Herbalism is a gift from the Great Mother, her promise to provide us with a medicine for every ailment. The Great Mother, our beloved earth, is filled with an abundance of gifts given freely to humanity for us to survive and thrive. Our very existence is dependent on the sustenance that the earth’s natural abundance gives to us and yet today we live in a world that is increasingly disconnected from this reality. As humanity grows more and more removed from natural ways of living, it seems as though our feet float above the earth, ungrounded, lacking roots, disembodied. We live lives in which our attention is scattered, our energy pulled outwardly into the world of endless distractions, forgetting to return to the source of our being, the source of our sustenance, our Mother Earth.
We have forgotten that we are intimately connected to the earth and completely dependent on her and that this is the natural birthright of each human being. Every breath of air, every meal, every drink of water is a miracle of creation which is a seamless wholeness that embraces humanity. Having been a herbalist now for more than half of my life, I have come to recognise the gift of my connection to the natural world, the great peace that it brings to be content with sitting in nature and watching the leaves of a tree dance in the breeze. It is a simple gift, but one that is greatly contrasted with the reality of the world that so many of us face in this post-virus world of conspiracy and misinformation. This, for me, is a daily reminder of the open embrace of our beloved mother who gives and gives without any need for anything in return.
In talking about herbalism, I think it is important to begin with the simple remembrance that the earth is really our mother and that we are earthlings, living in the abundance of her endless generosity. Mother Earth, Gaia, Pachamama, these are some of the sacred names for this Great Mother who has given us everything we need to survive and thrive, including an entire apothecary of medicines for the body, mind and spirit. As a herbalist I have come to understand that, in her generosity, she has given us a medicine for every ailment and this is a privilege which we need to honour.
A lost language of the wilderness
Part of the mystery of being a herbalist is observing how one’s consciousness becomes woven into the living earth and that, in this weaving, there is an intimate embrace in which we learn to speak an ancient language of the earth: The language of wild medicine. To understand the origins and essence of herbalism, one needs to move out of the head and into the heart. There is no place for scientific reductionism in herbalism. This can only take you down a path where the mind gets its grip on things and then there is no chance of hearing the soft-spoken language of a plant. Being a herbalist means learning the ancient language of plants and, to do this, one needs to disengage the mind and enter through the heart. In learning herbalism there must be a softening inside, a space for feeling, an empty space for interspecies transmission of wisdom. Only the senses and intelligence beyond the mind can really fathom and integrate this communication. Herbalists are people who live in this awareness and who have a living, feeling, intuitive relationship to the plant kingdom and the spirit of the earth. Herbalists speak a secret language to plants and we love them as friends and teachers, learning from them and the Great Mother in a way that a devotee might learn from their teacher. Plants impart great wisdom to us when we are working with them, show us things that are beyond the reaches of the mind. Some of these things are mysteries that we cannot fathom but can only accept as deeply mysterious. They speak in a language that is complex, an ancient intelligence that humans have long understood, that has been passed from one herbalist to another since humanity began. They ask us to reach deeper, to feel more, and to step outside our comfortable zones of thinking and into the abyss of mystery and awe. In some ways I see herbalists as irrational because we are seeking a way to live an ancient relationship with the earth during an age of ecological devastation and scientific rationalism. But the heart knows only love and we are lovers who don’t see anything but our beloved plants. That is how herbalists come to know plants, through a language of love.
Herbalism is an impulse, an uncontrollable passion, a need, a deep desire that stems from an inner longing. It is not the dry intellectual decision to study at university and accumulate knowledge from the great pharmacopeias. Herbalism comes from a deep inner longing that only a living relationship with plants can meet. Quite often it is through the process of becoming ill that people discover herbalism and learn the secrets of this ancient art. The fear of death, disease and the stresses of daily life lead us to cry out for help, sometimes in complete desperation and only then do we discover that the plants are responding to our call. Our call to them in our time of need is also their call to us. When they hear us asking for help they respond, because in doing so they get to live their purpose which is to help humanity.
Herbalism is also a living lineage of traditions and teachings handed down from one generation to another, one teacher to another. There is a golden thread that connects herbalists across time and space in a very mysterious way and we somehow recognise each other by some familiarity that is beyond reason. Quite often a person will come to embrace herbalism through meeting a herbalist and realising that a certain inner longing, a certain hunger for wisdom is fulfilled by the art of herbalism. The tradition is taught from one person to another, a transmission of the healing spirit, from heart to heart.
