This year I took up serious study of Traditional Western Herbalism as a student of the amazingly awesome Michigan herbalist Jim McDonald. I had dabbled in herbalism limited ways in the last few years when I took up foraging. But it wasn’t till this year that I really started to understand how the herbs work, how the body responds, and how energetic systems can aid us in the process of using herbs. I wanted to take some time today to express my growing interest in herbalism as an essential quality of my druid practice. I hope this post encourages others to also consider learning herbalism for their spiritual work, sustainable work, or both. It is highly rewarding, with direct, tangible benefits.
Druidry, Sustainability, and Herbalism: A Natural Relationship
I’ve been exploring the relationship of my druidic path to that of my herbal studies, and I’ve come up with a number of ways that they are highly compatible:
1. Speaking with the plants, seeking connection with the natural world on the physical and metaphysical levels. Since druidry is a deep path of nature spirituality, following the cycles of the seasons, listening the voices of the spirits of the land, it only makes sense that one kind of oak knowledge we would seek would be that of the plant kingdom. Herbalists speak in terms druids can understand and that aligns intimately with our tradition; when I open up herbals and I read about how we must listen to our “plant allies” and also work on an intuitive scale with the plants, I know that I’m reading something that can substantially deepen my practice and also improve my health.
2. One branch of druidry, that of Ovate studies, directly connects with plant knowledge, divination, and the healing arts. The realm of the Ovate within the druid tradition is often associated with plants, the natural sciences and healing with said plants (also, often, divination). I see all of these intersecting with the work of an herbalist–an herbalist must know the plants very well, must understand their lessons and their medicine. This means studying botany and ecology, being able to rightly identify herbs. But this also has an intuitive side to discern signs and accurately assess someone’s condition in order to select the correct herbs and doses to use. These kinds of intuitive practices can be enhanced by druidic practice, such as discursive meditation, observation of the natural world, and naturalistic studies in the bio-region where the druid resides. Likewise, the practice of herbalism directly enhances a druid’s understanding of the world…when I go out in a field or forest, I know the qualities of the herbs that can help heal. That’s a powerful tool, and one that the ancient druids certainly held. I honor my spiritual ancestors, and that ancient tradition, by learning the healing teachings of the plants as “oak knowledge” and “ovate knowledge.”
3. The roots of druidry and herbalism are quite similar and work from similar frameworks. Herbalism is a folk tradition, passed on, adapted and fluid. Herbalists’ making of knowledge involves a combination of research from aging tomes, material directly passed down through teachers (orally, in the case of my own course), engagement in the natural world. Each herbalist has her or his own unique approach, and yet herbalism is a framework in which all herbalists interact. As #2 describes, herbalists also rely heavily on intuition and inner teachers and plant allies. I find the epistemology of herbalism (that is, their ways of making knowledge and of knowing) extremely compatible with my druid path, where knowledge is constructed and practices are based in similar epistemologies. That is, as a druid I read old texts and learn about the ancient druids and the revival druids, enjoy the myths and writings of those who came before. I adapt these teachings and the basic frameworks to my own practice. I learn from others, from correspondence courses and direct teachers, inner and outer. I learn as much from nature as I do from anywhere else…..sound similar? I think so!
4. There is magic in plants, and herbalists and druids both know it. Herbalists have developed ways of reaching the magic of plants, ways that benefit druids to learn. Tincture practices, practices of drying, dosing plants, and the like, can lead not only to greater health benefit for the druid and his/her family, friends, and community, but it can also lead to deeper magical practice. I think studying the herbal healing arts gives us new and powerful ways of interacting with the plants, ways that maybe aren’t as accessible within the druidic traditions and training. Likewise, practices rooted in druidic work (such as Greer’s Celtic Golden Dawn system) use spagyrics (or plant alchemy) to create extremely potent medicinal/magical tinctures. Combining these two systems gives one a huge advantage in understanding the magic of plants on many levels. I have found that the more one knows the plants….the better for so many reasons.
