Friday, December 19, 2014

The Herbs and the Herbalist

This post is partly a continuation of some of the themes discussed in the last one. Particularly concerning the challenges of obtaining the herbs that I need. There are a number of other older posts in which I've also touched upon related topics. Collectively they tell a story. I am using some examples of how the medicine moves in my life to answer some common questions that I am often asked by students, specifically relating to what herbs to use, how many, where to get them, and to what degree someone should prepare medicines themselves or obtain them from other sources. I'm putting this out there because I know that there are many other people asking the same questions. Hopefully, it will help others who are considering or already walking the path of the herbalist, or anyone who wants to deepen their relationship with plant medicines for personal use or interest, or other reasons.

Like some of my other posts, I am going to begin with broad strokes, laying somewhat of a philosophical and sometimes esoteric context in order to explain why I do things the way I do and what things you might want to consider when addressing similar choices. Then I will get a lot more practical towards the end.

Before I begin, I want to be clear that living the medicine is a very personal journey. There are many different systems of herbalism and each of them has its strengths and limitations, as do individual herbalists who practice these systems. Herbalism is very multifaceted. There are paradigms within paradigms within paradigms; based on world views, cultural differences, etc. However, I tend to view the overriding paradigms of various herbal traditions as existing somewhere within a circle consisting of two intersecting continua: holistic to reductionistic (i.e. treating people vs. treating symptoms), and material to spiritual (i.e. plants and people as a bunch of chemicals vs. plants and people as being both physical and spiritual beings). The paradigm of modern medicine, which largely evolved from herbalism, is located in the extreme lower left quadrant of this circle. In contrast, indigenous and traditional systems of healing fall somewhere in the upper right quadrant.

Herbalism Paradigms: The blue dot represents my initial orientation as an herbalist. The green line represents the evolution of the medicine
as I have gained greater experience and deepened my relationship with the herbs and the land. The green dot represents my current orientation.
The red dot represents the paradigm of modern medicine. Most, if not all, systems of herbalism will fall within the shaded portion of the circle.

The systems of herbalism that fall in the lower left quadrant tend to be those that operate from a more medical paradigm. They often define themselves as "medical herbalism". That being said, I know many herbalists whose training is in some form of medical herbalism who are very holistic in their approach, and sometimes even spiritual. Most systems of modern traditional herbalism tend to fall in the lower right quadrant. For lack of a better way to describe them, we could refer to those systems that fall in the upper right quadrant as "shamanic herbalism". I use that term because it more or less describes systems of herbalism that not only subscribe to a more spiritual or animistic philosophy, but they also incorporate ceremony and other spiritual elements into their practice. Shamanic herbalism is not the same thing as shamanism. It refers to systems of herbalism that have shamanic elements. However, in the context of indigenous systems of healing, the line between what constitutes shamanic herbalism and shamanism is pretty blurry.

I have to admit that I am not completely comfortable using the terms "shamanism" and "shamanic" because they have been considerably abused in the last couple of decades. Also, many indigenous healers are not comfortable with these terms because it comes from a particular tradition in northeastern and north central Asia. Although there are common elements in indigenous healing traditions from around the world, there are many differences as well. So, using a single term to refer to them has considerable limitations.

Regardless of where a particular system of herbalism fits within this circle, there will always be variations on every theme. A good student will learn a system as best they can, and then through continued learning, experience and (hopefully) intuition, make it there own. As with any skill or profession, there will always be those people who don't feel it in their heart and just go through the motions. It's like reciting a prayer with no feeling or expanded awareness. It becomes just words. However, there are many people who truly live the medicine and it would not be inaccurate to say that there are as many systems of herbalism as there are herbalists who live the medicine.

Traditional cultures are rooted in the land. So is their medicine.

