Jun 222010

Herbal Conformism and the Illusion of Normalcy:

A Response to Charles W. Kane
from the ‘Freak-Show Field’

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Charles W. Kane is an experienced clinical herbalist and self described “veteran of the war against terrorism.”  Unlike the majority of modern day herbalists, he would not be likely to describe our field as “alternative medicine”, and brings from a military and Western background a refreshing degree of old fashioned common sense and down-home candor.  We often refer to his book when looking for what is increasingly rare experience based information and competent materia medica.  That said, he is also someone whose pronouncements I occasionally find simultaneously disturbing and strangely enjoyable to disagree with.  A recent rant of his is titled “Image Herbal Medicine”, calling attention to various concerns that Kiva and I share, while featuring some assumptions and conclusions that surely call for a response.  It seems somewhat karmic (just kidding!) that such a response come not just from metropolitan, cappuccino swilling, politically correct crystal douser and Obama apologists, but from a long-haired cactus-hugging Gaian ecosopher who not only an animal middle name but also wears cowboy hats, stretches a mean barb wire fence, writes about Old West firearms and teaches personal defense.  The bulk of Kane’s article appears below in quotation marks.  Any blame or praise for the words between, falls fairly on me.

“This short essay may come across as snarky or even unpopular,” Mr. Kane starts.  And let me begin in turn by saying there’s no apology called for in either case.  Snarky can be insightful and incite-ful – and darkly entertaining – so long as we avoid the patronizing airs of elitism, are reasonably clever and truly right.  As for ideas being unpopular, in our screwed up society the writing or doing of what’s popular is one of the surest means of being wrong.

“Image herbal medicine or herbal medicine as a fashion statement is easily the most practiced form within the field today. The indicators that suggest an individual is image or fashion oriented are numerous:

1. Identity crisis: name changes to Root, Weed, or Green for example; middleclass whites (the majority of herbalists) wishing they were Hispanic, American Indian, or other “ethnic” races, as if some groups are more ‘connected’ to the plants/planet – a form of reverse racism really.”

Here, Kane has hit on an important issue regarding the lionization and adulation of particular ethnic groups, especially among guilt ridden herbalists and environmentalists… though a far more common and dangerous error in this society is imagining that we all, even EuroAmerican anglophones, are anything other than the descendants of land based peoples, heirs to our own traditions of natural healing and lifeways that were passed down from equally tribal, resilient, plant-wise folks whether whether they be Celts, Vikings or Visigoths.  That said, there is much to both learn from and respect in some of the ways of remaining indigenous peoples of Africa and Asia, Australia and the Americas, and little of honor and value to emulate in the current, modern, so called ‘civilized’ dominant cultural paradigm.

As for fledgeling herbalists changing their names to Root or Weed, it’s stereotypical enough that his observation earned some belly laughs.  Such names likely come closer to representing their characters, interests and allegiance of these plant loving people, however, just as nicknames like “Ace” or “Cowboy” might do a better job of describing certain rodeo regulars or U.S. Army tank crews than “John” or “Bob” like their parents picked.  Our ex New World Order neocon president goes by the respect demanding “George W. Bush”, but that alone wasn’t enough to win him any respect.  History shows that when people need help with their health problems, they cease to care if the person is referred to as Mike or Moss, as ‘Witch’ or even “Leonard Singh III, esq., Proctologist, PhD, DDT”  Just as it should be.

“2. Anti-establishment appearance/association: fits in at a rainbow gathering.”

