#13 Yellow Dock, The Grief Doula

We sat in a circle around an altar of sacred objects, a leaf, a stone, a stick and a bowel. A grief ritual organized by my comrades Maria Talero and Kritee Kanko, climate scientists, climate justice activists and wise women. We sat in a circle around an altar of sacred objects. My social permaculture students already practiced in communion, practiced in authenticity, practiced in beloved communities. We sat in a circle around an altar of sacred objects. My co-facilitators, pouring soul like salt in bath water. Wailing. Grieving. Releasing. Receding. Waves of emotionality. Crashing against my solitude. My solidity. I sought to be a solid ground for my folks to land on, to step out onto when they were ready. I breathed through anguish holding down the frequency of worlds not yet created but accessible. I didn’t know what I was practicing for, but I knew that I needed to. So I sat there like I sit now steeling new worlds for the day after tomorrow. Breathing. 

Yellow dock root is a bitter tonic creating more efficient digestion over time. Like all bitter plants, it stimulates salivary glands: moistening and priming the mucosal membranes of the body for motion and action. Dock triggers the production of acidic gastric juices in the stomach to begin the breakdown of proteins. They sharpen and enliven the liver and gallbladder as a cholagogue; promoting the production of alkaline bile which helps in the emulsification and assimilation of fats in the small intestines. 

Dock’s powerful action on the digestive system extends to the elimination system as well. It has a specific affinity for the colon/gut/large intestine. The work of the colon begins with the recovery of water and electrolytes from the chime or processed food it receives from the stomach via the small intestines. The colon processes the starches and fibers the stomach and small intestines could not digest. These become the (prebiotic) food source of some of the trillions of beneficial microorganisms who live there. The resident bacteria gets to work on the chime fermenting the starches and indigestible plant fibers creating a host of nutrients like K vitamins, B vitamins and short chain fatty acids such as  butyrate which strengthen the mucosal membrane; the gut barrier and encourage the proliferation of protective, beneficial microbes. Many of these microbes can decrease inflammation throughout the body especially in the nasal passages and respiratory tract[1]. These nourished microorganisms can then modulate our immune system and our body’s response to an attack [2]. Yellow dock in this way can strengthen host immunity by supporting the frontline beneficial microorganism who help the body respond to viral and other external assaults.  

Yellow Dock's impact on the colon doesn’t end there. Yellow Dock contains anthraquinone glycosides which directly stimulate the musculature of the colon, evoking more rhythmic and efficient peristalsis that helps clear the colon of fecal matter. Peristalsis is a series of wave-like muscle contractions that moves food from one point in the digestive cycle to the next ending in defecation. Violent processes like colonics, enemas, and strong laxatives like Senna (which like Dock contains anthraquinone glycosides but in larger proportion) can permanently disrupt the body's natural rhythm and create external dependence. Dock doesn't force its rhythms on the body, it subtly tunes your internal instruments so that you can move in a more rhythmic way. In this way, Yellow Dock is safe and effectively used to support digestion and bowel movements by all people, including children and pregnant folks. 

Yellow Dock and the Lungs 

Yellow Dock’s use extends beyond the digestive tract impacting the respiratory system in ways that reveal the beauty of the body. In researching Native American use, we find that the Cheyenne, the Cherokee and the Iroquois all used a decoction of yellow dock root to treat hemorrhaging in the lung. In addition to treating bleeding in the lung, Dock was used to treat other lung and respiratory disorders, including cough, cold and throat aches [3]. It is very often that understanding how herbs work in the body teaches us how the body itself works. To understand why a digestive, laxative herb would have a powerful impact on the respiratory system one would need to understand the way those two systems are related. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) offers us a holistic view of understanding the patterns of the body. 

