Jun 202009

Here you’ll find a few pointers for both neophyte and tenured herbalists practicing in rural areas based on my own experience. Seeing as my community is a tiny village in the mountains of New Mexico, I have neither office nor herb store nearby so I am my own walking dispensatory and workspace most of the time. There’s lots of old-fashioned house calls and short followups in the general store here, and my work as an herbalist mingles and blends with everything else I do within the community rather than being a nine-to-five thing. I’m sure some of this applies to an urban practice as well, but I can only speak from what I know, so my tips are firmly situated from a country person’s perspective.

Be a Part of the Community.

I’m a fringe-dweller and loner by nature (and really, I’m kind of odd from anyone’s point of view) but I make an effort to get to know my neighbors and the local people. And despite differences (be they political, class, ethnicity etc.) I try to find some common ground. Around here, much of that’s based on being self-reliant, low-income and hard-working, which is something I really like and value about rural NM. The benefit of this is that people trust me with their kids and grandmas in a way they rarely grant to outsiders or city-slickers. They’re not afraid to tell me about their health woes or emotional ups and downs, and will often share more with me than with their doctor or spouse. And sometimes they tell me about how their great grandpa used herbs or the plants their abuela used for healing, sharing a bit of precious, nearly lost story and information of the land and people here.

Cultivate Mutual Respect

I try to be aware and sensitive to their cultural affinities and in return, ask them to treat me with respect even if they don’t like what they think they know about my religious views, parenting style, carnivorous eating habits or weird hippy clothes. I’m here to help people, and hopefully they’re here to be helped. It’s that simple.

At all costs, avoid politics! Raising the client’s blood pressure by arguing the merits or downfalls of the president, gun laws, abortion or immigration is not helpful to the healing process or respectful of their trust in you as their herbalist. And I say that as a very outspoken and opinionated woman (just ask anyone, heh). I’m not quiet about my views, I just save them for outside the intimacy and vulnerability of the practitioner/client relationship.

Consider Trade, Sliding Scale, Payment Plans and Donations.

Taking trade and donations are definitely not the way to make big bucks (but hell, if you were out for the bling, you probably wouldn’t have become an herbalist anyway, right?) but it does make your work accessible to many people who might not otherwise be able to afford an herbalist’s services. Being willing to take payments over time and using a sliding scale can also be very helpful, and may make a consultation more feasible to someone even if you ask for a set fee.

In order to prevent a client from becoming dependent on purchasing my medicines for their health maintenance, I try to teach each person how to gather and make their own medicines (yet another reason to use common, local plants), if they show even the slightest hint of interest. If they won’t or can’t make their own, I’m open to trade in the form of garden space, fresh eggs, handmade knives, garden grown veggies, chickens (no, really), wild meat, local honey, mechanic work, guns, and other useful things in addition to or instead of payment or donation.

And remember, accepting donations or even working for free doesn’t mean you’re devaluing or allowing other people to devalue your work and help. A gift isn’t worthless just because it didn’t cost the person any money. I’ve found that if my clients aren’t grateful and respectful of my gifts, I probably don’t need to be working with them. Respect yourself and your work at all times.

Focus on Local, Common Plants.

I know damn well that if I recommend that my clients go buy some proprietary herb extract or tea, chances are slim to none that they’ll ever do it. Same with local students, if I suggest they buy some Ginseng and Goldenseal from an herb farm, it’s never going to happen. These people can’t afford expensive plants from other places for the most part, nor would they know one end of a health food or herb store from another (and the closest one is at least two hours away). They may look at me like I’m loco for suggesting they pull those sticky buds off Cottonwood trees or eat the Mallow that’s taking over their garden, but they’ll know exactly what I’m talking about and how to go about it. If I were in an urban environment, I would likely have to change this around to suit local needs, but this is what works here.

People around here really like the words “free” and “cheap” and the idea that they can get food and medicine from their backyards and local riversides is appealing to them. So I mostly teach about local, very common, easily recognizable plants. Clients and students appreciate this and feel like they have something special on their own land, as indeed they do.

Simple Preparations.

People often get scared by the ideas of ratios and math when it comes to making tinctures, so I’m more likely to teach how to create simple teas, infusions and decoctions for both internal and external uses. Just about everyone drinks tea and/or coffee, which makes it easy to explain water based herbal preparations. For those who are more self-motivated and interested in the process, I’ll teach them the simpler-style proportions for tinctures and infused oils.

Stay in Familiar Settings & Maintain Focus.

