Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine with Phyllis D. Light

Phyllis Light, in an interview by Jesse Wolf Hardin, discusses her background and practice in Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine.
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
March 12, 2014
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Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine teacher Phyllis D. Light, with fellow-herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, at Plant Healer's HerbFolk Gathering.
Photo by Jesse Hardin Wolf
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No matter the path chosen, 21st Century Herbalists (Self-Published, 2012), by Jesse Wolf Hardin, has something to offer for any natural healer. Within its pages are many and varied tales from renowned herbalists, up-and-comers, root doctors and grannywives. Glean wisdom and encouragement to follow your personal path from all aspects of herbal medicine. The following interview with Phyllis D. Light offers everything from her childhood to the call to practice and share Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine, along with some specifics about this particular branch of herbal medicine.

Purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: 21st Century Herbalists.

Phyllis Light is a 4th generation Herbalist and Healer who has studied and worked with herbs, foods and other healing techniques for over 30 years. Her studies in Traditional Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine began in the deep woods of North Alabama. Phyllis writes a regular column for Plant Healer Magazine, teaches at HerbFolk Gathering as well as other herbal conferences, and at her Alabama home-base. To the degree there are surviving threads to the past still rooted in the mountains of the Southeast, she is surely one of the wisest, most loving and generous.

Jesse Wolf Hardin: Thank you, Phyllis, for taking time for this Plant Healer interview. We’re honored to have this opportunity to talk more with and about you, and to hear your heart and mind on topics you might not otherwise have cause to address. Let’s start at the beginning if you please — what do you remember as your first deep connection with the natural world? When did you begin acknowledging nature as a teacher?

Phyllis Light: My first deep connection with plants came when I was about five or so. I was too young to help pick Cotton so my mother let me run around the field and play hide and seek with the kids of the other field hands. There was a strip of grassy meadow land between the Cotton field and the woods filled with Sedge grass, Goldenrod, Asters and Passionflower and it was here that I hid. If you lay flat in a field of Sedge grass no one can see you and there isn’t any apparent ripple in the flow of the grass to give you away. I hid very well and no one found me and the next thing I knew, the other kids had left and I was alone. At first, I was a little scared, it was such a big Cotton field and there were no adults in sight. It was a vast land of Cotton rows and emptiness. I could hear the wind through the trees, the buzz of insects but nothing else. It was eerily quiet.

I didn’t know what to do, I felt very alone, very small and just a little afraid. So I just lay in the Sedge grass and stared at the leaves on the trees, all moving together in the wind. I watched the clouds moving across the sky. I listened to the sound of the grasshoppers jumping among the grass stalks. I don't know how long I lay there, not moving, just being. I wasn't scared any longer, or upset. Just quiet and a little subdued. I had become part of the land, the Cotton rows, the meadow and the woods. We were the same.

I didn't move until Momma came looking for me and then I leaned over and pulled a ripe Maypop (Passionflower) and ate it as we walked back to where she had left her pick sack.

I can't remember a time when Nature wasn't a companion, a friend, benefactor or teacher and sometimes, an enemy. Nature can be loving and generous and it can be hard and cruel. I grew up well aware of the dual aspect of the natural world taught in early lessons of survival. If there was no rain, the crops didn't grow and we didn’t have anything to eat. If the wind blew too hard, the Corn stalks lay on the ground. If it rained too much at the wrong time of year, there would be no Cotton crop. If we were in the path of a tornado, we could be homeless or dead. And then there are those wondrous days, when the sun is shining, the wind is gentle and the temperature mild. All of creation responds to those days.

We lived in flow with the seasons; the sun and the moon and the natural rhythms guided our lives. We followed the growth cycles of the plant world keeping track of the abundance or lack of wild plants for wildcrafting. Some years were Ginseng years when the digging was good. Some years were Pink root years when the digging was good. My grandparents chronicled their life history with stories about senging, herb digs and natural phenomena.

When you live with the flow of seasons, Nature is a constant companion. A lover, a mistress, a child or a relative. You are not separate. I have never considered myself separate from Nature; we are part and parcel.

Wolf: What led you to give your life so fully to this work?

