I Visited a Forest-Dwelling Witch to Cure My Crushing Existential Dread
I have been drinking Susun Weed's calming herbal tinctures for months in an attempt to stave off my impending mental breakdown. But I knew it was not enough; I needed to meet the wood witch to receive her blessings directly.
All photos by Harry James Hanson
On Edge is a series about stress in 2017.
It’s a dull, cold morning in mid-November when I arrive at Susun Weed’s house. The world around me feels desaturated, dutifully fading towards the most moribund point of the year. I’m here because I admire and slightly fear Susun, a renowned, forest-dwelling witch; like the thousands who have made this voyage before me, I hope she will be able to offer me some semblance of insight and inner peace.
I’ve been obsessed with Susun for several months now. I first found my way to her while I was researching motherwort, an herbaceous perennial plant believed to help with anxiety, which I was taking as a palliative cure for my sense of crushing existential dread. (“Freaked out? Upset? Take a dropperful of motherwort! Distressed about something that might happen? Or might have happened? Take motherwort!” Susun’s website urges brightly.)
As 2017 wore on, and more and more grotesque horrors emerged from the slack maw of our present reality—a constant stream of existential threats orchestrated by the buffoons in power, endless accounts of abuse and harassment, most of which had circulated for years without consequence—I found myself seized with the urge to meet Susun in the flesh. I kept mentally returning to an image of her I once came across, in which she’s laughing beatifically in front of a waterfall, her thick gray hair crowned with an earth-tone bandana. I am usually skeptical of New Age-y stuff, and I fastidiously maintain a roster of unhealthy habits, but I felt inexplicably drawn to her nonetheless. What does one have to do, I wondered, to become that deeply and fundamentally chill?
Among certain circles—witchcraft-adjacent ones, mostly—Susun is a nearly legendary figure. Describing her appeal to a person who doesn’t already understand the full context from which she emerged is difficult, like showing someone a cell phone photo of the moon to show why it’s been worshipped for millennia due to its majestic luminescence.
Nonetheless, I will try: At age 71, Susun is a foremother of modern herbal medicine in the United States, a High Priestess of Dianic Wicca, a green witch, and a pioneering figure in the field of psychedelics (she has taken LSD over 400 times, by her count, and helped thousands of others along their trips). She dwells on a sprawling property in Woodstock, New York, which has become a pilgrimage site for aspiring herbalists and witches seeking her tutelage.
Notably, she’s such a formidable teacher that there’s an entire section of her website devoted to the question of why she yells at people so much. “If Susun ‘yells’ at you, remember, she still honors you although she is upset with your actions,” it explains, sounding faintly exasperated. “If you pay attention to instructions and boundaries and do what you are asked to do, exactly as you are instructed, you will not be yelled at except in the case of immediate danger, when a loud voice can save you from disaster.”
In person, Susun is warm and effusive, though not entirely unintimidating. She is dressed like the platonic ideal of a hippie grandmother living in Woodstock—pastel sweatshirt bearing the image of a lone egret in a very ecologically productive pond, sensible jeans, Birkenstocks with wool socks—but seems intensely otherworldly. Her demeanor at times recalls a kindergarten teacher; she carefully and sonorously enunciates her syllables and frequently emphasizes words with such conviction they sound italicized.
Susun was born shortly after the end of World War II, which she feels is karmically resonant—“My conception was from a cry for peace,” she informs me—and grew up in Dallas, an experience she did not particularly cherish. In high school, overcome with an interminable feeling of malaise, and looking for a means to escape, she took the SATs two years early and was accepted to UCLA, where she experienced a series of life-altering events: She met a former public health nurse in the cafeteria, who turned her onto alternative medicine. Later, she got pregnant despite being on birth control, which deepened her growing distrust of modern medicine.
According to Susun’s account, she was pregnant for months, only to have her concerns consistently dismissed by her doctors, who told her that her swollen breasts and missed periods were side effects of the pill. It wasn’t until she was a full five months pregnant, Susun says, that they finally acknowledged her condition. “I could have been that teenager who gave birth on the toilet. I could have been!” she exclaims, still indignant. “Because all the adults were telling me I wasn’t pregnant, and I’d never been pregnant before. What did I know?”
A third incident took place in Susun’s Introduction to English course, when her professor showed up high out of his mind on LSD and then started reciting modernist poetry to a class of about 500 students. “Can you imagine the effect on my 17-year-old mind of this professor, whacked out on LSD, reciting Rilke, who I’d never heard of in my life?” she demands. “I was like, Hoooooly shit. And he started walking out of the classroom. About 100 of us were just like”—she mimics enthusiastically panting like an amorous cartoon dog—“following him.”
These individual experiences eventually coalesced, giving her a sense of higher purpose. In her junior year of college, enrolled in a class she disparagingly describes as “criticism of criticism of English literature,” Susun was struck with a sense of absurdity. “I thought, ‘How much further removed from real life can I possibly get? What am I doing? I am wasting my life here!’”
In 1965, she dropped out of school and moved to New York with the father of her gestating child. (She was married to him at the time, but is reluctant to discuss him. “I have nothing to do with him now,” she says dismissively.) The pair became heavily involved in the area’s burgeoning psychedelics scene, eventually opening a store in the East Village called the Psychedelicatessan, which sold exactly everything one would expect from a store called “the Psychedelicatessan.”
About six months after she gave birth, Susun took LSD—which, at that point, was still legal—for the first time. She enjoyed the experience so thoroughly that she and her then-husband enlisted the help of a chemist and began to very prolifically synthesize their own, which they handed out for free in the store. “We did unmarked blotters,” she claims. “We were one of the largest suppliers of LSD in the United States for quite a long time.” (They stopped production once the US government vigorously cracked down on psychedelics.)
