By Adam Langer
"Let me just paraphrase why we're all here," Eliot Cowan is saying, as he sits with one leg crossed over the other in an armchair in the basement of this Forest Park home. "All of us are interested in healing. Now healing is not a technique. No one ever healed anybody with a method. Herbs don't heal people. Operations don't heal people. Healing is something mysterious. It's something really beyond what a normal person can do. People are good at breaking things and destroying them. But who among us can take a flower and restore it to its former beauty? Destruction is our capacity--healing and creation is not. So we are heading into an aura of mystery."
It is freezing cold outside, and here it looks like nap time in Miss O'Connor's kindergarten class. There are 15 of us huddled under blankets and sprawled across the floor. Well, actually there's no room left on the floor so I'm in another armchair, listening to the Philip Glass-like pounding that emanates from Eliot Cowan's drum. Everyone else has shelled out $250 for the first of 12 weekend sessions during which they'll learn to communicate telepathically with nature and tap the mystical healing powers of plants.
With his wire frame glasses and soothing voice, the 50-year-old Cowan, decked out in a forest green flannel shirt over a matching green turtleneck, has the air of a Zen Richard Dreyfuss as he sits over his students. He is banging his drum slowly, trying to guide us along a nine-minute journey through time and space. He has asked us to imagine a hole in a favorite dark spot through which we can burrow into the earth toward the light of a pond or spring. He prompts us by softly asking questions.
"Are there any scents or aromas? What do you hear? Do you hear the wind whistling? Take off your shoes and walk around. What do you feel?"
I close my eyes and try to find the hole.
As we approach the 21st century in what seems more and more like a postreligious society, our growing reliance on technology and our alienation from each other have led to back-to-earth and back-to-nature movements. You can see it in the beat-a-drum-in-the-forest men's movements. You can see it in the natural snacks aisle at Whole Foods. You can see it in the free pamphlets distributed by the Discovery Center, offering classes in creative visualization and herbal remedies. Every slacker I know seems to have some sort of bottle of plant-based pills tucked away in the medicine cabinet that's guaranteed to ward off colds or bad vibes.
The wily entrepreneurs of our time have found a way to breach the gap between the hated world of faceless corporations and our growing desire for made-from-God's-green-earth products. Yesterday's hippies head up the new corporations of our new age, giving an air of beneficence to the corporate jungle. Witness the success of companies like Shaman Pharmaceuticals, which has made a fortune by blending good-old-fashioned corporate marketing techniques with natural remedies purportedly derived from ancient societies. Now practically every company trying to give itself an image of forward-mindedness makes a token donation to the rain forests or the endangered albino monkeys of Burundi. I picked up the Eddie Bauer catalog today and they were talking about the 239,000 trees they've planted.
In this new era, former hippie Eliot Cowan seems to be gunning for the title of guru or medicine man. With his "plant spirit medicine" he positions himself as someone who does not cure specific ailments but heals human souls. Cowan is an ordained minister in the Circle of the Sacred Earth Church, a shoestring operation in Massachusetts designed to give legitimacy to healers whose techniques fall outside the realm of both Western organized religion and Western medicine.
"Western medicine is profoundly materialistic," Cowan says. "It focuses on the material part of the human being, the physical body, the anatomy and the physiology and the biochemistry and all that. But it's almost at the total exclusion of the rest of the person, which is more important in my estimation. In Western medicine it's heretical to even talk about a soul or spirit of a human being. Where I come from that's a preposterous position, because of course it's possible for a person's soul to suffer and be sick. That's where most suffering comes from. It's really a tragedy that we're so fixated on the materialistic in our medicine that we've neglected the heart, the soul, and the mind."
"So if you get a headache will you take an aspirin?" I ask him.
"Me?" Cowan laughs. "I don't get headaches."
The road to becoming a plant spirit healer has been roundabout. It began on the south side near 73rd and Jeffrey, where Cowan spent his early years. As a shy Jewish kid experiencing what he calls a "profoundly ordinary childhood," Cowan showed no particular interest in nature. He says he was allergic to a great many plants, and when he vacationed with the folks out in Indiana he couldn't sleep because he missed the traffic sounds outside his window. And he says he pretty much lost interest in religion when he was 12 and stopped going to synagogue. He saw and still sees religion as almost completely divorced from spirituality.
