This article first appeared in Plant Healer Magazine which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the study of herbal medicine, creating healthy human community and basic human rights. It's an excellent resource for any level of herbalist from novice, to hobbyist to herbal practitioner.
Herbal Medicine and the Meeting of the Worlds
The roots of herbal medicine stretch far and wide throughout the matrix of human history, absorbing the essential nutrients of time during its journey within the narrative of the Earth. It’s a tale of wildness, creation, and co-evolutionary alliances that has engaged us in the twining of the original conversation of the elements that continues its atomic exchange and feeds and nourishes the fire at the hearth of the soul of the world. Our ongoing collaboration with the plants is coursing forward on the genetic scrolls of our ancestors and must be consistently renewed and renegotiated in order to keep this tradition alive. We are bequeathed with continuing the lineage of the eternal as it successively emerges into form. The decisions we make, the structures we build, and the qualities we actualize now will determine the aspects of creation that will be available to our descendants. The question arises of how we can unite our diverse ideals, experience, and present needs in a way that will maintain the ultimate integrity of what was once the primary health care system of the world.
What we now know of as Traditional Western Herbalism has emerged in a synergy of culturally based healing practices from all over the world. There has been a new resurgence building in the past several decades creating an herbal community that was, at first, small scale, localized, and charged with the delicate reweaving and rediscovering of the buried threads of knowledge of the plants and their healing properties. Over the past 30 years, herbal medicine has blossomed and fruited and seeded and re-seeded into a proliferative force in mainstream culture and a well-established component of alternative medicine. This flourishing renaissance of not just herbal medicine, but holistic medicine in general, has become so popular that it has now made contact with the conventional or allopathic medicine of the dominant culture. This has presented several serious, complex, and not easily resolved issues.
This ancient herbalist or village healer has incarnated in the modern herbal community as the folk herbalist. The work of a folk herbalist encompasses a system that existed long before health care became a profit-driven, centralized commodity and was cultivated by the needs of a localized, place-based practice. It was a lineage that was passed on from teacher to student with no standardized curriculum, but with the objective of differentiating and developing the unique medicine gifts of each healer to be integrated with the dynamic natural forces that govern life, death, birth, and the health of these natural phases. Other forms of traditional herbalism have evolved through several systemized traditions including Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and myriad Native American healing practices.
While the overculture has been steadily commercializing, centralizing, standardizing, and regulating, health care services, folk herbalism, and alternative medicine in general have made a strong comeback from the fringes of civilization, not just on the outskirts of our global metropolis, but from deep within the inner sanctums of modern society. From the cities to the mountains to the last remaining forest preserves, the past several decades have seen this ancient tradition rise from the numinous, underground stock through the soils and grassroots of human consciousness into new books, herbwalks, kitchen blenders, gardens, and tea strainers of westerners everywhere. Herbalists are blossoming out of the shadow of the primordial loam into neighborhoods and backyards everywhere with their lessons about Dandelion roots, Nettles, and Plantain along with myriad of other herbal remedies that can provide improved health and treat and prevent illness by simple methods that are accessible and affordable. The roots, stems, leaves, blossoms, and seeds of the past are living again but now within the context of contemporary society, economics, politics, and an enormous centralized medical system.
The resurgence of the herbal medicine tradition has so far maintained a local scale with herbalists working directly within community as traditions dictates. It has, in the past, been a self-regulating convention where the practitioner was embedded in the ordered, yet dynamic pulse of their bioregional network that, when healthy and balanced, is a deeply interconnected web of integrity and transparency requiring no outside authority to alleviate doubt as to the level of skill and mastery of their trade. Small communities are highly sensitive and efficient in their communication. These healers were directly accountable to the people they served and their reputation preceded them. The training was lifelong and usually accomplished by traditional apprenticeship that included all manner and aspect of the craft. This person would have been supported by the community through trade or payment based on the combined needs of the practitioner and the needs of the patient that reflected a flexible and adaptable method of service. There was little room for error in efficacy and quality in these conditions because the same person who planted the seed harvested the root, sprout, or bloom. This was, of course, within the context of a world paradigm that no longer exists and the classical function of a local healer is now confronting petitions from the dominant culture to validate itself by conventional methods. It is no longer enough for us to bring back an old tradition and remember how to care for ourselves and our communities, but we must discover how this tradition will be kept alive in this crazy, “civilized”, industrial, global society.
