Looking Back Through The Mists
I remember when I heard that Dick Clark had passed on and my mind wandered back through the mists to a different world. On Saturday mornings in the early 1960s, barely into my teens, I would tune into American Bandstand on our black and white console television. After adjusting the rabbit ear antenna to just the right spot, I’d sit back and watch a group of clean-cut teens twist, jitterbug and slow dance.
I particularly liked when they’d do “the stroll” with its two facing lines, girls on one side and boys on the other. One by one the teens would move down the aisle between the lines showing off their dance moves with broad, joyful smiles. The other kids in the lines did back and forth side steps while waiting their turn to stroll down the aisle.
The girls wore modest dresses, the boys–sport coats and neatly knotted ties. The couples actually touched when they danced, left hand to right on one side, gently positioned close on the other.
That kind of dancing is only seen now in old movies or at weddings and bar mitzvahs when the old folks push themselves away from their assigned tables and move stiffly around the dance floor.
Dancing now has little in common with what I saw on American Bandstand. Instead, it is some sort of spasmodic pseudo-sexual display that has devolved from feeling completeness through a one-to-one relation to a look-at-me performance that challenges any and all to be duly impressed by the dancers’ supposed steamy sexiness. Ostensibly, these modern dancers have “partners,” but they are nothing more than vestigial artifacts from an earlier, quainter time. Many of today’s dancers, if given the choice, might actually prefer a web cam to a partner.
The modest dresses and the sport coats and ties have gone the way of powdered wigs and hoop skirts. Now, tattooed boys strut around aggressively in muscle shirts, unsettling spiky hair and baseball caps angled on heads as if placed there while intoxicated. The girls commonly appear to be adorned for a costume party, with all of them, purely by chance, deciding to dress up as hookers.
And what about today’s singers? On those long ago Saturday mornings you felt the passion of young romance when the Temptations sang “My Girl”; Frankie Valli exclaimed “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You,” and Dion, backed up by the Belmonts, wondered plaintively: “Each night I ask the stars up above, why must I be a teenager in love?”
Today, the singer might be a magenta-haired chanteuse in raccoon eye make-up, her edgy voice barely audible over high decibel caterwauling electric guitar and manic drumming. Alternatively, the “singer” is often a street-hardened thug, bobbing up and down like a malevolent piston, grabbing his crotch and ranting unintelligible vulgarities about “bitches.”
It wasn’t that many decades ago that Ira Gershwin wrote: “Embrace me you sweet embraceable you. Embrace me you irreplaceable you.” It has indeed been a high speed musical descent from “sweet embraceable you” to “bitch.”
The names of the musical groups have undergone a perverse metamorphosis as well. The old American Bandstand featured groups with mellifluous names like the Five Satins, The Moonglows and The Harptones. When the opening notes from one of their ballads sounded from the record player, it was time to dim the lights and partner up for a slow dance. If I were young now, I don’t think I’d be able to work up a slow dance mood to anything on either a Violent Femmes’ or Insane Clown Posse album.
Of course, this cultural sea-change is not limited to the musical realm. A few years back, my wife and I visited an art museum in a city I was lecturing in. We walked into a large gallery and encountered an enormous “painting” which featured a huge, solitary, centrally placed, black dot surrounded by nothing but blank canvas.
A small crowd was standing around this piece, gazing upon it pensively as if trying to decipher a mystical secret encoded into its composition. I could have saved those folks all their mental effort by revealing that secret: the so-called artist limited his effort to a large dot because that was the only thing he had talent enough to paint.
Dismayed, we walked a few hundred feet to another gallery that featured riveting paintings by Renaissance masters. Aside from the candle-lit faces gazing outward from the portraits, we were all alone.
The Passing of Another Flowering Field Here in The Going, Going, Gone
That same day that I heard the news about Dick Clark, I had reason to drive to town. For more than 30 years we have lived in the forested hills situated above a fertile river valley. At one time the valley’s cultivated farmland extended for as far as the eye could see. Crops of corn and green peas, various vegetables and tulips and daffodils framed your drive as you traveled through the valley. The multicolored sunsets above the river and fields provided instant access into the realm of beauty and spirit.
Over time, shopping malls, strip malls and housing developments gradually replaced most of the bountiful fields. Now, only a fraction of that beautiful valley remains uncarpeted with concrete.
On my way to town, I slipped a CD into my car’s audio system, and in the inexplicable way of meaningful synchronicities, a highly relevant song, “Here In The Going, Going, Gone” by folk singer/songwriter Greg Brown, began playing.
