Plant Healer Interview:
In Conversation with Jesse Wolf Hardin
The following is a powerful excerpt from my talk with our friend and provocateur Paul Bergner, one of the truly most insightful, honest, forthcoming and visionary of herbalists alive today. After four full decades of doing this work, it was a pleasure to draw tales and ideas out of him for our readers, and to further define his singular legacy. Quite frankly, without Paul’s encouragement and support Kiva and I may not have pulled off the launching of our first event for herbalists, nor been quite so encouraged to create the unique Plant Healer Magazine. His “Herbal Rebel” column in the mag leads off every issue he can possibly make time for, while still traveling to teach both in the U.S. and at a free clinic in Nicaragua with his wife Tania. He will be teaching a two part intensive about diet and herbs at the Herbal Resurgence Rendezvous in the forest of Arizona, Sept. 19-22. You can register or read about his and other Rendezvous classes at: www.HerbalResurgence.org, and you can find some of his most incisive essays in the Plant Healer mag, in the back issues available downloadable on the Plant Healer site as well as in the Fall issue releasing Sept. 2nd: www.PlantHealerMagazine.com
The complete Bergner interview is an awesome 20,000 meaningful words long, and will appear in full only in the second volume of the 21st Century Herbalists book, due out in the next 12 to 18 months. An abridged version will appear in Plant Healer Magazine either before or following… and because we didn’t have it ready in time for the recent Plant Healer Newsletter, we’ve decided to share it with you all here!
Jesse Wolf Hardin: You have been a healer for 40 years now, as of this interview. What have you done to keep your excitement alive over the course of so much time working in this field, and what can you recommend others do to stay in touch with the source of their inspiration and enchantment?
Paul Bergner: You have to keep in touch with the polestar of your calling. Keep re-aligning to it, navigating by it, re-committing to it as it changes and unfolds. Keep whipping the flame of the aspiration to the calling to a conflagration of passion. And keep following all lines of curiosity and inquiry.
Wolf: What are the essential roles and missions of the herbalist…. continuous through the ages, and also now in this denatured and institutionalized society?
Paul: There is a problem for me with the label “herbalist.” If you look at the history of medicine, whether folk, ethnobotany, classical, traditional, etc. we don’t usually find an “herbalist.” We find a healer, or a midwife, or a village elder, or a community of mothers, or a physician, who help people. And sometimes they might use herbs and sometimes not. They are not defined by the use of herbs, but by their wisdom, common practical sense, medical training, or accumulated tribal, village or familial or medical level knowledge of what promotes health, or helps to address a health crisis. In the classical systems, Chinese medicine, Greek/Arabic medicine, and others, it is even specifically stated that if you are using herbs, then normal methods had failed. So I don’t want to be identified as an herbalist, or try to describe the roles of an herbalist in history when for the most part that is a profession which has not existed separate from a larger paradigm which defines each practitioner more by their overall approach that by what they give people. To some extent, the historical emergence of the drug industry, the trend that defined a doctor as someone who uses drugs and/or surgery, at the same time promoted a definition of an herbalist which had never occurred before. Doctor uses drugs, herbalist uses herbs. In historical reality through millennia I think probably every “herbalist” was a dietician and wise advisor first, and an herbalist sometimes second, sometimes not at all. The Greek physician Asclepias’ aphorism was “First the Word, then the Herb, then the Knife.” To define person as the one who gives the Herb, while forgetting the Word. creates a superficial and two-dimensional kind of “this-for-that” therapeutics which will never actually produce healing.
Wolf: And in your opinion, what are the great “herban myths,” fallacies, distracting notions or diversions in herbalism today?
Paul: Are you kidding me? In this short interview? A large portion of what we call herbalism today is Herban Legend. A large portion of what I taught in my school in Boulder was not just correcting the current Legends, but training the individual in the kind of practice, study, and critical thinking that defend against them. I hope before I die to write among other books, one entitled Herbal Legends: Critical Thinking in 21st Century Herbalism. It would not just be a list of legends, but a dissection of where they came from, how they came to be propagated, and what sort of critical thinking or information a person would need to prove or disprove them. It would present my whole “four directions” model of critical assessment of information, basically with pitfalls of relying on old books, the problem with taking new information in from science or commerce uncritically, how to think critically or gain more information in one’s own personal experience, and finally the idea of “critical intuition,” which I’ve written about in the Plant Healer Magazine. Some of the most important sources of contemporary misconceptions come from 1) herbalists not trained in science dabbling in it and then trying to sound authoritative 2) herbalists projecting their preconceptions onto a romanticized past or blindly accepting “folk” traditions that are not actually authentic 3) Herbalists accepting herb industry propaganda and overstatements uncritically and 4) herbalists blindly following authorities who are immersed in the above.
Wolf: What are some misunderstood, overrated or over marketed herbs?
Paul: Hydrastis is not an antibiotic. It will kill bacteria in a lab dish, it won’t kill them in your system. In larger doses it will dry out your mucous membranes, which does not mean it killed any bacteria, it means it turned off the beneficial effect of antibody-laden mucous flow. Wild Yam does not have any hormonal effects, though is a top specific smooth muscle antispasmodic. Adaptogens do not give you free energy, if you use them to support overreaching, instead of to support rest, recovery, and nourishment, they will enable a deeper level of burnout. Echinacea will not normalize your immune system, no one has an Echinacea deficiency, it can ramp up immunity, mask the effects of a bad lifestyle, and aggravate autoimmune conditions.
