Nov 122011

“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Herbalist. The term can make the role we fill sound as if it’s a single job rather than the multitude of overlapping and intersecting skills that it actually is. Gardener, Wildcrafter, Clinician, Medicine Maker, Field Botanist, Educator, Counselor, Activist, Accountant, Grant Writer and Advocate are just a few of the most common roles many herbalists find themselves filling. We will often find that our work is most powerful and authentic in the borderlands where these roles meet and overlap. To be an herbalist, especially in this era and place, is to walk the edge.

The word edgy is so overused as to be a cliche unto itself. And yet, that’s exactly what this work is. It’s learning the language of traditional medicine and conventional medicine and trying to speak it in an understandable way to people who may understand neither or have a distinct prejudice against either or both. It’s teaching gutter punks and retired RNs physiology from a new perspective and opening their eyes to the complex array of plant life that surrounds us at all times. It’s making old-fashioned medicine from common weeds and then attempting to understand how that medicine might interact with newly introduced pharmaceuticals or affect organ systems that scientists are just beginning to understand the function of.

Some would have us think that herbalism remains the domain only of “primitive” peoples or, on the other hand, conventional medical professionals who have the accreditation considered necessary to treat clients. And so we walk another kind of edge, within the legal system and the regulations created by entities such as the FDA.

These edges are important, imperative even. This is a time of many people being both disempowered and disconnected from even the most basic healthcare, often from a lack of education and finances. As herbalists, we’re pushing at the borders of what’s considered normal, sensible, and sometimes even acceptable, within mainstream society. Regardless of how straight we look, speak or feel, the very act of teaching or treating with botanical medicine tends to immediately place us on the fringes of standard American culture.

Within my practice, teaching, organizing, editing and writing I constantly strive to further acknowledge and embrace these edges and borders. To walk them consciously and with intent. Plant Healer Magazine and TWHC have been a furthering of that boundary pushing and edge walking. Wolf and I are in constant discussion and reassessment of that this means and how we can be most effective.

This is not easy work, especially when we live a culture that asks us to separate ourselves into pieces. That suggests we have different social media accounts for each and every one of our personal and professional roles for our many fragments, and the masks they each wear. That tries to insist that we splinter ourselves into cliches and titles and aliases until even we can’t remember which part of us is talking and what’s safe to say. But don’t worry, there’s a social media app for that.

My big mouth, constant questioning of the status quo and sometimes unpopular opinions have earned me more than a few disparaging comments both locally and in the larger herbal community. I admit that it’s sometimes tempting to shut up and play it a bit safer. To keep my opinions neutral. To make every response politic to the expected audience.

But really, fuck that.

For me, herbalism always has been about and continues to be primarily about the plants. Their beauty and inherent value as living parts of a larger organism we call Earth. The miracle of how even being near them in their chosen habitat is healing in and of itself. The myriad ways we interact with and rely on them. The magic, yes magic, of their bodies as medicine for our bodies. Only when all of these layers are present and integrated do I feel whole and happy with my work, my life, my self.

Occasionally I have to remind myself that my work with clients isn’t as a doctor, dictator or a magician, but simply as a matchmaker between person and plants. It’s that simple, and that difficult. There are other sorts of herbalists of course, and this description of my approach isn’t meant to be a definition of what you or anyone else does or needs to do. It’s here as remembrance that there are many ways to work in the diverse and dynamic field of herbalism.

As the snow clouds hang low over the canyon and surrounding mountains I realize that I’ve never before looked on the long, cold months of Winter with such anticipation. After more than two years of frenzied activity of putting together the TWH conference, Plant Healer Magazine and various teaching projects along with still seeing clients and trying to keep up with wildcrafting and medicine making, I realize I’m more than ready for some time turned inward.

It’s been easy to lose myself in the work of organizing and managing, to be subsumed by the large personalities I spend so much time promoting and working with. To forget the strands of my mission that are rooted in the Appalachian culture I come from and the New Mexico mountains that are my home. To find myself too exhausted at the end of any given day to nourish myself. To remember how to integrate all of the skills and roles into a functional whole.

While the deadlines and effort required for my work are undeniably endless, I’m creating new ways to reprioritize my time and energy. As the last copper-tinted leaves are blown from the Cottonwood trees, I find myself returning to the projects that keep me most in touch with what I care about, and what I most love about herbalism. I notice that I’m more frequently wandering into the kitchen to muse over my favorite Siberian inspired elk pelmeni recipe or breathe in the warm citrus scent of White Fir tea simmering on the woodstove. The mornings have more often been spent on a lichen clad boulder staring through the long threads of Usnea out at the Ponderosas bending with the winds and the river rippling sinuously between its banks.

