by Dave Meesters
We are living at an exciting time of rising energy and opportunity for herbalism in the United States. More and more people are refusing the insatiable march of technological “progress” in favor of getting closer to nature and rediscovering or reviving ancestral healing practices. Now there are so many who answer the call of the plants, the call to a holistic way of living, to meaningful connection and interdependence with the more-than-human world, to the healing that comes from rekindling relationship with the web of life.
It’s a rewarding time to be on the path. So much is being discovered, rediscovered, and shared. With this many people experimenting, practicing, and sharing, our collective knowledge and capabilities are growing exponentially, too fast for anyone to track.
What is the full potential of this moment? How can we channel all this energy into the service of the greatest good?
We can start by understanding where we stand. It’s easy for people who are caught up in the excitement of the herbal resurgence to forget that this society allows very little room for holistic herbalism to take part in it. The rules that forced herbalists out of official medicine 100 years ago are still fully in effect—nothing has changed. And we know this, despite our desire to wish another reality into being. We know that the holistic paradigm is not taught in med schools. That herbs are viewed with suspicion there. That unlicensed herbalists seldom get referrals from licensed practitioners, aren’t covered by insurance or Medicaid, and generally keep a low profile so as not to intrude on the licensed modalities that have the law on their side. How many examples do we have of herbalists who support themselves solely through clinical practice, the way that most other practitioners do? Very few.
In commerce, the FDA’s Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) hang over our heads, threatening to shut down all but the biggest corporate providers of herbal products. So far the FDA has made examples out of a handful of medium-sized companies and spared the small-time producers, but the rules are in place to punish many more of us should they choose to do so. Even practitioners dispensing herbs to clients could face scrutiny under the current GMPs.
In every arena where herbalism tries to engage with the world as it is, we find ourselves in a marginalized, threatened position. No matter how much our field is growing and thriving, everywhere we encounter barriers that are designed to keep us out.
If contemplating this reality makes you angry, good. That anger is important, and should be harnessed. But also, there is a place beyond that anger, beyond the walls of exclusion, where the open meadows of possibility lie. To get there, we start by asking ourselves: would the herbal resurgence that I described above, with all of its beautiful experimentation, creativity, and cross-pollination, be possible in a society where herbalism was a licensed and regulated modality? What if herb schools had to comply with “good practices” mandated from above in order to be accredited? What if the value of herbs was recognized but they were prescribed by allopathic doctors? What about the example of a licensed holistic modality like Chinese medicine, where soaring education costs (made possible because official recognition allows students to qualify for loans) drive graduates to maximize their profits? Do these embody the proper conditions for a vibrant grassroots movement? Friends who are from, or have traveled in, other countries in the developed world tell me that the US has the most vital, innovative, and engaged herbal networks of anywhere they’ve been. Is it a coincidence that it’s also the country that pushes herbalism furthest to the margins?
I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not in the nature of herbalism to be “official” medicine, at least not under the current order of things, and that generally the closer we get to conventional medicine and to the capitalist marketplace, the less power herbalism has to deliver its unique gifts.
I see this even in the places where herbalism has overcome the obstacles and managed to establish a presence for itself. Take Instagram, for instance. Herbalism is amazingly photogenic and shows up well on social media. It’s a great way to share the joy of working with plants, to connect with other herbalists, and to inspire and educate. Herbalists can also generate income by using Instagram as a marketing tool, keeping overhead low and connecting with customers who could be anywhere. However, some of the most successful Instagram-driven product lines uncomfortably replicate the tropes of commercial advertising, using occult glamour to associate their products with all sorts of intangibles like magic, beauty, wholeness, connection, hipster cool, even sex, and at prices unlikely to appeal to the working class. This is a sticky proposition, to sell a fleeting image of connection to those who suffer digital isolation and disconnection from nature. To sell a vicarious experience of magic to those whose lives lack magic yet yearn for it. There is something sad about seeing an herbal preparation subjected to the same scarcity-based marketing as is used in the fashion industry, while plants are everywhere and herbalism is the ultimate DIY healing modality. This is a very different realm of commerce from that of the herbalist who shows up at the farmer’s market every week to sell that bug-bite salve or cramp remedy that the town has come to rely on.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t begrudge anyone their hustle. A person has to find a way to make a living, and the need to earn money compromises us all. My point here is that, just like the full potential of increasing environmental awareness is not exemplified by recycled toilet paper, herbal products in the marketplace do not reflect the full potential and character of the herbal resurgence.
Herbalism’s promise lies elsewhere. Because herbalism is more than a career, more than a hobby, more even than a choice among many for health care. Herbalism is a practice. It is a way in the world, and a force, a force with its own needs, desires, and potentials.
And how does this force behave? Denied an invitation to climb the ladder of respectability and success in this culture without compromising its values, herbalism instead makes connections “on the ground.” After all, the herbalist’s defining act is to find a plant that is growing nearby and offer its medicine to your friend or neighbor. Our greatest lessons are about connections and interdependence: the holistic relationships within the human body and between the body & its world, the ecological relationships between plants, animals, and humans in the landscape, and partnering with plants to improve health & vitality for all.