For every herbalist, the medicine expresses itself differently. It is informed by the personal and ancestral history of the herbalist, the traditions of their teachers, and the culture and any subcultures that they are part of. These are the personal elements. It is also informed by the herbs that they use. However, traditional cultures experience the world in a different way. They know that everything is related, interconnected, and that our sense of individual identity is largely an illusion. Traditional medicine is informed by the land where the people live: the plants and animals; the plains, hills and mountains; the rivers, lakes and oceans; the grasslands, forests and deserts; and the living and ancestral spirits of the land.

In the mixed up world that we live in we have largely disengaged from this experience ­­- but it doesn't have to be that way. Instead, we can follow our heart and find that place where the land calls to us and stay there. When we approach the land in silence with humility, reverence, love and awe, it will speak to us if we learn how to listen. It takes time. A long time! We need to demonstrate our commitment; walk the land; get to know its different moods through the seasons, year after year. We also need to get to know the inhabitants of the land: the plants, animals and other beings that live there. If we want to go deeper, then we need to offer more than just our time, awareness and love. Through prayer, sacred offerings and ceremony we can open up to the land in ways that transcend the limitations of our logical mind and physical senses. Eventually, every step we take on the land becomes a prayer, a ceremony.

The medicine that I practice is not my own, although I am a part of it. It is my work, my path and my life. As I experience it, each expression of the medicine is unique in time and place. It includes the Earth, the Sun, the spirit of the land in a particular region, the ancestors of that land, the herbs, the practitioner, and those people who seek healing. It encompasses all of these and more. As a practitioner, I am both a part of the medicine and a conduit through which it is made accessible. As my relationship to the plants and the land deepens, so the manifestation of the medicine deepens as well.

Yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea) is a European species that won't grow where I live. I must obtain the dried root for making the tincture
because the North American species that grow in the region where I live are not plentiful enough to harvest.

When I first started practicing, I worked with about 120 herbs. Like most Western herbalists at that time, the largest portion of the materia medica that I learned consisted of European herbs, probably about 60%. Of the 60%, about 30% were plants that have naturalized in Ontario where I live, 20% plants that could be grown here, and 10% plants that won't grow in our climate. About 25% of the remaining herbs that I was using consisted of North American herbs, 15% which grow in the region where I live and 10% from other parts of the continent. The remaining 15% was an eclectic selection of herbs from South America, Africa and Asia, most of which can not be grown where I live.

I always had a deep connection with Nature and I felt it was important that I have a similar connection with the medicines that I use. Although the nature awareness and spiritual elements were not part of my original training as an herbalist, I was developing these aspects of my life in parallel and learning how to integrate them with my work. This process was one of the most challenging aspects of my work. It took years of deepening my relationship with the medicine and patiently listening to what the herbs and the land were teaching me. It would have been easy to impose my own ideas and I had to constantly guard against that. However, when I did slip up, the results very quickly made that apparent. I've had to learn not to push the energy, but to allow it to unfold in its own way in its own time.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) can't be grown in a temperate climate, but the organically grown fresh rhizome is available from commercial sources.

When I started practicing back in the 80s, I was ordering dried herbs and making my own tinctures. I also took the tincture of every herb that I made for a couple of weeks to get a deeper experiential connection with the medicines. At the same time I began a process of connecting with the plants in the region where I live. I would go out in the woods with a backpack full of plant identification books and manuals, walk into the fields or woods and try to identify every plant I didn't know. Sometimes it would take me hours just to walk a few metres. I recorded the botanical name of every plant that I was able to positively identify. When I got home, I would research each plant and record any information that I could find from about 200 herbals and technical reference books that I had. In this way I began to develop a data base of information on the plants that grow in the region where I live.

