The Folk Herbal Tribe
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
Whether we realize it or not, we are – as clinicians, gardeners, foragers, medicinal plant conservationists, botanists, plant illustrators, students as well as teachers of plant medicine – all constituent members of an herbal community. This is true even if we mainly do our work or pursue our passion alone, happen to feel like outsiders, avoid herbal events, or treat only family and friends. We are qualified by virtue of our interests, focus, calling or commitment… and if we identify with the group, we belong. No vetting or voting required. It is our community, because of what we share in common.
The word “community” itself comes from the Latin communis, meaning “common”. It is thus, that the warp and weft binding the strands of any village or culture together are made of those things its residents and participants share – such as either place or purpose, interests or needs, traditions or goals, and almost always a shared body of ideas that profoundly affect both the ways we members live, and the quality of our lives. The more definitive those shared elements are, the more cohesive and usually smaller a grouping becomes, including identification with families, geographical regions, subcultures, associations, trades… and tribes.
Reclaiming The Term
tribe |trīb| noun
1 a social division consisting of people linked by social, economic, religious or other ties, with a common culture and dialect.
2. informal family
Thriving within the larger herbal community is a readily recognizable subculture that is nothing less than tribal: a self-defined and self-determined Folk Herbal Tribe! What else to call this clearly informal but ultimately intimate family of plant healers and tradition keepers? Our social links are irrefutable, drawn to one another in an alliance of purpose and priorities, sensibilities and celebration. We support each other financially or by promoting each other’s work, contributing to a shared folk herbalist economy that increases the odds of us being able to survive doing what we love. There exists what could be called a spiritual commonality amongst us, regardless of whether we are Christian, Pagan, Animist, or Atheist – recognition of some kind of “chi,” “anima” or “vital force” that largely determines one’s health and healing capacities, and a sense of something powerful and mysterious that enlivens, fuels and inspires our relationship to the herbs and to each other. We have our own, plant-informed and slightly irreverent, dialect that folks outside the tribe no doubt scratch their heads over. And we identify with a particular culture made up of the healing systems, principles, modalities, music, literature and art of folk herbalism past and present.
Some of you might object, thinking that “tribe” refers exclusively to Native American groups, and that it could be cultural appropriation to use the term. In fact, the word comes from the Latin tribus, referring to the original three divisions of the peoples of Rome, and was only much later applied to Native American societies by the invading colonial powers. These so-called “Indians” have actually long preferred to refer to themselves as nations. Or, it may be that you’ve been influenced by the way “tribalism” has been equated with “factionalism” in the vernacular of the government and the news media, blaming tribal interests for divisive conflicts in places like Central Africa where tribal loyalties have proven stronger than any hoped-for national identity. And it’s true that traditional tribes in some parts of the world enforce a rigid moral standard and dress code, seek to keep women subservient or underrepresented, and act as a damper on individual creativity and choice. Yet at the same time, tribes are banks of cultural diversity, endangered languages and dialects, earth-centered and ecologically motivated values and behaviors. And in the case of the Folk Herbal tribe, it provides a home for kindred souls, some of whom may have felt out of place, unrecognized or unfulfilled elsewhere, active co-creators of an encouraging alliance of healing priorities, culture and mission.
From the late 1800s until roughly the 1950s, the conventional anthropological assumption was that tribes were homogenous groupings of people practicing the same rituals, speaking the same language, residing in the same homeland, with a prescribed belief system and following the same leader, and it was said to be highly parochial with a narrow outlook and limited scope. Upon closer study, however, researchers found that there are many examples of traditional and historic tribes whose members practice different rituals, speak different languages, look to different leadership, and incorporate a broad range of perspectives and beliefs. In addition, in recent times, tribal members may reside geographically far apart from one another, and apart from any ancestral lands their kind ever claimed. In actuality, tribes are often characterized by fluid boundaries and heterogeneity, are seldom parochial, and generally dynamic.