Lessons of interdependence extend right into human communities. Witness how people naturally form relationships of interdependence when we come together. Individuals gravitate toward their strengths, and are relied upon by the group for what they are especially competent at, in networks of relations characterized by mutual aid and resilience, where the whole is notably greater than the sum of the parts. The herbalist/healer has a special role to play in community, not only for their plant knowledge and healing abilities, but also as a specialist in the holistic knowledge of interdependence. A holistic herbalist is deeply, necessarily attuned to the dynamics of interdependence, which are vast and exist at every scale possible, because holistic healing relies upon it.
The greater work of the herbalist is to maximize the proliferation of horizontal connections which is the hallmark of vitality: connecting plants with people, people back to the plants, communities with their ecologies, and fostering the growth of vibrant, vital, interconnected and resilient human communities.
Seen through this lens, we can even see the hostility that the dominant system expresses towards herbalism as a gift, a gift of clarity, encouraging us to be true to our holistic vision, true to what we’ve learned, and to what we teach. The structures that prevent us from “rising” in the world also keep us close to our roots.
Those roots go deep, but they also spread, rhizomatically, like bamboo, like tenacious blackberry they spread. And everywhere that herbalism arrives in this way, it generates new connections, creates a niche for itself in the human ecology it finds there. And remember, herbalism has more to contribute than relief from bodily ills. As Renée Davis notes in her article “Spearheading Culture Change with Plant Traditions,” “The network of symbiotic relationships and connections between humans and other life forms orients us in our habitat and the cosmos.” Herbalists are living practical examples of symbiotic relationship between humans and other life. Our presence facilitates reawakening and reorientation. Davis goes on to observe that revitalizing herbal traditions spurs change by “broadening perception of place; inspiring self, family, and community care; orienting our selves as humans in time and habitat.” The presence of herbal traditions in the cultural landscape goes beyond “ordinary” healing to actually mend the fractured connections between humans, nature, and the cosmos.
Uplifting Community Herbalism
Our most important work goes under the banner of “community herbalism.” In the herb world, the community herbalist is usually thought of as the lesser counterpart to the clinical herbalist—an herbalist with less training or experience, who has not made a profession out of doing consultations. Paul Bergner and others have pushed back against this characterization, pointing out that so-called community herbalists are often in a position to facilitate health for more people, and therefore gather more useful information than clinical herbalists.
Whether we take money or not, whether we have an office or not, community herbalists serve a community, often more than one, actually, and therefore most faithfully continue the traditional role of the herbalist in culture. I can still remember being struck by the realization that it is the actual birthright of every human who has ever lived to either be or to know at least one herbalist who they can turn to for health advice, healing, and medicine. Everyone should know an herbalist. Period. No exceptions. It is our job to make this historical tradition a lived reality once again.
At the very least community herbalists can help people avoid needing to access the overpriced and often dangerous medical system by helping them address problems before those problems become urgent. A community that is served by an herbalist is thus healthier, more autonomous, and more resilient in the face of big-picture structural shifts in the nature and accessibility of conventional medical care. Working, paying, and stressing to have access to conventional care becomes less urgent if primary care is provided by an herbalist accessible in one’s community.
The community herbalist also serves the community by making people more aware of the plant life around them, the ecological connections and healing powers of the herbs and trees that grow in their yards, gardens, vacant lots and nearby woods, and more aware of the connection between their internal health and the state of all their relationships: to their family, their community, their environment, their food, etc. Herbalists inspire holistic and vitalist awareness.
Taking on the role of community herbalist should be the minimum requirement for a practicing herbalist who wants to contribute to the mission of holistic healing on Earth. If you’re an herbalist and you don’t feel like you belong to any community, find one! Herbalism is all about relationship. We serve by being in relationship with the plants on one side, and people on the other, weaving those strands with our two hands.
Going Where We’re Needed
Another situation that the rhizomatic runners of grassroots herbalism can extend is to where communities have been struck by so-called natural disaster or some other disruptive tragedy. In New Orleans in the months after Hurricane Katrina, I worked with the Common Ground collective in makeshift clinics that offered care to returning residents and aid workers when there was little conventional care to be had. As an herbalist I helped many people deal with the stress, the grief, the mold exposure and respiratory infections that came along with returning to flood-damaged homes. This kind of care would not have been well-addressed by conventional medicine even if it had been available, but it falls perfectly into an herbalist’s scope of practice. The responsiveness and contributions of herbalists after that disaster were highly valued by the community, so much so that herbalists were incorporated into the permanent community health clinic that evolved out of the disaster relief, and herbalists practiced there, alongside conventional practitioners, for years.
