New Plant Healer Columnist: Phyllis Light – Appalachian Herbalist
It’s important that Plant Healer Magazine not have so many columnists that room runs out for contributions from others. Last time we announced the addition of quarterly contributions from Susun Weed… and this round, we found we couldn’t resist adding just one final column:
Mountain Medicine: Traditional Healing Folkways
by Phyllis Light
Phyllis D. Light (http://phyllisdlight.com) is one of the foremost repositories and champions of both traditional Southern Appalachian herbalism and folk herbalism in general. We are so happy to have her insightful and personable articles every issue, covering everything from plant profiles and medicine making to childhood tales and poignant history, case studies and thoughtful ruminations, the practices that grew out of her wooded Southeastern mountains and hollers, and valuable and endangered plant-medicine traditions from all parts of this country and beyond.
What a pleasure it was for Kiva and I to meet Phyllis in person at last year’s Traditions In Western Herbalism Conference, and to look forward to having her there to teach again this September. She is discerning and opinionated while still being warm, accessible, humorous, unpretentious and seemingly free of entitlement… in every sense, what we would call “down to earth!”. Below is an excerpt from an interview we did with her Fall of 2011, one that you’ll likely find informative and inspiring whether you happen to be an herbalist or not. To read the entire 8,000 word conversation, including Phyllis’ detailed description of Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine blood typing, please see the Winter Issue of Plant Healer Magazine, available by going to the Plant Healer site:
Plant Healer Interview:
SOUTHERN APPALACHIAN HERBALIST
In dialog with Jesse Wolf Hardin
Plant Healer Magazine: Thank you, Phyllis, for taking time for this conversation. We honored to have this opportunity to talk more with and about you, and to hear your heart and mind on topics you might not otherwise have cause to address. Let’s start at the beginning if you please – what do you remember as your first deep connection with the natural world? When did you begin acknowledging nature as a teacher?
Phyllis Light: My first deep connection with plants came when I was about five or so. I was too young to help pick cotton so my mother let me run around the field and play hide and seek with the kids of the other field hands. There was a strip of grassy meadow land between the cotton field and the woods filled with sedge grass, golden rod, asters and passionflower and it was here that I hid. If you lay flat in a field of sedge grass no one can see you and there isn’t any apparent ripple in the flow of the grass to give you away. I hid very well and no one found me and the next thing I knew, the other kids had left and I was left alone. At first, I was a little scared, it was such a big cotton field and there were no adults in sight. It was a vast land of cotton rows and emptiness. I could hear the wind through the trees, the buzz of insects but nothing else. It was eerily quiet.
I didn’t know what to do, I felt very alone, very small and just a little afraid. So I just lay in the sedge grass and stared at the leaves on the trees, all moving together in the wind. I watched the clouds moving across the sky. I listened to the sound of the grasshoppers jumping among the grass stalks. I don’t know how long I lay there, not moving, just being. I wasn’t scared any longer, or upset. Just quiet and a little subdued. I had become part of the land, the cotton rows, the meadow and the woods. We were the same.
I didn’t move until Momma came looking for me and then I leaned over and pulled a ripe maypop (passionflower) and ate it as we walked back to where she had left her pick sack.
I can’t remember a time when Nature wasn’t a companion, a friend, benefactor or teacher and sometimes, an enemy. Nature can be loving and generous and it can be hard and cruel. I grew up well aware of the dual aspect of the natural world taught in early lessons of survival. If there was no rain, the crops didn’t grow and we didn’t have anything to eat. If the wind blew too hard, the corn stalks lay on the ground. If it rained too much at the wrong time of year, there would be no cotton crop. If we were in the path of a tornado, we could be homeless or dead. And then there are those wondrous days, when the sun is shining, the wind is gentle and the temperature mild. All of creation responds to those days.
