by Jesse Wolf Hardin
Factionalism & Diversity
Plant Healer is dedicated to encouraging and celebrating diversity in herbalism. This means including, welcoming, and empowering students, enthusiasts and practitioners of every kind, from hobbyists and plant-fans to folk herbalists, clinicians and academics, no matter what their level of expertise or what practices and approaches they might take. We’ve fostered new kinds of conferences, helped others create bioregional events representing the widely varying flavors of the healing arts, Our own events – like the Herbal Resurgence Rendezvous and this year’s HerbFolk Gathering – are home to even those people who feel like the oddballs and outliers, who don’t belong to any group or fit into any norm.
That said, my partner Kiva and I worry to see the degree to which diversification seems in some cases to be turning into divisive factionalism. Various camps and clicks have begun to sound like “true believers” in their approach or cause, loudly and insensitively criticizing others, and showing little tolerance for other people’s opinions, methods, beliefs and styles… at a time when we need to be feeling the sense of family and shared purpose that comes from being fellow lovers of the plants, allies in the shared cause of healing and wholeness. It’s okay to offer information that could assist or sway someone, or to kindly point out what you believe to be errors in their thinking or work, but to publicly shame someone for their lack of knowledge, or to insist there is only one right way, can only damage our tribe and aims.
Factions and differences have always existed, of course. Consider the trashing of Vitalists in the 19th and 20th Centuries, or the last decade’s acrimony between those insisting on the importance of becoming an officially registered herbalist and those opposed to all organizations or even all standards. But now, in the age of internet and social media, it is possible to do more damage to each other and to the reputation of herbalism in general… with only a few poorly considered words. We’ve seen the longstanding reputations of elders sullied by needless accusations and infighting, as well as beginners brought to tears by ill-considered attacks, with folks tentatively taking their first steps into the the field of herbalism sometimes feeling isolated by the indifference or apparent superiority of those who have practiced for years, though a lot of the evident meanness actually stems from insecurity and a desire for love. Instead of humiliating the less experienced among us, the more experienced herbalist needs to embrace the newbie as well as the simplest practitioner, both to help them develop and learn, and also so that the veterans and elders can benefit from their questions, fresh perspectives, and sometimes new ideas. More than almost anything else, we need conscious relationship and intention-filled alliances, leading to a harmony of action and shared goals.
Imagined Schisms & Conscious Relationship
Many of the apparent schisms that herbalism suffers from at this time are without a sound basis. There is, after all, no inherent conflict between professionals and folk practitioners, between paid herbalist teachers and dumpster-diving anarchists… anymore than between those utilizing Western or Chinese or Ayurvedic systems. Nor between intellectual and emotional motivations, book studies and hands-on experience, social activism and herbal practice, personal and societal health. The pragmatists’ and cynics’ dismissing of anything bordering on alternative, spiritual or mystical is as unfounded and unhelpful as New Age practitioners writing off the importance of research, critical thinking, public relations or practical results. When we were putting together our new book The Enchanted Healer, we thought about those magically-minded folks we know who might be put off by its call for a balance between critical inquiry and wonderment, and we had to consider the skeptical professionals among our friends and readers who might never even pick it up because of its title and topics. There is, however, no natural division separating seriousness, practicality, credibility or professionalism, and heightened senses, emotional connection, revelations, a sense of magic or spirit, a state of great passion or deep sense of enchantment.
If anything, what we need now is an active and intimate relationship and alliance between learned academics and field practitioners, plant artists and botanists, clinic personnel and field or “street” herbalists, shamans and scientists, herbal cultivators and culture creators, wildcrafters and conservationists, registered herbalists who can work with and influence the bureaucracy and those creating a healthy counterculture, organizers and those who love to resist the excesses of organizations. A heartful covenant between wild eyed imagineers and determined implementers.
Similarly, our personal well being, our effectiveness as healers or herb providers, the herbal community, and the way herbalists are seen by outside of the community, can all benefit from a mating of different approaches and styles, ideas, ways and means. It is pure foolishness to ignore Arabic, Indian or Chinese diagnostic models and treatment methodologies when one can integrate these ages-old knowings into our personal understanding and practice, and likewise how silly is it to act as if there is no valid Western contribution to herbalism, or to insist on and go crazy over Asiatic herbs whenever there are Western herbs that work in the same way? Professional herbalism needs a folk herbal heart, sense of social justice and concern for health care access for the disadvantaged, while folk practices have to take into account new knowledge, accept positive criticism, adapt to the times, and respect the influence of plant-obsessed professionals on the prevailing institutions. To diss all scientific research and findings is to greatly handicap ourselves, and so is automatic dismissal of the possibilities beyond the already known and “proven,” ignorance of the unmeasured but evident life force in us all, or outright rejection of the spiritual, the magical, the incredible.
