Conversing with the Plants: Marcus McCoy and Perpetuating the Mysteries

Meet Marcus McCoy, of the Viridis Genii Symposium, House of Orpheus, and newly, the Troll Cunning Forge. I met Marcus at an herb conference years ago and began following his work in the magical and herbal world. His concept of Bioregional Animism has been particularly influential. In this interview I was particularly pleased to hear his thoughts on the ways that language affects our magic and work with the plants as well as its historical roots and impact.

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Casandra: Hello Marcus! Thanks for talking with me. We are here to discuss plants, magic, and community. How did your relationship with the plants begin? Was there a specific plant or moment of insight that particularly influenced you?

Marcus: I grew up on a rural Oregon farm and self-sufficiency was just a value system I was raised with; it was a necessity. My parents were back-to-the-land Christian types in the 70s so they encouraged my investigations into herbalism; they would buy me brandy as I learned to tincture through reading my books.

When I was very young my grandfather died in front of me. This began a life-long interest in the spirit world, life after death, religion, and the invisible world. I started studying other cultures and their use of plants to interact with the invisible world of the supernatural. I became fascinated with the idea that across cultures people work with plants to interact with the invisible world and that work influences the visible world we live in daily.

My teen years were full of strange supernatural adventures as I explored visionary plants and extracts, and studied ethnobotany and philosophy. I sat with the Native American Church and was humbled with what I learned there. I saw that there were very healthy ways of working with these plants and substances.

When I was twenty-two I met a gifted fellow seeker who worked with me and spurred on my development immensely. We sat and practiced clairvoyance, clairaudience, and clairsentience techniques we had learned as well as mediumship and spirit evocation. We took turns allowing spirits to speak through us and enter our bodies. We learned to focus the visionary plant experience to see the spirits that were within one another’s body. This exercise prepared us tremendously and helped us to understand how traditional shamans worked with these plants to interact with the invisible supernatural world. Having someone who could verify what I was seeing with eyes wide open solidified my experience beyond simple faith and belief in the supernatural world. We developed the skills together which we needed to know, explore, and integrate those experiences into our daily life so that they became no different than checking the mail or cooking breakfast.

The traditions that worked with these visionary plants saw them as persons, and it was not long before we realized that if we treated them as a person and learned to relate to them as such they would begin teaching us, speaking to us, and guiding our experiences as well as our development.

Soon the plants started guiding me to do healing work on people and cleansing. Not long after that, I met with a Bolivian ceremonialist whom I studied with for many years until our relationship became strained due to value conflicts. During that time I led ceremonies with plant medicines where the plants did the majority of the teaching themselves. The greatest teacher of all was a snuff plant called Vilca from Argentina. It was the world tree, and you planted it inside your head… what could be more perfect? All the spirits lived in that tree, good and bad, and could be interacted with and related to. It’s a painful and challenging experience working with it and it’s not for everyone, but its guidance is quick and fierce and it was a tremendous ally to have. The most powerful experiences I had with plant communication were through meeting the spirits of various plants through Vilca, or Banisteriopsis caapi. Through the smoked leaf especially, I learned to call on plants and work with them, learn from them, send then to aid in healing and bane.

I want to be clear however that there is a huge difference between the New Age “medicine” circles that exist today and the traditional work of South American curandedros that work with these medicines for their families and communities. Much like folk medicine and folk magic practitioners the world over, they work to solve, or sometimes create, problems within their tight knit communities. These traditional practitioners are who I find community with, not the New Age medicine circles that are ever so popular today. 

C: It’s an incredible feeling to experience close relationships with plants as folks who are magicians and healers. How do you call in these plants when you are working with clients? What is it like to have that kind of allyship?

M: It’s story time! I remember one time my roommate had a compound fracture – he’d broken his arm in three places and it was really bad. He got to the hospital and his arm was all torn up to the extent that he needed surgery, and his arm was going to have to be grafted. I went home that night and I smoked Changa – a smokeable form of Ayahuasca – and called upon the spirit of Comfrey. The spirit of Comfrey appeared before me: it was this vegetable woman in a beautiful ballroom gown of greens and whites and purples. She exuded such compassion, such nurturing and caring. It was just beautiful to behold. I started to communicate with her and tell her that I was really concerned about my roommate, that he had broken his arm in three places, etc. I started consulting with her as to what to do as an herbalist to help him. I wasn’t able to put Comfrey on him topically, so I asked if he could take her internally. She said yes, he could take a small amount of her internally in a tea, but I should use something with hepatoprotective qualities as well like certain varieties of Ganoderma mushroom. I said, “Okay, alright, that sounds great.” But then she said, “He doesn’t even need to ingest me. I’ll just go over there and start healing him now.” And so she left.