“My teacher always said that, if there is to be any hope whatsoever of living well on this earth, we have to take the ancient root and put new sap in it. That doesn’t mean we need to do something new, but to do something old in a new way, which takes great courage.” ~Martin Prechtel
Modern medicine diverged, at some crossroads, from these primary traditions and has come along with great technological achievements, life-saving medicines, and procedures that I for one have been humbly grateful for more than once. The technology and innovations of allopathic medicine, as inventive and insightful as they are, were structured within the context of an imperial, competitive, political paradigm that values the accumulation of wealth , material goods, and unrestrained growth as measures of success, status, and merit. This system has built a mass-governing mechanism to sustain and regulate how resources are dispensed in a hierarchical system that is now completely monopolized by corporate interests with corruption at every level. Our global society has left the local, unique, and diversified needs of the small-scale community far behind and has allocated all distribution of services, supplies, and governance from a mass center. This is unconceivably maladaptive and unsustainable as described by Kelly Booth in her article “How Humans Adapt” (Home! A Bioregional Reader pages 73-34) “ Integration, scale and a sensitivity to place are emphatically not found in mass society. The mass does not adapt to a particular place. Instead, it tries to standardize all places. Its relations to its natural environment are coarse, crude and insensitive”
There are several issues facing herbalists today and a fair amount of divisiveness amongst herbalists as to how we meet this mass imperative and authenticate our practice while maintaining the human-centered ethics of “people before profit”. One of the major topics of discourse are the FDA regulations that have indicted those who make herbal preparations with strict manufacturing guidelines or what is known as the GMP(good manufacturing practices) laws. The GMP laws have been devastating to the small herbalist as the requirements for compliance are expensive and cumbersome with a great emphasis placed on paperwork, record keeping, and specifications that are time-consuming and tedious. Even worse are requirements for expensive laboratory tests to determine species and quality of each batch of medicine. These laws arose as a response to what is now becoming a profitable industry where large supplement companies have latched onto the money-making potential of a new retail market. Herbal medicines are now being made by large, automated corporations as tinctures, salves, teas, and herbal formulations that have rapidly become commercialized within a more or less unregulated market. Herbalism as a small, local business has been left with no variances. All herbal companies making internal preparations must adhere to the same regulations; these same regulations that huge multi-national pharmaceutical companies must adhere to all under the guise of protecting consumers and at the expense of the small business and based on unfounded evidence. There has been no science-based risk assessment to justify these regulations.
Another major point of contention is the call for some type of certification or licensure for herbalists. Right now there is no actualized option for herbalists to become qualified by standardized educational programs skills assessments. This increasing popularity of herbal medicine and a greater general acceptance of alternative medicine as legitimate and effective, and, I would suggest, an overall dissatisfaction with conventional healthcare, has led herbalists into more regular and consistent contact with mainstream medicine, drug interactions, and new disease pathologies that were not a part of the tradition in the past. Licensure of herbalists or some sort of certification seems reasonable at first glance and, based on some arguments, harmless. What could it hurt to just make sure everyone who calls themselves an herbalist has proven themselves to some standard of excellence? How else can we tell if someone is a quack or not? And why not if we can obtain legitimacy in the medical field and the confidence of the people we attend to? Because it could also be the ultimate demise of this tradition and the conquest of what I perceive as one of the last wild frontiers of the human species; herbal medicine is the medicine of the people and we must be impeccable with how we decide to facilitate this medicine into the future.
Licensure, scientific research, standardization, and regulations are the ways of the world right now, but is this a world that we want to partake in much less apportion our tradition to? This is a world that is on the verge of devouring itself with its disconnected, disembodied dream of avaricious superiority over the powers of nature. There is an intense polarity at the locus of the contact between the new and old ways of herbal medicine and, from my observation, experience and study; resolution will require the seemingly impossible rectification of two antithetical paradigms. The top-down, authoritative, “civilized”, non-local infrastructure of our society seeks to standardized and centralize based on linear, rational, evaluation methods in order to certify, verify, and qualify a traditionally self- organized, indigenous, and wild natural system. It’s not to say that degrees and standards and laboratory test don’t have an important role in the quality of healthcare, but when these types of expectations are imposed upon a longstanding, self-sustaining, and untamed system you know longer have the same tradition. It’s like when you dam a river and create a lake. You no longer have a river, you have a lake and the villages and families that used to fish and drink from that river will no more. We all know what happens next; the people who used to just drink and fish freely from the river now have to pay a toll to be able to get water from the lake, which means they will need jobs, etc.
