In & Out of Time: An Interview with Dori Midnight – Gina Badger

Image by Gina Badger

Image by Gina Badger

Keywords: Witchcraft. Plant histories. Ethnobotany. Weeds. Land. Healing. Herbal Medicine. Materialism. Capitalism. Colonialism. Queer. Trans.


Audio Clip – In & Out of Time: An Interview with Dori Midnight


As research for my recent project, Mongrels, I was fortunate to connect with and interview Dori Midnight. I stumbled across Dori’s work in the way we do the best things—by accident—and was immediately drawn to how she grounds her healing practice in social and environmental justice. What’s more, I had this crazy idea: that through weeds, so-called plant colonizers, we might be able to see our current colonial state as an ecological condition, opening up new possibilities for resistance. If anyone could help me think about this, I thought it must be Dori.

Initially held the weekend of April 16-17, 2011, in Brooklyn, New York, Mongrels is a field botany tour followed by a screening of a short video work and reception. Mongrels calls on mapping, folk herbalism, field recordings, and moving images to conjure the ghosts of a paved-over salt marsh, the ecological feature that dominated the Brooklyn area of Gowanus up until its industrialization. Mongrels urges us to consider the past a key source of information that can help us construct recuperative ecologies in the present.

The walking tour maps the presence and location of weed par excellence, mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), casting it as both witness to colonization and potential agent of social change. During the reception, we ingest mugwort in the form of herbal bitters, consummating our new relationship with this fierce plant. The video mashes up ghostly abstracted images of the Gowanus canal, the sounds of an early spring day in Gowanus, and the words of Dori Midnight as she describes her therapeutic practice, in which the history shared by humans and plants plays a key role. In Mongrels, mugwort becomes a keystone, opening the way for spectral imaginings—a form of time travel.

In preparation for our interview, I asked Dori to select two or three objects central to her practice.

Gina Badger: I thought it would be good to start with the objects, to get a sense of how you practice magic as a craft, and how this is articulated materially.

Dori Midnight: One of the things that’s most exciting and liberating about magic is that I work with things that are invisible, most of all. And so there’s nothing I could actually lay out on a table. I mean I do have tools that I use—but it might be more interesting to talk about the fact that I resist even talking about them or showing them, because what is more important is that I could be using anything, or that I’m using nothing.

I think that quality is both why magic is so subversive, and also why it’s survived in the way it has. Because it’s subversive, people have had to hide doing it and be able to use household objects like spoons and brooms, and cheap objects like rocks and sticks and bowls and pots. Those are the traditional witches’ tools, and those are all things that one just has in one’s house, or that one can just get outside.

So there are tools that I use—I do use a broom, and I do use a pot, and I use sticks, and rocks and feathers. There are these expectations that the magic is in the object—which it is in a way—but then it also could be in any object, and the magic itself is not an object at all.

GB: The list that you gave—which I find to be really beautiful—is made up of the most quotidian objects we could think of. They’re just around us in our lives. So how does the practice of magic map onto the everyday? How do things become magical? Is there some kind of shift that needs to take place?

DM: It’s really about one’s relationship with the object or the habit or the practice. Because my practice is very much rooted in an anti-oppression, social justice framework, having a conscious but also magical relationship with objects is a kind of un-doing of the spell that materialist culture and capitalism places on our relationship with objects. So I get to reclaim my relationship to whatever it is that I’m doing, or to whatever it is that I’m holding. That’s part of what makes it a craft, which involves an intimate relationship and a long practice, and time and presence, creating something out of a relationship between heart and hands and thing.

In my idea of the old days—which obviously is part my own fantasy, part cellular memory, part dream—people who practiced magic or who were the village witch weren’t actually anybody special or exceptional. Everybody could do something, everybody could make some kind of medicine. I like the anti-exceptional narrative of that, as opposed to the narrative that often gets told about people who practice magic, which is all about your destiny and something you were born with, and if you don’t have that, you don’t have access to magic; or it’s about a special object that if you don’t have then you don’t get to do anything magical.

It really is about a relationship with one’s imagination—reviving one’s imagination.

GB: In explaining my intention coming into this interview, I realized that most people do have this idea that magic is something that just works, it just happens, and you either have it or you don’t. That’s when I started thinking about why it’s called witchcraft, because it is something that can be cultivated.

