To Know : The Practice of Engaged Herbalism
I'm intrigued by practice. I like exploring the what and the why and the how of those things we find ourselves invested in. In fact, the first book I wrote was a workbook exploring devotional practice and it is a topic that I think about on the daily as I perform my regular rituals of magick and devotion. As part of my practice as an herbalist, I often reflect on why I do what I do and how I do it, not only as part of my continuing education as a wellness practitioner, but in order to make adjustments to my practice as I grow in my ability to serve others and their healing. Such reflection is part of my practice of engaged herbalism, which is an herbalism that is strongly rooted in the development of relationships between plants, peoples, and creatures. Practicing an engaged herbalism allows me to maintain and grow my ability to engage and re-engage those I am working with on their healing journey and to always be re-connecting with the wisdom of our plant kindred.
As a teacher of herbalism and magick, I have come to find that the concept of engagement, if understood early on, can prevent student overwhelm which can lead to a stagnation or abandonment of their studies. For the more experienced practitioner, engaged herbalism can help to prevent burnout and compassion fatigue.
Let’s start with understanding what engaged herbalism is not before exploring why it can be so useful.
Engaged herbalism is not:
- An herbalism of quick cures and magic pills.
- An herbalism that sees plants as inert and spiritless.
- An herbalism that treats the body as a compartmentalized machine in need of repair.
- An herbalism that is infallible and always right.
- An herbalism that is divorced from social and environmental justice.
In fact, engaged herbalism is:
- An herbalism of the long view and the journey of wellness.
- An herbalism that sees plants as wise, complex, and generous of spirit.
- An herbalism that interacts with the body as a profound and intricate physical vessel of consciousness and experience.
- An herbalism that is curious, ready to try again, and always open to learn more.
- An herbalism that is firmly rooted in social and environmental justice.
Engaged herbalism embodies the following big vision tenets:
Your relationship with plants, those you serve, and your own sweet self will change continuously throughout your practice as an herbalist. Through engaging with all of these relationships, we’re better able to keep up with the shifts and swings of our sacred (and sometimes challenging, let’s be honest) interconnectedness. The idea of what herbalism is and who you are as an herbalist will change. Your relationship with individual plants will change. How you make medicine, formulate, and ingest your brews will change. Create space for change from the get-go and you’ll have a built-in system for dealing with some of the more difficult challenges that come your way through your practice.
If you know that your relationship with herbalism, plants, and people will always be in a state of change you give yourself a whole heck of a lot more room to grow. You won’t always feel like the total beginner. Latin binomials will not always be a mysterious realm of antiquity. Those bitter tasting herbs you couldn’t stand at first may well become a familiar and craved taste (yeah, bitters!). You’ll recognize that you and who you are relating to is changing and you are continuing to grow into yourself. Most importantly, when we allow ourselves room for change we recognize that we have all the time we need for change. You have all the time you need to learn how to engage with plants in a way that sings to your soul and enlivens the communities you serve.
Inclusivity, the idea that there is room for everyone at the table, is foundational in my practice. The art of inclusivity is two-fold - one must learn to be inclusive to others in a way that is love and justice-centered and one must also learn to be inclusive to oneself in the same way. While the conversation of how to create an inclusive practice is for another blog post, I will say that there is a deep need for better inclusivity skills in the Traditional Western Herbalism (TWH) community of North America. There needs to be more voices of color, queer perspectives, multi-abled, class diverse, gender variant and many other sounds and songs invited to the table within TWH gatherings and conferences (though I do recognize and celebrate the smaller festivals doing just that such as the California Women of Color Herbal Symposium - heck yeah!).
At it’s core inclusivity is learning to engage yourself and the world around you with compassionate curiosity. Inclusivity is also about learning to recognize when you are imposing your beliefs, your stories, and ways of beings on others. The last bit is especially important to learn when working with others in a practitioner-client relationship as it can be easy for our own stories and experiences to block the view of the needs and stories of another.
