Walking the Path of Herbalism

The secret of herbalism lies in the fact that we all become medicine when we give ourselves to the purpose of healing and nurturing.
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
February 26, 2014
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Taking the path to herbalism means embracing your role as a healer and taking the necessary steps to expand your education.
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The Plant Healer’s Path (Plant Healer Press, 2013) addresses topics vital to an empowered, effective herbal practice, including many issues that have not been addressed by mainstream sources. Jesse Wolf Hardin, a renowned herbalist and co-founder of Plant Healer Magazine, brings to readers enchanting tales, profiles of many medicinal plants, and recipes favored by herbalists. The following excerpt, taken from “Finding Our Medicine,” gets to the heart of the what it means to be a herbalist, and the path one must take to that understanding.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Plant Healer's Path.

I only recently became comfortable with calling myself an herbalist, as it seems like a mighty calling to take up myself.  That really is what it is though, a calling.  It’s a calling to heal more than just broken bodies, a calling to care for the needs of this wild place we call home.  It took being called an herbalist to accept this all as my own.  It also took getting out of the classroom and the clinic and back into nature and wildcrafting, to reconnect me with what brought me to herbalism in the first place.  It took getting me out of my head, and back to engaging my curiosity about everything around me. — Holly Bear Torgerson

Herbalism is a valuable gift that we give others, that is a gift to us, and that many of us hope to be able to make a living from.  Yet, even if we happen to be well paid for doing it, we generally still don’t look upon the work of healing in the same way that we view other, normal wage earning activities.  We’re more apt to think of it the way that activists think of their work: as being essential to their identities as conscious, caring and responsible people; as work vital to those changes needed to counter the ecological destruction and human upon human injustices; and as an activity that they’re surprised to ever earn a living from.  Practitioners are likely to relate to their herbalism more like teachers tend to view their work, as something they would want to do even if they weren’t paid for it, as something important apart from its financial benefits.  Many teachers love their work because they love their students, and because they love having a daily chance of passing down some values and ideals that could possibly benefit this and future generations.  So it often is for us.

The way most of us experience herbalism, is as our most meaningful purpose, the role and mission that is best at bringing out our passions, qualities and abilities, and the one that makes the best use of us.  It is our opportunity and means to serve, and also our summons to shine.  Some feel it as a special calling requiring their response, others pick with their minds and wills what their hearts are drawn to.  Whether we consider herbalism an avocation or career, the source of our income or else the thing we can’t wait to get back to doing as soon as each day’s work is over.  Our way.  Our chosen path.

Purpose, Role & Niche

Most of you reading this, have multiple skills and a wide range of knowledge that could qualify you to do many different jobs besides what you are doing now.  You wouldn’t enjoy them all, not all would seem significant or even relevant to your interests and aims, and other people would surely be just as qualified to do the work in your place... but you are capable, and if the wage was high enough and needed enough you might try it out.  That said, if the purpose of the work is not in alignment with or somehow supportive of your own sense of purpose in life, you’re not likely to find it satisfying.  Satisfaction comes from either knowing that our work is part of our purpose, or that our work will finance what our real purpose is.

The majority of you will say that healing — in one form or another — is your purpose... and most of you are self aware enough that you’d be correct.  Just as not all plants are equally medicinal in their effects, not all people are equally predisposed to healing, and some much more than others.  And just as different plants effect different human conditions, with different actions, so is it that you have particular ways of being most effective.  These ways, once acknowledged, assumed and committed to, are your role.  That role may be as an herbalist practitioner, whether a folk herbalist, family herbalist or professional clinician.  Or as a cultivator or forager, a producer of herbal medicines, a teacher, or an artist and co-creator of a healing culture. 

Once we know our most meaningful and effective purpose, and know our role within that purpose, the next step is to identify — or sense and create — our personal niche.  A niche (from the Latin nidus, or nest) is a place carved out of the whole of a purpose just for us, and represents the ways in which we practice our herbalism and healing.  Specializing, is how we are distinguished from and keep from stepping on the toes of all the other herbalists or plant people, as we learn to meet specific needs with a personally defining set of methods or approaches.  When we have filled our niche, when we’re fulfilling our purpose most effectively and experiencing greater and deeper satisfaction, we have found our “medicine.”

