As you read this, the older sections of various New Mexico towns and rural adobe villages are host to “Yerberas” and “Curanderas,” traditional Hispanic healers skilled in the ways of plant medicine, some of whom could be right now preparing a favored mix of flowers to try.
South of this Land of Enchantment, their Central American counterparts are seeing to the needs of not only their families but the populations of their neighborhoods, and elder Hourani in the jungles of Ecuador work to ease the pain of childbirth, heal infections and reduce fevers in areas where no other form of care exists.
Meanwhile, to the east, an Appalachian “Grannywife” kneels to tend her garden just as her grandmother and great grandmother did, with her own ever deepening understanding of each species’ characteristic blend of properties and effects, while across the ocean the herbalists of Great Britain draw from both historic tradition and the immediate instruction and example of the fey forest.
Not too far north of New Mexico’s high mesas, a 21st Century mountain man with a primitivist bent gathers usnea lichen for his wounds and watercress for his dinner, seeking not only primal nourishment and healthy ways of treating his problems, but also to achieve a degree of self reliance in an age when when most of us have become increasingly dependent on factory farms and highly-paid medical specialists.
And westward, a mother in a city of over several million people gives her child carefully crafted peach tincture whenever he is nauseous, as well as administering elderberry to ward off his colds. She does so, not because she lacks access to modern hospitals or the insurance to cover doctors’ costs, but because she wants to provide the most natural and holistic care possible... and because she — like her fellow formal or informal healers — seeks to take responsibility for the health and well being of her self, her family, and the all too ailing world.
The motions we make are not all that different today, whether looking into eyes and pressing palms to foreheads, grinding plants with a mortar and pestle, pouring the alcohol for tinctures or the steaming water for infusions, or gathering remedy and sustenance from mesas and jungles, mountain parks and the overgrown edges of suburban landscapes and urban parking lots... and whether wearing native-woven cloth or the latest in hemp fashion.
Each take their cues from the natural world and their own intuitive, telltale bodies. Each is an empathic who cares so deeply that they are drawn to act... not unlike yourself, perhaps. And all feel called to help, sometimes in an entirely informal fashion, other times taking on the role of a community healer in one form or another.
Without even knowing one another, they are kindred, connected to each other through their attentive, hand-to-stem connection to plants. Whether living hundreds or thousands of miles apart, they remain nonetheless joined in an alliance of purpose, part of a common clan even when hailing from vastly different tribes. And when they do meet each other, whether it is by accident or intention, there is usually immediate mutual recognition, born of not just of a shared cause but a shared curiosity and perspective, passion and love.
29 renowned herbalists from a wide range of backgrounds will be gathering Sept. 15th through 18th, in order to meet and teach at the international Traditions In Western Herbalism Conference, to be held at the beautiful Ghost Ranch retreat center near Santa Fe, New Mexico. This unique event brings together many of our time’s most vital voices into a single forum, emphasizing experiential learning and hands-on understanding for herbal students of all levels, and truly for anyone with an interest in effective personal health care. Presenters like Robin Rose Bennett, David Hoffmann, Paul Bergner, Ryan Drum, Kiva Rose and myself share operative traditions from ancient to contemporary, often with the flavor and spirit of the bioregions and landscapes we live and practice in.
And most importantly, TWH teachers bring personal experience to their classes. Their presentations on energetics, diagnostics and treatments benefit from a combined total of over 400 years of active practice!
The need for increasingly self-sufficient communities, and for natural and regional approaches, is likely greater now than ever before. And no wonder then, that the interest in herbalism — and in natural healing in general — is on the rise again, responding to the needs of neighbors and loved ones as has always been the case, but now spurred by lowered incomes and layoffs, by the dangerous side-effects of the flood of prescription pills and the ever heavier burden of sky-rocketing health costs.
Herbal and nutritional care is preventive as well as curative, not eliminating but certainly lessening the need for high-tech tests, allopathic treatment, immunity-squashing antibiotics and other suppressive drugs.
Developing such skills ends up not only saving us money, but it also results in primary care that is better for you — more natural, holistic, intuitive, nourishing and supportive — as well as the attendant rewards of increased bodily awareness and sensory input, the benefits and pleasures that come with a more intimate and cognizant relationship with nature, an ability to read the conditions and needs of others, and thus best able to positively affect the world.
The Anima tradition’s definition of health is “wholeness,” with the healer’s work being to aid the individual’s return to a dynamic state that is both whole and in balance. Rather than attacking illness per se, the herbalist or other practitioner supports the body’s natural efforts to heal itself, often prescribing dietary adjustments and a wide array of herbal allies to affect each condition or symptom.
While it has always been wise to be able to at least partially diagnose one’s self and family, it is increasingly prudent and crucial. Having a good grasp of the rudiments of herbalism and healing — knowing how to understand energetics, read symptoms, narrow down possible causes of illness, identify medicinal plants and process them for the best results — can bolster anyone’s self confidence, overall health and survivability.
It can also become the means of taking on a larger role, that of consciously serving the health of the community and the earth in the form of a village healer or urban practitioner, teacher of healing arts or clinical herbalist, scientific researcher or field botanist, plant conservationist or committed restorer of essential botanical habitat.
TWH conference classes are designed for everything from regular folks with an interest in self care, to experienced practitioners anxious to hear of the latest clinical discoveries and cutting-edge approaches. Those wanting to learn about plants of the high desert Southwest, will be thankful for a chance to join in plant identification walks near the site, with the insightful Phyllis Light and 7Song.
And all will enjoy the Friday and Saturday evening entertainment, featuring African-tinged tribal grooves of the banjo and fiddle-wielding women’s group Rising Appalachia, and the Gypsy hip-hop fire-dancing rock of Lunar Fire Tribal. For details and to register, go to: www.TraditionsInWesternHerbalism.org
Through those Appalachian hills, as along the shores of Cornwall and down twisty Amazon rainforest paths, in the forests of the Northeast and Northwest as across the mesas and down the canyons of the American Southwest, we walk in the footsteps of the ancestors, working to bring together human and plant tribes at a time when such efforts are more urgent than ever.
As I close this piece, I turn to watch the herbalist and instructor Kiva Rose deftly sorting the leaves and flowers of various desired plants, evocative of our species’ long and satisfying journey as hunter gatherers, bringing to mind a vision of those ways of living close to the land that marked the vast majority of our existence on this planet.
As she shifts to grinding seeds with an antique rock mano and metate, one can see in the way she presses rock to stone the rhythmic, repetitive motions of those countless Native American women who have for so long tended the health and needs of their tribes and homes.
Her small hands sort, tie and grasp just like those of the Spanish speaking “Abuelas” of frontier New Mexico, deftly wrapping medicinal herbs and tying them to nails along the ceiling’s exposed log beams. Before stopping for the night, she carefully sets aside any fertile seeds she finds... just as has always been done, by some of the most caring, conscientious and self empowered of our kind.
Jesse Wolf Hardin is an acclaimed teacher of Anima nature-informed practice and the author of 7 inspiring books. He and his partners offer empowering online herbal and nature awareness correspondence courses, as well as wilderness retreats and counsel at their Anima Sanctuary, an ancient place of power in New Mexico: Anima LIfeways & Herbal School www.animacenter.org. For information on his 2011 Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference near Santa Fe, go to: www.TraditionsInWesternHerbalism.org