The People's Medicine
Herbalism is the practice of medicinal and therapeutic use of plants. If you wanted the google definition, there you have it. But y’all know me. I can’t leave it there. Take some Clarity Drops & dive in with me.
Herbalism occurs when people & plants work together. The oral tradition of herbalism relies on centuries of empirical evidence. People and plants are meant to work together, and yet our society squanders that relationship.
"Herbalism is one of those people's things. It is indigenous to all communities of our globe, which is why it thrives so harmoniously in our homes." - James Green, The Herbal Medicine-Maker's Handbook
The first form of medicine for all cultures & peoples was plant medicine. Humans have evolved alongside plants, learning how to heal & support themselves through working with plants. So why does there seem to be such a disconnect between us and plants today? Why is there so much skepticism against plant based remedies? There are numerous answers to this question, and I can’t possibly touch on every nuance in one single blog post. I'm fully aware that many things will unfortunately be glossed over in this introductory blog post. Please consider this a brief introduction, and a jumping off point for future journal entries.
Herbalism has a long winding history through every community and place. It spiderwebs through every culture. It has been embraced and outlawed over and over again. In recent U.S. history, 1904 the AMA formed the Council on Medical Education, which put restrictions on medical level herbal education, essentially shutting down these schools. Because the AMA in short was saying centuries of empirical evidence isn't enough, Herbalists shifted from their traditional practices to seeking to prove the effectiveness of plant remedies. This created a sense of defensiveness- which may be why some people think herbalism & western medicine are at odds. While it is true herbalism, community care & folk remedies are often forms of resistance to oppression, I wouldn’t say herbalists are against western medicine. More on that later.
"Herbs supports and strengthen our inherent vitality. Through reducing the effects of stress on the body, easing symptoms of anxiety and fear and lifting our spirits, plants medicines improve our resilience in these challenging times" - Janet Kent and Roger Peet Under Pressure, Herbs for Resilience
As society shifted, so did the way we engage with the world around us. Instead of building relationships with plants and our natural environments on a daily basis, we started to view plants as commodities. What can this plant do for me? Nowadays, recognizing plants as living beings instead of "things" to take for our benefit is frustratingly brushed off as "woo-woo". It's not woo. Historically, communities respected and understood that wellness is linked to relationship with the land. In a society where mass production & overconsumption reign, it's no wonder we are more comfortable brushing off mutually-beneficial plant relationships as woo. To shift the way we engage with the natural world is radical, disruptive and enlightening. It also requires commitment & work. I’ve seen many of my friends start gardens this year, and have heard first hand accounts of their delight in tending their new garden. And yet, it’s still hard for some to digest that building relationships with plants is beneficial to the mind-body-spirit. Even when we experience the benefits first hand, we feel skepticism. Is it so far fetched to believe the act of tending plants & environments is a joyful experience without needing someone to verify that for us? Is it impossible to believe the act of caring for a plant's life enhances both of our lives?
"Cautionary stories of the consequences of taking too much are ubiquitous in Native cultures, but it's hard to recall a single one in English. Perhaps this helps to explain why we seem to be caught in a trap of overconsumption, which is as destructive to ourselves as to those we consume.” Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
When you walk into the woods and see berries, edible plants, medicinal herbs along pathways, you might think "wow, look at this abundant, untouched land” or "What would the Earth look like if we never arrived?" I once thought that way. I felt simultaneously light and heavy, wandering the forests thinking of what could be if humans never came here. Through this settler mindset, I missed that I wasn’t wandering through untouched land. I didn't see that I was wandering through carefully tended spaces. Spaces that were loved, cared for and relied on. I learned this by reading accounts of Indigenous peoples such as Robin Wall Kimmerer. I learned this while studying at The Samara School of Community Medicine in New Orleans. Recently, botanist Justin Robinson posted a great video diving into this further on his Instagram. Watch here & another one here.
