Mar 072016


Dearly Needed Are The Committed Few… Herbalists

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

An Excerpt from the Spring 2016 issue of Plant Healer Magazine, now available for download by subscription from:

pond lilly flower 72dpi

The very last message you’d think an herbal magazine would want to put out there, is that an herbal practice isn’t ideal for all.  But if the leafen slipper fits, wear it!


Many years ago, I was partners in an art gallery on the historic Taos plaza, in northern New Mexico.  While this ancient settlement had long been known as an art and writer’s colony, home to such eclectic impassioned misfits as D.H. Lawrence, by the mid 1970s its prime real estate had been taken over from the Hispanic locals and gentrified by the marketers of generic paintings and tourist teeshirts.  Visitors from Texas and California could find the exact same souvenirs in shop after shop, while the upscale galleries mostly featured variations of the same R.C. Gorman style five-minute portraits of stylized Indian maidens with their iconic clay pots.  Depending on one’s income, a vacationer could choose either high-brow or low-brow wall decoration without hardly a single diversion into the otherworld of mind opening, heart wrenching, soul stirring arts.  

Mountain Unique Gallery 72dpi

Our “Mountain Unique Gallery” was thus an anomaly, vividly contrasting with the surrounding commerciality, sameness and normality, employing a cadre of visionary hippie craftsmen and several intense native artists from Taos Pueblo.  Inside, a glass pyramid display case held strange handmade silver talismans, Mayan styled eagle pendants with chatoyant opal eyes, red catlinite medicine pipes, hand forged knives with ancient mammoth ivory handles scrimshawed with a delicate lacing of colored blossoms and fanciful green leaves.  Walls were covered with Mexican retablos showcasing Dia de Los Muertos skeletal dancers and the holy Virgen de Guadalupe, with paintings by myself and a posse of relentless culture shifters – surreal landscapes and even surrealer mindscapes, mandalic medicine wheels and inspirited wildlife, glowing Peyote buttons and wandering medicine women.  Sage incense and strange music spilled out the door and onto the sidewalk surrounding the plaza, swirling amongst those passing there, and acting as a sort of filter – gently dissuading the most staid, tentative or typical browsers while enticing those on a search for the authentic, the magical, the unusual.  And to settle the matter for the curious but uncommitted, a custom made stained-glass window set into the gallery’s turquoise blue door spelling out these telltale words: “Not For Everyone.”

Upon reading this missive in colored glass, nearly all would pause with the door knob in hand, then press their face closer to the window to see what destinations of the imagination this portal might provide.  Of these, a majority would then turn away, sometimes picking up their pace, hurrying on to the next shop as though pursued by some barely forgotten dream.  And some – not “everyone– sensing their flawed yet wondrous selves to be something other than ordinary, would be drawn into the experience, into a personal inner journey that each scent, sound, and image in turn encouraged.  No one was barred or excluded, but the honest, expressive authenticity and palpable spirit of the space and its artists resulted in the thousands of monthly Taos visitors self-selecting who among them would move on… and who would enter and be opened, behold and participate.

I tell you this story, because it is much the same with herbalism, natural healing, and the plant-loving folks who study and practice its craft – whether or not we realize, and whether or not we yet value the natural processes and dynamics of distinction and selection.  There be no need for stained glass exclamation or the holding of signs, for it to be evident that plant medicine is also “not for everyone.”  Nor do we need to intentionally assume the work of filters ourselves, excluding those we think undeserving and certifying those we accept, because it is the constitutions and characters of people and the character of herbal practice that together provide the sifting and the assignments.  

You might wish, like I have, that every living person was interested in learning something about plant medicine, so as to be less dependent on the expensive and often unhealthful modern medical system.  And you might like to think that everyone with a strong interest would also have the innate characteristics and make the life choices necessary to effectively practice this healing art.  It is a function of both evolutionary specialization and human diversity, that individuals be born with different constitutions, tendencies and responses, that we grow up with varying degrees of different abilities, with specific weaknesses and strengths, and with a wide range of natural inclinations and developed interests.  Assuming we follow our hearts and callings, pay attention to our deficits and utilize our blessings, we might each find an individualized role that best contributes to our mission, our health and wholeness.  And of course, there will always be those who choose to turn away from any wafting new scents and unfamiliar music, rushing past any doorways to derivation and distinction in order to stay in line with the norms, conform to the expected, and maintain one’s comforting place in the crowd.