My roommate was kind of a redneck punk guy and didn’t really like me helping him too much, and so he only drank the tea once. He didn’t apply anything to his arm, but when he went back and the doctor was apparently in tears. The doctor said that his bones had healed nearly three months ahead of schedule. It was that dramatic; he had never seen anything like it before.

I have a lot of stories about working with the plants in that context with their spirits. You don’t have to do the dieta to work with them – though it’s a great practice – and you don’t have to get their sigil or their name of evocation. It can be so much simpler than that. There aren’t a lot of people doing that sort of work outside of the Amazon. I’m not sure how many people are really coming back from the Amazon knowing how to do it either.

C: It’s really incredible what is possible when we are willing to approach these plants with respect and acknowledge their personhood. Tell me about Bioregional Animism and how relating to plants and the land you’re on as persons has an impact on your magical and spiritual practice. 

M: Bioregional Animism came from a vision during a San Pedro ceremony. “We are the land talking, we are the land dancing” became a central part of the dance ceremony I was participating in. The ceremony itself was an expression of the land below our feet, and I learned an aspect of that land. It was intelligent and shared its intelligence with all the red- and green-blooded beings who I learned to relate to as family, as a part of that larger Self which is Place.

I started writing about this experience and called it Bioregional Animism. I stopped doing public ceremonies and dedicated my work to teaching people about a regionalized animist relational dynamic. You are where you live, and through the relational ontology that is animism people started to learn how to be Place. Sadly too many people over the years have glommed onto the term Bioregional Animism and identify as a bioregional animist instead of actually learning to commune with that larger sense of Self which is Place, learning its ways, integrating them into one’s life. Through relating to oneself as Place, the land guides you, shows you what plant and animal people to work with. When that’s actually done – and not just an intellectual philosophy – the process is incredible and the foundation for a great deal of work. I’ve currently taken the Bioregional Animism blog off line as my original work there has been info-mined by a great many of other bloggers who are writing about my work now that have very much misrepresented it. The contents of the blog are in the process of being edited and will be released by Revelore Press.

C: I’m so glad you will be re-releasing that work through Revelore. I’m curious about the distinction between the animistic worldview and what we find in most magical texts which tend not to acknowledge the personhood of plants. We’ve talked about Grimoire Sympathia by Charubel as an exception. Can you talk about the relevance of work such as his?

M: Many occult writers are working with plants sympathetically, almost as a symbol or via their planetary correspondence or the symbolic and sympathetic qualities that these plants have. Take Loosestrife, which medicinally acts as a styptic. If you place it between two battling cows, they’ll stop battling. If you place it between two warring neighbors, it will create peace. It stops the bleeding of the wound, therefore it also creates peace. People work with symbolic associations based upon the medicinal action or the way it grows, and that is sympathetic magic.

When we’re working with plant magic from the standpoint of an animist or spiritualist, we acknowledge that things have a spirit or a genii and that through our interactions we can evoke them like we do goetic spirits, angels, elementals, or anything else for that matter – the daemons of the world. We can evoke the daemons of the plants, daemon being a name interchangeable with genius. I have had a lot of experiences doing this through working with vegetalismo.

It was interesting for me to find Charubel and this Western tradition that goes back to the late 1800s. His work involved staring into a black mirror and contacting spirits of plants to find both their name and their sigil so that they can be evoked. Once they were evoked he could prescribe that evocation to someone else. They would be instructed to perform the evocations during corresponding planetary hours and he would combine intuitive-based rituals that are very simple and humble for that purpose. A lot of his work was really focused on health. He could see people’s auras. One of the things that got him started down this path was that he would look at the aura of a plant and then he would match that with the aura of a person. If a person was sick with a particular illness and their aura reflected that color, then he would psychically send a plant of like-colored aura and ask it to move over to the person. These are in his own words in Grimoire Sympathia.

What’s interesting is that Charubel’s work has an almost animist feel to it. He doesn’t overtly describe his interactions with plant entities in the same way that animists do per se, but it’s close. His interactions with plants were empathic and he was feeling and tuning in and communicating with them, paying close attention to his own feelings and experiences throughout that process with the plant spirits. 

C: You mentioned the New Thought and New Age movements earlier. Why do you see those threads as problematic for modern herbalism and occultism? How does the language of those traditions impact our willingness and ability to develop relationships with these plants?

