Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The well rounded herbal practioner

Whether you're drawn to plant medicine for yourself or a desire to help others, there's far more to it than learning to match plant to the person's needs or identifying and preparing plants from the wild.

You have to be able to think.

It's not a matter of memorizing 'facts' and being able to recall them as needed - that's not thinking, it's what one of my teachers used to call mental regurgitation. What we need is the ability to recognize patterns. Sympathies and antipathies, as Culpeper would say.

We have to be able to visualise and imagine. To conjure up images in our minds, let them grow and explore them.

Visualisation is a creative process, cultivated through expansion of the senses and the imagination. The internet and conventional, linear learning contract our senses and stifle our imaginations. We're spoonfed brain pablum. (That's been going on for generations now.) What we need to be able to do is chew things over in our minds.

So, if I was to design a course of study for someone who wanted to expand their knowledge of all things herbal, I would start with anything BUT herbalism.

I might even start with music, specifically classical music. That's, in part, for the attention span. How many people do you know who can sit and just listen to music for 40 minutes? Can you? Listening is not a passive experience, not when you know how. The mind is trained by listening to an orchestra.

Try this - Listen and re-listen to the same Beethoven symphony, over a period of several weeks or months, first concentrating on, say, the violins, then the cellos, then the winds. Discover snippets of melody in the background and listen for them as they return here, then there in the first movements of the piece, then actually become the main theme in the last movement, or disappear only return in another symphony entirely. Listen to recordings of the same piece by different conductors and orchestras, too.

While listening, you can visualise the musicians. Or, you can let the music nudge your imagination hither and yon, as it was meant to. Beethoven's 6th Symphony, the Pastoral, is excellent for beginners; there's weather in that piece. These old 'chestnuts', as the most well known and loved pieces of classical music are called, have survived all this time for good reason. They're gorgeous.

Another reason I believe classical music - perhaps especially Beethoven - is important to the herbalist and wildcrafter is that the music was written at a time when the natural world was more, well, natural. Beethoven used to go for long rambles in the countryside, "sketching" what he saw and felt and smelled out there, not in pictures but in musical notation. Beethoven's vistas had no cell towers. Beethoven's birds didn't have to shout to be heard over traffic. His wildflowers blew in breezes that weren't bent out of shape by buildings, and his streams ran free. His senses were alive in that lively world and I believe that listening to his music helps us to enliven ours, too. That he was able to compose after he lost his hearing is testament not only to his technical knowledge of music, but to his imagination. He could still hear music in his head, after all.

My course in herbalism would also have a prerequisite in Astrology - yes, really. Not newspaper horoscope type astrology, mind you.  The probable influence of Saturn while it spends time in Sagittarius (as it is right now) on those born under the sign of, say, Capricorn, isn't something you even need to believe in to gain from the study of it. The study of Astrology expands our ability to think, to associate one idea or concept, (not hard fact) with another. The same can be said of the other esoteric arts, like alchemy or the study of (the real) Tarot. Ideas and concepts, interacting and intermingling, not facts all lined up neatly on a shelf.

Astrology does play a role in the history of herbalism of course. If you want to be able to read Culpeper (and you should, he's one the old Masters), you need at least a working knowledge of the planets. He used a sort of mnemonic system based on the planets and their influences. It is not whether stinging nettle and cannabis are actually 'ruled by Saturn' that matters, but that those plants that are said to be under Saturn tend to be drying and cold (as is Saturn) so are grouped together as Saturnian. Once we have these mnemonics (and the Doctrine of Signatures) under our belts, our minds will make intuitive leaps that they couldn't without these imaginative, almost poetic languages. These non-linear ways of thinking are of great value when we come to formulate herbal combinations. We probably won't create a formula strictly on astrology (although many a great formula has been made that way) but, again, it expands our minds to think beyond the linear, beyond simple cause and effect. Plants, like the planets, influence each other's behaviour.