Not Everyones Cup of Tea 72dpi

It’s okay that so many are pulled towards other interests and fields than herbalism, given the problems we could end up with if there’ weren’t a majority able and pleased to fill important conventional roles in established society, health techs to mechanics.  And it’s okay that some take an interest in herbalism and then drift away, because people’s health outcomes are not something we’d necessarily want in the hands of the uncommitted or unfocused, the dispassionate or unable, the less caring or less aware, the inexperienced or poorly informed.  It’s most helpful when an herbalist is completely into what they are doing, in love with each aspect and component of the work as well as with healing’s worthy aims and botanical means, determined to continuously improve, and clearly feeling joy or satisfaction in the manifesting of their practice.

Herbs are for everyone, equally, I think we can agree, with no one undeserving of their gentle aid.  But herbalism – an herbal practice where one makes medicine or advises clients, a lifelong cleaving to its truths and to its dissemination – is truly not for everyone.  It’s not for everyone because it:

  • Heralds from and reminds us of the natural world that civilization largely seeks to distance itself from and elevate itself above.
  • Will probably continue to appear old-fashioned or New Age, as strange, suspicious, and fringe to the modernist, uninitiated person.
  • Will probably never be fully accepted by corporate drug interests or sanctioned and adopted by the medical establishment – and would certainly be altered, manipulated, depersonalized, denatured and harmed if it were.
  • Often fails to bring about the immediate symptomatic relief that most have come to expect from prescriptions of modern drugs.
  • Is most effective and helpful in combination with often undesired changes in the diet, activities and lifestyle that helped bring about the condition in the first place.
  • Is less effective and possibly even counterproductive if we’re either unable or unwilling to utilize critical thinking in our assessments of accepted “facts,” new research, and our personal experiences.
  • Cannot guarantee a substantial or secure income in most cases.
  • May not provide the personal recognition we need, or the status we desire.
  • Requires not just cursory attention but unending studies, which not everyone can be expected to give the time and effort to.
  • Is not a job so much as a service, purpose, mission, or calling.
  • Puts pressure on the practitioner, since results always matter.
  • Is greatly benefitted by exceptional sensitivity and perceptivity, and by uncommon intuition.
  • Constantly shows us what is ill, and challenges us to contribute remedy and balance.
  • Relentlessly pulls at our hearts, and stirs our compassion.
  • Is propelled by passionate insistence and total investment, something apparently only maintainable by the more obsessed and devoted of leaf turners, pulse takers and potion makers.

Go Your Own Way 72dpi

Being not for everyone, means that there may always be only a relative minority of people drawn to being herbalists, able to learn and discern, so enraptured with the powers of the plants or moved by the suffering of the ill that there is no other choice they can be happy making.  Does this describe anyone you know?  Because not everyone is herb-savvy, you already do or may soon fill a very important role in your chosen community.  Whatever individual knowledge, experience, vision, discovery, aesthetic and style that you bring to the endeavor, contributes to and helps define your special contribution.  Others are fortunately cut out to be tailors and web designers, and find the greatest satisfaction and purpose there – but you are likely most yourself when you are working with plants, assisting the healing of not just bodies but psyches, spirits, societies, and the wounded earth from which plant medicines arise.  You are likely most fulfilled in your being and doing – most wholly the gift you can be to yourself and the world – when you are invested fully in learning new herbal information, using that knowledge to help someone whose sick, tenderly tending herbs in your garden or in pots on your sill, wildcrafting in woody city lots or gladly wild places, or making tinctures and salves with an irrepressible smile on your face.

To this realization, we have the option of adding decades of determined learning and committed practice.  Not everybody is going to do that, but this is all the more reason why the world needs those who do: the self empowered, plant infused, admirably unusual few.

Herbalism is not for everyone… but it may well be for you.


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This article and many others available in the new Spring 2016 issue of Plant Healer Magazine:

PHM Sneak Peek Spring 2016-72dpi

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