“Dark laughter on the teeter-totter,
An old song floats across the water,
I know I should pack up and move on.
One-note Johnnies proliferate,
The wind rises, the hour is late
Here in the going, going, gone.”
As I listened to the song, I turned a corner from the wooded road I was traveling on to a valley road and came upon a sight that always kindles sadness in my soul. A small field that I had passed thousands of times over the years was being fenced off. The fencing was of the temporary orange variety that is the land developer’s equivalent of yellow crime scene tape. I knew that another small patch of nature was about to disappear.
When I drove past that condemned ground, I gazed upon tall grasses weighed down from the previous night’s rain, two dogwoods in bloom, a large, imposing weeping willow and a few old apple trees, artifacts of a long abandoned family orchard. Then I spotted the bulldozers, graders and gravel trucks.
This small field that since the dawn of creation had been home to only plants and birds, browsing deer, insects, and perhaps small children at play, was now going to be buried under yet another collection of over-priced, cookie-cutter houses with two-car garages and asphalt driveways.
The houses, all more or less different colored clones of one another, would be built so close to each another that if an inhabitant wanted something to read, he could simply lean out his window and pluck a book off his neighbor’s living room bookshelf. The backyards and lawns, the domain of the meager, tame replacement plant life, would be so small they could be trimmed with a scissors.
No doubt the birds flew off as soon as the bulldozers pulled in. The plants were rooted there and could not follow and so soon the wildflowers, dogwoods and apple trees would die and another small glimmer of Nature’s effortless beauty would give way to the sterile artificiality that metastasizes in the going, going, gone.
Theme Of Extinction
Among the essential oils that are relevant for the kind of thoughts and feelings I was experiencing while pondering the coarsening culture as I drove past that perishing field, pemou oil is one of the standouts.
Pemou oil, little used in aromatherapy, is derived from Fokiena hodginsii, a large tree native to southeastern China, northern Laos and Vietnam’s northern province of Dai Son (in the central highlands) and Lam Dong province (in the south). The tree generally occurs in humid montane (dense, high elevation) forests between 1800 to 6600 feet (600 to 2,200 meters).
The cool and moist conditions of Fokiena hodginsii forest stands often promote a lush growth of epiphytes (non-parasitic plants, such as a tropical orchids that grow on another plant upon which it depends for mechanical support but not for nutrients), such as orchids and grasses, on the tree’s branches.
Nowadays, due to heedless logging, the tree has become very rare in the wild and is classified as an endangered species. The tree’s highly aromatic essential oil, concentrated in its roots, is produced via steam distillation of the abandoned roots and stumps of previously logged trees.
So here we see that pemou oil carries the theme of extinction—of the timeless world of wild Nature, a reflection of the oneness of the Divine realm, giving way to the self-absorbed, often cruel human-dominated world that, for the most part, is estranged in its cascading multiplicity, from that oneness.
The pemou trees, which lived harmoniously within their wild community for millenniums, were massacred and the stumps and roots that remained after the marauders departed with their axes and chainsaws, became repositories of feelings of loss, helplessness in the face of destructive change and dismay at the thoughtless way humans can exploit other ensouled beings.
In fact, pemou oil is a specific for those who are nostalgic and dwell on the past, are fearful of: abandonment, being attacked, death, falling, murder and solitude and feel uneasy around strangers. The pemou type individual may also have dreams of falling from a height, of the long, forgotten past and being murdered.
In his poem Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes:
“Throb thine with Nature’s throbbing breast,
And all is clear from east to west.
Spirit that lurks each from within
Beckons to spirit of its kin.”
Clearly, whatever beckons loggers and land developers, it is not the in-dwelling spirit common to all living beings, plant and animal, within the natural world. Yes, people need shelter and Nature has to make room for their housing. However, there is a way that this can be done with more consciousness of, and consideration for, the “spirit that lurks each from within.”
Notably, Fokienia, a genus in the family Cupressaceae (Cypress Family), consists of only one living species Fokienia hodginsii (pemou) and one fossil species (Fokienia ravenscragensis) that existed in the early Paleocene Era (about 60 to 65 million years ago) in southwest Saskatchewan and adjacent Alberta, Canada.
This suggests that pemou is particularly well suited for symptoms such as feelings of: abandonment, isolation, being all alone in the world, disconnectedness, estrangement from society, vulnerability and introversion.
