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Herbalism On the Edge: Walking the Borderlands

Posted Nov 12 2011 12:32pm

“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Herbalist. The term can make the role we fill sound as if it’s a single job rather than the multitude of overlapping and intersecting skills that it actually is. Gardener, Wildcrafter, Clinician, Medicine Maker, Field Botanist, Educator, Counselor, Activist, Accountant, Grant Writer and Advocate are just a few of the most common roles many herbalists find themselves filling. We will often find that our work is most powerful and authentic in the borderlands where these roles meet and overlap. To be an herbalist, especially in this era and place, is to walk the edge.

The word edgy is so overused as to be a cliche unto itself. And yet, that’s exactly what this work is. It’s learning the language of traditional medicine and conventional medicine and trying to speak it in an understandable way to people who may understand neither or have a distinct prejudice against either or both. It’s teaching gutter punks and retired RNs physiology from a new perspective and opening their eyes to the complex array of plant life that surrounds us at all times. It’s making old-fashioned medicine from common weeds and then attempting to understand how that medicine might interact with newly introduced pharmaceuticals or affect organ systems that scientists are just beginning to understand the function of.

Some would have us think that herbalism remains the domain only of “primitive” peoples or, on the other hand, conventional medical professionals who have the accreditation considered necessary to treat clients. And so we walk another kind of edge, within the legal system and the regulations created by entities such as the FDA.

These edges are important, imperative even. This is a time of many people being both disempowered and disconnected from even the most basic healthcare, often from a lack of education and finances. As herbalists, we’re pushing at the borders of what’s considered normal, sensible, and sometimes even acceptable, within mainstream society. Regardless of how straight we look, speak or feel, the very act of teaching or treating with botanical medicine tends to immediately place us on the fringes of standard American culture.

Within my practice, teaching, organizing, editing and writing I constantly strive to further acknowledge and embrace these edges and borders. To walk them consciously and with intent. Plant Healer Magazine and TWHC have been a furthering of that boundary pushing and edge walking. Wolf and I are in constant discussion and reassessment of that this means and how we can be most effective.

This is not easy work, especially when we live a culture that asks us to separate ourselves into pieces. That suggests we have different social media accounts for each and every one of our personal and professional roles for our many fragments, and the masks they each wear. That tries to insist that we splinter ourselves into cliches and titles and aliases until even we can’t remember which part of us is talking and what’s safe to say. But don’t worry, there’s a social media app for that.

My big mouth, constant questioning of the status quo and sometimes unpopular opinions have earned me more than a few disparaging comments both locally and in the larger herbal community. I admit that it’s sometimes tempting to shut up and play it a bit safer. To keep my opinions neutral. To make every response politic to the expected audience.

But really, fuck that.

For me, herbalism always has been about and continues to be primarily about the plants. Their beauty and inherent value as living parts of a larger organism we call Earth. The miracle of how even being near them in their chosen habitat is healing in and of itself. The myriad ways we interact with and rely on them. The magic, yes magic, of their bodies as medicine for our bodies. Only when all of these layers are present and integrated do I feel whole and happy with my work, my life, my self.

Occasionally I have to remind myself that my work with clients isn’t as a doctor, dictator or a magician, but simply as a matchmaker between person and plants. It’s that simple, and that difficult. There are other sorts of herbalists of course, and this description of my approach isn’t meant to be a definition of what you or anyone else does or needs to do. It’s here as remembrance that there are many ways to work in the diverse and dynamic field of herbalism.

As the snow clouds hang low over the canyon and surrounding mountains I realize that I’ve never before looked on the long, cold months of Winter with such anticipation. After more than two years of frenzied activity of putting together the TWH conference, Plant Healer Magazine and various teaching projects along with still seeing clients and trying to keep up with wildcrafting and medicine making, I realize I’m more than ready for some time turned inward.

It’s been easy to lose myself in the work of organizing and managing, to be subsumed by the large personalities I spend so much time promoting and working with. To forget the strands of my mission that are rooted in the Appalachian culture I come from and the New Mexico mountains that are my home. To find myself too exhausted at the end of any given day to nourish myself. To remember how to integrate all of the skills and roles into a functional whole.

While the deadlines and effort required for my work are undeniably endless, I’m creating new ways to reprioritize my time and energy. As the last copper-tinted leaves are blown from the Cottonwood trees, I find myself returning to the projects that keep me most in touch with what I care about, and what I most love about herbalism. I notice that I’m more frequently wandering into the kitchen to muse over my favorite Siberian inspired elk pelmeni recipe or breathe in the warm citrus scent of White Fir tea simmering on the woodstove. The mornings have more often been spent on a lichen clad boulder staring through the long threads of Usnea out at the Ponderosas bending with the winds and the river rippling sinuously between its banks.

As a result, I’ll be blogging more often, and my posts will return to their previously personal and wide topic range. You’ll also notice I’ve updated my blog header and am in process of updating the overall feel of the site and my writing. While it sometimes seems easier to restrict the subject matter on the Medicine Woman’s Roots to being strictly related to botanical medicine, I’ve found that this negates the original purpose and even the title of the blog. I don’t want a fracturing of myself into personal and professional personas. My vocation is a huge part of who I am and it’s more than a job, it’s my passion and a lasting love.

And if I ramble on about the color of Monkeyflowers and rant about the pseudoscience that passes for medical research and eat with my hands in public and climb trees in high heels and swear with great enthusiasm, well… you were forewarned.

Expect tales and monographs, case studies and rants, pictures and ramblings.

Expect to find yourself up against the edge, gazing out over where the vast diversity of traditions, medicine, cultures, plants and peoples come together.

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