Plant Healer Interview:
In dialogue with Jesse Wolf Hardin
Sean Donahue has been a devoted component of Plant Healer and the Medicine of The People/TWH conference since the very beginning, and will be bringing some compelling classes to the upcoming event in Arizona, Sept. 13th through 16th.
Plant Healer Magazine: Welcome, it’s good to be including you here.While we are happy to feature interviews with the most famous of contemporary herbalists, it is also a special commitment of ours to showcase, support and further the work of both younger generations of herbalists and those still less widely known. We applaud all who are making their mark in their own personal style, putting their heart into this work with scant income and very little recognition., and especially those like Sean who prove steadily deepening, expanding and improving… and for a larger, all connecting purpose. You will surely find worth reading our conversation on the present and future of herbalism, Sean’s own healing metamorphosis and the incontrovertible magic of planet and plants.
Healing yourself has been core to your work helping with the healing of others. Was asthma the first big health challenge? How did your conditions advance your thinking about healing, what tangible changes came from it, and how has it informed and influenced your herbal practice and teaching?
Sean Donahue: Asthma and depression were deeply intertwined in my life from the time I was a baby. And connected with my asthma was the story told in both subtle and direct ways by doctors over and over again that my body was broken and there was little that could be done about it — a story I was parroting by the time I was 2. Overlaid with Catholic theology, (which I took deeper and further than the rest of my family because it was the first spiritual outlet I knew), that since that my health problems were intractable led to a pretty profound alienation from my body. And that in turn led me to neglect my health in ways that had me well on my way to heart disease and diabetes by the time I was in my thirties.
When I first encountered Elecampane in January of 2007, that all began to change for me. When I tasted the first few drops of the tincture, I understood innately that instead of just changing a physical process in my respiratory tract, the plant was awakening my body’s knowledge of its own ability to heal. As the Elecampane stimulated my lungs to clear the mucus that was filling them, I felt myself breathing in a new way, and felt myself letting the world in in a new way. And from that experience, I began to relate to my body differently. After years of trying unsuccessfully to punish and shame my body into health, I began to love and celebrate my body into health, taking new pleasure in eating and moving in ways that made me feel stronger and more vital. My body, my sense of self, my life shifted shape.
And this is where I think where some of the most profound healing occurs — in the way plant medicines can shift our experience of our bodies and our sense of our selves in relation to the world around us. In bringing people and plants in contact with each other, what I am doing is facilitating a conversation between two living beings, and what’s communicated in that conversation is information about ways of being embodied in this world. Some of that information comes in the form of phytochemicals that signal changes in the body at a physical level. Some of it is communicated in ways we can’t yet describe in mechanistic terms. But either way its not a passive process, its a process of stirring and guiding and supporting the body’s own capacity to heal.
Plant Healer: What are your fears, how have they affected you and how have you dealt with them?
Sean: My deepest and most abiding fear has been that there is some part of me that can’t be trusted with power, that if I allow myself to be strong, to be confident, to speak my truth, to bring forward all of who I am, that through accident or ignorance or temptation I’ll somehow bring hurt to the people I love. That fear has made me hold back a lot in my life. But I’ve dealt with it by learning to live more and more from my heart. I trust my heart to temper and guide me. And knowing that, I can trust myself to be in the world more fully than I have ever allowed myself to be before.
Plant Healer: How can someone use fears to motivate rather than immobilize themselves?
Sean: We learn to be afraid because we are trying to avoid repeating situations where we can get hurt. I think its important first of all to have compassion for ourselves in that. To recognize that the parts of us that are afraid are trying to protect us, but that sometimes they do that in a misdirected way, responding to the visceral memory a situation evokes rather than to what’s actually happening.
So I think we can work to dismantle the stories around those fears and to bring up and release the emotions tied up with them. Which is delicate work, because it makes the rawest parts of us vulnerable. And it requires a part of ourselves that is ready to be the watcher and the guardian for those parts that were hurt.
And in that process, those parts of ourselves can become more fully integrated, can move into the here and now, and can stop locking away parts of our power from ourselves.
Plant Healer: What are your feelings about herbal education, schools, mentors and teaching ourselves?