Phyllis: As a child, I knew that I would help people when I grew up but I wasn’t sure how. Using herbs was just a natural extension of my early training and that belief. My grandmother taught me, my grandfather taught me, and my father taught me. In a way, it was the family business.

Over the years, I’ve used many different tools to help people; herbs, bodywork, psychology, energy, nutrition, metaphysics, prayer, or whatever works. I will use whatever is available, on-hand, or needed to help someone.

I've been seeing people since I was about 19. In the beginning it was a more casual arrangement. People didn’t make an appointment, they just dropped by and Sunday afternoons after church was especially busy. At that time, being an herbalist was a lot like being a lay preacher. You didn’t get paid. It was your gift and your calling and it should be freely given. But one event sent a clear message that it was time to change the way I did practice.

I was a single parent going through a divorce. Life was tough with four kids and not much money. I had been feeling really depressed for several weeks wondering how I was going to make ends meet. One early morning I went to the grocery store dressed rather raggedly and looking a little unkempt. I was slowly pushing my cart up and down the grocery aisle wondering what to buy when I passed a woman dressed rather like the Amish, in a long dress, with long sleeves and bonnet.

I paid for my few purchases and went home. As I was unloading the car the same woman pulled into the driveway. She came to me and held out her hand. I held out my hand in return and she put a wad of money in it. "God told me that you are doing good work. And we've a little extra money this month." That's all she said and before I could even say thank you, she had turned and gone. I was totally flabbergasted; it was enough money to make it through the month. After that event, I suddenly had a full-time herbal practice. But how I came to charge people is another story.

There was a camp revival meeting in an empty field not far from my house. About mid-afternoon, three women appeared at my door looking for the herbalist’s house. When I told them they had the right house all three wanted appointments. After their appointments were finished, one of the women asked how much they owed. I told them nothing, no charge. Another of the women asked me to pray with them and they all stood up and we circled. After the prayer, the third woman said that God told her that I should charge $25.00 for each appointment and open a big office to see folks. They went back to the tent revival and told everyone about me and for the next few days, I was deluged with clients from the tent revival. When the revival was over, I drove to the closest large town, found an office and opened a practice. I was busy.

It seems I’ve always had guidance along the way.

Wolf: Would you agree with Paul Bergner and ourselves, that done most deeply and wholly, herbalism is a calling, on the level of any intense, impassioned, necessary or heroic calling?

Phyllis: Being a healer is a Calling. We are called to give of ourselves to help others to the best of our knowledge, beliefs and practices. If we are truly connected to the earth, then the plants stand ready to aid in that Calling. But I really don't know any herbalists who only do herbs.

Of course, I continue and have always continued to study my craft. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of new information about herbs, a different way of using a plant or an old way that comes to the surface again.

Being an herbalist is a Calling, a vocation, and a life-long learning pursuit.

Wolf: Where all have you lived and practiced, and what holds you where you are now?

Phyllis: I've only ever lived where I live now, where I was born, in Arab, Alabama. My very active practice was in the next town, Huntsville, and I’ve also worked in a medical clinic in Birmingham, Alabama. A larger town with more financially-stable population was a better location to build a practice, but I never gave up my practice in Arab either. I still see people in Arab and my herb school is here also.

I'm held here by family and the land. I've never been opposed to moving but there's never been any reason to do so either.

Wolf: I consider strong sense of place essential for any life or purpose, committing to the land and its human and other-than-human cultures, and being accepted, informed and nourished by the land in turn. What does it mean to be a conscious inhabitant and member of the Southeastern mountain region?

Phyllis: Wow...big question. Sometimes it’s really hard to maintain my equilibrium in the face of strip-mining, coal mining, clear-cutting, planes spraying cotton defoliate, polluted lakes and rivers and all the other ways that we humans have of defiling the very land that gives us life. In the South, there seems to be this love/hate relationship with the land. Folks truly, truly love their land even while they are strip-mining it. They will tell you how much they love the mountain while they are clear-cutting it. I don’t understand the gestalt...maybe it’s a cognitive disconnect, but folks here just won’t believe that what they do to the earth is reflected in their health. They also don’t believe that we can ever permanently damage the earth. And of course, there’s that whole Christian perspective of stewardship which is not defined well. For some, it gives them the right to rape and pillage the earth, for others, it is about conscious care-taking.