At the same time I continued to develop my relationship with the plants, the animals and the land. I spent lots of time wandering and sitting on the landscape. I attended and performed ceremonies and made offerings in accordance with the rhythms of the world around me: the solstices and equinoxes, the lunar cycles, and to honour powerful beings on the landscape such as rivers, waterfalls, lakes, cliffs, caves and ancient grandmother and grandfather trees. I sat with them, spoke to them, sang to them, prayed to them, meditated with them, made tobacco and other offerings. The plants, the land and the ancestral spirits became my chief teachers. I was skeptical at first. Not because I doubted the possibility of such communication. I had enough experience and had the opportunity to learn from a number of elders who were more adept in this realm. My doubts were about my own capacity to accurately receive and interpret these teachings from the plant realm. However, I very quickly learned to trust these communications because whenever I listened, the healing results were greatly expanded.

Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is a native of northeastern Asia but can be grown in temperate North America.

In this way the medicine gradually unfolded. One of the first things I learned was that I needed to work with fresh plants as much as possible as their healing capacity is much deeper. I was also instructed that I must gradually introduce more herbs that grow or are grown in the region where I live and replace most of the exotic herbs in my materia medica, and to wild harvest most of them. This is not an intellectual process. It's not about what I think or want. I must wait for the plants to offer to be part of the medicine. Neverthess, this relationship can be challenging at times. For example, one of the herbs that I know I must work with is blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and I have written about this herb in the Making Medicine series of blog posts. There aren't a lot of places that I know where this herb is plentiful. It is one of the herbs that I mostly obtain by "water walking", meaning I walk upstream or downstream through a creek or river so that I can harvest herbs that grow along the banks. Blue vervain tends to grow in little clumps here and there close to the shore. I usually have to go water walking several times, each time obtaining enough to make a couple of litres. About 10 years ago I was really concerned about being able to continue to use this herb. I started doing research on white verain (V. urticifolia), which is more common in this region, to see if it is similar enough to either combine them or use it as an alternative. However, I still needed to honour my relationship with blue vervain. That year I had particular difficulty making enough tincture. I visited this herb near the end of the season and offered prayers and tobacco and explained my need and asked for guidance about how to proceed. The next year when I went out harvesting the amount of blue vervain that was growing in the areas where I harvest it increased by two to three times! I also discovered a decent patch a bit off the beaten track in an area where I regularly wild harvest. When we work with the medicines in this way they listen and help. They are part of the medicine too, and they take their responsibility seriously. As long as we do our work, they will support us. Blue vervain used to be one of the medicines that I used in moderate quantities. Now it is one of the herbs I use the most. By the way, it did turn out that the properties of white vervain are almost identical to those of blue vervain.

Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) is a Eurasian herb that has naturalized in eastern North America.

Gradually, as I was called to use more local herbs, it became apparent which ones I need to stop using as well. Today the profile of the herbs that I use is very different than it was when I started. When I recently did an inventory of the tinctures that I have on hand, there were 102 (45%) native herbs, 81 (35%) that are naturalized, 28 (12%) that are grown locally, and 19 (8%) that are not available locally. 182 (80%) of my tinctures are wild harvested and 46 (20%) are organically grown. 202 (89%) of the tinctures are made from fresh herbs, 19 (8%) from dried, and 7 (3%) from both. The latter group are herbs that are available locally but not in sufficient quantity to meet my needs. In these cases I will usually make some dried herb tincture as well and press them together so that the tincture I use is a mixture. I try as much as possible to do that in a 2:1 ratio (fresh:dried) but sometimes have to do 1:1 or even 1:2.

Of the various tinctures that I have on hand, I only use 150 of them in my practice. Of these, 88 (58%) I use in a relatively low quantity (0.5-1.0 litre per year), 43 (29%) medium (2-4 litres per year), and 19 (13%) high (5-8 litres per year). The remaining 78 I only have a small quantity of (usually 250 ml) for research purposes. Some of them will eventually become part of the medicine. My relationship with the ones I don't end up using is different. They want me to make information available about them so that other people will start using them again, as this is part of their purpose.

Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris) is a circumboreal herb that is native to the temperate regions throughout the northern hemisphere.

