6 Days, 7 Herbalists

(A week of herbalist-centric explorations around southwestern New Mexico)

I was originally going to spend spring break hiking, exploring, making medicines, and wild-crafting with just one herbalist. But, a family emergency arose, and he had to cancel. He kindly informed me of this 1.5 days before our planned journey, through a brief email. I read his message at the end of lunch break, heart sinking. I couldn’t concentrate for the remainder of class. What now?

That night, I went home and thought for a while, then eked out three potential solutions:
1. Go visit my parents and wild-craft plants that I know already.
2. Don’t go anywhere. Explore where I am currently living, which is new to me, anyhow.
3. Continue with the journey, as planned... except that I’d be landing in a place I’d never been, late at night, not knowing anyone, with just an intention to meet local plants and herbalists.

I normally travel with purpose, going places where I either know people already, or have some reason to be there. With the change of plans, now I didn’t know anything, or have any clear purpose.

Indecisive, overwhelmed, and confused, I wrote a quick message to my teacher, 7song, “Plans just changed. Feeling confused. You got ideas?” He wrote back, “Call me.” We had a great discussion. “Why would you go back to your parents’ place?” Asked 7song, “You know those plants already. Go learn something new.” He gave me a list of people to contact around the area that my bus was landing in, and told me to make my own choice, though he’d suggest leaping.

I came away from our phone conversation feeling energized and optimized, yet still indecisive. I lit white sage, palo santo, and chaparral incense. “Give me clear dreams,” I prayed, as the plant smokes spiraled upwards, “And I will listen.” I ingested some chaparral flower essence with another prayer of gratitude and request for clarity, once more reviewing all my options in my head, then blew out my candle and went to sleep.

My dreams were illuminating that night. I woke with the clear message of, “Heed the call to adventure.” I wrote that in my journal in huge block letters with a line that started off quivering, then concluded confidently with the swirling spiral of a road that led to a distant star. I contacted every person that 7song suggested, and prepared for the journey.

I landed in southern New Mexico around 10 PM. I had found a place to stay merely a few hours before landing. A local herbalist, Deborah, met me at the tiny bus stop with a huge smile on her face, a twinkle in her eye. The first herbalist of the trip, our time together is limited to driving from the bus stop to her Apothecary. Our 15 minutes car-conversation quickly turns to our herbal paths. “I’m trying to figure out what to do after herb school,” I admit to Deborah. We laugh, acknowledging the lack of an actual “path” as an herbalist, just the presence of a million possibilities. She responds, “I’m actually writing a book on that very topic.” Deborah’s been working intimately in her community as an herbalist for the past 30 years. She’s also a registered nurse, but primarily works with herbal medicine. Her apothecary is grassroots, earthy, and adorable. Tinctures line the walls of the little room, which is cozy, in an earthy, southwestern sort of way. Deborah gives me a brief tour, then shows me upstairs, where I sleep for the night.

I came downstairs in the morning, and met Cathy. She was sitting in the welcoming room with an older man who talked faster than he moved. He was listing all the medications that he was on, and the endless list of previous injuries and insults to his health. Invited by Cathy, I sat down and listened as she asked him questions and suggested a treatment protocol for him.

Cathy used to be a psychiatrist. That experience proved to be too traumatic. I was brought to tears as she shared horrifying stories from her psychiatrist days, feeling confused about humanity and the origins of our madness, sanity, and general being. She went to work in a health food store, instead. While there, she one day met Deborah (who owns the herb store). Cathy ended up taking an intro-to-herbalism class with Deborah, falling in love with herbal medicine, then accepting Deborah’s invitation to come work at the herb store. Two years later, she is still there, now living on a little homestead right outside of town, and passionate about herbal medicine. She works with plant medicines daily, grows her own food, and counsels people in herbal medicine, food, but wants to learn more about botany and wild-crafting, which she feels is one of the most important elements of being an herbalist.

I met Andy, Deborah’s son, that afternoon. He happened to come into town that day to pick up his daughter, Wahali. Within minutes of meeting each other, Wahali declares, “We’re going to be great friends. I just know it,” and, “I’m going to show you my favorite climbing tree once we get home; I can’t wait.” She’s only 13, has a million ideas, and talks with passion and excitement. She knows the names and uses of most of the plants in the area, and has bright eyes that read my soul. She’s a living example of the kind of radiant, Earth-connected, naturally confident child (turning into a young adult) that I like to cultivate, with the nature connection work I do.