5. Knowing about the plants and their benefit to humanity can help save our lands. This is perhaps the most pragmatic of the reasons, but in my mind, a critical one. Druids value the land and seek to protect it, to preserve it, to revere it–especially our wild and unsettled spaces. We can do that SO much more effectively if we can show others the value and benefit of plants within that landscape. There’s a huge difference to the argument “don’t cut those tall weeds down, they deserve to live” (which they do, of course) to something like this “Those tall ‘weeds’ you are thinking of cutting down are St. John’s Wort plants. They have substantial medicinal value to you, including as a topical antiseptic and wound healing herb, a mood uplifter, a gentle astringent good for the urinary system, not to mention a great herb for native pollinators. Those other ‘weeds’ over there you are thinking of pulling are milkweed. In addition to being critical for the endangered monarch butterfly, you can eat them at most of their growing stages–shoot, bud, and pod, and they are absolutely delicious.” You get the idea. The more you know, the more you can teach others, and the more they can then value the landscape around them. You’ve been seeing me use this approach with my blog–my post on dandelion, for example, encourages people to resee this plant as an incredibly useful herb, hopefully encouraging them not to dump weed killer on them or mow them all down before the bees have a chance to gather up pollen. And honestly, I have found this approach to be invaluable. On a recent research trip with some colleagues, I pointed out numerous useful plants, helped one person with itchy bug bites and encouraged some aromatic relaxants for an upset stomach….all from the surrounding landscape. Ideally, we want to shift to the point where life is valued for the sake of life, but arguments about nature’s benefits to humans is a good way to begin to cultivate such understandings.
6. Herbalism, especially locally-based herbalism, makes you pay attention to the seasons and observe/interact with the wild spaces in new and exciting ways. Since I’m determined to gather, dry, tincture, and make into oils and salves as many herbs as I will need to handle my own minor medicinal needs (outside of catastrophic illness/injury and regular check ups), I’ve been out each week, sometimes multiple times, gathering herbs. This makes me pay such close attention not only to the passing of the seasons but also where I gather. For example, I’ve been eagerly awaiting goldenrod blooms all summer because I really need their medicine. But I have to be careful where I gather, because I want my herbs to be clean, energetically excellent, free of chemicals or toxins, etc. I have found myself, since becoming an herbalist, seeing the landscape in ways I never did before.
7. Herbalism can be an earth-centered and sustainable practice. The more I learn about the modern pharmaceutical industry, the more convinced I am that many modern pharmaceuticals are not only unnecessary and overprescribed, but also unsustainable to our lands, with destructive outcomes for our waterways and the health of all beings on this planet. The environmental impact is staggering–a quick google search will reveal studies on the ecological effects of antibiotic overuse, the detection of pharmaceuticals in the soil, the amount of drugs going into the waterways, the list goes on. The more that we can take care of our own needs, become resilient within our local communities and our own lives, the less strain we put on the planet as a whole and the less “consumer demand” we generate for destructive manufacturing practices and unnecessary products. And the less funds go to companies who might do various kinds of evil with those funds. If I have a bad cold and choose to stay home and treat that cold with herbs that I’ve gathered and grown throughout the year, that’s a heck of a lot more sustainable than driving out to the store and buying plastic bottles full of manufactured medicine that likely come with side effects. This is especially true if the herbs are safer and better for me. Using herbs in the place of over-the-counter drugs, like most sustainable practice, requires more work and knowledge, but I fail to see how that’s a bad thing.
8. Herbalism as an empowering practice. When I began practicing druidry eight years ago, I found the practices and study courses to be incredibly empowering. I had taken my spiritual practice into my own hands, it required my own interpretation and a dedication of my time in ways that spiritual practices of earlier times in my life had not. I had to seek it out for myself, empower myself to learn and grow, and dedicate myself to the practice of it daily. Herbalism is much the same thing. It is an extremely empowering practice, and one that has positively altered my life much in the same vein that druidry did eight years ago. Going out and gathering my herbs, knowing how to treat myself when I get a minor illness, and being able to do it all with what is growing around me–that’s amazingly empowering!
Studying herbs and Druid Orders: I also want to mention that while some druid orders include healing material as an integral part of their training programs (usually as part of ovate studies) others cannot due to laws on discussing and teaching any kind of healing material in the US. This means that taking up herbalism as a personal healing practice may or may not be part of the work you can do in an official capacity in an order’s study program, but that isn’t to say that you can’t learn this and integrate it into your druidic path on your own.
In my next post, I’m going to describe ways to begin to be an herbalist, so stay tuned!