Sean: I think there is tremendous value in listening deeply and carefully to the experience of those who have gone before us and those who have been doing this work for a long time — whether its through reading, through formal classwork, through apprenticeship, through conversation, or just through watching the ways they work with plants and people. But ultimately, we all have to make sense of the information out there on our own terms, and ground it in our own direct experience. I believe in ways of teaching that help people develop their own frameworks for understanding and working with plants and people, rather than repeating received knowledge and replicating preset protocols.
Plant Healer: You’ve talked a lot elsewhere about the influence Stephen Buhner has been on your thinking and practice, so tell us who else (contemporary or historical) has been an inspiration, reality check or guiding light… and why.
Sean: Matthew Wood’s re-discovery and re-articulation of the energetics of traditional western herbalism is absolutely brilliant, and has deeply influenced my own understanding of the ways plants work in people’s bodies. And he relates to plants in the same kind of intuitive, poetic way that I do, but brings an incredible precision to that approach that I admire tremendously.
Margi Flint has taught me a tremendous amount about sitting with clients, reading their bodies, hearing their stories, and asking the right questions.
Through them both, I feel the influence and presence of William LeSassier, whom I never had the chance to meet.
I love the ways jim mcdonald conveys complex ideas about energetics in really clear and simple ways. And just knowing that there is an herbalist as original and amazing as he is who has carved out his own path has helped me overcome some of my insecurities about my own lack of formal training.
Kiva’s devotion to bioregional herbalism has greatly inspired me to look at the plants growing around me in new ways.
During the time I worked and taught with Darcey Blue French, I learned a tremendous amount from her about nutrition, food sensitivities, and energetics that changed the way I practice (and the way I eat!)
The herbalists I met in Boston when I was first beginning to see clients — Melanie Rose Flach, Tommy Priester, Madelon Hope, Katja Swift, Iris Weaver — were tremendously gracious in sharing their insights about working with people and plants. Tommy taught me a tremendous amount about coming from the heart and working to help people realize their own innate goodness and perfection. Katja is someone I know I can always turn to for help in seeing a situation from another angle.
Mischa Schuler introduced me to the plants and to my own ability to listen to them.
I look a lot to the great herbalists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — Cook, Lyle, Ellingwood, Thurston, Scudder for the insights they gained working with people and plants every day for decades. And I am grateful to people like Henriette Kress and Paul Begner and Jonathan Treaure for making their work easilly accessible online.
My magical training has been a tremendous influence on my work as an herbalist as well. My teacher, Karina BlackHeart, has continually challenged me and supported me in releasing guilt and shame and fear and embracing love as I stand more and more in the fullness of who I am. She is an inspiration and guide to me as I work with other people to stand in the fullness of who they are. Reaching back through her lineage, I draw on inspiration from Victor Anderson, praying as he did to know myself in all my parts, and on Cora Anderson, who prayed for wild innocence. And through their lineage to generations upon generations of witches and faery doctors and cunning folk stretching back before the beginning of recorded history.
Plant Healer: You’ve also said that the plants themselves are the most important teachers we can have. Please explain to folks what you mean.
Sean: We share common ancestors with plants, and our biology, our chemistry, even our structure of consciousness are similar. They are sentient beings that share the experience of being embodied on this planet. When we make medicine with them, we are not working with some inert substance, we are connecting with something alive. What that encounter will bring will be different for each person. Other people`s experiences can serve as a guide for what to expect and as a reality check to help us differentiate intuition from wishful thinking, but each of us develop our own relationships with the plants we work with. And those relationships are richest and deepest when we get to know each plant on its own terms.
Plant Healer: What have been your most exciting discoveries, amalgamations or realizations since getting into herbs?
Sean: Realizing that the idea that the world is alive and speaking to us is not a metaphor, but a literal reality, and that embracing that reality changes everything about the way you live.
Plant Healer: With the imposition of one official regulation or piece of legislation after another, it seems that the government is slowly making it harder for small businesses to produce and sell herbal preparations, effectively handing the production of plant based medicine over to the same kinds of giant corporations making a mint on pharmaceuticals. And this has been just as true under a Democratic administration as under a Republican. Is it burying our head in the sand, to downplay this threat or even inevitability?
Sean: Its certainly frightening and sad watching small medicine makers shutting down their operations because of the costs and logistics of complying with regulations that don`t really have anything to do with the safety of the medicines they make. The recent FDA threats against Meadowsweet Herbs in Montana were a real wake up call to the herbal community signalling that we may be entering into a period of time when the government does make it a lot harder to buy and sell herbs.
