Yesterday I was out walking the river trail with an old friend who has recently moved to our village. As we walked and talked and caught up with each other, we passed by the aspens and birch I so often stop and smell, taste and even talk to. I felt myself wanting to say to my friend, let me introduce you to my friends here. The wild honey suckles and the apples, the warblers and king birds, the mighty river and the dirt I trod upon have all become comfortable comrades. My friend asked me if I harvest from the trail, to which I answered no- since the city sprays the trail with chemicals each year on account of the poison ivy- yet another friend of mine. Although I don’t harvest from this area, I do study these plants, take home fallen branches and catkins to draw and photograph. Herbalism is so much more than collecting and utilizing plants. It really has much more to do with spending time in the natural world, immersed in the habitat -which is them. Watching and listening, the river trail is a walking meditation, a prayer place and ultimately, for me it has been my solace. The river has always drawn me.
I love to learn about what is growing in my specific area. Medicine and food are truly all around us, often right outside the door. Even in the tidy well-mown city lawns you can find the number one first aid plant that will draw splinters and stingers out of bee and nettle stings. Food and medicine that strengthens the heart, calms the mind and stops palpitations. You can even find the strong ‘little feather’ leaves of a plant which will stop bleeding upon contact. Centuries ago, people knew all these plants well. They were carried into battle by warriors. They were made into wreaths by the women in preparation of their men coming back from the hunt. They were gathered and dried and made into pastes and salves, soups and stews. Self-heal, cinquefoil, plantain, wild strawberries and violets along with the dandelions are all there even in the most well tended lawns. Right outside your doorstep. People who are diligent about cutting their grass may never know that these highly valuable plants are right there under their feet. The well tended lawn is an excellent metaphor for the disconnect from nature in our culture.
Using local plants is referred to as ‘bioregionalism’ and bioregionalism is at the heart of my herbalism. It’s not about being ‘local’, although I do think it is cool that ‘local’ has become cool. Being around and getting to know the local flora is about our connection with nature. You may think you have to get out of the city to find nature but in fact it is all around us. All it takes is simply noticing. Even if it’s just one tree you pass by each day. Noticing it, how it changes, how it grows and matures. After a while you feel a connection. You may even call it your tree. Paul Bergner (one of my current teachers and a most reputable and amazing medical herbalist) talks about this ‘sense of place’ and ‘noticing nature’ as being vital for herbalists today. He speaks about getting to know the wind, the trees and the birds in whatever kind of nature you can find near you. Spending time in these natural places day after day, year after year will deepen your connection with nature. It could be as a simple as a daily walk, a place to sit by a tree or field or even letting your grass grow to see what else is there.