"What I know of the spirit is that it's dynamic, unpredictable, powerful, joyous, terrifying, and leaps outside all boundaries," says Cowan. "Traditional organized religions are structures that militate against all those qualities and make the life of the spirit predictable, conventional, orthodox--all these things that by nature it can't possibly be."
He spent a long period mired in what he terms "intellectual, materialistic skepticism and agnosticism." After graduating from Pomona College with a degree in anthropology and doing postgrad work in filmmaking at UCLA, he dropped out of school, went to Vermont, and joined a commune.
"For some reason I caught something in the air or whatever and I suddenly realized that I didn't know anything about the planet I lived on," says Cowan. I didn't even know that you planted seeds in the spring. I knew nothing, and it seemed urgent to me to find out, so I went to Vermont, which was a hotbed of urban dropouts and hippies of various stripes.
"We had an experiment to see if it was possible to develop a lifestyle that was completely self-reliant. We tried to provide for all of our needs--food, clothing, shelter, entertainment. There was a very idealistic premise behind what we were doing, but it turned out that it couldn't work. It just wasn't possible. Our goal was to get out of the cash economy, but we couldn't do it. But I learned a lot and had a hell of a lot of fun."
Over the course of a rather itinerant life, Cowan did time as an acupuncturist, studying and practicing in England. He wound up in Mexico, where he currently resides with his wife, studying with shamans from the Huichol tribe and eventually learning enough to appoint himself a full-blown healer.
"I've had a very wonderful teacher, a tribal native person from Mexico." Cowan is speaking of his instructor Don Guadalupe Gonzalez Rios, to whom he is still apprenticed. "I can't tell you how much I've learned from him, and almost no amount I've learned has been because of any verbal instruction. He has given me his knowledge directly by transmission, and this is something that is very bizarre and unheard of in our society but it has a very strong and old tradition behind it in most other traditional societies."
Plant spirit medicine, as practiced by Cowan, works something like this. He will encounter a patient in distress. Cowan will check the patient's pulses and do a cursory examination of the belly. And, like any good doc, he'll ask a fair amount of questions. So as not to get in trouble with the FDA or any other governmental authority, Cowan is careful to say that he does not purport to treat medical symptoms. Through drumming, Cowan works himself into a trance. In this dream state he will encounter the spirit of a plant and tell it about the ailments of his patient. Because plants don't possess broad vocabularies--and also, perhaps, for legal reasons--Cowan speaks a language the plant understands. He sticks to the five elements: fire, earth, metal, water, wood--the touchstones, he says, of traditional Chinese medicine that inform all of nature.
"You know," Cowan tells me. "If you go to a plant and say, "Listen, plant, this person has come to me for help and he's got nephritis,' chances are the plant is not gonna know what the hell you're talking about. It would have to be a very well educated plant. On the other hand, if you go to the plant and say, "Plant, this person is asking for our help. The sun has not been shining its love and its warmth and its joy on this person's heart for the last 20 years and he's become cold and damp inside and that's causing an accumulation of dampness and cold,' the plant gets that right away. The plant knows what sunshine means. It knows what water means. It knows all about the earth and the soil, so you have a wonderful language there and that gives a really deep grasp of the healing process. It helps us to know what questions to ask when we talk to the plants."
If the plant is in a particularly giving mood it will tell Cowan about its healing powers or refer him to another plant spirit better suited to treat a particular patient. Say Cowan concludes that the spirit of elm would be helpful. He will prepare a solution of alcohol and elm essence and administer a few drops under the tongue. Then he'll again check the patient's pulse points--Cowan says that according to ancient Chinese medical practice there are three on each wrist, revealing the workings of various parts of the body--to see if the treatment's had any effect. Treatment with plant spirits is not a one-shot deal. Depending on the severity of the condition, Cowan will visit weekly or monthly and monitor his patient's progress.
"It's really a very simple procedure," says Cowan.
Cowan has been working as a self-proclaimed plant spirit healer for nearly 15 years and he charges a handsome fee for his classes.
"Things don't come for free," he explains. "You have to sacrifice a certain amount of your time and a certain amount of your money. These sacrifices should not be taken lightly. If I could afford to give classes for free I wouldn't do it, because that would take away people's ability to make sacrifices and contributions. Sacrifice is the doorway to the sacred."
