An herbalist's argument against settling for "slight," "mild" and "tame."
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
1. reaching a high or the highest degree; very great • not usual; exceptional • very severe or serious • far from moderate • performed at risk
2. furthest from the center
"Extreme" has gotten a bad rap. In media news reports and shopping mall conversations, it's become a stand-in for "unreasonable." Extreme sports, that could get a normal personal killed. Extreme weather events, that people love to fear. "Environmental extremists" are lambasted as the ones who would protect nature at the cost of fewer resources extracted, fewer logging and mining jobs or lower incomes. Rather than calling Jihadi bombers "revolutionaries," we hear them described as "Moslem extremists." "Terrorist" and "extremist" are used interchangeably by right-wing pundits, as if they meant the same thing, but just as lamentable are the liberal correspondents directing their disapproval at what they call the "extreme views" of the opposition.
"Extreme" is a Middle English word, drawn from the Latin extremus meaning "outermost, utmost," and it's as if we're being told that only the middle ground is reasonable, laudable, normal.
On the other hand, the antonyms for "extreme" tell us much. Would we really rather our lives, our work, our expressions of self, our precious personal herbalism to be considered "slight," "mild" or "tame"? Few people would want to be mildly desired by their mates, and "moderate" interest is usually a sure turn-off. A moderate effort in sports, or in our work, results in low scores and scant accomplishment. Middle is often average or even mediocre, without the memorable lessons and inspiring drama of failure, or the results and satisfaction of success. Everyone is better than average at certain tasks or practices, depending on their inborn gifts and developed skills, and most of us are extremely effective at least at one thing. That thing is our personal way to shine.
Just as it is said someone is "generous in the extreme," so too can we be herbalists in the extreme — if plant medicine is our calling — turning our extreme interest into extreme study, connection, foraging, growing, evaluation of conditions... extremely caring and effective healing. We can all be students in the extreme, learning from everything around us, and never stopping our learning processes. Lovers in the extreme, giving the most meaningful and sweetest of attentions to the people, places and activities that we love. Creators in the extreme, creating lives, art, writings and practices that are utmost expressions of who really are, maximal, far reaching, momentous, consequential, radical, impactful.
I'm all for extreme beauty that opens our eyes, awakens our senses, stirs our hearts, or takes our very breath away. Extremely flavorful food like oranges and pomegranates that demand attention and awaken the palette. Extremes of loyalty and devotion, affection and love. Extremely adventurous vacations, extremely deep friendships. Extremely restful downtime, and extremely productive projects. The extreme pleasure of loud roots-rock or conjunto or Russian folk music, of resonant drumheads and intricately plucked mandolin or balalaika. The often extreme quiet of nature, in which to either think and ponder, or simply to exist for precious extended moments in a rapt state of ultra-presence and wordless fascination. And I'm for extremely deep, connected, holistic, whole healing.
Know it or not, there are even advantages to extreme negatives. Being extremely alone, totally without company, can feed the spirit and our exploration of self, while feeling neglected amidst a crowd or lonely in a less than satisfying relationship only feeds our alienation and dissatisfaction. While we're likely to leave an extremely unhealthy job or marriage, we may stick it out if it's only half bad, slowly draining us of our remaining youth, hope and joy. A "pretty good" job that pays "pretty well" can actually make it harder to break away and start our own herb store, herbal practice, teaching, book or school.
If I'm to be made uncomfortable by something or someone, it might in some ways be better in extreme, because it can move us to respond, to initiate changes in ways and to a degree that moderate discomfort never could. Extreme government repression makes it clear the ways we are being controlled and harmed, provoking a search for alternatives, rebellion and resistance to injustice, while we may suffer even more under supposedly democratic systems and liberal administrations with their constant if incremental reduction in our rights to make medicine or to practice our trade.
The day I write this, the first storm in many months has just come through our canyon, with winds blowing so hard that our cabin shook and snow somehow was blown clean through tiny cracks in the wallboard. We are moved to vigorously respond, opening the rain barrels, tending to what might be blowing away, and later climbing a ladder up the outside of our cabin wall with caulk gun in hand. The weather has always seemed extreme here in the mountains of New Mexico, contributing to our sensation of extreme vital existence. Utmost existence. Utmost purpose. Utmost personal practice. Utmost focus and results.
For some, herbalism will always be something they can only occasionally make time for, and the limited herbal knowledge they already have still makes for healthier family members and friends. Other herbalists will be happiest carrying the tradition of plant medicine forward in a relaxed and paced way, with minimal expectations or little pressure to advance or perform. Still others will feel constantly impelled, wired to consume every bit of information they can, needing to excel or succeed, anxious to fulfill an impassioned mission.
But in every case we have the option to be healthfully extreme: Extremely satisfied, if our families are any less dependent on the industrial/chemical medical establishment, or if we've ever contributed to the easing of a single person's difficult condition, physical discomfort or pain. Extremely pleased to know as much as we do, even if there is always tons more to learn. And at the same time, extremely interested in furthering our herbal education, determining our needs and defining our goals, and finding our own place within the herbal community and field, extremely excited about rooting in the land, returning to our natural state of wonder, manifesting our gifts. Extremely committed to help heal and be healed.
Excerpted from The Plant Healer's Path: A Grassroots Guide For The HerbFolk Tribe, the first of two volumes by Jesse Wolf Hardin, cofounder of Plant Healer Magazine, with enchanting tales, medicinal plant profiles and favorite herbal recipes by Kiva Rose, and contributions by herbalist authors David Hoffman, Paul Bergner, Phyllis Light, Rebecca Altman and Roger Wicke (304 pages, over 100 photos and art illustrations). Limited-edition cloth-covered hardback, $39; ebook, $25. Order from the bookstore and gallery page at www.PlantHealer.org.