The experience of herbs wasn’t something I was taught, but this may spark an interest in those of you who may feel bogged down by theory and rhetoric. This is the consideration for an experience of herbs and the natural world, and also for the utilitarian experience, which is common.
What is the experience of some herbalists today? A decision is made on a needed herb because of the medicine it contains and the subsequent action to find the herb, or it is bought from a store or distributor. This is the utilitarian approach, which is useful, because when an herbalist seeks an herb, it’s in his best interest to know what it is he is after, and he’d better know why if he’s a good herbalist! But how many times have I found myself, being agitated and in a rush, marching into the forest with my collection basket, armed with my pruners, and a thought only to “when can I be done with this whole business of taking the special time to wildcraft a high quality plant, make it into high quality medicine, only to have a client turn up their nose in disgust at ‘this thing that may not work'”?
Being able to use herbs was not the reason why I became an herbalist, although the draw is strong. I, like so many others who harbor a secret garden of natural passion, first fell in love with God’s natural world by observation. Laying in the dewy morning grass, watching many and small brilliant suns in tiny water droplets shiver, and gazing into the ever burgeoning roil of clouds, embodied inside me a kind of relationship which isn’t fostered through book learning.
As an example, it’s the difference between standing next to a tree, and knowing the use of a tree (such as a book from which you learn about trees). We don’t teach children the love of trees by showing them a book, or a wooden dresser. We take them into the woods, play hide and seek, feel the rough bark, and drink in the sharp beauty of fiery fall leaves.
It is the same with herbalism. When we approach herbs as ‘this herb for this ailment’, or even more holistically, such as ‘this set of herbs for this imbalanced pattern’, we reduce herbs to a set of this for that rules. Such as: Valerian is for anxiety and sleep. However, we know that Valerian has a post-digestive heating affect, and will actually aggravate an insomnia/anxiety disorder of a heated nature; therefore, it follows Passionflower would be the remedy, because it is more cooling.
There is nothing wrong with this approach, indeed it is the ethical job of an herbalist to know the many variant qualities, uses, forms, and applications of each herb as its parts. But we still need to traverse in the world of nature from the eyes of a child, and do I dare say, to simply enjoy.
I want to use the metaphor my friend and classical teacher Jennifer Dow once used: friendship. When we enter into a friendship with someone, we don’t approach them by dissection, wondering how we can use them (I hope!). Instead we observe, ask questions, find common ground. There are many levels of friendship. As your relationship deepens, at some point you share very personal information, begin experiencing activities together, sharing secrets, hopes, and dreams. Generally, you do not read their biography, or personal diary beforehand. You learn through experience.
I recently began nature journaling, Charlotte Mason style. I sit in nature, and just observe. What do I notice? Where does a plant choose to live? A Blue Vervain might like to live near water, which might give me a clue to what it likes, what it doesn’t, and perhaps it might help me understand one day what energetic effects it has (drying, cooling by the way).
This humility of entering into a type of relationship with God’s nature helps to heal our own misguided belief that plants are underfoot for the sole purpose of their benefit to us. We’re put into His world to be stewards, and a good steward cares for and tends to, and does not brazenly only take to use. We need to be reminded that we dissect to know its parts, only as it relates to the whole and helps us understand the whole. A tree is much more than its use as pulp for pages. It’s a vital, breathing, live thing of the Earth. The created world is an expression of God and refers back to Him. Let us again look to His created life as a work of His art, and appreciate it.
I hope that I have inspired in you an urge to go out and ‘meet’ the plants you use. See them in their home, before you take them into yours. Go and experience, and be all the richer without expectation.