M: Modern herbalism has found itself in a bit of a pickle. It has a foundation in New Thought and the New Age movement. My good friend and scholar, Eric Purdue, has eloquently said that the New Age and New Thought worldview is analogous to a battered spouse that thinks that if they just do what the abusive spouse wants them to do, they will stop being abused. It’s a rough analogy, but historically and socially we can see how this philosophy has become established. Scientific materialism is the foundation of modern herbalism’s current relationship with New Thought and New Age “philosophy.” We use its terminology and have a loose philosophy still with its feet wetted in our previous Neoplatonism. Energy, vibration, and frequency are terms used so that scientific materialism with stop hitting us, to continue with Eric’s analogy. The New Age and New Thought movements emerged as ways for our former ontologies to be seen as rational and gain acceptance of by forcing them into a miss-sized garment patched together from bits and pieces that somehow self-validate while ignoring the original ontology the patch came from, which is wholly different and often conflicting to scientific materialism.

But these ontological systems that came before – these traditional and animistic worldviews – do not need to conform to the new worldview. We do not have to explain them with scientific materialism in order for them to somehow make sense; the more we try, the less it makes sense, and currently the modern herbal movement is so intertwined with New Age thinking that – indeed! – it doesn’t make sense as a whole. How many people call themselves “plant energy healers”? Are they working with kinetic energy? What do they mean by “energy” anyway? We use scientific terms to validate what we do to the scientific materialist model and worldview, yet it doesn’t actually fit within the model of either proper physics or the traditional ontology.

Currently we have people trying to jailbreak alchemy and the older systems of medicine – even animism – from a modern scientific materialist new consciousness model. Whether its quantum physics rhetoric or what, it’s a product of a lack of understanding of the language of the ontological system these traditions come from. You see this left and right within modern herbalism and magical systems because they need to be validated by the one true ontology: scientific materialism. Of course, this cannot be done, so we co-opt words and ideas that can take on any dubious meaning the speaker wishes. And here we see the vicious cycle.

We were born into this dominant paradigm of thought. It’s our first language, but we owe the ontological systems that these deep herbal and occult traditions came from due credit by learning those systems and the language that formed them instead of forcing them into a model that will never validate them.

Speaking from my point of view of a westerner, Western herbalism and occultism both have roots in the same ontological systems that were shown to be irrelevant, superstitious, and not fitting to the new accepted ontology. So what have we done? We have ignored our western roots, and taken bits and pieces from all over the globe to make our Frankenstein’s monster. How is this different from GMO foods? We take genes from one thing and mix it with another to get what we want, but with unseen consequences, just as the good doctor Frankenstein discovered. So we embrace eastern philosophy, etc. and royally butcher it instead of looking back at our own history and symbolic systems which are deeply rooted in our psyche and cultures.

How can there be more than one true or real ontological system? Why should we learn about these other paradigms that our traditions sprang from and stop quoting lines from The Matrix? This question is possibly the root of the problem. Why is this important for herbalists and herbal occultists though? These different paradigms set their own limitations on phenomena, on how the world can and does work, on what magic and plants can do, how they do what they do, and why. Each system tells a different story, each system has a different cosmology story as to why.

A brilliant example of this is illustrated in the work of Claude Lecouteux. In northern Europe we had a very different worldview then what came later with the Neoplatonism that slowly replaced it. We had a system of multiple souls and embodied souls that could come back not as intangible ghosts that were separate from the physical world, but as solid beings, revenants could fight and win wars, take revenge, and find justice for themselves. Revenants were a physical embodiment of the soul. After Neoplatonism’s reign we see a change in the actual phenomena of revenants; they became replaced with intangible ghosts. Why is this? Because the new ontological system maintains a mind/matter split. The soul is not embodied. The souls of plants are not embodied. A ghost is the disembodied soul. Supernatural phenomena became spiritual phenomena. The invisible world became the spirit world, and spirits can influence the physical world, but only some, and only under specific conditions.

With this example we can see the importance of fully understanding these older paradigms of thought instead of explaining them away with New Age rhetoric. Now the power plant is not empowered and embodied and a vessel for a powerful supernatural being, it is simply an energetic vibration that is more of a psychological symbol that facilitates inner growth and imagined hypnotic guided imagery. We have set huge limitations as to what plants can and cannot do, about what and who they are, and what world they live on. The saddest thing about that is that it is done in the sloppiest, most nonsensical, philosophically foundationless, humpty dumpty, open-ended-meaning way possible. This is how we destroy the mystery and awe of the supernatural and natural world: with New Age, New Thought attempts to explain the mystery away with vibration, energy, and frequency. But hey why not… what’s the harm… everyone’s doing it… it works for them…

But just maybe once witches did fly on brooms.

C: How has building real, legitimate relationships with these plants and working with a traditional ontological foundation influenced other aspects of your life as a perfumer, teacher, writer, etc.?

M: While working with Hauchuma cactus one evening, I was told to perpetuate the mystery at all cost. I was shown a male-focused solar approach to the mystery, which I was shown is lunar and feminine. Our modern approach is imbalanced and does not respect the mystery, it wants to reveal it and use it, figure it out. It wants answers not questions, not awe or wonder, but a false sense of safety and security in what we perceive as a static world that can be figured out. This allowed an abusive relationship to the natural world, to each other and to ourselves to form.