Notice that the largest proportion of herbs that I work with I use in relatively low quantities. Some of these are herbs that I feel are indispensable in my practice but I can't harvest them in sufficient quantities, either because large populations aren't very common in this area, or because they are difficult to harvest in quantity. A good example of the latter is heal-all (Prunella vulgaris). This herb is very common, but it's a small herb and the portion that we harvest is very small as well (the flower spike and first pair of leaves) which makes it difficult to harvest in quantity. Like many herbs from the mint family, it is also fairly low density due to lots of air spaces in its tissues. This makes the harvested portion even lighter than a similar amount of some other herbs. I know that it is important for me to have this herb available, so I keep it on hand and use it sparingly. The other herbs in the low quantity group tend to be specialized herbs that are used for very specific applications. I really need them when I need them, but not very often. They add a significant level of versatility to my practice.

The 62 herbs that I use in moderate to large quantities are the herbs that I use more than 90% of the time. Theoretically, I could base my whole practice on these herbs. Most herbalists have a small group of herbs that they use the most. I recommend to my graduating students that they begin their practice using about 50-60 herbs that they feel most drawn to and then branch out from there as they gain more experience. It means that they need to know their herbs very well so that they can treat virtually any person that comes their way. Fortunately, herbs are not as limited as you might think from the general herbal literature. They tend to be very versatile, having dozens of properties and hundreds of applications.

Common purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a native of central North America. I have established a wild population on the land where I live.

Because I make all of the medicines myself and harvest almost all of them as well, I have to devote a considerable amount of time to this part of my work. Their is usually a fairly narrow window when an herb is ready to be harvested, typically a few days to a couple of weeks. During that time I have to harvest whatever amount of each herb that I will need to prepare enough tincture to last me at least a year, which is when I will next be able to harvest it (actually enough for 15 months because I allow at least 3 months for a tincture to macerate before pressing it). With roots and rhizomes there's more flexibility. They can be harvested any time from when their aerial parts have almost completely died back until the ground freezes. Also, whereas the aerial parts of herbs need to be macerated withing a couple of hours of being harvested (for some herbs less), roots and rhizomes can be stored in a cool place for a couple of days as long as they remain moist and they aren't washed until we are ready to process them. This is great because they are a lot more work to harvest! They need to be dug up, washed and allowed to dry before we can use them to make a tincture. Being able to spread the work out over a couple of days makes it a bit easier. I can spend one day travelling and digging up several herbs and the next couple of days processing them.

I schedule clinics on Thursdays. Typically, I see 5-7 clients per day. However, when I am travelling a lot I need to schedule the odd Wednesday clinic in and my client load goes up to 7-8 people per day. Until last June, I also had a student clinic scheduled every second Saturday. In order to be able to prepare enough tinctures to meet my needs, I spend about one day per week harvesting the medicines from mid April to mid May; two days per week from mid May to mid June; three days per week from mid June to the end of July; two days per week in August; one day per week in September and October; and then it's back up to two days per week in November. All of this needs to be coordinated with the weather and the rest of my life! Among other things, in recent years my work has required me to travel a lot during the time of year when I am doing all of my harvesting. That means that I have to harvest even more days during the weeks that I'm not travelling. To be able to accomplish this, during harvesting season I have to minimize the amount of days that I have a fixed schedule, such as clinic days and scheduled classes and workshops. During the peak harvesting season when I am not travelling I do my best to allow four to five days per week when I have nothing in particular scheduled so that I can head out on a moments notice whenever the herbs and the weather align! Fortunately, a lot of the work that I do is flexible and can be scheduled around my harvesting days. Also, the advanced students who are completing the clinical part of their program are required to harvest and prepare some tinctures for their student clinic. It only amounts to a small percentage of what they use, but it does reduce my work load a bit. Now that the clinical portion of the program is organized differently, no tinctures are required for the student clinic until the new version of the student clinic begins in a couple of years. This will reduce my load for awhile as well, but it also means that I am making them all myself.

Wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) is a native of eastern North America.