The appeal of Cowan's spin on medicine is obvious. He allows us to believe that the secrets of medical health can be found in the most simple and basic objects. Like a Tom's natural toothpaste or an RJ Corr Ginseng Rush for the soul, Cowan's plant spirit medicine embraces the nature from which our society has become removed. And unlike in-your-face, boss-you-around leaders of 70s self-awareness movements, Cowan is soft-spoken, easygoing, fiercely intellectual. He also hits on obvious truths that obsess all forward-thinking, positive-minded folks who recycle and go to Earth Day celebrations. Whenever Cowan returns to America he sees a nation in dire need of healing.
"The tremendous material advances and comforts that we've produced for ourselves require an absolute servitude almost to the exclusion of all the other values of life," says Cowan. "Almost all of our heart and soul goes into economic activity and there are certain satisfactions there, but it's a stern taskmaster. It becomes an obsession that leaves no room for the life of the soul, the life of the heart, the things that are ultimately satisfying.
"I took my Indian teacher here on his first journey outside his own country. He comes from way up in the mountains, and his reactions, if somewhat predictable, were still somewhat interesting. He was impressed with the cleanliness, the infrastructure, the telephones, the highways, and so forth. But then he started looking at the people and he was shocked. He saw how much sickness there is, and he was unprepared to see how deeply ill people are. He said, "My people, we hardly ever bathe. We don't have enough to eat. We work every day under the hot sun. We have to walk everywhere. You people are well fed. You bathe all the time. You go everywhere in cars. But our sickness is nothing compared to yours."'
For the first time I am dreaming with a plant. English plantain is growing here, and I see a young woman with enormous wings sprouting from her shoulders. Somehow I know she is the plantain spirit. I approach her and introduce myself. She asks why I have come.
"First of all," I reply, "I want to thank you for the help you have given my friends and me over the years. Your leaves have healed many wounds. I come to visit you to ask for another kind of help, a deeper kind. The cuts and scrapes of my people are nothing compared to the pain in our hearts and the pollution in our minds. Can you help relieve this kind of suffering too?"
The plantain woman hops off her leaf and flies close to me. For a moment she hovers in front of my face and looks intently into my eyes. Then she smiles and says, "Of course, I will help you. My brothers and sisters will help you also. We are very happy to do this. In fact, we have been waiting for two hundred years for someone to ask us for this kind of help. We can do nothing unless we are asked." --Eliot Cowan, Plant Spirit Medicine, 1995
"So you talk to the plants?" a woman is asking Eliot Cowan.
"And what do you get? A voice? A sensation? A feeling?"
"The teaching of plants comes in many forms," Cowan says. Above a wholesale herb distributor in Chinatown, Cowan is giving an introductory talk to a group of young and middle-aged white folks who've learned about Cowan through flyers distributed at New Age bookstores. Cowan is here to promote his 12-week program, which is spread out over the course of a year and costs about $3,000 if you take it in America and somewhat more if you take it in Mexico, where room and board are included. Cowan is also here to hawk his book Plant Spirit Medicine, a collection of essays, interviews, and reflections on the powers of plants, the moral bankruptcy and superficiality of American culture, and the road one needs to take to become a healer. The book has been a best-seller in Boulder, Colorado.
"I mean, sitting here talking to you, I certainly can't see plant spirits or hear them talking. But in my dreams it's a whole different story," Cowan says. "Sometimes they'll give a lecture that one can take notes on. Some people get songs and poetry from plants. Sometimes they take you off on a long journey that you have to interpret, much as you would interpret a dream. Sometimes people will be plunged into an emotion. Sometimes these emotions can be very hard or pleasant or painful, and I take these emotions as teachings. There is a wide variety. When I approach a plant, there is a purpose in my heart and my mind. I want to be taught what the nature of healing is that a plant has to offer. That's the purpose of talking to plants, and the answer to the question "What medicine do you have to offer?' comes in many different forms."
Cowan begins every talk by asking his audience if they've ever dreamed anything that turned out to be real. A smattering of hands goes up. Cowan next asks if, in their dream state, they encountered any beings that do not exist on earth. Almost everybody raises their hand. Cowan stresses that these encounters weren't "imaginary," but were actual meetings with the spirit world.