Finding Our Medicine

An herb is a plant with its own reasons to exist, that becomes medicine when ingested with healing intent.  In this sense, we all become medicine when give ourselves to the purpose of helping and healing, of mending, awakening, deepening, and otherwise contributing to wholeness and aliveness.  Herbalists serve a general, collective medicinal role within the human community, assisting and contributing to people’s health outside of the pharmaceutical and corporate paradigm.  That said, every herbalist also has a particular personal medicine, a signature blend of qualifications – talents, experiences, characteristics, propensities and gifts – that make each of us uniquely suited to a certain role, and to a special repertoire of ways and means.  This medicine is an inner power, optimizing each person for the filling of a particular custom role above all others.

If we are characteristically ineffective at what we assume to be our purpose, mission or role, it may be that our medicine lies elsewhere.  If we do well in our roles, it is not only because of our degree of effort or good fortune, but because our individual medicine makes us especially equipped for its manifestation or completion.  It is our opportunity and summons to shine.

A Summons to Shine

Someone in an indigenous culture who was exceptionally effective at locating and stalking game animals, might be said to have special “hunting medicine,” be treated with great respect, serve as an example for the young, and be depended upon to lead successful hunting parties.  The bearer of “horse medicine” would be the Kazakh or Cheyenne who early on exhibited a way with these animals so essential to the nomadic way of life, a person who could read the horses’ qualities and moods, calm them with they’ve been alarmed by the smell of a wolf, ease their troubled births or call them with a whistle, and that person would be naturally assigned the role, the purpose, the work of caring for the clan’s herd.  A woman or man who seemed to have been born with healing medicine, who had a naturally affinity for plants or could read constitutions would be trained in the tradition, and credited and thanked for their special contributions.  Whether credited or not, it is otherwise the same for us, with our interests, abilities and sensibilities drawing us almost magically into the most effective means for filling a role... and fulfilling a purpose.  Life teaches us to do our best in all situations, but it also shows us those particular situations, opportunities and roles in which we can best excel and accomplish.

Answering a Calling, Choosing Your Path

The word “calling” comes from the Old Norse kalla, meaning to be “summoned loudly.”  Thus, a calling is specialized purpose fueled not only by an inner gift, desire and choice, but seemingly by something outside of ourselves, larger than ourselves, an often inexplicable or mysterious pull to utilize our medicine in certain  ways, a siren’s call or beckoning of destiny that we cannot silence or ignore without both our spirit and our aims suffering.  We’re likely to think of herbalism as our calling, when it feels as if a force (God, Gaia, spirits, the anima vital life force) has set it before us, nudging and leading us through the timely opening of doors, precipitation meetings with the plant people who can help us get more involved, providing opportune situations and moments for us to connect and progress, making it feel overwhelmingly as if herbalism is the right thing for us, for the right reasons, in the right place, at the right time in our lives.

Many, however, make an equally laudable entry into herbalism without any kind of strange compulsions, meetings or circumstances.  It may feel like less of a calling than simply doing what you are attracted to and love, or like a well reasoned decision to use your known skills at a purpose that does some good in this hurting world. 

No matter brought you to this work – whether you feel you came to it through a process of careful considering or through a sense of being called – it is still your choice... and it is up to you to sense and to claim your direction, finding and committing to the best personal route to on which to proceed.

How to Know When We’re On Our Path

When we were young, many of us played a variation of hide and seek, wherein kids shout out hints to a blindfolded seeker of some stationary object.  “Warmer and warmer!,” they exclaim whenever he or she begins to move steadily in the direction of the treasure, and in unison warn “Colder, colder!” if she becomes disoriented and stumbles off the wrong way.

So it is, in the search for our path of purpose, although instead of our playmates (or our parents, priests, politicians, shamans or yoga masters) shouting hints, it is to our sensate bodies and the energetic “biofeedback” they provide – to the effects that we have on the world, as well as to what ways deplete or dishearten, and which feed and empower – that we must look, for the cues we need.

