Oct 032013
by Jilian Tamaki

by Jilian Tamaki

By Kiva Rose
“I do not want to be human. I want to be myself. They think I’m a lion, that I will chase them. I will not deny that I have lions in me. I am the monster in the wood. I have wonders in my house of sugar. I have parts of myself I do not yet understand.” – Cat Valente, Silently and Very Fast
Lost in the forest, you happen upon a small woman gathering meaty brown mushrooms from a decaying tree stump. At first, you feel relieved to find another human after hours of wandering desperately in search of civilization. You suppose she might be a traveler like yourself, forced to subsist on woodland fare while waiting for help to arrive. That is, until you notice the knife in her belt with its bone handle, until you see the calloused soles of her bare feet as she reaches up for a swath of lichen hanging from a high tree branch, until you hear her speak soft, rhythmic words to tiny chattering mammal perched on her shoulder. If she is lost here, it has been many long years since she first walked off the known trail from the nearest village. This gives you pause as you wonder what you have stumbled into, and puzzle over what kind of creature might choose to live so far from the general population, and prefer the company of wild animals and weeds to those of her own kind.

In fairy tales and folklore, very often the protagonist is notably social and is part of a specific fellowship, community, or group. On the other hand, the antagonists are often solitary and live away from others, most frequently deep in the wilderness or a vast wasteland. If you meet a woman living alone in the forest, you could not be blamed for assuming she’s a hermit, a monster, hag, a witch of unknown intentions – no matter how attractive, kind, or wise she might appear. In modern Disney-type interpretations of the bad guys, it is even sometimes said that they are evil because they’re lonely, and that if only they could be a part of the larger community they too would blossom into benevolent and beautiful creatures who hold hands and burst into symphonic, village-wide song. In all cases, otherness and potential maliciousness is frequently implied by a character being solitary. There are exceptions to this, with a number of helpful fae or fairly benign monsters also living alone, but they are rarely found at the center of the story, and tend to still be viewed with some trepidation and wariness. After all, what good person would actively choose to be alone?

It’s common for folks to say they need solitary time, but most people who say they want solitude seem to mean only for a few hours at a time before they once again seek human company. Hosting retreat guests here in this New Mexico wilderness, I see how even those expressing a desire to spend time alone really have a hard time being by themselves in the woods. I admit that I find this both fascinating and foreign, as I’ve voluntarily spent long periods of time without human contact since I was in my early teens. I don’t see that solitude is better that more social tendencies, as both are needed and natural. I do, however, notice that there tends to be a great deal of pressure placed on the less social to behave in an essentially extroverted way. Society at large, from psychiatrists to the media to the average mother seem notably concerned when someone chooses a more solitary existence, and these people are often viewed with suspicion simply if they don’t make obligatory appearances at community events or engage in chit chat while standing in line at the bank. To keep to one’s self is very often to invite labels such as eccentric at best, and sociopath at worst.

Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin

Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin

In my years of teaching, I have noticed that there is a significant percentage of herbalists who feel much more at home with plants than people. Some of them work in the capacity of a clinician simply because it feels like the reasonable extension of their obsession with plants, and a way of utilizing their growing knowledge while developing new skills. Most often these herbalists do care a great deal about the well being of others, but find frequent social interaction to be draining of difficult. I hear the guilt in their voices and the fragility in the tone of their emails. They think they are bad to not crave the company of others, they believe they must need a special flower essence because they don’t relate to humans as a whole. There is nothing wrong with being an introvert. There is nothing wrong with not fitting in. You are not required to spend all your time shoulder to shoulder with other humans in order to be an effective herbalist. It only becomes a problem when we struggle to accept our own otherness and introversion, and are thus unable to form our practice and our lives in a way that nurtures us and allows us to be ourselves.

The term community herbalist brings to mind, quite reasonably, a healer working within a community, serving and at home within a group of other human beings. And yet, historically, herbalists have often been marginalized. They have frequently walked the borderlands of village and the wildwood, traveling between the civilized and the wild as emissaries of the forest, bringing healing to the townsfolk. We can say it was because they had no choice, that they were driven from their communities by religious zealots or opportunistic politics, and certainly that would be true… but only in part.

