Herbalism is sometimes spoken of as one of the “healing arts,” along with acupuncture, chiropractic, counseling, and massage therapy. These practices and any other non-invasive ways of healing people and planet are “crafts” carefully learned, practiced and applied, that truly become “art” at the point where we:
1. Make our work with herbs a creative process and apply our own imaginations.
2. Strive to maximize our herbalist knowledge and skills.
3. Seek to heal people at the deepest emotional and spiritual as well as physical levels.
4. Try, as a matter of both course and principle, to practice our plant medicine as beautifully as possible!
I wrote our Plant Healer book The Enchanted Healer because of feeling certain that our enchantment with plants and healing is every bit as important to our effectiveness and satisfaction as is our herbal knowledge and skill at treatment. The following is abridged from that chapter of that book, championing a creative and joyous herbalism that is possible for everyone, no matter how much you know or how much experience with plants and healing you have had.
You might think, “Of course beauty and enchantment matter,” but these days a stark line is often drawn between conventional medical care and alternative or holistic therapies, between phytotherapy and folk herbalism, between hard science and folklore, between the necessary growing of food crops and the nonessential raising of ornamentals, as well as between the supposed florid artist’s life and the sober existence and sensible priorities of regular people. Not so in many ancient and tribal societies, nor in the attractive land-informed cultures that we are together working to create. For them and us – from nourishment to remedy, from planting to harvest, birth to death – is an opportunity to meld ritual and necessity, substance and gesture, artfulness and practicality, working to make every act and result not only productive but evermore meaningful, beauteous and satisfying!
Notice how folk herbalists of any culture find hidden patches of desired wild plants largely by their form and color, as in tune with the patterns and hues composing the land as is a painter with her visions of forms and palette of endless chromatic possibilities. We can see surely the art in their purposeful ascertaining of patterns and composing of response, in their deeply partnered dance of natural healing and allied plants... and in what they collect on their shelves, hang on the wall and wear on their bodies. Each of these herbalist’s clothes express their particular persona, the decorating of home and clinic to reflect their particular values and beliefs, preferences and desires, hungers and callings.
On their desk may be a collage of the tools of inquiry, alongside the frivolity of plant deco. We may note the curving lines and brass sheen of a vintage druggist’s scale, a hand-me-down magnifying glass, a surreal earth goddess or primitive carved crucifix, the predictable vase or Mason jar with flowers long ago having died and dried into twisted shapes too amazing to throw outside. On the window sill, colored glass of some sort that’s sure to refract into the room its enchanting morning lights, Arkansas crystals and sun hungry potted sage. Framed and hung are images of treasured places, from topographic maps marked with one’s favorite spots for gathering wild herbs. Paintings of flowers, or goddesses, or faeries, or vine covered cottages that invite us to world of veritable magic. Historic drawings of Yerba Mansa or flowering Mullein, or the voluptuous Victorian images we humorously refer to as "plant porn".
Art can be seen not only in the objects they surround themselves with, but also in their gestures, acts and tasks. Just watch how they customarily acknowledge, empathize with, speak to, ask for the collusion of, and somehow express their profound gratitude to those medicinal plants that they kneel before in acts of humble connection or unplanned ceremony. See, also, the deft movements of hands and blades as leaves are separated from flowers and roots, not unlike the sculptor removing elements of stone or wood to reveal a focused and refined purpose within. Their creation of formulas can be in some ways like the art of cooking, with brilliance, intuition and adaptation augmenting tradition, evaluations made with alert taste buds and noses that know. The rhythms of their interchanges with clients and patients can be like practiced choreography with room left for on-the-spot improvisation – in what I think of as the herbalist’s song and dance. Inspired and fueled by not only necessity and compassion but impassioned aesthetics and taste, theirs is a practical trade made into something complexly personal, focused on a vision and purpose, intent on increased excellence and effectiveness – a point of service and connection that is art at its most relevant. Important. Magical, even.
The pencil for the writing of ours and our world’s story – for the creation of our art – is in part in our hands, ready for us to make the changes that are needed. We have an entire chest of colors to choose from, with the now and future our unlimited canvas. We have the pharmacopea botanica for most of our bodily healing needs. All the necessary materials, it seems, are at hand for whatever project we might launch, awaiting only the actual sweep of the painter’s brush, the slice of the sculptor’s knife, the swirl of the kitchen ladle, the gathering and processing of the herbs, the pouring of the salve of tincture, the purposeful and ceaseless reaching out to help.
A main theme of our book, "The Enchanted Healer," is that you are simultaneously a healer and a person still engaged in your own personal healing. You are both the subject and creator, witness and participant, viewer and doer. As such, this kinetic relational process that we call “art” involves not just the illustrator’s pen or paint, the gardener’s shovel and seed, cotton bandages or healthful herbs... it needs you.
Now see what you can do!