A successful search for and adherence to our path requires that we:

• Feel and think with our whole bodies, and follow our hearts.
• Intimately and honestly know our true selves, gifts, challenges, needs, propensities and feelings.
• Respond to our being’s physical, energetic and emotional cues.
• Actually and deliberately move in the direction of our inspiration.
• Intimately know the place and context in which we move.
• Watch for clues in the environ’s/people’s/community’s responses.
• Be cognizant of the results and ramifications of both what we do and choose not to do.
• Be open to “signs” or “magic,” but apply critical thinking.
• Resist comforting delusion, distraction, and dissipation.

While we learn, accumulate, exploit and grow some of what is needed for our path and purpose, in some ways finding and not losing our way also requires letting go:

• Of our habitual and cultural ways of seeing, preconceptions and imagined limitations.
• Of self-doubt and imagined unworthiness to do this work or know its rewards.
• Of the expectations others have for us, from parents to society in general.
• Of strict plans, whether we made them ourselves or someone else imposed them on us.
• Of any expectations that your path and calling will be convenient, easy, sensible, packageable, or even necessarily marketable.

Dogma of any kind, intellectual speculation and abstraction, even attachment to success or security can be impediments to our awareness of and following of our path.  Here’s a potentially useful metaphor for you:  When finding our way through difficult terrain in the night woods, there is a tendency to accept the conventional “wisdom” of wearing hiking boots and to seek their protection from injury or pain.  Unfortunately, it can be more dangerous as well as disorienting to wear boots in the dark and engage in speculation, than it would be to go barefoot with a quiet mind.  With the boots on and our minds projecting, we are largely oblivious to what the ground tells us about terrain and direction, and it is more likely we will both miss the trail and walk off a cliff.  When barefoot we feel vulnerable, first of all, and that has us more conscious and paying more attention to our feet.  We more carefully feel with out feet as we go along in anticipation of possibly sharp sticks or dangerous rocks, which has the additional result of making it simpler to tell when we are on our path, and when have strayed from it.  Both our search for our path, and our ability to hold to it, hinge on a vulnerable willingness to increase our sensitivity, increase how much we notice and feel.

It’s an extra good sign that we may be on our path:

• If we somehow feel more our true selves, more whole, whenever we are engaged in this purpose or practice.
• More so, when it makes us feel most valuable, needed and ideally utilized.
• And most assuredly, hen we feel somewhat less whole, less ourselves, and less optimally utilized doing anything else.
• When it occurs to us repeatedly, consciously or in dream, that we should be doing a certain work, no matter how impractical, implausible or contrary to plan it might otherwise seem.  
• More so, when it’s as if spirit or destiny were creating opportunities and means for you to utilize and maximize, revealing a need that you in particular could fulfill.
• And most of all, when you feel you compelled by your very nature – as well as by what you envision – to do this work, fulfill a role, give your all and best to a mission... no matter how great the obstructions and challenges.
• If we’d accept less pay for our plant or healing work, than we would have earned doing something else.
• Even more so, when if necessary we’d do the same work for no pay at all.
• And especially, when we’d work a job we don’t like, to subsidize a mission to help the world or our “real work” with plants!
• When it involves the same kinds of things we would most like to do after work, for pleasure.
• More so, when we would skip out on our regular job, to attend an herbal conference for example, or go on a plant trip.
• And definitely, when being fired from a regular job feels like a blessing in disguise, and a chance to try doing what we are most drawn to do.
• If we feel our work is giving to us in the best ways, giving us not only pleasure but identity, purpose and satisfaction.
• Still more so, when we feel you we giving back to the world in the best, most intentional, authentic, purposeful and effective ways possible.
• And most irrefutably of all, when it feels like the rewards and pleasures you are given and the gifts we present to the world are somehow both activated, magnified, accelerated, and almost unbelievably intensified by virtue of being on our optimal personalized path.

If it is our path, we will not only be strongly attracted to the role, but we will also be naturally adept at it, able to learn what is needed in order to do what we choose well.

More from The Plant Healer’s Path:

• Pursuing your Education in Herbalism


Reprinted with permission from The Plant Healer’s Path: A Grassroots Guide for the Folk Herbal Tribe by Jesse Wolf Hardin with Kiva Rose and published by Plant Healer Press, 2013. Buy this book from our store: The Plant Healer's Path.


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