The Immune System is a Solar System
She requires an offering, and then the words to be spoken,
When I become a tree.
Lady Ellhorn, give me of thy wood,
And I will give thee of mine,
She has many names, but the northern European pagan traditions believed the spirit of the tree was called Elder Mother. She is protective when respected and vengeful when not. She is the spectrum between two sides, that of healing and harm, what determines is the intention. Her leaves hung from a front door offers the home security, is seen as a good omen if growing nearby, and can be planted strategically to deter hostile magic. On the other hand she hates to be inside and gets angry if brought in. Burning her wood or using it to build is not recommended (when burned it releases cyanogen glycosides, a noxious fume). Medicine and spells can be made from all parts of her, but if not asked for permission to take from her body she is believed to seek revenge.
And if she grants permission, the fruits, flowers and foliage of her body support healing against all kinds of ailments, and is a powerful ally to the human immune system.
The Druids believed she was the guardian of the underworld and the fairy world, and used elder wood in funerary rites. She embodied the transitional state between life and death, waking and dreaming, and because of her connection to death was a symbol and magical tool to process and be with grief.
I’ve been on immunomodulating drugs for 11 years now. The medicine tells the cells called “natural killers” to stop killing, and my inflammatory-responding T cells are suppressed. Autoimmunity means the immune system attacks itself—a confusion of the boundary between self and other. Its strange to fathom that my body has alchemically grown and changed irrevocably from my drugs; and then funny to then again realize that this is the case of all bodies all the time (human or non-human) — we’re not a closed system — on the contrary, things are going in and out and this changes us always irrevocably. Its called living. Even our immune system’s ability to adapt and learn is a vital tool which scientists believe was taken from the DNA of a virus caught by a human long ago down the evolutionary chain. I think through this writing I’m trying to undo some of the binaries that live within me which are a wholly inadequate story of being ill:
infecting/infected natural/unnatural toxic/non-toxic pure/polluted healthy/ill well/unwell…
I can theoretically talk the talk of undoing this stuff but its another thing to actually internalise into the body/mind (years and years of work now)— for example, as far as my medication is concerned I still find myself labelling it “unnatural” and stigmatising my body as “polluted”.
This is all based on my teenage beliefs, bolstered by being a young scifi nerd and stumbling upon some Anarcho-primitivist theory in my late teens, that if civ would collapse I would be shit out of luck because my body was dependent on prescription drugs. I felt this as a weakness, and I was sure that if this happened I would just die; I didn’t see any sick or disabled people living out the apocalypse in any narratives around me. If anything we were the first ones to go, usually quickly, as some kind of symbol that only the strong were gonna survive henceforth. Because of this in my teens I developed my own internalised story that I would die young. At some point as I crossed a boundary into my mid-twenties I realised that this wasn’t necessarily my trajectory, at least as imminently as I believed. As I’ve had a changing relationship to my health, expanded my reading to more supportive topics like disability justice, queer theory and feminist scifi writers, and seen the creative and caring tactics of activists spaces concerned and centring disability in their organising, I’ve slowly been able to challenge my internalised ideas around death from this period.
Though I still find this a pretty common fear from my sick and disabled friends, that we won’t survive the likely difficult years that are ahead. I think, in a larger way, its a problem of the social imagination around sickness, and a problem of a lack of language and space to describe and feel the body on our own terms, through our own narrative, through time.
Eula Biss, author of On Immunity: an Inoculation, writes of meeting scientists and doctors who purposely avoided using military and war terms to describe the body’s immune response.
Biss says instead they liken it to a constant state of balance and imbalance,
The metaphors which they imagined ranged from a symphony to the solar system to a perpetual motion machine to the vigilance of a mother.
This refusal to use the language of “invaders” and “defenders” feels radical to me as a body who is not able to “defend” itself so well most of the time. Using the imagination a strategy to create a different picture of an internal landscape feels like a step in re-narrativizing illness. Poetry doesn’t negate the medical and pharmaceutical industrial complex, and illness is not a metaphor, however, we live in a languaged world, and the language we use to talk about ourselves and our bodies matters. It is affectual and is the way I am ultimately in living relationship to myself.
Earlier this week I fell asleep under an elder tree in the park. It was one of those weirdly warm winter days that have become the norm in the last years. The park was full of people and dogs. My body had began making signs, familiar symptoms of something getting worked out, nausea, vomiting behind a bush, dizziness. So I found a sunny patch and some soft grass under the elder’s gnarled branches. I let things go on inside with less input from the outside.