The larger truth, is that many of us who have a gift for working with the plants also have great difficulty belonging among other humans. We may care a great deal about our community, but need the nourishment of solitude in order to do our work. Working with other people in a healing context can be difficult and exhausting at the best of times, and while many people feel recharged by spending time with family or community, the introvert needs to pull back and inwards in order to not be drained by their work. This can be difficult for clients, family, and friends to understand, since off duty time is usually considered to be time spent with others having fun. For myself, I most often need my time off to be by myself with the plants in order for it to be truly replenishing. I struggle with this at times, and have tried to find my nourishment in the company of others, but always I find myself straying back to the forest and desert for connection and communion.

Herbalists from any number of traditions can be found debating the details of the current most popular constitutional theory, so you’d think we’d be experts at understanding the differences between us. And yet, many herbalists still seem to feel inadequate for their very natures. Part of the issue lies in the expectation that a healer be a kind, welcoming person anxious to help and serve everyone around them while also serving as a social hub for those in need. There are certainly many wonderful herbalists who do so admirably, and thrive within the embrace of close knit community. Still others avoid large groups but feel comfortable in smaller groups or one on one. These people can often find a way of customizing their practice so that they meet their own needs for time alone while still having an active place in the larger community.

Others of us remain in the dark forest, often preferring the company of ravens and nightshade to that of our fellow furless humans.

In The Dark Forest: The Witch as Herbalist Archetype

“The witch raised up the maiden’s face and smoothed her tears away as though she was erasing a canvas. She smiled at the helpless girl, her face lighting like a midsummer fire…’Never put your faith in a Prince. When you require a miracle, trust in a witch.”  – Cat Valente, In The Night Garden

“The Dark Forest is not the merry greenwood of Robin Hood legends, or a Disney glade where dwarves whistle as they work, or a National Park with walkways and signposts and designated camping sites; it’s the forest primeval, true wilderness, symbolic of the deep, dark levels of the psyche; it’s the woods where giants will eat you and pick your bones clean, where muttering trees offer no safe shelter, where the faeries and troll folk are not benign. It’s the woods you may never come back from.” -Terri Windling, from “Into the Woods Part 6: The Dark Forest”

by Ivan Bilibin

by Ivan Bilibin

My obsession with plants dates back to early childhood, although I was admittedly at least as interested in poisoning people as in healing them at that point. For me, the fascination lay in the power of the plants and how their magic manifested in the human body. I doubt I was born with a higher than average level of compassion, but I did come into this world with my heart and spirit bound irrevocably to the green world. Even as an adolescent I realized I valued the life of a tree as much as the life of a human being, and couldn’t understand why those around me found this to be strange or why it earned me stern reproach from church leaders. I certainly heard and understood from those around me that only humans had souls, and thus only they truly  mattered. I just thought they were deaf or deluded, or hadn’t yet learned to hear the world beneath their feet that was singing so loudly the ground sometimes shakes with it.

My desire to be an herbalist bloomed from the oldest of stories, hose where a witch lives at the edge of a deep, dark wood. She may be beautiful or she may be ugly, she may speak with a siren’s voice or cackle deep in her wrinkled throat. It doesn’t matter, it only matters that the forest holds her to itself like a beloved child and that she speaks the names of the plants and animals as if they were her confidantes and lovers, sisters and elders.

The people from the village fear her. The townsfolk cross themselves when she walks past them on her to way to treat an ailing grandmother. They question her humanity and her religion, but still they creep to her door deep in the night to ask for a cure for their baby’s croup or a wound that won’t heal. She may serve the community, but no one would mistake her as one of them. This healer archetype speaks of otherness in a primal, and sometimes frightening way. We see pieces of it in the story of almost every witch to appear in European and North American fairy tales, from the hag-like visage of Baba Yaga to the beguiling beauty of the queen in Snow White. So often the antagonists of our moral tales, these powerful women refuse to fit into society’s molds of what is good, safe, and proper. They stand, frequently alone, at the periphery of community and consciousness. Wrapped in a shadowy cloak, they embody the fierceness, hungers, and otherness that incites both interest and fear. It is the habit of human social groups to demonize what is outside of them, and thus it is of great importance for there to be interface between what is inside, familiar, and comfortable with that which is outside, unfamiliar, and potentially frightening. We need the witch in the forest for her healing is raw and close to the source of the First Forest, the archetypal darkness from which humanity was birthed.

