Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Inspiration on the Path of Herbalism

"What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
Oh let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet."

Gerard Manley Hopkins

I've always been drawn to the weeds and the wilderness, as Hopkins puts it. But then, to most young children, there is no distinction between weeds and wilderness. For a child recognizes the wild in all it's forms, from the large and impending wood lot at the end of the lane, to the dandelions bursting through a crack of asphalt in the parking lot. All is Nature in it's indescribable, but wholly palpable (to a child) form. The wild doesn't ask for permission, doesn't recognize rules, isn't proper, doesn't grow in rows, doesn't respect construction. In other words, the wild hasn't been tamed, obviously. But I think that is why it is so easily seen by children. Children, who have not yet been fully trained in the ways of society, i.e. tamed, find a delight in the wilds wherever they find it. But the more we grow, the more the adults try to school us in the ways of the world, the more we lose this connection, this ability to see the intelligence in the wild things around us, and the more we lose a sense of kinship with them.

I'm thinking about all this because recently another herbalist, in helping me find inspiration for a blog post, suggested the question, "What kind of herbalist are you?" In pondering this, I began to think about what I love about working with the plants, and then about what attracted me to this path in the first place, and then to that initial spark that first called my attention back to the wild things after many years of disconnection, and how magical that was for me. And then I realized that that spark that woke me up, that grabbed my attention years ago and reawakened in me a thing that had been asleep since childhood, that spark is what keeps me on this path, and what drives me to work in the way that I do. Sometimes in our lives we have moments of crystallization, when something breaks through our consciousness and suddenly we get it, that is we get something. And even though we can't really articulate to our fellow humans around us what it is that we suddenly "get", we are changed in that moment, and able to see things we previously could not. This is how it was for me when, in my early 20's, I saw the wild all around me as an ever presence benevolent force that I was somehow a part of. And in that realization, the flood of childhood memories of a time where this knowing was just a part of who I was, who we all are before we are taught otherwise, came rushing in.

For me, this awakening was sparked by the weeds. I had been studying medicinal herbs (that's a very technical and society-approved term for wild plants that can help us heal) and at some point it began to dawn on me that many of the offending things that we call "weeds" and love to complain about and pull (even if we throw our back out) and spray with poison that makes our children sick and really have  downright declared war against because we loath them so, many of these plants could also be called medicinal herbs. What? 

I started to look at my back yard differently. I started to wonder what was really going on there. And I started to question that weird distinction our culture seems to have made so long ago between the wild and the civilized. I started to wonder, as I hiked through the preserved patches of forests outside of town, why we separate ourselves from the wild (or try to), with us over here, and the "preserve" over there. Over the years I've come to understand that, whatever the reason for the initial separation, the result is a whole society of humans who are so disconnected from the Nature they are a part of, they have no problem at all in destroying it. There is no remorse in  chopping down trees or poisoning rivers. We've gotten quite good at it. But for those who have that connection intact, these acts are traumatic to witness.

When my oldest son was five years old, the road crews were trimming the trees along the power lines on our road. When they got to our house, they began to trim some of the limbs on the big silver maple by our driveway. My son began screaming and crying. I could not calm him down and he became so enrages he started throwing sticks at the crew. I picked him up and brought him inside, where I listened to his pain. They had not asked permission before they started cutting that living tree that he had known all his life, that he still recognized a kinship with. I held him and we cried together. I tried to explain to him that they meant no harm and were only trimming branches away from the wires, but in my heart I knew my son was right. The problem was not the tree, but the fact that to those workers the tree was just a thing to be trimmed, they had lost that connection.

And so this is why I work with the plants. It is a way for me to work every day to rekindle that connection, for me to try to preserve it in my children, and to try, in any way I can, to rekindle it in those around me. This is why I chose to teach (instead of say, become a clinical herbalist), and why I teach outside, in the garden, with the living plants. I want to inspire that awakening in people, I want to open their eyes and their hearts to the wonder that exists right in their back yards, in the cracks in the pavement. I want them to taste calamus root, to feel mullein, to smell meadowsweet, and to see the patterns and geometries of these incredible plants. And then, I want them to begin to shift their perception about their relationship to this green world. It may sound like a grand goal, but when someone suddenly understands the value of dandelion and plantain in their lives, when they can become grateful for their gifts, the shift has begun. 

And when I get ladies coming back to my classes and relating stories about telling their husbands not to mow over there, or weed over here, my heart is happy. Yes, I want to help folks with their eczema and digestive issues, but healing that disconnect is where my real passion dwells. It is what drives me and keeps me on this path. It is what inspires me. 
I love it.

And once one begins to accept the possibility that those "weeds" growing around us might not be all that bad, well maybe that will open the door to connecting with Nature at large, perhaps even beginning to heal our kinship with her. Well, we've got to start somewhere.


  1. I loved your story and feel the same. I started years ago studying medicinal herbs and still today my favorites are the Dandelion & Plantain. I hope more people are inspired by your story and reconnect to Nature ~ then they will truely be able to appreciate the value and beauty of 'weeds' :)

    1. Thanks Cindy. Nice to hear from others who love the weeds.