The truth is, Indigenous peoples tended these "wild" spaces. Forests, prairies, deserts, riparian lands... all of that land was tended and cared for by the people who relied on the land for survival. When colonizers & settlers arrived in the United States, they were enthralled by the abundance of the land. They overlooked why the land was abundant. By discrediting the knowledge, life long commitments, work, deep relationships and experiences that Indigenous peoples had with the land, settlers & colonizers erased and rewrote history. Europeans took claim for discovering the abundance, completely erasing the land management that occurred for thousands of years prior to their arrival. Generations of people tending for those spaces, learning how to care for the land, living in relationship with the land. The narrative many of us know is that the United States territory is an abundant, lush natural wonder all on its own. This narrative completely erases the people from the land. It also erases the history of people & plant relationships, which allowed for settlers & colonizers to claim the knowledge of plant medicine as their own.
With fires desecrating the West coast, we can't close our eyes to the truth. We are not living in relationship with the land, and it is destructive. Indigenous peoples who tended and created abundant “wild” gardens for generations, have been talked over and ignored. Their experiences has been discredited, and their histories erased. Their cautionary words and methods of land management have gone unheard for years, and it's truly heartbreaking to see the effects repeatedly devastate communities of people, plants & animals.
If you're thinking “Wait… I wanted to know about herbalism. Why are we talking about this?” I’ll tell you why. You can not talk about herbalism without discussing erasure, history of people & place, and the pervasiveness of capitalism.
Herbalism isn't just plant medicine, it's the peoples’ medicine too. Knowing the how & why is just as important as knowing the herbs. Herbalism falls in and out of fashion, not because of its effectiveness, but often due to the social political climate. I could know everything about an herbs use, but if I don't know about the history of the plant- if I don’t know who used it, why they used it, how they used it- I am perpetuating erasure and harm. If herbalism is to be radical, if herbalism is to fill the gaps, it must be accessible. Herbalism is for everyone. Again, it is the people’s medicine.
We live in a capitalist society. Herbalism & traditional wisdom rarely align with capitalist ideals. It's no wonder our modern society is skeptical of herbalism & traditional wisdom. It's no wonder many of use struggle daily with anxiety, depression, spiritual dissonance. Our relationship to the very entities that give us life has been severed (often for generations). Food comes from the store, not the soil. Medicine comes in a pill, not in a plant. We deplete ourselves daily in order to provide for ourselves. Breaking out of that cycle isn't a reality for so many people. Oppressed communities have been persecuted and shamed into leaving behind their traditional wisdoms. Food deserts, lack of green space, racism, capitalism all play a role in deafening traditional knowledge of wellness & community care.
I don’t write this to hit you with some doom & gloom, but to shine a light on the necessity for reclaiming our health and wellness. Self care and community care is radical. Recognizing the larger systems at play alleviates the self-blame. You are enough. In a system that profits on you being unwell, any step in taking care of yourself is radical.
A misconception about herbalism is that herbal practitioners are against western medicine and allopathic medicine. I’ve not found this to be true. What I have found to be true, is that herbalists often seek to fill the gaps. With for-profit health care, an increasing wealth-gap, and lack of social services in low income areas, herbalism can provide care. Medicinal plants don’t just grow in prairies & forests- they also grow in sidewalk cracks and abandoned lots. There is space for herbalism, nutrition, daily self care, allopathic medicine, grandmother medicine, spirit medicine. There is space for all of it, if we commit to making that space.
"I've no doubt that traditional knowledge, such as herbalism, has a place in this shift. We need every single modality in our knowledge base to improve the health of our country and the world. Somehow, folk traditions and science must find a meeting ground." - Phyllis D. Light, Southern Folk Medicine
I know this was a brief essay, and I look forward to engaging more in this conversation in more detailed journal entries in the future. While many people remain skeptical of Herbalism, we are also seeing a resurgence of interest in Herbalism. Unfortunately, as Herbalism gains popularity, there will be people perpetuating the harmful systems that Herbalism seeks to counter. It may look like over-priced, ill-sourced plant remedies packaged as catch all cures for your woes & worries. Knowing a bit about Herbal history can assist us in making wiser choices. If you feel called to ignite a relationship with plant remedies, I hope you do! I encourage all who read this to dig deep, find the answers you seek, and embrace the ways in which you feel called to plant medicine. I also encourage people to look into their own lineages, and engage with Herbalism is a respectful way that doesn't further perpetuate harm and erasure.