The Lung a yang moving organ and the Large Intestine a yin holding organ are paired.  These two organs are interdependent and enforce each other. The Lungs govern the dispersing and descending of qi or life force energy. The Large Intestines need the Lungs to provide qi so that it can undergo the intensive process of expelling waste. Equally, the Lungs need the Large Intestine to clear biological debris so that it can take in more energy. If the Large Intestine becomes blocked, the analogous effect on the Lungs could be a stuffy chest and shortness of breath[4]. Not only do these two organs share complementary physical functions, pathological changes in the Lungs create pathological changes in the Large Intestines. Therapies and remedies that heal gut issues provoke beneficial changes in lung tissues[5]. It is for these reasons that herbs like Yellow Dock which regulate the fluid movement of the bowels also provoke the fluid motion of the breath. Tonifying the digestive and elimination system, tonify the respiratory system. Yellow Dock in this way is a backdoor remedy to improve the functioning of the lungs while strengthening host defense and tonifying our immune system. 

Yellow Dock and Grief

Yellow Dock is a life-death-life doula. She is one of the supreme grief workers of the plant world helping our bodies to receive new life and release that which no longer serves us so that we can receive anew. 

I had first hand experience working with Dock after preexisting stressors landed me in the emergency room at Denver Health with a flu on a respirator, taking steroids and a prescription for albuterol.  The latter two were known to dampen the immune system and drive the virus deeper into my body. I had to deal with the failure of my own response and my offense and frustration that the best the West could offer me was temporary oxygen that would lead to the development of pneumonia down the road. Their medicine always has poisonous consequences. And my medicine wasn’t strong enough. Both rage and gratitude grappled for the little chest space I had left. I hate hospitals. Thank god for hospitals.  There is no shame in integration and I was ashamed. Returning home, I could only take a few steps before collapsing. I marveled at the wonder of the inhaler. It’s rapid response let me sleep through the night but came with the cost of deteriorating my respiratory system over time. I could feel it working less and less. Lynn, a beloved senior herbalist checked on me and asked what it was that I was grieving. 

Grief, is the place between what was and what is. It’s the space between should be and what’s so. Grief is a gateway. Moving us from one stage of being into the next. While it is okay to be held and walk slowly as we process the new reality, we must keep moving. The inability to do so can take our breath away, blocking the movement of life force. Our goal isn’t to avoid or replace grief. Our goal is to integrate it into the rhythms of our life.

Death is not an ending. Our immaturity, our shortsightedness at times may force us to see only life and death. Boom and Bust. Beginning and ending.  It creates a linear, two dimensional, dualistic relationship between the two concepts. And, instead of holding life and death as two sacred aspects of a beautiful whole, that move in and out of each other, we assign positive value to life and negative value to death. Positive values to beginnings and negative values to ending. This either-or dichotomy doesn't acknowledge both, as a necessary and eminent part of the process of living. It's creates a stuckness that shows up like  shock, disbelief, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, panic and unpreparedness in the face of the inevitable. It creates grief. 

My wolfmother and Jungian Analyst Dr. Clarissa  Pinkola-Estes  in Women Who Run with the Wolves models an antifragile worldview through the lens of love. She writes,  

“Sometimes the one who is running from the Life/Death/Life nature insists on thinking of love as a boon only. Yet love in its fullest form is a series of deaths and rebirths. We let go of one phase, one aspect of love, and enter another. Passion dies and is brought back. Pain is chased away and surfaces another time. To love means to embrace and at the same time to withstand many endings, and many many beginnings- all in the same relationship.”

In writing about love, she mirrors the multi-variability of indigenous thinking, being and relating to change. These worlds contain cyclical patterns of profound integration. These world are in rhythm. More like pulses of sine waves than linear functions. There is more than life and death. There is a life/death/life cycle. This way of being comes from direct observation and interrelatedness with the land and its cycles. 

When we are in and of the land, we are inextricably woven into the cycles of the call and response feedback loop. We are intertwined with our impact, so we learn to tread lightly. From direct observation we develop a sense of enough. We practice and enculture traditions of restraint.  When we own the land, we Lord the land. Make land an object of consumption and trade, rather than a being in her own right. This commodification dissolves our innate relationship to her and we become a tourist of our own terrain. Homeless without belonging to the world. We attempt then, to force belonging, force relationship by conquering her. 

