Herbalism in an Age of Mass Extinction, Part Two: Ecologically Minded Practice

Pond and herb garden below our house, all in a clearing withing a rich, Appalachian hardwood cove forest.

by Janet Kent

Consciousness of the growing stressors wild plant communities face can inform our herbal practice in many ways. There is currently a debate over whether ethical wildcrafting is even possible within the context of environmental catastrophe. I plan to write more on this topic soon, but for now, I will assume that people are going to wildcraft whether we like it or not, and that teaching best practices is imperative. To understand when wildcrafting is acceptable, one must first become  immersed in the ecosystems in which one wishes to harvest medicine. Which plants and fungi are under stress? Which are thriving? Maintaining relationships with the plant communities from which we harvest is crucial. By visiting stands year after year we see the changes they undergo. Only then that may determine when they are healthy and when they are stressed.

Ecologically minded wildcrafting  also entails paying attention to market forces. As an herbal remedy becomes commercially popular, wild harvest by those who are less connected to the affected plant communities increases. The current  over-harvesting of Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)  due to the increase in its popularity as a coffee substitute is a good example of this phenomenon. Many people hear of this remedy, do not understand the differences between Chaga and other fungi that make Chaga less resilient to over-harvesting, are excited about positively identifying the fungus and harvest each one they see. Worse yet are the  profit minded harvesters who seek to harvest as much as possible for immediate monetary gain with little mind to the future of wild populations. If we do not harvest or grow all of our medicine, we must be sure of the ethical practices and standards of our sources. Do not assume that simply selling herbs implies concern for the environment. As the market for herbal medicine grows, so do the opportunities for  malpractice all along the supply chain.  The Sustainable Herbs Project addresses these issues and provides lists of herb growers and sellers who are reliable, ethical suppliers. If you buy herbs from anyone you do not know personally, please use this resource as your guide.

Outside of our own use, we should be careful how we promote wild herbs and mushrooms. For example, if we promote the use of Chaga or another threatened remedy publicly without acknowledging the depletion of wild populations, we are complicit in the decimation. United Plant Savers is an excellent resource for determining which plants can be sustainably harvested and which are in danger.  I propose a new standard for sharing information and images of plant medicine on social media and blogs.  When you post an image of an herb or fungi, include information on its conservation status. Is it rare? Endangered? Or common and opportunistic? We must make the ecological status of the wild medicines we promote a standard part of our descriptions. Drawing attention to a rare plant on a platform read by thousands without this information is not a sustainable practice.

Ecologically minded herbalism means when possible, we should use weedy, abundant plants. Taking this idea further, we can embrace the medicine of invasive plants. These plants are plentiful and resilient. Harvesting them also takes some ecological stress off of the native plants they are out-competing. Timothy Lee Scott’s Invasive Plant Medicine is an excellent introduction to some of our more abundant medicinal non-native species (Scott, 2010). Mimosa Tree (Albizzia julibrissin) and Wild Rose (Rosa rugosa) are two indispensible parts of my apothecary.  While most of us already use Dandelion and Plantain, we can expand our weedy apothecary to include Tree of Heaven, Japanese Knotweed, Kudzu and many more. This does not mean that we need to cultivate or spread these plants; they are plentiful in the wild.

Herbalists can also choose harvesting practices that do not kill the plants. Tree medicine allows the harvest of a few branches, twigs or flowers, without irreparably harming the tree. Michael Moore taught that our preferential use of roots is a remnant of the days when herbs needed shelf-life in pharmacies. He insisted that medicine is found in the above ground parts of many of the plants we primarily consider root medicine.  With Moore’s recommendation, we tincture the above ground parts of Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa). The acrid flavor of this preparation attests to its medicinal properties. (In some instances, the dosage is higher for the extraction of the herbaceous parts of herbs, so experimentation is necessary for accurate dose recommendations. ) American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolia) has long suffered from overharvesting due to market forces. Recent studies have shown that ginsenosides occur in the above ground parts of the plants, though in lesser quantities, supporting Moore’s suggestion. Each fall, we plant the bright red ginseng berries, then harvest and tincture the above ground plants, thus making sustainable medicine from the wild plants while also protecting dwindling populations from poachers.

When we do want to harvest root medicine, there are ways to harvest the roots without killing the plants. One can take part of the root, making sure to leave next year’s bud and a sufficient piece of root to provide nourishment for the coming year. With American Ginseng, Joe Hollis of Mountain Gardens teaches a method of harvest that involves breaking off one of the lateral branches of the root and replanting the crown with another branch still attached. This will set the plant back without ending its life. Though again, we should only harvest from stands we have a perennial relationship with, even when we use more sustainable methods of wildcrafting.

The growing emphasis within herbalism on bio-regional medicine supports ecologically minded practices. Using the medicine around us decreases our participation in the fossil fuel based shipping economy. This ethic furthers our connection to our environment, encouraging us to actively steward and fight for the ecosystems we frequent.

