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The resurgence of herbalism

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About the cover


Growing Our Roots

The resurgence of traditional Western herbalism


The Sacramento Mountains are the stunning backdrop for the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference. (Photo by Kiva Rose Hardin)

Under the sheltering arms of sky-island evergreens, a small group of people walk close together. They move attentively through a high elevation forest rich with plant animal life, first laughing giddily and then struck silent, many of them stopping to point at or kneel by wildflowers blooming forth from the dark soil. Among them are a pair of slight figures, the smaller of whom is a young girl with dark hair tied back in a long braid, pausing in mid-stride. Smiling, she drops to her knees in the undergrowth and begins to carefully harvest clumps of the spicy scented oregano de la sierra, the medicine herb the Anglos recognize as purple flowered beebalm. Just a little ahead, her mother reaches up to cut a few fragrant boughs of pine to bring back home for a rich, restorative tea, before they both hurry to catch up with the rest of the group, now pausing to hear the story of a certain health-giving thistle that grows only in the Sacramento Mountains.

This scene is timeless, its possibilities stretching across millennia, a vision of humans moving through the forest in search of sustenance, silence and sweet medicine. Most likely, some will reckon this image comes from a thousand years ago, members of one of the indigenous hunter-gatherer tribes of the Americas. Others will imagine homesteaders from the great migration out West, likely the remnants of an Appalachian family searching for food in unfamiliar woods. And yet, the time of their gathering is now, and the place here in the still wild landscapes of the “Land of Enchantment,” New Mexico.

The occasion is a “plant walk,” a meandering educational survey of the botanical medicines native to the upper elevation Southwest, and one component of an international herbal conference hosted right up the mountain at historic Cloudcroft. Wise teachers from all over the country and world assemble for the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, a celebration of the old ways as well as the new wave of self-empowered natural healers blending traditional practices with the latest in scientific understandings. Together, they constitute what the esteemed practitioner Paul Bergner has christened an “herbal resurgence.” For up to four days, youngsters and elders, experienced herbalists and newbies join together to share knowledge and skills, and to party-hearty after long days of excitedly learning what they need to take better care of themselves, their families or clients in this age of pharmaceutical dependence and over-priced health services.

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Workshop participants learn about using the senses to better understand the medicinal properties of herbs at last year’s Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference. (Photo by Kiva Rose Hardin)

The young woman we see on the plant walk is blazing a new trail even as she is following in the steps of her ancestors. The call of the green world sings in her blood as she gathers bundles of wild, aromatic weeds with her mother, placing them carefully in handwoven baskets to take back to their small cabin. Leaves, stems, roots and flowers will all be carefully chopped for tinctures made with whiskey, or dried for teas steeped with bittersweet leaves and wild-flower honey. She’s young yet, but the stories are already stored in her bones, and she’s treated her fair share of cuts and bruises and sore throats. She knows that this particular root is to stop the bleeding, that flower to help with sleep long in coming, this sticky resin to pull thorns from the flesh and that dark berry to ease a badly broken heart.

She and her mother aren’t alone either. All over the world, the majority of the human population — whether urban or rural — still utilizes herbalism as their primary means of healing. Simple remedies are common knowledge even among children, and those advanced in the trade are esteemed by the larger community. Only in the Western world, primarily in the English speaking portions, have these well-known and widely trusted methods been devalued and mostly forgotten. And yet, the traditions of our places and people do live on in the practices of herbalists and folk healers across many continents. It’s true that too many of our healing ways have been fragmented or cut from their cultural context, not least because of active suppression of and prejudice against them by government, corporations and others in the name of progress and capital gain. Still, much of value has been retained and passed on through both our very bloodlines as well as our re-lationship with place and commu-nity.

