Book Review: "How Does it Touch Your Heart?" - Herbs and Incense with Amy Blackthorn in Sacred Smoke
By Elyse Welles
© 2021 Elyse Welles. All rights reserved.
Incense is not just Wildberry sticks from the gas station - it’s an intimate experience with herbs and their healing properties.
Picking up Sacred Smoke by Amy Blackthorn, I knew going in how much I enjoyed incense, and I thought I knew how to include it in my practice. But her book provides a deeper look at how to build your relationship with incense - a relationship you might not have realized you were neglecting, and one that is certainly worth your time.
I felt reinvigorated in my path after embracing her view of incense as a sacred act, not only a powerful magickal tool. As a licensed herbalist, Blackthorn's knowledge and respect for herbcrafting is abounding, lending more credibility to her voice.
Her recipes are great - anyone will find recipes to enjoy here. However, this is actually a book to get readers on the path of making their own concoctions by building a relationship with the herbs they use. Blackthorn's confidence and positivity is contagious, and motivates the reader to have faith in their own magickal intuition. She challenges us to think creatively about our choices, but also not to think too hard. Feel, trust, and follow.
Blackthorn's voice and spirit leaves a lasting impression. Like a memorable teacher, her voice is strong and personal. She feels like a friend by the end of the book, and I want to have a few with her for sure! Luckily, I had the opportunity of meeting her at our monthly Pagan book club meeting, and her presence was even more wonderful in person.
Building a Relationship with The Herbs of Your Practice
“When that plant reaches out to you, how does it touch your heart?” She tells us to ask as we get to know new herbs. “The word “use” is the problem,” Blackthorn explains. "We shouldn’t feel that we use these herbs or stones. We are working with them, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship, a partnership… Like you can find your partner in a large crowd, you can pick out the personality of a plant.”
Our book club had the pleasure of welcoming author Amy Blackthorn to our discussion of Sacred Smoke. Hearing her perspective on the details behind her choices in the book really drove home the importance of fostering a relationship with your craft and its elements. Building an understanding with, not just of, each herb, crystal, or tool in your craft, knowing it’s personality and quirks… this is the magic we do.
“Allyship” with herbs is what Blackthorn teaches in her book. That is what builds understanding, and the way Blackthorn converses with herbs in her book will set the foundation for your practice. Soon, the understanding of an herb moves on from just memorizing associations in a mental chart of correspondences, to interacting and understanding the plant, following your instinct for it that you’ve built by fostering your relationship with it. This fundamental shift in your approach to working with herbs and stones can build a new empathy for Nature, and impact our craft in large ways - like how we use incense.
"Incense can be as tangible as water", Amy told us as we gushed about the smoke bath introduced in the book. "It's deeply cleansing."
The endearing magic of Amy's writing is the combination of her wit and fiery personality with a studious yet practical approach to the material. The smoke bath is one such practical approach that I will forever use in my personal practice. Burning incense with intention, choosing a scent/plant for the desired effect, and clearing negative energy at doorways and windows with smoke are likely part of many pagans' paths already. But do you cleanse yourself? Do you clear your body, each limb, each chakra, with your incense smoke? The challenge Amy issues is to treat our bodies, our ultimate temples to the Goddess, with the same cleansing treatment we do our tools and homes. This section of the book is an ardent favorite of mine and was a featured topic of our book discussion.
Amy's intro to smoke bathing (from Page 21):
"While seated, take scoops of the smoke into your hands and pour them over your head. See the tendrils of smoke curl around your hair, eyes, and ears. Scoop up more smoke, and wash it over your arms and chest, before moving on to your legs. Every time you shift to a new part of the body, see the smoke reaching the inside and outside of that body part, cleansing it and leaving it warm, whole, and safe. Repeat this for each new plant, resin, and wood as you get to know them in your sacred smoke practice."
When we talk about "clearing", "cleansing", or "saining" (Scottish), some people call this smudging. Smudging is a closed practice, and while there's continued debate over this, Amy Blackthorn clearly takes a side early on in the book (pg. 3):
"Ahem. If you are not a member of an indigenous tribe and/or trained in that practice, it won't be smudging: it is smoke cleansing, smoke bathing, smoke rituals—you get the idea. We're here to learn how to build our own practice without appropriating another culture's. With the indigenous women I've spoken to about this project, the lessons have been many. Every culture has its own practices for sacred smoke, and they deserve their own time and attention. There is room for respect and growth without appropriation. For this book, we will talk about smoke practice in other ways."
