Southwest RadHerb Gathering: reflections

We started the RadHerb Gathering (in the Rincon Mountains near Tucson, AZ) by circling up and sharing our names and preferred gender pronoun: he, she, or they. It is so American: this is who I am, this is what I choose, please address me in this way. Self-affirmative and expressive, individualistic and proud. Almost a celebration of the weird and underrepresented. Imagine a gathering of about 200 black-clothed, kind-hearted, bad-assed, people in a desert forest, sitting in circles discussing various aspects of herbal medicine, health-care, and life itself. Welcome to RadHerb.

I appreciate the grassroots nature of this event, and the inspiration that I received from hanging out with like-minded new friends in a natural environment for 3 nights. I was inspired by the format of the event in general. Everyone is welcome to teach. Classes are primarily taught by peers. There is a feeling of empowerment in sharing what you know, with a supportive community. Classes were offered in 1.5 hour segments, from 10-11:30, then lunch, then 1-2:30, 3-4:30, dinner, and evening discussions. The second night, we had a Talent Show. The final day, there was a trade circle.

The “schedule of events” was a blank sheet of large cardstock paper with time slots in columns. It was placed under a tree in the center of the Gathering, with rocks laid on top to keep it from flying away, and permanent markers placed next to it. At the initial gathering circle, people were encouraged to sign up to teach classes on this sheet, and given a basic introduction to where things are. There were also co-creative lists for people to add to, such as a list of “Stuff I want to learn,” and “Stuff I can teach.” Classes were simultaneously offered in several places. Teaching slots were left blank, for whoever wanted to teach to just sign up for a time slot and place to teach. Somehow, all of the slots got filled up, and there were actually more classes that needed to be added onto another board!

In the main area, there was a map of the area, with camping areas, latrines, and class areas laid out. Paths were cleared from the gathering spot to four primary “classrooms,” which were shaded clearings with flat areas to sit. These “classrooms” were cleared of brush and spiky things, and demarcated with little signs. People camped where they wished. There were two main camps: one right next to the main circle, and another one further down the road. Two main “outhouses” were dug: long trench pits for people to poop into, piling ashes and dirt onto their feces afterwards. These pits were filled after the event. Some people also offered discussions at a “Chill Space” during lunch time. I offered yoga classes in the morning. The entire event was donation based. The donations bucket was also in the Main Area. People were encouraged to donate $10 per day, with a goal of raising $400 for the event. By the end of the event, they had made over $1000, entirely from donations. Funds for organizing the event were deducted from that total, then the remainder (most of the money) was donated to a local free clinic.

I especially enjoyed a plant walk that I went on, led by Michael Cottingham. He spent about 20 minutes discussing each plant that we stopped to focus on, on the walk. We discussed Oak, Datura, Prickly Pear, Red Dock, Yerba Manza, and Silk Tassel. He discussed traditional and modern uses, and lore of each plant. We would taste, touch, and sit with the plant. I asked him about his teaching style, after our Silk Tassel talk. He explained that the energetic interconnection of us ingesting, sitting with, and discussing Silk Tassel--- all while sitting under the tree--- energetically imprinted the memory of that plant with us. As he sat with and spoke about the plant while in a group setting, more information would flow through his mind, directly from Source, the plant Spirit itself. The plant is actually involved in the discussion of its properties, rather than just us talking about it. He inspires me to spend more time with the plants that I am studying, and leading more plant walks in the future. (I still haven’t led a formal plant walk with adults yet, though I often do it with youth... with much gusto!)

Michael gave a 1.5 hour talk on Yerba Manza, which was one of the first classes that I went to. He brought a potted Yerba Manza plant that he was propogating/ caretaking, Yerba Manza hydrosol, essential oil, infusion, and tincture. We tried all of these medicines, passing them around the circle while he talked ad nauseum about the various uses and lore of this plant. I appreciate the attention to just one plant, while directly experiencing and getting to know the plant. Inspiring!

Another class that I especially enjoyed was “Desert Plants Attunement,” with Mimi Kamp. The format of this class was very simple, yet profound. It is helpful for those who are new to flower essences, and for using flower essences for a group experience, sharing, and discussion. I may try a similar teaching format in the future, perhaps with flower essences, but more likely for experiencing various other plant medicine and/ or food preparations. We sat in a circle, created sacred space in a quick way, then proceeded to pass around a bottle of Desert Essence that Mimi made. Each person took a few drops, then either sat, laid down, or went elsewhere to lie down. We experienced each Medicine for about 5 minutes solo, then reconvened to share our experiences. After the group shared, Mimi told us about the plant and its uses: the plant’s growing conditions and ways, how the Essence is traditionally used, and how she uses it. We tried about 5 Essences in this way, one after another. It was elucidating to see how the same Essence would affect people in similar and different ways, and compare that with Mimi’s personal and clinical experience. I appreciate the deep respect for and understanding of the Medicine that Mimi cultivates, and how she shared this love with us.

We had two large group discussions. We started off sitting in a large circle around the fire at night, with the facilitator explaining our topic of discussion: cultural appropriation in health-care. Then, we numbered off into groups of four, and went to sit with our group. The facilitator started by giving us more personal questions to discuss, such as “What brought you to herbal medicine?” And then slowly broadening our perspective with questions like, “Where did you get your information regarding herbal medicine from? What cultural traditions?” And “What do you think about cultural appropriation in herbal medicine? Do you hear discussion of these things within your community?” And other questions. We held discussions within our small groups. Large group sharings were briefly held between each question. I enjoyed getting to know my group better, through these discussions, and hearing each person’s voice, and diverse perspectives. We concluded with a large group discussion of what our individual groups had discussed. I like that we explored from the personal to the global viewpoint, and everyone got to share their experiences in a very welcoming fashion. The questions were well asked, well organized, and well timed. I feel like these kinds of questions are often considered, but rarely discussed in a group setting. And, they are important questions. On the last day, we had a panel group discussion (mostly experienced teachers speaking) about wild-crafting ethics.

My friend and fellow student Kat Shaw and I co-taught an Herbal First Aid class at this gathering. It was both of our first times teaching adults herbalism, outside of a classroom setting with peers. It was scary, exciting, and fulfilling. I prefer to prepare better before teaching (we winged it, inspired by others’ classes, and a desire to share), but enjoyed sharing what I know, and learning even more than what I can share. Teaching is truly the greatest form of learning. Our students came away with a practical and broad understanding of the use of herbs in first aid situations, but more importantly, an understanding of the first aid mindset, how to mentally and attitudinally approach first aid situations.

Herbal medicine is people’s medicine. I like that herbalism was made accessible, and teaching (even by new or less experienced teachers) was encouraged in this Gathering. Inspired from this Gathering, I am starting weekly herbal skill-shares during school lunches. In the future, I would like to create a similar Herb Gathering wherever I live long-term: an informal gathering with an open invitation to teach what you know and discuss what you’d like to know, for learning, sharing, and growing together as a community. Welcoming classes, discussions, plant walks, and more... Community herbalism. Grassroots herbalism. Hands-on, experiential, people’s-medicine, take-it-into-your-own-hands, get-dirty herbalism. Yes, yes, yes!!! 

(See http://radherbsw.wordpress.com/ for more info about the Southwestern RadHerb Gathering)