“Smudging” is using the smoke from burning herbs and resins to cleanse and purify oneself and one’s space, often as a prelude to spiritual practices or ceremonies. The burning of incense, flower petals, bark, resins and leaves for spiritual purposes is a universal ancestral practice, and indeed has an enduring tradition of being used even in mainstream religions around the world.
I recently read a disturbing article about people illegally harvesting white sage (Salvia apiana) to make smudge sticks. These are widely sold online and used all around the world, predominantly by people who have no idea where the plant comes from. As a result, wild white sage, which grows only in certain areas of California and Mexico, is dwindling, mainly due to depredation by poachers who then sell it to distributors. Local Native Americans quoted in the article say they themselves are the original users of white sage in smudging rituals. They bemoan the abuse and commodification of the plant; and also claim that the entire practice of smudging should only be done by Native people, and anyone else doing it is guilty of cultural appropriation.
This article presents in microcosm how a Gaia-centered perspective can be useful. We see, once more, how the currently dominant culture approaches everything, even spirituality, as a way to commodify and maximize profit, with no thought for how marketing this product impacts the land or local, land-respecting people. In turn, consumers, in this case mainly credulous new-agers, start buying this product, which they use with little or no appreciation of where it comes from or what is involved in acquiring it. And at the original end of the supply line, local indigenous people, while rightly protesting all this, not only resist anyone using it besides themselves, but even claim that no one else has the right to do so.
Of course anyone has the right to benefit from the gifts of the earth, including burning sage and other plants to enhance their own sense of presence and connection. Indeed, it is the lack of felt connection, of feeling part of, that is the root of most of humanity’s problems. But even the most well-meaning modern people need to learn that using the gifts of our Earth in a genuine spiritual way first requires a change within themselves—the change from being a self-absorbed consumer to entering into an attentive, reciprocal relationship.
I smudge regularly, and I almost always use plants that I consciously and respectfully harvest from the ecosystem where I live. There are many plants here in northern New Mexico whose leaves and resins can be used for ceremonial purposes. One of the most common is desert sage—a wild Artemisia that is very abundant and has a pungent, cleansing presence. Various conifers, including ponderosa pine and piñon, are often generous with their resins. The petals of many flowers, both wild and cultivated, can also be used. I leave an offering or sing a song to every plant I gather, and then take the finished incense or smudging mix back to the land and offer some before using it myself.
To me, the most important part of this whole process, even beyond the actual practice of smudging, is entering into a relationship with the plants we use. Creating and using our own incense and smudging mixes can be a deep act of respect and humility. (Part of this is taking just what we need. A 6-ounce jar of incense that I made last winter—less than a cup—is only about half gone now, 8 months later, after almost daily use.) The blessings of finding, developing relationships with, and respectfully using materials that we ourselves have gathered in a sacred manner ripple out far and wide. We become included in Gaia’s myriad local expressions of life in the place where we live.
So I invite everyone to develop your own smudging practice as a citizen of Gaia would do it—by entering into relationships with the plants in your own ecosystem, and maybe also in your own or your neighbors’ gardens. Step by step, you can respectfully gather and experiment with leaves and petals, resins, bark and berries, remembering that the end product of a good smudging mix isn’t as important as the way you create it. Indeed, the most important “end product” is your own enhanced sensitivity to and inclusion in Gaia’s Green World.