Herbalism is at first a hunger that only plants can feed, an empty fertile space within the gut that needs to be touched by the deep greenery of medicinal plant wisdom. Herbalism comes to you in a communication with the plant world, it reaches inside you with tendrils and speaks to you in your dreams until you learn to respond. As long as humans have walked this earth there have been herbalists who have communed with the greenery of the earth, spoken to the plants, attuned to the wisdom of nature, bowed down in deep respect to the plant kingdom.
Only recently has herbalism become a commercial endeavour. It was once a way of life and now it has become a fertile place to prospect for natural compounds to make commercial medicines. It once was the domain of grandmothers in a kitchen and now it is a brightly labelled and carefully packed product on a shelf. Before there was innate knowledge of plants and their healing abilities. They came to us in dreams and visions, spoke to us about their properties and showed us where to find them. We prayed before we collected the plants and we gave thanks when we picked them. The practice of making a medicine was a prayer weaving the fertile depths of our Mother Earth with the Great Spirit. We used to leave our bodies and journey with the plants and the patient, go find help and advice in other dimensions with great teachers of the world beyond this one. There we would fetch remedies and be given insights that healed and restored balance to the spirit.
Only later did we find out about such things as secondary metabolites and measurable medical compounds. It was only when the plants entered universities that we were told that they had discovered great phyto-medicinal properties and used words such as antibiotic, anti-viral or anti-coagulant to describe these things. Words that sounded more like warfare, a battleground where wild microbes waged war against the human body. It was only when science needed to classify, name and own what we have always known that they created words such as phenolics, alkaloids, saponins, terpenes and lipids in order to describe the medicinal properties of plants. Herbalism was never about this naming and classifying, categorisation and hierarchical reductionist relationships. This was a mechanistic approach that did not see any of the deep and mysterious world of plant language that herbalists carried. The science of herbalism that we see today is a one dimensional description of a living art, a way of life, an endlessly complex and continually changing landscape of the inner worlds. The herbalism you will find in a book is not the herbalism that I know. I would be dishonest if I tried to convince you that it could be learned in books.
Herbalism shakes you to the core and forces you to look deeper than you are comfortable looking. It drags your awareness into the bowels of life where there is no place for the mind to make sense of things and then it speaks with you and shows you things. Science and the intelligent minds that are drawn to it try so desperately to classify herbalism, but how can you analyse a dead bird and know what it means to hear the birdsong at sunrise? Herbalism is a living art that takes you into some deeper place of fertile wisdom where the birdsong is alive within. This is where real herbalism offers its magic, when you surrender your human mind in order to hear the soft spoken words of the plant world. This is where the gifts of healing are given, a place of miracles and transmutation. Herbalism is not what you will find in the pharmacopoeia; it is in the dirt, deep in the roots of the fertile earth where your hands sink slowly, softly, to pull the roots of the wild pumpkin out of the mud. It is the conversation you have with the sun, the wind, the spirit of the mountain. It is the process of stepping outside this world and into another space where magic is alive and speaking to the plant world, the spirits of the land. And when you are in that place, where words and descriptions no longer make sense to your rational mind, then you are being taught the art of herbalism, the ancient language of plants.
The uncertain future
We have reached an era of mass ecological devastation. With the decimation of ecosystems comes the loss of vast treasure troves of medicine and the living communities of people who hold the knowledge of how to use these medicines. There are two things threatening the herbal tradition: The loss of wild places and the loss of indigenous knowledge systems.
On the importance of wild places
For herbalism to continue as a tradition, we need to retain our wild habitats. Undisturbed thicket, wild forest, desert scrub, these are the temples of a herbalist. This is where we meet our plant teachers and where the connection between the earth and humans is a vital part of a living tradition. Busy, built up places where no wilderness survives carry a discordant energy that removes a herbalist from the ongoing conversation with nature. The teachings and practices remain but the spirit longs to touch the earth and to melt into the fabric of the wild. Wild places are habitats for an abundance of medicinal plants and they are also the homes of great spirits of the plant world. The rivers, mountains, forests and caves are all home to the great nature spirits or devas who are living teachers in the subtle worlds. These devas have a living presence and they are an intrinsic connection that a herbalist must make before learning the secrets of the plant world.
I remember the first time I felt a living presence in nature that spoke to me: I was a young boy and we lived next to a coastal wetland surrounded by bush. A wild place. In the afternoons when I finished school I would make my way into the bush with our family dogs and I’d disappear until it started getting dark. One evening I was watching the sunset at the edge of the wetland and the fish were kissing the surface of the water as the setting sun glistened across the surface and the birds sang their evening prayers. I was in deep conversation with the fabric of this place and a light was present that one could only describe as sacred, ethereal and holy. This was a natural experience for the mind of a child, a part of being human. The experience of connecting to this living presence is utterly simple. It is a transmission, a fertilisation, it plants a seed that grows into something inside us, offers us a living relationship with the earth.