In your description of your practice, you talk about a folk approach, in which the materials that a witch uses, or that a folk herbalist uses, are always going to be the materials that are around. I read this as an ethical system, which maps out relationships between beings in a distinct way. For instance, whether this or that plant is indigenous to a particular place or naturalized from somewhere else is not significant. What really makes it an important medicine is that it’s present, that it plays a role in present ecologies. Since you’ve just recently moved from San Francisco to Massachusetts, I wonder how you are relating differently to the materials and plants that you have on hand, and how this has affected your practice?

DM: There are so many reasons that it works to work with what’s around. Part of it relates to the refutation of exceptionalism. The marketing of exotic things and fads is so much a part of being in a postcolonial place—our culture is just steeped in colonialism. So we love açai berries, from Brazil, or rhodiola from Siberia. Blueberries and elder berries have similar qualities, but it’s as if there was something more magical about something that is outside of us. We can’t find the magic in ourselves, so we have to go outside of ourselves, or outside of our ecosystem, to get something that somebody else has, and to bring it into us.

And then you also get to be in daily relationship, so you get to watch something go through cycles around you, you get to have an intimacy with it, and I think it’s that intimacy that is most potent in transformation or healing, just having intimacy with a plant.

I grew up in California, so that’s my ecosystem—it’s the way my body understands life and I know those smells and I know that air and I know those plants. Leaving those plants was just as hard as it was to leave my people and community there, and my clients. After having a relationship with plants for so long and putting a lot of time and effort into them, in the same way that we put effort into relationships with people, I have become really good friends with some plants. I have access to those plants inside of myself—when I am working with people, doing hands-on work, I just call on certain plants. That’s what I mean by working with invisible things. I make tinctures and I make teas but I also put my hands on people, and call on plants that I have in me. I’ve been doing that kind of work and in that kind of world for so long that when I say those things it doesn’t sound weird to me, but I realize how weird that can sound. But that’s part of a folk practice. You don’t even need the thing. And then if you do have it, you’re in a good relationship with it, you’re in gratitude but you’re also in a relationship of care. And that’s part of my ethic of anti-materialism and anti-capitalism that I try to nourish in my healing practice.

GB: Maybe we can talk more directly about plants. I’m curious about how the histories of particular plants affect the kind of medicine they can become. I’ve always been drawn to the weedy plants, the ones that are just around everywhere. Historically, they carry a particular weight in the European settler states that we live in. Some of the most common plants here—the plants that you didn’t have to say goodbye to on the west coast because they’re here too—a lot of them are weeds that arrived in the Americas with colonial Europeans. And they’re pretty big medicine, a lot of them. Even honeybees were colonial imports. I’m making a leap that I don’t completely understand here, but this seems to relate to the way that you talk about holistic healing as something that exceeds the individual. You say that healing is not just about healing a whole person but about healing groups, and communities, and across generations. In a colonial context, it makes a lot of sense to me that these weedy plants would play a role in that.

DM: In the battles around indigenous and ‘invasive’ plants, we often talk about invasive plants in strange ways—there are whole societies devoted to eradicating plant species. People go and tear things out without addressing the history of the land—while meanwhile people also talk about invasive humans—or how those plants got there in the first place. Plants aren’t people. They’re just growing; they didn’t mean to cross a sea. They’re just taking advantage of soil nutrients and water and air and sun.

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica)—which is considered an invasive—is moving north at the same speed and in the same areas that Lyme disease is moving north, and it’s one of the main medicines for Lyme disease. It’s antiviral and it’s specifically anti-spirochete, which is what Lyme disease is. And it’s edible—I mean it’s a great plant. I wonder if there’s a way that humans are projecting guilt about invading land onto plants… I wish instead there was a taking of responsibility for genocide and invading other people’s land.

GB: Right! It’s almost as if, through the project of protecting indigenous species from eradication, we settler ecologists, environmentalists, concerned citizens, could somehow naturalize our own presence here and thereby cover up the reality of our colonialism.