That’s far too simplistic.  Not all anti-establishment types fit into Rainbow Gatherings, witness the radical Quakers with their archaic bonnets and men’s suspenders, the Michigan Militia and Wyoming Freemen in their cowboy boots and surplus camo fatigues, pissed off college professors wearing knitted vests that would have any Rainbow chuckling!  What is there to be preferred in pro-establishment business suits, blue collared polyester work shirts or corporate-logo baseball caps?  And what value would there be in dressing like everyone else, unless we were in a military uniform or 1950’s doo-wop band?  Most importantly, herbalists and village healers have never fully fit into or been embraced by the status quo.  As with shamans and medicine men, in earliest times the herb-wielding healer was often thought of as divinely mad or dangerously possessed, an affiliate of the unknown, agents of inexplicable powers who were sought out and rewarded when there was a personal or group needed but perhaps kept at a distance between.  As the language of science increasingly replaced that of magic, being conventional looking didn’t keep herbalists from being sidelined, trivialized and slandered.  Mr. Kane is and always will be an alternative practitioner, working outside of the accepted forms an protocols of the drug pushing, high-tech, high dollar medical industry.  He is as fringe as the jacket on David Hopper’s character in the cult film ‘Easy Rider’, if as uncomfortable with the fact as the beer chugging Jack Nicholson was in that same movie.

Herbal enthusiasts and healers are the alternative because we think outside of their box and hopefully outside of our own, because we look to nature for the knowledge, resources and examples we need, because we may see healing as a return to wholeness and vitality rather than a quick fix, as the treatment of causes and imbalances rather than the suppression of symptoms, with a goal not of living longer so much as living more authentic, healthy, vital, rich, meaningful, and purpose-full lives.  And we are alternative because we do not base our value on degrees or the letters after our names so much as on what we know, how willing we are to learn, and how effective we are in our practice.  Because we possibly do not require the approval of any segment of society, official or not, to believe in ourselves and our growing abilities, to act on what we know and assume a responsible role.

“3. Social orientation: anti-individual, group or collective oriented.”

No one is more of an individualist than myself, and I have always paid a high cost because of that.  I grew up individuating myself even if it took me rejecting ideas and ways of being that I’ve since found valuable.  While I teach groups of hundreds, I tend to quickly grow restless in a crowd larger than three!  And yet, we would at best be herb takers and not herbalists, if we only treated ourselves.  By its very definition, healing is other-oriented, a service to our collective kind whether that be an ecosystem, a community, a neighborhood or simply our own family.

“4. Politics: radical left, green socialism.”

There is predictably a majority of Progressives in the herbalism field, just as most environmental activists are Caucasian.  That is not an indictment of either herbalism or ecoactivism, however, but a questioning of and call for more diverse participation, for greater black and asian involvement in ecosystem restoration… with Republicans considering the treatment of more than their own cirrhosis, and contributing to the balance of more than their allopathic specialists’ bank accounts.

“5. ‘Spirituality’: gaia, plant spirit medicine, animism, Buddhism, or the “pick what feels good” self-styled path; anything non Judeo-Christian.”

I recognize that a certain shallow New Age, style oriented approach to herbalism has hurt the credibility and slowed the revival of herbalism in general, but not nearly so much as the slanderous statements released in industry and regulatory agency papers, nor any more than an internecine post such as Kane’s.

An understanding of the earth as a living totality whose health we depend on, can be found in nearly every religious tradition.  Recognition of a spirit or force in plants was characteristic of Christian mystics as well as Gnostics and alchemists, and new science is affording us a model and vocabulary for natural forces and healing processes are still nothing less than magical in their ways and ramifications.  How referencing the Greek word for Mother Earth – ‘Gaia’ – could discredit nature-inspired herbalism is beyond me, and it concerns me to imagine having a preponderance of Judeo-Christian practitioners could ensure the acceptance of and respect for the field of herbalism, when we should insist on being measured by intent and accomplishment, rather then prejudged and pre-approved due to any personal spiritual or philosophic bent.

“6. Modality crisis: embracing TCM, Ayurveda, Unani, or any other foreign system with the thought that they are more enlightened than western approaches, or equally common, the smorgasbord approach: cherry picking from an array of cultural approaches, ending up with a big pile of muddle.”

Eclecticism is indeed a pitfall on the path, leading us to select only what we like or find easy about an approach instead of facing the aspects that are more discomforting or challenging, creating a self-satisfying hybrid without the backbone of tradition, the test of experience, or the benefit of focus and devotion.  Still, even Mr. Kane’s system of Western Herbalism is a conglomerate, drawing from mix of different people’s ideas and approaches, an amalgam even if he were to try to resist all change and influence, and an evolving body of knowledge if not.  The Western world adopted the plants and adapted the healing techniques of the East, Greece was the meeting point of the two.  Roman medicine was highly informed by what they learned from North African healers.