Sometimes, I just cry when I see what is being done to the land, the rape, the ravage, the need to squeeze every dime from every inch. I do what I can and over the years, I’ve worked with others who feel the same way. Being conscious carries responsibility.

Wolf: You are known as a teacher of Appalachian Herbalism. How would you define that term?

Phyllis: Southern and Appalachian Herbalism, the traditional medicine of the lower Appalachian Mountains and the Lower South, developed from the folk medicines of the Native Americans, Europeans, West Africans and Celts. Its development resulted from the need of settlers to take care of themselves and their families in a new land filled with strange and wonderful plants and animals and new diseases. Southern and Appalachian Herbalism and Folk Medicine includes the use of plants, home remedies, foods, prayer, story-telling and psycho-spiritual rituals handed down by oral tradition within families and communities. Assessment techniques are based on physical observation, understanding the personality, and the Southern blood types, bitter, sweet, sour and salty. There are three main categories of illness: physical, psychological and spiritual (magical).

Wolf: Do you consider that you are referencing an unbroken system of Appalachian specific knowings and practices, or reclaiming known remnants of a local historic tradition and recreating something new in its spirit?

Phyllis: How can I not recognize that I come from a long line of herbalists, healers and midwives? I’m totally in awe of that lineage. Much of what I was taught was exactly what my grandmother learned from her grandmother who learned from her family who practiced during the Civil War. That’s totally awesome. And I feel the aid of that lineage stretching behind me. Sometimes it feels that I only have to mentally access that lineage to have the information I need. It is a comfort and a responsibility.

One of the visions, one of the knowings, that I received early was to save Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine by teaching its principles both regionally and nationally, by continuing to practice it myself and to encourage others to use it in practice. It is evolving and changing, as it should. Folk medicine must change as the needs of the people change, or it will become stagnant and no longer serve its purpose.

Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine can be used by anyone in any region of the country. It is easy to learn and use with a vocabulary based on the land itself. The only recognized folk medicines that developed on this continent are Native American medicines and Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine.

Wolf: Were there one or more particular individuals in your life that inspired aspects of your teachings, characters that disrupted your illusions, indigenous or backwoods keepers of the knowledge that you took on as mentors?

Phyllis: I’m so lucky to have had amazing teachers without ever leaving my area. It really seemed that a new teacher would appear when I was ready. My grandmother Rosa Light was the first teacher I remember. She and my grandfather began taking me into the woods when I was around 10 and began my training in wildcrafting and plant use. She was Creek/Cherokee mix and from her I learned many Native uses of plants, some ceremonies and a real love of the earth. After my grandmother died, my father, Stancel Light, took up the task of continuing my woods-crafting of herbs and some of my most amazing plant experiences happened during this time. One of the most influential lessons from them was about Simpling. Granny and my father could use one herb in umpteen-thousand ways. They didn’t need complex formulas because they really, really knew their plants. My father used Ginseng for most ailments and knew exactly how much to decoct for how long or whether it should be taken raw.

Tommie Bass was an amazing teacher and a good and gentle soul. He could identify and use more plants in the woods than anyone I’ve ever met. Tommie lived in a run-down shack, never charged for his consultations, and tangled with the FDA. For cash money, he wildcrafted and repaired small appliances to pay his bills. Folks would just show up anytime to see him, no appointment necessary, and on Sunday afternoons after church, there might be 10 or 15 people just waiting in line outside his shack to see him. That’s the way he operated. If Tommie wasn’t at home, he was out in the woods and folks would sit in their cars and wait.

Tommie helped me grow my materia medica, that’s for sure. But even more important, he taught me about belief. Tommie had a rock solid belief that herbs would help people, that God placed the herbs on this earth for just that purpose and that there was an herb for every illness. He had no doubt about this. And if you didn’t take care of yourself with herbs and church, why then, you’d end up graveyard dead. His faith in herbs was absolutely unshakable. As he was fond of saying, “he knowed what he knowed about herbs” and nobody could tell him they didn’t work.

