portrait of the herbalist as a fly in the ointment

IMG_5805IMG_5711In the vast world of plant medicine, which is difficult to define and harder still to contain, indivuduals must find their own roles. To be an “expert” on all plants is like being an expert on every single planet in the entire solar system-absurd! Impossible! Yet one could seek to be very very good at first aid, nutrition, botany or teaching. I, however, am not. I am not particularly good at writing monographs or nutritional counseling. I suck at making formulas and keying out species. So what’s my niche? Questioning everything.

I did not become an herbalist to sell stuff, to make friends or to be nice. I got into herbalism becasue a giant green hammer was pounding in my brain, leading me outside and into the arms of the plants. I am a fly in the ointment and I have learned to stop fighting that role and embrace it. I am the drunken bridesmaid of herbalism, the elephant in the room, knocking stuff over and crying at inappropriate times.
I question becasue I believe herbalism is an explosion, a compost pile, hot inside, constantly growing and changing, expanding and making a mess. I believe herbalists are red wrigglers eating crap and giving back black gold,and I believe the transformational possibilites are endless.
We can choose to embrace this or not, and neither is right or wrong for everyone.
But should we give simple answers to simple questions? That is up for each to decide, but I believe mostly no-we may do a disservice to others by asnwering oversimplified “what’s good for x” type questions. This fly wants to teach you HOW to learn, not what to do. I do not want to make a sale or make friends, I want to push people a little, to make folks think–I myself have been offended by words that later, upon reflection, changed my life.
Often we are taught to never rock the boat, to give short answers, sound bites and polite euphemisms. School, work, institutions, “check this box!” Well, fuck that! Are we trying to spark people, to change the world? Or are we more concerned with offending someone? Are we more afraid to challenge others and ourselves?
Herbalism is not an ossuary. There is no one master list where we look up this for that. Herbalism is a bullet train full of green revelers, hurtling through space, a dynamic and evolving force. herbalism is resistance, resilience, evolution. We are artisans practicing a craft-practicing for life-never mastering. For an artist can master painting a still life, over and over, 3 pears and a vase of flowers until it’s perfect. But every single living thing is different and awesome and every herbal interaction is a dance between herbalist and plant medicine, between client and herbalist and between plant emdicine and client. We are painting a volcanic explosion not a still life.
This is beautiful and exciting as well as sometimes frustrating, but we must accept that there is no easy answer, there is no box to check off. I reject the marketing schemes and the lifelong indoctrination that we can fix things easily and simply with pills.
So our craft needs the cheerful, the positive, the nice and the linear. Our craft needs all of you wonderful people who choose not to alienate or offend others, all of the different styles and all of the choices. But herbalism also needs the obnoxious, the questioners who poke at life with a stick to see what happens. Herbalism also needs to get shaken up sometimes, to crack our minds open and see what comes out, even if it is messy and challenging, hilarious and painful. That is one of the ways we learn.

9 thoughts on “portrait of the herbalist as a fly in the ointment

  1. Wow, love your thoughts. I’m gonna work the meat off this bone for a while!
    I can see where some of your ideas can apply to art as well – I’m a musician as well as an herbalist, in the midst of defining my next step (leap really) as to what music I want to offer the world. I’m struggling a bit with my coach on this; I’m having a hard time narrowing down from ‘world music’ and maybe some swing. He feels I need a narrower focus for the album I’ll be doing later this year (and he might yet be right…) and to market it. I definitely want to inspire and uplift and enliven people, and I want to move away from accounting into being a full time music professional – without compromising my integrity. And yes, the plants will always be there too! They keep me sane – and I’m delighted to know them.
    Sorry to detour from Herbalism in my reply, but I wanted to express my appreciation for the door you’ve opened in my mind to another way of looking at things! Thank you.