The vast wilderness is the face of this presence. Each plant, each tree, each nook and cranny is a part of the great body of the wilderness, of our Great Mother. What is present in the wilderness is not just an extraordinary amount of biodiversity, medicines for every ailment and undiscovered cures for future diseases, but a treasure trove of wisdom that is embodied in the natural world. We can learn to connect and speak to the wilderness, to learn to listen to its magical language and enter into a relationship with the wilderness. But if these spaces are no longer present in the world then we will lose the opportunities for ourselves and our future generations to have these important conversations. With the loss of wilderness there is the loss of an opportunity to converse with a deep collective wisdom that is present in nature. This intelligence in the wilderness also wants our co-operation, longs to converse with humanity and to share a closer relationship. The medicines in the wild are her gifts to us to endure the hardships of disease and to experience the possibility of living in harmony with ourselves, our bodies, our communities and our relationship to the land. The wilderness deserves our protection. It gives so freely to us and asks so little in return.
On the Importance of Indigenous Knowledge Systems
The wilderness is also the last crucible of traditional knowledge systems. In the same way that a herbalist needs the wild open spaces to connect to the earth, so too do our indigenous knowledge systems need to live in the wild places and take care of them. Humanity has co-evolved with the natural world and survived impeccably. Indigenous knowledge systems have been created by a relationship to plants and ecosystems that is interwoven in their entire way of being. These ways of knowing have been a cornerstone of building deep treasure troves of wisdom for survival and thriving as a species. Indigenous communities have been taking care of wild landscapes for thousands of years, deriving food, medicine and shelter in an endlessly renewable lifestyle that has kept the world in balance. These communities still exist in isolation, but for how long we do not know. Like the wilderness, these communities deserve our protection.
The herbalists that are in these places of indigenous community hold and protect an athenaeum of wisdom from the plant world. They protect the very source of our deep inner wisdom of plant medicine, nurture the relationship with the plant kingdom whilst the rest of the world seems to have forgotten. These places and their people are important ambassadors between humanity and the natural world, they speak for nature, they are some of the few that still understand the language of nature and who can continue to give the gift of plant communication to the future generations.
Our uncertain future
When the ecological devastation of our planet reaches a tipping point in the near future, it will be a time for all of humanity to pool our knowledge and wisdom in order to survive. This will be a time when our indigenous ways of knowing and living will be of paramount importance. The medicinal knowledge that is held in these communities is not only for human benefit but for entire ecosystems too. Those that speak to the plants not only receive wisdom about medicine but also are shown how to sustain and nourish life on earth in ways that science cannot understand.
The signs of imminent collapse are everywhere. When the herbalists and indigenous knowledge systems are eliminated, it paves a way for the world to be treated as a material object without feeling or sentience. Who will be left to remember the Great Mother and who will tend to the sacred groves? The disconnection with the sacred will lead to more ecologically catastrophic decisions made in the name of progress and growth. More dams will be built without consideration of the living spirit of a river, forests will be cut down and entire species eliminated which contain valuable new medicines, the estuaries will be drained and the rivers will continue to be polluted, the floodplains poisoned, until life can no longer sustain itself. Who will protect the earth if there is nobody left to listen to what she has to say?
Indigenous knowledge systems, much like wild ecosystems, are deep treasure troves of wisdom, connection, medicine and sustenance. The art of herbalism is intrinsically connected to indigenous knowledge and the wilderness. It is a tradition which offers a direct relationship to the spirit of the earth, the Great Mother who is also our mother. So for those that are conscious, who are spiritually minded, who believe that this is the time to hold the light of the heart of the world, I ask that you will embrace and defend our ancient art and protect the wild ecosystems that nurture and sustain it.
Steve Hurt’s writing falls within the paradigm of spiritual ecology which approaches ecology from a spiritual perspective. His writing is influenced by shamanism, sufism and a deep love for the earth. Steve currently lives in South Africa and runs a business that trades in African medicinal plants, a trade that is driven by his wish to preserve the rich heritage of African medicinal knowledge for future generations.
To contact Steve: [email protected] Website: http://thedanceoflight.co.za/
Drawings, Steve Hurt. Painting ‘Illuminated Self’ (acrylic on canvas) by Ingrid Nuss visual artist
“This painting is about those times where everything makes sense and the light is switched on inside. Where you feel invincible and the world is your playground. Everything is aligned and it all just feels right” – https://ingridnuss.co.za