Andy’s land is surrounded by BLM and National Forest Land, which fit my visions for my own dream land, one day soon. There’s a spring at the top of the land. Andy hand dug a water encatchment, and a trench that draws water down through the land, irrigating various medicinal plants that are planted along the water’s edge. He’s building a new cabin near the spring. It’s all a work in progress, a loving process of dreaming big and working hard, only two years young. Walking through the land, I notice little details such as a circle of rocks around a little cactus here, a fallen log dragged strategically under a shady tree, there. Andy leads plant walks on his land and around the area, and wild-crafts medicines for various herbalists and healers. He knows most of the plants we come across, having grown up with an herbalist mother, and hanging out with renowned herbalist Michael Moore, since age 8. Andy makes medicines in the folk tradition. He is not a clinical herbalist; he is a an Earth herbalist, a mountain man. “I can just refer people who need to see a clinician to to my mom, or the apothecary,” he explains. Seeing his project, I am further inspired to homestead a little piece of paradise one day, and invite community to create paradise with me. I am also inspired to stay in one place, and get to know it really well, through all the seasons.

I met Irene a few mornings later, traveling with her into the next large town. She’s like me, a budding herbalist with a few years of experience. She’s taken classes, gone to conferences, and apprenticed with a range of teachers. She’s just starting her own herbal business selling products, focusing on aromatic medicines. I appreciated hearing stories about working with different teachers and her struggles and inspirations that mirror my own. She has big dreams and deep love for the plants. Her kitchen counter is covered with glass jars filled with medicine, her living room table covered with more herbal experiments, and there are books and little idea notes everywhere. We cooked up a feast in the evening, laughing as the table grew heavy with more and more food, giggling with each tasty herbal medicine that we sampled through the night.

The next morning, I hitchhiked up to visit Julie, a few hours away by thumb. She greeted me with my traveler’s dream come true: a huge hug, a pot of soup bubbling on the stove, hot water ready for making tea, scintillating conversation, good company, a beautiful place to sleep, wild national forest to explore, and the brightest stars in the night sky, complete with shooting stars and frog songs. Similar to Andy, Julie lives in a locale akin to my dream home: surrounded by National Forest and BLM land, close enough to a good town but far enough away for peace and tranquility, and a stream running nearby. Even better, hot springs were close by, too. A dream home, indeed! I greatly enjoyed Julie’s company. She exudes a peaceful and grounded energy, and asks questions that reveal hidden layers of my soul. Julie primarily works with people through phone consultations. She is especially well-versed in Lyme treatment protocol. She’s familiar enough with the logical, intellectual, side of plant medicine to operate mostly from intuition in her work with people and plants, through plant spirit medicine, Earth-based spirituality, western herbalism, and more. We explored a magical little canyon, discussing plant spirits, and the connection between our inner child, intuition, and plant connection. We explored connecting to plants through connecting with our inner child and intuition with a flowering Corydalis aurea (golden smoke) plant, a plant that I’d harvested near Andy’s land. The exercise brought me to a joyous combination of tears and laughter, as did the subsequent exercise of “expanding the heart field.” The heart field exercise involves connecting with the feeling of the heart, then allowing and visualizing that feeling radiating outwards. I was further inspired to listen, love, and reconnect with the energetic world of Spirit.

Another morning, another hitch, another place, another herbalist. I had last visited Doug five years ago, before I left the country for my Asiatic pilgrimage. He was the only herbalist on this trip that wasn’t introduced to me by 7song. In fact, Doug was one of the first actual “herbalists” that I’d ever met. He was one of the first people to inspire me to learn the secrets of the plants through deepening my relationship with them. Before leaving the country, he suggested I “talk with everything. Just keep speaking with everything. One day, you will start to hear things speaking back.” I thus communicated verbally and otherwise with all of my surrounding landscapes throughout my travels. I prayed and spoked with spirits and the natural world around me, as if I were chatting with friends. The worlds of nature and spirit have always felt like friends, especially while traveling in distant unfamiliar locales. By verbally communicating with everything in a familiar way though, I further opened and deepened those lines of communication.

Doug has changed a lot since I last saw him. I first met him bumbling through the desert pre-dawn, at a primitive skills gathering. He’d just returned to civilization after a dozen years of living off the land, and was glowing. Now, having returned to civilization and seeking to bridge between worlds, he says, “I’m having so much fun.” But, when I look into his eyes, I am unsure. I understand that it is difficult to live in both worlds, as I am currently struggling with this bridge. We walked barefoot through sand, water, and stone in the moonlit night-scape, accompanying neighbors and their flock of baby sheep back to their land, across two rivers. We admired the evening primrose opening in the twilight, then glowing in full bloom, by the light of the nearly full moon. Splashing barefoot through the streams and moonlit landscape laughing, I could feel our delight and connection with the natural world. We continued to climb up the hill, to set Doug’s burros into high pastures for the evening. He expounded upon the sacredness of plants, the importance of simple medicines, and the importance of plant connection. He works with people primarily via the world of spirit, and simple plant medicines, primarily wild-crafted, and in teas. Doug seeks to teach people empowered medicine, where they can harvest their own medicines and collectively care-take their own health, in a respectful and connected way with the surrounding natural landscape. I heard a lot of frustration with the western medical system, even the western herbal rising paradigm of working allopathically with plants, instead of holistically.