We lived in flow with the seasons; the sun and the moon and the natural rhythms guided our lives. We followed the growth cycles of the plant world keeping track of the abundance or lack of wild plants for wildcrafting. Some years were ginseng years when the digging was good. Some years were pink root years when the digging was good. My grandparents chronicled their life history with stories about senging, herb digs and natural phenomenon.
When you live with the flow of seasons, Nature is a constant companion. A lover, a mistress, a child or a relative. You are not separate. I have never considered myself separate from Nature; we are part and parcel.
Plant Healer Magazine: Was your love of nature and plants the bridge to doing healing work with herbs? What other vision, insight or events might have led to your giving your life so fully to this work?
Light: My love of Nature wasn’t what called me to healing work. My love of Nature is a solid force, a constant influence in my life, and it would be a part of me regardless of my profession. As a child, I knew that I would help people when I grew up but I wasn’t sure how. Using herbs was just a natural extension of my early training and that belief. My grandmother taught me, my grandfather taught me, and my father taught me. In a way, it was the family business.
Over the years, I’ve used many different tools to help people; herbs, bodywork, psychology, energy, nutrition, metaphysics, prayer, or whatever works. I will use whatever is available, on-hand, or needed to help someone.
I’ve been seeing people since I was about 19. In the beginning it was a more casual arrangement. People didn’t make an appointment, they just dropped by and Sunday afternoons after church was especially busy. At that time, being an herbalist was a lot like being a lay preacher. You didn’t get paid. It was your gift and your calling and it should be freely given. But one event sent a clear message that it was time to change the way I did practice.
I was a single parent going through a divorce. Life was tough with four kids and not much money. I had been feeling really depressed for several weeks wondering how I was going to make ends meet. One early morning I went to the grocery store dressed rather raggedly and looking a little unkempt. I was slowly pushing my cart up and down the grocery aisle wondering what to buy when I passed a woman dressed rather like the Amish, in a long dress, with long sleeves and bonnet.
I paid for my few purchases and went home. As I was unloading the car the same woman pulled into the driveway. She came to me and held out her hand. I held out my hand in return and she put a wad of money in it. “God told me that you are doing good work. And we’ve a little extra money this month.” That’s all she said and before I could even say thank you, she had turned and gone. I was totally flabbergasted; it was enough money to make it through the month. After that event, I suddenly had a full-time herbal practice. But how I came to charge people is another story.
There was a camp revival meeting in an empty field not far from my house. About mid-afternoon, three women appeared at my door looking for the herbalist’s house. When I told them they had the right house all three wanted appointments. After their appointments were finished, one of the women asked how much they owed. I told them nothing, no charge. Another of the women asked me to pray with them and they all stood up and we circled. After the prayer, the third woman said that God told her that I should charge $25.00 for each appointment and open a big office to see folks. They went back to the tent revival and told everyone about me and for the next few days, I was deluged with clients from the tent revival. When the revival was over, I drove to the closest large town, found an office and opened a practice. I was busy.
It seems I’ve always had guidance along the way.
Plant Healer Magazine: I consider strong sense of place essential for any life or purpose, committing to the land and its human and other-than-human cultures, and being accepted, informed and nourished by the land in turn. What does it mean, to be a conscious inhabitant and member of the Southeastern mountain region?
Light: Wow… big question. Sometimes it’s really hard to maintain my equilibrium in the face of stripping mining, coal mining, clear-cutting, planes spraying cotton defoliate, polluted lakes and rivers and all the other ways that we humans have of defiling the very land that gives us life. In the South, there seems to be this love/hate relationship with the land. Folks truly, truly love their land even while they are strip mining it. They will tell you how much they love the mountain while they are clear-cutting it. I don’t understand the gestalt….. maybe it’s a cognitive disconnect, but folks here just won’t believe that what they do to the earth is reflected in their health. They also don’t believe that we can ever permanently damage the earth. And of course, there’s that whole Christian perspective of stewardship which is not defined well. For some, it gives them the right to rape and pillage the earth, for others, it is about conscious care-taking.
