Juliet Blankespoor – Herbalist Interview
The following is a 2,600 words-long excerpt of a great Plant Healer interview Wolf conducted with herbalist/gardener/teacher Juliet Blankespoor. You can look forward to a 5,800 word version in the next (Summer) issue of Plant Healer Magazine. The entire, full length 8,000 word conversation can only be found in our new book of interviews, “21st Century Herbalists,” what I consider to be the premier book of interviews with 21 of the most compelling practitioners alive today. I’ll be posting a full review here soon, and you can now pre-order a special hardcover limited edition from the site: www.PlantHealerMagazine.com –Kiva Rose
21st Century Herbalists Interview Excerpt:
In Conversation with Jesse Wolf Hardin
Intro: There is a greater than normal percentage of huge-hearted people in the plant medicine and wild foods community, of which there is no finer example than Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine‘s Juliet Blankespoor, a plant obsessed, mushroom hunting, herb growing, samba dancing teacher, totally adored by her grateful students. Her understanding of botany, anatomy, physiology and herbal actions is great, balanced by her relaxed teaching manner and the bliss and passion she exudes. A lifelong ecoactivist, her herbalism is deeply rooted in bioregionalism and deep ecology, celebrating both plant diversity, and diversity among our tribe. We’re happy to announce that she will be writing a regular column in every future issue of Plant Healer Magazine (www.PlantHealerMagazine.com), plus we’ll be bringing her back to Herbal Resurgence Rendezvous in September, this time teaching a class on bioflavonoids and a sensory-enlivening field botany hike. You can register now at: www.HerbalResurgence.org.
Jesse Wolf Hardin: When I think of you, Julietta, the first thing I think of is love. I don’t mean our affection for you, but rather, your exuberant affection for the earth and the plants that spring from it and anchor to it, your evident love of life and learning, teaching and healing. Where does such love come from, what sustains it, and what does it give you in return?
Juliet Blankespoor: I have been blessed in countless ways, with the good fortune of health and home, and a loving community of family and friends. Not a day has gone by in my life where I wanted for food, clothing or shelter. That’s not to say that I haven’t had my hardships and struggles, but those experiences have truly strengthened my gratitude for all that is good in my life and in the world. I am also a highly sensitive and empathetic person and am often greatly affected by the suffering of our times. This pain, however, only motivates me to work more towards the healing of our culture and the Earth in a spirit of brightness. There are many aspects of my mind and heart still enshrouded with fear, which, for me, typically manifests as anger. And yet I am continually strengthened in my efforts to build love and kindness in my own character, I believe peace for all beings and the Earth starts in our own minds and hearts.
The love of plants has been my saving grace. My passion for herbs blossomed at a very low point in my life, when I was consumed with self-doubt and addictive behaviors. Making friends with plants filled a great void in my life, assuaging a deep loneliness and longing. I am forever grateful to have a calling and passion that sustains and motivates me every day. Like many a plant person, I often find it easier to relate to photosynthetic organisms than humans. My kinship with plants fills me with connection and belonging. I hope that I can share some of that beauty with my students and the world at large.
Wolf: What best distinguishes or defines your way of practicing and teaching herbalism?
Juliet: Helping people establish healthier patterns and meet their personal health goals is the bulk of my practice as an herbalist. I teach this approach to my students, as beginning herbalists often have the tendency to quickly recommend herbs without addressing the underlying factors that create imbalance. I like to have fun with my clients, joking when appropriate, and also letting them know that I am not perfect, and am not looking for perfection in their habits, diet and compliance. I aim to be a present listener and go into the consultation without preconceived ideas around their lives, disorders, or treatment. Sometimes I am the first person who has ever fully heard them talk about their body, and that in itself is a precious and healing gift. It is common for clients to feel open in this safe space, and thus reveal intense emotions around their relationships, life, or history. I have learned to schedule two hours for clients in case the need to move through heavy issues arises. I limit the number of people I see because of the intimacy of my practice, and also because I teach full time. Much of my practice is helping students with their intakes, as we review over 60 case stories each year.
