Friday, November 16, 2012

The End of an Era!

Wednesday was a typical day for me in many ways. I spent the better part of the day teaching a class like I have thousands of times before. But what was different about this past Wednesday was it wasn't just any weekly class. It was the last one!

This past January we began the process of converting most of the content that I used to teach in a weekly class format into online courses. On Wednesday I taught the last class of the last course for the last group of students who are going through our program in the weekly class format. Afterwards I did what I do at some point almost every afternoon: I took my dogs for a walk through the fields and forest on the land where I live. As always, I sat down in one of my favourite spots and spent some time just being. While I sat there I also contemplated how much things have changed since I started teaching.

I taught my first course back in the spring of 1987. During the last few years of the 80s I taught sporadically; mostly one off lectures and weekend workshops. In the first half of the 90s I taught much more regularly, but still primarily limited to weekend workshops. Then in August of 1995 I got this idea that maybe there were people who were interested in taking a course run as a series of weekly evening lectures. Thus Healing With Herbs was born. It has gone through a few changes over the years but it is still the primary introductory level course that I teach. I should say it was ... until it went online this past January.

I had wanted to start Healing With Herbs in early September and I was only able to find one lecture room available on such short notice. It was a small room that only held 18 people, but I figured that would be enough. I only had a few weeks to promote the course and this was an experiment anyway. Well, 28 people applied to take the course and I had to turn 10 of them away! I ended up running it again in January and then in April with about 25-30 students in each session. Many of the students asked me to create additional courses, so the following school year I ran Healing With Herbs three times again, but each term I added a new course as well on a different night of the week. This was the beginning of teaching weekly classes for me; the beginning of a phase that ended this past Wednesday.

Here I am teaching a field workshop at
Mono Cliffs Provincial Park in the mid 90s.

By June 1997 some of my students were asking if I would create a complete herbalist program. I contemplated that over the summer and by the fall decided that it was in alignment with what I needed to do. Over the next 12 months I continued to introduce new courses while working on the curriculum for the entire program. After a couple of false starts, Living Earth and the Traditional Herbalist program were finally born in September 1998.

Initially we ran classes on weekday evenings and weekends. By 2000 students started asking for weekly daytime courses and we ran these as well. Within a couple of years enrolment in the evening and weekend courses started to drop and I switched exclusively to weekday courses.

The gradual change in the preferred class schedule of most of my students was interesting. It seems that in the 90s most of my students were working regular full-time jobs. They tended to be older people who were either taking courses for personal interest, or those who weren't happy with their work and were considering changing to a new career that better reflected where they were at in their lives. In the 2000s that started shifting. I was getting some younger students fresh out of high school or university who were still living with their parents. For the first time young people were considering herbalism as a first career! Many of the other students either weren't working full-time, had jobs with flexible hours, or were self-employed.

There were other interesting changes to the demographics of my students over the years. For instance, when I started teaching the age of my students ranged from mid 20s to late 60s with the majority of them being in their mid 30s to late 40s. There was also a 50/50 split between men and women. Over the years the lower age limit dropped as I started getting some students in their late teens and early 20s, and the overall average age dropped as well. In addition, the percentage of women increased. So now the vast majority of my students are women in their early 20s to early 30s. Although I still get a few men in some of my general interest courses, in the last few years I haven't had any commit to the full herbalist program. Since we began putting our courses online in January things have changed yet again. For one thing, there has been a higher percentage of men enrolling. We'll see how many of them end up committing to the herbalist program. I'm sure there are a lot a factors that have led to these changes over the years. I don't claim to understand them all, but I am glad that younger people are being drawn to this path because they are the future!

So now I have come to another major shift. I'm older and most of my students are a lot younger. They have grown up in a very different world than me; a digital world. It's a world of iPhones, text messages, Facebook, Twitter ... and, yes ... blogs! This world means nothing to me, but it's not something I can completely ignore. A big part of my path is to bring the medicine to the people and that means I have to be able to bring it to where the people are. Still, I have no interest in spending endless hours talking or texting on a cellphone, or checking out Facebook. I spend way more time on a computer than I would like to just doing my day-to-day work. I would much rather be out in the woods.

It seems that these days it is becoming increasingly more difficult for the majority of the people who want to learn about herbalism to commit to the more rigid structure of weekly classes. Online courses are becoming more practical and more appealing to people, and they are workable for people with a great diversity of life situations. We also now have the technology to make the experience of doing online courses as close as possible to being in class, with a few added advantages as well (like being able to listen to parts of a lecture over again if you miss anything). Yet I've never been a fan of distance learning courses, not only because there is so much experiential content that can't be done in that format, but because the medicine is a living thing. It can't be learned from a bunch of words. We need to plant our feet firmly on the Earth and be in it!

This eastern gray treefrog (Hyla versicolor) is demonstrating
how to immerse ourselves in the medicine!

Traditionally, herbalism and other healing traditions were learned by apprenticing with an elder. That is by far the best way to learn, but for many reasons it doesn't work well in our modern Western world. I've always tried to compensate for the limitations of teaching in a classroom framework as best I can. In particular, I've done my best to incorporate as much experiential content in my courses as possible. During this transition to providing a lot of online courses I will have to develop new ways to accomplish this. Of course, there are still workshops that can't be done online and will run as before. In addition, the remainder of the experiential and clinical content will be incorporated into week long intensive workshops. I actually prefer the longer intensive format to weekly classes. But the most important thing that I wish to convey to all students and herb enthusiasts of the digital world, just as I've had to convey this message in the past, is that to truly get herbalism it is essential that we develop a living relationship with the medicines that we are learning about and using. That means learning where they grow; how to identify them; talking to them; meditating with them; harvesting them; and making various preparations from them. Anything we can do to expand and deepen our relationship with them is beneficial and necessary. Healing comes from our Earth Mother and our interconnectedness with all of the living beings that we share this life with. It doesn't come from books or the Internet! Taking good quality courses with knowledgeable and experienced herbalists is essential for anyone who is serious about this, but connecting with the medicines is just as, if not more important. They are two sides of the same coin.

Welcome to the medicine!

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