I connected deeper with Wind. I first met Wind five years ago, while visiting Doug. I was exploring the neighboring public lands, and following what I thought was an odd deer trail. Much to my surprise, the weird trail led me to a drying rack, fire pit, and then an adorable shelter that looked like an upturned cone-shaped fish-basket. Wind was as surprised to see me, as I was to see him. “How did you track me?” he asked. We ended up sharing several meals and conversations together.

This time, when I first returned to the area, I headed upstream, following the river on a whim. I saw a beautiful little shelter that I’d never seen before, and went to explore. Not wanting to intrude, I skirted around it, then continued following some fresh bare foot tracks along the river. “That guy,” I thought to myself, “he must still be here.” I came across Wind and Henry working on Wind’s new shelter, or “hooch,” as he likes to call it. We had a joyous reunion. While I’d been off wandering through different landscapes and countries meeting new people and learning new things, Wind had spent the same amount of time in one place, only. He had built one new hooch, lived in it successfully, started building a second hooch, developed a loving romantic partnership, improved his health and well-being, intimately gotten to know the landscape around him, and was living more and more off the land. He’s aiming towards stone age style self sufficiency, and is one of the few people I’ve met who’s actually living his life like this, long-term.

I was most inspired by Wind’s relationship with the land. He uses plants for food, shelter, medicine, and beauty. He knows when and how to harvest, and how best to process plants. Of all the people that I’ve reunited with since I’ve returned from Asia, Wind’s eyes are the brightest. There’s a shining twinkle in his eyes that speaks of winds, wildness, rain, cold, hunger, fear, pleasure, joy, and more, all met in a pure, raw, format. His body is fit and strong. Instead of growing fat and weak, as have most of my city-dwelling friends, Wind (and my other nature-dwelling friends) looks even better than I remembered him. When I last saw him, he looked a little malnourished, less energetic. Doug had given him some lifestyle suggestions, which he directly implemented. He cut gluten out of his diet, started processing his food in a more easily assimilable way, and eats less quantity, more quality foods. He lives a semi hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and associates with people if and when he chooses to. What a rich life. It’s not easy, but life isn’t easy in the modern world, either. Wind voiced confusion over why so many are interested in learning primitive skills, but no one is really willing or wanting to live that way, long term. I discussed my idea of building bridges, my own desire for being a bridge between the worlds of nature and spirit, and modern humans. I questioned my own reasons for returning to the developed world. What are my goals, motivations, and visions? I too am happiest in the natural world. How shall I build this living bridge?

I spent the night near the river, in the same place that I had last slept five years ago, before I left the country. It’s the same place where Doug used to sleep when he lived off the land: a little clearing with an amazing view of the orange cliffs, desert green mountains, and starry night sky. I stayed awake until almost dawn, tending my fire, watching the sky, singing songs, giving thanks, praying, and listening.

I reunited with naturalist Caleb the next afternoon. He calls himself a “budding botanist,” though he knew the common and Latin names of most of the plants we saw, as well as the stories of the pollinators, stars, and stones. Herbalists are often intimidated by botany, though it’s an important skill to have, to safely identify and use plant medicines. Even more than botany, I enjoy knowing all about the natural world, and aspire to be a well-rounded naturalist like 7song, who specializes in the realm of botany and plant medicine, but knows a lot about the natural world at large. This knowledge of the natural world is cultivated through relationship, “dirt time” spent exploring, questioning, and learning sensorially. Caleb also possesses this knowledge of and deep relationship with the natural world, inspiring me in my own naturalist adventures.

After the 6 day journey of visiting 7 herbalists, I expanded my personal understanding of what it means to be an “herbalist.” There are so many diverse (infinite) paths as an herbalist. For me, it’s a life-long dance, interacting with plants as individual beings, noting their interactions with people and combined together, their uses, medicine, and beauty. This journey expanded my relationships with people from heart-centered, community, family, and clinical perspectives. It expands my personal definitions, increasing possibilities, and opening doors for further exploration, deeper understanding, and wider inspiration for exploring, sharing, and living with the plant world as an “herbalist.”

Addendum: our advanced herbalism class just had our first botany field day of the season. I was greatly inspired by a discussion about ethical wild-crafting that Josh, our botany teacher, facilitated during lunch. Josh closed the discussion with an open-ended quote, a simple yet profound statement from his teacher, Howie Brounstein, “Wild-crafting is stewardship.” He invited us to share what that statement meant for us. As we each shared our personal relationships with wild-crafting, plant medicine, and the natural world, I felt more connected with my classmates than I’ve felt, all semester. For me, “wild-crafting” means knowing the plants: understanding where they grow, their individual and collective preferences of soil, sunlight, water, and more. It means knowing when to harvest, how to propagate and cultivate, how much to take, which parts to take for which actions, how to process and use the plants, and more. “Wild-crafting” includes understanding how plants dance solo, collectively, and with humans, too. Care-taking ourselves is intimately connected with care-taking our plant medicines, the stewardship of the Earth as a whole. It’s all tied together. What does “wild-crafting is stewardship” mean, for you?