But how do we assure quality, verify content and accurate labeling, protect from poorly made preparations or possible contamination, ensure integrity, and a high level of skill amongst practitioners while maintaining a bioregional focus that ensures accessibility? There has been a fair amount of discourse within the herbal community between those that believe licensure or certification to be the best approach to legitimacy and those that want to maintain the tradition exclusive of an orthodox medical model that is clearly dysfunctional. Other issues include the desire to have herbal medicine recognized and respected by the mainstream as a valid and professional system. Some herbalists simply want to practice legally and offer their services to a greater number of people, and possibly being able to accept insurance payment. It is not my objective here to provide an absolute solution. I don’t have one. But none will be found without first asking the questions and exploring the creative possibilities.
Mass, centralized society, healthcare, education, government, etc. is essentially deaf to the sound of bioregional and permaculture ethics that endeavors to create systems based on the concept of optimum scale or size for sustainability, resilience, and health. A system that is too small is often ineffective and one that is too large is insensitive. “At the right scale human potential is unleashed, human comprehension magnified human accomplishment multiplied. I would argue that the optimum scale is the bioregional, not so small as to be powerless and impoverished, not so large as to be ponderous and impervious, a scale at which, at last, human potential can match ecological reality.” Excerpt by Kirkpatrick Sale in “Home! A Bioregional Reader”.
Herbalism as a tradition, a practice, an art, and a legitimate medical modality is at a great juncture during a time when the requirements and reality of a global society is in desperate need of the traditional essentials of this ancient wisdom and its human centered, local, and sustainable eminence. Any regulations endorsed from within or without that require compliance to a system that has a completely opposing structure challenges us to pioneer profound innovation and creativity. For a health care system to truly serve the needs of the people it must be accessible with practitioners who can work sovereignly based not just on scientific standards, procedures, and profit margin, but on the particular and unique qualities embodied by that practitioner and integrated within the cultural and environmental character of the local community and the individual constitution of each person they work with. Any possible solutions must be able to adapt to a global society while not sacrificing human rights, traditional ethics, freedom of choice, and environmental sustainability. Any decisions to appease, merge, or collude with a centralized infrastructure will come at some cost to traditional principles unless we are brilliant in our negotiations, and resolute in our alliance with human-centered ethics while holding great faith in the human capacity to imagine creative solutions that may conceive of a third way within the symbiosis of the old and the new.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of Plant Healer Magazine. I have learned alot since then and further deepened into the practice of bioregional herbalism and my connection to the land and my life place. This article still offers some foundational concepts and opening thoughts into the vast complexity of human relationship with the more than human world.
An Introduction To Ecological Relationship & Place-Based Practice
Bioregionalism is a word that was originally termed by activist Peter Berg in the early 1970’s, the height of many counterculture movements across the United States. He lived in San Francisco where a multitude of forces often gathered in various forms of protest as a reaction to a mainstream culture that was dominated by the ever-present paradigms of war and competition. Peter Berg died in July of 2011, but left a legacy and vision that lives on within many of today’s social justice and environmental movements.
The definition of ‘bioregion’ (as stated on the website dedicated to continuing Peter Berg’s work, planetdrum.org) is: “a distinct area with coherent and interconnected plant and animal communities, and natural system, often defined by a watershed. A bioregion is a whole “life-place” with unique requirements for human inhabitations so that it will not be disrupted and injured.” Bioregionalism is the concept and activity of ‘living in place’, of “occupying”, so to speak, the community that we are immersed in. It is a way of awakening to the connections between and within species that are inherent in any biosphere that we inhabit and that all animals, plants, rocks, bacteria and even all that is assumed to be not-alive ore inanimate are participants therein. It means paying attention to seasonal shifts, shopping locally, knowing your neighbors, knowing the plants that grow in your area and using them (ethical harvesting and cultivation of course). As we interact with our bioregion we too become a part of it.