  2. I’ve been studying and teaching herbal medicine for over 30 years and I love what you’re saying. As a 20 year old I taught in an alternative school … it wasn’t about WHAT we were teaching because that was really broad, it was about HOW to engage people in learning so that it was vibrant, exciting, compelling and useful. You could teach language,quilting, archery, housebuilding or political science in similar creative ways, I happened to pick a study of herbs, but really what I teach is how to think creatively. Herbal medicine is the chessboard, not the chess pieces. Creative thoughts are the pieces and herbal medicine is the territory. I remember back then reading an article about a kid in a school who was given the assignment. “Using a sextant, find the height of the school building.” The student came up with a whole lot of creative ways to answer the question, including something like. “You could go to the school janitor and say, ‘I will give you this lovely sextant if you will tell me the height of the school building.’ “… another one of his answers was, ‘You could go up to the top of the school building, tie a very long string onto the sextant, lower it to the ground from the roof and then measure the string with a ruler. ” The student DIDN’T give the answer the teacher wanted, and was suspended from school for being impertinent. Fortunately it was right in the excitement of what was then called the Free School Movement, and the student’s parents totally backed him up. He DID answer the question, by doing what is now called “thinking outside the box”. Of course he knew what the teacher was looking for, but he answered the question as it was asked and should have been congratulated for his creative thinking, not punished for it. I had a man come to me with psoriasis that had not responded to medical treatment. Medical books say about psoriasis “Etiology unknown.” in other words, they don’t know what causes it and can treat it but not cure it. I’ve seen many herbalists cure it by treating the liver. If I had listened to what the medical “authorities” said, I might have given up right at the beginning. That man got better, then he had his mother in her 80’s consult for a problem which also got better, then he brought his father who was almost 90 who’d had a persistent problem for years. His father got better within 2 weeks. Later I saw an article in the paper about his daughter, she’d just been appointed as a government investigator looking into people who were making claims regarding herbs. She was, in effect, a “quackbuster”! I would have liked to be a “FLY” on the wall to hear the kinds of conversation she might have had with her Dad, her Grandmother, and her Grandfather regarding her work!

  3. I am so inspired by the way you described your approach to herbalism. I have been studying herbs for a few years now, but I have not yet been able to give it my all, because I have a tough time dealing with the negative responses from people who are all about conventionl medicine. I truly believe in the power of plants and I will be thinking about your words as I continue to study herbs and my relationship with nature. Thank you for such a great blog.

  4. Janet, I’ve b een a herbalist for over 30 of my 65 years. My Dad was a doctor, as well as Minister of Health in the Canadian province I grew up in. I started studying herbs after he’d died, I have many medically trained people in my near and extended family. If you do your homework regarding the use of herbs, you will feel more and more comfortable with it. I was asked one time by a mother who had given birth prematurely to twins outdoors on a fishing dock if I would help one of her babies who was still on a respirator in the intensive care at the local hospital. I said yes but as I took the bus to the hospital and walked in there I was very nervous and aware of how I might be seen by some in there as an ignorant quack. On the contrary, the people I dealt with were kindly and respectful. They had reached the limits of what they could do. I suggested rubbing garlic oil on the baby’s feet, and giving some Dandelion and Hawthorn in the baby’s nutritional drip. The fluid that had built up around her heart immediately reduced and the baby started breathing better, Their only requirement was that I brought them a herbal text with proper footnotes to justify what I was doing, so THEY would be able to justify it. Unfortunately the scar tissue that had formed in the baby’s bronchial alveoli caused by the too early birth prevented her from getting off the respirator, as her sister had, so the parents brought in a spiritual practitioner and the baby was taken off the respirator and died with all her family and hospital staff around her. (She was First Nations … they took her with a hand respirator into the woods behind the hospital, carried in a sweetgrass basket her grandmother had made for her, with a medicine man to do ceremony for her passing.) Afterwards, the main doctor, that had attended her, phoned and asked to attend my herb classes, and the mom told me she felt that the purpose of her daughter’s short life was to help bring all of the attendant people, conventional and complimentary, together in kindness and respect. I know that was an unusual experience, but it shows how it CAN be.

  5. Remember Swan Lake? Remember me who worked in the Saanich Archives nearby?
    I’ve been living in Haida Gwaii since 2006. I live in senior’s housing and volunteer on an organic farm. I have been a daily regular in a local cafe all these years for lunch and crib with other regulars. This has done wonders for leaving the reclusive life behind. I eat half-a-dozen warming herbs daily and no longer suffer from internal cold, colds or flu. I’m no longer dumbed down by daily dope.
    Are you in contact with Diana Beresford-Kroeger? A wise woman.
    Would like to correspond about plants, etc.
    With affection and best wishes.

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