Inspiration, Courage, Grief and Crossing Over
Fokiena hodginsii is widely used in remote mountain areas of the Greater Annamites (a mountain chain in Indochina). Notably, Fokiena hodginsii is highly valued as a firewood during the rainy season as it has the rare ability to burn even when wet. The Vietnamese believe that the tree brings eternal life.
This helps explain two of the key qualities of pemou oil:
- its vitality and ability to help kindle the fire of inspiration within someone whose spirits have been dampened by hardship and grief;
- its profound connection to spirit and its potential usefulness in helping a dying individual to be healed once he or she has crossed over to the next dimension of being.
Pemou oil is red in color (this is apparent only with a larger quantity of the oil; smaller quantities appear to be a pale yellow red) and has a rich, warm, sweet, woody aroma with a distinct nut-like fragrance woven into its pallet. The timber of the pemou tree is light, fine and aromatic with straight grain. Among indigenous peoples, it is sometimes called “coffin wood,” because the Hmong and the Chinese like to construct coffins from the wood. Insects do not attack the wood and it does not rot when in contact with water.
Here again we see the distinct association between pemou oil and death and dying. Pemou oil may prove useful in addressing the following symptoms: grief associated with the death of a loved one; ailments from grief; depression after grief; fear of death; feelings of isolation; ailments from disappointed love; feels as if separated; feelings of vulnerability; dreams of: death, coffins, funerals, graves, long, forgotten past.
Pemou’s connection with death and its aftermath dovetails in a complex way with its association with the theme of extinction—of what once was disappearing and being replaced by a reality far less intimate with spirit.
Plotinus, the great 3rd century Greek philosopher, referred to God and the divine spiritual ground of all being as “the Good.” Accordingly, the farther we stray as a society from spirit to the purely material, the less the Good permeates our milieu. Ultimately, when the Good is distilled out of existence beyond a certain threshold, that which remains is decidedly “not good;” in other words, evil.
Pemou Oil and the Body
Pemou oil is not used much in aromatherapy and so there is little discussion in the aromatherapy literature regarding its properties and uses. The oil is noted as being a neuroendocrine tonic and supportive of the pituitary/adrenal pathway and the pituitary/testes pathway. On a physical level, it may have value in cases of adrenal fatigue and low testosterone levels.
Since adrenal fatigue is common among those battered by the endless gauntlet of stress characteristic of living in the going, going, gone, a brief discussion of adrenal fatigue will further our understanding of the healing qualities of pemou oil.
Few organs of the body are as taxed by the perpetual stress gauntlet of the going, going gone as the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are small, yet very powerful glands situated atop the kidneys. Each gland is constructed of an outer portion called the adrenal cortex and an inner portion called the adrenal medulla.
Among the main functions of the adrenal cortex are: involved in the regulation of mineral metabolism (sodium, potassium, chloride); water balance and metabolism (utilization and distribution of carbohydrates, protein, and fat); participate in allergic and immune reactions; produces the male and female hormones (progesterone, testosterone, estrogens, DHEA, etc.).
The medulla secretes the hormones epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and norepinephrine, which accelerate metabolism in order to help the organism more effectively respond to stress. These two hormones (which are almost direct extensions of the nervous system) are crucial regarding the operations of the fight or flight response (alarm reaction).
The basic task of your adrenal glands is to rush all your body’s resources into “fight or flight” mode by increasing production of adrenaline and other hormones. When healthy, your adrenals can instantly increase your heart rate and blood pressure, release your energy stores for immediate use, slow your digestion and other secondary functions, and sharpen your senses.
Two points that need to be emphasized about this stress response. First, it takes priority over all other metabolic functions. Second, it wasn’t designed to last very long. Unlike our ancestors, here in the going, going, gone, we live with continuous stress. Instead of occasional, acute demands (e.g., being chased through the forest by a bear) followed by rest (or death), we’re constantly over-worked, under-rested, exposed to environmental pollutants, concerned about finances, dealing with personality conflicts and the complex ups and downs of loved ones, etc.
All of these make demands upon the adrenal glands. This is exacerbated by the penchant for skipping meals, reliance on stimulants like caffeine and refined sugar, sedentary behavior, chronic illness and unresolved life-long emotional issues.
One of the basic principles of traditional naturopathy regarding the body’s physiology is: long-term overactivity inevitably leads to underactivity. When the adrenal glands are constantly on high alert for years or decades, they ultimately become fatigued and devitalized; our ability to cope with stress diminishes, and we become anxious, fearful, distracted and despairing.