According to anthropologist Elman Service, human societies can be classified based on the degree of relative inequality (stratification, control, restriction and repression). By this reckoning, Hunter/Gatherer bands are usually the least oppressive and most egalitarian, with Service listing Tribes a close second due to “limited instances of individual prestige and social rank.” More unequal are supposedly “advanced” societies, where members are expected to follow and obey chosen chieftains. And the worst offender of all is our much vaunted civilization – from the rule of royalty over peasants, to the modern state with its increasingly effective and oppressive systems of surveillance and regulation.
The Folk Herbal Tribe esteems individuals for their accomplishments, knowledge, compassion and honor, but does not and will not ever obey the dictates of a single person – elected or not – nor do its constituents uniformly base their actions and work on the pronouncements of organizations or agencies. Children are respected, and women herbalists are readily considered at least as wise and effective as men. The impoverished are considered equal to those having ample financial resources. Members of this tribe do not follow officials or chieftains… they follow positive examples instead.
There are no bylaws, nor rules beyond mutual respect, and incidences of perceived disrespect are dealt with by those involved rather than by anyone supposedly in authority. Constructive divergence and disagreement is encouraged. There are no requirements to meet in order to belong, other than personally ensuring one’s own authenticity, focus and sincerity. One need only share some of the tribe’s plant-inspired interests, values, passions, and priorities, identify with this blessedly disparate group, and participate or contribute in whatever individual ways that one desires.
Inclusivity & Diversity
It is for the above reasons that this tribe attracts, houses, and helps to weave into its fabric those with decades of experience as well as folks just now learning the craft, and conservative rural traditionalists as well as tradition-shattering radicals and urban free-clinic volunteers. For all its adamant informalism, the tribe is a welcome home not just to kitchen herbalists, grannywives, and wild eyed herbal visionaries, but also to formally trained clinicians, to the lettered, registered and perhaps someday certified, to business minded herbal entrepreneurs and the most sober-headed practitioners. Many of the attendees of the Herbal Resurgence Rendezvous have been professionals, established academics and scientists, even if – admittedly – they are the most mission driven or Gaia inspired, down to earth or enchanted, obsessed or impassioned, unconventional or free thinking of their ilk.
The Folk Herbal Tribe is open to all. We should note that it does not, however, purport to include everyone involved in herbalism. While no one is excluded, people self-select. Some herbalists identify with a different expression of the craft, may be leery of freeform movements or uncomfortable with extreme diversity, and for whatever reasons choose to see themselves as outside of the tribe. For them, Folk Medicine of any kind may be associated with superstition or a lack of education, rather than valuing it as “medicine of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
It is healthy that membership be entirely voluntary and develop totally naturally, calling those of like heart and focus, responding to common threats, sharing basic hopes and dreams. A tribe can be an opportunity to recover the most meaningful aspects of human relationship and purpose. And for the Folk Herbal Tribe, it is a purpose grounded in healing, sustained and furthered by herbal folks… people consciously grounded, interactive, and closely connected even if we often live far apart.
Connection, Range & Recognition
Unlike many historic tribes, ours does not tend towards a particular fashion when it comes to either our clothing or thinking, and members can be dressed in anything from fairy skirts to lab coats, Green Man tunics, army surplus pants, goth tees, dress shirts or farmer’s coveralls. Without a uniform style, it could be hard to tell who belongs and who doesn’t, but not so! For all our differences, we know each other at the deepest levels as being part of something bigger than us all, pledged to a shared covenant, direction, quest. We can see it in each others eyes, in the ways we interact, and in what we each do. Something inside lights up, communicating “hey, that person over there is one of us!” We may feel related to all of humanity, and I personally sense at the deepest levels my connection to the whole of this awesome living earth… but that said, we likely feel a special tingle when we meet those who are most inspired by what we are most inspired by, devoted to that which we, also, are devoted to. Because of how you hold a flower, examine a leaf, or smile as you sniff an herbal lotion – I am readily able to recognize you, seeing myself in you, and you in myself.
We need that gift of recognition, given that herbalists and plant people are now scattered thinly throughout the populations of the world. Because we are spread wide, we may reside miles away from the nearest other herbalist, or many states away from our dearest of allies.