“The catch-22 is when an individual matures to the point of dropping this exterior, moving on to adult life, herbal interest often gets dropped as well: this occurs to most in the field between the ages of 25 to 35. The ones that stay are often in a state of arrested development (75% of ‘older’ herbalists are still children).”

Actually, Mr. Kane is at least as concerned with exterior appearance as any cloak conscious pagan herbalist, and perhaps more so since he deemed it a topic worthy of writing an article.  His entire piece is given to describing how important he finds conventional appearance in the search for personal acceptance and professional credibility.  It matters a lot to him that he not look like a hippie, Democrat, Moslem or Mexican, nor be confused with flower-sniffing, plant communing herbalists whose look he believes undermine the practice.

But yes, most herbalists, plant lovers and nature nuts that I know are still childlike, stopping the most adult activities at the sight of an unnamed plant at the side of the road or trail, grinning and hopping up and down when they finally key it out, anxious to make others feel better, crestfallen when unable to do so.  The are delightfully free of the fear of being seen in public adoring another life form, free of concern over getting their knees dirty when a fragile sprout or shiny bug calls for close attention, inclined to act on their impulses and convictions, likely to foolishly but wondrously work to heed an inner calling or fulfill their dreams.

People trapped in what Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) might call premature adulthood, are stuck  with concealing their excitement over even the rarest of plants under a veneer of machismo or maturity, and worry needless if someone is watching when it comes time to crawl around for skullcap or jump into a swimming hole.

“If you look like you just steeped off the bus from the local primitive skills gathering, you will raise doubts in the minds of the people you are treating. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been thanked by patients, who appreciate my normality within an otherwise freak-show field.”

Looking like what the average, normal person considers to be a freak can be counterproductive if you want to be able to treat folks of all kinds, from all walks of life.  On the other hand, there is nothing about a conservative’s crew cut or doctor’s starched white doctor’s coat that universally communicates wisdom, let alone accessibility, a capacity for empathy, deep concern or human warmth.  And by being comfortable with their selves, their bodies, mortal processes and physical looks, healers help their clients to do the same.

Normal is too often the refuge of the fearful and average, the self doubting and those who are scarily well adjusted to situations and environments they should naturally be finding intolerable and unacceptable.  It is normal to obey every new law that is passed no matter how unconstitutional or intrusive, to pay thousands of dollars for health insurance without spending anything to learn how to care for ourselves and our loved ones or tend even the most simple to treat family ailments, to take steroids for allergies and antibiotics for nearly everything else.  It’s all too normal for practiced nurses to defer to book learned doctors, for health practitioners to ignore their instincts and observations and blindly employ the pharmaceutical-centric approach, and for herbalist to worry they can’t do any good unless they are certified and have an office.

What’s not normal, Charlie W. Kane, is someone like yourself caring so much about plants and natural healing at the same time you’re so concerned about appearing normal.  Just a little bit freaky, you have to admit.

  15 Responses to “Herbal Conformism and the Illusion of Normalcy by Jesse Wolf Hardin”

  1. Great article! Loved your responses.

  2. Excellent rebuttal Jesse!

  3. Oh my goodness. I did not read Kane’s original article, but I am glad you did and wrote just an eloquent response to it. I’m stunned at the generalizations and judgement Kane makes. I sense some angst on his part! I’m glad you deconstructed it.
    And in a small way, I can kind of understand that there tends to be an image of an herbalist in the minds of the masses. People who talk gently, wear full brown skirts and eat grass, right? From my end I can see young people try to conform to what they perceive a healer or herbalist looks and acts like. It drives me nuts, it really undermines the creativity and diversity we can have. So I guess by some slight standard that I sort of maybe agree with Kane, but I have the opposite response.
    More freaks. They’re essential for health in many ways. I’m not kidding.

  4. Wonderful and heartfelt response! I just hope I can live up to your “childlike herbalist” standard, because that’s what I want to be when I grow up! 😉

  5. Well said, good sir…you put into words what I didn’t have the patience to, and did a damn sight better than I likely would have!