Calvin Ralph, my cousin by marriage, was part Cherokee, Apache and English and was taught by both his grandparents about herbs. His Cherokee grandfather taught him the uses of trees by songs. He knew the songs and many of the old ways but was never called to pass the knowledge to others. Calvin maintained his herbal practice based on the English concept of the barber shop as the herbal apothecary and used Native remedies in his practice which centered around the men in the community who would come for a haircut and a talk and leave with herbs. Of course, he didn’t limit his practice to men only, but saw anyone who needed aid. His barbershop was the center of the community and I would just go hang out, listen to stories and pass out herbs for him. Calvin loved to talk and everyone felt better when they got out of the barber chair from his stories, jokes and happy personality. Calvin was especially apt at talking off warts and his favorite herb was Yellowroot.

He really taught me how to be true to your personality and yourself, while being a valued member of community. He mentored many young men and felt that this was a missing piece in community life. Where did the young men go to learn how to be men? Calvin believed that young men needed a guiding hand, one that would not break their spirit but would lead them toward their higher potential. Being in his barbershop around all those males really helped me to understand the warrior energy of men. I think this is one reason why my practice has always had a large number of men and not just women. Calvin also taught me about energy in an indigenous manner. He told me that to talk off warts, his energy had to be stronger than the energy of the person and their warts. Calvin often bragged that he had given more little boys their first haircut than any other barber in town because his energy was strong and secure and subdued the fear of the buzzing clippers and they never cried or cringed. Calvin believed during our life we are supposed to grow seven talents or gifts given to us at birth. Our job is to discover those talents and use them. Calvin died last year (2010), and worked until the week before his death cutting hair and passing out herbs. I still miss him.

Elder Mac Wirema Korako Ruka, called Elder Ruka, Mac to his friends, was Waitaha Maori from New Zealand and came through Arab, Alabama on a walk-practice; it is only the unique local culture which changes the vocabulary.

Juan Nunez del Prado, a Peruvian mystic, anthropologist, teacher of the Andean path and expert on the Q’ero Indians of Peru, came to Huntsville for seven years teaching the mysteries of the path. According to Andean prophecy, we humans are at the fourth level of development and will soon enter the fifth level of growth. At the fourth level, we heal with herbs, foods, energy, astral travel and ceremony. At the fifth level, we will heal by touch alone, by thought alone, and this level heralds a time of abundance and peace on a global scale. Juan was traveling the world, teaching the prophecy and energy techniques to help advance humankind through the fourth level so that many people can embrace the fifth level at the appropriate time. He was also on the lookout for any potential fifth level person who could embrace the Living Energy for healing. From Juan, I learned about Energy in an entirely new way, one that uses the language of Energy for everyday tasks and ideas. One in which the concepts of Energy are woven into normal life activities rather than being relegated to a special sphere of influence which is utilized only by special people.

Wolf: You are medically educated and trained, as well as being a folk herbalist in the true sense of the word. How do you combine elements of science and folk wisdom so beautifully? What advice can you give others, as to resolving any dichotomy between clinical and folk approaches, between traditions we respect and what can sometimes be contradicting research?

Phyllis: I love folk medicine and I love science and don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. A good folk herbalist is a keen scientist using observational skills to gather information about a hypothesis and using reasoning skills to work through the hypothesis. If you are an herbalist in practice, you probably do this quite often whether you realize it or not. It might not be formalized and written in the scientific vernacular, but you are investigating an idea that you have about herbs and healing every time you see a client. Scientific investigation has changed greatly from the days when observational skills along with a quick mind were the prerequisites. It is true that this method, or any research based on empiricism, can never truly prove a hypothesis true, because there is always a way to prove it false. But as we’ve discovered with current scientific experimentation, there is always a way to crunch the numbers to get the desired result also.

In some ways, technology hasn’t progressed scientific investigation, it has slowed it down. For example, only a few years ago, an experiment exploring using diuretic herbs with animals might require measuring urine output before and after intake of the herb as well as weighing the animal before and after. Today, that same experiment requires killing the animal to measure the effect of the herb on the body at the cellular level. Any scientific investigation yields results, but my need is for the results to have practical application. I want to be able to use those results to further the development of my practice. My favorite scientists are Aristotle, Galileo, Copernicus, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, and Carl Sagan. These were all pioneers who helped change the world in some way.

Wolf: We’ve all been hurt, emotionally if not physically, and found strengths not only through surviving but through learning, sometimes resisting and sometimes transforming.