Bioregionalism & The Herbalist
Herbalism is one of the most empowering bioregional activities that we can attend to and a practice that brings each of us in direct contact with all of the elements of nature that, whether we are aware of or not, influence our health and sense of well-being every day. Using the plants that grow alongside and within our human communities to prevent or treat illness, or provide vast nourishment that maintains our systems equilibrium, has been a common birthright throughout all cultures on Earth since the beginning of time. It is a way for us to reclaim a system of healthcare that can provide and re-create lost links that are necessary for healthy, balanced and sustainable human communities. Traditional plant based medicine is the antidote to the reductionist, mechanical, profit-driven perspective of mainstream allopathic medicine and, although these modern technologies have their place and life-saving value, our culture and people have surrendered nearly all fundamental freedom and connection to making our own healthcare decisions to this technology. Re-learning how to use the medicine plants that grow in our own backyards is an integral part of re-connection ourselves to who we are in relationship to the rest of nature and re-awakening ourselves to the interdependency that we all share bringing into awareness the effects of any, even small, destructive acts against this delicately balanced system.
I did not know any of this when I set out on the trail of studying herbs and herbal medicine. I know now that I stood as much in relationship to all of the web-like pattern of the living world then as I do now, but it was my work with and love of the plants that brought this truth into clear sight. I basically blundered into using herbs due to the experience that I had dealing with chronic allergies and asthma and finding minimal relief from the myriad of antihistamines that I was prescribed over many years. I also had a child with chronic ear and respiratory infections and no health insurance to cover the expense of antibiotics and surgery to put tubes in her ears. When you couple that with a chronic authority complex which constantly, and albeit sometime pathologically, compelled me(still does) to rebel against any established paradigm or system, you have a nicely prepared seed-bed for openness to alternative ways and thoughts.
It also helped to live in the wild lands of upstate New York among the foothills of the 6.1 million acre Adirondack Forest Preserve. I live in the sparsely populated Kuyahoora Valley which was all but abandoned, as were many of the hill villages, after the factories either went out of business or moved to more hospitable communities. This has left us with very few jobs and a fair amount of economic poverty, but with land, water, flora, and fauna that is intact and fully abundant. The valley and surrounding hills with its plentiful water and rich soil has been a magnet for many homesteaders, organic farmers and herbalists whose livelihoods depend on being able to tune in to the patterns of weather, animal migration, invasive plant species, fungi, and insects.
My herbal studies began 20 years ago and I have since spent many, many years in direct and daily relationship with my local community and working with herbs in their own habitats; growing some, wildcrafting, paying attention to the weather, the moon, the changing seasons, and matching all that I gather to people, friends, family , clients and all that befalls us in our human condition. What I discovered was supported and guided by the amazing healers who were my herbal teachers and who lit the path for me with their own devotion and love for what philosopher David Abram calls “the more than human world”.
Healthy Plant Communities
I learned quickly that uncultivated plants when allowed to roam free will form natural communities with not just other plants, but trees, fungi, bacteria, insects, etc. There is a balance and sustainable reciprocity that evolves between specific species that like to live and grow together. These communities are connected to other nearby communities that are embedded in that particular biosphere, whether it be a valley, mountain, marsh, desert or forest which is itself within a larger context of temperature, humidity, rainfall, and wind. This dynamic interdependent community includes all animals, human and non-human, who also participate and communicate with the moment to moment phenomena in a multitude of gesture, song, sound, and tongue. I have seen that no single plant, animal or individual human stands alone and that even our great cities stand in relationship with the more than human world, as do we as we walk within them. The cycles of life are unavoidable.
In contrast to my culture that values self-sufficiency, the plants have taught me about community sufficiency and that cooperation among species is not only possible but appears to create a vital and nourishing existence that is not contrived constrained by imagined separateness or competition. As modern and ‘civilized’ human beings we have closed our eyes and all of our senses to this dialogue that sources our very existence. We have imagined ourselves to be somehow on top of the hierarchical ladder of creation and continue to believe that better science and more technology will give us even greater control of forces that we have been trying to enslave for centuries. Native American writer Vine Deloria had once sited these words spoken by Osage chief Big Soldier, “I see and admire your manner of living…In short you can do almost what you have choose. You whites possess the power of subduing almost every animal to your use. You are surrounded by slaves. Everything about you is in chains and you are slaves yourselves. I fear that if I should exchange my pursuits for yours, I too should become a slave.” This lack of sight and sense is propelling us, now at high speed it seems, towards a situation that will force us to remember how to speak and hear the deep ancient sounds of the living world.
