Roots Revival: Celebrating the New Folk Herbalism Resurgence

Roots Revival: Celebrating the New Folk Herbalism Resurgence

This particular piece is part of a larger project I’m working on for the upcoming issue of Plant Healer: A Journal of Traditional Western Herbalism but something that I feel strongly about sharing with all my blog readers as well. As most of you are well aware of, grassroots herbalism is something I’m incredibly passionate about and I see more reason than ever to be celebrating the growth and diversity of our community than ever!

~Kiva

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Roots Revival: Celebrating The New Folk Herbalism Resurgence

by Kiva Rose

“All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.”

-Louis Armstrong

“We were created out of the earth there. Well, we’re part of the earth, and that’s what we’ve got to go back to the earth to get something to keep this body a-ticking. Just like the tree, of course, and the herbs here, they’ve got sap in em, and we’ve got blood.”

- Tommie Bass, Appalachian Folk Herbalist

With the current economic hardships, there’s been a revived interest in all sorts of folk arts as well as an upsurge in enthusiasm for the do-it-yourself mentality. And rightly so, as our culture finally awakens to the need for increased sustainability and self-sufficiency. Once relegated to the impoverished or for decorative purposes only, gardening has seen an incredible upsurge as we once again take an interest in where and how our food is grown. Likewise, many folk arts, from artisan breads to hand woven fibers have become increasingly popular and valued in recent years. Handmade has become something to value rather than scorn in favor of their store boughten counterparts. Locally crafted goods are esteemed over exotic imports as being not only more economical, but also more meaningful and desirable as they connect us to our own bioregions and facilitate an intimacy with place.

In the context of herbalism, however, it seems that the term “folk” is still frequently accompanied by disdainful sentiments, and for the more open minded, a sense of the quaint and cute and old fashioned. Yep, go ahead and look up folk herbalism or folk medicine. Count how many times the terms “rustic”, “primitive” and “non-scientific” come up. Stedman’s Medical Dictionary is kinder, defining  folk medicine as the “treatment of ailments outside clinical medicine by remedies and simple measures based on experience and knowledge handed down from generation to generation.”

Technically, the term folk in this context applies strictly to non-professional or lay people using local or handed down knowledge to treat illness. More realistically, folk herbalism is simply whatever herbal practitioners (professional or not) and practices not currently recognized as valid, acceptable or popular by conventional medicine and mainstream culture. In the U.S., that seems to be just about damn near all of us. Yeah, sure, some of us have managed to fit in a little better, but among plant-loving people there’s still likely to be sage leaves clinging to our lab coats and chokecherry twigs tangled in our hair no matter how many hospitals or integrated clinics we’ve worked in.

I personally see the term folk as an underlying commonality for all grassroots practitioners, all those herbalists who get out in the forests and meadows and gardens and harvest their own medicines and who can recognize their favorite remedies while still growing in the ground and not just from a label on a fancy bottle. After all, folk are just the people. Usually the common people, the non-elite who need sustainable, cheap remedies that actually work without worrying about academic theories or even government endorsement. Implied by the term is a lack of exclusivity, embracing rather than shunning and encouraging a sense of sharing what we know without hoarding or copywriting our experiences. At its root, folk arts of any kind tend to be unpretentious while still beautiful and useful, a testament to the efficiency and aesthetics of an earlier era with increasing relevance for our current challenging times.

The more popular term “traditional herbalism” encompasses folk herbalism as well as a great deal more, including the more highly systemized herbal practices around the world, such as Ayurveda, Unani Tibb and Traditional Chinese Medicine. All folk herbalism is a form of traditional herbalism, but not all traditional herbalism is folk herbalism, especially as some traditional medicine becomes ever more formalized and merges with conventional medicine. By it’s very nature, folk herbalism tends to be unstructured, unruly and constantly adapting to the needs of the current place and people. Standardized extracts aren’t likely to be of much use to these people, as they almost always prefer making their own herbal preparations and are more likely to trust a remedy made from the whole plant than isolated constituents for isolated health diagnoses.

Many, if not all, forms of the more systemized herbal traditions include within them many elements of folk herbalism. As with any attempted categorizations, the borders are fairly fuzzy. What’s probably most important to recognize about folk herbalism is its wild and wooly nature that generally defies being fit inside any construct and tends to vary radically depending on locale, culture and era. There are certainly underlying commonalities though, especially a dependence on weeds, locally abundant wild plants and easily grown garden herbs as well as the independent nature of its practitioners and their deep connection with plants, people and place. Experience, empiricism and even thoughtful anecdote are also essential elements of this ubiquitous breed of botanical medicine.

Folk herbalism certainly includes kitchen herbalism and backyard herbalism, but can also encompass many forms of professionalized herbalism as well. It’s likely that the greatest majority of folk herbalists primarily treat their families or close friends, although many will eventually look to help their larger community, especially when word gets out and people come knocking on the front door, looking for diaper rash salve and something to quiet an old cough. And some will go on to make teaching and practicing the mainstay of their livelihood, passing on their knowledge to an even wider range of those interested in plant medicine.

