The Grace of Aloe Vera

|By Steven Martyn|

About a week ago, we were making chicken soup. For us, soup is not a thing, but a living process. It starts by growing vital chickens, vegetables and herbs, and harvesting them in a good way.  Once made, the soup has a life of its own with many incarnations until the last dregs of a unified version is eagerly lapped up by our dog, Sophie.

Making the soup starts with roasting one of our chickens and some vegetables in a clay cooker. Then we boil the bones, with lots of sea salt and our homemade 32-herb-infused apple cider vinegar, on the wood stove for the better part of a day and night. In the morning I strain the bones and scraps out of the milky stock and add back in all the roasted garlic and vegetables, potatoes and chicken. We also add lots of fresh rosemary and parsley from the greenhouse, as well as dried marjoram, basil and poor man’s pepper.

Then, back onto the wood stove for another half and hour. The beauty was finally ready, after two days of roasting, boiling and cooking. I’d fasted that morning so I was ready too. With the chicken soup still boiling as I picked the two-gallon pot off the stove, the handle just snapped off without warning and the whole pot of soup poured down over my leg and the front of the stove.

When “accidents” happen, some inner part of myself searches without judgment for the cause. This isn’t the ego looking to blame (that might come later), this is some non-judgemental primal being. Sometimes I see it’s my own sloppiness or someone else’s, or instant karma from bad thoughts. But on this day I felt that the cause was unrelated to me. Perhaps because of this, I experienced no anger when it happened, which is unusual for me. And even more strangely, through the pain, I clearly felt that the accident was an offering or sacrifice that was needed in order to avoid a greater tragedy for myself or someone else. A sacrifice to some mischievous unresolved spirit. The restless energy was caught by the accident and released back into its rightful dimension.

Fortunately, I was wearing my indoor winter layers, as is the custom in 140-year-old log houses. But my open wrist was immersed in the fatty boiling mixture for a while as I tried to guide the falling pot away from my leg and the glass window on the front of the stove. I’ve had a lot of small burns over the years, as anyone who works with fire everyday does, but I’ve never had a burn like this. The flesh looked like it had been cooked for a 3” span across the inside of my wrist and spreading up to the knuckle of the thumb.

The pain was unreal. It brought to mind being flayed. When my fevered mind finally grasped what was happening, I went outside and stuck my arm in the snow. This kind of stopped the pain for a few minutes, once I recovered from the pain of the extreme cold. It felt like my nerves were on fire and would only stop firing if they were numbed first. And then after a couple of minutes of relief, the pain would slowly start to build again, and I’d go back out again for snow. It occurred to me that the pain was perfectly guiding the treatment!

After about fifteen minutes of this treatment cycle, I started to focus on what herbs I might use. I did a roll call of the herbs we have on hand; Calendula? Plantain? Witch hazel? Chickweed? Arnica? And then my mind flashed on Aloe, like it always does when presented with the needed healer. I, like many people, have had Aloe growing in my house for many, many years but rarely use her. We have used her fresh jell on occasion for burns and rashes, and internally for indigestion. We also use her to make skin creams. But I’ve never used her for a burn this serious.

Megan was out with the car, so going to emergency (which would be my last choice anyway) was out of the question. I went into the greenhouse where Aloe grows like wild, as an understory plant in many of the big tree planters of citrus and guava. I did a quick, deep, prayer as I reached to pick my beloved. Picking a whole ‘leaf’ off the stem, I ran my thumbnail along one edge under the sharp spurs that protect the plant. I folded open the leaf and wrapped it just like a green skin over the blazing red-purple flesh. (I’ve since heard some people just nick off the barbs when using the leaves this way, just to be safe.)

Miraculous! is the only way anyone could describe the effect. The aloe immediately stopped the pain. It felt too quick to be a “chemical” effect. It was energetic. I could see the Aloe was sacrificing herself, drawing my fire-pain into her body. After about fifteen minutes the leaf looked sapped, watery and bruised. The pain killing effect would start to quickly fade as the leaf did, so I would go get another one and repeat the treatment. They leaves began to last longer after a couple hours. By six hours after the accident, the burn barely hurt. For the night I wrapped my wrist with a clean piece of cotton soaked in a witch hazel infusion. I went to bed still fully expecting the skin to blister or slough off the next day. To my amazement it never did. The skin, while darkened and sensitive, actually healed. After a week it peeled off, like skin does from a minor sunburn or tan, leaving no scar.

Aloe perfectly embodies the principles of sympathetic medicine and environmental medicine, as well as exemplifying the doctrine of signatures. Treating like-with-like is the basis of sympathetic medicine and at the heart of most traditional herbal medicine. The water holding leaves covered in a thin skin is like the blisters that form from a burn. The closest indigenous plant we have to this medicine is Jewelweed, which can be used the same way, when fresh. Aloe knows how to work with heat, as seen in her ability to grow in some of the hottest desert environments in the world. She also shows us her genius at generating nutrients in extremely depleted environments. Taken internally she calms and nurtures the digestive system and will cure constipation. The mucilaginous quality of her inner leaf, like slippery elm or marshmallow, is synonymous with gentle nurturance, as well as aiding in digestion and elimination. This quality of the leaf, is like all the mucus membranes throughout the body that Aloe helps regulate. Aloe is known to be anti-inflammatory, strengthening and immune building.

Aloe is also a deep cleanser, for many of the body’s organs and increases liver function. This facet of her medicine, as well as her hormonal effects, come from the bitter skin. In India, Aloe is considered to be the embodiment of a Goddess, who women turn to for counteracting the effects of aging. Both as a moisturizer, and in her estrogenic qualities she helps “keep women young”. In China, Aloe is most often used in powder form, which contains both the skin and leaf interior. The powder is sprinkled on open wounds, burns and rashes and is taken internally.

I think because of Aloe’s magical ephemeral qualities, processed Aloe gel does not work the same as fresh. So, grow Aloe, she is very tolerant, which may be one of the reasons for her popularity as a house plant. You can start her from seed, a cutting or rhizome offshoot. They love sun and long dry periods between soakings. They hate heavy wet soil and too much direct sun too quickly. Give one plant a big enough pot to grow for a few years and she will produce a tall spike of gorgeous, showy orange flowers.

Aloes originated in Africa, and like many plants, came to the Americas through the middle East and then Europe. There are over two hundred varieties from sixty foot trees to 1 inches tall. Most have similar healing properties. They are now grown commercially, and grow wildly in tropical climates all over the world. Strictly Medicinal Seeds in Oregon, sells a huge variety of Aloes and other medicine plants.

Generally, I am only interested in local plants and have made a life working with them, growing and healing with them, teaching about them and harvesting for The Algonquin Tea Company, but for this Goddess who saved me, and who is in a sense ‘native’ because she is such a common houseplant in the north, I will make an exception. Here’s to Aloe.