I like to work with plants I have a direct relationship with and feel this strengthens my medicine. In fact, it is a big part of the medicine. I look to tradition, scientific inquiry, and my personal experience and intuition in helping to form connections between clients and healing plants. Understanding the human body and disease process is a big part of my work as well. With my students, I try to impart a general sense of curiosity and love for the green world and the human body; I feel this to be a solid foundation for any herbalist.
Wolf: What are the most important subjects different kinds of herbalists can focus on? And the most important skills?
Juliet: I think this depends on one’s aim. What kind of herbalist does one aspire to be? To know a handful of herbs intimately, is of more benefit than knowing a hundred plants superficially. Personally, I believe it’s important to find an energetic or constitutional system of medicine that you resonate with and apply yourself to learning it within the framework of your local herbs. A good understanding of disease process, nutrition, human anatomy and physiology is also indispensable.
Wolf: What are some less specifically herbal related abilities and skills that you consider important for an herbalist to develop and utilize?
Juliet: To be fully present while listening to people’s health stories. Maintaining compassion without taking on others’ illness or suffering. Clear boundaries and intentions. Recognizing one’s limitations and honoring one’s word. Knowing general danger signs and when someone must seek conventional medical care. Understanding that our clients have an innate knowledge of their healing needs.
It is important to know that herbal medicine may just be one part of a person’s healing path, and thus honor other modalities, including conventional medical care and pharmaceuticals. We must be careful to not harm our clients through the furthering of our personal herbal agendas.
Wolf: What do you tell folks who say they would love to grow a proportion of their plant medicines, but they don’t live on rural acreage? What about community gardens with shares, container gardening, indoor gardening?
Juliet: If space is limited, consider growing perennial plants with aerial parts as the medicinal portion- these plants will typically yield the most medicine for the allotted space. Mints, Bee Balm, Anise Hyssop, Holy Basil, Mullein, Gotu Kola, Southern Ginseng, Spilanthes, and Yarrow are good choices for small gardens. Community gardens are another great option; if you specialize in growing medicinal and culinary herbs, consider trading with your vegetable-growing garden neighbors. I will caution against growing medicinal or edible plants close to the foundation of older homes as the soil often contains lead and residue from pesticide spraying; the plants will bio-accumulate these toxins.
Wolf: I am concerned about any herbalist who feels no exchange of information or mutual recognition when engaging a plant. At the other extreme, I worry about the dangerous miscommunications that can result from projecting our own thoughts, hopes and fantasies onto plants whose needs, priorities and very “language” are their own, not ours. I know of the case of a man who almost died from ingesting a highly toxic species after he believed it had told him it was okay. And I am frankly disturbed whenever someone presumes a plant is telling them it is happy to sacrifice its life in order to ease their ailments. What do you think?
Juliet: I cannot know what it is to be a plant, and am only able to conceptualize their reality within the framework of my own human experience. As with all life forms, plants invest a huge amount of energy into their survival and reproduction, but perhaps they are more in tune with the web of life and the energy that moves through cycles of death and birth. I will always favor harvesting part of a plant so it can live and regenerate if at all possible, but part of being a human is taking life, and I have made peace with that. I do ask permission from plants before harvesting them and sometimes I feel a willingness from the herbs and sometimes I get a definite feeling of no. At times I wonder if I am projecting my own feelings and thoughts into the situation, but still I ask, as it gives me greater humility and appreciation for my medicine.
Wolf: What herbalist attitudes, assumptions or popular misconceptions do you see as problematic?
Juliet: I find that many practitioners of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine believe that western herbalists have no framework of energetics, and thus are limited in their abilities. I also see how easily herbalists and the public are swayed into believing that exotic herbs are superior to the abundant plants from our own bioregion. I am especially concerned about food dogmatism, as it doesn’t address genetic, constitutional, and spiritual diversity of dietary needs.
Wolf: Science and botany are sometimes looked at with derision by herbalists, just as scientists are often suspicious or even hateful of earth centered spirituality (“Woo-Woo”), anything bordering on “magic,” and even herbalism itself. But a sense of the miraculous would seem essential to scientific inquiry, and scientific method, research and understanding vital to even the most “heart centered” or “intuitive” herbal practice. Please address the relationship of science and spirit, science and folk herbalism?