DM: In reality, everybody and every plant comes with their… let’s just call it medicine. Weeds are no exception. This can bring us back to your question about plants with histories. The first plant I thought of was mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)… whose history I mostly learned by using mugwort. One of my teachers smoked a mugwort cigarette and blew the smoke into my mouth, and said, “This has been passed to me and now I’m passing it to you.” The transmission of information was in smoke from their mouth to my mouth. I mean that’s such a good way to learn, smoking something—kissing someone with the smoke of this plant. That’s how the plant wants to move; that’s how the plant wants to teach you. She’s like “please don’t lecture about me and write about me in books. Smoke me, dream with me, eat me.” It’s a magical plant… “make me into unguent and rub me all over and trip.” That’s the history of the plant. It was part of a salve that people would rub on themselves and get on their broomsticks and run around in circles and have hallucinations. And mugwort just grows in parking lots. Mugwort just grows anywhere. I mean, it doesn’t actually grow anywhere. It’s one of those plants that doesn’t like to grow if you planted it and want it to be there.

I use it a lot. It has its traditional medicinal properties—it’s really valuable to have in an apothecary, for menstrual headaches and for hangovers, and it’s a great bitter. But what’s exciting about mugwort really is using it for people who need protection because of being shapeshifters and edgewalkers and who carry witch energy, or who are gender non-normative, or sex workers or activists. It’s a plant that is an ally of people who are challenging power structures and of marginalized people. The plant carries that kind of healing in its cells, in its little chlorophyll, and in the way it grows. Part of it is because of its history, because it’s this historical witch plant, and part of is its constituents… but honestly, I don’t even know what it is, I mean I don’t try to understand it. That’s part of the way I approach it. I don’t try to understand why these things are happening, and I’m not trying to figure it out scientifically or intellectually. It just makes sense to me. I feel like some of the magic can dissolve when you try to figure out why things are the way they are.

GB: The phrase “it just makes sense” is really appropriate for this kind of context. It makes sense because you feel it and you smell it and you understand it. It’s a force in the world that makes sense. Even in the most skeptical moments, there’s a really hard empiricism there too, even if it’s not about trying to figure something out logically, it’s right there, having effects in the world. That’s as good as it gets.

DM: Totally.

GB: When I first formulated that question about histories I was thinking geographically about the journeys of plants, and the way that they accompany humans relationally. They become implicated somehow in colonial relationships, but they have a very different type of agency in those relationships. What is the agency of plants?

DM: Well, there are actually a lot of studies being done on plant intelligence. I remember reading something about onion cells; that when they are chopped in half, they reorganize in a way that could be interpreted as making decisions. And mycelium are incredibly intelligent and respond to ecosystemic changes and imbalances. They’re the healers of the forest. And then there’s the whole school of thought that we are the agents of the plants. There are people who actually wonder if we are doing their bidding, by eating and disseminating seed, propagating and caretaking. Certainly when I see people who have mushroom logs and make kombucha in their houses, crazy avid fermenters, I start to wonder whether the amount of microbes they’re eating starts to affect their brains and they are actually under the control of the microbes who are like, “you must make more kombucha, you must make more sauerkraut, and give it to all your friends.” Maybe there’s this counterculture movement of fermenters that are basically microbial drones. But that’s a whole other conversation.

People tend to send me scientific studies about how plants do crazy things, as if to say, “see, plants are smart.” Of course plants are smart. It’s a given and it makes sense, and I don’t need to see a study about how an onion reorganizes itself. Being in a relationship with plants… I mean it’s totally amazing, when you really think about it, that you can heal from drinking water that has had leaves in it. We know scientifically that things are happening, but you also know that your throat stops hurting or you stop sneezing, or your fever breaks, or you get a fever, or you throw up, or your stomach is soothed.

GB: It’s interesting that the sense of history you’re relating is less about where the plants have been than who they’ve been with. It’s that that builds up the history and the character of the plant and that also informs how people relate to it as medicine. The reason I was thinking about mugwort earlier relates to how you were saying that it doesn’t really want to grow in a garden in nutrient-rich soil. It thrives in disturbed sites, in marginal sites. There aren’t a lot of nutrients, the soil is dry and compacted… and what that means, of course, is that it occupies an ecological niche that a lot of other plants can’t.

When I think about the colonial history of the Americas, ever since Europeans first showed up and started ripping up soil and changing the lay of the land in abrupt ways, one way of understanding this is as a process of incredible ecological disturbance. And I understand that to include all of the human violence. Plants like mugwort were there to step into the void created by these disturbances. They also remediate just by virtue of being there. They decompose every year and add nutrients to the soil, which then makes it hospitable to other plants that need a more nutrient-rich environment. The demonization of so-called invasive species can only come out of the most superficial understanding of what an ecology is and how it functions, that basically refuses to see it as something that exists in time.