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Our native New Mexico St. John’s Wort,
Hypericum scouleri. (Photo by Kiva Rose Hardin)

“Traditional Western Herbalism” is the collective land-based traditions and practices of those herbalists originating or based in Western Europe as well as North, Central & South America. It may also include the practices of those living in colonized areas such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa etc., where American and European plants and healing ways have been brought with the immigrants. It’s certainly not limited to English speaking peoples and in

fact, historically, it has been those of ethnic minorities and non-English speaking communities who have most fiercely held onto their healing traditions. Those without the convenience of medical insurance or the privilege of easily accessible food and shelter know better than anyone how to make do with what’s there, how to heal the same way their mother, grandfather and great-grandmother did before them.

In a tiny trailer kitchen in North Carolina, an old woman is doctoring her great-grandson just back from the war, giving him calming drafts of maypop and peach leaf to help him heal from the emotional and physical scars of combat. In the Green Mountains of Vermont an old homesteader is chopping fresh nettle greens and chickweed with his hunting knife to infuse in vinegar for a mineral rich tonic for the long Winter months. On a reservation in Canada, an efficient mother boils the fragrant roots of lomatium and balsamroot on the stove to treat her daughter’s insistent case of flu. In a spacious flat in London, a menopausal woman is tincturing the motherwort she found in a local park to help with her hot flashes.

Everywhere, from trailer parks to penthouses to rural farmhouses, the lingering traces of traditional medicine are growing stronger, more insistent. And in the mountains of New Mexico we’ve gathered here from all corners of the country, and indeed the globe, to both celebrate and share our knowledge of these traditions with each other. An Alabama root doctor learns from a Mexican curandera, while a traditional healer from Chile confers with a German phytotherapist about the healing properties of lavender.

The Medicine Woman’s Roots

While using herbs to heal is common to all peoples, in all places and times, an herbal practice is very much informed and formed by the particular regions in which it evolves. In my years of living in the remote mountains of the Southwest, my practice has grown to have the flavor of New Mexico and its blend of Native American and Hispanic cultures, Celtic cowboy self-sustainability and ancient mystical appreciation. I have always considered myself to be very hands-on, common sense and grounded in what works. And so I deliberately don’t have any letters after my name, no special certification or even any fancy memberships to prove my status as a professional herbalist.

In the realm of mainstream medicine, and even mainstream alternative medicine, it is nearly a requirement that you at least pretend to have some sort of certification, some document that assures your clients and students of your competence if not excellence. There’s some real validity to this way of thinking if you intend to work within the medical system or desire the respect of other health-care professionals. But as someone molded of this land and its peoples, I’m uninterested in any official status, and intend to stay right here, at the grassroots. For me personally, this means continuing to work with people as an herbal practitioner, as a village herbalist, on a nearly daily basis. It means leaning over peoples’ backyard fences and teaching them how to work with the weeds that grow all around them. It means gathering wild plants for food and medicine for my family and friends. It means when I sit down with people to try and help them with whatever discomfort or problem they’re experiencing that my aim is to nourish and promote wholeness and vital health. It means I’m a weedy herbalist, subverting the dominant culture with chicken soup and wildflowers, and by reminding people that medicine comes from right here — from the earth we’re connected to and from inside our own bodies.

Likewise, none of you need feel unqualified to take up what is at the core a deep relationship with healing plants, assuming the role of caregiver, simultaneously the life-long students of the amazing plant world and active practitioners of an ancient and ever more important craft. By reading the right books, taking online courses, apprenticing locally, and attending educational events like The Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, you can equip yourself to be a Plant Healer, self-certified, always improving and usually greatly helping those in need.

Tribal Roots

As with most other forms of folk medicine, Traditional Western Herbalism is based in an energetic conception of herbs and diagnostics that stems from sensory observation and the understanding of patterns in both body and plants. The exact structure of these energetics varies a great deal from region to region, including the Appalachian granny woman’s blood energetics as well the Southwestern curandero’s diagnostic methods. What remains the same are some basic concepts, including:

  1. the understanding that the perceived tissue states (such as dampness/dryness or hot/cold) of the human body have an impact on health and can be influenced by certain herbs
  2. that illness must be addressed on whole person level that includes body, mind and emotions,
  3. that simple sensory observation can tell the practitioner a great deal about both human and plant and
  4. that the herbs are sentient allies that work with the healer to facilitate.