I try to do my plant walks on well-known, well-liked local people’s land so that a variety of people feel welcome and on familiar territory. Once a group has had a good experience I’m more likely to do walk on wilder public land with them. Same goes for workshops, either at a local person’s home or at a well-known and easily accessed public place. Consultations usually take place in the local café, their home or on a bench outside the corner store. I try to keep things relaxed but focused, and refuse to compete with casual chatter or screaming children. I know from experience that distractions will keep the client from benefiting from or being able to integrate what I give them, so I’d rather wait until they have time to give it their full attention.

Work with Local Doctors and Health Care Practitioners.

Life as the village herbalist is a whole lot easier with a close alliance with the local general practitioner, chiropractor and other health care professionals. I’m especially blessed that our village doctor is a Seventh Day Adventist and so exceptionally open to alternative treatments. Even if your client base is only as broad as your immediate family, you’ll still likely be sharing them with a doctor or dentist. The more you can cooperate with them, the easier your life will be. It’s no fun at all for a client to feel like her doctor and herbalist are playing tug of war with her health by constantly negating each other’s advice and recommendations. Of course, I’m unlikely to ever encourage the use of statins in any case and they’re probably not going to understand my paleo/primal dietary guidelines but nevertheless, I try my damnedest work with and not against the doctors.

Be Human and Be a Role Model (At The Same Time)

It’s entirely too common for alternative health practitioners to try to project an image of purity and holiness, complete with self-righteous dietary rants and broad condemnation of other people’s lifestyles. A word to the wise: get over yourself. There’s no point in trying to be perfect for your community, they prefer you human and relatable — someone they can talk to without fearing judgment and vilification. Save the fire and brimstone for the local preacher, he’s probably better at it anyway.

The balance to being human for the herbalist is being a role model. They’re not really different, after all, just two sides of the same coin. The reality is that people will watch you. They want to see your humanness but they’ll trust your help more if you can take your own advice. If you stress nutritional measures in your consultations, be prepared to answer questions about your own diet and have people be annoyingly interested in your plate when you’re in the local café.  In the city, it may be possible to maintain some kind of professional anonymity, but in a village with a population of 300, not so much. I’m not saying you have to be the perfect model of health and moderation, or even that you have to give up your two pack a day habit. Just that the more you can consistently come from a place of authenticity and down to earth wholeness, the more the medicine will peek out from your own face and come tumbling out of your mouth. It’s not JUST the plants after all, you personally are a big part of the healing your clients will receive from your work. So go ahead and get comfortable with that now, and settle in for the long haul.

  21 Responses to “Common Sense Tips for Practicing as a Village Herbalist in Rural America”

  1. Thanks so much for posting this! I love reading your blog. This one in particular inspires my daydreams about one day being a rural Herbalist. As an urban Herbalist, many of these suggestions still apply. I love having local plant allies, teaching clients about them, and the client bond that develops.
    I like the part about trade, too. I would totally take a chicken in trade! What people tend to forget is that traded goods are as valuable or sometimes even more than money!
    It’s great to know that people like you are out there in the rural areas doing this work. As much as I would love to be there, too, I know that my services are most needed here, in the urban world, right now. So, in the meantime, I’ll live vicariously through your blog and daydream about coming for a visit one day.
    Thanks for all your hard work and for sharing it with the rest of us!

    Green Blessings!

  2. Dear Kiva Rose,

    What a great post, with lots of food for thought! Thanks so much,



  3. Kiva, this is one of my most favorite posts by you yet!



  4. Kiva, I love this! Wonderful wisdom here! What a joy to read as I am sipping my chai tea:)
    I especially love the last part- leave the fire and brimstone to the local preacher…. Perfect that is all I can say.

  5. Kiva,
    So beautiful, amazing your life and work. I just joined a community clinic and I am very happy to be in a connected relationship myself. I am sharing your post with friends on FB too! mama earth blessings! ellie

  6. So helpful Kiva, and you make it sound so simple and doable 🙂

  7. So well written, Kiva. I am far from extreme rural here but all of your points are still perfectly applicable and adaptable. LOVE the ‘get over yourself’ paragraph. A rather common malady in alternative healthcare, I’m afraid.I also believe it extremely important and empowering to encourage others to collect their own medicine. Infinitely a big part of the healing process. Once again, please pardon my vernacular: an F-ing brilliant post!

  8. As a practicing Community Herbalist with well over thirty years experience serving my rural Maine community and the remote mountain village community in Southern Italia where I spend my winters, all I an say is Brava Kiva! You have posted some wise and worthwhile tips here for maintaining humility, connection and focus while sharing our love of all things wild, natural, beautiful and free.