But I also think that its important for us to remember that while many commercial medicine makers provide a great service to our community, and making medicine is one way a lot of herbalists make ends meet financially, herbalism and the herbal products industry are not one and the same. Herbal commerce can be regulated or even shut down by governments. But governments have never succeeded in regulating the relationships between people and the plants around them. Our community will respond and adapt to what`s happening. And in part that will likely mean more herbalists working with the plants of their own bioregion and teaching people how to make their own medicines instead of selling products to them. And that could be a very good thing for both people and plants.
Plant Healer: How would you suggest that we can oppose, affect or mitigate such regulations and policies?
Sean: Honestly I am not sure we can. I am all in favor of people putting energy into grassroots lobbying and public education campaigns, and I think they do have a chance of working. But I also think that much of what is most powerful and transformational about herbalism also makes it inherently subversive, and that we can`t realistically expect the state to legitimize what we do.
Plant Healer: I agree. As in my days as an organizer of Earth First!, I see education as important though never the factor that results in tree saving choice, resistance to injustice and repression as an essential response for any aware and honorable person, and value the effects on us personally even if we are not effective politically.
On the other hand, I agree that it is a lesson of nature and thus plants, that we need to be who we really are, do what we feel called to do, in spite of any repressive regulation or abolition.
So tell me, if we prove unable to prevent such laws, could it be a viable strategy for small producers just to hope they are under the radar and won’t be penalized? Or will it become a matter of the herbalist on the block providing only for immediate family and neighbors, in the healing field’s version of a revolution’s “autonomous cells of resistance”? Any insight or suggestions?
Sean: I think people will get creative, find new ways of sharing knowledge and sharing medicine — some will do business by word of mouth in their own communities, some will teach people to make their own medicine, some will try to stay under the radar, some will openly flout the law. And I think every one of those approaches is legitimate. It’s a highly personal decision.
Plant Healer: I couldn’t resist making a motto for the Medicine of The People/TWH conference “If herbs are outlawed, only outlaws will administer herbs.” Shouldn’t we all be asking ourselves at what point we would surrender our practice or medicine making, and at what point we might prefer to be lawbreakers? Where is your personal line?
Sean: For me personally, the law doesn`t really come into the equation. My commitments are to the plants and the people I work with.
Plant Healer: Good enough.
What do you think are the essential or deeper problems with the institutionalizing and “legitimizing” of herbalism?
Sean: I think there is a great danger that in creating one set of standards that everyone tries to adhere to that we will increasingly favor the repetition of a body of received knowledge and the adherence to a fixed set of protocols over personal engagement with plants and people, sacrificing creativity and diversity,
Plant Healer: Is the field of herbalism in danger of severely contracting if we aren’t legitimized? Do you think that one is more acceptable or bearable than the other, and why?
Sean: I don`t see a need for us to be “legitimized.“ If we live and work with integrity, if we practice our craft with skill and precision, if we treat people with compassion and respect and help them to heal, our work will speak for itself. That`s the only form of legitimacy I think we need. And that has to be built and earned as we go, it can be conveyed by any institution.
Plant Healer: What is your personal definition of “folk herbalism” and what is important about this concept and term?
Sean: To me, Folk Herbalism is the living tradition of working with plants to transform lives through medicine and magic. We take in the knowledge and stories and practices of the people who came before us, combine them with our own experiences and perspectives, and create something that`s relevant to our own time and place. Its an ecological model of creating and passing down knowledge.
Plant Healer: It has the potential to be potentially a powerful vehicle for social as well as environmental change. Talk about this.
Sean: Folk herbalism puts knowledge and medicine into the hands of the communities that use them, rather than making them the province of a limited class of officially recognized experts. It allows people to be full and active participants in their own healthcare. And once people reclaim that kind of authority in one are of their lives, they begin to see the possibilities for liberation and transformation in other realms.
Plant Healer: Most groups or communities of purpose have some kind of mutually agreed upon mission statement, as well as a mostly agreed upon code of ethics. First, how might you describe the shared mission of the herbalist or folk herbalist of today?
Sean: Our work is to support people, communities, and ecosystems in their own natural healing processes.
Plant Healer: Well said.
