Personal Renewal in the Vigor of Swamp Cabbage

I’ve been appreciating a vigorous leafy plant that emerges from the boggy soils of a nearby wetland/forest each spring, often as early as February.  Its purplish-green flower sometimes even pushes its way up through snow.  I’ve learned that the plant has a thermogenic property, emitting warm gases that enable it to thaw the frozen ground enough for its stalk to emerge.

from snow

The plant’s botanical name is Symplocarpus Foetidus.  The “Foetidus” part describes an alleged fetid smell emitted by the leaves, hence the common name, “skunk cabbage”.  But truth be known, I’ve not been able to smell anything fetid or “skunkish” despite numerous attempts to elicit it by grinding the leaves or even bending down with my nose fully immersed in it.  So for me, it’s simply “swamp cabbage”.

I’m someone who suffers a bit of “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (SAD) during the long winter months here in the Mid-Atlantic.  First spottings of the emerging stalk of this plant help to lift me out of my winter doldrums, reassuring me that spring is on the way.  Regular re-inspections reveal a vibrantly green organism enclosing the purplish flower. (The plant is botanically regarded as a wildflower).


Another element that inspires me about skunk cabbage is its profligacy.  Some grow directly from seed but many of them emerge from a thick rhizome – a common root which extended families and clans of the plants share.  Initial groupings of three or four can multiply over time into dozens of related plants within a few square feet of one another.


Swamp cabbage has an extensive and brawny root structure.  They grow in marshy soil and along stream banks and help to stabilize muddy soil.  They like partial sun and can propagate extensively.

A naturalist friend recommended a book by the brilliant contemporary plant-healer, Stephen Harrod Buhner. “The Secret Teachings of Plants” has a section in which the author describes the process of harvesting a swamp cabbage for the well-known medicinal power of its roots (used for asthma and other respiratory ailments).  I followed his instructions when I tried to replant a swamp cabbage in my garden a few years ago, without much success.  Digging out the plant from its muddy soil takes persistence and a willingness to get “down and dirty”.  The plant’s roots noticeably retract when you try pulling up on the stalk.  Skunk cabbage is a model of a well-rooted organism that fiercely guards any attempt to remove it.


Stephen Buhner describes the ancient heritage of this plant, with fossil records dating them back millions of years:

“The plant and flower are …throwback to a time when dinosaurs ruled the land.  There is a silence which reigns where skunk cabbage grows.  The mind quiets as it nears the plant, becoming more silent than even the stillness coming from the forest that surrounds you.  You approach it slowly, reverently, and kneel at its side, the muddy, watery soil soaking through the knees of your pants.”

By mid-April the plant’s leaves extend out for up to 18 inches and take on the appearance of edible cabbage.  The leaves are edible only after they’ve been dried.


The vigor and the profligacy of swamp cabbage inspires in me a feeling of vibrant health and rooted well-being.  The plant is a model of sustainability, continuing to make its mark on planet Earth through the course of multiple geologic ages.  I’m left with feelings of awe and appreciation each spring when the swamp cabbage returns, pulling me out of the muck of winter’s gloom and opening my spirit to new possibilities of growth and connection.

John Bayerl, Derwood MD, 4/14/2018

In Celebration of David Estrada


(This is my sharing for David’s “Celebration of Life” held at Sevenoaks Retreat Center on April 1 – Easter Sundaay)

from Pathwork Guide Lecture #82, 3/31/1961 (Good Friday), “The Conquest of Duality Symbolized in the Life and Death of Jesus Christ:”

 “This day, very appropriately, commemorates a very important event in your human history, which is closely linked to duality. On this day, Good Friday, Jesus Christ brought his life to a culmination in the greatest suffering and the greatest joy.  This is meant in a very human and concrete sense.  Suffering and joy, pleasure and pain are dualities that, in the final analysis, are only subdivisions of the great duality:  life and death — never life or death.

“Jesus’ last words on the cross expressed his doubt and fear that he was forsaken by God.  This has puzzled many people.  How could that great spirit doubt and fear?  Human illusion and idealization would have preferred that Jesus died in a glory of faith without the human doubts and fears he expressed in the hour of the culmination of his suffering.  But it was very important that this utterance be transmitted to humanity.

“In his last hour, Jesus forgot all he had known, all the revelations and insights he had gained.  Has it not happened to each one of you to some degree, in hours of depression and anxiety, that even though your intellectual memory retained what you have learned and known, you were not in command of this knowledge?  Your soul was in a dark night of unbelief and doubt.  Deceiving yourself about this state of mind, and not acknowledging how you really felt, is not the right solution. 

 “Jesus illustrated this most clearly.  He, the greatest of all created spirits, was in doubt too.  He too had lost faith for a moment.  But he acknowledged it and did not hide it from himself or from others.  What does that mean?  It means the stark, naked fear of the unknown — death — and the acute suffering of physical, mental and spiritual pain.  Jesus met it squarely, without pretense, without self-deception, without deceiving those who had faith in him.  He was truthful to himself and therefore to all who believed in him.  He was truthful even in his last moment.

 “It is only when you accept death in its undisguised nakedness, without running from it, that you can truly live”.

 Those of us who visited with David in his last months and weeks knew that he had entered a conscious process of facing this “undisguised nakedness” of physical death.

I was David’s Pathwork helper during the five years when he lived and worked here at Sevenoaks, and for a few years thereafter.  During that time, I witnessed David’s slow, evolving inner process of psychological and emotional transformation, culminating in an awareness that his Higher Self was his essential nature.

When he entered his first battle with his colon cancer a few years ago, I started visiting him in the hospital. I met his devoted mother, Isabel, and several of his close friends during those weeks.  By this point in our relationship, David was no longer my worker or client, but simply a longtime spiritual friend who I wanted to support in his healing process.

Some of you may have received David’s brave and affirming email back in the fall, announcing that his cancer had recurred with a vengeance and that he had decided not to take further treatment.  In David’s words, he was actively “transitioning”.

David decided to experience his transition in the DC area at the home of a beloved aunt.  Most of his medical support team was there, and David also had many longtime friends in DC, as he did here at Sevenoaks.  I visited David regularly through the winter, and always came away inspired by his courage and loving spirit.

In our first meeting, David had just decided to go forward with an idea to have his ashes placed in the sacred oak grove here at Sevenoaks.  He asked my assistance in helping to manifest his plan and I readily agreed.  Once this plan was in place, David seemed more settled and at peace.

 In all my visits with David, I seldom saw him waver from his full, conscious knowledge and acceptance of his dying process.  He was committed to approach his dying as consciously as he could.  He was alert and articulate, and usually greeted me with a big smile and a hearty hug.  That said, there were a number of challenging setbacks.  He was admitted to the hospice unit of Providence hospital at one point, and his discomfort brought with it discouragement and confusion.  David had to work hard to remember his intention to face his dying process squarely.

 There’s a saying in the cancer survivor community that “Cancer is not for sissies”.  As David was sharing with his closest friends and family and friends about a beautiful inner process that was opening him to deeper and deeper spiritual realizations, his body was falling part. David’s courage to stay conscious through this difficult process, no matter what, allowed him to accept the part of him that was disintegrating as he more and more came to identify with that in him which is eternal.