Monday, September 29, 2014

Beginning the Herbal Medicine Path - Part 1

Sleepily we gathered for our first weekend of Grassroots Herbal Medicine, letting piping streams of maple colored tea flow from the samovar into our outstretched mugs before sinking down into a chair to wait for the magic to begin.

All ages of women had assembled into our circle of eager herb wielders, from the salt tinged hair of one women to the budding, rounded belly of another. We introduced ourselves somewhat timidly, each secretly wondering what the other person already knew about herbal medicine.

As each of us found our seats Molly welcomed us, radiating the warmth teachers seem to so easily exude when they are blessed with a classroom of intention-filled students. Molly holds a presence in the space that is undeniable, swathed in chocolate dreadlocks and a knit sweater she beamed at us over her own cup of steaming tea.

She asked us to pick up our cups. 

"What do you smell?"

We brought the wisps of steam to our noses and inhaled. I was reminded of my first attempts at wine tasting. The swirling red liquid sending only heady whiffs of alcohol to my nostrils. Only with months of practice did I start picking notes of leather, chocolate, honeysuckle and plum. 

"It smells kinda sweet," a young girl to my right said.

"Hmmm sweet, interesting," Molly mused, letting silence fall again to open the floor to more guesses.

"Yeah, kinda like a sweet earthiness is what I get," another woman said, her nosed still pressed to the rim of her mug.

"What part of your body does this tea go to?" Molly asked.

"How can I feel that?" I wondered. I took another sip, willing my body to tell me where the plant was drawn to. I felt the warmth of the liquid flowing down my throat, emanating out through the skin of my neck. And I felt the warmth enter my stomach, sending that little thrill up to my brain, the first buzz of the morning alarm to rouse the sleeping senses. 

"I feel it in my kidneys," someone said, letting her hand graze her side for emphasis. 
Molly nodded with a smile and I sipped again, stretching my nerve ending out to feel my kidneys. 

"What part of the plant do you think this comes from?"
We looked a little confused perhaps because she quickly offered, "Is it a bark? Is it a berry? Does this taste like the leaves, or maybe the root?"

"Leaves?" someone guessed? 
Every part was thrown out in hushed whispers, no one quite sure.

"Are there any guesses for what plant this is?" Molly asked.

No one offered up a guess.
"This is dandelion root tea," Molly smiled, "Taxicum officinal," she said in latin.
There were whispers of "I knew it!" from a few and looks of "really, dandelion?" from a few others.

With one simple exercise we had been thrown into the world or herbalism. Herbalism is not a study so much as it is a way of life. It is an intention of joining yourself with the plant world in a way that seems foreign and at times silly and so far removed from our current sphere of life. 

 I had come to this class wondering what possible connection I could find. I worried a little about the ideas of appropriation, exoticism and novelty seeking. Would I be hoodwinked into potion making? Would I foolishly delve into traditions that had no bearing on my personal history?

As if sensing this discomfort, these open questions and uncertainties, Molly began that morning by sharing her own story. Her exploration of Costa Rican medicine, her experiences at Sacred Plant Traditions in Charlottesville, her decision to come back to her home of Maryland and start a school. 
But more importantly she shared this thought with us: 

"Every single one of us come from a lineage of plant people."

Perhaps I can't claim any bloodline to inform my use of astragalus, and maybe I don't belong to a people who used tobacco medicinally, but somewhere in my history, my personal lineage, I come from a people who used plants as healers. We all do.  
The room filled with excited buzz as I imagine we all thought about our own families and what traditions might be buried in our pasts. What plants, perhaps even plants in this very garden, might have played a role in our histories.

The Grassroots program, Molly explained, is meant to make herbal medicine approachable, after all, herbal medicine is for the people and is made by the people. 

There is no certification out there really that is accredited. You don't have to know every plant under the sun.  Your depth is completely up to you. If you are called to make teas from your garden and to use herbs in your stews, you're an herbalist. If you make salves and tinctures and poultices, you're an herbalist. 
If you form a relationship with even just one plant, you're an herbalist.

"Congratulations," she smiled, "You're all herbalists now."

Becoming an herbalist was as simple as deciding. 

And with that knowledge, that confidence that we hadn't even dreamed of gaining on the first day, we dove into our exploration.

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