What has hurt you most, what tests have helped meld and temper the woman that is you?

Phyllis: That’s a very deep and personal question but I’m game to share. I’ve experienced some unique illnesses and healing from those illnesses has helped me help others. I was born a rather sickly child always catching bugs and infections, so being healthy was a childhood challenge that extended into adulthood. In my early teens I was prone to bouts of pneumonia. As an adult I had mononucleosis and cytomegalovirus, both of which took several years for recovery and left me quite weak during that time. I had red tide poisoning, not fun at all, which left me with neurological problems that required some major work. The red tide poisoning also initiated Guillain-Barre syndrome, life threatening, but again I healed. Hmmm, ovarian cysts, fibroids, low thyroid, but again I healed. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue (I don’t think so.) but again I healed. During all this, I was often pregnant and nursing which slowed down the healing process somewhat but never permanently. There were other problems too numerous to describe, but suffice to say, I’ve been through the physical wringer. Today I’m challenged with gluten sensitivity.

Although the physical issues were tests, it has been the emotional ones, relationships issues, which have hurt the most, thus five marriages. An ugly divorce is just that...ugly...and I don’t wish that situation on anyone. Too many stories there to tell. But I don’t regret my life choices because I have beautiful children as a result and these situations have helped me grow into the person I am. My challenge in relationship has been remembering who I am and maintaining my self-esteem, without being consumed by the fire of the relationship. The whole boundaries within relationship has definitely been challenging.

Wolf: What have been your greatest personal blessings? What conflicts have there been, if any, between your relationship with herbs and creation, and the definitive tenets of your religious upbringing?

Phyllis: My greatest personal blessings have been my children. It doesn’t get much better than that. Another amazing blessing is always having a teacher show up when I was ready without ever having to leave the area. My extended family and husbands have been blessings in disguise for the opportunities afforded me for personal growth. Herbs fit right into my beliefs around creation, religion and spirit so I’ve never had a conflict with being an herbalist and my spiritual beliefs. Even with my upbringing in a fundamentalist Christian household, herbs were not an issue. Herbs were given to us by God as remedies for our ailments. Over the years, the most politically active people I have known have been Christians who were ready to fight for the right of continued access to natural remedies.

Wolf: In what ways has your relationship with herbs and nature deepened your relationship with spirit and informed your beliefs?

Phyllis: Loving the natural world only deepens my love of creation. I can’t say anymore on the topic than that.

Wolf: Of all the herbs and their uses that you know of, which use is the least recognized, remembered or utilized?

Phyllis: Yellow root (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) is one of the favorite herbs in the South but little known or used outside the area. It can be used instead of Goldenseal for many health issues, has a slightly sweeter taste, and is specific for digestive disturbances.

Wolf: What is the most common ailment or complaint you deal with? Has this changed over the years?

Phyllis: The most common ailment I’m seeing now is Chronic Fatigue due to viral overload, too much stress, gluten sensitivity, lack of rest and lack of good nutrition. It seems that chronic illnesses always come in batches. Last year it was hypothyroidism and the year before multiple sclerosis. Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Lyme disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome, mitral valve prolapse and digestive tract issues round out the problems I see most often.

Wolf: How much of a factor is lifestyle and environment, and to what degree can an herbalist even address these relevant or even central factors in client consultations?

Phyllis: Lifestyle and environment are the primary factors in illness along with emotional strife and discord. My grandmother called all this “worriation” which says it all, the lack of being true to oneself. If we forget who we are, if we move away from our authentic selves, then we are more prone to illness. Herbs and other healing modalities can help us remember who we are, help us value ourselves again and restore self-esteem. Once self-esteem is restored, if our bodies have not reached the point of no return, then we can heal.

Herbs work on every level of our existence, physical, psychological and spiritual. In my tradition, for chronic illnesses, herbs were used to change attitude, restore vital energy and facilitate physical healing. When our self-esteem is low, when negative emotions are engaged, then vital energy plummets. Tommie often recommended a “swallow” of herbs in these situations; his version of drop doses. For acute illness, larger amounts of herbs are needed more often because this could be life or death and we must respond appropriately. In Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine there was always an action on the part of the client required in addition to herbs or other recommendations. The required action, usually a penance of some sort, engaged the client in their own process of healing and kept them engaged. I still use this technique but I call it homework instead.

