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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   July 2010


Growing New Healing Traditions

An upcoming international herbalism conference in New Mexico emphasizes the importance of indigenous and contemporary healing traditions.

By Jesse Wolf Hardin

As you read this, the older sections of various New Mexico towns and rural adobe villages are host to "Yerberas" and "Curanderas," traditional healers skilled in the ways of plant medicine, some of whom could be right now preparing a favored mix of flowers to try.

Catron County herbalist Kiva Rose with an armful of monarda

South of this Land of Enchantment, their Central American counterparts are seeing to the needs of not only their families but the populations of their neighborhoods, and elder Hourani in the jungles of Ecuador work to ease the pain of childbirth, heal infections and reduce fevers in areas where no other form of care exists. In the San Francisco area, a determined healer keeps alive another Hispanic healing tradition. Meanwhile, to the east, an Appalachian "Grannywife" kneels to tend her garden just as her grandmother and great-grandmother did, with her own ever-deepening understanding of each species' characteristic blend of properties and effects. Across the ocean, herbalists in Great Britain draw both from historic tradition and the immediate instruction and example of the fey forest.

Not too far north of New Mexico's high mesas, a 21st century mountain man with a primitivist bent gathers usnea lichen for his wounds and watercress for his dinner. He seeks not only primal nourishment and healthy ways of treating his problems, but also a degree of self-reliance in an age when most of us have become increasingly dependent on factory farms and highly paid medical specialists.

Westward, a mother in a big city gives her child carefully crafted peach tincture whenever he is nauseous, as well as administering elderberry to ward of his colds. She does so not because she lacks access to modern hospitals or the insurance to cover doctors' costs, but because she wants to provide the most natural and holistic care possible. And she, too, like her fellow formal or informal healers, seeks to take responsibility for the health and well-being of herself, her family and the all-too-ailing world.

These are some of the traditions that will come together Sept. 17-19, when more than 20 renowned herbalists from a wide range of backgrounds gather to meet and teach at the international Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, to be held at the Ghost Ranch retreat center near Santa Fe. This event brings together many of herbalism's most vital voices into a single forum, emphasizing experiential learning and hands-on understanding for herbal students of all levels. Presenters will include Rosemary Gladstar and Matthew Wood, Phyllis Light and Charles Garcia, Kiva Rose and myself, with a combined total of more than 200 years of active practice. Each will share our operative traditions, from ancient Mayan to contemporary nature-based, often with the flavor and spirit of the different bioregions and landscapes in which we live and practice.

The motions that we make today are not all that different from those traditions, whether looking into eyes and pressing palms to foreheads, grinding plants with a mortar and pestle, pouring the alcohol for tinctures or the steaming water for infusions, or gathering remedy and sustenance from mesas and jungles, mountain parks and the overgrown edges of suburban landscapes and urban parking lots, and whether wearing native-woven cloth or the latest in hemp fashion.

These healers take cues from the natural world and their own intuitive, telltale bodies. Each is an empathic who cares so deeply that he or she is drawn to act. And all feel called to help, sometimes in an entirely informal fashion, other times taking on the role of a community healer in one form or another. Without even knowing one another, they are kindred, connected to each other through their attentive, hand-to-stem connection to plants. Whether living hundreds or thousands of miles apart, they remain nonetheless joined in an alliance of purpose, part of a common clan even when hailing from vastly different tribes. And when they do meet each other, whether by accident or intention, there is usually immediate mutual recognition, born not just of a shared cause but a shared curiosity and perspective, passion and love.

The need for increasingly self-sufficient communities, and for natural and regional approaches, is likely greater now than ever before. And no wonder then, that the interest in herbalism — and in natural healing in general — is on the rise again, responding to the needs of neighbors and loved ones as has always been the case, but now spurred by lowered incomes and layoffs, by the dangerous side-effects of the flood of prescription pills and the ever heavier burden of skyrocketing health costs.

Herbal and nutritional care is preventive as well as curative, not eliminating but certainly lessening the need for high-tech tests, allopathic treatment, immunity-squashing antibiotics and other suppressive drugs. Our Anima Tradition definition of health is "wholeness," with the healer's work being to aid the individual's return to a dynamic state that is both whole and in balance. Rather than attacking illness per se, the herbalist or other practitioner supports the body's natural efforts to heal itself, often prescribing dietary adjustments and a wide array of herbal allies to affect each condition or symptom, and teaching the skills that make it possible for someone to treat his or her self.

The result is primary care that is better for you — more natural, holistic, intuitive, nourishing and supportive. The attendant rewards include increased bodily awareness and sensory input, the benefits and pleasures that come with a more intimate and cognizant relationship with nature, plus an ability to read the conditions and needs of others, and thus be best able to positively affect the world.

Natural healing and self sufficiency can benefit anyone, no matter where we might live. That said, self care and community health care are in some ways even more vital in rural areas like northern Grant and Catron counties than in cities, given the few regular medical services available and the many miles from town, farm or ranch to the nearest well-equipped hospital. Relative isolation requires increased self-reliance, manifested from vehicle repair and garden skills to the ability to treat their family's less-serious conditions as well as provide first-aid in the case of an emergency.


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