Sep 032012

Intro: The following is an article appearing in the Sept. issue of Northern Arizona’s much loved culture and entertainment paper “The Noise.”  Adroit author Sarah interviewed Wolf and myself for this lengthy article on folk herbalism, Wolf’s powerful new novel The Medicine Bear, and the 2012 Medicine of The People conference Sept. 13-16…. meant to inspire people of all ages and cultures, far beyond the hard core herbalist community.  Thank you Sarah!  And thank you friends… for reposting and sharing. –Kiva

The International Herbal Resurgence Learns and Celebrates In Arizona

by Sarah SuperNova

“To Omen, they were not just wondrous sunshine-eating entities, without whom humans and most of the life on Earth would die. Plants were proof of miracles, and reason for hope.  The inspiration for a good and balanced life, and examples of how to live it.  They were her ever growing, ever reaching truth.  They were the medicine she would need.” (Excerpt from The Medicine Bear by Jesse Wolf Hardin)

It’s nice to think it all began with a dream or a vision, but more likely than not, it began with providing a solution to a problem.  The world is full of so-called problems, and, thanks to healers of all sorts, the world is also full of solutions.  The particular solution in question here is this: medicine for the people.

In the mid-1990s, for a variety of reasons, a once-thriving community of herbalists began seeing a decline.  Herbal medicine – and the informed and practiced people who put the plants to use – were in trouble.  Plant medicine schools were losing students and many herbal conferences were closing down as large corporations began to enter the world of selling herbal supplements.  Jesse Wolf Hardin, author, plant lover, and co-founder of Medicine Of The People, formerly the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference (, recounts: “We’d witnessed political infightings and been saddened by what was often an air of conformity, resignation and even quiet desperation in what should by all rights have been a practice and community that brings great joy.”  So Jesse, and his partner, Kiva Rose, an herbalist of both traditional folk and modern clinical pedigrees, decided to launch the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference (TWHC) in order to, in Jesse’s own words: “assist in the reinvigoration of the ‘people’s medicine.’ Our major focus is on making herbal knowledge available to everyone in these times of increasing government regulation and corporate monopoly.”

2012 marks the 3rd year of the event, which runs from September 13-16, and takes place at Mormon Lake, near Flagstaff.  In previous years, the conference was held at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, but what’s now called Medicine Of The People quickly outgrew that venue and Jesse and Kiva found just what they were looking for right here in Arizona.  Jesse explains: “We were won over by Mormon Lake’s old timey cabins and classrooms, its rustic yet comfy facilities, and more than anything else, its lush landscape and the awesome nature trails leading in every direction from the site.”  The conference site is nestled in a vast conifer forest, featuring incredible local plant diversity, much of which is quite similar to the plants of their home at the Anima Sanctuary (, just over the New Mexico border, east of Springerville.  He and Kiva live in what he describes as a “restored riparian wilderness, and a botanical and wildlife sanctuary, seven river crossings and several bends of the canyon from the nearest pavement.”  It’s the perfect place to forage for native foods and medicines and deepen ones study of what is freely offered by the land.

This conference focuses on Western herbalism because, although Eastern systems such as Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine are highly regarded and quite beneficial, focus on those exotic traditions has led to a neglect of herbal systems native to our own continent and bioregion, causing people to ignore plant medicines that often grow right beneath our feet.

And what is “folk herbalism” anyway? Strictly speaking, it refers to non-professionals using handed-down knowledge to treat illness.  But, Kiva believes that, realistically, folk herbalism is “any practice not currently recognized as valid, acceptable, or popular by conventional medicine and mainstream culture.”  In the United States, that means just about every herbal practitioner, professional or not.  Therefore, this revival of interest in folk herbalism stems from a pure desire that healing with plants be by the people, and for the people.  Kiva thinks everyone has a right to “sustainable, inexpensive remedies that actually work, without worrying about academic theories or even government endorsement.”

Jesse has noticed, with much excitement, that the demographics of people interested in herbalism has been rapidly expanding.  “It’s no longer just turtle-necked ‘health nuts’ or New Agers that show up, but rather, moms and pops, college students, street kids and the elderly who are literally sick of the pharmaceuticals that regular doctors routinely prescribe.  There is a new and rising wave of herbalists of all ages, insistent on learning the old ways and the new twists.”  TWHC attracts esteemed clinical PhD’s as well as excited novice herbalists.  There is something for everyone, including classes especially for children and teens.  Most of the classes will be taught in a lecture format, but there will be plenty of hands-on medicine making, and plant identification walks along the trails surrounding Mormon Lake.  And the conference is not all about study; there will be time for fun too!  Evening concerts feature Arizona’s own Big Daddy D & the Dynamites, and from Los Angeles, the very danceable gypsy rockers AK & her Kalashnikovs.

Speakers include big names in herbalism like Matthew Wood and Paul Bergner, with class topics ranging from the clinical, like Musculoskeletal Health and Clinical Skills, to the esoteric, like The Heart as an Organ of Perception.  Sean Donahue will speak about entheogens in the treatment of trauma, and curandero Charles Garcia will speak on death and dying for caregivers.  Other topics include disaster preparedness, aphrodisiacs, discerning plant properties by taste, roots midwifery, and social and political activism among herbalists.  The list of classes is long and inspiring, and can be found on the TWHC website.  This is truly a special event!  Check the website for camping details for out-of-towners; for locals, day passes will be available at the gate.