"What happens in dreams is that you have interaction with spirits," Cowan says. "The beings you encounter in dreams are as real as you or I, but they just don't inhabit the same particular reality of our daytime waking state."
The crowd of about 20 in Chinatown is not your typical cross section of America--or even Chicago. The folks here do not seem the least bit impressed by Cowan's contentions about the truth of the spiritual world, and when Cowan matter-of-factly states that he can have two-way telepathic communication with plants, they seem almost bored.
"If we can already talk to the plants and trees and the earth, what is it you'll be teaching us?" demands one woman in a flouncy multicolored dress. She looks as if she should be working behind the counter of a crystal shop. "I can already communicate with these spirits."
"Are you?" asks a suspicious Cowan.
The woman backpedals.
"In a feeling sense. Not a language sense," she says.
"Well that's good," Cowan smiles. "Many people talk to their plants or love their houseplants and that's a very good thing to do. But it's a little bit more of a trick between having a one-way conversation with a plant and a two-way communication. Nevertheless, if you're already engaging in two-way conversations that's very good, and I encourage you to follow up on that."
"I know how to do shamanic journeys," says a woman who runs a flower shop. "Couldn't I just go on a journey myself and speak to the plants and learn without you telling me how?"
"No reason in the world why not," Cowan says. "But the more knowledge you bring to it, the more wisdom you bring to your journey."
"I don't see that this is anything new," mutters a man with a long beard and a hairstyle that splits the difference between cornrows and dreadlocks. He is accompanied by his girlfriend, a refugee from the Grateful Dead's seemingly eternal concert tour who now has too much time on her hands. She wears a white T-shirt with a picture of a grilled cheese sandwich with a line through it and a lavender skirt that looks as if it's made out of tissue paper. "How can you say that these plant spirits are different from any other spirit? I mean, how am I going to learn anything more than when I talk to spirits of rocks and stars?"
"Well you're right, to a certain extent," Cowan allows. "Plant spirit medicine isn't the only spirit medicine. I just happen to have a certain affinity for plants. Also, plants are particularly gracious and generous with people. They really have a will and a desire to help us out if we just ask them. Another thing about plants, particularly wild growing plants, is that they're life forms that are in perfect balance and harmony with nature. That makes them a great spiritual power. I don't want to make a big case about this, but you could say that plants are even superior to us. They have lived in total harmony with the environment for hundreds of millions of years and they never got kicked out of the garden of Eden the way we did. They still live in that blissful experience of the garden of Eden. That makes them some very powerful spirits, some very powerful teachers. It also makes them wonderful healers."
The hippie couple departs. But the rest remain. One woman who seems to be taking an extra special interest in Cowan's chat is Kathy Wager, a tall woman in her mid-40s with blond, cascading hair. Cowan nods to her during his talk and even throws some questions her way. When someone asks about the benefits of taking Cowan's class, he directs the question to Wager.
"Kathy might be a good person to speak about that," Cowan says. "She's had communication with plants, particularly trees, and she can tell you whether this course is useful or not."
A woman suspiciously looks Wager up and down.
"What kind of healer were you before you started with the plants?" the woman asks.
"What do you mean?" Wager asks innocently.
"You must have been involved in acupuncture or some kind of healing."
"No," Wager smiles. "No medical background and no plant background. I mean, I like plants, but they always made me stuffed up, so when the plants came to me I really wondered why they chose me. I said, "You've got the wrong girl."'
Kathy Wager works full-time as a counselor at Triton College, and lately she's been picking up some part-time work as a plant spirit healer, having completed Cowan's course. Though she had no experience as any sort of healer, she'd been turned on to any number of New Age concepts in publications such as Conscious Choice and the quarterlies put out by the Foundation for Shamanic Studies in Mill Valley, California.
For a long time, Wager had been what one might disparagingly refer to as a "tree hugger." Literally.
"My mother never liked it," says Wager. "I would be pushing my daughter in a stroller and I'd be hugging trees and my mother would say, "Don't do that, because people will say you're weird and your daughter's weird.' I never talked much about it, because people would say "Oh that's Kathy' and think it was cute. But after I'd been doing this shamanic work, I realized that I wasn't just being cute."