I am not trying to bash science or technology here, I’m just suggesting that if the gifts than humans have created with our incredible minds were placed in context within the whole of nature, that perhaps the healing process could accelerate and further destruction of our beautiful Earth could cease. This where the practices of bioregionalism are great foundations for remembering how to restart the dialogue and uncover our senses to hear, see, and respond to the world we are so blessed to live within.
Through the shadow of our disconnect and the grief that many of us have survived from either witnessing or attempting to dismiss the rapid and constant destruction of our local and global environments, there have emerged some very positive movements such as farmers markets, CSA’s, permaculture practices, and Slow Foods groups that are providing local, sustainable, organic and ethically raised foods and eco-practices to and within local communities. The growing interest in Herbalism and alternative health is offering people a choice in how they decide to stand in relationship to their own health and well-being. Holistic health practices also provide an opportunity for individuals to be seen as entire beings instead of as parts and symptoms to be fixed or changed.
As a beginning Herbalist and a child of Western culture, I was focused on trying to learn which herb for what symptoms or illnesses. I wanted to identify every plant in my region and know what each and every one was used to treat. I am still a voracious plant-identifier and I am not de-valuing this approach as a stepping stone or a threshold that leads to greater intimacy, love, and wisdom of plants and their wonders. This way of learning can be the first bridge that we build between the human-centered viewpoint of society and the initial awareness that the plants we stand upon, mow down, and weed out of our modern world contain much medicine that is free, available, and easy to use. But this approach must, at some point as we mature and deepen our practice, transform into a dialogue and vision that perceives the plant world interconnected with all else including humans. I have discovered that true health can occur when we begin to see our relationship with plants as reciprocal and interconnected, not just with ourselves as humans, but with the patterns of disease and symptoms that we are attempting to alleviate and resolve.
The precepts of living bioregionally suggest living or interacting in place and, I believe and have experienced, that this can happen anywhere even as some of us may travel or move regularly. I consider it to be a state of mind or way of being in the world where we maintain a state of receptiveness and response to each other and the environment we inhabit whether it be a city, a suburb or a rural location. Whether we are herbalists, or doctors, or teachers, or students, or farmers, or any other profession, the natural world is always available and everywhere to guide, teach, and befriend. Anywhere we may be on Earth is in some bioregion or another and so we have ongoing opportunity to engage with these local systems.
Although at times there does seem to be much despair about the current state of all human affairs, when I can be still and quiet enough, I sense a great hope and love that resides within the human community. I know that as one small person I may not have the power to change the direction that seems to be leading us to our own demise, and that the small daily choices that I make to compost or conserve energy or walk instead of drive will not save the planet, but it will and does establish how I stand in relationship to the Earth that I love. Every time I choose to listen to the voices of the other sentient beings, to sense the pulse of the trees, the deep rhythm of the ground, to be aware of the present moment and to speak in return with respect and reverence, I make a connection that would otherwise not be there. For we are all truly a part of this amazing, mysterious, and wondrous world whether we bear leaves, fur, skin or feathers, each of us are integral and necessary in the continual creation of life.
Making Flower Waters
Making your own hydrosol or flower water is a simple, economical and ecologically sound method of extracting the scent and medicine from flowers. Flower waters are also an excellent alternative to essential oils that are expensive and have serious environmental consequences. Although I love essential oils and they are undeniably powerful medicine, they have become highly commericalized leading to the overharvesting of wild plants and promoting large scale agri-farming and monocropping of flowers to meet market demands. In an article written by Jen Landry, Dipl. ABT (NCCAOM), that recently appeared in United Plant Savers Journal, to make one pound of essential oil it requires 50-60lbs. of Eucalyptus, 200-250 lbs of Lavender and 5,000-10,000lbs. of Rose blossoms. The copious use of essential oils as a suitable remedies for a vast array of conditions and illnesses is not sustainable and in most cases unecessary. I do think it's important to recognize, however, that essential oils are being used in place of harsh chemical cleaners and synthetic fragrances. This is a step in the right direction when we consider the grave and hazardous results to that the use of such substances as produced for the planet and people. But, as to be expected, the popularity of essential oils and the recognition of their benefits has lead to superflous over-consumption. There are many alternatives to essential oils that are as equally effective and far more responsible.