This year I was not able to harvest as many herbs and prepare as many tinctures as I had intended. This was due to my intense travelling schedule and the unusually cool, wet weather that we had in this area. I managed to make 90 litres of tincture from herbs that I wild harvested; 7 litres from fresh herbs that were organically grown locally [rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and cayenne (Capsicum annuum)]; 17 litres from organically grown fresh herbs that I had to purchase [turmeric (Curcuma longa), ginger (Zingiber officinale), American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum)]; and 21 litres from organically grown dried herbs. The proportion of dried herb tinctures is normally nowhere near this high, but I harvested a lot less herbs than usual this year, and last year I allowed much of my dried herb tincture stock go down to almost nothing.

I will have to cut back my use of some herbs this year. There is also a good chance that I will run out of a few of them before I am able to harvest them again or before some of the tinctures that I prepare next year are finished macerating. I am going to have to use other herbs as substitutes, which means that I will need to use a litre or two more than usual of some of the tinctures of which I have a bit of surplus stock. Fortunately, I do have a bit of surplus stock of some of them. It is still going to be a very intense harvesting season next year!

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is one of the more specialized herbs that I rarely use due to its very high potency and potential toxicity.
However, sometimes it is indispensable. I use it for very deep conditions of the liver and spleen, and for a number of types of cancer.

In addition to all of the harvesting and macerating tinctures, I also have to spend about 4-5 hours, 3-4 days per month pressing and filtering tinctures. The time commitment to make all of these medicines is very high even though I'm only seeing an average of 6-8 clients per week. I figure, making medicines the way I do, if my work consisted solely of seeing clients it would not be possible for me to see more than double the number of clients that I am currently seeing. In my case a lot of my work involves teaching, but if someone were called to practice full time making medicines this way, it is definitely possible to make a living seeing 12-16 clients per week, and they'd (hopefully) be doing what they love. I think that's worth it! Nevertheless, spending this much time making medicines is challenging. This is why many herbalists make a lot of their tinctures from dried herbs, or purchase bulk fresh or dried herb tinctures from commercial sources. Ultimately, it is up to each herbalist to find the path that works for them.

Notice that I specifically did not say "choose" the path that works for them. To "choose" our path would require following our head instead of our heart. It is my experience that the path of the herbalist, or any path for that matter, is a calling not a choice. I have experienced this in my life and witness it on a daily basis in the people around me. In Western society we are taught to think our way through life and make many important life decisions based on fear rather than following our heart. It is one of the major reasons why there are so many unhappy people in the world today and one of the major causes of chronic illness. We live our life like an island at our peril. The consequences of this way of living are all around us.

Resinous polypore (Ischnoderma resinosum) is a fungus that has been calling me for several years. This fall I finally
got the call to harvest it and make some tincture. There isn't much information available on its medicinal properties.
It will probably be a year or two before I am familiar enough with it to start integrating it into my practice.

For anyone who is called to deepen their relationship with the plant people, or to follow the path of the herbalist, the most important advice I can give them is to quiet their mind, listen to their heart, deepen their relationship with the land and the plant medicines, and allow the medicine to unfold through them. In this and other posts I have given examples of how the mystery of the medicine manifests in my life. That isn't to say that this is how it will manifest for everyone. We are all unique and the medicine manifests through each of us in unique ways. There is no "right" way for everyone. For some people wild harvesting might not be appropriate or even an option. Maybe the only way they are able to offer their healing gifts is by using tinctures or teas made from dried herbs. That's OK. There are ways of working with herbs in any form, or even without form, that allow their healing to come through in a deep and meaningful way. The most important thing is that we develop our own relationship with the medicines. They will teach us how the medicine can best manifest through us.

The themes that I discuss in many of these posts are interwoven like a complex tapestry. Together they tell a story of herbs, healing and the interrelatedness of things. Many of my previous posts address some of the themes that I have discussed here in different contexts and from different angles. If you find yourself drawn into this world I encourage you to go back and check out some of the archived posts. Happy solstice and happy reading!