Giving Voice to Herbalism
Through 30 In-Depth Interviews
by Kiva Rose
I took the opportunity to reread all the amazing conversations in our new book, “Herbalist Visions & Visionaries,” and it makes me feel stronger than ever about what these practitioners’ teaching, lives and stories offer to us all.
Luminarias are paper lanterns common to my beloved Southwest, a simple candle set in sand inside a brown paper bag, usually set in rows on the rooftops or lining a road or walkway. It’s been a huge gift to my partner Wolf and I, to be able to shine a light on the many pathways of herbalism… and on many of the diverse talents in this field, people who have given so much to the world through their healing, wildcrafting and teaching.
We seek to help give voice to a sampling of those amazing folks who are either younger or under-recognized… as well those wizened elders and what we laughingly call the “rock stars,” drawing knowledge and personal stories out of them that may have never before been shared. We’ve done this by featuring them in Plant Healer Magazine, by hosting them to teach at Good Medicine Confluence, and most recently through the first in what will be a series of books containing extensive, personal, and uncommonly revealing interviews: “Herbalist Visions & Visionaries.” This and future volumes will feature fascinating conversations between Wolf and some of the most compelling practitioners of our times. For herbalists like David Hoffman, it‘s been a chance to “stir the pot.” For some including Matt Wood, it’s the opportunity to address and define his legacy for the first time. For the reader, it’s a chance to share in their trusting intimacies, herbal tales and tips alongside the inspiring example of their lives.
Not only can these herbalists pass on knowledge to us, but they also serve as valuable role models in a time and culture that can be difficult indeed as we continuously find and define our own herbal path. As Wolf aptly points out in the introduction to Herbalist Visions & Visionaries:
“Make no mistake. A role model isn’t somebody that we’re expected to imitate. It is, rather, a person whose role – their assignment, purpose, mission and means – inspires us to seek our own unique role and service in our lives… and our optimum personal place in the diverse and evolving field of plant medicine.”
I see the herbalists that I’ve learned from and look up to as luminaries themselves, as numinous lights that can point the way through an impasse, a challenge, or questions I can’t yet answer. Sometimes we all have to find our way through the dark on our own, but in times as dark as ours can be, we need the light of each others’ help and inspiration. The plants themselves – as well as the earth as a whole – can provide enormous amounts of guidance, but nothing replaces the human touch, hand to hand, as we learn the healing arts. This doesn’t have to come in the form of formal schooling or a specific mentor, it can just as easily be the herbal cooperative we work with, a local study group, or the nearest gardening-obsessed neighbor.
Reading through the finished book again, I’m fascinated to see how many similar messages and ideas came through from these geographically disparate herbalists, some of whom have never met any of the others. It’s heartening to observe how much we agree with each other on the fundamentals of healing and working with plants, despite many differences on the surface. One of the primary messages that seems to come through time and time again from these experienced herbalists is how vital it is for each of us to engage our work and passion fully and personally. As Rosemary Gladstar so eloquently put it:
“While I think it’s great that there are schools, curriculums, teachers and apprentice programs, online courses, and every other type of educational opportunity one could wish for, herbalism really is a ‘self-study’. It’s really about people engaging and interacting with the plants themselves. The best teacher is one, in my mind, who can help open the key to one’s own well of knowledge, stimulate interest, and then says, “here, go drink, inhale it in!”
Some of the best herbalists I know of are ‘self-trained’. Look at most of these brilliant young herbalists out there in the world today. They are wildcrafters in the true sense; wild spirited, collecting seeds from here and there, gathering this and that, and weaving it together into a delicious colorful fabric of their own making, their own distilled green wisdom gathered from the four corners. It’s eclectic and free spirited, edgy like these times…”
Another sentiment oft repeated by the folks interviewed – regardless of their background in science, traditional herbalism, or both – is the strong belief that herbalism, science, and conventional healthcare can work together in a productive manner that allows for more healing than any one of these elements can in isolation. There are few better qualified to speak on this subject than traditional Appalachian herbalist, Phyllis Light, who has also worked in conventional healthcare, and has served a wide range of clients since her late teens:
“I love folk medicine and I love science and don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. A good folk herbalist is a keen scientist using observational skills to gather information about an hypothesis and using reasoning skills to work through the hypothesis. If you are an herbalist in practice, you probably do this quite often whether you realize it or not.”
– Phyllis Light
A question that was asked over and over again of the interviewees was about their own definition of healing, and why they do what they do, as Wolf looked to dig deeper into the heart of this work we all love so much. Some people were able to reply without hesitation, while others had to think long and hard before responding. Personally, I find myself constantly amending my answers in my own head, as my ongoing experiences shift and alter the exact way in which I define my work and how I do it. What doesn’t change is the underlying motivation for why I do this, why I continue to write and teach and treat with the assistance of the plants and the land I live with.
One of the replies I found especially interesting on the role of healers in our culture came from renowned herbalist, David Hoffman:
“I see the role of healers (in the broadest sense) as mitigating the suffering that is inherent in the changes our world is traversing and the culture’s response. The system cannot (or will not) be meaningfully changed. The need is to create viable alternatives to the brutalism of the fascist form of capitalism that is stomping its jackboots on all of life. I have no idea what comes after “the storm”, but we herbalists have much to contribute in the minimizing of the trauma of the transition we are in.”
– David Hoffman
At times, the sheer volume of devastation, pain, sadness, and despair we healers face on a daily basis can be overwhelming to the point of paralysis. And yet, the very plants we work with can prove to be an incredible source of strength and inspiration. I’ve long looked to pavement cracking Dandelions as role models for revolution and to the persistent clinging of Ivy as a reminder of just how far tenacity can take us. Another source of joy, motivation, and even comfort comes from the very work we do, and the role we play in our communities, families and even our own health. Ours is the work of not only giving ease to the hardships and ills of daily life but also of gifting each other with an essential reconnection between ourselves and our body, human and human, human and plants, human and planet.
We are both the medicine makers and the medicine, and we have so much to offer each other and our communities. I hope that we’re able to slow down and deeper listen to each other, to take in the important stories, the inspiring struggles, the great joys, and the growing wisdom passed down from one generation to the next. The common message of the “21st Century Herbalists” book, I’ve come to realize, is that it’s time for us to each in our own ways help guide herbalism through the encroaching dark, bringing healing to a hurting world with the power and grace of the giving land itself, walking forward as lights.
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