Maybe because of her liminal place between life and death, sickness and health, I woke up grounded and able to think clearly for the first time in days.
There is a theory I read scrolling online late one night that the development and proliferation of Crohn’s is linked to the rise in the last century of antibiotic drugs and anti-biotic products being over used, lowering the amount of helpful biodiversity in our micro-biome. In a recent study antibiotics were found in rivers and other fresh bodies of water in two-thirds of the test sites in 72 different countries. This can lead to mass die outs of animal populations living in the water as well as can lead to bacteria becoming resistant to life-saving medication. I have had to take a lot of antibiotics, most immune suppressed people do. We can’t fight infections well and it is easier for the infection to spread and become critical quickly. I have started a ritual when I am on antibiotics of sending gratitude to the bacteria that will be lost from the medication.
There are about, on average, a 100 trillion bacteria in or around your body at this very moment. Microflora digests food and aids in absorption of nutrients, teaches our immune system how to function, and protects us from unhelpful outside organisms. And as Sandor Katz’s, a radical gay fairy, a long-term HIV/AIDs survivor, advocate and self described “fermentation fetishist”, beautifully writes in his book Wild Fermentation,
Not only are we dependent upon microorganisms, we are their descendants: According to the fossil record, all forms of life on Earth spring from bacterial origins. Microorganisms are our ancestors and our allies.
Many products are anti-bacterial that need not be, mostly in the name of hygiene. The legacy of hygiene is one riddled with power, domination and fear of the other. To cleanse, and be cleansed is connected to ideas of purity, holiness, and absolution, propagated by Christianity, the State, and social norms. Propaganda around dirt and filth has been (and is still) used to support eugenical practices, colonise, enslave and dominate by white western imperialism.
The Elder Mother felt this violence too.
Her power was so great she was vilified. In the 14th century William Langland’s, author of Piers Plowman, gave her the name “Judas Tree” writing that Judas hung himself from the branch of an elder with guilt after betraying Jesus. It was also said that the cross Jesus was crucified on was constructed of elder. These two associations are thought to have been drawn as Christianity swept across Europe, rebranding and persecuting many pagan belief systems and symbols. The tree gleaned an association with devil worship and witchcraft, but it was difficult to stamp out her rooted stories completely, so she clung to some of her old powers. It was said to be bad luck to burn an elder because the devil would come down your chimney for revenge. Amulets worn by the living and crosses for the dead were made from her for protection.
I had a dream recently I am walking near a lake in the winter at night. The water is iced over, and there is snow everywhere. Suddenly I see a giant elder tree full of vibrant berries even though its winter. They are all very high up the tree so I begin to climb its branches. I find the bark is the consistency of foam, I struggle to keep a grip and eventually fall, my hand full of clumps of the bark. Sitting under the tree after falling, the berries are gleaming in the moonlight. As I appreciate how beautiful they look up there, one by one they begin to fall onto the ground around me.
I want to reclaim my teenage feelings of weakness. I want to imagine a beautiful and difficult chain of vulnerability and need forming and wrapping around human and nonhuman life. Its not a new concept , but one that white Western thought has really tried to strangle. Every winter I drink elderberry juice when I feel particularly open to virus and am amazed at the medicine her body gives.
I celebrate the Elder in all her raging magnificent glory. Abject femininity, wisdom, excess, oozing sweet berries, smelly leaves, support for healing, rejection of the tame, destroyer of binary thinking, time traveler, care worker, resiliency of a weed, an ability to grow in the underbrush, near ditches, wrinkled, dressed to a T, joking, anger, love, perversity, the crone guarding life, sickness, sex and death. Teaching self-respect, respect for all beings, and loving but clear boundaries. She’s everything; the calling song that we’re all everything, if only we are open enough to notice.
connecting to liquid meditation
Tapping into and connecting to our body can allow the nervous system to regulate. Often when anxiety activates the nervous system it can trigger fight, flight, freeze or numb responses. As we go through a global trauma and our own daily struggles, its normal to find yourself anxious and your body responding to that. With this meditation, I wanted to offer some tools to navigate this possibility, or even if you are not struggling with anxiety at the moment, as a possibility to reconnect to yourself. This meditation brings the listener into the depth of their circulatory system to connect with their blood and other imagined liquids to create movement and flow.