    I’m one of those folks who’s too weird to be normal, but not weird enough to be completely freaky. In fact, one of my dreams last night had me wandering around a communal living art center and having the folks look down their pierced noses at me for being so square. *laughs*

    It takes all kinds to make this world go round, and I got to give my props to them all, but like Michael Franti sings, “All the freaky people make the beauty of the world” and by that, I mean the truly freaky, the individuals, the folks who are what they are and don’t rely on the stereotypes!

  6. From one Wolf to another, I give you a *standing ovation*.

    I have to say, I doubt I would have been able to respond to his essay with such grace and eloquence; he shows a great lack of acceptance for diversity, and I personally adore diversity. My lack of tolerance for his views would have been very obvious. LOL You did a great job, Wolf.

    And, I have to mention, while I may appear “Caucasian”, I am a blend of 8 very different cultures, and I love and honor each of them. I daresay he my have some freaky indigenous people in his ancestry. LOL

    All my love,

  7. This thing about herbs. It goes back to the earth from which we came. The idea is that the universe gives us what we need. I find this to be true both physically and spiritually. I do not contrast the two, physical and spiritual, as if they were different from each other as convention does. I see them as a whole.

  8. well, it isn’t an either/or kinda thing here-you’re both right. there is room for true freaks and there is room for dorky-lookin old guys and everything in between.the amazing thing about the plant world is, plants don’t care about your outfit.
    his statement “evaluate what you are doing-if it’s more about the “look” and less about the content you’re missing the point” is excellent advice!
    if we are confident in our own abilities and selves, who gives a crap what other people think…

  9. When anyone becomes excited about learning a particular path, field, etc. they start on a learning journey that can truly mirror healthy human development — complete with an early adolescent stage that can include trying on the clothes, gear, and apparent style of those who are there already. So, yes, Kane’s observations of the stereotype is accurate in some budding herbalists or even in many — though it’s not necessarily a *bad* stage. They are just expressions of someone who is excited about the path and wants to fully belong to it. He notes that often that many people fall away from herbalism after a time, and this is healthy too. Many people need a “wandering period” (in fact, I’d say it’s essential for any mature development to occur) where they in some way toss everything out that they learned, and then come into relationship with their passion in a new way, one rooted in their soul rather than dependent on looking to others for “how to do it right”. These folks may come back to herbs later … or discover that their path leads elsewhere — but they will carry that journey with herbs within them wherever they go.

    When one comes to his or her own unique relationship with herbs (or with anything) — into a soul-relationship (I might say) — then that is when one’s unique style shines. Who’s to say what the outer appearance will be (and does it matter?) — a person will adorn themselves in a style that both reflects themselves *and* offers connection with who they serve (whether it’s to offer a style the clients are comfortable with and radiates “professional” in the usual sense, or a style that shakes the idea of “usual” up — or anything else).

    Approaching the natural world or anything in a child-like way — with a spirit of exuberance, curiosity, focused intent and wonder — to me is a sign of vital health and connection with the present moment, surely something I’d like to experience of more and more people!

    Kane and others may scorn folks on the herbal path for their apparent “shallowness” and thoughtlessness, for a stereotype they may consciously or unconsciously reinforce
    that may not always be desired, but I’d like us to take a larger picture of who we are on our journeys. Hopefully we are all progressing and deepening in our relationships, knowledge, and felt knowings, as we move along with the plants (and our other passions) and connect on myriad levels and follow, follow … The result of our continuing journey is and will be great diversity in how we practice with the herbs, how we present ourselves, or just *are* ourselves.

    Thank you, Wolf, for your post and thoughtful comments! As always they provide me with food for thought.

  10. I read the original piece. Near the end Kane says “Evaluate what you are doing – if it’s more about the “look” and less about the content, you’re missing the point.”

    and “At the end of the day it’s about knowing your trade with a mature mind and helping people with these underappreciated, truly amazing tools.”

    Honestly I didn’t find his post offensive when one focuses on those MAIN POINTS.

    I wonder if some people who read the original piece are worked up over the details and missing the main point?