Chronic illness is never without lifestyle, environmental, stress, or emotional influence and I do address this in sessions. As a healer, I believe this is totally appropriate. It’s often the emotions we bury that continue to facilitate chronic disease. They may not have caused the problem, but emotions hold the problem in place and cause stagnation in body and spirit. This stagnation then leaves us more susceptible to acute illness and infection. When our spirit, our personalities are low, then our immune system is low.

Wolf: Describe the system of therapeutics and diagnosis that you use. To what degree does it derive from this continent?

Phyllis: I use observational assessment techniques and constitutional analysis based on Southern and Appalachian blood types and personality profiles, the four elements and folk astrology. This is my primary technique. But I also use Western nail and hair assessment, Ayurvedish/Western tongue assessment and biomedical knowledge of disease. All this comes together to help me find the patterns of dysfunction inherent within the constitution and personality of the client. And I also read bloodwork.

Wolf: Yes, can you tell us about Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine blood types?

Phyllis: Sure.

1. Bitter Blood (fire) type:
Passionate, creative, extroverted, sunny personality, brave, high energy, courageous, honorable, truthful, enthusiastic. Compassion, strong will, intelligent, smart, funny, very honest, independent, individualistic. High vital energy. Charismatic. Friend for life. Hardly ever depressed and not for long, doesn’t hold grudges for long. Likes children. Loves movement, exercise, sports, and activity. All about the project, the event, the effort, the team, the crises, home, the marriage, the whatever. Likes to lead. Jack of all trades, really good at lots of different activities. Rarely becomes an addict. Runs on thyroid. Masculine energy. Associated with vital energy, physical energy, mitochondria and bile.

Bitter Blood excess manifests as hot blood, fever, inflammation, rashes. Boundless energy but caution to avoid burnout. High blood pressure, stroke, heart disease. Back problems. Dry skin. Liver/gallbladder issues. Temper, impatient, gets angry easily, can get violent, overly critical, argumentative, can go down with the ship. Wants to be in control. Stops delegating. Likes being center of attention. Doesn’t like to be ignored. Egotistical.

Deficiency: Cool blood. Thin, weak and watery with low pressure. Stagnation in the abdomen. Parasites. Pale face and fingernails. Anemic. Often thin or underweight. There may be congestion and cold in the bowels. Lymphatic congestion. Low vital energy. Tendency to hold water. Liver/gallbladder issues. Digestive difficulties. Can be gullible and naive. Life feels overwhelming. Overextending.

Mental/Emotional/Psychic: Burnt-out. Instinctual responses. Very intuitive, occasionally psychic. Holds onto anger. May hold a hurtful grudge or obsess about the past. Hard to let past go. Lose drive to work or be creative. Likes to fuss and fight. Bitter blood is often found in post-menopausal women, men in retirement and in folks after a divorce or the ending of a long-term relationship. Found in children after parents’ divorce, forced move to another town or school or after trauma.

2. Sweet Blood (earth):
Practical, hardworking, stable, endurance, calm and easy-going, cautious, lots of common sense, grounded in reality, predictable, reliable, solid, methodical, strong. Doesn’t like to get in a hurry. Sturdy, solid. Needs security. Likes possessions, money. Likes tools. Good builder. Does well in business. Limited amount of daily energy. Needs good night’s sleep.

Concerned with appearances. Stubborn, possessive, insecure, jealous, lazy, couch-potato, hoarder, doesn’t like surprises, extreme conservatism, tight-fisted, follows rules and regulations. Status is important; class structure.

Fertile. Good gardeners. Works hard but doesn’t like to exercise. It’s all about the form. Can become addicted to alcohol, downers. Feminine energy. Runs on blood sugar. Associated with excrement, wastes, blood sugar and physical structure of the body.

Excess: Thick and syrupy blood. Parasites, yeast. Tendency to diabetes, high blood pressure, may be overweight, have a red face and exhibit shortness of breath. Body weight tends to be centered around the abdomen and lower chest. Fatigue. Loss of energy and enthusiasm. Packrat. May have spider-thin arms and legs with tight, knotted muscles. Overly cautious.

