The Witch at the Edge of the Woods: Introversion and Otherness In The Herbalist
In fairy tales and folklore, very often the protagonist is notably social and is part of a specific fellowship, community, or group. On the other hand, the antagonists are often solitary and live away from others, most frequently deep in the wilderness or a vast wasteland. If you meet a woman living alone in the forest, you could not be blamed for assuming she’s a hermit, a monster, hag, a witch of unknown intentions – no matter how attractive, kind, or wise she might appear. In modern Disney-type interpretations of the bad guys, it is even sometimes said that they are evil because they’re lonely, and that if only they could be a part of the larger community they too would blossom into benevolent and beautiful creatures who hold hands and burst into symphonic, village-wide song. In all cases, otherness and potential maliciousness is frequently implied by a character being solitary. There are exceptions to this, with a number of helpful fae or fairly benign monsters also living alone, but they are rarely found at the center of the story, and tend to still be viewed with some trepidation and wariness. After all, what good person would actively choose to be alone?
It’s common for folks to say they need solitary time, but most people who say they want solitude seem to mean only for a few hours at a time before they once again seek human company. Hosting retreat guests here in this New Mexico wilderness, I see how even those expressing a desire to spend time alone really have a hard time being by themselves in the woods. I admit that I find this both fascinating and foreign, as I’ve voluntarily spent long periods of time without human contact since I was in my early teens. I don’t see that solitude is better that more social tendencies, as both are needed and natural. I do, however, notice that there tends to be a great deal of pressure placed on the less social to behave in an essentially extroverted way. Society at large, from psychiatrists to the media to the average mother seem notably concerned when someone chooses a more solitary existence, and these people are often viewed with suspicion simply if they don’t make obligatory appearances at community events or engage in chit chat while standing in line at the bank. To keep to one’s self is very often to invite labels such as eccentric at best, and sociopath at worst.
In my years of teaching, I have noticed that there is a significant percentage of herbalists who feel much more at home with plants than people. Some of them work in the capacity of a clinician simply because it feels like the reasonable extension of their obsession with plants, and a way of utilizing their growing knowledge while developing new skills. Most often these herbalists do care a great deal about the well being of others, but find frequent social interaction to be draining of difficult. I hear the guilt in their voices and the fragility in the tone of their emails. They think they are bad to not crave the company of others, they believe they must need a special flower essence because they don’t relate to humans as a whole. There is nothing wrong with being an introvert. There is nothing wrong with not fitting in. You are not required to spend all your time shoulder to shoulder with other humans in order to be an effective herbalist. It only becomes a problem when we struggle to accept our own otherness and introversion, and are thus unable to form our practice and our lives in a way that nurtures us and allows us to be ourselves.
The term community herbalist brings to mind, quite reasonably, a healer working within a community, serving and at home within a group of other human beings. And yet, historically, herbalists have often been marginalized. They have frequently walked the borderlands of village and the wildwood, traveling between the civilized and the wild as emissaries of the forest, bringing healing to the townsfolk. We can say it was because they had no choice, that they were driven from their communities by religious zealots or opportunistic politics, and certainly that would be true… but only in part.
The larger truth, is that many of us who have a gift for working with the plants also have great difficulty belonging among other humans. We may care a great deal about our community, but need the nourishment of solitude in order to do our work. Working with other people in a healing context can be difficult and exhausting at the best of times, and while many people feel recharged by spending time with family or community, the introvert needs to pull back and inwards in order to not be drained by their work. This can be difficult for clients, family, and friends to understand, since off duty time is usually considered to be time spent with others having fun. For myself, I most often need my time off to be by myself with the plants in order for it to be truly replenishing. I struggle with this at times, and have tried to find my nourishment in the company of others, but always I find myself straying back to the forest and desert for connection and communion.
Herbalists from any number of traditions can be found debating the details of the current most popular constitutional theory, so you’d think we’d be experts at understanding the differences between us. And yet, many herbalists still seem to feel inadequate for their very natures. Part of the issue lies in the expectation that a healer be a kind, welcoming person anxious to help and serve everyone around them while also serving as a social hub for those in need. There are certainly many wonderful herbalists who do so admirably, and thrive within the embrace of close knit community. Still others avoid large groups but feel comfortable in smaller groups or one on one. These people can often find a way of customizing their practice so that they meet their own needs for time alone while still having an active place in the larger community.
Others of us remain in the dark forest, often preferring the company of ravens and nightshade to that of our fellow furless humans.
In The Dark Forest: The Witch as Herbalist Archetype
“The witch raised up the maiden’s face and smoothed her tears away as though she was erasing a canvas. She smiled at the helpless girl, her face lighting like a midsummer fire…’Never put your faith in a Prince. When you require a miracle, trust in a witch.” - Cat Valente, In The Night Garden
“The Dark Forest is not the merry greenwood of Robin Hood legends, or a Disney glade where dwarves whistle as they work, or a National Park with walkways and signposts and designated camping sites; it’s the forest primeval, true wilderness, symbolic of the deep, dark levels of the psyche; it’s the woods where giants will eat you and pick your bones clean, where muttering trees offer no safe shelter, where the faeries and troll folk are not benign. It’s the woods you may never come back from.” -Terri Windling, from “Into the Woods Part 6: The Dark Forest”
My obsession with plants dates back to early childhood, although I was admittedly at least as interested in poisoning people as in healing them at that point. For me, the fascination lay in the power of the plants and how their magic manifested in the human body. I doubt I was born with a higher than average level of compassion, but I did come into this world with my heart and spirit bound irrevocably to the green world. Even as an adolescent I realized I valued the life of a tree as much as the life of a human being, and couldn’t understand why those around me found this to be strange or why it earned me stern reproach from church leaders. I certainly heard and understood from those around me that only humans had souls, and thus only they truly mattered. I just thought they were deaf or deluded, or hadn’t yet learned to hear the world beneath their feet that was singing so loudly the ground sometimes shakes with it.
