Apprenticing with 7song

Apprenticing with 7song meant spending six days a week working with him, for almost nine months. This revolutionized my perspective on herbalism, healthcare, and even life. Even more important than the hard skills gleaned, are the tools of empowered critical thinking, humor, kind generosity, and a truly holistic approach to healthcare that I observed clinically, and otherwise. 7song’s nonconventional teaching style is humorous, direct, engaging, and filled with clinical gems, botanical details, and almost thirty years of hands-on experience in the field, clinic, and classroom. 7song is skilled in all aspects of western clinical herbalism: wild-crafting, medicine making, field botany, clinical work, first aid, and an intimate understanding of how humans work, how plants work, and how the two work together. I now not only feel confident with the above skills, but also feel empowered to continue learning on my own, and inspired to provide accessible herbal healthcare services and education, wherever I go. Below, I share a bit more about my apprenticeship with 7song, which was a transformational year of my life. I hope that this story provides considering apprentices some perspective on what that experience is like, inspires working herbalists to offer apprenticeships in turn, and allows others a bit more insight into who we herbalists are, what we do, and the backdrop behind what has come to be a huge part of my life.

I found him on Facebook. A friend posted an intriguing photo from 7song. It was a beautiful moth on his “moth wall,” which is just a lamp against a white wall that bugs flock to at night, and he photographs, visiting often to observe different insects. I loved this simple image enough that I visited 7song’s personal page, looked through more of his photos, was further intrigued, checked out his webpage, then was blown away by the depth and abundance of herbal information there. “I want to apprentice with 7song one day,” I whispered to myself as sort of a passing thought, that I never dreamed would one day be a life-changing reality.

Fast forward... after studying traditional healing modalities around southeast Asia for three years, I started exploring options for returning back to the USA. I remembered 7song, and got in touch. Talking on the phone, across the ocean, even with the choppy reception, I could tell that I liked him immediately. I did some more research, then formally accepted what I’d already decided on, three years ago: I’m apprenticing with 7song.

“We are healthcare providers first, herbalists second,” said 7song on the first day of class. He would continue emphasizing this point, throughout the apprenticeship. He spoke about it in class, as a way to cultivate open-mindedness in our approach to integrative healthcare. More importantly, I watched this in action, observing 7song in the clinic. We utilize plant medicines in our healing protocols, but are not dogmatically attached to just this form of healthcare. 7song revolutionized the way that I consider and approach botanical medicine, healing arts, and life itself.

“Do you want to go for a walk?” 7song knocked on my door within a few days of my moving to the Ithaca region. I moved there to apprentice with him, which meant working with him intensively six days a week, for almost nine months. I had just landed back in the USA, and we hadn’t officially started the apprenticeship yet. While walking on that cold spring morning, just getting to know each other, we came across a steep embankment of ice. I started walking around it, to avoid slipping. To my surprise, 7song laid his bag at the bottom of the ice slide, ran to the top, and went sliding down, laughing. Whenever times got tough during the year, I would remember that moment, and smile.

7song is courageously nonconventional, and refreshingly “real.” He curses, speaks his mind, and is sarcastic, skeptical, playful, smart, wise, kind, generous, straightforward, sometimes rude, and certainly not for everyone. I love him. 7song’s almost thirty years of hands-on experience in the field, clinic, and classroom is apparent in his skillful teaching. He’s skilled in all aspects of western clinical herbalism: wild-crafting, medicine making, field botany, clinical work, first aid, and an intimate understanding of how humans work, how plants work, and how the two work together. He is constantly questioning, researching, re-evaluating, modifying, and growing. He’s an open-minded skeptic who takes nothing at face value. Everything is up for questioning, and nothing really “works” until actively proven, and consistently works, with continuous observation and querying all along the way. Nothing is ever “set.” 7song is honest about what he knows and doesn’t know. If he doesn’t know the answer to something, then he provides useful pertinent information and queries to continue exploring that direction on your own.

7song has a huge apothecary. It literally became my home, as I spent more time in 7song’s apothecary, classroom, and home than I did in my own sleeping-quarters cabin (a few miles down the road). His apothecary is a converted basement space, with a maze of metal shelving, lined with glass jars filled with diverse wild-crafted plants and medicinal preparations from all over the USA. Most of the medicines are tinctures, though there are also huge bins filled with dried herbs, and a collection of oils, too. Some of the medicines are ancient, back from when he was my age, studying with Micheal Moore, and even before then. There’s a lot of fresh medicine, too.

