The Path of an Herbalist
Feather Jones, Clinical Herbalist
What is an Herbalist?
An herbalist is a person who has chosen earth values over the dominant paradigms of medicine. An herbalist is one who recognizes that fixing a leaky roof when it¹s raining is not the same thing as healing a home. An herbalist has a bit of a wild streak running through their veins and is only satiated when they are sitting next to a plant with a sense of marvel at the perfection of nature.
Acknowledging there is a left side to the brain, an herbalist is one trained in the art and science of herbal medicine. A good herbalist has developed a sense of balance between intuition and practical knowledge. Herbalism is more than science, it¹s an art, and an herbalist has cultivated an attitude towards plants as healing allies.
Not to say that science isn¹t significant in understanding plant/human interactions, rather the scientific research is only part of a picture. More importantly, an herbalist needs to know what plant therapies to use in a given situation, line up characteristics of plants with personalities of people and find synergy in herbal formulations. A trained herbalist has gone through extensive studies of herbal therapeutics, understanding the effects of plants on human cells, tissues, and organ systems as well as subtle complexities of the whole constitutional makeup.
An herbalist knows that wellness is more than an absence of disease, it¹s a vitality of the spirit and the whole body is taken into consideration when healing is desired.
Other studies might include plant identification and basic botany, as knowing how to properly identify the correct, unpolluted healthy herb is paramount. A well rounded herbalist will know their local bioregional plants in the wild, which ones are edible, which are medicines and which may provoke undesirable effects. Vitally important is how to ethically harvest wild plants when it is appropriate and how to make medicines. This may become extremely important if economic and transport systems break down and European, Chinese or even American herbs would be harder to obtain. Knowledge of organic gardening techniques, particularly in the arid southwest, is a desired resource as well.
Medicine making, sometimes called kitchen pharmacy, is a necessary skill and reminder that herbal medicine is really the people¹s medicine. Anatomy and physiology, pathology and holistic nutrition are all a part of herbal training. Tools might also include client skills and learning from case studies, what works on individual body types and constitutions using time honored vitalistic strategies.
Earth centered studies, the other half of the scientific equasion, are described as plant journey work and intuitive training. Spending meditative (theta brain wave) earth time with the trees and plants in their native places and learning directly from them will give one insights not found in any herb book. These studies re empower one with ancestral abilities to gain access to generations of wisdom directly from nature.
From a larger perspective, the American Herbalists Guild has defined herbalists as people who dedicate their lives to working with medicinal plants. They might include native healers, scientists, naturopaths, holistic medical doctors, researchers, writers, herbal pharmacists, medicine makers, wild crafters, harvesters and herbal farmers to name a few. While herbalists are quite varied, the common love and respect for life, especially the relationship between plants and humans, unites them. Persons specializing in the therapeutic use of plants may be medical herbalists, traditional herbalists, acupuncturists, midwives, naturopathic physicians, or even ones own grandmother. (1)
Herbalists these days have a whole new paradigm to work within that is challenging beyond where generations before left no clues. We now have considerations with clients using multiple pharmaceuticals, supplements and herbs together. This translates to about 20% of the US population. However many herbs can be taken side by side with drugs with care and supervision.
How does herbal medicine work?
From a global picture, herbal medicine has persisted as the worlds primary form of medicine since the beginning of time, with a written history more than 5000 years old. While the use of herbs in North America has been overshadowed by a dependence on modern medications the last 100 years, 75% of the worlds population still rely primarily upon traditional healing practices, most of which are herbal medicine. (1)
On closer inspection, one may find plants and people to be quite alike. If one expresses the green juice from a plant like stinging nettles and puts it next to human blood under a microscope or use an advanced technique called chromotography, they would find remarkable similarities. In fact everything will be the same except one molecular difference. That difference is what makes blood red and plant juice green, iron and chlorophyll respectively. Primarily everything else is the same. However the body knows how to make red blood cells from plant chlorophyll. This is why humans can thrive on a plant-based diet. This is why herbal medicine works. Our bodies know what to do with plant remedies. Our bodies can use what it needs and easily discard the rest.