Deficiency: Low blood sugar. Becomes too mental, detached, jittery, self-centered, insecure. Lymph system, lungs, colon is affected. Judgmental. Thyroid problems. Trouble following through on tasks. Lack of common sense.

Mental/Emotional/Psychic: Well-thought-out and measured responses. Depression can be an issue. Tendency to indulge in dietary and lifestyle habits that harm their health. Alcoholics and some drug addicts fall into this category. Veneer of self-importance but fool themselves as well as others. Sweet blood people can make hateful, nasty comments.

3. Sour Blood (air):
Mental, intellectual. Thinks constantly but doesn’t always put thought into action. Has trouble completing projects. Doesn’t like to be alone with mind. Keeps background noise going...tv, music, ipod. Knows a lot of information about a lot of topics but doesn’t tend to be expert in any area. Loves books. Make good writers, journalists and communicators. Wordsmiths. Like to travel. Needs groups, clubs. Like politics. Social justice. Dislikes social injustice. Talks. Analyzes. Controls nervous system. Runs on adrenaline. Masculine energy. Associated with movement, blood, lymph.

Excess: Blood is thin and bright red. Rashes, red spots and hives; heat in blood due to acidity. Prone to food allergies. Children with acid blood may exhibit redness around mouth after eating acid foods such as tomato sauce. Can look like fire but it’s only air blowing warm. Also carries moisture. Lungs. Lymph. Colon. Adrenal exhaustion. Can’t stop talking. Runs on second wind. Airhead or head in the clouds. Jumps from one topic to another. Daydream. Over-analyze.

Deficiency: Mentally sluggish. Colon, lung problems. Depression, bi-polar. Blood sugar issues. Fight or flight. Has trouble saying what they think or believe. Inability to communicate. Trouble planning.

Mental/Emotional/Psychic: Windy responses, off the cuff. Feelings of self-importance. Self-centered personality but helpful in times of crisis. Talks continuous when in the mood, goes through periods of reclusiveness, are possessive, jealous, envious and critical. Makes snide, cynical or hateful remarks. Smart-mouth.

Energy healers. Easily addicted — coffee, cigarettes, meth, cocaine, alcohol.

4. Salty Blood (water):
Emotional, intuitive, jealous, controlling. Reads moods. Nurturing, sympathetic, feel sorry for self and others. Sentimental. Likes organizations such as church and military. Needs strong boundaries. Secretive. Never really know what lies beneath the surface of a water person or what they are thinking. Manipulative. Water can be very soothing. Dampens all the other elements. Prone to inaction or getting off track. It’s all about the relationship. Feminine energy. Doesn’t mind being alone. Excellent actors, artists, dancers. Emote through art. Hard to be objective. Associated with mucous, bladder, kidneys, digestion.

Excess: Bladder problems, cystitis. Kidney infections. Colds, coughs, congestion. Too emotional. Cries easily. Holds water in body. Emphysema. Congestive heart failure. Heart valve problems. Emotional highs and lows.

Deficiency: Thin, dry and weak. Not enough moisture in blood to carry nutrients. Tends to be dry and thin all over with wrinkled, leathery or scaly skin and thin, wispy hair. Found in the elderly, both male and female and children who have been severely ill. Emotions not easily engage. Can be calloused, cold, unemotional. Lackluster. Loses intuitive feel.

Mental/Emotional/Psychic: Can be psychic vampires. Can be emotional doormats. Can play hunches. Emotional highs and lows. Grouchy personalities. Snappy, doesn’t like to talk much and don’t like to socialize. Possessive of significant other. Must work really hard to maintain personal boundaries. Cutting personality, impatient, curt and easily irritated. Has a temper, doesn’t mind telling anyone what to do and how to do it, and generally likes to boss people around. Easily addicted...alcohol, and almost any other drug.

Wolf: An awesome encapsulation, thank you! On another topic, what do you think are the biggest threats to herbalism in the world today, not only from outside, but from within?

Phyllis: The pharmaceutical/medical industrial complex is high on my lists of threats to herbalism and natural healing techniques in general. Greed and the desire to increase the bottom line is all it takes to threaten the ability of folks to take care of themselves and their families. Tighter government regulation on herbal products is also an issue that we herbalists must maintain vigilance toward. Herbalists tend to be a house divided: Those for licensure and those against. That division fairly prohibits any type of mass political action. This is both a strength and weakness. It keeps our profession viable, active and non-exclusive. But it also limits our political power.

