Tell me about your bioregion. What is the water like? Which bugs emerge en masse in the summer? What does the tree outside your window look like in late fall? Do wild edible plants grow within six blocks of your home? Is your bioregion a source of medicine?
I have long held a poetic interest in naming and describing the plants around me—wild violet, lambs quarters, callaloo, plantain. Simultaneously, I have also held a reverence for medicinal herbs, how profoundly they have healed imbalances in my own body, and how I’ve observed them heal others in similarly surprising ways. Something simple and inspiring is revealed when I can connect the “ingredient” of something from a bottle (like a tincture of St. John’s Wort) to the living plant’s sweet yellow flowers growing up close on a hill, taken in with all my senses.
Bioregional herbalism teaches us that the plants around us are often edible and medicinal. In fact, you may have recently purchased them in tea or pill form, while they are right there, growing near the water’s edge. “Even in the jungle of cityscapes, amidst the mesh of barbed wire and the links of chain fences, there is medicine—natural medicine—eking out an existence like the rest of us; pushing itself up through the ground with a minimum of nutrients and a smattering of sunlight; holding fast to an accumulation of detritus in the far end of a gutter. The will of a seed to germinate is incredibly great,” write Claudia Abbot-Barish and Meghan Murphy. What would it take for us to see our medicine as living and vibrant – just as we are?
First, get your bearings. What time is sunset today? How many days until the moon is full? Is the soil under your feet more clay, sand, rock or silt? Can you name five birds that live here, and do you know which are migratory and which stay put? What primary geological processes or events shaped the land here? Can you name five edible plants in your neighborhood, and the seasons they are available?
Now, take a moment and consider what fruits and vegetables are grown here throughout the year. Although fresh local heirloom tomatoes are certainly unavailable in the winter, these plentiful summer gems might fill the freezers and jars of preservation-minded eaters throughout the seasons. As we increase our efforts to eat locally, we discover the abundance (and limitations) inherent in consuming foods grown in our area. This has an effect of connecting us more intimately with our surroundings, and better understanding the greater cycles of nature that we live within.
In a similar turn, local herbalism reflects this wisdom. According to Michael Tierra, locally grown food and herbs “harmonize one’s blood chemistry with the climate and environment—thickening and acidifying the blood in colder climates, while thinning and alkalinizing it in warmer climates... Herbs work differently than supplements such as vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Rather than merely filling a hole caused by the absence of nutrients (the result of prolonged ingestion of nutritionally deficient, chemically grown foods), herbs allow our bodies to more efficiently extract those nutrients from wholesome foods.” Many healing traditions teach that health imbalances respond best to treatments that originate in our immediate surroundings.
When we reorient ourselves and pay attention to where we live, stand, breathe, work, and build, might we also find tools for healing all around us? Juliette Abigail Carr of Old Ways Herbals illustrates this possibility: “I can say with confidence that every region has representatives of the major medicines humans use. It’s one of the most beautiful aspects of co-evolution, and to me it’s magic. Whether it’s an herb that will help knit a wound, soothe a colicky baby, fight infection, or lift the blues—whatever we need, the place we live has it, where ever that place may be... We don’t need the miracle this or the super-cure that from the other side of the planet.”
Herbs have an intelligence all their own, which is quite remarkable and humbling for humans to acknowledge. Peeka Trenkle describes the wisdom of dandelion: “One plant that most suburban dwellers love to hate is the dandelion, which proliferates in areas that are polluted with toxic petrochemicals and heavy metals. One of the purposes of the tap root of the dandelion is to pull toxins out of the soil and restore it to health, the same way dandelion-root tea can help to detoxify our livers.”
Yet another reminder that we are much more connected to the plant life around us than we often pay attention to.
Rosemary Gladstar writes that “Many of our most plentiful and weedy species are those herbs considered tonics, or food herbs. Herbs such as burdock root and dandelion, chickweed and cleavers, nettle and red clover grow in abundance across the landscape…unpampered, mostly unappreciated, these feisty weeds are full of vitality themselves and offer us a path to well-being.” The distinctions between food and medicine can be deliciously unclear. “Everyday I say, ‘That’s the best wild salad ever!’” says Linda Conroy of Moonwise Herbs. “Yesterday it was the wild mushrooms we harvested. We’ve been eating a lot of purslane lately, in lacto-fermented pickles, as a pot herb, and in pesto. Last week, it was milkweed pods. We put up a lot of wild edibles so that we can eat them all year long.” Like Willy Street Co-op’s own “Eat Local Challenge,” could we also challenge ourselves to re-localize our healing? Why is this challenging in the first place?
“In this society, dominated as it is by the profit-seeking ventures of monopoly corporations, health has been callously transformed into a commodity—a commodity that those with means are able to afford, but that is too often entirely beyond the reach of others.”
Within the global context of biopiracy, exploitative trade practices, and industrialized health care, a collective responsibility to protect and nurture the plants in our bioregion is paramount. Rosemary Gladstar emphasizes this in no uncertain terms: “While 80 percent of the world’s population depends on traditional herbal medicine, the accelerating need for phytomedicines, pharmaceutical drugs, and other industrial applications has caused over-exploitation of medicinal plants, resulting in genetic erosion and increasing the threat of extinction.” Jane Hawley Stevens of Four Elements Herbals asks, “Have we been marketed out of our common sense?”