One of my preferred methods to capture the exquisite aroma and medicinal qualities of my favorite plants is by making flower waters. Flower water or hydrosols are a distillate that is produced using steam to release the essential oils in a plant. If you had a distiller it would collect the essential oil in one container and the flower water in another. Hydrosols are basically a by-product of making essential oils and hold the same properties and scents in less concentration making them milder but with a light and quite lovely fragrance. And you don't need a still to make them. Flower waters can be made easily at home with a few common kitchen tools.
Beyond the helping to prevent further environmental destruction, making flower waters is also an act of self-empowerment and self-sufficiency. When we take advantage of what is local and accessible to us we can enjoy the fun of making our own remedies and be creative with our choices in a manner that is inexpensive and supportive of our health and well-being.
You can make hydrosols with fresh plant material that you gather or grow or they can be made with dried flowers.You many need to use more fresh than dried because dried flowers contain more concentrated essence. Some of my favorites are:
Tulsi/Sacred Basil-to uplift the mind, increase concentration and clarify thoughts
Lavender-for relaxation, sunburns, any burn at all, excema, for sleep
Wild Cherry blossoms-because I love the way they smell and they are cooling and relaxing
Lemon balm-to uplift mood, for fevers, herpes simplex, and even to add to homemade cleaning solutions
Right now in Central New York where I live the wild roses/multi-flora rose are in bloom and I just made a batch of rose water. Multi-flora roses are considered an invasive nuisance and so can be gathered in abundance. They have a smell that is sublime and right now our whole valley has wafts of wild rose on the winds. Rose flower water is astringent, cooling and anti-inflammatory making it great for skin conditions such as excema, burns, and as a facial toner. I love to spray a splash of rosewater on my face during hot summer days. Rose also calms anxiety and settles nerves making a bottle of Rosewater an excellent rescue remedy to be sprayed as needed.
Here are complete instructions on how to make flower water but, as with all my recipes, the amounts are not exact and I suggest you play around with whatever amounts produce the strength and concentration you desire. Thank you to Dana Woodruff of Dandelioness Herbals for this recipe and her great article about making hydrosols!
Step 1: Find a large, about 5 gallon, stainless steel or enamel pot. I use my canning pot.
Step 2: Acquire a flat rock or brick. It has to be flat because you going to put a bowl on it. I grabbed a flat rock from my friends who are stone carvers. The rock or brick goes in the center of the pot.
Step 3: Pour water in the pot just to the top of the rock but not so that the rock is submerged.
Step 4: Add flowers around but not on the rock or brick. Use about 1 1/2 cups of dried or 3 cups of fresh plant material.
Step 5: Put a stainless steel bowl on top of the rock.
Step 6: Put the lid on the pot USIDE DOWN. Yes,upside down...you'll see why
Step 7: Fill the upside down lid with ice cubes.
Step 8: Turn on the heat up enough to create a simmer. Basically, you want it to be hot enough to make steam. The steam will rise to the top of pot and hit the lid. This steam contains the distillate and essential oils of the plant and when it meets the coldness of the lid it will concentrate and drip back down into the stainless steel bowl. The water should not be boiling but just hot enough to make steam. The process usually takes about 30-45 minutes but I keep checking throughout the process to see if the plant looks and smells well spent. This is a bit subjective and will rely on your own sense of smell to determine if you've gotten all of the volatile oils out of the plant. Don't over steam as this will dilute the hydrosol.
Step 9: When all the ice is melted on the lid take it off and pour the water out. You can then add more ice if desired to continue distilling the water. I usually add more ice 2-3x during one distillation.
Step 10: Remove from heat and let cool. Pour the hydrosol into a glass jar. I use amber bottles with a spray top. I don't recommend plastic spray bottles, definitely use glass.
Step 11: Enjoy! Spray as perfume, on sunburns, as a room freshener or to freshen your mind!