Common Sense Tips for Practicing as a Village Herbalist in Rural America
Here you’ll find a few pointers for both neophyte and tenured herbalists practicing in rural areas based on my own experience. Seeing as my community is a tiny village in the mountains of New Mexico, I have neither office nor herb store nearby so I am my own walking dispensatory and workspace most of the time. There’s lots of old-fashioned house calls and short followups in the general store here, and my work as an herbalist mingles and blends with everything else I do within the community rather than being a nine-to-five thing. I’m sure some of this applies to an urban practice as well, but I can only speak from what I know, so my tips are firmly situated from a country person’s perspective.
Be a Part of the Community.
I’m a fringe-dweller and loner by nature (and really, I’m kind of odd from anyone’s point of view) but I make an effort to get to know my neighbors and the local people. And despite differences (be they political, class, ethnicity etc.) I try to find some common ground. Around here, much of that’s based on being self-reliant, low-income and hard-working, which is something I really like and value about rural NM. The benefit of this is that people trust me with their kids and grandmas in a way they rarely grant to outsiders or city-slickers. They’re not afraid to tell me about their health woes or emotional ups and downs, and will often share more with me than with their doctor or spouse. And sometimes they tell me about how their great grandpa used herbs or the plants their abuela used for healing, sharing a bit of precious, nearly lost story and information of the land and people here.
Cultivate Mutual Respect
I try to be aware and sensitive to their cultural affinities and in return, ask them to treat me with respect even if they don’t like what they think they know about my religious views, parenting style, carnivorous eating habits or weird hippy clothes. I’m here to help people, and hopefully they’re here to be helped. It’s that simple.
At all costs, avoid politics! Raising the client’s blood pressure by arguing the merits or downfalls of the president, gun laws, abortion or immigration is not helpful to the healing process or respectful of their trust in you as their herbalist. And I say that as a very outspoken and opinionated woman (just ask anyone, heh). I’m not quiet about my views, I just save them for outside the intimacy and vulnerability of the practitioner/client relationship.
Consider Trade, Sliding Scale, Payment Plans and Donations.
Taking trade and donations are definitely not the way to make big bucks (but hell, if you were out for the bling, you probably wouldn’t have become an herbalist anyway, right?) but it does make your work accessible to many people who might not otherwise be able to afford an herbalist’s services. Being willing to take payments over time and using a sliding scale can also be very helpful, and may make a consultation more feasible to someone even if you ask for a set fee.
In order to prevent a client from becoming dependent on purchasing my medicines for their health maintenance, I try to teach each person how to gather and make their own medicines (yet another reason to use common, local plants), if they show even the slightest hint of interest. If they won’t or can’t make their own, I’m open to trade in the form of garden space, fresh eggs, handmade knives, garden grown veggies, chickens (no, really), wild meat, local honey, mechanic work, guns, and other useful things in addition to or instead of payment or donation.
And remember, accepting donations or even working for free doesn’t mean you’re devaluing or allowing other people to devalue your work and help. A gift isn’t worthless just because it didn’t cost the person any money. I’ve found that if my clients aren’t grateful and respectful of my gifts, I probably don’t need to be working with them. Respect yourself and your work at all times.
Focus on Local, Common Plants.
I know damn well that if I recommend that my clients go buy some proprietary herb extract or tea, chances are slim to none that they’ll ever do it. Same with local students, if I suggest they buy some Ginseng and Goldenseal from an herb farm, it’s never going to happen. These people can’t afford expensive plants from other places for the most part, nor would they know one end of a health food or herb store from another (and the closest one is at least two hours away). They may look at me like I’m loco for suggesting they pull those sticky buds off Cottonwood trees or eat the Mallow that’s taking over their garden, but they’ll know exactly what I’m talking about and how to go about it. If I were in an urban environment, I would likely have to change this around to suit local needs, but this is what works here.
People around here really like the words “free” and “cheap” and the idea that they can get food and medicine from their backyards and local riversides is appealing to them. So I mostly teach about local, very common, easily recognizable plants. Clients and students appreciate this and feel like they have something special on their own land, as indeed they do.
People often get scared by the ideas of ratios and math when it comes to making tinctures, so I’m more likely to teach how to create simple teas, infusions and decoctions for both internal and external uses. Just about everyone drinks tea and/or coffee, which makes it easy to explain water based herbal preparations. For those who are more self-motivated and interested in the process, I’ll teach them the simpler-style proportions for tinctures and infused oils.
Stay in Familiar Settings & Maintain Focus.
I try to do my plant walks on well-known, well-liked local people’s land so that a variety of people feel welcome and on familiar territory. Once a group has had a good experience I’m more likely to do walk on wilder public land with them. Same goes for workshops, either at a local person’s home or at a well-known and easily accessed public place. Consultations usually take place in the local café, their home or on a bench outside the corner store. I try to keep things relaxed but focused, and refuse to compete with casual chatter or screaming children. I know from experience that distractions will keep the client from benefiting from or being able to integrate what I give them, so I’d rather wait until they have time to give it their full attention.
Work with Local Doctors and Health Care Practitioners.
Life as the village herbalist is a whole lot easier with a close alliance with the local general practitioner, chiropractor and other health care professionals. I’m especially blessed that our village doctor is a Seventh Day Adventist and so exceptionally open to alternative treatments. Even if your client base is only as broad as your immediate family, you’ll still likely be sharing them with a doctor or dentist. The more you can cooperate with them, the easier your life will be. It’s no fun at all for a client to feel like her doctor and herbalist are playing tug of war with her health by constantly negating each other’s advice and recommendations. Of course, I’m unlikely to ever encourage the use of statins in any case and they’re probably not going to understand my paleo/primal dietary guidelines but nevertheless, I try my damnedest work with and not against the doctors.
Be Human and Be a Role Model (At The Same Time)
It’s entirely too common for alternative health practitioners to try to project an image of purity and holiness, complete with self-righteous dietary rants and broad condemnation of other people’s lifestyles. A word to the wise: get over yourself. There’s no point in trying to be perfect for your community, they prefer you human and relatable — someone they can talk to without fearing judgment and vilification. Save the fire and brimstone for the local preacher, he’s probably better at it anyway.
The balance to being human for the herbalist is being a role model. They’re not really different, after all, just two sides of the same coin. The reality is that people will watch you. They want to see your humanness but they’ll trust your help more if you can take your own advice. If you stress nutritional measures in your consultations, be prepared to answer questions about your own diet and have people be annoyingly interested in your plate when you’re in the local café. In the city, it may be possible to maintain some kind of professional anonymity, but in a village with a population of 300, not so much. I’m not saying you have to be the perfect model of health and moderation, or even that you have to give up your two pack a day habit. Just that the more you can consistently come from a place of authenticity and down to earth wholeness, the more the medicine will peek out from your own face and come tumbling out of your mouth. It’s not JUST the plants after all, you personally are a big part of the healing your clients will receive from your work. So go ahead and get comfortable with that now, and settle in for the long haul.