Wager studied shamanism with the foundation's Michael and Sandra Harner, who suggested that she study with Cowan. But what ultimately led her to seek him out was a peculiar experience she had after a women's retreat in southwestern Illinois. "We were encouraged to go out and thank the earth for the weekend," Wager says. "So I went out and I met this tree. And this tree, to me, she was just exquisite. She kind of draped over the stream. We'd done a lot of movement that weekend and she just looked like she was a dancer, and so I drew her in my journal. And I sat beside her and against her and I really just spent all this time appreciating her."
Shortly thereafter, the tree appeared to her in a dream and advised her to take a plant spirit treatment of elm, beech, and iris. The Harners knew little about plant spirit medicine and encouraged her to write to Cowan.
"I wrote him a letter telling him that I felt really lost and lonely and no one was able to talk to me and that I received this message in a journey," says Wager. "He wrote me back a lovely letter and said that in fact I wasn't alone, that there were plant shamans all over the world and yes, something was happening to me."
Wager took Cowan's class in Colorado in 1994. She learned the basics and then proceeded to fieldwork, where class members went out into nature to meet the spirits of the plant world.
"The plants won't talk to you right away," she says. "You start by honoring the plant by offering it tobacco and stating your intention, why you're there, why you want to meet it. We would all separate ourselves so we wouldn't be able to hear each other anymore. What Eliot told us was that it was really important to actually vocalize, to speak out our conversations with the plant and ask if the plant was willing to share its medicine with you, and then you ask if you can taste it and observe it in the context of its surroundings, and then you try to get all this information you can. You almost move into an alternative state right there. You're just mesmerized by this plant."
"Not to be thickheaded about this, but do you just go up to a plant and say "Hey how're you doing? Can you tell me what you can do?"' I ask.
"Mm-hm," Wager nods.
"And what sort of response do you get? It says, "I can do this, this, and this?"'
"Pretty much," Wager says. "There are all sorts of different things that happen on journeys. In some of mine I do dancing with fairies and the plants just grow huge. Other people would have journeys about milky rivers, sweet flowing juices, journeys about being fed and being nourished. Some people would have journeys about having sex with plants or other sexual things. And sometimes, you know, the plants aren't that forthcoming. They can be fairly abrupt. I remember one woman had a journey where the plants were smoking cigarettes and were kind of curt with her. So it's not always flowery, warm, and soothing."
After Wager completed the course Cowan encouraged her to take on clients, and the treatment and the techniques she describes are somewhere between those of a standard doctor and a tarot card reader. Her rates are $75 for the first session and $50 for each hour-and-a-half session thereafter.
"Eliot's much quicker than I am," says Wager. "He can do a complete initial exam in an hour. But when a person comes to me the first session takes me about two and a half hours, because in that first session you need to listen to that person's emotions, hear their voice, smell them, see their color, learn all their history, their physical history, any traumatic illnesses they may have had. If they had rheumatic fever at ten, then why did they have it then? You can see that right before they came down with it something happened--a death, a divorce, a big move. There's usually a traumatic happening and then, after it, illness. Then you need to ask their whole history, what their dreams are. All those system things--How do your bowels move? How do you sleep? How's your appetite? How's your bladder? How do you respond to different temperatures, different foods, different tastes? You're testing with incense sticks for any imbalance on the right or left side. You're waving a stick around certain acupuncture points. You're checking the pulses to hear the song of the organs. And then, after that, you give them a treatment based on your diagnosis. But you have to see the person the next week to see if they could sustain the treatment. If a person's really sick you may need to see them more than once a week. But the idea is to wean the person so they only need to come in a couple times a year, just kind of like a tune-up to improve the system."
"Has anyone, your family maybe, expressed fears that you might have fallen into a New Age cult?" I ask.
"Oh yeah," Wager says. "My family are very conservative Christians. People think shamanism is like demonism or satanism. And when you attribute these powers to plants instead of God, it's like "Wow.' But I don't feel I have to convince anyone. There are so many different ways to find truth and wholeness and health. This is only one way and it won't be the way everyone chooses. I do believe, though, that there is a truth in living in harmony with nature, and it's because of our lack of respect and awareness for nature that we're in the trouble that we're in both inwardly and outwardly. We mirror inside the upheaval on the outside. So in that way, whatever people want to call it or label it, I feel that the message of plant spirit medicine is really important. I feel as though I'm a seed planter and I've been that all my life and this is just another way of conceptualizing a message to people. This is just the vehicle I'm using now."