w r i t i n g m e d i t a t i o n t h r o u g h t i m e:
∞ ☼ ⇆ visualize yourself in 50 years ⇆ ☼ ∞
what context do you live in? what is your relationship to others? where do you live? what are your priorities? what surrounds you and what do you surround yourself with? how does your future self send information through time?
write a message from your future self to your present self. be as detailed or vague as desired. notice what the future self addresses as focal points to guide your present self.
take the message and send it in the way that is most appropriate — by burning, through wind, email, burying, postage etc.
amongst the strongest efforts of earth-exit corporations to colonise mars, there are many, by necessity, belief and love that have not given up on earth.
you don’t need to know the specifics of who the players are on either side, you can guess the lineages as they stand in your time; history is a spiral after all.
i’m making this contact not to tell you how to act in my past to effect your future, but because i remember how i (you, we) felt in 2018 — your present. the swaths of bleakness that would overwhelm and veil possibility; ultimately, as the activist and writer adrienne maree brown said of the time, “this is an imagination battle”, and she was completely correct.
i remember vividly. i (we) are 26 years old, learning the power of your (our) body for the first time after a life of reconciling with illness, gender and depression. within the capital driven tech wasteland of that time you (i) were finding joy in the technology of breathing practices to facilitate feeling, the first inklings that this might be a way to connect through time and space, to make space—physically in the bodymind — in all that can mean. i’m breathing this message to you now, and you’re feeling it forwards.
in the place i (we) now live is called the Edge. here we grow and live on a track of land deemed by the state “toxic and unusable”, too broken for either border to claim ownership, the land outweighs their limits of responsibility. our community is deemed a death sentence so it is not seen as a threat, though our approaches to being human attack the still popular belief that humans can exist outside the environment. a belief we find to be deeply false. they let us live because they think this land will poison us, however we live here because the dichotomy of life within the bordering states— of sealed pristine buildings for the rich and then absolute poverty for everyone else, the siphoning of resources towards leaving and giving up on the planet all together — is poisoning us all.
in 2025 this track of land housed an experimental atom modifier, which during its explosion, causing a chemical spill in a nearby plant. these two haphazard, hazardous events have chemically altered my body forever. cancer and autoimmune conditions are frequent in our community, though we have treatment and healers. often those from the outside villainize us for raising children here, but when we look at the death rates the cities are comparable. our death sentences are not so different, just differently framed. potent toxicity of the Edge is just a another offspring of human’s century long imbuing practices.
we celebrate death as we do new life, the two deeply connected. we do this as well through honoring the changing seasons, even though they themselves have changed dramatically, the meaning of spring or winter felt completely differently from the previous meanings the words held. mourning is a consistent practice and new rites and rituals next to the old have surfaced to hold the inherited grief we bear.
while we accept the land is killing us faster, we feed it medicine by planting species with an ability to up-take the contamination in the soil — sunflowers, eucalyptus, moss, lichens, plantain. we grow our food above ground and wear gloves when dealing with the ground soil hoping one day we won’t have to protect ourselves, but accepting that day might never come.
when we made home here it was a commitment to try a new way, not by reinventing the wheel but through combining our knowledges, talents, skills and by calling on the wisdom of all our ancestors — asking and listening to how they persevered through hardship and horror yet found a way. some of us who had privilege and power before were asked to listen more and those who had been silenced by power spoke. toxic cultures can be changed. it’s slow, but possible, and we are still learning.
illness here is centred, and respected. in your time disability was a common term, but here we simply deal in needs and access, and try to make space for all to be met.
when you (i, we) were 15 we dreamed of a spiralling garden. when we were 15 we strongly believed the end of the world would happen during our lifetime, so much so our parents thought us mad. when we were 15 we learned the limitations, and to distrust our body.
the first we found our way to.
the second was partially right but learned along the way the complexity of that feeling. as writer, spoken-word artist, and indigenous academic leanne betasamosake simpson says, “it’s been the end of the world for somebody all along.”
and the third a powerful lesson in integration and love you’re still having as i send this, and will continue to have all your life i reckon, or at least i’m still having it now.
it’s hard to know how to address. i am you and you are me, but through time we’ve changed. i am not you and you are not me in some way. fifty years has aged our body, in some capacities i can do less and in other ways infinitely more.
it doesn’t get better, it gets much much harder. one day the internet connection will go out, will you be ready for that? one day gps will all but stop except for the military, a terrifying moment of strategic oppression.