Local herbalism teaches us to look nearby for answers to our health challenges, while supporting the cultivation of plant medicines and protecting the wild places they grow. “Like so much in this consumerist society, it is easy to ignore the connections between a bottle on a shelf in some store and a living, growing plant out in the world somewhere,” writes Laurel Luddite. “For every big-name herb on the market cut from the rainforest or dug from the mountains, there is most likely a plant with a similar action growing in your watershed…when we are healed by plants, we owe it to them to look out for their kind and the places where they live.” Many herbalists speak and write extensively about creating relationships with plants. Perhaps this can also teach us a bit about our relationships with ourselves and with other humans too. We can learn a lot about own own healing when we appreciate, reciprocate, and protect that which gives us nourishment.
“Industrialism has affected every aspect of our lives—we are just starting to realize how much has been lost. Medicine is just one part of the machine that we have to take back and re-create into a form that works for the society we will become. Every herb, pill, and procedure should be judged on its sustainability and accessibility.” –Laurel Luddite
At what point did we begin relying less on the plants in our bioregion as both food and medicine? “The long journey to bad health begins simultaneously in many places in history, although I would argue that psychological factors are a major element in determining health,” asserts Devon Abbott-Mihesuah. She writes that, among many Indigenous communities, as children were historically and systematically forced into boarding schools, “any knowledge a child might have about medicinal foods, agricultural techniques, seed preservation, and blessings that corresponded to planting, growing, and harvesting were not supported nor reinforced.” On a very basic level, colonization of land and global migration have been intrinsically tied to the accessibility of food, medicine, and generational knowledge. Psychological distancing from nature, others, and our own bodies are oftentimes the results of the histories that we’ve inherited.
As we increasingly become more disconnected from the bioregion we live within, our bodies and minds respond in turn. So, how do we sustain ourselves? What kinds of problems emerge when we are stressed out? What does it feel like when a cold starts to come on? If you menstruate, how long is your cycle and what does your blood look like? How much sleep are you getting? Do you experience overwhelming emotional responses when you are hungry or tired? How do we return to a deeper understanding of ourselves?
“This old/new healing system is subtle and requires a lot of self-knowledge, or at least self-awareness,” claims Laurel Luddite. “It uses intuition as a diagnostic tool. Emotion, spirituality, and environment become medicines.” Liz Bruno of Bare Bones Herbals explains further: “I like to take the expert out of it and know what I am using and where it came from. I trust my own integrity, my relationship with the plants and my limits, and my standards of practice. It is empowering to me to know I can care for my own and my family’s health needs from my backyard. It is affordable and I know the intimate details of the process.”
When we understand our bodies in their times of health, we are better equipped to sense discomfort and early stages of sickness, which is the time when herbs are most useful. “The best teacher is really yourself,” affirms Jane Hawley Stevens. “A lot of times people put someone else between themselves and their healing. It’s so empowering to make your own medicine, and if you can’t, at least get it from someone who grows it locally.”
Observation of the seasons and nature’s changes all around us requires perceptive eyes and open senses. Interestingly, to sense our own health imbalances at their earliest stages also requires a subtle attention to the ways we live and move through the world. Are we meeting our needs for food, sunlight, hydration, touch, communication, sleep, movement? Do we feel empowered or disempowered within society, family, and community? How does that give or take energy from us? What kinds of small changes can we make to reconnect us with our deeper needs? “Using the seasonal guide as timing is such a great way to be present in the moment! I want to be interacting energetically and tangibly with what’s around me,” shares Linda Conroy. “The best food and medicines are the ones you make yourself. There is very little we can’t do out of our kitchens.”
MANY THANKS TO
- Jane Hawley Stevens of Four Elements Herbals—(Four Elements tinctures, lotions, soaps, teas and other herbal products can be found at both Willy East and West.)
- Linda Conroy of Moonwise Herbs—(Linda will be teaching upcoming herbalism classes at both Willy East and West.)
- Juliette Abigail Carr of Old Ways Herbals—(Old Ways Herbals tinctures and syrups can be found at both Willy East and West, and Juliette will be teaching upcoming herbalism classes.)
- Liz Bruno of Bare Bones Herbals—(Liz will be teaching upcoming herbalism classes at both Willy East and West)
- Planting the Future: Saving Our Medicinal Herbs, edited by Rosemary Gladstar and Pamela Hirsch
- Michael Tierra, East West Herb Course
- Devon Abbott Mihesuah, Recovering Our Ancestors’ Gardens: Indigenous Recipes and Guide to Health and Fitness
- Laurel Luddite, This is Anarcho-herbalism: Thoughts on Health & Healing for the Revolution
- Claudia Abbott-Barish and Meghan Murphy, Activating the Healers Infobook
- Peeka Trenkle, Bio-regional Healing
- Angela Davis, Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: The Politics of Black Women’s Health