This is my story of Chaga.
Years ago when I was studying plants of the northern regions of the world with fresh, new eyes, I was introduced to a fungus called Chaga. For most of my life I have lived in the north and cold climates of the world and so have been in the ecosystems where Chaga lives. In my youth I must have walked by Chaga many times and never took notice, never looked deeper into the black charred growth as containing a most powerful and sacred medicine. I probably passed it off as some deformity from insects or some form of rot on the tree. Not until my teens would I be introduced to Chaga as a relation I shared this earth with.
One winter’s day an old man who was teaching me about the medicines of the northern forests brought me into the mountains where the birch trees grew tall. The day was grey and cold with a few inches of snow on the frozen earth. We walked a couple miles across the high ridges in the Appalachians of Pennsylvania before descending a bit down one of the southwestern slopes. There we came upon a stand of yellow birch trees. I remember their golden bark glowing like some lost treasure on that bland colored day. They stood barren and reaching towards the clouds above with their crooked and twisting branches, as if frozen in time. There was something almost magical about the feeling of those trees on that day. It was a sacred feeling that can only be felt, not placed into clumsy words.
The snow crunched under my feet as we moved otherwise silently through the trees. The Old Man was looking at the golden trees with a reverence. Slowly he turned his weathered face to mine and motioned for me to walk to a larger yellow birch not far away. As I moved towards the tree, he followed.
As I looked at the tree I noticed this large gnarled black growth jutting out from the broken bark. The mass looked like it had been burned and was charred and deeply furrowed all over. I knew the Old Man wanted me to get acquainted with this deformity, as was his way in helping me understand the ecosystems around me. I studied the growth and felt its harsh skin beneath my soft fingers. It was ice cold and rough, rough like stone or the bark of ancient cherry trees. I placed my nose to its body and smelled the heavy burnt scent that matched its charred look. It solidly seemed and felt like part of the tree, firmly attached like an extension of the wood itself.
After a short time the Old Man began to tell me of the old Grandmother who carried deep water medicine beneath the skin of fire. He told me the Kuhëmëna Wihhinachk Lantoanto (Grandmother Birch Medicine)- Chaga, was an ancient medicine upon the sacred earth that only grew where it was cold. He said it was a medicine of the north. Placing his old fingers gently upon the black growth he spoke softly and told me that inside was the beating rhythm of water being pulled from the tree and sent through a filter, much like our kidneys and then sent back to the tree. Looking me in the eyes he told me, “This medicine is like the north and south poles of the earth, it is opposite. It eventually kills the tree, but the tree knows this and is not angry. Instead the tree gives the most precious and sacred of its medicines to the growth.” Pausing for a moment to place his right hand on the tree he then continued, “The black bark on the outside protects the sacred medicine on the inside, just as fire protects by warding off. This is why it smells of char. The medicine on the inside is of the water, of the tree’s blood. Opposites, just like the north and south, death and life, sickness and health. The tree gives of its life to offer medicine to the world. It is the most sacred give-away.”
The Old Man took from a leather pouch some tobacco and gave it as an offering to the Grandmother Birch Medicine. He said a prayer to the tree, to the Grandmother Birch Medicine and to the sacred directions, seasons, levels of existence and all life contained within. Once this medicine process was done he took his tomahawk and chopped the charred mass from the tree. This exposed the brilliantly colored cork interior which sharply contrasted the gnarled exterior bark. The orange-gold color beamed outward there on that grey winter’s day like the sun itself. I stared in fascination.
The Old Man explained how important it was to leave the remaining cork on the tree because it would grow back as long as the tree was alive. He said to only take what was broken off and to always remember the future generations. Holding the Grandmother Birch Medicine gently in his hands he said she only grows and lives on living trees. Once the tree dies the relationship between tree and fungus also dies in the flesh. The medicine is for the living and must be taken from the living.
We carried the fungus back to camp where the Old Man showed me how to clean it up and make it ready for tea. After the coals of the fire were glowing steadily, we boiled water and then poured it over the chunks of chaga. He covered it and let it sit for two days. Only then did he show me how to work it up as a medicinal tea and only then did he tell me of its medicinal qualities and many uses; how you could tell what direction medicine it had by where it was growing on a tree. He went into depth on how the medicine varies slightly depending upon the age of the tree and where it is growing, what season the chaga is harvested in and under what phase of the moon. The slight differences in its medicinal value depending upon what kind of tree it was growing on were also covered. Nothing was left out; nothing was skimmed over when the Old man was teaching of medicines and life itself.
As he poured the steaming hot red-brown liquid into a wooden bowl I watched the steam curl into the cold air and disappear like a ghost. He offered me the bowl and I observed its rich color and savored its mild scent. I brought the bowl to my lips and easily sipped the hot liquid and felt its smooth texture enter my mouth. The taste was pleasantly mild with tones of earth and deep fertile forest. I sloshed it around over my tongue to extract and experience all its flavor and life before swallowing it and bringing it deep with the core of my body. It was nulilaiskakwen, good medicine, it did good within me. I was thankful to have been introduced to such a powerful medicine of the Northern Forests. I was honored to have been acquainted with the Grandmother Birch Medicine.
White Wolf Von Atzingen ~ 2015