As a result, I’ll be blogging more often, and my posts will return to their previously personal and wide topic range. You’ll also notice I’ve updated my blog header and am in process of updating the overall feel of the site and my writing. While it sometimes seems easier to restrict the subject matter on the Medicine Woman’s Roots to being strictly related to botanical medicine, I’ve found that this negates the original purpose and even the title of the blog. I don’t want a fracturing of myself into personal and professional personas. My vocation is a huge part of who I am and it’s more than a job, it’s my passion and a lasting love.

And if I ramble on about the color of Monkeyflowers and rant about the pseudoscience that passes for medical research and eat with my hands in public and climb trees in high heels and swear with great enthusiasm, well… you were forewarned.

Expect tales and monographs, case studies and rants, pictures and ramblings.

Expect to find yourself up against the edge, gazing out over where the vast diversity of traditions, medicine, cultures, plants and peoples come together.

  24 Responses to “Herbalism On the Edge: Walking the Borderlands”

  1. thank goodness!!!
    we need more of that in the world!

  2. Thanks again for your writing Kiva (and I am always one for an old-fashioned swear word for emphasis).
    I agree, as an herbalist, there are many avenues we trod, though I imagine most people find themselves in many roles. But the role of the herbalist is so undefined, that it’s borderlessness perhaps spurs us on to new ventures, but may also make us have to explain over and over again what we do. Instead of doing it

    I look forward to your more personalized writings, I think that within all fields, it is easy to become the personality we think people expect us to be, and lose the core that drives us to herbal medicine, plants, climbing trees and and our other pursuits.

    Thanks again Kiva, I look forward to your discussing how you manage the many activities in your life and still find time to notice the little things

  3. I found your blog a few months ago and find it, and your work, breathtakingly inspiring.

    Including the full breadth you speak of here, in bringing into being this new edge world. A world of more respectful and intimate relationship with the beings around us, everything from the easily-dismissible weeds in the crack of sidewalk, to animals, to each other humans, to the planet, to the whispers of the Sacred all around us. Occupy the world, occupy the right-here-right-now, in intimate magical connection with all our relations.

    Please don’t hold back. We need all of us, giving all of what we have, in all of its fullness.

  4. Oh good! So happy you will regale us with your “tales and monographs, case studies and rants, pictures and ramblings” … all so interesting and unique, made enjoyable by a nice writing style. For those of us who benefits from the herbalists weave, thank you.

  5. Yes, Kiva, yes! It is, after all, what has drawn so many to you in the first place. You are, inherently, a teacher. And whether you are teaching us to see the beauty in a previously little known and little researched plant, sharing your favorite poetry or music, rambling down a side trail of food, art, or dreaming, it doesn’t change. You teach in all you share, and all you do. Do it, and most folks will be happy.
    And those who aren’t?
    Well, you said it best, potty-mouth.

    Blessings on you, dear one.


  6. As an herbalist it seems I have to practice civil disobedience. It shouldn’t be that way, especially living in a country that is in such dire need of a healthy relationship with the plant world. It’s so sad that we have to expend so much energy in protecting our Constitutional rights so that we can continue to practive herbalism. I’m finding that I have a stronger calling to health freedom than the herb world right now and have chosen to serve on the board of the National Health Freedom Coalition so I can be part of the solution.

  7. Yay! I love stories, hearing what you’re thinking, rants, rambling, loving and hating and breathing in a real way. Honestly I had started to miss you behind your more official sounding plant posts. I mean, plants are awesome, but when you lose the life-in-relationship aspect, you miss the joy.
    Blessings to you and your family.
    Life is always full, and never tidy. 🙂

    • Thank you! I’m drinking every word of this in so deeply.

      And this really resonated…
      “I don’t want a fracturing of myself into personal and professional personas. My vocation is a huge part of who I am and it’s more than a job, it’s my passion and a lasting love.”

      I am just about to begin a blog myself, and I’ve been struggling with how to integrate and not fragment aspects of myself in the process, especially knowing that many pieces of my story will leave me marginalized, judged, perhaps rejected. But I know in my guts that taking care of myself must include owning my stories, and in my case speaking them, because this is part of my medicine, both to myself and to others. No matter what I must sacrifice in doing so. Thank you for your brutal and beautiful honesty as you walk your path. Your medicine is damn good!

  8. […] to Kiva’s Medicine Woman’s Roots Blog will now see a new header and subtitle: “A Feral Approach To Midwidery, the Folk Herbalism […]

  9. I will greatly look forward to all your stories. I”ll live vicariously through you.

  10. Oh, good. I’ve been missing your posts…
    I too have been known to climb trees in high heels. My daughter seems to be taking after me. Her favorite ‘princess’ skirt is covered in bramble rips and burrs. Here’s to women (and herbalists) blurring the boundaries!