Symptoms of adrenal insufficiency include: poor concentration; memory weakness; chronic fatigue; lack of energy in the mornings and in the afternoon between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.; nervousness; irritability; depression; anxiety; fearful; decreased ability to tolerate stress; trembling when very stressed; weakness; lightheadedness (especially when rising from seated to standing positions); faintness and fainting; insomnia; weakness; chilliness; need for coffee to get going and stay energized; hypoglycemia, feels better after eating; hair loss; tension and pain in the upper back and neck; heart palpitations; frequent respiratory and flu infections that tend to last longer than they do in those with normal adrenal function; tendency to gain weight; inability to lose weight even with much effort; weak digestion with chronic dyspepsia and acid reflux; craves fatty, salty and high protein foods (such as meat or cheese); alternating constipation and diarrhea (irritable bowel syndrome); reduced sex drive; PMS; heavy menstrual flow which may stop after a few days then begin again; arthritis; dry skin; thin skin.
Clearly, for most of us, life as we knew it is an ever-shrinking island. This sense of loss and progressive estrangement is greatly exacerbated by the depletion that ensues from the ongoing need to respond to a perpetual line of stress challenges. Pemou oil with its affinity for the theme of extinction and accelerated transition from the Good to the not good, as well as its usefulness for supporting the adrenal glands is certainly and oil to consider for those who find themselves isolated and beleaguered here in the going, going, gone.
The Ballad of William Sycamore
About 40 years when I was still a city dweller, escaping whenever I could into wild places from the Catskill Mountains of New York state to the forests of the Pacific Northwest, someone gave me a copy of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Stephen Vincent Benet’s poem called The Ballad of William Sycamore.
When I first read the poem I was very moved by it. For weeks afterward I read it many times over. After all these years I still come back to it every now and then and find it no less moving. When I began writing this article, it occurred to me that its central theme was closely related to the underlying one within the poem.
In way of illustration, here are some excerpts from The Ballad of William Sycamore:
…My mother, she was merry and brave,
And so she came to her labor,
With a tall green fir for her doctor grave
And a stream for her comforting neighbor.
…And some remember a white, starched lap
And a ewer with silver handles;
But I remember a coonskin cap
And the smell of bayberry candles.
…I can hear them dance, like a foggy song,
Through the deepest one of my slumbers,
The fiddle squeaking the boots along
And my father calling the numbers
The quick feet shaking the puncheon-floor,
And the fiddle squealing and squealing,
Till the dried herbs rattled above the door
And the dust went up to the ceiling.
…With a leather shirt to cover my back,
And an Indian’s nose to unravel
Each forest sign, I carried my pack
As far as a scout could travel.
Till I lost my boyhood and found my wife
A girl like a Salem clipper!
A woman straight as a hunting-knife
With eyes as bright as the Dipper
We cleared our camp where the buffalo feed,
Unheard-of streams were our flagons;
And I sowed my sons like the apple-seed
On the trail of the Western wagons.
They were right, tight boys, never sulky or slow,
A fruitful, a goodly muster.
The eldest died at the Alamo.
The youngest fell with Custe
The letter that told it burned my hand.
Yet we smiled and said, “So be it!”
But I could not live when they fenced the land,
For it broke my heart to see it.
I saddled a red, unbroken colt
And rode him into the day there;
And he threw me down like a thunderbolt
And rolled on me as I lay there
The hunter’s whistle hummed in my ear
As the city-men tried to move me,
And I died in my boots like a pioneer
With the whole wide sky above me.
Now I lie in the heart of the fat, black soil,
Like the seed of a prairie-thistle;
It has washed my bones with honey and oil
And picked them clean as a whistle
And my youth returns, like the rains of Spring,
And my sons, like the wild-geese flying;
And I lie and hear the meadowlark sin
And have much content in my dying.
Go play with the towns you have built of blocks,
The towns where you would have bound me!
I sleep in my earth like a tired fox,
And my buffalo have found me
Moving On, But Not Forgetting
So farewell to William Sycamore, though he may have lived only in a free and open land within Stephen Vincent Benet’s imagination. Also, hats off for Dick Clark, a genuinely nice man, who brought tuneful, innocent music that nourished optimistic romantic feelings within the hearts of millions of young people.
Whenever I’ll drive by the new collection of look-alike, characterless houses that will fill the space once occupied by that peaceful little field, I’ll remember tall, entangled grasses, bees and birds darting here and there with purpose and crooked-limbed apple trees, abandoned, yet never failing to blossom each Spring.
After all, moving on, but not forgetting is the best you can do here in the going, going…gone.