Get him alone and Eliot Cowan seems less like a subtly manipulative guru than a rather self-important grad school seminar instructor. What you have to realize is that he believes everything he is saying. Plant spirit medicine is his method of healing a world in deep crisis. And, though he understands how bizarre his philosophy might seem to a cynic, he asserts his beliefs with remarkable self-assurance.
"I think a certain amount of skepticism is healthy, because there's all kinds of flaky stuff out there," says Cowan. "I don't know about cynicism, though. For me, because I'm honest with myself and interested in healing, I feel I have a built-in BS screen."
We're lounging on couches after the audience for one of his talks has departed, discussing the difference between dream and reality. I'm troubled by his contention that there is little difference between "reality" and "imagination" and it strikes me that his blurring of the line may make people less certain of themselves and their grasp on the "real world."
"Is there anything in your estimation that isn't real?" I ask. "Or does anything I perceive exist on some level?"
"That's a real interesting epistemological question," Cowan says and rubs his chin. "I met a shaman from West Africa once, and one of the things he said was about the difference between English and his African language. He said, "You know, in our language we don't have a word for what you people call imagination, because in our way of seeing the world the mind and all of its experiences are real. It just may not be actual yet. If you imagine something, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.'
"My point of view is very similar to that. What we call imagination is just another level of reality. In dreams there's a sense of smell and touch and taste and emotional effect. People have been known to die of heart attacks during a scary dream. Ultimately I think that there isn't a difference. What we think of as reality is just sort of a layered hierarchy of dream structures. It depends on how you see it. But you know, what we're talking about is fairly philosophical and fairly speculative and I have a certain bent that way, but in my work as a healer I maintain stoutly that that's about being practical. And so for practical purposes, what works to help people relieve their suffering and pain and anxiety and depression, I call that real, no matter how far-out or fanciful it may seem. If it helps people, then it's real. And if it doesn't help people, no matter how orthodox or creditable it may seem, I say it's not real."
I am not convinced of the literalness of what Cowan and his followers say they experience. But this plant spirit healer has a point when he pragmatically bases reality on results. And it is difficult to argue with a group of seemingly reasonable people who say they hear the voices of plants and these voices make them feel better. Many of those who study with Cowan to become healers have received treatments themselves and praise their effectiveness. One might argue that the voices people are truly hearing from elms are their own inner voices projected onto the trees, but maybe what some people call God other people call inner spirit and still others the song of the plants. I talked to a representative from the locally based Cult Awareness Network about plant spirit healing. She said she had no files on Cowan, nor had she ever heard of him. She added, "If you want to call that a cult, it still sounds pretty benign."
"Is the information you get from plants attainable from other objects that have spirit?" I ask Cowan.
"Yeah," he says. "I would say that all of nature is full of spirit, so yes, that kind of power and that kind of knowledge is available not just from plants. There are traditional doctors and healers in different parts of the world who receive healing power from rocks or the wind or stars or a stream or the ocean."
"What about people?" I ask.
"What about people?" Cowan repeats.
"Is the knowledge that you can get out of water or a plant something you can get out of yourself?"
"Sure. Absolutely. That's why this works. If we didn't contain each other, then this knowledge would be totally indecipherable to us."
"So the knowledge you can get from a plant you can also get from yourself or another person."
"Let me ask you some flaky questions," I say.
"When you look at all the pollution, all the ravages that are being done to the environment, why the hell would plants want to talk to us anyway? Following your logic, wouldn't we risk losing plants as a source of information? Won't they become less cooperative?"
"That's not a flaky question," Cowan says. "Let me pee and then I'll answer that."
When he comes back, Cowan says that "there's a reason we call nature Mother Nature. She feeds us every day and she's a very good mother. And mothers don't give up on their children in any way. I don't think there's any danger that nature will turn her back on us. There's a danger, though, that we're turning our back on her and we're harming her. That's the real danger, not that she'll give up on us."
"Flaky question number two. Do plants express fear when they talk to you? Have you ever heard a plant express fear?"
"I think so," Cowan says.
"A fear of what was being done to it or the environment?"
"I've experienced plants expressing the whole gamut of emotions."
"How do you account for poisonous plants?"
"How do you mean?"
"I mean, if plants are so willing to help out, then why would they be willing to poison us?"
