A Black Herbalist’s Guide to Breathing and Grieving with Yellow Dock
This essay on Yellow Dock, grief, and healing is the eighth piece in the 2020 Visions: Imagining (Post-) COVID Worlds series, which aims to reflect on the uneven impacts of the “pandemic year” and to consider new futures that might be made possible in its wake. Series editors: Weishun Lu, Juniper Lewis, Richelle Wilson, and Addie Hopes.
We sat in a circle around an altar of sacred objects: a leaf, a stone, a stick, and a bowl. A grief ritual organized by my comrades Maria Talero and Kritee Kanko, climate scientists, climate justice activists, and wise women. We sat in a circle around an altar of sacred objects. My co-facilitators poured soul like salt in bath water. Wailing. Grieving. Releasing. Receding. We sat in a circle around an altar of sacred objects. Waves of emotion crashed against my solitude. I sought to be a solid ground for my folks to land on, to step out onto when they were ready. I breathed through anguish, holding down the frequency of worlds not yet created but accessible. I didn’t know what I was practicing for, but I knew that I needed to. So I sat there like I sit now, stealing new worlds for the day after tomorrow. Breathing.
Can you feel me? Dark brown hands tenderly caressing the spring leaves of a European root growing in lands that have been stewarded by the Cheyenne and the Ute. I am a place-based herbalist, a rootworker embarking on imperfect processes of re-indigenization through bioregional adaptation. In the space of Aunty Anzaldúa’s mestizaje, I lean on the histories, the pains, and the genius of all who have made my blood as I make sense of medicine—medicine for the soul, for the land, for the generations on whose shoulders I stand and the generations that will stand in my footprints.
In our time together, we will call upon Indigenous and traditional wisdom about the workings of the bowels and lungs in relation to grief through the vessel of Yellow Dock. We will explore how grief metastasizes in colonial cultures through isolation from the land and its people. We will demonstrate how dichotomies of life/death create shadow worlds inhabited by people who are called disposable. And then we will exhale so that we can move forward, creating new worlds and responding to the change that is inevitable. Let us move.
Yellow Dock, A Life-Death-Life Doula
Yellow Dock is a life-death-life doula—a fitting phrase explored by Clarissa Pinkola Estés in her classic Women Who Run with the Wolves. I am a woman who runs with the Weeds. Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus) is a common “weed” that can can be found and harvested early spring through fall near roadsides, on street corners, and in waste places. Yellow Dock root is perhaps best known in the west as a bitter tonic that can evoke a more rhythmic and efficient peristalsis, helping move the bowels. Dock doesn’t force its rhythms on the body; it subtly tunes your internal instruments so that your intestines and bowels can move in a more rhythmic way.
In many Indigenous cultures, Yellow Dock’s use extends beyond the digestive tract. Indigenous peoples—most notably the Cheyenne and Iroquois nations—have used a decoction of Yellow Dock root to treat lung and respiratory disorders, including cough, cold, and throat aches, and hemorrhaging in the lung for thousands of years. It is very often that understanding how herbs work in the body teaches us how the body itself works. I was curious about this discrepancy. To understand why a digestive, laxative herb would have a powerful impact on the respiratory system one would need to understand the way those two systems are related. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) offers us a holistic view of understanding the patterns of the body. In TCM, the Lung and the Large Intestine are paired. These two organs are interdependent and enforce each other. When you tonify the digestive and elimination system, you also tonify the respiratory system. I found Yellow Dock to be a backdoor remedy to improve the functioning of the lungs.
Beyond the anatomical, TCM for thousands of years has also acknowledged the relationship between the body and our emotions. In this tradition and other Indigenous traditions, the lungs are thought to hold our grief. Grief is not only expelled through the exhalation of our lungs, but also through the exhalation or emptying of our bowels. As a mover of the bowels, Yellow Dock can be allied with grief workers of the plant world, helping our bodies to exhale our burdens so that we can receive new life with every fresh breath of air.
I had firsthand experience working with Dock after a pre-pandemic virus landed me in the emergency room at Denver Health on a respirator, taking steroids and a prescription for albuterol. The latter two were known to dampen the immune system and drive the virus deeper into my body. I had to deal with the failure of my own response and my offense and frustration that the best the west could offer me was temporary oxygen that could lead to the development of pneumonia down the road. Their medicine always has poisonous consequences. And at this time my medicine wasn’t strong enough.
Both rage and gratitude grappled for the little chest space I had left. I hate hospitals. Thank god for hospitals. There is no shame in integration, and I was ashamed. Returning home, I could only take a few steps before collapsing. I marveled at the wonder of the inhaler. Its rapid response let me sleep through the night but came with the cost of deteriorating my respiratory system over time. I could feel it working less and less each day.
Lynn, a beloved senior herbalist, checked on me and asked what it was that I was grieving.
“Black life, Lynn, is a constant state of grief work. It’s not episodic, it takes up residence in the background becoming a part of the ambiance of my body. This extra something sitting on my lungs is so hard for me right now.”
“Can you let it go?” she responded. “For just for a while? What herbal allies might help you move it?”