There is still a place in the story for the other, for the witch and the wildwood. Without these elements the story of healing in our cultures would lose both power and depth. We need those who live within the communities and heal through familiarity and kindness, and we need those who keep to themselves and bring something less known to the table. Above all, the earth needs diversity, and we all have a role to play as the story of life unfolds along the brambly, winding path.

Wandering the Wood: The Solitary Herbalist

“And if they thought her aimless, if they thought her a bit mad, let them. It meant they left her alone. Marya was not aimless, anyway. She was thinking.” – Cat Valente, Deathless

Baba Yaga Gathering Mushrooms by Kiva Rose

Baba Yaga Gathering Mushrooms by Kiva Rose

It’s taken long years for me to accept that I’m both a sensitive, empathetic person and a very introverted one. I do have some performer type tendencies, and when I have social time, it’s often in a big way. Living in the wilderness all year, and then seeing my friends at our annual Herbal Resurgence Rendezvous works great for me this way. I get to see everyone all at once and enjoy the full on festival experience… and then I can return to my tiny cabin in the mountains to recuperate and plan for the next time!

I have often felt that I should be more social, and am capable of acting that way for periods of time before I realize that I’m spiraling into burnout, anxiety, and the sense of being completely overwhelmed by others. I’ve spent much of the last six months trying to understand why I fight my own nature and force myself to be more social than I really am, and then rebound so badly that I can hardly bring myself to speak to anyone at all for a week.

I’ve grown to understand that, for the average person, saying hello and engaging in small talk with other people in the grocery store line, at a cafe, or over the back yard fence is both enjoyable and relatively effortless. For me, interacting with other people, even the nicest of people, requires significant energy and work. I find that the better I know myself, the more I only want to spend time with others in an intentional and focused way whenever possible, even if it means that other folks might think I’m unsociable or strange.

Those more social than we may understandably have a difficult time understanding our retiring habits, but there are certainly some ways in which we can create boundaries for ourselves while helping those around us have a deeper understanding of who we are and how we prefer to interact with the world. Below you will find a list of some of the tips that help me remember how to stay grounded in myself, and assist me in staying true to my own needs and nature.

A Few Tips For Thriving As An Introverted Herbalist:

•It’s sometimes very helpful to start off by defining what it means to be an herbalist for yourself, and whether this requires working with other people.

•If you work with plants on a regular basis, even if only for yourself and/or your family, then you are still an herbalist. You don’t need to do or be anything else for anyone else.

•If you have a deep desire to be a clinician but find that working with strangers on a daily basis is overwhelming, consider a very small scale practice working with a very restricted clientele.

•It is completely possible to work with one’s community to varying degrees without being at the center of it.

•Remember that you, as the practitioner, can choose who you do, or do not, work with. You are not obligated to treat the general public or people who upset you. It sounds obvious, but sometimes we all need to hear that we have choices and the ability to control who we interact with on a deep level.

•If you do choose to work with others be sure to set up solitary self-care rituals for yourself so that you can replenish yourself. This is important for every practitioner, but doubly so for introverts who tend to be exceptionally drained by human interaction.

•Be honest about your social needs with other people, as they will often otherwise simply assume you don’t like them or feel otherwise rejected. Humans tend to be social by default and it often requires a shift in perspective for them to realize that some people need more time alone.

•Don’t feel selfish or guilty for enjoying the plants for themselves and for yourself. To interact and appreciate with the green world can be enough all on its own.

Somewhere, deep in the woods near dusk, a small woman is smiling to herself as she gathers sweet roots and rich mushrooms for that night’s dinner. She hears the quiet patter of paws nearby and holds out a morsel of fruit for her furred friend. Her basket it full of the bark, leaves, and berries needed to treat the cough of an ailing child. The mother will visit the woman’s small cottage at the edge of the forest the next morning to retrieve the medicines before hurrying back to the noisy, bustling hearth of her own home at the center of the village.

All around are the muted sounds of birds settling into their roosts and the ripple of running water nearby. As she rises from the damp ground, she thanks the land for its richness, and strides on sure feet in the near dark back to the blessed peace of her tiny house. The trees lean in toward her as she passes by, straining to hear her quiet song, and holding her to this forest as its own. 