DM: Mugwort or dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) both remediate ecologically, but it’s also like they’re trying to give us their medicine. Those are both really good medicines for people who live in cities, which is where they grow, they are really incredible liver tonics, and bitters, which we really need because we eat so much crap, and fat and sugar, and they help us metabolize those things. And, just in general, people are really stressed out and angry, which is the mark of a hot liver. It seems like plants are responding to land disturbances and also to how they affect people. So it’s really good to notice what plants just pop up right outside your door and in your yard. We tend to think of ourselves as outside of ecology, and we’re not at all.

GB: You talk about healing as a process that happens in time. So when you work with post-op trans people, for instance, you’re not just helping people to get over surgery but really trying to get to a place of healing from generations of oppression and violence. Particular to trans people is the way that heteronormative violence works to erase their history. It seems like an understanding of the thickness of time is really crucial to doing the work that you do, and understanding time in multiple ways. I relate that to the way that you can’t understand an ecology if you don’t understand it in time. Time operates on all of these different scales because it’s determined by the life cycles of all of these different organisms, plus really old and slow things like rocks.

DM: Yes, having a connection to stories and history is another invisible tool in terms of folk healing. Carrying history in our bodies by remembering where we came from, both blood ancestors who determine part of how we walk on the earth, and where we’ve been. It’s both being in time and out of time. Honoring a trajectory of one’s individual history, and community history, land history, and plant history. And then the out of time part is being able to heal in widening circles, so that as you heal, and as you’re healing yourselves, you’re also healing the land and healing ancestral patterns.

GB: The effect of the healing spreading between people is totally stunted if it’s only available to people with money who can pay for consultations and if it happens in private, so that it doesn’t get absorbed into kitchens and everyday experiences. It still clings to a kind of exceptionalism, and it is commodified in this way that’s pretty embarrassing. But if it’s possible to overcome that—and this is something that I see a younger generation of radical health practitioners being attentive to—then it’s really easy to see how healing work spreads between people. But what’s more difficult, at least for me, is figuring out how to address histories through healing work. Is it possible to talk about that?

DM: Yes, it is. I too, am really excited about the movement towards community based healing and the integration of healing work in activist circles. I am so into making magic and healing as everyday practices, which means they have to be more affordable and accessible.

But in terms of healing through time, a place to start, which is the place that I start, is with individuals. Part of that is people being willing to carry family stories, and to tell them, that’s part of the work of breaking a pattern of silence—both violence and oppression within families, and also cultural phenomena of oppression and violence on a larger scale. It’s so clear that some of the wounds we carry are not just our own wounds. In the same way that we can carry wounds that come from our parents or our grandparents, or from our great grandparents, or maybe from the different lands that our ancestors inhabited.

When I work with people, things come to me in images. Somebody can come in and be explicit, “I have depression.” And tell me a little bit about their family. Or what I’ll see is a really heavy felt, that’s really cold. It’s a sensation, it’s both sensation and image at the same time. So it’ll be something cold and damp and felty, covering something. And then when I try to pull on it, I get this sense that it’s not just theirs, but it comes from also their mother, and then I pull on it more, and then I can see a grandparent. But then when I pull on it more what I see is some really intense world history. Like maybe I see Eastern Europe, or maybe I see somewhere on the coast of West Africa, or maybe I pull further and I see… with people I see who were adopted internationally, what that looks like in terms of relationships with birth parents and birth countries. All of that just has different energies that I can feel and see… we carry all of that.

Then there’s work for people to do. Going back into their history, dreaming, or writing, or doing rituals, or eating certain things—daily ways for people to do healing work themselves to free their ancestors, or free the land, and to do healing work around racism and internalized racism. Part of it is acknowledging it and part of it is transforming it. So many people who come to see me have decided to be the person who is not going to continue a pattern of addiction or sexual abuse. We can’t underestimate the power of choosing to stop a pattern that’s six generations behind us.

