Herbalism has made a resurgence in North America over the past three decades or so. However, it has done so in a way that has stripped away much of the power, beauty, and wisdom. Plugging directly into the Western biomedical model’s view of health and disease, what constitutes herbal medicine these days tends to be primarily or solely focused on symptom relief and single issue concerns.
There are of course many folks practicing much more holistic versions of herbalism from a variety of traditions and backgrounds. If you look around a little bit, it’s not terribly difficult to find people who have devoted their lives to, for example, understanding the Six Pernicious Influences of the Traditional Chinese Medicine model or the energetics of the humors in Western Herbalism. Indeed, despite often severe repression, it’s possible to find indigenous and immigrant herbal practitioners with healing lineages going back generations.
And yet, when it comes to popular consciousness, herbal medicine is something that’s adjunct to Western biomedicine. It’s something found in little plastic or glass containers at grocery stores, pharmacies or heath food shops. It’s Echinacea for colds, Tea Tree in your toothpaste, Lavender to help you sleep, and St. John’s Wort for depression.
In other words, for the average person, herbalism is a very utilitarian affair. Which I suppose is ok to some extent. When you’re sick you want to do what you can to get better. And get better now! However, traditional medicine practices, whether they are plant focused, energy focused, or focused on something else, are not about symptom relief, or even eliminating a particular illness. Sure, they include that. And for the majority of sick people that’s exactly what they seek when they go to an herbalist or shaman or energy healer. In fact, it’s even true that some (perhaps many) of the practitioners themselves these days are focused on some variation or another of symptom relief and specific illness elimination.
However, Herbalism isn't ultimately about finding solutions to our health problems. What it’s ultimately about is a series of ever evolving, dynamic relationships:
with ourselves as patients and healers,
with each other as people mutually reinforcing an environment of health and wellbeing,
with the plants that guide our healing and remind our bodies of their own innate healing capacity,
and with the entire planet and all of interconnected existence.
As a teenager, I stumbled upon Stinging Nettle in a field I was running though. The pain from getting “stung” all over my exposed legs that day left a mark in my mind: this is a powerful plant, pay attention. Of course, back then, my response was mostly irritation and dislike. I remembered it almost solely to make sure I did not get stung by it again. About a decade later, I learned about its medicinal properties. How its anti-inflammatory qualities, for example, are useful for all kinds of common conditions, including chronic issues like arthritis. At some point, I used it to help relieve some back pain I was having. Another time, I added it to a detox formula I took following a change in diet. The more I learned, the more I liked this former enemy. Then I spotted it in an alleyway near my home, and decided to uproot it and plant some in my garden. Over the years, a single plant became fifty, then one hundred, and then so many that I had to regularly thin the heard just to keep it at bay. As it spread, I learned that it prefers wetter soils, produces copious amounts of seeds, is almost fire resistant, and that it’s a great protector plant for gardens, making even the hungriest of animals wary of entering. Every year, I have watched its seedlings crack the soil as soon as the temperatures begin to warm. And every year, I have been impressed with its steady climb towards the sky, building a robust stalk and shooting out dozens and dozens of dark green leaves along the way. Getting an early start, it’s able to crowd out other plants that might hinder its growth. Offering a deluge of seeds in the fall, it nearly guarantees future generations on the same land.
I often wonder what it would be like if everyone had this kind of connection with the plants they used for medicine. How would our collective relationship with the land be? What insights about health and illness might be gained that many of us don’t have today? How might our communities, and even entire societies be structured differently as a result of these relationships?
The reemergence of herbalism in popular consciousness is like the first weeds that come following a forest fire or major disturbance of the land. If enough of us choose to give it the space to grow and the resources (time, material support, and devotion to being human beings in dynamic relationship) needed to thrive, there’s no telling what may come. Not only might it help us redefine the way we understand and practice medicine, it could be one of the ways we heal the planet and manifest the peaceful, just societies that so many of us dream of.
The plants were here long before us. It’s time to rebuild our relationships with them, and rediscover our true place in the ecosystems we call home.