Unfortunately, even from within the herbal community, there seems to be the tendency to create hierarchal divisions of professional, community, kitchen and other types of herbalists. I certainly see that these descriptions can be useful in helping potential clients and students choose who they’d benefit most from working with. What seems less rational is the need to create a hierarchy of what is best.

What we most need within herbalism right now is increased diversity, not not less. Just as in any intact or recovering ecosystem, diversity breeds health and proliferation. We need the grandmother in her kitchen serving Chamomile tea to a teething toddler just as much as we need the professional herbalist working in a clinic or the rural rancher who treats a bull-gored horse with Indian Root. None of these choices are more valid than another, they are all vital elements of a thriving culture and people.

I don’t see the necessity for only one type of healthcare and healing, even within herbalism.  I hear many arguments from all different camps each insisting that their method is the best, the most natural or the only effective way. Personally, when it comes to human health and well-being, I think we can use as many options as are viable, sustainable and relevant. Our very strength is often in our differences and the way we come together to work from so many angles and perspectives. It’s time to break down these needless divisions, these private clubs of who’s important and who’s not. In a grassroots vocation, there’s no reason or room for harmful divisiveness that could well alienate many talented and skilled members of our craft.

Those of us residing in Western Civilization are a mostly mongrel people and our herbal traditions reflect our varied heritage. Remnants of Greek humoral theory merge with Cherokee materia medica only to further blend with Hispanic energetics concepts and German phytotherapy. We’re a wild and weedy bunch, with a penchant for sidewalk-cracking garden escapees and feral flowers. Our traditions have loose ends and broken strands. We weave and reweave while bringing in the multicolored fibers from a hundred different sources. We’re eclectic but still somehow cohesive, even as we struggle for clarity and coherence in our approach and practice.

To deny our diversity for the sake of homogeny and a more respectable appearance is to give up some of the incredible dynamism of Western herbalism, and perhaps especially American herbalism. Instead, we have ever growing reasons for a celebration of the kaleidoscope of our colors and tones. Just as in folk music, our traditions and practices build one off the other, incorporating new harmonies into time-honored melodies, mixing modern instrumentation into century old songs.

We’re still the folk, including herbalist doctors and curanderas, plant-loving nurses and squat-dwelling herb students. We need education and healthcare everywhere, in both clinics and on the streets, in urban centers as well as the backwoods. Herbalists, by their very nature, tend to be boundary walkers, traveling between different worlds and communities in order to provide care and help to those who need it most.

What we all have in common is the knowledge that healthcare and healing are not only the terrain of the expert and the elite. We know that human has the right to facilitate healing in themselves and their family through food, lifestyle, herbs and more. This is an imperative element in sustainability, self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. A roots resurgence in folk wisdom is not only about healthcare but is one part of a return to direct connection with the natural world and our own bodies. The honoring of folk medicine, of the herbal knowledge of the common people steeped in the day to day work with the plants is in itself a sort of revolution.

After all, there’s a certain, irreplaceable power and beauty to knowing your medicines so well that you know them by the shape of their stark winter stems, by one whiff of their just sliced roots, by the particular pattern of their seeds within its fruit. Whether feral sidewalk weeds, carefully tended garden flowers or wild mountain roots, the work of the herbalist is grounded in place. And also in community – whether seeing folks on their own back porches or in integrative clinics, we are inextricably interwoven with the people we care for and offer knowledge to.

Folk music, folk dance, folklore – it can be easy to forget that healing is an art as well as a science and that the lines between the two are finer and grayer than is generally acknowledged. Folk herbalism doesn’t just mean rustic or undeveloped, but rather points to a long history of traditional knowledge passed down and refined over time. Even where our traditions have fractured and been partly forgotten, new knowledge and experiences are forever sprouting up with each new generation – the insistent call and craft of plant-based medicine consistently regrowing even when cut down. Every folk herbalist is an integral part of this emerging resurgence from our shared roots.

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All photos © 2011 Kiva Rose

11 Comments

  1. Danika
    Jan 10, 2011

    That was a great article, Kiva. I certainly feel a division here in Canada. I’ve been searching for an open community of herbalists, and when I say herbalist I include the herbwife, the backyard herbalist, the campground wildcrafter, all the grass roots folk that learned plant wisdom from grandmothers and grandfathers and wise people in their community.
    So far all I have found is herbalist associations that will only include you in their community if you have studied at a particular school and have a background working in the clinical field. That’s all fine and well but it’s exclusive of the grass roots medicine makers. I hope to one day build a welcoming place for all such herbal folks here in Canada so we can get together, even if just online, and share our knowledge and support each others efforts in preserving precious grass roots plant medicine knowledge and practice.
    Thanks for always inspiring :)
    Danika.