shortly some advice: keep a map of your area. learn to grow food. gather your people, have conversations of what you will do when crisis happens. forge relationship with the land even if you don’t know how (ultimately you do, its a part of you, that knowledge is in all of us). save some extra of your drugs, hormones, keep a first aid kit, know how to use it, and get in relationship to your local doctors and healers. eat together. block to protect. cultivate your inner-world. find what feeds you and gives you pleasure. all too often through these last years we have sacrificed joy for survival, only to remember again and again that joy drives survival.
don’t trust the police, the strongholds of power, false gods or celebrity culture. don’t haphazardly give your information away. this is not in dogma, enjoy the strangeness of your time, just flex your muscles in other ways of being because the ways of your time will not last long.
an incredible deepening will be needed and i want you to be ready for this to survive the coming times (for us, i wasn’t ready in many ways, but this is our history together. time’s in movement even if we’re not prepared for the way it moves, it’s more about being adaptable and trusting intuition in the moment). what’s waiting on the other side is unthinkable, pleasurable, and full of struggle. it’s worth fighting for but it will be a fight, but beyond the fog is a spiralling garden if you find the will to learn to how to plant it.
backwards and forwardly yours,
The Politics of Trauma by Staci K. Haines: Haines is a big inspiration for my somatics practice. She is one of the founders of generative somatics, a political somatics school which trains practitioners to work with activists and organizers. Her work interrogates the notion of individualistic healing and shows how healing is interconnected.
I’d like to point to another zine called Physically Distant // Connected by Care from the collective Power Makes Us Sick. The zine offers emotional support methods, thoughts on action, and herbal support amongst more. PMS’s other zines are filled with research into autonomous healthcare presently and historically, so it’s a good dive to understand the foundations of collective care and mutual aid. You can find the group’s zines here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elder Tree Folklore: Part 1- https://normsfarms.com/blogs/growing-and-harvesting-elderberry/elder-tree-folklore-part-1
 Including, that I know of — topically — for bruising, sore muscles, pain relief, irritation, and — internally — as a bioflavonoid-rich antiviral which can be used for sinusitis, ear pain, kidney support, blood circulation, coughs, colds, allergies, hay fever, fever, and flu.
 Biss, Eula. On Immunity: an Inoculation. Graywolf, 2015. pg 57
 Specifically Mercaptopurine, a drug given to cancer and auto-immune diseased patients, typically for Crohn’s and Colitis. The drug was discovered by Gertrude B. Elion and George H. Hitchings and approved for use in 1953. The collaboration was initiated by Cornelius P. Rhoads who ran the chemical weapons program for the US army and was involved in the devising of the use of nitrogen mustards as a chemotherapy agent (sourced this from wiki). In relation to immune suppressing treatments MP-6 is quite mild, I am considered lucky, and I feel this. However, I do fear the long term risks associated with the drug (ie a possible risk of cancer), as well as question the diagnostic framework that doctors push onto Crohn’s patients, and many with “non-curable” chronic illnesses — that medicating for life is the only way to manage the illness even though I literally know people with Crohn’s who have diverse treatments, a range of prescriptions and holistic methods.
 At some point, besides finding less macho and much more intersectional scifi, I also realized that the potential of speculative fiction and scifi lives in the fact that the writer can build desired worlds, and build worlds that can fit bodies. For me some great example will always be Marge Piercey’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Ursala K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, Louis Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, “N. K. Jeminsin’sBroken Earthtrilogy… stories which propose other ways of living despite and against oppressive powers which have shaped the context.
 #eugenics #socialdarwinism
 Questions I ask in retrospect — How much of this inability to imagine the future was also young queer feelings? Young trans feelings? Young depressed feelings?
 At some point this also meant dealing with the disappointing feeling that I might be on drugs forever. This bind to the pharmaceutical industry is one that I fantasised an escape from, much like its hard not to fantasise escape from the world as is — but this politics of exit (which I found in anarcho primitivism) did not age well, I cannot escape my body, and I do not want to escape or leave those who can also not function without medical care. And honestly that is most of us, even the temporarily abled.
 Like many texts about illness, I will evoke the spirit of Susan Sontag.
 Antibiotic Use Tied To Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, Linda Thrasybule – https://www.reuters.com/article/us-antibiotic-crohns-idUSTRE78P4Z320110926
 The non-white, feminine, sick, disabled, gender-ambiguous, fat etc