Licensing herbalists emerges from time to time, but licensure is a state issue, not a federal one. Let’s keep herbs for the populace!

Wolf: What kinds of regulation might prove intolerable for you? What is the responsibility of herbalists, when it comes to helping determine the direction of this field, creating useful forms and protocols, or resisting imposition and injustice?

Phyllis: As herbalists, many of us are already practicing under the radar. It’s a balancing act trying to grow the profession while simultaneously not wanting to call too much attention to your practice. It seems to be the really successful herbalists with lots of clients that the authorities tend to watch or bust. It’s an odd thing: The better you are at your job as an herbalist, the more popular you become, the more likely to draw the attention of the authorities.

Herbalism, in the South, is considered a tradition and I’ve seen less hassling here than in other parts of the country. Actually I’ve never seen any herbalist hassled except Tommie who blatantly put on his salve label that it cured skin cancer. It was the feds that came knocking on his door about that, not the local authorities. And I must say, the woman sent out to Tommie’s place with a cease and desist order was really nice, non-threatening and totally reasonable. Tommie changed his label and that finished that business, well almost. He hand-wrote a sign on plywood that basically said his salve would do what he said it would do.

There is also the belief that God gave us herbs for our health. Here, herbalism is a religious freedom. It is ours by right and gift and the Bible speaks clearly on that point and there is protection in that belief. It’s a different situation in the South for that reason than I’ve seen in other areas of the country.

Even when I worked in a medical clinic, I never introduced myself as anything but a folk herbalist. In the South, there is acknowledged respect for the profession. However, from my experience in the medical clinic, I now believe that herbalists who work in this arena need training above folk medicine. The number of pharmaceutical drugs grows every year and clinical herbalists (my definition) must be familiar with them.

While I don’t believe in licensing herbalists, I can see where educational standards for clinical herbalists might be appropriate. But that being said, we herbalists can’t even agree on the definition of what a clinical herbalist does.

Herbalists are independent, ornery, and filled with opinions. It’s hard to get us to agree on anything.

If I couldn’t grow or gather herbs that would be pretty intolerable.

Wolf: What responses or adaptations might we see in the future, what forms might herbalism take?

Phyllis: Too many options to make a clear statement on this. I do see a revival in folk medicine for which I am thankful. Herbs continue to be researched and this research is influencing how people practice, so I don’t see that changing. It will be fascinating to see what happens over the next 10 years.

Wolf: What most pisses you off?

Phyllis: I get really pissed off at injustice, brutality, and the strong taking advantage of the weak. I get really, really, really pissed off when people hurt or abuse children or animals. And I don’t care too much for lying either.

Wolf: What tickles you more than anything?

Phyllis: I get tickled at people-watching, getting to know someone, funny British comedies, and watching butterflies and birds.

Wolf: What do you love most irrevocably?

Phyllis: First and foremost, I love my kids, and feeling the energy of family togetherness. I also love a good book, walking, seeing new places and dancing, especially a good herbal dance. And, of course, Nature and the plants.

Wolf: If you weren’t already giving all your time to herbalism, if your future were a blank slate, what else might you do with your life, what might you give to yourself?

Phyllis: Hmm...that’s a tough one...rock star, famous author, actress, warrior, magician, astronaut. All my childhood fantasies!

Wolf: What are the most essential tips you might give to an herbalist, to make them more effective, or to help them deal with the challenges, politics and pressures they may face?

Phyllis: Okay!

• Never lose faith in who you are or what you do.
• Study with as many teachers as possible. Self-study continually.
• Become an engaged member of your community.
• Question authority.
• Maintain a connection to Nature and the plant world.
• Find a good mentor and maintain that lifelong relationship.
• Stretch your herbal boundaries.
• Strive for excellence!

Wolf: ‘Nuff said!


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from 21st Century Herbalists: Rock-Stars, Radicals & Root Doctors by Jesse Wolf Hardin and Self-Published, 2012. Purchase this book from our store: 21st Century Herbalists.


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