  2. AstroHerbalist
    Jan 10, 2011

    This is so beautifully written Kiva. I have noticed that even the word “herbalist” can bring to people’s minds so many different ideas and even with the room for diversity, some of these definitions can stray too far away (for instance, those who would not recognize herbs in live plant form, but only as dried plant material stuffed into capsules in a health food store). Another definition I keep finding now? Some have the idea that “herbalist” means they only specialize heavily in one plant (the one with Cannibis in its description hehe)! To me, an herbalist would not exclude nearly all of the plant kingdom in this fashion! I will agree totally that we need more diversity not less – and even individual herbalists themselves could use diversity in their training, even if self-taught or reading books with other ideas to ponder. Although I have an MH from the School of Natural Healing, a wonderful school, it is clear it was the beginning of my herbal training and there is so much out there to learn, especially from the plants themselves – which is why I believe what could be termed as “folk herbalism” is such an important component of our holistic learning process. Congrats on the wonderful job you are doing to open our minds and hearts Kiva! Hope to attend the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference in 2011!

    • Kiva Rose
      Jan 11, 2011

      Thank you so much for your kind comments, and I’m so looking forward to seeing you at TWHC!

  3. Sarah Head
    Jan 11, 2011

    Such a wonderful article, Kiva, I agree with every word! Here in the UK you have both inspired me and given me the confidence to try new herbs and techniques and then to share this with others both through my workshops, my apprenticeships and my local herb group. We also held our first “do it yourself” free by donation herb festival in September last year and intend to repeat the experience next September. I would never have thought it possible if you hadn’t been organising yours! Maybe one day I shall be able to visit the Traditions in Western Herbal Medicine conference, but in the meantime, I shall continue to spread the herbal word and share as much as I can with those who wish to learn.

    • Kiva Rose
      Jan 11, 2011

      Wow, Sarah, that’s amazing! And congratulations :) – And I’m thrilled that I’ve been able to inspire and help you. I certainly hope you’re able to make it to TWHC at some point, I’d love to meet you in person.

  4. Judy Behrens
    Jan 11, 2011

    While reading this, I was literally brought to tears. This weekend we were allowed to join the local winter farmer’s market (inside) and displayed our wool products, some squash and for the first time ever, our herbal medicine products…honey, vinegar, salves, teas etc etc, Our CSA is developng a CSH (Community Supported Herbalism). People lined up in droves to see our herbs, questions galor, but the best was when people came up to me and actually said “Thank you for doing this!” We are located in a VERY MEDICAL/SCIENTIFIC area and I was a little sceptic of how we would be received, so tears of joy have been a regular thing the last couple days. This all started with an Herbal Medicine Making kit from Learningherbs.com and much encouragement from my two daughters who knew this is where I belonged. Thank you Kiva for all you have done and everything I have learned from you…what a ride~!

    • Kiva Rose
      Jan 11, 2011

      That’s so wonderful, Judy, I’m so happy for you!

      And you’re so welcome, I’m so glad to be able to be of help to you in any way.

  5. Heather Awen
    Jan 11, 2011

    Wonderful article, thank you! I think the diversity of available information in the USA for herbalism is like the very American religion of Voodoo – American Indian herb lore, Yoruba and Fon and Bantu drummings, German Pow Wow and Grimoire magics – a mix of whatever works. Today’s modern American folk herbalism is the same, as you showed. And I don’t think a modern American folk herbalist in Vermont is going to be working with the same plants as one in Nevada (I would hope not, actually). Bioregional animism is close to my heart.

    The only problem I then have as a patient is how do I know who knows what they are doing? Growing up to 1970s hippies, there were a lot of alternative healer types around and I usually was the same or worse after their treatments. (Of course that was always my fault; my energy was blocking it or I was choosing to be in pain. Yuck.) I hate the idea of regulating herbalism, but I also am tired of giving money to people who think they are the greatest herbalist ever – only to find out I have a new rash for 4 weeks plus the original problem and $100 less for seeing a Western doctor. What is the solution for that?

    • Kiva Rose
      Jan 11, 2011

      I’m not sure how regulation would necessarily improve patient care to a great degree. I, and many of my clients, have had similar experiences to what you describe with herbalists with doctors, and they are certainly regulated. And as we know, iatrogenic issues are a leading cause of death in the United States. Which is not an overt criticism of MDs, I work with doctors and other medical professionals and am very grateful for what they do.

      I tend to think it’s the client/community’s responsibility to “regulate” the practitioner by supporting effective herbalists and by educating themselves enough to know what practitioner has the best chance of being appropriate for them. This is the traditional way of dealing with all sorts of healers and of course has many drawbacks and benefits, but makes a lot more sense to me at a grassroots, personal level than federal regulation. So, I see the solution as eduction for both client and practitioner. Some people feel that sick folks shouldn’t have to think who they’re going to see, but that sort of stress can be lessened if an herbalist is supported within a community, and folks have some exposure and contact with him/her BEFORE they’re terribly ill.

      But please not that this post was not about being pro or anti regulation but rather a celebration of folk herbalism and calling into question divisive practices within the herbal community.

  6. Phoebe
    Jan 24, 2011

    Kiva, I just read this post and it brought me to tears. Now I see how I fit in. My heart feels like it’s bursting open like the petals on a deep pink rose! I appreciate everything you said about sense of place and knowing your medicine well; lack of exclusivity and hierarchy; being a boundary walker; increased diversity—and more. Do you recognize the far-reaching medicine in your words?

  7. Chris
    Apr 21, 2011

    How lovely, thank you, you’ve brightened my day.

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