The Sacred Surrounds You: Making Bioregional Incense

I smelled the elderberries before I saw them. I was wandering around the edge of a parking lot with the kids, who were running around like maniacs, blowing off the pent-up energy from "behaving" during a dinner out. As we approached the bank of a dried-up, seasonal creek, I experienced a full body recognition of a well-loved plant ally. Part of this was the scent, that pongy smell of elderflower that just begs for sugar. But it was also as if I smelled the berries with my entire being, taking in the essence through my pores. Like a plucked string on just the right note, I vibrated to the tune of elder. A short walk along the embankment, and about twenty yards away we spotted them...blue elderberries, juicy and abundant. Elderberries are notoriously hard to de-stem, but these were so ripe that within 15 minutes we had tumbled all our bounty into two pint jars, delighted and blessed, giggling and giddy.

We've all experienced this type of immersive experience brought on by smell. Catch a hint of lilacs in the spring, and an entire childhood floods around you, with memories of the blooms that grew right outside your front door. For folks who orient towards a spirituality that involves the use of incense (Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoga, Roman Catholicism) or smudging (Shamanism, Wicca, New Age), sacred smoke serves a purpose to not only clear the air of physical and energetic impurities, but also as a reminder...a signal to the psyche to dive past the surface, a call to the parts of the self that live in the imaginal realm to come forward. The body relaxes and remembers it is safe to begin healing.

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But the burning of incense can also deepen us into relationship with the land we live on, and I believe that while this was once an obvious purpose, it is an aspect that has all but disappeared from my current experience of ritual. When I say "smudge", what do you think of? Chances are, if you've ever been to a sweat-lodge, solstice gathering, alternative wedding, house clearing or full moon ceremony, there is one plant that comes to mind. Sage. Usually white sage, native to the south-western US and north-western Mexico. Some other familiar scents are cedar, sweet grass and palo santo. 

The reason these plants are used is for their incredible perfume, as well as their anti-fungal and anti-septic qualities ("cleansing" is not only energetic...the burning of sage also literally cleans the space of "impurities", otherwise known as "germs".). Another primary reason is because they are native plants to the areas where the cultures that use smudging reside. As the use of smudging in ritual has been co-opted from select spiritualities from different parts of the world, the plants involved no longer necessarily represent the bioregion of the practitioner.

Everybody likes an offering, especially the little beings

Everybody likes an offering, especially the little beings

When I first came across this post on making bioregional incense, I had a no-duh!, forehead slapping moment, otherwise known as Why Didn't I Think of That? But it simply hadn't occurred to me that incense evolved from being in deep relationship with The Land You Live On. What happens when I throw the dried grasses on the nightly fire? What do I do if I want to imbibe myself with the complex beauty that surrounds me, or if I want to offer it to the Spirit Allies that wander the edges of my dreams? What is it that arises from the flames like blessings on the air? It's the alchemy of transformation, released from the confines of matter by fire, and it comes from the fields and forests in which I spend my life.

It was several years from that first introduction to making bioregional incense, or Kyphi, until I got to try it myself. One of the main ingredients in kyphi is resin or propolis, and neither are easy to come by, especially for free and in an urban area, which was my bioregion until 6 months ago. I was hiking the trail from Inspiration Point down to El Polin Spring in San Francisco this past summer, and I smelled the resinous love from towering pines. I really want to make pine resin salve, I thought. And I wonder if I will ever find enough resin to make that incense I read about so long ago? Two minutes after these prayerful thoughts, I ventured off the path and literally stumbled over multiple large chunks of fallen resin, like nuggets of ambered gold. I stuffed my pockets like a greedy dwarf, hee hee heeing all the way home.

The recipe and instructions I used are from Kiva Rose, over at The Medicine Woman's Roots. Kiva was also inspired by that first post, but she took the whole process and broke it down into a recipe-ish format. While crafting the incense still requires some trial and error on your own part, her guidelines were helpful enough that my first attempt has yielded the incense my wild self has been dreaming of.

Clockwise from top: Pine resin (crushed in a mortar and pestle), grated beeswax, hummingbird sage, fir tips and elderberry (ground in a coffee grinder) and flowers of pearly everlasting.

Clockwise from top: Pine resin (crushed in a mortar and pestle), grated beeswax, hummingbird sage, fir tips and elderberry (ground in a coffee grinder) and flowers of pearly everlasting.

For this first batch I decided to create an incense that encompasses my native Californian heart, with plants from Shasta County, San Francisco and my own back yard (literally). Hummingbird Sage is a coastal native that smells like pineapple sunshine, and the particular plant I used is my own baby I've been nurturing for over 4 years. I also included the dried flowers of Pearly Everlasting, from the hills around my childhood home in Shasta, and they lend their mapley warmth to the mix. I added elderberries from Petaluma, fir tips from the ranch where we live, local honey and the pine resin from SF. My daughter wanted to make her own, and she concocted a mix of green tea, rose petals, elderberries and pine. 

Northern California Heart

Northern California Heart

Kyphi by the true inner child

Kyphi by the true inner child

After waiting two long weeks for our incense to dry and "cure", my daughter and I had our moment of triumph on the Autumnal Equinox. We delighted in watching our magical creation melt and smolder, little popping bubbles on the surface creating mini smoke rings. Surprisingly, although a seemingly large amount of smoke was released, it did not choke up the room or linger in a heavy haze. Rather, the sweetest perfume of all these plant friends filled the space and then dissipated, leaving warmth and glow. My only critique for the next batch would perhaps be to use less honey, since 3/4 of the way through the burning, things started smelling a bit like scorched sugar.

As an herbalist, naturalist, lover-of-nature-ist, I find that the more I come into relationship with members of my bioregion, the deeper and more self-perpetuating these relationships become. There is a cascading effect when you grab onto one of the strands in the web of life...it's impossible to have an isolated learning experience. Seeking to understand one species brings the added bonus of getting to meet all of its friends. Cooking with a wild edible, for instance, includes harvesting it within its ecosystem, where you are surrounded by all the parts of a whole. As the senses are engaged, by seeing, touching, smelling, tasting and being nourished by, true intimacy occurs, a dynamic is begun between self and other. Your engagement then becomes less about consumption and far more about sacrament. This is full body learning, and your physical being has a better memory than your intellect. The next communion will always be more complex than the last, because the integration of new information on all levels creates expansion of self into the environment. One becomes intertwined, literally, with the other beings of one's bioregion. When you no longer know where you begin and end, this is when you can say true re-wilding has begun.