Healing Roles, Chosen Labels, & What We Do
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
The following piece is for you to share freely, excerpted from the latest issue of Plant Healer Magazine. Subscriptions are available at: PlantHealerMagazine.com
“There is a problem for me with the label “herbalist.” To some extent, the historical emergence of the drug industry, the trend that defined a doctor as someone who uses drugs and/or surgery, at the same time promoted a definition of an herbalist which had never occurred before. Doctor uses drugs, herbalist uses herbs. If you look at the history of medicine, whether folk, ethnobotany, classical, traditional, etc. we don’t usually find an “herbalist.” We find a healer, or a midwife, or a village elder, or a community of mothers, or a physician, who help people.
And sometimes they might use herbs, and sometimes not.”
–Paul Bergner (21st Century Herbalists)
When Rosemary Gladstar introduced me at our first Plant Healer gathering in 2010, it was as one of the “important herbalists” of our times. I had expected her to say “ecologist,” “environmentalist,” “restorationist,“ “activist,” or “artist” instead.
The word “herbalist” functions as a title, one we are empowered to apply to ourselves at any point that it feels appropriate, without official permission, certificates or licenses. But that said, I could not and can not feel entirely comfortable with the term as applied to me, not that I am unworthy but that I am perhaps something different. Herbalist in the original sense of someone who produces “Herbals,” plant medicine books for practicing or hopeful natural healers. But I cannot claim to know more than the rudiments of an herbal practice, and I have seldom given health advice or said that I can be sure which herb truly works best for a certain person with a particular condition. My work has been to raise consciousness of the plants, increase critical thinking and novel applications, help expand what it means to heal or to be healthy and whole.
But if not an herbalist, just what the hell am I?
A Plant Student first, I would say, beholding to them for unending revelations about myself as well as themselves, about their needs as well as their individual gifts and actions. A Plant Apprentice to rebel Dandelion and persistent Hops. An Herbal Acolyte. Forever enlisted and enrolled, always advancing but never graduating, never finished learning and heeding, never completing the class assignment to respond and apply.
As much as I have learned about herbal history and culture, I remain more Herbal Servant then Savant, serving the plants first and those who need their medicines second. I am perhaps an imperfect interpreter and spokesperson for the wordless plants, most definitely I am their committed advocate, and at my best I might hope to prove one of their hominid champions.
With my Slavic ancestry as well as “medicine name,” I can related to though not bring myself to use the term “Volkhava,” the plant-wise wolfen cunner.
Given that sometimes, when no one is looking, I follow the sniffing of a plant with a bit of a glad twirl and jig, kicking my up my bare heels in childish delight that is evidence I am a Plant Dancer.
A Plant Friend, clumsily trying to do with them and for them what a friend might do, trying to encourage and support them. A plant feeler, who feels for the plants and their needs, and who thanks to the influence and demonstrations of plants now uses his heart and senses to feel this awesome complex world all the more.
And I am, surely, a Plant Healer, defined as one who promotes not only the use of plant medicines but the healing and protection of plant communities and vital habitat, of societies and psyches. I am one who employs their botanical mythos and evocations of their infinite beauty to help awaken our distracted and in many ways destructive human kind. Nature, plants, and herbs in particular serve as doorways to realizations, understandings, and connections well beyond the often narrowly defined mission of the “professional herbalist.” They can inform and stir a native spirituality gestating within us, alert us to patterns of what can be known and to what always remains mysterious and unknowable. They can impress on us the value of diversity, and inspire us to take action in diversity’s defense. Their place within this world relationships becomes an example for me in how I am a part – my effects, and what and how I am effected.
My politics are affected by botanical consciousness and creature libertarianism, my philosophy by herbal infused realizations. I have had prejudices destroyed by plants like Wild Yam that solved my gall bladder pain in spite “traditional wisdom” that considers this impossible; by intimate observation of transgender bushes, changing their identity according to inner needs as well as larger natural designs; by the powerful efficacy of “weedy” edge dwelling street-kid herbs treated as lower class by some exotics-promoting upper eschaton herbalists.