The False Dilemma of Credible vs Enchanted
(excerpted from the upcoming book “The Enchanted Healer” available for pre-order Feb 14th from the Bookstore page at www.PlantHealer.org)
“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”
“If growing up means it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree,
I’ll never grow up, never grow up… not me!”
–J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan)
In the story of Peter Pan, Peter faces what is framed as a dire choice between clinging to the perspectives, liberties and joys of childhood – his enchantment – and growing up to assume his place and role in society.
Barrie had reason to suspect the trap of adulthood, and to resent the efforts to control and “tidy up” children’s minds. He resented the degree to which it limits our explorations of self and universe, deadens our fun, and prevents our spirits from truly flying. The institutions of civilization, it seems, have always mistrusted things like diversity of opinion, new or alternative ways of thinking and perceiving, individual liberty, unbridled imagination, and what it often calls “over-excitement.” Academia and some models of professionalism exacerbate this tendency by trivializing the unofficial and unorthodox, the informal and unmetered, the emotional and emotive, the experiential and anecdotal, the personal and subjective, the imaginary and fantastic. And yet to the child, and to the natural human mind, nothing that the somber and cynical adult model offers is as compelling as this world seen through the lens of our enchantment.
Society teaches that we become something else when we get into and past our teen years, that we become grownups, that we “turn into” adults. The supposition is that in the act of maturing we are no longer the same creatures we were as children, but rather, someone different, held to a different set of standards: a more tamed and sober animal, rational, disciplined, ready to trade our curiosities and indulgences for the world-view and life assignments of the currently prescribed adult world, willing to give up wild unsupervised play time for staged events and daily scripts. From puberty onwards, we may be taught that to cry out loud indicates weakness, that to chase our dreams shows our naivete, to make crazy animal sounds or giddily interact with the herbs in our gardens demonstrates infantilism and hence unreliability… and that even for us to hope to change the world, or to devote ourselves to the often impractical missions of healing and betterment can be a sign of immaturity. Who could be blamed for refusing to climb down from the boughs of a magical looking tree, into the cold arms of societal expectations and rote assignments, dampened passions and debunked mysteries?
We damn sure don’t need to do “what we’re told,” if what we are told is to unquestioningly accept their reality, to “straighten up,” “settle down” or “get with the program.” We do need, as we’re advised, to “come down to earth,” but in terms of getting closer to elemental life and the living world we’re a part of, and actually experiencing rather than simply conceptualizing and analyzing, doing as well as planning… not in terms of letting go of our lofty hopes, cutting loose our cherished dreams, doubting and turning our backs on our visions, rejecting the giddy extremes of sensing and savoring, or retreating from the depths of ecstasy and brilliance of visions. We need to “get real,” as most of us have been admonished, not by abandoning fantasy but by doing all we can in the real world to make the fantastic and visionary come true. We need not grow “up” but “inwards” and “within,” growing not bigger but better. Growing more beautiful. Growing more healthy, more hopeful, more imaginative, more creative, more determined to be healed, and to help heal others and this earth.
“To live will be an awfully big adventure.”
On one level, we don’t need to ever grow up… only to learn how to act in public so that we don’t handicap our efforts or endanger ourselves or our goals! On the other hand, humankind and the entire planet does need us to take on the best attributes of adulthood, including mature consideration and reflection, discernment and critical thinking, patience, focus, responsibility, initiative, service to a good that is greater than ourselves, self-discipline, follow-through, pledge keeping, and sacrifice when and as required.
As adults we have more entrenched disbelief to get over, and more preconceptions to overcome, but at the same time we have a deepened capacity for a more complex and greater realized enchantment than we knew as kids, a state of ecstatic wonderment made richer by our actual experiences, informed by our memories, feeding our creativity, and fueling our healing purpose.
Fire Cider, The Prioritizing of Battles, & a Respectful Opposition
I would never use the popular expression “it’s all good,” because it isn’t. Not everyone’s abilities are equal. Some treatments and herbs work better than others in particular people and situations. At all times there is an optimum choice and action depending on need and conditions, and choices that are counterproductive or downright harmful. Repressive or onerous governmental regulation needs to be actively opposed, not just censured or ignored. Even the actions of herbalists are not without potential consequences for our clients and our society, both good and bad. There are wrongs committed by the system, and also by ourselves. Our failure to respond to injustice can itself prove harmful. And there are harmful as well as helpful ways to oppose any wrongs.