While I have primarily focused here on how we can continue to ethically use plants as medicine, one way to relieve pressure from our wild plant populations  is to use Vitalist principles in our practice. We can prescribe herbs to our clients, but if there are obstacles to cure we do not address, this may only provide symptom management. For example, if a client is allergic to dairy, we can give them astringents, anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory herbs and support their liver, but unless they remove the inflammatory agent, this herbal protocol must continue indefinitely. A truly holistic approach that includes nutritional support, sleep hygiene and exercise decreases the amount we must rely on plant medicine.

I would be remiss here if I did not address the supplement beloved by many holistic practitioners, including myself, fish oil. Fish oil is a remarkable anti-inflammatory and does much to correct the imbalances in the essential fatty acid ratio of contemporary diets. However, the level of harvesting needed to keep up with public demand as fish oil becomes an oft-prescribed supplement is devastating oceanic ecosystems. Shore birds in Northern waters where much of the “sustainably harvested” fish oil is procured are suffering an alarming drop in numbers due to human overfishing.  Yes, we would all be healthier if we took fish oil. Even if we limited the prescription of fish oil to those with chronic inflammation, that amount of use is unsustainable. Our health is tied to the health of our oceans. If we continue to recommend that most of our clients take fish oil, we will directly contribute to the extinction of many fish and shore birds alike.

Cliff Swallows gather mud to form nests under a concrete bridge. Photo by Walt Kent

A New Paradigm

The expansion of our notions of health from the individual to the global is essential for practicing ecologically minded herbalism in this age mass extinction. Dave Meesters and I expand on this concept in our essay Radical Vitalism, and in the interest of brevity, I will not fully explore it here. One element of this philosophy is the imperative we herbalists face as consciousness shifters. As healers who work with plant medicines, we are specially situated to support the reconnection of humans to the more-than-human world. The idea that our species is outside of Nature, rather than part of and dependent on the web of life, has led to our current crisis. In every way possible, we must work to shift human perspective to one that values all life, not just human life. Likewise, we can mend the rift between humanity and Nature by valuing humans as part of life, as opposed to only valuing non-human life. As herbalists, we can work to integrate humans back into the whole.

Hawthorn Berries

As awareness grows of the current extinction crisis, herbalists must prepare for the individual and collective grief we, our communities, and our clients experience. Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastaglia to refer to a feeling of homesickness for home that no longer exists. As climate change alters our surroundings, we experience loss. How can we address the loss of the familiar seasons of our childhoods? What happens to us as the plants and animals iconic to our homelands move North or disappear altogether? This direct loss, as well as the more abstract loss of species and habitat around the world, weighs heavily on those of who choose to bear witness to the cataclysm. As healers, we can be ready with our remedies for grief and with our protocols recommending time spent in all of Nature, in the wilds, in parks, in gardens and abandoned lots, that we might work to ease the suffering of the individual and the larger community of life.

Guilt, in our Judeo-Christian based culture, comes automatically to many of us as we contemplate the current crisis. It is easy, when considering the impact humans have made in the last 10,000 years, to conclude that our species is inherently destructive (another remnant of the religious underpinnings of our society). To decide that consciousness, or our ability to think abstractly, inevitably leads to domination and destruction is a teleological conclusion. In other words, we err in thinking that because events progressed this way, they must have progressed this way. Here, we see an unfortunate conflation of humans as a species with the cultures that dominate Earth and its inhabitants.  To decide that all humans can and will dominate if given the chance (as espoused by Jared Diamond and his acolytes), is to deny the diversity of human culture and experience. There have always been and always will be people and peoples who feel a connection to and responsibility towards all of life on Earth. To deride Homo sapiens as an inevitably violent species is to render these people invisible, an act that only benefits the forces of wealth accumulation through resource extraction. Rather than succumbing to guilt, it is time to fight. Well past time. One element of this fight is to work in solidarity with indigenous people on the front lines of the war over natural resources. Earlier this year, Berta Cacares and Nelson Garcia, two indigenous Honduran environmental activists, were murdered by mercenaries serving the developers attempting to build a dam that would devastate land inhabited by Indigenous folks and destroy countless species of flora and fauna. Their murders led to the divestment of the banks funding the project. They knew they were in danger—and as the project has stalled for now, they did not die in vain. However, activists should not have to become martyrs to draw attention to the destruction of a forest. These struggles may seem far off and irrelevant to our immediate lives, but their fight affects us all. As awareness grows of the interconnectedness of planetary life, we see that the health of distant ecosystems, be they rainforests, tundra or arctic climes, affects the health our own.

Locally, there is much we can do. We can work to preserve tracts of undeveloped, or less developed, land. We can fight development and sprawl. We can work to preserve corridors between fragmented ecosystems. In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein details many local efforts to address climate change, from municipal seizure of power supplies to the teaming up of indigenous folks and ranchers around the border of the U.S. and Canada to stop pipeline expansion. Chances are, there is an organized effort to decrease fossil fuel extraction near you (Klein, 2014).