  27 Responses to “The Witch at the Edge of the Woods: Introversion and Otherness In The Herbalist”

  1. Oh…my….goodness. I will have to come back later and read it again, once my insides have calmed down.

    • Just today I was truly in the midst of hashing through JUST THIS. I found the book Quiet over the weekend and have been breathing it in knowing, nodding and after the 5th decade, (a little late in coming!) of life that I am an introvert.

      I will be untangling the knots I’ve held inside over my otherness, and going forward quietly and shedding the shoulds i’ve shrouded myself in for so long.

      What beautiful timing, I am grateful to you, Kiva.

  2. So perfectly stated! Thank you!

  3. Thank you, sug. Growing into my own as a witch. Fits like a glove on the flesh of my palm.

  4. Kiva~ you serve as a guide in so many ways~ thank you for taking a path that has brought you to this understanding and your willingness to share with the rest of us~ may all herbalists find our natural place and build a practice with ourselves at the center.

  5. Absolutley wonderful, you have put into words how I feel exactly. Thank you

  6. Wow! Thank you for posting this. It is such a wonderful article that mirrors my way of life and some of the conflicting questions I frequently ask myself. This gives me some new things to reflect on. ~Blessings

  7. I could have written this myself, thanks for giving this voice. Even if one is an introvert and prefers plants to people, it still feels nice to know you are not alone in it. 😉

  8. Boy, did this ever show up at the right time for me. I’ve been struggling with this lately.

    It was easier to wholly embrace my introversion when I was a grumpy little goth in school, with people gladly leaving me be, but for the few who fit in my circle.

    These days, I’m more friendly. I love people. But then I have to walk away and hide – I make friends so easily, but they then assume I’m a snob, or that I don’t like them when I don’t hang out as often as they’d like.

    With being an herbalist and loving to help others, and looking to move to a smaller mountain town where folks actually know your name, your business, and talk to you – well, I’ve been nervous. I waver between accepting the wild witch in my heart and reconciling my yearning to be a known, friendly face in the community.

    Thanks for the food for thought, Kiva dear!

  9. Thank you so very much for this. It means a great deal to read of your experience and feel how much it resonates with my own. I have spent the last year learning to accept and embrace my introverted-ness and desire, need, and enjoyment of space by myself with my plants. It’s incredible how much guilt I’ve associated with this perfectly natural behavior.

  10. Oh, I cannot wait to take sometime to read this story! My German grandmother was a Baba Yaga. I would follower her around the woods (well, we lived in Houston, Texas) while she gathered mushrooms or berries. And I can remember a story about a woman that lived at the edge of the woods that helped sick people but everyone was afraid of her and she was lonely. Now I cannot remember if this story came from a book or my grandmother but it has always been niggling at the back of my conscious mind. It took 45 years for me to decide to be an herbalist or to figure out that is what I want to be when I grow up. Again I look forward to reading this post. Thank you for bringing the story back to me. Susan

  11. Dearest Kiva
    This is a wonderful piece of honest and heart centred sharing and i thank you for it so much. I remember always loving the wild woods, the edgy places of fairy tales, the senses of ‘other’, far more than the glittering noisy palace, or shining royal court .
    its taken me till over 60 years to truly begin acknowledging and honouring this need for the space and the peace of this ‘other’ world. It is home, it nurtures and gives me roots. Hedge witchery and herbs , trees and roots are my path way now. And a deeper love for Goddess Earth is opening my heart to her shining Presence.
    Much Love

  12. The witch on the edge of the forest – ever since I can remember it’s resonated with me. When I was a young girl, I’d dream (and write) about finding her, and learning from her. When I got older, a “grownup”, I dreamed about being the witch. I could feel her inside me and wanted to be her, to live that life, so badly it hurt. Eventually I decided I had been her in a past life. It was the only way I could understand how strong the feeling was, such a deep yearning, like a memory. I wanted that intimacy with the plants, trees, fungi, wild creatures. Wanted to carry on conversations with them, to be able to know directly from the source. And I somehow knew I had that ability but I had no idea how to access it.

    Things are changing again in my life, exactly how I don’t yet know. My oldest son died this past May and his loss, the hole he left behind which is “big because Jason was full of light and energy”, as Colin, my youngest puts it, is stimulating so many changes in the family, including major relocations – my own as well if not next year than definitely the following – and I’m allowing myself to dream, once again, about giving my heart/spirit what it wants – to be that witch living on the edge, alone (YES! – I’ve been living with my disabled sister for 17 years now and it’s hard) in a small cottage/cabin, yet part of a family made up of my closest friends in Vermont. I don’t yet know the specifics of how, but my 2 sons have committed to helping make it possible, and my friends are totally open and excited.