A case in point is the unfortunate actions of an herbal beverage maker in 2013/14, and the herbalist community’s various reactions to what they did. The manufacturers actually trademarked the term “Fire Cider,” apparently ignorant of the fact that it dates back at least a few decades to when the esteemed herbalist Rosemary Gladstar introduced it to the public through her books and other writings, and that many people have freely marketed their personal versions of Fire Cider over the years… effectively removing it from the public commons, and making it illegal for anyone else to use it! More egregiously, the offending manufacturers have sent out numerous “cease and desist”orders to pre-existing small-time makers and sellers of Fire Cider, threatening legal action if their products aren’t removed from the Etsy craft sales site. Without any pushback from us, we can be sure of more companies appropriating and monopolizing the terminology of our folkways for their sole profit, acting increasingly like insensitive corporate thugs.
In this case, however, the offending manufacturer is not even a large corporate entity, and it seems the owners are more hipsters than they are industrialists. And some of the responses from herbalists seem acrimonious to the point of undermining our moral authority. Even true enemies of herbalism should be opposed in a respectful manner, strong and insistent but also considerate, and these people are leaning on us to make money, not in a campaign to hurt herbalists or herbalism. I am not a pacifist but a confirmed activist, a sometimes forceful defender of rights and of innocence against injustice and exploitation, but how we comport ourselves matters. Not all wrongdoers are truly our opponents, and our true opponents have reasons they can cite, needs they hope to meet, and feelings we can hurt. I applaud those who are opposing this kind of commercial appropriation with respect and compassion. Whenever the cause is so serious as to deserve it, let us do what it takes to right the recognizable wrong… yet remain considerate, honorable, and respectful, even when taking the strongest of measures.
We also need to prioritize our peeves and causes, with only just so much indignation to tap, only so many hours and so much energy with which to act. It is important that we not only pick our battles, but also determine how much of our precious time and effort to give each one, making sure we are not depleted by whatever cause or issue is currently most in vogue or in our face. Anger is not always a bad thing, I assure you, but your reservoirs of justified animal anger might be needed for urgent campaigns to save the damaged and threatened natural habitats where our medicinal herbs evolved and still struggle to survive, or in protests on behalf of the freedom to practice our craft without increasing corporate-fostered regulation. While causes such as the Fire Cider trademarking issue should definitely not be ignored, we should always keep in mind that the same energy reserves we might expend lambasting ill-reasoning herbal entrepreneurs are also available for us to create new herb businesses with, to launch free clinics, educate the masses, and otherwise co-create a new nature-informed culture of healing.
We need to do it all, in the most honorable ways possible.
The Call for Unity
It may sound funny to you, but I can’t think of too many things more disagreeable to me than a population of people agreeing about absolutely everything. That wouldn’t serve diversity, nor contribute to balance or healing, change or improvement. Differences of opinion and approach are essential to social evolution, the same as the divergence of species propels biological adaptation and contributes to a dynamic ecological whole. Differences among us are not just tolerable or excusable, they are actually vital if we are to avoid boring conformity, restrictive dogma, and the rigidification, gentrification, corporatization, and institutionalization of herbalism.
On the other hand (as I so often like to say!), a consonance and confluence of values, priorities and actions is necessary to keep a group/community from splitting into factions and failing in its missions. Unity is not sameness, it does not mean that we need to be the same, think, practice or otherwise act the same. Being unified means that we are all part of a integral and purposeful whole, not that all parts are or should be alike. And it means we’re in a conscious and committed relationship that requires our most considerate and honorable interaction, doing our individual parts to heal not just ailing bodies but the any schisms in our community, expressing diversity while avoiding factions.
While I am generally distrustful and disparaging of manifestos, no matter who provides them or what they describe, there would seem to be a clear need for a manifesto of unity, a proclamation of our determination to unify and strengthen the community and field of herbalism we not only practice but live… and love. Elders, luminaries, and enthusiastic beginners. The politically correct and willfully incorrect. Caring businesswomen and free providers. Conservatives, leftists, and even the I’m-always-right-ists. The pragmatists and visionaries. Cholerics and Phlegmatics. Scientific researchers and explorers of the magical realms. Skeptical practitioners and wholly, gladly enchanted healers. Together in our glad differences. And all one, in our purpose, our struggles, our joys.
(We encourage you to re-post and share Wolf’s message widely – thank you –Kiva)
The next issue of the complimentary Plant Healer Newsletter will feature herbal articles by Juliet Blankespoor, Jim McDonald, Matt Wood and Catherine Skipper. It will be available for download on Feb. 14th
You can subscribe for free at www.PlantHealer.org