Finding the Rhythms of Grief
Grief is the place between what was and what is. It’s the space between what should be and what is so. Grief can also be a gateway, moving us from one stage of being into the next. While it is okay to be held and walk slowly as we process the new reality, we must keep moving. The inability to do so can take our breath away, blocking the movement of life force. Our goal isn’t to avoid or replace grief. Our goal is to integrate it into the rhythms of our lives.
Death is not an ending. Immaturity and shortsightedness may force us to see only life and death. Boom and bust. Beginning and ending. Instead of holding life and death as two sacred aspects of a beautiful whole that move in and out of each other, we assign positive value to life and negative value to death. Positive values to beginnings and negative values to endings. This either-or dichotomy doesn’t acknowledge both as necessary and eminent parts of the process of living. It creates a stuckness that shows up like shock, disbelief, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, panic, and unpreparedness in the face of the inevitable.
When we are in and of the land, we are inextricably woven into the cycles of the call-and-response feedback loop of life, death, life. We are intertwined with our impact, so we learn to tread lightly. From direct observation we develop a sense of enough. We practice and enculture traditions of restraint—traditions that are often bound in respect and person-making of animals, plants, and planet. When we own the land, we lord the land. We make land an object of consumption and trade rather than a being in her own right. This commodification dissolves our innate relationship to our lands and we become tourists of our own terrain. Homeless without belonging to the world. We attempt, then, to force belonging—to force relationship—by conquest and colonization. In our isolation from home, we eschew our original contract. We belittle the earth’s boundaries. So alien we are to her that we lose our selves and our rhythms. We move with jagged predilection, stiff with unilateral decisions. Like swords we cut down everything. We strive for the impossibility of infinite growth; unidirectional motion.
The consequences move into the shadow of our cultural subconscious. Pour them down the drain when no one is watching. What’s not in our backyard nurtures dead zones downstream. We call them “Zones of Sacrifice.” And the lives most exposed to these consequences are made into shadow, too. We offer up their earthen bodies as libations. As long as the sacrifices remain out of sight, they’re out of mind. And all too often, we do not grieve the death of those dearly beloveds and the pain just sits on the chests of their kin.
In the place known as the United States, a Black family making up to $60,000 a year is more likely than a white family making $15,000 per year to live next to a toxic facility. Over 78 percent of Black people live within a 30-mile radius from a coal-fired power plant that expels toxic wastes into the air. Seventy-one percent of Black Americans live in counties that violate air quality standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Black people are three times more likely to die from asthma, especially Black women, than any other group. As of April 23, 2021, the COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans is 2.4 times higher than the rate for Latinos, 2.5 times higher than the rate for Asians, and 2.7 times higher than the rate for whites. There is no American exceptionalism without the shadow of desecrated Black bodies. Death is the necessary consequence of infinite growth—and who dies is a matter of tradition. In our body politic, who be the bowels?
We apportion death to Black and brown bodies. We apportion death to the poor and working class who live in the veil between extraction and consumption. We act as if the sacred can’t be found on street corners, on roadsides, and in waste places. We don’t recognize what divinity really is. How to find it and craft its sacred medicine. How to petition an apology. How to sew ourselves back into the fabric of right relation.
Taking up the Space of Life
“Don’t lay down your life all by itself. No, preserve your life. It’s the best thing you got. And if you got to give it up, let it be even-steven.”
As a young person, my asthma attacks were triggered by injustice. “Not fair” would well up in my chest until my throat closed and I passed out. For asthmatics like myself, the problem is not the inability to breathe air in, as commonly assumed. It’s the resistance to exhalation. Letting go.
There is life. There is death. There is life. Every exhalation and every bowel movement is an homage to the little death—an emptying, to ready the body for reception. Such is the nature of things. These little deaths put us in touch with the grandness of creation.
Yellow Dock shows up exactly where and when it is needed. In orchestrating our bowel movements, Yellow Dock helps us to move through our pain. It helps us to take in life’s air by the mouthful and lets us taste the sweetness that lives inside of the bitter. To echo my beloved Pinar Sinopoulos-Lloyd of Queer Nature, Black and Indigenous people have already lived through the apocalypse. The worst that could have happened to us has already happened. I hold space in my body for the metabolization of grief around Black death.
And so I sit here, breathing, inhaling and exhaling with Yellow Dock in gratitude. With their help, I recovered and I learned new lessons. I crafted new remedies and tested them out on my own body. From my place of calm resolve, I was prepared when the pandemic hit. I delivered lifesaving medicines to my loved ones, and I continue my work to this day, aiding folks in their recovery. Helping them exhale, healing, stealing more time for the day after tomorrow.
Featured image: A person holds the golden roots of Yellow Dock in their hand. Photo courtesy of the author.
Asia Dorsey writes Afrofutures into existence by reweaving Black bodies into relationship with the earth. As a bioregional herbalist, an organizational ecologist with Regenerate Change, and permaculture instructor with the Denver Permaculture Guild, Asia deciphers and reintegrates the sacred instructions of plants and ecosystems into our people systems. You can find and support her creations at Patreon and on Instagram. Contact.