At the same time, inclusivity must be practiced on a inward and personal level where we engage and excavate those stories, beliefs, and systems of power imposed on us. When I was taking my first couple of herb classes, for example, I nearly abandoned the idea of becoming an herbalist when I was introduced to the weight-and-volume method of creating extracts because it involved a bit of math. Sounds ridiculous, right? But I had been told a story for years and years by teachers that some kids - like me - aren’t smart enough for math (what an awful inclusivity fail). So, having not examined the story of being a numberless mongrel in my life yet, I thought that if herbalism involved math I therefore must not be qualified to be an herbalist. I had uninvited myself to the table and it took a few years to invite that little kid who got overwhelmed by numbers back home. Fortunately, my fear of calculations did not put me off from practicing as an herbalist (and I developed a few techniques for the number intimidated to calculate their tinctures as a result) and I make sure in my classes to keep an eye out for these moments when students might feel like they have hit an impasse of intimidation. It is my responsibility to create a classroom and consulting space that I am not only able to notice when intimidation or overwhelm is occurring but that folks feel empowered enough to speak up and ask for help, a break, or a moment of “don’t worry we all get confused by this stuff sometimes” affirmation.
Inclusivity matters because we learn to listen to that which has remained hidden - whether this is something within us that we have hidden from ourselves or something that we do not see in others because we (often from a place of privilege) get in our own way. If you are someone who is confused by or perhaps balks at the idea of inclusivity as foundational to herbalism, consider this: as herbalists, many of us value and treasure wild weeds that are often disdained, rooted out, and poisoned by the general non-plantfolk public. Yet, we have been invited by these tenacious plant kindred to learn of their healing gifts and, in turn, we have included them in our hearts, sharing their wisdom with others. By working that inclusivity muscle we have engaged our herbalism and come out the better for it. (Sidenote: I’m currently reading Invasive Plant Medicine by Timothy Scott and it’s great! The book explores topics of inclusivity and migration within the context of plant medicine as well as a practical materia medica for these often undervalued plants.) Engaged herbalism leads to better inclusivity which creates more opportunities for healing - everyone gets their fill of nourishing plant wisdom when we know how to get to the table.
Make sure to turn inspiration into insight.
Now here is where a lot of students (and long-term practitioners!) get stuck. It can be so very easy to be head-over-heals in love and inspired by the romance of herbalism. A deeper relationship with the earth, the fragrance of grinding herbs with a mortar and pestle, the ancestral connections, and the sense of rebellion that comes with taking charge of your wellness. Jars are bought, herbs are collected, we consider changing our names to something more earthy like Seedwizard, we buy the best harvesting knife, oh and one of those woven baskets for drying herbs! The inspiration to practice herbalism can be intoxicating, but without a foundation to grow on, the energy is quickly spent as the reality of the practice of herbalism settles in. Yes, there is the romance and the heady scent of an herb garden, but there is also moldy herbal oils, stubborn health imbalances that no tincture seems to help, terrible tasting teas, and the frustration of feeling like one knows some things but not enough things about herbs and how to use them to be really effective. I have been there myself, clever ones, wondering where the spark of inspiration has gone in my herbal practice.
What I have discovered is that inspiration is a spark that craves the wax and wick of insight to keep burning. Inspiration starts the journey and reinvigorates the path from time to time, but if we do not give inspiration a place to take root it can fly off leaving us feeling like we’ve failed somehow. To keep inspiration, I have found that you have to learn how to allow it to grow into insight. We may have been inspired to use herbal medicine to reconnect to our wellness, but insight is when we suddenly realize that we get the same chest cold at the same time every year which started when our mother passed away and that perhaps there is some underlying grief we need to explore. Insight is a sign of growth and that we are engaged in our practice. Through insight we pay attention to why we are inspired and what our inspiration brings. Insight is realizing that we can and should always be learning more about ourselves and the world, giving ourselves the freedom to do just that. Ultimately, the inspiration to get well leads us to the insight of how to do it.
How do you practice your herbalism?
Is it engaged? Ecstatic? Enchanted? Funky? Revolutionary? Under-the-cover-of-darkness? Let me know in the comments below how you describe your herbal practice.
One more thing… I wanted to point out that the first part of the title of this post To Know is a reference to the Witch's Pyramid, also known as the Four Pillars of the Magus or the Powers of the Sphinx. The other three traditional pillars are To Dare, To Will, and To Keep Silent. Modern additions to the pyramid have been made adding a fifth point such as To Weave or To Desire. The Witch’s Pyramid is an important part of my magickal practice and I’ll be incorporating it’s philosophy into forthcoming posts about life as a practicing herbalist. For those wanting to go more in-depth, I explore the Witch’s Pyramid and it’s relationship to creating ritual in a podcast series in the Lunar Apothecary - I invite you to check it out.
Wherever your herbal studies may take you, I hope you always find yourself returning home to the knowledge of you - expansive, microscopic, complex, and wondrous you.