It is the nature of a tribe that its members be drawn to live in relatively close proximity, interacting with each others’ children, cooperating on mutually fulfilling projects, helping one another, sharing our daily lives with others of our kind. It is sad, on one hand, that the Folk Herbal Tribe do not share a region, inhabit adjoining lands, work together on community herbal gardens and the job of habitat and species restoration, coordinate on the building of earthy healing-hearted schools for our children and grandchildren to join in attending. On the other hand, it seems true to nature’s needs and program, that the planet’s folk healers and land-lovers be spread thin across a wide range, so that hopefully no region or neighborhood is without an herbalist, and no public land unloved or unprotected anywhere.
Historic Native American tribes would often split up, with smaller bands ranging far and wide for much of each year. The reason for this, was that the land could not sustain too large a group for long in a single place, while bands that had dispersed can bring back a variety of needed resources from the different landscapes they spread out to. Big-time parties would be held at prescribed times, marking the return of these bands, the reuniting of friends and relatives, the opportunity to trade goods and services and develop alliances, and to meet and court a desirable sweetie. In a similar way, the bonds between the families and bands, pacts and posses of the Folk Herbal Tribe are restored by periodic gatherings such as the Herbal Resurgence Rendezvous, a sharing of information and downright celebration.
The Tribal Commitment
We are each part of the larger herbal community, automatically, by default, by our very nature, and whether we like to think of ourselves that way or not. Membership in the Folk Herbal Tribe, however, is not automatic, and certainly doesn’t kick in by default. When and where it begins is at the point that we identify with it – whether we do so in solitude, or at an event in the company of those we “recognize.” It deepens with the relationships we form within it, the friendships, alliances, business arrangements, and romances. And it is manifest in the ways we interact, contribute, and participate.
Tribe is not simply a spontaneous conglomeration, or even just a natural conduit and hub. It is a purposeful product of its co-creators, of the whole of its informal membership. While it dissipates with disinterest, it increases equal to our interest and involvement, intensifies with our excitement, and is sustained by our commitments to it. It can give so well to us, only because we give back to it.
We may hear commitments referred to in a negative light, or cast as restrictions as in “I can’t do what I really want in life, due to commitments to my job/husband/wife/kids.” More helpfully, a commitment is a moment to moment choice in which – every second – one decides to re-promise themselves to a person, place, purpose and so forth. It is not a feel-good New Year’s resolution meant to be forgotten the next day, it is a pledge of support and sustenance that we do everything possible to fulfill… though only for so long as it feels right.
Our commitments matter, because the well-being of what we commit to matters. Our most essential commitments are:
1. To ourselves… our authenticity, our real needs, our continuing education and growth, our purpose and fulfillment. Only when we are nourished, our bullshit processed, our dreams honored, can we hope to be very effective at deeply helping anyone else.
2. To the land and its entire community of life forms… to the plants that provide our medicines and our food. In an interview I conducted with visionary herbalist David Hoffman, he pointed out that “we become the problem” instead of the antidote, cure or relief, unless we make a strong commitment to what I’d described as “furthering the agenda of helping people and the planet.”
3. To the tribe… through our willingness to learn and happiness to teach. Through our medicines in their many forms, sometimes including the sharing of difficult to hear realities or insights. Through our support of each others’ efforts and work, the encouragement of their personal expression and individual role and contribution. And through our demonstrative loyalty.
What does it mean to be loyal to who and what matters most to us? At what point does something that we do, become a betrayal of what we are most connected and committed to?
Kiva and I have pledged our lasting loyalty to the plants, to our family and the wild Anima Sanctuary, to our Plant Healer writers and readers, our Herbal Resurgence teachers, sponsors and especially participants, to the integrity and aims of our mission, and to every folk herbalist and plant lover who is in turn loyal to their plant tribe. Loyalty sustains and extends what love seeds. If not to blood, then to a vision and purpose. If not to nation, than to tribe. If not to institutions, then to healing roots, meadow and heather… and to this work we so gladly and passionately do together.
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