Juliet: Wow, that is such a big question with an infinite number of possible responses, even from myself. I am naturally curious, and a Virgo to boot, so botany is right up my alley in the way that everything is more ordered within the context of taxonomy (everything in its proper place, just like I enjoy my home). Science springs from an innate human curiosity of the world, and also encompasses the human tendency to explain. I don’t see it at odds with spirituality. In fact, it is the detailed intricacies of biology that gets me the most excited in life. I think one possible limitation lies in believing that the unexplainable and nonreplicable aren’t real. Believing only in scientifically proven phenomenon of the world originates, I believe, from repulsion to the blind belief inherent in many forms of religion. So many people have been hurt by organized religion and have thus clung to scientific validation as the only form of reality in our world. Science is only as good as the humans engaging with it, and we all know humans have some room for improvement!
Wolf: One of the classes you are teaching at Herbal Resurgence in 2013 is on field botany, something Kiva and I consider very important. Please tell our readers why and how botany and plant identification are important in the practice of herbalism… and how truly fun and marvelous both can be.
Juliet: The more we can recognize patterns in plants, the more intimate and connected we are to the green world. If we learn the terms connected to these patterns, we can communicate with others. Some of the terms are obtuse, but let’s forgive our ancestors and get on with it. Think of it as learning a secret code that only plant geeks can communicate with. If we want to forage for wild herbs or food, then correct identification is necessary. Plus, looking at flowers through a hand lens is so juicy, who wouldn’t want to do it until their eyes got too sore?
Describe your feelings about the certification or registration of herbalists, intended to qualify and legitimize plant practitioners? What are the problems around exclusion and elitism, and what might the solutions be?
Juliet: I understand the needs of the public in determining the qualifications and competency of a practitioner, however I am not in favor of licensing or certifying herbalists. I think licensing has the potential to benefit a few practitioners and exclude many more due to politics, differing practices, or an inability to conform to standards or protocols. Licensing can create the possibility of setting up limitations, as seen in our midwifery communities. Nurse midwives have many protocols they must follow or they will lose their license. There is little flexibility to tailor their practices to each unique birth. Losing one’s ability to practice is a strong incentive to toe the line— in our community it means the nurse midwives have much higher rates of interventions and cesarean births as compared to the non-licensed midwives.
I am however open to the dialogue, and really just want herbalists to have the freedom to practice in their own way. Herbalists can seek professional membership in the American Herbalist Guild, and perhaps that is enough of a “certifying” system. I am grateful to be able to practice though, even without seeking such a status myself.
Wolf: The clinical model (public and private clinics) has been an effective service model, but there are others… and there will need to be alternatives if herbal regulation or prohibition become intolerable, or if there’s the predicted economic or other system collapse. What are the alternatives now, and what possibilities do you envision?
Juliet: Many herbalists have worked outside the monetary system, instead choosing to barter their services and medicines for other goods and services needed. I believe reciprocity is important in most healing work, but it certainly doesn’t need to involve money. In exchange for my teaching, herbal services, plants and medicine I have received fresh vegetables, meat, eggs, milk, massage, carpentry, cleaning, gardening, cooking, medicine making, clothes repair, office work, pottery, canned goods, mead, childcare, clothes, crystals and plants and medicine I did not already have. Bartering is so incredibly fun and basic, and can meet a lot of our needs! Traditionally, most healing has taken place at home – at either the patient’s or the practitioner’s house. Many herbalists, such as myself, still see people in this model. If the world ever changes to the point where most people do not have access to mass produced pharmaceutical or herbal medicines, the need for people who know the local herbs and wild foods will be great.
Wolf: Given the troubling and challenging times we are entering, do you believe there’s an imperative to expand the role of herbalism beyond a simple healing practice – to a counterculture that could serve as a counterbalance and tribal/grassroots alternative to the status quo, help enliven a new earth-based mythos, empower resistance to injustice, contribute to at least localized ecological health, and impart some boogie and joy?
Juliet: Bring it on!
Wolf: It’s been a pleasure to talk with you like this, an honor to host you as a teacher, and a blessing to have your support and alliance. Thank you so much, Julietta!
Juliet: What an honor for me, I am deeply appreciative of all you and Kiva Rose create for the herbal community, and the spirit, art, and wisdom you bring to the table.
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