Sometimes, I just cry when I see what is being done to the land, the rape, the ravage, the need to squeeze every dime from every inch. I do what I can and over the years, I’ve worked with others who feel the same way. Being conscious carries responsibility.
Plant Healer Magazine: You are known as a teacher of Appalachian Herbalism. How would you define that term?
Light: Southern and Appalachian Herbalism, the traditional medicine of the lower Appalachian Mountains and the Lower South, developed from the folk medicines of the Native Americans, Europeans, West Africans and Celts. Its development resulted from the need of settlers to take care of themselves and their families in a new land filled with strange and wonderful plants and animals and new diseases. Southern and Appalachian Herbalism and Folk Medicine includes the use of plants, home remedies, foods, prayer, story-telling and psycho-spiritual rituals handed down by oral tradition within families and communities. Assessment techniques are based on physical observation, understanding the personality, and the Southern blood types, bitter, sweet, sour and salty. There are three main categories of illness: physical, psychological and spiritual (magical).
Plant Healer Magazine: What is the most common ailment or complaint you deal with? Has this changed over the years?
Light: The most common ailments I’m seeing now is Chronic Fatigue due to viral overload, too much stress, gluten sensitivity, lack of rest and lack of good nutrition. It seems that chronic illnesses always come in batches. Last year it was hypothyroidism and the year before multiple sclerosis. Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Lyme disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome, mitral valve prolapse and digestive tract issues round out the problems I see most often.
Plant Healer Magazine: How much of a factor is lifestyle and environment, and to what degree can an herbalist even address these relevant or even central factors in client consultations?
Light: Lifestyle and environment are the primary factors in illness along with emotional strife and discord. My grandmother called all this “worriation” which says it all, the lack of being true to oneself. If we forget who we are, if we move away from our authentic selves, then we are more prone to illness. Herbs and other healing modalities can help us remember who we are, help us value ourselves again and restore self-esteem. Once self-esteem is restored, if our bodies have not reached the point of no return, then we can heal.
Herbs work on every level of our existence, physical, psychological and spiritual. In my tradition, for chronic illnesses, herbs were used to change attitude, restore vital energy and facilitate physical healing. When our self-esteem is low, when negative emotions are engaged, then vital energy plummets. Tommie often recommended a “swallow” of herbs in these situations; his version of drop doses. For acute illness, larger amounts of herbs are needed more often because this could be life or death and we must respond appropriately. In Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine there was always an action on the part of the client required in addition to herbs or other recommendations. The required action, usually a penance of some sort, engaged the client in their own process of healing and kept them engaged. I still use this technique but I call it homework instead.
Chronic illness is never without lifestyle, environmental, stress, or emotional influence and I do address this in sessions. As a healer, I believe this is totally appropriate. It’s often the emotions we bury that continue to facilitate chronic disease. They may not have caused the problem, but emotions hold the problem in place and cause stagnation in body and spirit. This stagnation then leaves us more susceptible to acute illness and infection. When our spirit, our personalities are low, then our immune system is low.
Plant Healer Magazine: Describe the system of therapeutics and diagnosis that you use. To what degree does it derive from this continent?
Light: I use observational assessment techniques and constitutional analysis based on Southern and Appalachian blood types and personality profiles, the four elements and folk astrology. This is my primary technique. But I also use Western nail and hair assessment, Ayurvedish/Western tongue assessment and biomedical knowledge of disease. All this comes together to help me find the patterns of dysfunction inherent within the constitution and personality of the client. And I also read bloodwork.
Plant Healer Magazine: On another topic, what do you think are the biggest threats to herbalism in the world today, not only from outside, but from within?
Light: The pharmaceutical/medical industrial complex is high on my lists of threats to herbalism and natural healing techniques in general. Greed and the desire to increases the bottom line is all it takes to threaten the ability of folks to take care of themselves and their families. Tighter government regulation on herbal products is also an issue that we herbalists must maintain vigilance toward.
