Wild in Shasta County: Churchgoer’s Communion

It wasn’t until we stepped out of the car at Vulture Flats on Saturday morning that we felt the wind. Even though our home up there is less than 3 miles away, the warmth that was tumbling down from the mountains had not yet reached our door. Living in San Francisco, we are accustomed to dismay upon encountering wind, because no matter how many layers you’ve brought with you, it’s still never enough. The wind blowing off the Pacific is comprised of invisible piranhas with sharp, cold little teeth that nibble your bones.

The guardians of the creek are ever changing, depending on the season. The beginning of June always heralds a favorite…Hypericum perforatum…Klamath Weed, or as you probably know it, St. John’s Wort.

Collect the flowers in the early morning, preferably on a full moon, but you might just need to get ‘er done whenever. Pack a jar full, then cover with olive oil. If you want super duper, then take the whole beautiful mess and dump it into a large mortar and pestle, and crush the flowers. You can also blend it up. It feels a little sacriligeous to do so, but I’ve done it. Make sure the flowers are submerged under the oil after you put it back in the jar, and let it infuse for a month. When it’s done, you will have a beautiful carnelian oil that is unsurpassed for muscle and nerve pain. Used topically, it helps the body when it has formed a habit…a habit of clenching, twitching, spazzing, etc. And of course, flowers = seeds. Frugality and respect are key.

But this wind was warm, and it whispered secrets from distant hilltops as it reached the valley floor. I smelled snow melt, chaparral, tujhalo*, high desert. There was also a dry, dusty animal smell, like the underside of feathers at the breastbone.

We had already paid one visit to the creek when we had first arrived the day before. We committed, then and there, to beginning each day with waterside meditation. This morning, I had arisen early to make breakfast and coffee, which we then packed in the car for a picnic. Settling down on the sandstone by our favorite spot, snacks were unfurled, clothes were stripped off and submersion out of time began.

The creek is beginning its summer dwindling. Bourgeoning lushness contrasts with the bare trickling of one pool into another. Soon the pockets of water will be separated from one another.


Our first afternoon there, the sun had been shining on the deepest pool all afternoon, making for a gorgeous swim. The next morning, enough new snow melt, plus shade, made the temp zippy.

I walked up the steep hill to the east of the water, clambering over ancient lava flow while a crescent moon smiled in the south. I didn’t know where I was going, but I trusted my feet. Soon I found myself perched on a rock, surveying all below while the wind buoyed under me and made me wish for wings.

The last of the lupin are a startling blue against its golden neighbors.

Moth Mullein (Verbascum blattaria) is one of the first flowers I learned to identify, and my favorite to this day. It is related to the great and common mullein, and like its cousin, is a transplant from Europe. It may also be medicinal (potentially more so) like the wooly mullein, but I don’t have much info on it. No matter. Here’s what you need to know. That the Moth Mullein opens its flowers in the cool of the early morning, but tucks them up tight when the blaring sun hits them in the afternoon.

I closed my eyes and felt the wind carry off bits of psychic debris, the tatters from the claws of urban life. Turkey Vulture suddenly filled my mind’s eye. Crouched on my rock, I simultaneously held this bird, while flickering in and out of becoming. I knew the texture of beak, leg, claw, the warm wrinkly skin of head and neck, the strength of having a wingspan so large that it was revered by the air. I looked into its eye, and then looked out of, and took off into the air to ride currents in circles, following the messages in the wind, the scent and location of death, of sustenance.

The Plover Babies have hatched.


Fern is a bouquet master.



The glory in vultures is to be found in their humbleness. Their motley appearance (necessary when you have to stick your head into rotting corpses to get food.) or ungraceful behavior (barfing when startled before taking flight) has not earned them a prize for spiritual glamor. Eyes searching upwards for outstretched wings sometimes leads to voices of disappointment when the discovery is not an eagle, but just a vulture.

Like all scavengers, they keep their nose to the ground even while in the air. Theirs is not the thrill of the hunt, of capturing life and embodying the reaper. They intentionally seek what most of us avoid in distaste. The stark reality of living, the morbidity of an unwound mortal coil, the body in decay.

In a person, I would consider this to be ferocity.

I was also drawn down the creek in another direction. Snake, I was looking for snake. But snakes just don’t appear.

Except when they do.


Each morning we arrived back at the house before 9:30. Bellies and souls filled, the rest of the day became inconsequential. What should we go do? Whatever we want.

The snakey tendrils of Wild Grape.

Wavy Leaf Soap Plant blooms at night and shakes its buds during the day. The bulbs were roasted and eaten, as well as mashed to make soap (Really! They contain sudsy saponins) and the crushed and sudsy mixture was often used in creeks to catch and kill fish. And you know…no more bulb = no more plant, so harvest carefully, leaving the baby bulbs tucked into the soil.

Mornings at Vulture Flats are my version of going to church. I imagine a life of being able to go every day. It would make for a good world.

*tujhalo is the Achumawi word for Digger Pine. Digger Pines (Pinus sabiniana) don’t really have another name, but Digger is problematic since it refers derogatively towards the Northern California Indians that did a lot of digging. Like for bulbs and corms. So best to use their own word. Tujhalo.

The Disclaimer

Think with your stomach! Do not ingest wild plants unless you are sure you have identified them correctly and are willing to take responsibility for using yourself as a guinea pig. It is SO not my responsibility if you eat the wrong thing and get poopy pants, or die. You’re an adult. you can make your own choices.


5 thoughts on “Wild in Shasta County: Churchgoer’s Communion

  1. That feeling of having the day stretch out before you…….you can do whatever you want. The realisation of this is never as apparent as when you’re separated from “busy”. I long for some of that right now. And I like your church. Seems like a good place.

  2. woooo! That was a nice long, satisfying read! I love that your blog is so mystical, interesting and educational. next year I AM GOING to that dang symposium (heard too much about the wondefulness to stay away!) and I hope you do to cuz I wanna hang and talk in person, you are just great! xo m

  3. that photo of jeff and fern in the pool is so good. water elevates. even just looking at photos of it.

    i’m really feeling the turkey vulture medicine too. ferocious living. we are headed to new mexico next week and i will be seeing them there.

  4. Mary, you’re knowledge of plants inspires me so much. Not much of what you share here is familiar to me in my part of the world, but I am certainly noticing and studying more what is around me – making mental notes on the curve of a petal and the shape of a leaf and when I’m out and about and looking them up here:http://www.irishwildflowers.ie/ so that I can answer L & S properly when they ask me what the flowers are. I’m finding Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairy books an invaluable resource too!

    Shasta look divine, no wonder you worship there!

  5. soap root and klamath weed!

    you’re translating
    all of the whispers

    sweet and soft
    that i hear
    when i am near
    these gentle people.

    rippling waters—

    oh the vibration and energy
    of letting everything flow

    taking down dams.

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