Welcoming in another new year often involves reflecting on the past and considering where we would like to go in the coming year. This post reveals those reflections and illuminates the background for the endeavors I am planning for 2016. This is a story of what herbalism means to me, why I love the wilds around me, and what shapes my underlying approach to herbal practice. I hope you will join me on an herbal journey to the Crossroads of the Southwest….
The practice of herbalism has a certain familiarity about it. That is to say, it follows a universal pattern that repeats itself infinitely within our selves, in the wider world, and beyond. The pattern is like so many common things: the vascular system within our own bodies, tree branches spreading out toward the sky, or a river system carving its way into the earth. Depending on your perspective, you might say it starts out small, something that flows within yourself. I noticed it one day when I was out wild crafting Chaparral (Larrea tridentata) in the desert south of Albuquerque. Standing in the open plain along the Rio Grande, I could see the mesa top across the river that holds the obscured remains of an ancient Piro Pueblo village and their many astounding rock paintings and petroglyphs that still burst forth with hidden vitality. At once I feel connected to all people in my search for wild medicine. Then I realize the strongest energy is right in front of me, all around me, as far as the eye can see: nothing but Chaparral. This plant is so tenacious, so resilient, so persistent, and even more ancient than the Piro people. Many Chaparral plants live to be thousands of years old, surviving in the harshest of environments, overtaking everything including the most rugged of companions, Mesquite. The pungent odor of this plant on a hot desert afternoon penetrates me all the way down into the branching bronchial pathways of my lungs, filling me with awareness of that same infinitely repeating pattern that connects all living things throughout time and space. I am brought into balance by my time with Chaparral and go home feeling centered and content.
From there, the practice of herbalism continues along this familiar life pattern by widening out to others, like the branches of a tree. I noticed this part of the pattern one day when I was teaching an herb class. I always show lots of photos of plants during classes to help people connect with them as living beings and get a better feel for their individual personalities. The photos are always ones I have taken myself of beloved plants from my garden or wild beauties that I encountered on a walk. I showed my class a scene from my garden that included a colorful array of blooming red Poppies (Papaver spp.), purple Bee Balm (Monarda menthafolia), yellow and white Chamomile (Matricaria recutita), and bright orange California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica). At once I could see that all of the students in the room were affected by it. Simultaneous smiles spread across their faces and any rigidity or tension held in their postures seemed to soften away. The feeling in the room changed as the healing energy of those plants penetrated everyone. The gift of restoration came from simply seeing a photo of medicinal plants, some of which were no longer even alive, and this time a whole room of people felt it.
As momentum builds, the pattern continues spreading and the roots of folk herbalism deepen throughout the community. When people find something that makes them feel good, they talk about it and share it with others. Creating relationships with plants and learning how to take charge of your own base health is empowering. This results in an increasingly energized and vitalized community. It contributes to a foundation of creativity, productivity, contentedness, and a greater sense of well being on a larger scale. As I walk with my children through the mountain wilderness and desert canyons, I see the seeds sprouting and growing, the pattern expanding even more. Their awareness of plant beings and their knowledge about plant medicine is something they will carry with them into the future and wherever they go in life. The respect that they show for plants assures me that the patterns inherent in the practice of herbalism connect us both back to the source and onward into infinity.
Knowing the Plants:
At the center of any herbalism practice are the living plants themselves. They are the source from which the knowledge, the medicine, and the restorative effects all flow. My herbal practice is, therefore, based on the plants that grow around me, here in New Mexico. I live in the geographic center of three distinct physiographic provinces: The Rocky Mountains, The Great Plains, and The Desert Basin and Range. Of course the wondrous Colorado Plateau and all the other western regions beyond are only a road trip away. As an herbalist, I am fortunate to live in a place where I have easy access to a wide range of botanical wilderness from desert canyon to mountain slope and a long sunny growing season, in which to grow many medical herbs right in my own backyard garden. It is these plants of the American West, both wild and easily cultivated, that make up the heart of my herbalism practice and they are the focus of my work.
Stepping into the high desert mountain ranges to the east of Albuquerque, you will find changing ecosystems as the elevation rises from the desert plain to over 10,000 feet. These varied environments are home to a long list of wild medicinal plants including one of my favorites, Bee Balm (Monarda menthafolia). This plant has a striking purple flower with purple and green striped sepals, unlike any other. When I see a patch in full bloom, covered in butterflies, I am reminded of the continuing cycle of life and the critical role that plants play in the world. I feel energized seeing one of life’s most beautiful expressions of the interconnection between all things. Continuing on along the mountain trail, I enter the rich mixed conifer stands that are fortified by the Usnea (Usnea barbata) that hangs from assorted tree branches all around me. There is a certain comfort, like that of a thick warm blanket, that comes from walking through this medicine-rich forest and then I find a physical representation of this feeling: an Usnea birds’ nest. The birds that grew up in this home were given extra protection by the mother who knew to build her nest out of the soft, comforting, antimicrobial power of Usnea. Before long, the trail brings me into a mountain meadow with a large stand of mature Gentian (Frasera speciosa). The monumental beauty of these enormous plants is impressive on its own and I feel as though I have entered a gathering of elders standing in the clearing. On and on the path goes, winding in and out of intermixed plant communities, I visit with Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Figwort (Scrophularia lanceolata), Potentilla (Potentilla spp.), and many others before I return to the valley below.