This lesson from a Bolivian cactus created a foundation for my approach to the work I do.

It was also the columnar cactus Achuma that opened me up and showed me the magic of perfume. My teacher at the time had dieted in the jungle and had made a perfume from jungle flowers. In the perfumero practice a perfume is sometimes placed in the mouth and sprayed upon you forcefully. The curanderos breath combines with the soul of the plant, informing it with their synergistic intention, empowering it, giving it an animating breath of life. As I was blasted by this perfume, it forced me to purge out my lungs coughing up massive amounts of phlegm. I knew I needed to go back and let it in me a second time, so I went back to my teacher for more. I inhaled deeply, accepting the perfume inside my lungs, and in me I carried the souls of the Amazonian flowers. They spoke to me. They gave me a message that brought me to tears, and shared something with me that deeply moved me and created a shift in my life. From that point on my lessons with perfumes continued. Another curandero gave me Florida water to drink in ceremony to understand its secrets, and I became driven to study perfume. This led me to distilling, which led me to alchemy, which led me to sorcery and western witchcraft… and all of this came together to create my perfume company the House of Orpheus.

Writing and teaching has always been a part of my path. Teaching was my therapeutic style in working as a counselor in in- and out-patient mental health, from which I am retired from now. What is it that I can teach, that the world needs? How can I be a vessel for that which teaches? Teach what you know, as they say, and so I have written on Bioregional Animism, shamanry, necromancy, and sorcerous alchemy. I have students and teach privately based upon my students’ needs.

C: You are building community and encouraging other teachers and writers through the event that you help to put on each summer. Tell us about the Viridis Genii Symposium!

M: Catamara and I knew there needed to be a community and a focus in the occult world and herbal worlds on occult or esoteric herbalism. It wasn’t there, there was a disconnect, and I hope that I illustrated why I think that disconnect exists. I feel that disconnect is damaging, and it dumbs us down as a community and creates and perpetuates ignorance, and ignorance causes suffering. We wanted to bring the esoteric community together with the herbal community. Plants are so central to so many occult practices and yet it is like your nose – you don’t really pay it much attention, even though it’s the center of your face. We want to reconnect Western herbalism with its roots in Western occultism and esotericism while also showing that there is a whole world full of traditions that work with plants magically, creating a place where practitioners from diverse cultures could represent their traditions’ work.

Our hope from encouraging a cross-cultural focus along side the Western esoteric focus is to remove of the exotic Other and the cherry-picking of other cultures’ traditions, encouraging more exploration into Western herbalism’s roots, while supporting other traditions in their survival.

A great many who merge Western herbalism with New Thought and New Age ideas do so because they were taught that Western esotericism was scary, evil and bad, while at the same time they are drawn to Kali and misrepresenting the exotic Other from cultures they are not a part of and don’t understand fully. It is our hope that we can remove those socially biased fears and bigotries that have diseased our roots, so to speak. We have a rich heritage of hermetic philosophy, for example, with masters we quote all the time such a Paracelsus, Albertus Magnus, Culpepper, Hermes the trice great, and countless others.

We have alchemy, and it has a complete philosophical system to work from, instead of spurious ideas from the New Age philosophy. We have Gnosticism, we have older folk traditions and ways of relating that we are kindling back to life. The work that needs to be done is huge and important and creating a place for people to do this work and to come together to share support with one another is essential.

Humans create culture ,and what we have created here at the Viridis Genii Symposium is beyond what we could have expected. It continues to grow and develop and it has created standards which safe guard our communities. We can no longer accept teachers that define magic as magical and alchemy as alchemical. That’s not going to cut it anymore. We are at that point where we can grow and develop, and we are really happy to see that happening.

C: I’ve found the community and teachers you host at the VGS so inspiring and really appreciate the work you and Catamara put into making that event happen each year. I look forward to seeing how it continues to evolve as we collectively work to deepen our understanding of this history and relationship with the plants. Thank you so much for your time, Marcus!

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For those who have not attended the Viridis Genii Symposium, books from the first three years of the symposium are available in the Revelore Bookshop. Marcus’s work may also be explored through House of Orpheus and his newly launched Troll Cunning Forge.

Casandra Johns

Casandra Johns

Publisher, Editor, Everything at House of Hands
Casandra Johns is an editor, publisher, herbalist, and book artist. Her work covers focuses on developing deep relationships with plants, exploring processes of co-creation, and practicing meaningful magic. She owns and operates House of Hands, a small press and bindery. Get to know her more at www.houseofhands.net
Casandra Johns