This is an important conversation to have with the modern pagan community - we need to do better and listen to indigenous tribes' needs and requests. It's just a word for non-indigenous people. We can change even if we've grown used to saying it or don't mean any harm. We can still perform smoke ritual and enjoy incense and burning plants, a practice uniting countless cultures around the globe. And our magick is made more powerful for that connection and mutual respect held by and for all in the community.
When in Doubt, Always Follow Your Nose
"This bottle of benzoin oil I had just smelled was no mere essential oil, but a time machine. Such is the power of our sense of smell." - Amy Blackthorn, Sacred Smoke (pg. 2)
Cotton reminds me of playing outside while mom hung laundry. Lavender is the smell of the soap in my best friend's bathroom at sleepovers. Patchouli is that beach condo we stayed at for senior week. "Our sense of smell is 90 percent emotion and 10 percent recall," (pg. 7) Blackthorn explains. And we know this, we feel this in every memory that floods our minds as we catch the scent of spring on the air in March.
Amy insists that when choosing essential oils, for any specific need, "go for the best-smelling one. There are a few reasons: One, because if it smells good to you, you're more likely to actually use it. Two, your brain is going to tell you what you need right now, and that could change in the future. Three, if you have a negative association with a particular scent, that's an exercise for another day; don't worry about fighting with yourself over old wounds when it comes to the safety of your abode."
Number three is particularly necessary: 90% painful emotions and 10% memories? That's a lot of bad energy. That reassurance that it's ok to avoid herbs you have negative associations with, despite their properties, was something I personally appreciated. Following your intuition is a big takeaway from Sacred Smoke as a whole.
Some Fun Favorite Tips from Amy Blackthorn
In our discussion, Amy gave us the following tips I thought I'd share here:
Amy's advice for buying herbs and essential oils: "Don’t ask if it’s organic, ask what kind of chemicals they use." Many small farms cannot afford the high fees and licensing procedures to use the label organic, despite meeting criteria otherwise.
"Centering is the gathering-up of all the disparate, excess magical energy lingering in your body, fingers, toes, and everywhere in between and focusing it in your gut, solar plexus, what have you. It's making that tiny supernova ready to go into the ground where the earth can use it." - Sacred Smoke, pg. 17
"Anoint an aventurine stone in pomegranate juice and whisper the things you need in a new job to the stone." - Sacred Smoke, p. 35
"Evil can't abide basil... and as it happens it drives evil spirits from your home." - Sacred Smoke, pg. 35
"Anytime your house feels in need of a blessing, burn true bayberry candles. Bayberry is a fruit found in the original colonies and carries a natural wax coating. The colonists would boil the berries, and when the wax would rise to the top of the pot, they would scoop it out to make candles with. It's traditional to burn a pair of candles on the winter solstice to bring luck for the next year. “A bayberry candle burned wick to the socket, puts joy in the heart and gold in the pocket,” goes a traditional rhyme." - Sacred Smoke, pg. 38
An Inspiring and Motivating Read for All Spiritual Paths
Amy's introduction starts with the perfect sentiment:
"Magic is causing change in accordance with your will. Magic is the ability to take control of what is happening in your life, shuffle those cards, and deal again to ask for a new hand, from God, the Goddess, the universe—whomever." (Sacred Smoke, XVI)
This book is not didactic, heavy on jargon, or patronizing; and neither is it pandering, fluffy, or basic. It is a great toolkit and workshop for understanding and building an intimate relationship with incense, for your magick but also for your soul; your inner child will thank you for playing with fire in a safe and responsible way (and don't worry, Amy has ample safety tips for ALL recipes - you'll never forget the tongs after reading Sacred Smoke!)
The storytelling in incense is something I'll consider more deeply in the future thanks to this book. The origins of herbs, their historical and medical uses, their physical feel, their scent, their different forms throughout the wheel of the year... these are all features of incense we need to consider. How it gets to us matters for our Craft. Ethically sourcing our plants and wood, and forgoing those that we cannot get safely, are important choices to make consciously if we are to respect our Mother who provides these magickal plants in the first place. Amy Blackthorn personifies plants and stones in the way she discusses their power and properties, and rightly so: we have to respect our tools of the Craft as much as we do the Mother herself, for she is "the beauty of the Green Earth".*
*Valiente, "The Charge of the Goddess"
Blackthorn, A. (2019). Sacred Smoke: Clear Away Negative Energies and Purify Body, Mind, and Spirit. Weiser Books.