    I think, maybe the the yearning will in some way, shape, form, materialize in this lifetime, and I will be that crone that I have always dreamed of. It was awesome to read this piece today. The timing was perfect!

  13. Kiva, this is so beautifully expressed. While I am not a plant healer or herbalist, I am keenly aware of the brutality introverts face. I choose to work in solitude, and will spend much time wandering alone, both in the wild and in an urban setting. I find our need to be among others – as creatives and solitary folk – has to do with observation and learning, rather than simple togetherness, and that freaks our extroverted friends out. I know I have been accused of writing specifically about the people in my life – as if I am prying their spirit open with twigs and words. For me, however, I use my observations and understanding – and perhaps even connections – as symbols of myth and story, as learning and release. Understanding of others is what pulls me into any social setting, but to the woods of solitude I return to process and feel.

    Thank you.

  14. Kiva, Everything you’ve offered here is exactly what I needed. It seems as if you wrote this just for me. It’s the perfect gift at just the right time. Thank you!

  15. This was incredibly lovely and sweetly put. My wife and I move WAY out in the woods three years ago. We see other people…occasionally. While many we know find it rather odd, it absolutely works for us. We both realize now that a lot of distress we had earlier in our lives was partially the weight of numbers of people. Here we can be quieter, talk more about the the things that truly matter to us, take time on our art, gardens, and animals. It’s a good life for us.

    Many blessings-

  16. Ah, beautiful, Kiva. Thank you for this wander into the wild wood, and into the true nature of many of us — which we often fail to recognize, or which we forget in the flow and flurry, hustle and bustle, and beauty of its own that is the village. Yet … so many of us truly belong in the Forest, or at least need far longer-than-we-often-realize solitary wanders where it is just ourselves and the more-than-humans around us, and the green spirit speaking in leaves within our own souls. Thank you.

  17. I sooo needed to hear this. Thank you so much Kiva. And hearing everyone else’s comments is such a relief; other people understand! “It’s ok to be an introvert.” Why has that been so hard to accept within myself?

  18. Oh Kiva! Thank you so much. This article comes at a time when I’ve been out of circulation for 2 weeks & am dreading going back to work with humans every day. This is exactly how I feel. My soul longs for time alone in the woods.

  19. Kiva, this is just beautifully written and incredibly insightful. It really nourished my heart and soul to hear your words and to feel in kindred spirit with you as a herbalist and woman. Thank you so much.

  20. What a wonderful post Kiva! I’ve also been thinking a lot about the Baba Yaga/Siren type archetypal nature of what we do as herbalists…in Australia (and I’m guessing other parts too) there is such an oceanic pull for herbalists to make themselves culturally acceptable, to disguise their tools to look like a pharmacy and be able to play the modern game. I love your words; to sit on the edges and accept that society may think we’re strange or dangerous even…but then we are left alone to be able to preserve out deeper natures, and give even more magic to the work. I’m so glad that despite your introverted nature you reach out to this widespread community with the weaving of your words and bring so many people together!

  21. Thank you for this wonderful article that I totally resonated with. It is so important for us introverted types to accept ourselves as unique and honour that. Thank you for reminding me it’s ok to be different.

  22. Perfect, thank you 🙂

  23. Thank you so much for this. As a kid I wanted to be a hermit – I actually told that to a relative and was promptly ridiculed for my “selfishness.” Thus I learned to keep quiet about my inner workings. These days I appreciate that introversion is less maligned.

    I can claim no particular gift of working with plants but I DO love them and feel a connection with them and I am more than happy to spend my time in their company. So far I don’t seem to have strayed more than a smidge onto the herbalist’s path, but this article gives me courage to consider it further with the knowledge that it wouldn’t have to mean constant social (human) interaction.

    Thank you, Kiva.

  24. Thank you!

  25. Thank you, this is beautiful! And rings true on many levels, I am going to book mark it to read again.!

  26. Thank you for sharing. You expressed so many thoughts and feelings that I have often had with such grace and eloquence that it ignited my soul with empathy and understanding of myself and others on this oft forgotten path. Thank you for sharing your gifts.

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