For these reasons, the term “herbalist” seems not only too imprecise but too limited, and too limiting. More accurate might be archaic roles and labels like the Hedgewitch, an intermediary between the amazements of inspirited Nature and the consciousness of paradigm people. If we have accumulated enough knowledge, and enough humility, we might try on the term “Hedgemaster,” implying a teacher as well as wisdom-keeper. Not that hardly anyone knows of the many faceted significance of hedges in the historic British Isles, and not that one can put “Wytch” on their business card without problematic misunderstandings, or “Master” without having the claim of humility questioned.
I like “Wortcunner,” an early Anglo-Saxon word, with “wort” meaning “herb” or “root,” and “cunner” meaning “knower.” Wortcunners were Plant Healers with a role beyond the healing of bodily illness, someone called upon to see and explain deeper patterns, settle disagreements, treat the symptoms and causes of social dis-ease, make important decisions, or predict and prepare the tribe for the future. Unfortunately, besides being totally unfamiliar to most people, “Wortcunner” has also been mischaracterized by some New Age writers as a “possessor of occult powers,” distracting from its valuable archaic meaning.
Still, if my/our healing mission does indeed include addressing the enchantments as well as measured properties of plants, the unhealthiness of some of our thinking and some people’s lifestyles, the ills of our society and government, environs and ecology,then we must surely one day coalesce around a new term that reflects this expansiveness and depth of our potent calling and accepted assignment, this commitment to related responsibilities.
“I still like the term ‘herbalist’, my main problem is that it has been so over-simplified, and become so generic.”
–Kiva Rose Hardin
“Herbalist” fails us somewhat, if only the officially qualified and the vetted deserve the moniker, if it doesn’t also apply to kitchen “simples” makers and unaffiliated outliers, well meaning grandmothers with limited materia medica as well as the most knowledgeable and experience of Plant Healers. “Herbalist” fails us if it does not bring to the minds of those who hear it a vision of Plant Healers in full-on love with the herbs, intoxicated with the wonder of them, at times delirious with botanical visions and plant tastes and scents. It may no longer fit us as well, if “herbalist” starts making people think only of the sellers of refined herbal products or lab-coated clinicians with a long series of letters after their names… instead of also imagining the volunteer street practitioner giving out shotgun-cures to the unwashed homeless folk inhabiting the far edges of our accepted propriety, the traditional village healer grinding helpful roots in an ancient rock bowl, the full of attitude teenagers foraging in vacant lots. The word falls short, if people apply it only to the easing of their ailments, and not also the healthful nurturance of family’s needs and dreams, the repair of truths, the influencing of our friends, healing treatments conducted on a society far from nature and wholeness, suggesting new medicines for a “civilization” gone amok, resisting its injustices, exposing unhealthy assumptions and lies, encouraging freedoms, protecting and restoring the living land through which arises all healing. It doesn’t quite say enough, unless it also sings – sings of the magic and mystery, the challenge and delight, the shape and color of each plant, the work of every plant-hearted person – by whatever name – to not only celebrate but contribute to the relentlessly unfolding beauty.
Then again, “herbalist” sounds a lot more fun than “Herbologist,” which we’ve heard a few people call themselves, and a lot less pretentious sounding than the European term for licensed and scientifically informed practitioners: “Phytotherapists.”
Or maybe how we call ourselves doesn’t need to spell out our job description. Maybe it would be enough to infer our relatedness, knowing as we do all the complexities and ramifications of familial roles and ties. For this purpose, we are all “Herbkind,” and I – we – are “Herbkin”: kin to the plants, children of the herbs, guardians and disseminators of the seeds of possibility, wedded to a common cause, pledged to doing allied work in all its forms, kindred to the root and bone.
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