Wolf: A minority of our other interviewees have clearly said that they did not feel called to the work, or that herbalism is their calling per se, describing it instead as a conjunction of ability, practical need and circumstance. Does this prove that not all wholly dedicated herbalists are called, or do you believe they’re in denial or uncomfortable with the implications and associations?
Paul: I do believe that Calling and ability are inextricably intertwined. My training at age 25 was to seek out my calling on a daily basis, as the central prayer of my life, and then to also carefully assess all my abilities, to develop every ability into a talent through practice, and then apply those talents toward the calling. This was the esoteric training in the ancient mystery schools of Egypt and Greece. It is important to find out where you have a ‘green thumb’ and where you have no talent at all, and to dwell as much as possible in the areas where you excel just by following your own nature and pleasure.
Wolf: I like the idea of awarding certificates of accomplishment with fundamental and clearly defined criteria, but I have a hard with official “certification” and institutional vetting. While I do not want to be treated by an MD who is a charlatan with no knowledge, training or experience, we all know that having a Dr.’s license does not ensure someone is any good at all at practicing medicine. You have your doctorate and credentials, yet teach an accessible form of herbalism and self care. Talk about this.
Paul: I don’t have a doctorate. In fact my NDAA means “no-degree-at-all.” I didn’t finish college, but had the prerequisites to get into naturopathic medical school, and then I didn’t finish ND school, so technically, although I have 50 semester hours of doctoral level work and some of my books would qualify as doctoral theses, I don’t have any degree. For me that advanced education came later in life and career, I was already established in my calling and practicing and teaching natural healing, and for me, that education taught me tools terms, and concepts that I could use to further my study. Once I had acquired what I actually needed, I left the school. that wasn’t obvious to me at the time, it was a difficult departure, but in retrospect that is exactly what happened. Leaving also allowed me to avoid the Doctor Complex, where individuals with medical degrees put on certain airs of inflated superiority. For certification, I am in favor of people who have completed a course of study to have a certificate that documents that work. I’m not in favor of regulatory certification of herbalists at this point in the evolution of the profession, but educational certification is different, it just certifies that you have completed some study. Let the merits of the certification rest on the reputation of the school.
Wolf: Many of the folks who read Plant Healer Magazine or attend the various Plant Healer events are people who have felt on the edge of the herbal community, either unworthy and inadequate or “different” and marginalized. This includes family practitioners and kitchen witches, social radicals and outlaws defying convention, youth who often feel underestimated and amateurs and zealots who don’t and never will have letters, degrees or registered status. What can be done in the herbal community to attract a wider range of people, of all types and colors, ages, and ways?
Paul: A decade ago herbalism was dominated by a few organizations and a few conferences, which always featured the same speakers or the same kind of speakers. This lasted a long time, but as herbal schools churned out graduates, and thousands more people got the herbal bug, at some point, the masses of actual practicing and studying herbalists greatly outnumbered those who were recognized or spoken for by the previous institutions and conferences. Tremendously outnumbered. And I will say unhesitatingly that many of them have more actual experience, work with patients, hands-on gritty work than some of the big names riding on their reputations. People with 20 years of clinical work could not get on a podium at a conference, while people who hadn’t practiced in twenty years were considered big names. Yes, they felt isolated and out of the loop, even though they had much to offer. I think it was the advent of social media that got some of the new generation together, and then your first conference at the Ghost Ranch and the Plant Healer magazine made a nexus that opened a new center which facilitated the communication among them. I remember being there and looking at the teachers, and I remember thinking “Everyone teaching here is actually a practitioner.” They were attending each other’s lectures, sitting with the students instead of apart from them, no one strutting around like a rooster. This was a new phenomenon, and for me it was electrifying.
Wolf: I should point out here for the record, that the name or our annual event came directly from you, a christening that came from you calling it a “new nexus of the folk herbal resurgence.” From the very beginning you encouraged our antics… including fashioning the event and magazine as a folk herbal revival. Tell us about what you were thinking, what you felt that was different about these conferences, the state of the herbal movement at that time and the directions you find it going today.
Paul: I had the emerging vision that herbalism in North America is not a profession, it is not really even a consistent occupational definition, there are no true standards, and attempts by one or the other clique of herbalists to impose them have not been accepted. On the other hand it is a rich community, and a social movement at this point, an earth centered one. So what a community needs is networking and facilitation, not standards, and a movement needs rabble rousing and inspiration. That’s what I was encouraging rather than some new crystallized organization.
Wolf: Some core advice, for these special, heartful readers?
Paul: Be authentic. Work at it. Don’t exaggerate. Don’t make up stories. Be grounded in practice. Be open.
Wolf: It is rare for me to meet a single “civilized” person who sees the world close to the ways I do, let alone who independently developed such resonant ideas and used such similar phrasings. Though we have both been aesthetics, sensualists and radicals, and both came to serve the vital force of life, processes of discernment and real world action, you came to your convictions through a healing study and practice, through different books and experiences, while I through nature spirituality, a wilderness home preceded by outright outlaw experiences.
Paul: It is somewhat amazing that two fellows coming from such different training and expertise come to such a common vision. I guess if you try to reinvent the wheel it will end up being round. Constitutes a double-blind test of reality.
Wolf: I hope to always get to feature your insightful, incisive and inspiring writings in our Plant Healer Magazine, and enjoy your alliance in our shared purpose. It’s been an honor to work with you.
Paul: And with you.