This is the inverse of Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine,” where capitalism and the state make use of disaster and disruption to consolidate their power while dismantling community services. Herbalists can enter the vacuum caused by the temporary lack of medical care to help people be healthy and resilient, and remind folks (if they need reminding) that there is another approach to the body, another way of taking care. One thing I have also noticed is that when herbalists work alongside licensed practitioners in marginal situations—disaster areas, underserved communities, festivals—herbalists are treated with more respect and openness than in the core of the mainstream medical system, and productive symbioses can emerge.
As urgent needs have multiplied while aid from government and NGOs has retreated, herbalists are now regularly involved in DIY mutual aid. Examples including the Orlando Grief Care Project in the wake of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub, herbalists on the ground in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence, and the herbalist who delivered crowdsourced herbal care to Central American migrants stranded in Tijuana all show that as herbalism grows in this country, herbalists are alert for where herbs can be helpful, fostering community care and holistic vitality when it is needed most.
Anywhere the system has forsaken people herbalism can have a meaningful impact. When herbalists operate a free clinic at the local homeless shelter, or work at the drop-in foot care clinic, resolving immediate health challenges is only the most obvious benefit. Because when these efforts are at their best, they are not acts of charity but of solidarity. The herbalists create community with the people being served, in the spirit of all-in-this-together, caring for each other and becoming strong, resilient, and autonomous against the oppressive forces that exploit us and make life hard.
The work of herbalists everywhere should be to make people less dependent on the exploitative, rigged system that rations out resources, benefits, and survival itself according to an inhuman calculus. It’s about returning the tools of healing and vitality to the people, to a practice that is within our reach, that we can access anywhere. Isn’t this why you wanted to be an herbalist? The more we can free ourselves from dependence on the rigged system, the more mutual aid and holistic interdependencies we can manifest, the more vitality and strength will awaken in ourselves and our communities. We could begin to consider a life free from the rigged system, and access the strength and solidarity we would need to effect such a major transformation.
Which is why another part of the mission should be to support the work of those who are standing up to the rigged system or working hard to create alternatives. Herbalists who act as street medics at protests, who care for activist communities, or who support direct actions like the Indigenous-led pipeline blockade at Standing Rock are helping to make space for the insurgent growth of a world that is held together by self-reliance and mutual aid, horizontal interdependence instead of vertical, hierarchical parasitism. It is simply the application of our holistic ecological training at the scale of the whole society.
I believe that it is by developing this three-pronged approach—practicing & extending community herbalism, responding to unmet needs (both urgent and ongoing), and growing networks of resistance—that the herbal revival we are experiencing is fulfilling its promise. We must create the world that herbalism will thrive within.
Once again, this is a basic holistic approach. Herbalists are specifically trained to use plant medicines to heal the human body and mind, but our holistic training can and should carry over to everything we undertake. Just like healthy food, adequate rest, good digestion, and inflammation-control prevent the onset of chronic disease or help a body overcome it; just like diverse, healthy, well-resourced interconnected gardens can better resist insect pests and episodes of disturbance; stronger, healthier, more vital and self-reliant communities are better able to navigate the “shocks and slides” of an increasingly unstable world, and better able to resist the impositions of parasitic capitalism and the state. The work of embedded herbalists can be a humble but important contribution to building that strength and vitality.
I hope it is clear that what I’m talking about here is not herbalism paired with social justice, though I have no objection to that pairing. And I’m definitely not talking about donating a percentage of our sales to a worthy cause. I’m talking about practicing an herbalism that embodies, by the actual forms it takes in the world, the fullest expression of herbalism’s holistic DNA. Herbalism belongs in, nurtures and creates a world that is dense with supportive interconnections, with symbiotic interdependencies, where health is realized through relationship. Where the holistic nature of the body is recognized, where humans’ relationship with the non-human is carefully tended, where care itself becomes a universal practice. Herbalism is by its very nature “relational, adaptive, fractal, interdependent, decentralized, transformative,” the exact properties that author and activist adrienne maree brown identifies, in her book Emergent Strategy, as the most conducive for shaping social change. To really go deep and align ourselves with the core wisdom and practices of herbalism is to be on this transformative path. It’s not a choice, really. It’s what herbalism is.
And how are we supposed to make a living while we birth the new world, you ask? Well, you do what you gotta do. I would only offer the observation that, if you serve a community, and the people of that community have come to appreciate and rely on your services, then they will be unlikely to let you starve. The herbalists in New Orleans after Katrina were provided for. The healers at Standing Rock were a valued and important aspect of that encampment. And in my own Appalachian rural neighborhood, where I have come as a blundering transplant from the nearby city into the company of these families that have survived on this rocky ground for generations, I’ve never charged my neighbors for the herbal medicine I’ve given them over the years. It’s always seemed like the least I could do for the welcome and assistance that they’ve given us. In this way we attempt to weave ourselves into the webs of reciprocity and mutual aid that have always kept communities alive throughout time. And in our world of ever-increasing instability and uncertainty, those webs could mean more than all the money in the bank.