"That's not exactly true," Cowan says. "One of the interesting things is that many poisonous plants are also wonderful medicine plants. In homeopathy, poison ivy is a wonderful medicine."
"Do those questions strike you as flaky?"
"Hey, it's not flaky," Cowan says. "I've lived in California, man."
It's a cool, sunny afternoon in Oak Park and I'm walking down a residential street with Kathy Wager. She's fretting over the fact that she hardly has enough time to devote to her job and her family, and now her plant spirit medicine client list is growing. She would like to treat more patients and her family has been understanding, but she doesn't think she can take any more on. Cowan has advised her that it might be a good idea to quit her job and become a full-time plant spirit healer. She has yet to take Cowan up on his suggestion, but he has continued to mention it.
"Eliot says that if you're really asking for that kind of deep relationship with nature, we have to make a sacrifice. He keeps talking about sacrifice. Whether you want to be a great musician or a healer, it always takes a sacrifice."
We stop in front of an enormous elm tree, like something out of an L. Frank Baum nightmare. It's one that Wager says she wanted to introduce me to.
"I've always loved this tree," says Wager as she stands in the shadows of the tree, leans up against the bark, and spreads her arms out. "Sometimes I just stand in here and I just feel so protected, almost engulfed. I do my little meditation and I just kind of drain with her. Sometimes I pick up the bark, bring it home, and put it on my altar."
A middle-aged man in a bowler hat walks by and eyes us curiously.
"That tree's the oldest elm in Oak Park," he says as he walks by.
"Does this tree come with you on your journeys?" I ask.
"Sometimes," Wager says and stares up at the tree. "Her presence is awesome, isn't it? You just can't help but be awed by her presence."
"Can you prescribe a treatment to a tree?" I ask. "They get sick too."
That hasn't been part of my training," says Wager. "I think what the trees really want is to help us and for us to appreciate their beauty."
"They like compliments like anybody else," I say.
"Yeah," says Wager and hands me a leaf.
Back in the basement in Forest Park, Eliot Cowan changes the pace of his drumbeat to call us out of our individual reveries. We are supposed to retrace our steps now and find our way out of the hole. Though the drumbeat is hypnotic I get hung up, because in my imagination I was unable to find a hole to begin with.
The journey seems to have worked better for my companions. They open eyes set in worn faces; it's as if they just saw something stunning, shocking, or beautiful but were forced to return to the blunt reality of a suburban basement. They rub their eyes. They jot notes down in their journals. They recount their journeys with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation. One asserts that she was dancing with rabbits. Another says she imagined herself among Siberian horses. A man says he brought a raccoon, one of his "power animals" that aid him on his journeys, along with him and he met a palm tree. A woman is disturbed because on her journey she encountered a number of beasts who frightened her.
"Not to be a tough guy," Cowan says. "But it's not our goal to just have pleasurable experiences. The object is to help people confront their individual pain and suffering. We're not just here to have fun. Just because you went to a realm that wasn't pleasurable doesn't mean you had no business being there."
One young woman shudders as she describes the beautiful forest that she visited and how she felt no desire to come back and how when Cowan stopped drumming she became dizzy and afraid.
Cowan shakes his head.
"There's a thin line between shamanic experience and psychosis," he says.
But for the most part Cowan affirms his students' experiences and encourages them to accept his belief that dream experiences are, on some level, every bit as real as generally accepted reality. Cowan assures those who didn't see anything that "you needn't see anything. Some people are very visual. Others are not. Some people experience with their eyes. But there are many other ways."
One woman is disturbed because she traveled into the lower realms of the earth but couldn't find any plants.
"This is plant spirit medicine. Aren't I supposed to see a plant?" she asks.
"Don't fight against your mind," Cowan advises. "Even though you didn't see a plant what you did was still quite good. Fighting against your mind is a losing battle. If you accept what you experience without worrying about what is right and what is wrong then the journey will be that much more fruitful."
The students begin returning to their chairs for Cowan's lecture on shamanism. He's going to tell them that in 12 months they'll be able to administer their own treatments. However, it takes the group a while to settle down. Talking quietly among themselves, they describe the trips they've taken and the spirits they've encountered.
One person says she had a "kinetic experience."
"I felt a hand on my chest," she says.
"Oh, it was me," Cowan quips, and winks. "I was grabbing your wallet, actually."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Kathy Richland.