“Give me, for my life,
give me all the pain
I’m going to turn it into hope.
all the joys,
even the most secret,
how will these things be known?
I have to tell them,
for that’s what I sing”
Herbalism is a curious field, a mishmash of healthcare, botany, plant obsession, counseling, nutrition, ecology, and countless other labels that cross back and forth over the indeterminate borders of what it means to be an herbalist. Listening to students, friends, teachers, and countless practitioners I hear many impassioned definitions and statements about what it means to be an herbalist. Impassioned to the point of stirring up unease, argument, and the drawing of metaphorical lines in the sand about what is and isn’t and how it “should be”. I have my own take, of course, based in my perspective and experience, but first and formost I look to what nature itself illustrates as a priority, which is always and ever diversity. It’s not just a way of covering all the bases, it’s also the most effective approach to adapativity and growth. And so we are as a community: a wild and, at times, unkempt mix of scientists and sensualists, academics and artists, farmers and feral creatures. Sometimes all in the body of a single person.
This multi-faceted element is part of what makes our community so beautiful, because it’s not just about being a clinician or a teacher, a wildcrafter or a botanist. It’s the many-colored spectrum that forms around the plant-person relationship where each color and tone enhance and improve the overall composition. As humans, we’ve evolved to be in love with the complex and lovely light-eating creatures that inhabited earth long before our own species first knew what it was to breathe in the heady perfume of a wild rambling rose. As herbalists, this relationship is intensified even further. In some ways, it’s difficult to imagine a relationship more intense than the existing one we require to breathe, to eat, to thrive. And yet, we plant obsessed folks do manage to make almost every moment of every day an act of devotion to the green world.
Whatever form that takes for us, whatever trail we follow through the ancient forest that is our territory and temple as herbalists, adds another element of complexity and beauty.
For myself, as a bit of a hermit and deviant in my own right, I find the plants a source of solace and wisdom, and ever the point of connection that brings me back to the earth I belong to. Not only that, but the plants also provide an integral and precious link to others of my own species, and my most intimate and joyous sharings with other humans nearly always revolve around the wonder and effect of kingdom Plantae. The healing therein, not just from the ingestion of prepared herbal medicine, but also from the simple act of being near to the plants themselves, remains a critical catalyst for the ways in which I serve place and people. Whenever I feel lost, bereft of hope or help, shadowed by the weight of world politics and warfare, I find myself with my arms wrapped around an evergreen oak, my face pressed against furrowed bark and soft lichen. Reaffirming this lifeline that exists not only in sorrow but also in celebration under the shade of Alders and Junipers where my family feasts and marks each seasonal festival and special day.
Sure, plants are made up of constituents that can be measured to have a physiological impact on the human body. This is a part of the medicine, but not the whole of it. While we can name constituents and pathologies, what we cannot measure is the magic that binds plant to person and forms the weave that holds us all together. That creates the cartography of herbalism, and what it means to practice the healing arts.
To me personally, herbalism is an everyday act of devotion. For the people, for the plants, for myself.