Herbalists tend to be a house divided: Those for licensure and those against. That division fairly prohibits any type of mass political action. This is both a strength and weakness. It keeps our profession viable, active and non-exclusive. But it also limits our political power.
Licensing herbalists emerges from time to time, but licensure is a state’s issue, not a federal one. Let’s keep herbs for the populace!
Plant Healer Magazine: What kinds of regulation might prove intolerable for you? What is the responsibility of herbalists, when it comes to helping determine the direction of this field, creating useful forms and protocols, or resisting imposition and injustice?
Light: As herbalists, many of us are already practicing under the radar. It’s a balancing act trying to grow the profession while simultaneously not wanting to call too much attention to your practice. It seems to be the really successful herbalists with lots of clients that the authorities tend to watch or bust. It’s an odd thing: The better you are at your job as an herbalist, the more popular you become, the more likely to draw the attention of the authorities.
Herbalism, in the South, is considered a tradition and I’ve seen less hassling here than in other parts of the country. Actually I’ve never seen any herbalist hassled except Tommie who blatantly put on his salve label that it cured skin cancer. It was the feds that came knocking on his door about that, not the local authorities. And I must say, the woman sent out to Tommie’s place with a cease and desist order was really nice, non-threatening and totally reasonable. Tommie change his label and that finished that business, well almost. He hand-wrote a sign on plywood that basically said his salve would do what he said it would do.
There is also the belief that God gave us herbs for our health. Here, herbalism is a religious freedom. It is ours by right and gift and the Bible speaks clearly on that point and there is protection in that belief. It’s a different situation in the South for that reason than I’ve seen in other areas of the country.
Even when I worked in a medical clinic, I never introduced myself an anything but a folk herbalists. In the South, there is acknowledge respect for the profession. However, from my experience in the medical clinic, I now believe that herbalists who work in this arena need training above folk medicine. The number of pharmaceutical drugs grows every year and clinical herbalists (my definition) must be familiar with them.
While I don’t believe in licensing herbalists, I can see where educational standards for clinical herbalists might be appropriate. But that being said, we herbalists can even agree on the definition of what a clinical herbalist does.
Herbalist are independent, ornery, and filled with opinions. It’s hard to get us to agree on anything.
If I couldn’t grow or gather herbs that would be pretty intolerable.
Plant Healer Magazine: What responses or adaptations might we see in the future, what forms might herbalism take?
Light: Too many options to make a clear statement on this. I do see a revival in folk medicine for which I am thankful. Herbs are continued to be researched and this research is influencing how people do practice so I don’t see that changing. It will be fascinating to see what happens over the next 10 years.
Plant Healer Magazine: What most pisses you off?
Light: I get really pissed off at injustice, brutality, and the strong taking advantage of the weak. I get really, really, really pissed off when people hurt or abuse children or animals. And I don’t care too much for lying either.
Plant Healer Magazine: What tickles you more than anything?
Light: I get tickled at people watching, getting to know someone, funny British comedies, and watching butterflies and birds.
Plant Healer Magazine: If you weren’t already giving all your time to herbalism, if your future were a blank slate, what else might you do with your life, what might you give to yourself?
Light: Hmm… that’s a tough one…. rock star, famous author, actress, warrior, magician, astronaut, … All my childhood fantasies.
Plant Healer Magazine: What are the most essential tips you might give to an herbalist, to make them more effective, or to help them deal with the challenges, politics and pressures they may face?
Light: Never lose faith in who you are or what you do. Study with as many teachers as possible. Self-study continually. Become an engaged member of your community. Question authority when appropriate. Maintain a connection to Nature and the plant world. Find a good mentor and maintain that lifelong relationship. Stretch your herbal boundaries. Strive for excellence.
See the Winter 2011/12 issue of Plant Healer Magazine for the complete interview with Phyllis Light. You’ll need to be subscribed prior to March 1st when the Spring issue replaces it. Go to: www.PlantHealerMagazine.com
To learn about studying with Phyllis, or to read some of her work, please go to: PhyllisDLight.com
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