”
All families have endured death and poverty and violence, but the way that they handle these experiences while alive has a great deal to do with how they are passed down cellularly. It’s not a question of whether or not we have trauma, it’s a question of how we heal it.
Since the mapping of the human genome and the birth of epigenetics, (the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself) there have been many fascinating studies discussing ancestral trauma.
Studies have been done with children and grandchildren of Vietnam combat vets who show symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). These offspring inherited the PTSD of their ancestors and it is diagnosed as ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder). The trauma presents as ADHD in the descendants because these are developing children who have not been in combat. But their bodies are in a state of heightened stress like they had been in combat. This is also true for the studies done with children and grandchildren of victims of the Nazi Occupation and Holocaust. These people have anxiety from events they did not experience. The same can be said for descendants of enslaved and colonized people.
We see this in species besides humans. There is a well-known study that was done with mice and cherry blossoms. A generation of mice were shocked whenever they smelled cherry blossoms. They exhibited fear of the smell of the blossoms after being shocked repeatedly. This fear became part of the genetic imprint that they passed on.
We also can see genetic memory in situations other than trauma. We very easily accept instinct as part of animal behavior, at the same time denying that we as humans are included, too. Ancestral memory and animal instinct are the same.
How do we know when we carry ancestral trauma? For some of us, it’s obvious, we know and can feel it. Maybe it’s been told to us. But for many there is a disconnect. A denial of what we truly are or feel; that we are made of those who came before us and the experiences that shaped them, also shape us.
Ancestor worship has been practiced for time immemorial in all cultures. Here in the “west,” in monotheistic culture, we have lost and forgotten a lot of this. Sadly, ancestor worship was erroneously sold to many as the work of the devil. Many of our ancestors have shifted from living with the elements and the cycle of life to feeling shame around where we come from, and shame of what we are made of and how we are made. This all is part of the doctrine of original sin. Some people chose to disconnect from earth worship, but many others were forced.
Plant medicine goes hand in hand with ancestral worship and healing. When many of us lost the way from worshipping the earth, the ancestors, and the divine feminine, we lost a part of us that had ability to heal with the plants. We lost the way we always approached healing, effortlessly, with the cycles of the moon and the elements. Some cultures have not lost this and I don’t want to diminish the truth that indigenous people all over the world have continued these practices in spite of colonization and genocide.
I believe plants are the path to healing ancestral trauma. The plants are our ancestors! If we each look at our different ancestral plants, we see beings that are also our ancestors, those that guided, nourished, supported and allowed for our ancestors to exist, which in turn, allowed us to exist. If the same plants were grown, harvested, prepared and ingested by generations of our ancestors, those plants became part of our generational bodies. Since humans have severed these critical plant relationships, this action acted as a catalyst and major contributor leading to the inability to process ancestral trauma as we know it.
When we ingest and make relationships with the plants that our ancestors lived with and worked with, we heal. When we ingest the medicine they might have needed to heal, we heal them because we are our ancestors. Our traumas are results of multi generations, amalgamations, combinations. We heal ourselves.
How do we go about healing ancestral trauma on land that has not yet healed? How do those of us who are descendants of colonizers, white Americans/indo-europeans heal our trauma when we are not acknowledging the trauma that our existence brings? Or not acknowledging the trauma that our ancestors brought? This doesn’t mean that we are responsible for the actions of our ancestors, but we are here now because of their actions. Our ancestors made choices and then they made us. We are part of the choice. Can we acknowledge this? This is the way we will heal, because we are all carrying trauma that we inherited from a lot of people. It shows up differently. We cannot escape it, but we can look at it and name it.
Sadly in this world so much of what has been dominant are European descendants appropriating Native American, Asian, African medicine, and spiritual and cultural practices. I have been influenced and profoundly affected by many cultures in my life but the act of practicing my own indigenous medicine has been the most empowering feeling. I believe that if we each remember that we all have indigenous spiritual healing traditions and stop continuing the colonial mentality of all culture’s sacred practices, believing it is a “free for all,”we will truly heal as humans.
I have had ancestral memories my entire life. There was a time when I couldn’t articulate the combination of sensations and emotions I experienced upon looking at an object or place. It’s not just “memory” it’s a feeling of familiarity along with fear, relief, comfort, longing, loss, home, truth. All those in a cellular place deep inside me. I just recently started naming it. Plants have guided me. They are who helped me connect the dots.
My paternal grandmother’s side of the family has been here since the 1620’s. The rest of my fathers family arrived in the 1800s. By the time they were established on this continent their descendants were wealthy and privileged. I have come to full grips with the fact that they did things that would make me fold inside out with shame and anger and sadness. I choose not to pray to these ancestors. I chose not to continue their mentality of white supremacy. But, I still hold their trauma.
On the other side of my family, my Italian side, my maternal side, my grandfather and great grandparents arrived in this country through Ellis Island in the early 1900s. My Matrilineal line is Italian/Albanian/Middle Eastern. My grandfather’s side, Calabrian Italian. When they arrived here they were uneducated, had no privilege, no language, no money. They lived in poverty for many years. My grandparents and great grandparents came here because they felt it was better to leave all they knew and loved for somewhere that was the unknown and far away. Leaving their land is a trauma that I hold. I experienced it profoundly many years ago the first time I visited my grandmothers family village in Calabria. When it was time for me to leave, I was stabbed with an unbearable pain that cut from my throat to my heart. Every part of me didn’t want to leave. I cried. I cried for hours after we left. The feeling stayed in my body for days, I can still feel it as I write this. At the time I didn’t understand what was happening. I now know without a doubt that I was feeling my great and great great grandmothers’ pain of leaving that same village never to return.
For the past year every day I have been taking formulas I made for my Maternal Grandmother, Great Grandmother and Great Great Grandmother. I carry these women’s trauma. If my depression and anxiety is related to their depression, anxiety, abuse and experiences, I believe that I can heal my self through the help and guidance of the plants. Healing is a commitment, a spiral, a non-linear voyage. Healing with plants takes full compliance and trust. That is how they work. That also includes listening to what we do for the plants in return. The relationship is symbiotic.
I have heard my ancestors voices guiding me, but for so long didn’t know who was speaking to me. It becomes confusing because we are taught and believe our narrator as the ego, the self, the inner voice. But who is that really? I believe the voice inside us is made of the voices of all who lived before us, who made us and ultimately are us. We are that individual combination of all those who came before us.
My prayer is that we continue to do the work with the plants that our ancestors practiced. My wish is for us to return to listening to the earth, to the ancestors, to ourselves. My hope is that we will heal the damage that has been done.
Kara Wood is a third year Cecemmana student at Ancestral Apothecary School. Her 20 years in Oakland has enabled many incarnations of expression through art, photography, food and plants.
She is inspired by her ancestors and by traditional Calabrian and Mediterranean folk medicine and magic. Follow her on instagram @cimarutaremedies