Herbalists who put people and plants first by Don Ollsin
The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions. – George Orwell
My first herb walk was with a four-year-old on a farm in California. He led my wife and me on a walk and showed us about 20 plants. Because this child lived with these plants, he knew them intimately; this is the way it was traditionally.
I like the traditional idea of village and folk herbalists. A community herbalist uses more of a folk approach, which means a more heartfelt approach and a focus on the inter-connection between the plants, the person and the environment. A community herbalist is primarily interested in the people, the plants, the gardens and the animals. This speaks of a healing path with heart.
Allopathic medicine attempts to copy nature, trying to figure out which chemicals are in which plants and then copying them and creating a patent. A top CEO of one of the six major pharmaceutical companies earns $250,000,000 a year. That’s fine. It’s a body of knowledge and it’s useful, but it’s a little too economically focused. Community herbalists look more at the energetics of herbs – whether they’re heating you or cooling you down, whether they’re drying you out or providing moisture. At one time, community healers would visit people in their homes. In my practice, I’ve found that if I go to somebody’s home, it’s a whole different story than if they come to my office.
Community oriented healing is primarily focused on the spiritual and emotional needs of the person or community. Traditionally, the village herbalist was the shaman, someone in tune not only with the plants and body, but also with the spirits or energies of the bodies, places and plants. Their healing practices involved much more than the traditional, allopathic “treat the symptom” approach. It could be that they held someone while they wept, and they might give the person Bach flower remedies for their emotions. My philosophy of healing has always been to “treat the person, not the disease.”
Community herbalists are deeply immersed in the plant community. They know which plants can help and which ones are to be avoided. They know the basic needs of the body and the things that commonly go wrong with the body, especially in the communities in which they live. I see people growing the herbs they need to stay healthy and happy. I see community gardens where communities can collect the herbs they need. In Fernwood where I live, we have such a garden; it has stinging nettle and milk thistle, plants not normally found in community gardens. Both, however, can be used as food and are powerful healers.
In the Pacific Northwest we have a tendency toward coughs and colds throughout the winter. A community herbalist would be aware of which plants to grow and use for various common conditions. They would advise people how to use them safely and make them aware of any contraindications so that a pregnant woman, for example, wouldn’t take something that might jeopardize her pregnancy. They would encourage people to take herbal baths and use herbal poultices. If you look at many of the traditional systems, such as Ayurveda, there’s a good deal of hands-on work. I think our bodies are hungry for more physical contact with the plants and the earth. It feels wonderful to soak your tired feet in a basin of hot water that has a bouquet of herbs in it. It’s much more satisfying than merely swallowing a pill.
The idea of paradigms – the way we perceive something – is also very important. Many of the traditional methods, which I consider as community herbalism, work on an energetic model more than a chemical model of medicine. It involves practitioners being trained to work in their villages and the areas in which they live, on how to gather and use the local plants.
My vision for community herbalists is that we would have herb specialists, well trained in and connected to the plants that can be grown in their communities. I like the image of barefoot doctors, rather than white-coat clad doctors, walking in the community with the knowledge and skills to help people. They could visit you in your home or they could meet you at the coffee shop or in the park. They can listen to you and offer sound advice. It is not expected that they can solve every health problem you have, but in my experience, sometimes just listening to somebody is often a great help. Tools such as Bach flower remedies or simple herbal remedies for relaxation can complement any other therapy someone is undergoing, whether or not it’s medical. Everyone needs a healer, someone to support them. Community herbalists also work in the retail setting. Many people visit retail stores seeking help for a cough or a cold. Much healing is done over the counter. My vision for community herbalists is to give them a sense of power and place within our communities.
I also believe that the practice of community herbalism will carry on from the tradition of the elders I’ve studied with: Norma Meyers, a Mohawk medicine woman who has passed over to the other side; Dr. John Christopher, the herbalist who turned so many of us on to herbs in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. (The American Herbalists Guild is full of herbalists who originally studied with Dr. John Christopher.); Ellen White, a Coast Salish native elder from the Nanaimo band and one of my teachers. She celebrates her 86th birthday on September 13. The idea is to keep that tradition and knowledge alive. The native tradition was much more in keeping with the practice of a community herbalist. The people knew the plants intimately. They knew the spirits. They knew the energies. They knew the songs. They knew the ceremonies. My vision is to bring those aspects back into healing.
We no longer have ceremonies. Everyone goes through changes, but we have nothing to offer people to mark their changes and accomplishments. We have no rites of passage. My wife and I have done very powerful rites of passage work with young people and I have done ceremonies for people who have had major losses or upsets. I am also working with Royal Roads University and First Nations elders throughout BC on non-timber forest products, and we’ve established protection for medicinal plants in logging contracts. Again, that’s the idea of a community herbalist. It’s not just about the herbs in a clinical practice; it’s also about the herbs in your back yard and the herbs in the forests. It’s about the herbs in the community.
I also see education as a huge part of being a community herbalist – taking people from the community on herb walks, visiting people’s gardens and advising them which plants to grow for their health. Hopefully, community herbalists will be able to establish herb gardens in schools so kids can learn from an early age. In England, people can enrol in a four-year herbal program at a university, after which they receive a Bachelor of Science. I envision that being available in BC in the very near future.
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