  11. I love your big mouth! Ramble, rant, photograph, monograph and—oh, yes—please DO tell tales! We’re all waiting for you here at the edge!

  12. thanks kiva, that was a breath of fresh air

  13. I just LOVE your writing! Thank you.

  14. Go woman go. Your entry brought a smile to a face who has been conforming too much lately and have just remembered my wyld womyn self, my true self amongst all the other beings of the earth… I look forward to your own self showing up in your blog…

  15. It is a rereturning to wholeness…thanks kiva again and dive deep into winter musing and slumber …much love to you…

  16. I absolutely LOVE your post Kiva, so poignant and compassionate! And I will be the first to say that working toward my MH at the oldest herbal school still in existence in the USA did not earn me the respect that I believe ALL Herbalists should have!! The AMA (and subsequently Big Pharma and FDA) have made sure to discredit herbs whenever they have an opportunity for monetary gain even at the expense of health, and the misinformation job was so well done that many people still don’t believe plants can heal them. So, they think I should tell them what helps their symptoms (or disease if they were diagnosed already) and not pay me for it, but pay them top dollar. So it can be frustrating and how RIGHT you are that the PLANTS are really what makes it all worthwhile! And I have noticed sticking to my guns about what is worthy has attracted interested others now. I thought when I became a professional astrologer and tarot reader was bad – really, there is more respect for that than from my herbal work, and interestingly most of the herbal work I now do is for my astrology clients. Thanks once again for writing this great post – and for being YOU!!

  17. yay, i am so happy to read this! i always enjoyed your varied posts and missed them when they went away. i’m glad you are able to find some time to reconnect with yourself and get back to what you enjoy! <3 <3

  18. You are such an inspiration! There is a lot of crap being fed to us these days so myself and many others welcome a strong voice like yours. Can’t thank you enough for sharing. Verdant serenity to you! 🙂

  19. My heart goes out to you – in my field, I’ve been caught between ultra-conservative vets on the one hand, and Born Again Raw Feeders on the other – always arguing for moderation, individuality, careful formulation but lots of innovation and willingness to adjust – ended up with the feeling EVERYONE was pissed at me all the time, and the burnout was horrendous.I’m “too scientific” for the raw folks and not enough for the vets….very tiring. I’ve cleared my spirit of the anger and exhaustion and am back to the work, with my ideas and expectations somewhat shifted, but a determination to be and do and speak what is authentic to me! As soon as I feel anger rising or fatigue bearing down I STOP, and do what I need to in order to be able to continue. I hear the echo of a lot of what I’ve lived through in your words, and much strength and wisdom as well. I’m not throwing away a lifetime of working with animals, because I got worn down by hearing “but you’re not a vet” etc etc. I know what my work is worth, and I’ve finally learned how to go about it and keep my centre intact.
    You are a great inspiration to many – certainly to me – take good care of yourself.
    PS – LOVE the entry.

  20. Yeehah, Kiva! So nice to have you “back” ~ here, that is, and in your stride and voice. I’m looking forward to anything and everything you’d care to share. Balance is such a tricky business at times, especially when we are passionately involved in things that we care about, and especially when we are pursuing professions/callings, and generally attempting to *be* in the world (and that is a process that we all, as you know, continually redefine). You continue to inspire me! ~ grace, Jane

  21. Hi Kiva,

    I was introduced to your site as a student during an on-line certificate course. You are a true teacher, and my instructor adores your work. I joined the organization associated with your conference membership site, but cannot remember what to log into.

    I learnt a lot from you as a student and would love to become a true herbalist. I made a few medicines, tinctures and teas as a student and studied wild-crafting as well. I enjoyed the passion with which you wrote this article. Getting persons to see as we do as herbalist is tough. They are skeptical of pure nature that they live in.

    God bless and thanks for the info.

  22. Kudos Kiva! Well said, in a thoroughly grounded, gutsy and inspiring way! I’ve struggled with integrating all my roles (teacher, healer, herbalist, ceremonialist, etc.) and realize I’ve only begun to tap the surface of what lies ahead. Yet, thanks to great voices out there like you, I know I’m surrounded with many who feel the pull, that is the essence of what we do. We CAN help the disenfranchised, those without health insurance, those who can’t afford Western medicine, and those who are looking for alternatives. Along the way, we meet many who devalue what we do, but the beauty and magic of herbs is that they continue to work, no matter what.:) Blessings sweet sister, keep the light shining!

  23. Holy Crap. I just reread the comment I wrote over a year ago. Apparently “just about” is a longer time than I had hoped. Because I’ve been scared to just come the fuck out of the closet already. Damn it, Kiva. You have inspired me yet again (by reposting this) and in the process, reminded me of my own fearfulness in the face of full blossoming. It’s a good thing, but damn it. Love you tons! <3

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