In our isolation from home, we eschew our original contract. We belittle her boundaries. So alien we are to her that we lose our self and our rhythm. We move with jagged predilection, stiff with unilateral decisions. Like swords we cut down everything. With nothing left to return to we think that more is better. We strive for the impossibility of infinite growth; unidirectional motion. In our bloodlust for Big, we are blinded to the god of small things, we pretend that we are beyond being shaped. The inevitable consequences of our actions are made shadow.  

Death becomes subconscious. Life doesn't come without death, so we hold the Fates at knifepoint, bifurcating their influence. Deluding but not disrupting their life, death life cycles. We offer up earthen bodies as blind libations. As long as the sacrifices remain out of sight, they’re out of mind. Pour them down the drain.  

What's not in our backyard, nurtures dead zones downstream,  we call them “Zones of Sacrifice.”  A Black family making up to $60,000 a year is more likely than a white family making $15,000 per year to live next to a toxic facility. Over 78% of Black people live within a 30 mile radius from coal fire power plant, expelling toxic wastes into the air. 71% of Black Americans live in counties that violate EPA air quality standards[6]. Black people are three times more likely to die from asthma, especially Black women, than any other group[7]. As of April 23rd, COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans is 2.4 times higher than the rate for Latinos, 2.5 times higher than the rate for Asians, and 2.7 times higher than the rate for Whites[8]. There is no American exceptionalism without the shadow of desecrated black bodies. Death is the necessary consequence of infinite growth. Who dies, is a matter of tradition. In our body politic, who be the bowels? 

Don’t lay down your life all by itself. No, preserve your life. it’s the best thing you got. And if you got to give it up, let it be even-steven.” -Malcom X, Message to the GrassRoots 

We apportion death to the poor and working class who live in the veil between extraction and consumption, while assigning sacred to the places “untouched” by humans. As if sacred can’t be found on street corners. On roadsides and in waste places. We don’t recognize who god is. How to petition an apology. How to sew ourselves back into the fabric of right relation. 

As a young person, my asthma attacks were triggered by injustice. “Not fair” would well up in my chest until my throat closed and I passed out. For asthmatics, it’s not the inability to breathe air in as commonly assumed. It’s the resistance to exhalation. Letting go. There is life. There is death. There is life. Every exhalation. Every bowel movement is homage to the little death. An emptying, to ready the body for reception. Such is the nature of things. These little deaths put us in touch with the grandness of creation and I have to hold space that creation is grand. That plantcestor will always show up for us. That there is more to the story than black sacrifice. And so I sit here with Yellow Dock. Breathing. Moving through. Preparing to hold space for the day after tomorrow. 

In the coming months, we will make medicine with Yellow Dock and learn about iron and the breath. We will also be exploring the alchemical aspects of Yellow Dock through the metal element. 

Until next time.


[1] Süleyman H., Demirezer L.Ö., Kuruüzüm A., Banoğlu Z.N., Göçer F., Özbakir G., et al., Antiinflammatory effect of the aqueous extract from Rumex patientia L. roots, J. Ethnopharmacol., 1999, 65, 141-148

[2] Microbiome, Allergy & Immune System: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2515351/

[3] Moerman DE. Native American ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2009.

[4] Eastern Lung and Large Intestine: https://cyberleninka.org/article/n/378799/viewer

[5] Western Lung and Large Intestine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3762168/

[6 Climate Change & Race: https://www.naacp.org/latest/geopolitics-of-climate-changea-civil-rights-perspective/

[7] United States Environmental Protection Agency. Asthma Facts. May 2016 https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-05/documents/asthma_fact_sheet_english_05_2016.pdf [Accessed 23 April. 2020] via https://www.aafa.org/asthma-facts/

[8] APM Research Lab.THE COLOR OF CORONAVIRUS:COVID-19 DEATHS BY RACE AND ETHNICITY IN THE U.S. May 2020. https://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race

By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 34 exclusive posts
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 34 exclusive posts