In most regions, people depend on the plants that grow near them, whether wild or in their gardens or those herbs and spices common available by trade and in the market. Folk medicine uses what’s available and what works, whether whiskey for tinctures, spiderwebs for wound dressing and the kitchen table as an office for seeing clients.

Frequently caught in a cultural void, we North Americans have developed a tendency to look to exotic places and peoples for identity and ways of healing. Yet herbalism is by its very nature, a place based endeavor. Importing and working with plants that must be grown, harvested and shipped from other areas of the world is not only unsustainable, it also prevents the practitioner from having adequate connection with the herb for an effective alliance and thus, healing practice.

A significant percentage of those raised in mainstream United States believe that the Western traditions of healing are long dead, lost with the genocide and degradation of indigenous cultures, cut down with the forgotten forests of ancient Europe, dismissed as trivial beside our obsession for industrial efficiency and discarded with traditional foods, crafts and lifeways. Many of us are the descendants of immigrating people who, in their eagerness to assimilate into main-stream culture, sacrificed name, story and culture for a new and often anonymous way of life. This served a purpose dubious even in its time, and has now left their grandchildren and great-grandchildren adrift, grasping for remaining threads of heritage and identity. Even those of mixed lineage with ancestors indigenous to the Americas or Europe often feel at a loss for roots and context. Humans are essentially tribal beings, and their identity and well-being are inextricably tied into community and home. Attempting to continue the time-honored work of herbalism cut off from the threads ancestors, cultural customs, lore and land-base is difficult indeed. For many then, discovering that our people and the lands we live on still retain living traditions of any kind is both amazing, and a great relief. Studying the ways of the hills we come from or the watershed we belong to is nothing short of coming home, and learning from teachers among our own chosen folk is on many levels, to find true family.

Recent decades have heralded a hopeful return to traditional ways of all sorts, including food, education, music and yes, herbal healing. Many thanks are due to the story and wisdom keepers over myriad generations who practiced and held this information safe and passed it patiently on. Additionally, herbalists such as Michael Moore, Rosemary Gladstar, Juliette Levy, Matthew Wood, Rosita Arvigo, Tommie Bass and many more are responsible for both carrying on and representing our traditional healing ways to new generations of healers.

Now, there are a growing number of people eager to return to a deep connection with land through food, medicine, ceremony, music, dance and even oral storytelling. In the healing community, more and more students are expressing a profound desire to learn the ways of their ancestors and to primarily work with the plants that live in their own bioregion. This resurge of interest in old-fashioned remedies, self-sufficient techniques and wild foods is only the leading edge of the slow but inevitable wave of return to the timeless and still evolving traditions of Western herbalism. New traditions are being born from the warp and weft of our forbearers work, as we each make our own unique contributions to the weave of the healing web. With each turn and addition it becomes stronger — we become stronger.

Wild Roots

I’ve had a lifelong penchant for all things weedy and wild. Garden flowers are pretty enough, but I prefer the bad attitude of rebellious weeds and fierce insistence of wild plants growing out of sharp-edged rock crevices and boggy swamp bottoms. Rare, esteemed herbs from the other side of the globe can be useful enough medicines, but my heart (and the heart of my practice as an herbalist) definitely lies with the common, abundant plants that grow just outside my door and down by the river.

Even in my small, feral garden, I don’t baby anyone. If they can’t hold their own with the lamb’s quarters and wild mustard, that’s just tough. I’m a great fan of such qualities of tenacity and even a bit of outright muleheadedness can serve very well. And really, this is where my roots grow deepest — among strong, willful plants, land, culture and people. Yep, I like weedy and wild people too. Stubborn, skeptical and child-like in the way that rural and earthy (even while still urban) folks can be. Whether in Appalachia or the mountain Southwest, I am inevitably drawn to those who not only survive adversity, but thrive despite the difficulties.