My desire to be an herbalist bloomed from the oldest of stories, hose where a witch lives at the edge of a deep, dark wood. She may be beautiful or she may be ugly, she may speak with a siren’s voice or cackle deep in her wrinkled throat. It doesn’t matter, it only matters that the forest holds her to itself like a beloved child and that she speaks the names of the plants and animals as if they were her confidantes and lovers, sisters and elders.
The people from the village fear her. The townsfolk cross themselves when she walks past them on her to way to treat an ailing grandmother. They question her humanity and her religion, but still they creep to her door deep in the night to ask for a cure for their baby’s croup or a wound that won’t heal. She may serve the community, but no one would mistake her as one of them. This healer archetype speaks of otherness in a primal, and sometimes frightening way. We see pieces of it in the story of almost every witch to appear in European and North American fairy tales, from the hag-like visage of Baba Yaga to the beguiling beauty of the queen in Snow White. So often the antagonists of our moral tales, these powerful women refuse to fit into society’s molds of what is good, safe, and proper. They stand, frequently alone, at the periphery of community and consciousness. Wrapped in a shadowy cloak, they embody the fierceness, hungers, and otherness that incites both interest and fear. It is the habit of human social groups to demonize what is outside of them, and thus it is of great importance for there to be interface between what is inside, familiar, and comfortable with that which is outside, unfamiliar, and potentially frightening. We need the witch in the forest for her healing is raw and close to the source of the First Forest, the archetypal darkness from which humanity was birthed.
There is still a place in the story for the other, for the witch and the wildwood. Without these elements the story of healing in our cultures would lose both power and depth. We need those who live within the communities and heal through familiarity and kindness, and we need those who keep to themselves and bring something less known to the table. Above all, the earth needs diversity, and we all have a role to play as the story of life unfolds along the brambly, winding path.
Wandering the Wood: The Solitary Herbalist
“And if they thought her aimless, if they thought her a bit mad, let them. It meant they left her alone. Marya was not aimless, anyway. She was thinking.” - Cat Valente, Deathless
It’s taken long years for me to accept that I’m both a sensitive, empathetic person and a very introverted one. I do have some performer type tendencies, and when I have social time, it’s often in a big way. Living in the wilderness all year, and then seeing my friends at our annual Herbal Resurgence Rendezvous works great for me this way. I get to see everyone all at once and enjoy the full on festival experience… and then I can return to my tiny cabin in the mountains to recuperate and plan for the next time!
I have often felt that I should be more social, and am capable of acting that way for periods of time before I realize that I’m spiraling into burnout, anxiety, and the sense of being completely overwhelmed by others. I’ve spent much of the last six months trying to understand why I fight my own nature and force myself to be more social than I really am, and then rebound so badly that I can hardly bring myself to speak to anyone at all for a week.
I’ve grown to understand that, for the average person, saying hello and engaging in small talk with other people in the grocery store line, at a cafe, or over the back yard fence is both enjoyable and relatively effortless. For me, interacting with other people, even the nicest of people, requires significant energy and work. I find that the better I know myself, the more I only want to spend time with others in an intentional and focused way whenever possible, even if it means that other folks might think I’m unsociable or strange.
Those more social than we may understandably have a difficult time understanding our retiring habits, but there are certainly some ways in which we can create boundaries for ourselves while helping those around us have a deeper understanding of who we are and how we prefer to interact with the world. Below you will find a list of some of the tips that help me remember how to stay grounded in myself, and assist me in staying true to my own needs and nature.
A Few Tips For Thriving As An Introverted Herbalist:
•It’s sometimes very helpful to start off by defining what it means to be an herbalist for yourself, and whether this requires working with other people.
•If you work with plants on a regular basis, even if only for yourself and/or your family, then you are still an herbalist. You don’t need to do or be anything else for anyone else.
•If you have a deep desire to be a clinician but find that working with strangers on a daily basis is overwhelming, consider a very small scale practice working with a very restricted clientele.
•It is completely possible to work with one’s community to varying degrees without being at the center of it.
•Remember that you, as the practitioner, can choose who you do, or do not, work with. You are not obligated to treat the general public or people who upset you. It sounds obvious, but sometimes we all need to hear that we have choices and the ability to control who we interact with on a deep level.
•If you do choose to work with others be sure to set up solitary self-care rituals for yourself so that you can replenish yourself. This is important for every practitioner, but doubly so for introverts who tend to be exceptionally drained by human interaction.
•Be honest about your social needs with other people, as they will often otherwise simply assume you don’t like them or feel otherwise rejected. Humans tend to be social by default and it often requires a shift in perspective for them to realize that some people need more time alone.
•Don’t feel selfish or guilty for enjoying the plants for themselves and for yourself. To interact and appreciate with the green world can be enough all on its own.
Somewhere, deep in the woods near dusk, a small woman is smiling to herself as she gathers sweet roots and rich mushrooms for that night’s dinner. She hears the quiet patter of paws nearby and holds out a morsel of fruit for her furred friend. Her basket it full of the bark, leaves, and berries needed to treat the cough of an ailing child. The mother will visit the woman’s small cottage at the edge of the forest the next morning to retrieve the medicines before hurrying back to the noisy, bustling hearth of her own home at the center of the village.
All around are the muted sounds of birds settling into their roosts and the ripple of running water nearby. As she rises from the damp ground, she thanks the land for its richness, and strides on sure feet in the near dark back to the blessed peace of her tiny house. The trees lean in toward her as she passes by, straining to hear her quiet song, and holding her to this forest as its own.