Magic is the perfect way to heal it because it doesn’t have the bounds of time and space. That’s what I mean about honouring and being in history and also being able to be out of time. In a way, it’s traveling through time, which sounds so strange, but it’s so easy to feel when you’re in it. And we can see it, too, when we look at the industrial prison complex, when we look at legacies of oppression of poor people and people of color, and how ancestral some of those wounds are that we’re enacting. I would love to be able to work in there. People are doing that. There are people who are doing magical activism work, really trying to undo huge power structures through magic. I’m thinking, for example, of the Reclaiming community, who ground their activism in magic, building off Starhawk’s work. Ritual is incorporated into political actions, like casting circles and chanting around nuclear plants and prisons.

What’s more, people in power are using magic themselves. It’s scary because for the most part, they’re using it really unconsciously, which makes it incredibly potent and insidious. This kind of magic could be called power over, which grows from a place of deep wounds. And that’s one huge way that oppression continues—a legacy of unhealed wounds and throwing those wounds on someone else.

GB: Are you saying that what defines magic is specifically the practice of working out of a deep history? Or, in other words, present actions take on magical dimensions because of the relationship that they have to history?

DM: Yes! Part of why ancestral wounds and oppression continue is because people don’t look at history as something that they have to take responsibility for. Magic is very much part of a broader history and also a way of inhabiting deep and expansive time, geological time, ecological time. It means breaking out of our temporal trap. That’s really important and really validating for people because of this individualistic culture, where all of your wounds or whatever’s going on with you are really specific and particular to you, and you need to take care of them in your own private secret way and work them out yourself, and maybe they have something to do with your mother, but that’s it! That’s about as much of a sense of interdependence as you’re allowed.

I think it’s also important to not just talk about wounds, but to talk about gifts, ancestral gifts, and having access to ancestral gifts and places that we visit in dream, in a way, that we can dream into and be able to harvest gifts from, too. History, both what has come before us, and that we’re also a part of what comes after us: that’s a place of healing, too.

Image Credits:

Image I:
Gina Badger, 2011. Mongrels (Trashy Plants I). Digital still. Image courtesy of the artist.

Image 2:
Gina Badger, 2011. Mongrels handout 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.

Botanical drawing source: Walter Hood Fitch. 1924. Illustrations of the British Flora. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this image under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation.

Gina Badger is an artist and writer working in the expanded field of sculpture and installation. Her favored research methods include listening, walking, eating, and drinking. Currently working between Toronto, Montreal, and various locations south of the 49th parallel, Badger holds an M.S. in Visual Studies from MIT. A collaborator at heart, Gina is a member of the Montreal-based Artivistic Collective, and is currently the editorial director of FUSE Magazine.

Dori Midnight is community-based healer and educator, weaving traditional folk healing, plant medicine, spiritual counseling, and social justice in her work. Drawing on her rich heritage of Roma Gypsy, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jew, and First Nations ancestry, Dori comes from a long line of tough ladies who healed people in their kitchens. She believes that healing is an “of the people, for the people” practice and works to keep healing accessible, affordable and full of magic. She teaches magic and folk & community herbalism to kids and adults, creates rituals and ceremonies, and provides intuitive counseling and healing for individuals. Dori maintains a practice and teaches workshops in San Francisco, but as of May 2010 makes her home in the woods of Western Massachusetts.

Comments from old site:

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 09/14/2011 – 22:20.

wow. Thanks Dori and Gina too. A lot of my own feeling.thoughts.imagination about magic is expressed here. I look forward to sharing the interview with others who want to link visible and invisible actions for healing and social justice. I really appreciate the ways that anti-materialism influences your practical DIY approaches. Your rigorous delight is infectious.

Submitted by Erik (not verified) on Mon, 09/05/2011 – 15:36.

Such an interesting and thought-fermenting interview!

About the hot, angry and engorged liver many activists and other “shapeshifters” suffer, may I suggest experiencing with “greater Burdock” (Arctium lappa) (Bardane), which has the best effect on me..!

Submitted by Claudia (not verified) on Tue, 09/20/2011 – 18:02.

Lovely interview! My friend and I run workshops on herbal medicine as a tool for anti-oppression and community resilience building. We just finished a national tour and it’s SO WONDERFUL to encounter such an articulate and acute analysis of the natural integration of herbal medicine and social change. Thank you so much for this potent food for thought.

Much love,