I see grassroots herbalism as having direct connections with local plants, with the land both we and the herbs grow from and with the people we work with. All this directness leads to a certain kind of messiness. Sometimes picking your own medicine means there’s strange little bugs in your most recent harvest and sometimes talking to folks about their problems on their back porch leads to a much more complicated conversation than if you’d kept it in your air-conditioned office. Working this way, you get to know the plants in the context of their environment, of their relationship with other plants, with the dirt, with humans. Likewise, we also learn to under-stand people in the context of their human community and the connections they have to place and more-than-human people (you know, critters of various sorts).

I approach healing as a means of facilitating wholeness in whatever form that takes for each individual. Context is essential to any sort of wholeness. I don’t want to isolate bits of synthesized plant parts for my remedies, and I find my best success therapeutically has always come from working with whole plants. And I don’t desire to remove the people I help from their circumstances and ways of being. I work best when I get to know folks, hear about their life and what they love and what gets under their skin. I can’t really imagine any old-time root doctor or indigenous medicine person working any other way, and it seems the only approach I know how to practice anyhow.

The work I do (and love) is folk medicine, it’s accessible and subversive and messy and is all about the magic of the everyday.

It revolves around good food and weeds and conversation and a return to the heart of what healing is all about: wholeness embodied in the individual, the community and the land.

Growing Our Roots

We are the newest in a long line of herbwives, root doctors, yerberas, mountain men, curanderos, grannywomen and village herbalists that stretch back through time and across cultures. The dark haired girl in the mountains is just the most recent of her people to reach out, to touch the earth with seeking hands and bring back medicine, and to be able to share it and celebrate it with a tribe of likeminded folk. From the hills of Appalachia to the shores of Cornwall, the rain- forests of the Amazon to the mesas and canyons of this Southwest, we are walking in the footsteps of our ancestors to bring together people and plants. Our traditions are still vital and growing, as willful as the wildest weeds and as deep as the roots of trees growing from sheer cliff-face. The wisdom of healing runs through every bloodline and our inborn relationship with the plant world informs us at the most cellular level. Every grandmother who tells the little ones at her knee the stories of ‘Seng hunting in the old days and teaches them the magic of rose petals infused in whiskey strengthens the web of our herb-craft just as every little boy singing secret songs to the trees and sharing wildcrafted watercress with his family brings new life to it.

We are gathering, not just at the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference but all around the world, like-hearted plant healers and plant celebrants. We link up as we awaken, from the backwoods of Maine to the back lots of Los Angeles, from the misty Northwest to the peaks of New Mexico... and from the treasured past to the unolding future. Our herbalists’ web is homespun and weathered, but it is also strong from the hands of a thousand generations weaving and reweaving, infusing it with wisdom, song, blood, and the wild insistence of weds.

We are growing and advancing our traditions, together, from their roots.

Kiva Rose Hardin is a wilderness-dwelling New Mexico herbalist, author, artist, botanical perfumer, and committed culture- shifter. She is the co-founder and coeditor of Plant Healer Magazine (www.PlantHealerMagazine.com) and contributor to two books for herbalists, The Plant Healer’s Path and The Healing Terrain. Kiva invites you all to join her at this year’s Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, Sept. 17-20 in Cloudcroft, NM, with single day passes available online. For more information or to sign up for her free and informative Herbaria Newsletter, go to the relevant pages from: www.PlantHealer.org

By the Book


The Healing Terrain and The Plant Healer’s Path by Jesse Wolf Hardin, are filled with enchanting tales, medicinal plant profiles and favorite herbal recipes by Kiva Rose, as well as contributions by David Hoffman, Phyllis Light, Paul Bergner and more. Hardin tackles topics vital to an effective, empowered herbal practice, including many never addressed before, with suggestions for taking control of and enjoying one’s life and tips that can benefit herbalists and non-herbalists alike.


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