Once again, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. There are so many fronts. There is so much to be done. This overwhelm contributes to the desire to write humans off as a species; it’s easier to see humanity as a failure, “the lost wager” as the Dadaists had it, than to work for change. Change is inevitable. What form that change takes is what’s at stake.

When overwhelmed by the immensity of the current catastrophe, it is helpful to pan out, to take a geologic perspective. Earth is over 4.5 billion years old. The period of intermittent glaciations that created the conditions conducive to the wide and varied speciation we now see began 2.5 million years ago. Homo sapiens evolved between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. Only 12,000 years ago, humans began to move widely around the globe, thus making a widespread impact on their environment. Around 5,000 ago, what we call civilization erupted in various places on Earth, leading to intensive anthropogenic affects. We have been here for such a brief window of geologic time. Many worlds existed on Earth before this human-dominated one. Many will exist after we are gone. But we must be careful where this awareness leads us. The perspective that allows us to see that we are but a cameo on the ecological stage allows the same inaction as does condemning our species as a hopeless case. To merely rely on Earth’s ability to heal is another form of complacency. We must hold two opposing truths. The dominant manifestation of human culture has been incredibly destructive to life on Earth and will continue to be so without revolutionary change. Each loss is tragic. Every day multiple species disappear. We must bear witness to what we have wrought. However, we should keep a geologic perspective in mind. Earth is ancient, with unfathomable ability to adapt and heal. Life on Earth moves in cycles. Species proliferate, then die off. Ecosystems emerge, shift and transform. Perhaps humans will epitomize our own Reckless Invader Hypothesis. We have excelled at reproduction but are ill-equipped for stress tolerance, as the growing numbers of chronic health problems attest. How can we hold these two truths, the reality of human caused devastation and the adaptive potential of Life? Immersion in Nature is essential for this dual contemplation. Grounding ourselves in the rhythms of the seasons, the changes of the moon, the cycles of migration, the successions of plant life, the miracle of gardening and in Nature’s power of adaptation imparts the wisdom of the impermanence and vitality of life.

In early spring of this year, my parents took me to see a patch of Skunk Cabbage growing in a hectic part of a college town not far from my hometown. Here, in between fast food franchises with their usual uninspired landscaping, was a stand of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) in bloom. In the midst of the commotion of traffic and commerce, surrounded by parking lots, these strange, beautiful plants found a place to live. Here and there, scattered throughout our sprawl of construction and pavement, life waits. When the time is right, it shows itself and reminds us what’s beneath the concrete. See it and remember the world as it was and as it will be.

Skunk Cabbage blooms amidst the sprawl.

Suggested Links

http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-Make-a-Seed-Bomb/

http://mountaingardensherbs.com/

http://sustainableherbsproject.com/

https://www.unitedplantsavers.org/species-at-risk

Bibliography

Anderson, M. Kat. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. Oakland: University of California Press, 2013.

Bane, Peter. The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country. Gabriola Island, BC:  New Society Publishers, 2012.

Davis, Mark. Invasion Biology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Giesecke, Annette and Naomi Jacobs, editors. The Good Gardener:  Nature, Humanity and the Garden. London: Artifice books on architecture, 2015.

Hollis, Joe. “Paradise Gardening,” in Avant Gardening, edited by Peter Lamborn Wilson and Bill Weinberg. New York: Autonomedia, 1999. Also at http://www.mountaingardensherbs.com.

Holmgren, David. Permaculture:   Principles and Pathway Beyond Sustainability. Hepburn, Victoria Australia: Holmgren Design Services, 2002.

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. New York: Bloomsbury, 2006.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History.  New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Marris, Emma. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Pearce, Fred. The New Wild: Why Invasive Species will be Nature’s Salvation. Boston: Beacon Press, 2015.

Quammen, David. The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions. New York: Touchstone, 1996.

Scott, Timothy Lee. Invasive Plant Medicine. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 2010.

Weintraub, Linda. “Gardening as Subversive Art,” in The Good Gardener: Nature Humanity and the Garden, edited by Annette Giesecke and Naomi Jacobs. London: Artifice books on architecture, 2015.

Wilson, Peter Lamborn and Bill Weinberg. Avant Gardening. New York: Autonomedia, 1999.

A version of this essay first appeared in the proceedings of The Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference in fall of 2016.

All photos by me unless other wise noted.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Herbalism in an Age of Mass Extinction, Part Two: Ecologically Minded Practice

  1. Wonderful writing! As a plant lover, and herbalist, I am worried for the plants of this land. Being of Native American ancestry , I like to connect to the land. One example of how humans damage the Earth is the American Chestnut tree. This land used to be filled with them, but due to poor planning and bringing alien trees here, the tree was just about gone, and still suffers. I hope humans will learn from their mistakes before it is too late.

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