These reminders about our interrelation with other living beings and the rewarding sense of peacefulness that emanates from it can be found in all the other bioregions of the West as well. Even the rockiest, seemingly barren, landscapes hold their own secret gifts. In fact, it is in these places, where the wild nature of life is most striking and impressive. Exploring the dry rocky desert on foot gives me the opportunity to see surprises that open my mind to all the possibilities that exist. Fish swimming in isolated desert springs, wild fruiting grape vines, flowering Grindelia (Grindelia squarrosa), and even lovely Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica) can flourish in this unlikely place. In my state of wonder, I notice that there is a row of ancient grinding holes created in the exposed bedrock by many generations of people coming to this sacred space to grind up plant food and medicine. I feel honored to have been drawn into such a rugged and powerful place to experience that which connects me to all living beings, past, present, and future.
Embracing a Way of Life:
This sort of experience with wild medicine plants is a quest that humans have pursued for millennia as a way of sustaining both the body and the spirit. In ancient times, forging relationships with plants was vital and making plant medicine was common knowledge. It was a way of life that made sense on both a practical and spiritual level. Stepping out into the desert on the edge of town, I discover abundant reminders of the prehistoric and historic connections that people have made with plants in their surrounding landscape. Arrowheads, petroglyphs, and other remains tell us that many different people have been walking the land: Archaic hunter and gather societies, Pueblo People, Hispanics, Anglos, to name a few. Check dams for channeling rainwater, terrace gardens built into rocky slopes, and plant petroglyphs of Corn and Yucca, tell me about the Pueblo Peoples’ connection to both wild and cultivated plants. The numerous grinding slicks, deeply and smoothly worn into rugged basalt, invoke the imagination. What might it have been like to sit here looking at that mountain across the river, grinding Corn (Zea spp.), Salt Bush (Atriplex canescens), or Spectacle Pod (Dimorphocarpa wislizeni) perhaps? Then I stumble upon a set of concentric circle petroglyphs that, from my perspective, line up exactly with Bosque Peak across the Rio Grande Valley. With my feet on the earth and my spirit in the heart of the circles, I am at once both on the mesa and also on the mountain peak. I am reminded of the bond that people share with the landscape and the interconnection of all things, no matter how distant.
Added onto this cultural layer is that of the Hispanic and Anglo settlers that entered the scene more recently. Early Hispanic immigrants brought with them their own plant medicines, but also incorporated the longstanding traditions of the Pueblo People in to their practice of herbalism. Medicinal plants including many of the aromatic kitchen herbs as well as Lavender (Lavandula spp.), Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), Anise (Pimpinella anisum), Borage (Borago officinalis), and Chamomile (Matricaria recutita), came with this new plant medicine tradition. Yucca (Yucca spp.), Snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae), Cota (Thelesperma gracile), Osha (Ligusticum porteri), Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp.), and many other plants have held a continued place of importance throughout both the Pueblo and Hispanic herbal traditions. Anglo migrants coming across the continent via wagon trails, stagecoach routes, and railway also brought their own herbal products as a staple of their healthcare practices. These included Castor oil, Camphor and Cayenne liniments, Senna and Clove syrup, and above all else Essence of Peppermint.
More recently, however, much of this everyday understanding of the natural world has died away in favor of modern medicines created by scientists in a laboratory. While this type of medicine has an important role to play in a variety of health situations, there is an obvious downside. Modern medicine often comes with unwanted side effects, a high environmental and economic cost, as well as a sense of disempowerment for many people. While unbalanced medicine made from isolated plant constituents remedies one problem, it often creates new ones in other areas of the body. The development of pharmaceuticals involves the production of chemicals, creates environmental contaminants, uses animal testing, and other practices of questionable ethics. Many visits with medical providers leave people feeling as though they don’t understand their own bodies and have no control over their own healthcare. For many of us, a return to the lost connection with plants is the remedy that we are seeking.
We are now bringing back this way of life by growing and harvesting our own plants and making our own herbal remedies at home. Through our herbal practice, we are communing with our heritage, connecting with our wild landscapes, and empowering ourselves to take charge of our own physical and spiritual wellbeing. Here in the Southwest, that means working with the herbs used by our ancestors and given to us by the mountains, deserts, and river valleys: Cayenne (Capsicum annuum), Figwort, Bee Balm, Globemallow (Sphaeralcea angustifolia and S. coccinea), Prickly Pear, Mullein, Usnea, Chaparral, and Yerba Mansa to name just a few. In most cases, the urban weeds, the commonest of wild plants, and our garden herbs are all that we need for a healthy way of life. Obtaining herbs locally also provides us with the freshest ingredients that are full of color, aroma, and vitality thereby making stronger medicine that is customized for ourselves and imbibed with our intention. The plants from our mesas, canyons, meadows, riverbanks, parks, roadsides, and backyards are the plants that are offering themselves to us. In my experience, they will be most effective because we can develop a relationship with them as living beings and receive the true gift of herbs. That is the strength, beauty, and unconditional support that come through friendship.
The practice of herbalism, no matter where you live, is part of something much bigger than any words can describe. Of course it is a practical means of nourishing and healing ourselves and it also gives new meaning to our hobbies of hiking and gardening. However, the benefits of working with plants are more profound than that and can only be discovered through our personal plant journeys. Our herbal practice invites us to look more deeply into ourselves, bonds us more closely with our loved ones, and connects us with the larger community. It also unites us with the past, makes us mindful of the present, and gives us hope for the future.
This essay was originally published as: Saville, Dara. (2014). Practicing Herbalism in the Crossroads of the Southwest. Plant Healer Quarterly, 4(2), 182-188.