  9. I deeply respect that you teach people how to make their own medicines with their own plants, instead of just being an ‘herbal salesperson’ or ‘mysterious guru.’ Teaching others—empowerment through education—is one of the most profound gifts of human healing. As I write, a first-time rose petal/leaf infusion is quietly glowing, soft and pink, within me. I wouldn’t have this gift—just when I, unknowingly, needed it most—were it not for your post of 06/02/09. You are sending out a healing touch to hearts and lives far, far beyond the canyon walls of the Gila. Through words and photos, you walk with me in my own waters, fields and forests, opening the gate to the dreams of the plants that love me here. Thank you so much, Kiva Rose.

  10. I totally love this post, Kiva. This is the stuff of the curandera in practice … and it’s how I want to approach my village healing, no matter where I am (currently *not* in a rural community of 1,000 but in the suburban expanse of the SF Bay Area!).

    Blessings and Beauty,

  11. this is a wonderful post! thank you for writing it.

  12. You have inspired me so much Kiva! WOW, you just rock, you know that? 😉 Since I too live in a small area where I am very different from those I would be helping, I have thought about going this route and it is nice to have some down-to-earth, practical advice hehe! Much of which I had thought of, but it is so cool you put it all down in one place! Sometimes I think you read my mind 😉

  13. Kiva, so right about the Herbalist’s apprehendable persona in the rural context. When I went to massage school there was so much talk about power differential and boundaries and professional roles; we were warned over and over not to get into “dual relationships” with our clients, as in, don’t socialize with or become friends with your clients. I understand “dual” relationships (as if you might only relate on two levels….) can be confusing and must be treated with care; but REALLY. In a small town, or, better, in the Tribal system, OF COURSE you will be a part of your group, not just as Herbalist, but as friend, as counsellor, as mother, as any of a number of roles we play in the social network. The goal is to be consistently ethical across the board.

  14. Hi, Kiva,

    Great post! And so much of it applies to what I want to do with counsel too. The herbalist part is a ways in coming, but all of your advice applies to what I want my work to look like.

    And yes, finding plant allys in the backyard is oh-so-magical!


  15. Thank you for this post, Kiva! As usual, I enjoyed every word. I haven’t advertised locally as a practicing Herbalist (*very* rural Southern Appalachia) but word gets out when you are helping your family and friends heal with local plants and so now I am branching out and even teaching a few simple classes. I haven’t taken payment from clients but have done some trading with books, canned food, and moonshine! I honestly can’t find it in my heart to ask for money. My parents doctor was recently surprised that I successfully helped my father rid himself of a toenail fungus naturally and then ridiculed me when I sent him the “recipe”. He said I was a fool for not trying to make money from it. Some people will never understand.

    Thanks again, for all you do here.

  16. Kiva, I am a practicing herbalist in Brooklyn, NY, not very rural, yet the topics discussed in this post is still applicable! Thank you for writing! I love the part about becoming part of the community and being human. Another gem from your beautiful mind! Blessings.

  17. Kiva,
    thanks! I stumbled upon your site in researching wild foods in new mexico (albuquerque). I don’t ever remark on things like this but it was really great to read your writings. You have a lot of knowledge and wisdom to share and I think your fellow herbalists are gaining a great deal from you. keep up the good work! I too really enjoyed the “foundational behaviors” type post about reserving judgement and how it will allow you to work with and help more people. In a time when passing judgement can come so easy for so many and so many people are entering the “healing” and therapy fields, you are doing a great service to all to mention such topics. a truly holistic blog!

  18. Good tips, I have a very similar perspective as you and always feel reassured to know that folks like you are out there.
    I teach wild food and wild medicine in Northern New Mexico and am always glad to learn about other practitioners.

  19. Wisdom wisdom wisdom, as usual, Kiva, this is excellent. I especially appreciate your take on working with a small population; our ethics classes sometimes insist that we NOT work with friends and family, which in THIS geographic area would mean I wouldn’t have any clients at ALL! LOL! I much prefer the tribal aspect of living in closer proximity with the people you work with; keeps it real.

  20. Some of the best explained “gray areas” I’ve come across,not only are you wise,you are also very well informed,updated information I love it!
    thank you Kathy Kukuk

  21. I came across your blog and love it! You remind me of the “wise woman” from medieval England and Europe
    who took care of the health of the local community in which they lived. I wonder if your ancestors from Cornwall were wise women? If I lived near you I would consult you for my health needs.

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