    Here I speak in general terms not reacting to the post of “The Village Herbalist”—-

    What I find interesting is this same battle of sorts goes on in pro-breastfeeding cirlces “All La Leche Leaders breastfeed until age 6 and I don’t want that so I’ll not bother to breastfeed and go right to formula” and homeschooling circles “all are religious right-wingers who wear denim jumpers” or the flip side “they’re all hippie wanna be left wingers wearing tie dye and their sons have long hair”. Even admission into Christian circles has a whole other set of rules “read only those books, wear that type of clothes, avoid that music and those movies and those TV shows, they are of pop culture — if you don’t avoid it you are not being a good Christian”.

    This is about being radical and being pushed by others in the group to do this and that, to think this and that, to vote for this candidate not that, or else you are ‘out’ and ‘bad’ and ‘unworthy’ of being in ‘the club’.

    With homeschooling we need to focus on what we do with our kids, how we teach them, and not focus our time and energy on talking about what we think everyone else should be doing (this is a common thing that happens, we give advice on what is best but we don’t always follow our own advice and neglect things in our own family). I don’t think this is different from what Kane is saying about herb-lovers or herbalists.

    I’m weary of the pigeon-holing and labeling and the cliques in the circles I’m in (I’m a newbie at learning about herbs and I’m focusing on me and what I am interested in knowing not jumping on a bandwagon of everything else to look like I belong).

    I agree with Kane and feel judged by some herb-loving people I know that I’m inferior to them, as I don’t subscribe to all they do: white man guilt, wishing they were from some ancient culture, wanting to live off grid, talking shallowly about living green and having been worked up in a frenzy over the last Presidential election and so forth. They talk to me as if I share all their same beliefs and ideas, why they assume I do or why I should puzzles me.

    I find in multiple circles that those who preach tolerance and ask not to be judged are often intolerant of people different than they are and they can be the ones judging others for lack of conformity to their chosen way of doing things. An example is when a person preaches non-violence then uses violent language on the Internet to react to blog posts written with dissenting opinions, that’s why I avoid political blogs. That behavior is bizarre to me, and it’s hypocritical.

  11. If you reread my post you will see that I agree with Kane’s premise that the quality of our practice is most important, and even that looking too far out can compromise our efforts to serve the broader community who may not share our varied values and tastes.

    You may justifiably find some of what I write obnoxious, but certainly not hypocritical. And you will find here none of the violent language and name calling that you reference in your comment, even after I’ve been referred to as a “Bush Hippie” on his facebook page. As a non-pacifist ex-biker and then radical frontline activist, I often wished I could be viewed as a little more hippie-like, and I darn sure opt for the bush.

    Frankly, I’m sorry that you find majority of herbalists more liberal or alternative than you are comfortable with, and indeed they should not be assuming you share any of their other lifestyle choices or political views just because you both share an interest in plant medicine. If there are a majority of herbalists that are also into progressive causes, environmental issues, back to nature and so forth, it is because plants often attract human allies and confidantes that are deeply empathic, atypical, nonregimented, nonlinear, creative, caring and compassionate. Herbalists, healers and activists can also be scarily naive when it comes to liberal candidates and the intentions of agencies, but it comes from an irrepressible idealism I find far more endearing than the bitterness and skepticism common in other fields. Note that if you express you feelings as well as your ideas, you will likely find other herbalists to be accepting friends who celebrate your differences and honor your authentic self.

    Let’s make no bones about it: Conformity is a lamentable disease, like acquiescence and resignation, and it doesn’t matter if it is conforming to tie-dye fashions and dangerously blind Obama adulation, or to the business suit paradigm and goofy Sarah Palin cliches. That said, I’ve NEVER known an “Image Herbalist” as Kane proclaims, practicing in order to project an image. Kane wants us to avoid conforming to what he thinks can be a counterproductive counterculture stereotype, but he would have no objection if we all looked and dressed and thought like him.

    Speaking personally, I’m not only tolerant of having a conservative, skeptical, critical-of-hippies herbalist in the fold, I am actually grateful for Kane’s contribution to diversity. You will note that I did not focus on the underlying white male elitism in his piece, the tone more befitting anti-immigration activists, nor even the way in which everyone who believes or does differently than Kane are so handily dismissed by him.