Around the same time, Susun began to seriously study herbs and herbal medicine, recording and eventually publishing her findings. She credits the English herbalist and author Juliette de Baïracli Levy, a pioneer of holistic veterinary medicine, with radically altering her perspective, though LSD certainly helped as well: “The founders, the re-awakeners of herbal medicine in the United States…all have psychedelic backgrounds. And it’s not a secret,” she says. “United States herbalism is based on our experiences in direct communication with the plants, not in books.”
Having experienced “oneness with all of existence” in this way, Susun sought a more holistic approach to health. She felt that modern medicine treated the body like a broken machine—one that was either sick or not sick, never healthy—and that alternative medicine treated it as a temple that was constantly at the risk of defilement. Both of these, she decided, were reductive and insufficient.
Her solution: the Wise Woman tradition, a philosophical approach to health that emphasizes nourishing your whole self. She created and popularized the term, though she will not take credit for the tradition itself, which she believes has existed for 30,000 years. In 1981, she opened the Wise Woman Center, which offers a variety of intensive courses meant to help students “re-weave the healing cloak of the Ancients.” Over 1300 women have come to apprentice under her, she tells me, though only about 320 have graduated—the program is fairly rigorous, and not everyone can handle it.
“Most people think wholeness is body, mind, and spirit. But as soon as you say ‘body, mind, and spirit,’ you’re no longer whole. You’ve just broken yourself up into pieces,” Susun proclaims. “What real wholeness is is loving, accepting, and nourishing the parts of yourself that you find despicable. That’s real wholeness. That’s different, isn’t it?”
The Wise Woman tradition is mutable and adaptable by design, with a strong emphasis on self-reliance. “The Wise Woman tradition has no rules, no texts, no rites,” Susun wrote in a manifesto-esque essay published in 2001. “The focus is on the person, not the problem, nourishing not curing, self-healing not healing another." There is no one path or practice for the Wise Woman; the tradition can work alongside scientific or alternative medicine cures. While those who study at the Wise Woman Center learn extensively about herbal medicine, you can exist within the Wise Woman framework without a deep knowledge of plants or magic or the Mother Goddess. (As Susun puts it: “The Wise Woman tradition offers self-healing options as diverse as the human imagination and as complex as the human psyche. How confusing!”)
It is confusing. Later in the day, I ask Susun what she means by “the parts of yourself that you find despicable.” She pauses and stares at me intently, suddenly in therapist mode. “What do you mean by that?” she responds. “It’s different for each person.”
I feel caught off guard. My hope in coming here was that she’d give me a ton of miraculous elixirs and then send me on my way in an herb-induced fugue of tranquility. I did not want to talk about my despicable bits, the parts of my consciousness I’d been dousing in motherwort tincture and pointedly ignoring: the sense of erratic nihilism I’d recently developed, which has me constantly vacillating between the impulse to just give up and the impulse to behave insanely because nothing matters anyway, or the fact that I’m deeply bored with my life, stressed and aimless, but too afraid to make a significant change.
“I guess, like, when I’m doing something I know isn’t good for me, I do it anyway,” I offer lamely.
Like most guru-like figures, Susun has a habit of speaking in free-associative parables punctuated with paradoxes. “So, I spend a lot of time in nature,” she begins. “Have you ever seen a tree do anything that isn’t good for itself? A chipmunk?” I haven’t, as far as I can recall, prompting her to cry, “You can’t do something that’s not good for you. You can’t! It’s impossible. That’s your sickness. Your sickness is the belief that you’re doing something that’s not good for you. That’s wholeness. That’s different, isn’t it?
“It’s impossible to be self-destructive,” she continues, turning away as her point becomes more general. “We’re self-protective, but we can be self-protective in ways that need a bit of tweaking.” As for my anxiety, I shouldn’t worry too much about it—it’s a natural response, she tells me, to living in a time of unmitigated disaster and destruction: “If you’re not anxious, you’re not paying attention.”
I feel unusually emotionally volatile for the entire week following my visit with Susun. I aggressively cry at my boyfriend as soon as I get home; I have several lachrymose eruptions at work over the next few days; when I go home for Thanksgiving, laden with five different calming herbal tinctures, I indignantly demand of my mom, “Why is everyone so worried about me!” and immediately burst into tears, proving that everyone was right to be concerned.
I call Susun shortly after this last alarming emotional lapse, feeling unhinged, and tell her that what she said about accepting and loving your entire self (even the horrible parts) had resonated with me, though I am having a hard time processing it. Did she have any difficulty getting to that point?
“All of us do,” she responds. “It’s a daily practice, and every day you have to re-learn it, in a way. Every day you have to commit to it. I had to commit to live in a both/and universe, not an either/or universe. I’m not a good person or a bad person—I’m a person.”
Ever since I first came across Susun, I’ve felt that there’s an insurmountable chasm between our lifestyles—that I’m a person who is stressed and destabilized by virtue of the fact that I would never choose to spend the day contently foraging for herbs, whereas she’s someone who is eternally serene because she’s a benevolent forest-dwelling witch. But one is not born, but rather becomes, a benevolent forest-dwelling witch. Susun wasn't spawned forth, radiant and bandana-clad, from the ether. She made a series of choices: to leave high school, to drop out of college, to move to the country with a young child, to invite thousands of aspiring green witches into her home.
It’s a comforting, if obvious, realization—that one is in charge of one’s own mental state; that guzzling anti-anxiety herbal solutions can only go so far if you’re not willing to commit to sustaining a better, healthier mindset; that seeking stability and calm isn’t a passive act. Hanging up the phone, I feel genuinely calm for the first time in a while. I go downstairs and put a dropperful of motherwort into my water, and sink into the sensation.