Sometimes we need to be reminded that the body is self-healing. That is our God/Goddess given right. And while we are sleeping, our bodies repair themselves from a day¹s worth of stressful onslaught. Only when the stresses become overwhelming, does the body not have enough time to renew itself. Plant therapies can realign the body to aid in repair work. One group of plants called nervines displays a remarkable ability to act as original keys that unlock the floodgates to healing.
How safe are herb remedies?
Herbs have been used traditionally not only for acute and chronic diseases but as preventative medicine for strengthening and supporting the basic constitution. Most pharmaceutical drugs are single chemical entities that are highly refined and purified and are often synthesized. In 1987 about 85% of modern drugs were originally derived from plants. Currently, only about 15% of drugs are derived from plants. In contrast, herbal medicines are prepared from living or dried plants and contain hundreds to thousands of interrelated compounds. Science is beginning to demonstrate that the safety and effectiveness of herbs is often related to the synergy of its many constituents (1).
According to Ethnobotanist Dr. James Duke, Agricultural Research Services, USDA, herbs are about 3000 times safer than prescription drugs. For a comparison, herbal deaths are about 1 in 1,000,000 in this country while NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen) are about 1 in 10,000. Improper use of medication is 1 in 2,000 and western medicines all together are 1 in 333. This might put herbal medicine back in a proper perspective.
The primary focus of the herbalist is to treat people as individuals irrespective of the disease or condition they have and to stimulate their innate healing power through herbs, diet and lifestyle choices. The primary focus of conventional physicians is to attack diseases using strong chemicals that are difficult for the body to process, or through the removal of organs. Not only does this ignore the unique makeup of the individual, but also many patients under conventional care suffer from side effects that may be as bad as the condition being treated. The philosophical difference between herbalists and conventional physicians has profound significance. (1)
The path of one herbalist
As I was finishing up at the Boulder School of Massage Therapy in Colorado in the late 70¹s, I absolutely knew massage was not my vocation in life. I took an elective while in school, Herbology 101, and was so inspired and felt a bit shaken awake, I started studying right then and there. Seeing an ad in a local paper for an herb program with Michael Moore in Santa Fe and sent in my deposit sight unseen. That was good enough for me. I remember clearly to this day arriving in Santa Fe and walking into the school with small child and backpack in tow. I saw a big man with a long beard looking rather like Santa Clause would if he were a biker, sitting at a table with a cowboy hat on with a sheriff¹s star on it. There was an Egg McMuffin, a bottle of caffeine related supplements and he was rolling a cigarette when he looked up at me. I asked him to direct me to Michael Moore and he said he was Michael Moore.
After a bit of an initial shock wore off, I realized how incredibly fortunate I was to study with this person. Your mind loves to make judgements that just get in the way. Not only did he know herbs, but he could take the knowledge one step farther than any books and explain herbal pathways in the human body. I have over the years learned he is a remarkable herbalist and musician, having written symphonies for the Santa Fe Orchestra in his spare time. I spent over a year studying with him and traveled the southwestern US learning plant medicines.
I also had the opportunity to learn from a Mandan/Lakota pipe holder and medicine person. She taught me to see from a different view, a view that healing the body is second to healing the spirit. Because in thinking that this is all there is, we forget our interconnectedness to all of creation and that includes layers of dimensions one can access for intentional healing.
Where to study Herbal Medicine?
Finding a school or apprenticeship program can take some research but most is readily available via internet. The American Herbalists Guild has an educational directory (1).
Check your local health food store where ever you live and find a local herbalist and ask to study with them. Many herbalists take on apprentices or teach classes or lead herb walks. The planet really could use a few more plant people.
My mentors have instilled in me the awareness that thoughts are real things. Our belief systems create the world we live in and the world we all share right now that is part of a consensus agreement, is based on a death economy. Drugstores, pharmaceuticals, insurance companies, ambulance services and hospitals are all big business. Research has shown how a doctor¹s diagnosis is received within the first fifteen minutes determines the outcome of that disease. The mind is a powerful thing that can either help us or harm us. What if we start living as though we are in perfect radiant health? What if we set our intention everyday to live as though we are already the person we always wanted to be; strong, wise and healthy. Along with other natural modalities, herbal medicine can lead one on this journey to a vibrant, natural life style.