    We at Anima Lifeways & Herbal School have students who are lawyers and professors, backwoods homesteaders and urban professionals, Pagans and fundamentalist Christians, all caring about helping heal (make whole) themselves and others in the most natural, healthy and self reliant ways possible. Herbalism is not an exclusive, one dimensional club, but a diverse association of folks from all walks of like who share a sensibility and a calling, connected to each other at the roots through the communion of plants, people and earth.

    By all means, don’t jump on ours or anyone else’s bandwagon. We’ll meet in the woods or the garden, certain that we’re allies in the desire to help and to heal, and vitally connected through our shared appreciation for the miraculous plant world.

    -Jesse Wolf Hardin

  12. Yes, I’m one of those people who have adapted a “name” other than the one my folks gave me. And I’ve not ready Mr. Kane’s article in its totality. From what I’m seeing of his excerpts, he’s running into something that bother’s him, and he’s expressing it. No doubt, he’s run into far too many folks who have adopted “names” to make themselves something they are not. This happens in a lot of fields; Native American Spirituality is another. But its also not new – as a child who came of age during the “hippie” era (PS, its DENNIS Hopper, not David), we were full of ourselves, and took the appropriate names to reflect that.

    That being said, while well worded, I think you took your comments of his OPINION beyond what is necessary! Mr. Kane is entitled to his opinion, and to express that opinion – as you are yours. But you should not criticize him for expressing his thoughts and feelings! You can disagree, certainly. Do not take away from him the right to have feelings, ideas, and opinions.

    The community where I live is full of SunFlower, Light Ray, Bright Feather, Eagle, Hawk, Wolf, Bear, named folks who are just wandering through their lives looking for their paths. Those that take names to express what they would like to be should be nurtured. Those who take names to be more than they are, should be nipped in the bud! Have seen some real damage done by them. Then again, Buyer beware. Know your healer!

    • Morgaine, please note that Charles was offering an opinion and so is Jesse. Mr. Kane put it out there on facebook and his website and said it was “bound to be divisive” so I reckon he expected some sort of opinion in response.

      We’re all entitled to our opinions, and obviously that’s exactly why Jesse’s essay was written. No one here is pretending to be the thought police, and we’re exercising our own right to have and express an opinion. Besides no one here has the ability to “take away from him the right to have” anything at all…. how could we?

      Thanks for reading and have a nice day.

  13. Thank you Jesse!! I dislike the classification of ‘normal’ besides what is normal to me may not be normal to someone else, why can’t people just accept that? I don’t want to look like everyone else, I choose to be an individual and if someone does not accept that then that is their problem not mine. I do what I do because I love the plants and helping my family & friends. If that makes me not ‘Normal’ then so be it as I dance amoung the flowers in the forest……….

  14. It seems to me that there is a swelling movement; a movement to divide herbalism and the folks practicing it into a heirarcy of “legimate, normal, accredited or degreed herbalists” from a lower form of so called “folk, hippie, gaia loving, tree hugging herbalists”. I think it is just another example of corporate greed, seeing that there is money to be made in this growing resurgance of herbal healing and trying to cash in on it by creating schools that offer so called “degrees” in herbalism that are supposed to give you a formal education more credibility as an herbalist.
    If your worried about what you or your neighboring herbalist looks like, and think that by looking more “normal” or by having a worthless degree will bring you more clients or credibility, then I think you are at the least, misguided and probably in the wrong line of work.
    As for the concerns of looking a certain way to obtain more credibility and mainstrem acceptance, I will proudly let my freak flag fly, as Crosby says, and let the “normal” looking herbalists treat all the people who place such importance on trivialities such as this, because if that is a major concern with them I wonder if herbalism will be of much help to them, not realizing their own part in the healing process.
    The best teacher an herbalist can have is Nature herself (and maybe a good mentor). My Granny never went to “Herbalist University”, and she could heal just about anything with plants. Thats what is great about your websites, you seem to have a sincere desire to share your knowledge freely, for the sake of others who feel the same calling to allign with nature to help others and our planet heal.

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