Plant Healer: What are some of your favorite plants to work with, and why?
Sean: The plants I end up being called to work with tend to be unusual and often somewhat forbidding — Devil’s Club, Skunk Cabbage, Ghost Pipe. They tend to inhabit spaces between worlds – swampy places where earth and water meet in the case of Devil’s Club and Skunk Cabbage, the understory of the forest and the world beneath the forest floor in the case of Ghost Pipe. The process of getting to know each of these herbs well feels like a many layered initiation. Its not that I seek out unusual plants, its just they are the ones that end up calling me.
Plant Healer: You have been writing for Plant Healer Magazine since its inception. What drew you to it, what makes it different from all that preceded it? And what do you believe to be Plant Healer’s distinctive role in or gift to the community?
Sean: Plant Healer is one of the few places where I see science and tradition given equal weight and equal scutiny. And it brings together an amazing community of voices — the best I have seen assembled in print anywhere.
Plant Healer: At this year’s Traditions In Western Herbalism Conference, you’ll be teaching a class on psychedelic or entheogenic plants, as well as herbal first aid to help folks “come down” from an anxious or disconnected trip. Since at least the 1920s, Westerners have been aware of and exploring the potential therapeutic benefits of Psilocybin mushrooms, Datura, Peyote and so on, including my friend Ralph Metzner who worked with Timothy Leary at Harvard. What do you find entheogens can reveal for someone, and how can this aid the emotional and physical healing process?
Sean: Enthogens can help people break free from fixed patterns of thought and emotion — which, in the right conditions, can play a significant role in helping people break free from addictions and heal from trauma. Dr. Gabor Mate is doing amazing work along those lines in Vancouver . . . Of course great care is required here, because putting a person into a disorienting situation can also trigger old traumas or create new ones.
Apart from a therapeutic context, entheogens can help people experience the multiplicity of realities and worlds. And many an herbalist has first discovered the consciousness of plants and fungi when ingesting plants and fungi that alter human consciousness.
Plant Healer: Speak about the mystery and true magic of medicinal plants… and why both mystery and mythos are vital to our experience and evocation of the craft.
Sean: Plants are conscious beings with biologies remarkably similar to our own who live outside the framework of human culture, human judgements, and human assumptions — and so they can help us discover ways of being in this world that are otherwise beyond our imaginations. Poetry and ritual and magic help us connect with plants at a level beneath and beyond linear thinking, allowing them to work their magic at a deeper level. Myths and folktales and folkways contain traces of the history of the ways people and plants have interacted and Waymarkers that show where the road veers off into the crooked path that leads into the wilderness of the heart.
Sean: I see an herbal community where phytochemists and Hoodoo root doctors and Latina curendaras and western herbalists and plant magicians share knowledge and discoveries, recognizing that we are working with the same medicine even if we are using different languages and metaphors and frames. I see people paying careful attention to the health of plant communities, and harvesting only what they need, whether or not a plant is on a list of endangered or threatened species (though I greatly appreciate what United Plant Savers does to identify the most at risk plants.) And I see people developing practices grounded in work with the medicine that grows around them. Plant Healer and the Medicine Of The People (Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference) are already doing a tremendous amount to make this vision a reality. And I think we can each contribute to it by teaching and practicing and living in ways that honor and respond to the living communities, human and ecological, that we are part of.
Plant Healer: You are not in herbalism just to study, teach or serve. Tell us what you love most about herbalism and what you do in particular… what and why you love so much.
Sean: Connecting with plants reminds me that the world is alive and makes me fall in love with its beauty over and over again.
Plant Healer: And there may well be some readers who never attend a class of yours, and perhaps never see another word written by you. If so, what final words would you like to leave them with?
Sean: Plants and people reveal their secrets over time, when met with patience and sincerity. Remember that, and the world will teach you all you need to know.
Plant Healer: We sure appreciate your devotion to this work, and to the conference and Plant Healer. We hope you feel the support.
Sean: I am deeply grateful for your support and for the amazing community you have created.
Sean will be teaching in a few weeks time in Arizona, and you can meet him there. Go to: www.TraditionsInWesternHerbalism.org
For more of Sean’s work and vision, please go to: www.medicineandmagic.com
You can read the much longer interview with Sean in an upcoming issue of Plant Healer. You can subscribe at: www.PlantHealerMagazine.com