A formula, you see, is not a matter of this plant PLUS this one to a sum total. Sometimes one of the ingredients will amplify the others, another time it will mute, and under some conditions it will act as a catalyst to the whole thing. Linear thought simply isn't up to the task of understanding that. When we're creating an herbal formula we're more like orchestra conductors than pharmacists. The sum is more than its parts.

Another very important aspect of any well rounded herbalist's makeup is the ability to sit comfortably with sin.

Yes, I said that.

We cannot be uptight. We must not judge or blame or cower in fear of the dark. That means we have to accept that we will sin, and so will the people who may come to us for help. If we have done things in the past that we are ashamed of, so much the better. It is not the shame that helps us to be fully human, it is the understanding that such things happen. It is the understanding that we have to embrace and love our personal demons in order to heal them, that if we hate and shun them they're just going to come back later, angrier and stronger.

So, although I don't in any way advocate the habitual use of drugs or booze, I also believe that there are times that everyone has to cut loose and that all of us should do so, once in a while, in the ways of our own choosing, consequences be damned. We should, at least occasionally, laugh too loud, we should eat too much, we should, in short, accept excess as a valuable tool to shift us out of the ruts in our thinking and behaviour. Because we all get into ruts, and ruts are dangerous things. Perhaps the most dangerous thing we'll face in our lives, herbalists or not, is restrictive thinking or restrictive living.

I believe there is more harm in judging someone for smoking cigarettes than there is in giving them mullein to help them keep their chests clear. They'll quit when they're ready, they don't need us to shame them or refuse to help them (or perhaps they won't quit, because not everyone who smokes is terribly harmed by it, a post for another day). The point is that when we judge according to hard and fast rules that we believe should apply under all circumstances, we're closing ourselves off to the exceptions. Life has as at least as many exceptions as it does rules. So there is something to learn from everyone, sinner or saint, and sinners don't only teach us about self-destructive behaviour. Many of the greatest healers and herbalists (and composers and artists and writers) had some very 'bad' habits indeed - but their minds and hearts soared high, leaving us legacies that have lasted centuries.

My favourite herbalists alive today would be considered a ragtag bunch if you brought them home to your parents' house for dinner. There are neuro-a-typicals and gender-benders, green witches and alchemists, each of them scholars in their way. None are the picture of health or physical perfection. For you see, the most important quality of any healer is actually the wound. Don't embrace herbalism if you don't have - and value - your own wound, your own fatal flaw. If you can't laugh at your limp, if you've never lain awake in the night gripped in the cold sweat of your own mortality, unsure if dawn would come, then giggling like a fool when it did, you can't help anyone, not even yourself.

It's rising above all that, transcending pain and finding joy in what we do, in spite of it all, even because of it all. It's losing ourselves in music or the ecstatic poetry of Rumi; it's being playful enough to want to learn what 'Mercury Retrograde' means or carving our own set of Runes from symbols we created; it's revelling in feeling small, not taking ourselves too seriously; all that keeps our hearts open, our senses keen and especially, our minds inquisitive. Then we're able to taste the ever so subtle difference between this calendula here and that one that grew four feet away, and know which one will best suit the mouthwash formula we're making for our great aunt's recurring canker sores.


  1. Scripture says that God gave us the luminaries in the sky to indicate where we are in the cycle of things He does on this earth. Daniel, for example, would have known all about that more ancient form of Mesopotamian astrology as part of his professional job training. It didn't seem to have hindered his faith or usefulness to God.

    1. Of course! From the prohibitions against 'soothsaying' to the current dumbing down for the masses, astrology has suffered many an insult.

  2. I "enjoyed" this and took some nuggets. Thanks.

  3. Wow! That was heavy! In a good way. Webs in my head strangle my freedom to be free as you describe it to be. I understand that. It's only when I climb through and out of them that I can be. Until they recreate themselves again. And truth be told, I am the spinner.

    1. Immediately the two spidery/weaver goddesses spring to mind, Ariadne and Arachne.

      I definitely should add the study of mythology to that lesson plan.