There is much to learn from the constantly growing and changing world of nature.  Among wise herbalists and responsible wildcrafters, there is a general philosophy that requires inner and outer silence while gathering herbs and plant material.  One must quietly be with the plant for a time, and not simply rush in and start hacking away.  Part of this contemplative slowness is to feel the energetic quality of the plant, and express gratitude.  Jesse clarifies: “We recognize its [the plant’s] needs, as well as its gifts, honor, and integrity.  If and when we harvest or snip from its limbs, we do not ask permission to cause it pain or take its life, but rather, we acknowledge that it feels pain and has a desire to live and thrive…and then give thanks.”

And plant medicines affect us not only physiologically, but energetically as well.  Jesse explains: “Plants have been given credit for contributing to a spiritual sense of interconnectedness, or ‘oneness,’ the sense of accessing a transglobal body of collected terrestrial wisdom.”  And the spiritual and energetic medicine of plants can change our lives.  “Herbs are an affordable way to manage our own health,” Jesse states, “and they can also lead to realizations that are deeply personal, emotional, even spiritual, and inspire us to make lifestyle changes that result in us becoming more self-sufficient, as well as healthy.”

Together, Jesse and Kiva publish Plant Healer Magazine (, a quarterly journal of the folk herbalism resurgence, featuring articles and artwork by leading herbalists in the field.  This comes from their passion for the plants, and their usefulness on all levels: that they are nourishing, medicinal, oxygen producing, and beautiful.  “And we teach that it is personal familiarity and deep intimacy with the herbs that can make us more intuitive and effective herbal consumers and practitioners,” Jesse expounds.

Kiva has been interested in plants and their medicines since early childhood, learning about gardening and wild food foraging from her mother.  Her decision to follow herbalism as a life path was inspired by reading Michael Moore’s Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West.  “From there on out,” she says, “it’s been constant study and immersion in botany, botanical medicine, physiology, and the history of our healing traditions.”  Kiva reiterates that although not everyone may choose herbalism as an occupation, everybody “can benefit from the empowerment and usefulness of foundational plant-based self-care.”  Herbal medicine is democratic, freely given by the Earth, and truly a medicine for the people.  “The more that we learn and teach,” she continues, “the greater the reclamation of our natural human heritage, the vital threads tying us to place, plants, and the healing of ourselves and our world.”

One of Kiva’s herbal passions is what she calls “weedwifery.”  In disturbed lands all over the world, plants we call “weeds” prevail, and with good reason!  Weeds are the tough, resilient pioneer species that populate disturbed soil and prepare it for future, more long-term plants.  And in the meantime, these weeds provide us with a great deal of food and medicine.  For her, the common, generally ignored plants can be just as important as the exotic ones that are harder to come by.  Kiva speaks more about this on her own website (

Jesse’s intimate relationship with plants began as a child, though he grew up in the suburbs.  He had always been drawn to the authenticity of the natural world, “it’s diversity and oddness, enchantedness and eloquence,” as he proclaims.  He was fascinated by the simple suburban weeds, many of them edible and medicinal, and even his mother’s houseplants, and his fascination with the plant kingdom only continued to grow throughout his life.  He now considers himself an herb interlocutor and agent of the plants.  “I am helping grow and deepen the herbalist community while promoting herbalism’s values, aims, and aesthetics.  My work in this field naturally follows my years as a naturalist and ecological activist.”

Besides co-producing the Medicine Of The People conference, Jesse is a writer, and a selection of his articles, mostly exploring spiritual life in the natural world, can be found at  He has recently published a richly-narrated historical novel called The Medicine Bear (, which follows the story of a wild-woman herbalist named Omen (in many ways inspired by his lovely Kiva!), and an adventurous writer, fascinated by the animal and mineral world, by the name of Eland.  The archetypal Medicine Bear follows them along the way, over the course of decades, from the end of the 19th Century, well into the 20th.  The story takes place in the historical Southwest and Jesse describes some of his process: “I, like the Medicine Bear, am a product of the fertile milieu of the Southwest’s inspirited places and Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo cultures.  As a denizen of this place, the book’s accurate history of this area is my history, and its characters are amalgams of my neighbors and loved ones, from native traditionalists to cowboys to those folksy, big-hearted purveyors of herbs.”  Jesse is the author of 7 books, including Old Guns & Whispering Ghosts: Tales & Twists of the Old West (, and entries in The Encyclopedia of Nature & Religion, with The Medicine Bear being his only novel.

Most of the premise and narrative arc of The Medicine Bear came to Jesse all at once, and the writing of it was more challenging emotionally than technically.  It is a tale of transformation, and the writing of a tale almost always takes the writer along the same journey.  Within the scope of the novel is Omen’s fascinating apprenticeship to a curandera, which would speak to anyone interested in folk healing arts, and into the Mexican Revolution, with Pancho Villa’s retaliatory raid on a town in New Mexico, of interest to those who wish to learn about suppressed Southwestern history.  The Medicine Bear is written from the eyes of a naturalist, each landscape – and the plants that inhabit it – described in great and loving detail.  The book is richly illustrated Jesse’s original drawings and relevant historical photographs, which create a sense of place and weave the reader deeper into the history of the era.

Ultimately, in all that they do, be it the conference, private clinical work, writing, foraging, and any other way of working with the plants, Kiva, Jesse and their family feel the need for self and community care skills to be a task of utmost importance.  Herbalism is one way to go about this.  “As the price of pharmaceuticals goes up and their dangers become ever more evident,” says Jesse, “herbal knowledge is becoming once again as essential as it was in the days before the advent of ‘modern’ medicine.”


The next Medicine Of The People conferences will be held

Sept. 13-16, 2012 —- and then —- Sept. 20-23, 2013

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