I loved processing fresh medicines. We went into the field to gather large amounts of plant material, usually making gallons of tinctures at a time, washing the fresh plants in large buckets, chopping them in the sun room, then eventually pressing the tinctures, getting giddy on the scent of alcohol and macerated plant materials, in the cold air of the basement apothecary. We prepared tinctures and other medicines for 7song’s variety of uses: at the Ithaca Free Clinic for clients, selling at the local co-op, and for various sundry uses. At some point, everything was utilized, and we went through large amounts of some medicines. Going through all of the bottles, the succession of years of apprentices becomes apparent, as I start to recognize handwriting, and associate certain handwriting with certain years, and the stories therein. But, before the time of apprentices, there was only 7song’s own handwriting, and sometimes little doodles and notations, that further tracked his history with this medicine, and life way. One could arrange the medicines by year, and get a sense of the abundant amount of traveling that 7song has done in his life, and the diversity of plant knowledge that he’s accumulated through firsthand explorative experience.

The apothecary opens up to the classroom. The classroom is a converted greenhouse, a glass room that we had to cover with ceiling blankets and open all the windows in the summer, to prevent the class from overheating. One of our apprentice projects, before class started, was remodeling the classroom. We ordered a new sofa, made some new pillowcases and curtains, redecorated, and reorganized the space. We continued caretaking this room through the school season, vacuuming before and after class, fluffing pillows, cleaning up after students, preparing demonstrations, and more. The greenhouse was also the perfect place to dry plants quickly, if we weren’t putting them into the dehydrator. The floor was often covered with recently gathered plants laid out to dry, sometimes being bundled together minutes before other students showed up, then spread out again, after the students left in the evening.

7song lives on a beautiful property that has a wildly diverse medicinal garden around the house. 7song has a hands-off approach to his garden. He plants the plants, but they end up mostly taking care of themselves. Apprentices manage a garden a little further from the living space, and plant whatever they like. Before planting season started, 7song fished a big metal can out, from the back of one of his extensive closets. He opened it, revealing one small bag after another of an assortment of seeds: herbs, flowers, foods, and more. “Go for it,” he said. And so, we planted what we wanted, everything grew wild while we were gone for the Rainbow Gathering fieldtrip, and we still had more than enough food and medicine from the wild little garden to feed ourselves while at school, take some foods home, and make medicine, too.

There are always flowers and tea in the classroom. Every morning, regardless of if it was a field day or lecture day, we apprentices brewed three large pots of tea: two different herbal teas that we usually blended on the spot, and a third caffeinated black or green tea. 7song is a skilled artist: he makes music, composes brilliant photographs, and arranges flowers that sing from their vases. 7song’s flower arrangements are like his herbal formulations: he’s done it for long enough that it comes as second nature, and is apparent in the rapidity of arrangement, elegant simplicity, and potency. We had two vases freshly filled with flowers for each week of class, that matched the changing seasons, and oftentimes, botanical information being shared.

The Community Herbal Intensive classes are three days a week, from Monday through Wednesday, May to November. The first part of the program focuses on herbal first aid, to prepare for the Rainbow Gathering at the end of June and into the beginning of July, which is a two week field trip, and the highlight of many students’ experiences. After that, we covered a body system each week: Mondays are anatomy and physiology, Tuesdays are botany field days, and Wednesdays are pathologies and materia medica. We keyed out plants and went on plant walks for field days, visiting different ecosystems, and becoming confident in both field plant identification and medicine making. Mondays and Wednesdays were mostly lecture days, with students piled into the sun room on couches that line the walls, 7song sitting in the center in his rolly chair in the center of the room, with his desk, skeleton, two vases of flowers, and yummy teas.

Apprentices attend all of the Community Herbal Intensive classes, and some of the Weekend Program classes. Weekend classes are three days a month, and are condensed versions of the Intensive program.

Apprentices worked all morning during class days, except for the Tuesday field days, as those were full day ventures. We help prepare lunch and dinner for 7song and each other, make tea for the students, clean up the classroom before and after class, empty the outhouses, process plants for medicine, tend the garden, prepare tinctures to sell at the co-op, and so much more.

Us three apprentices rotated between who accompanied 7song to the Ithaca Free Clinic on Thursdays. During clinic days, two apprentices sat on one side of the small room, while 7song and the client sat on the other side of the room. We took notes, listened, and observed while 7song conducted the client intake and consultation, formulated on the spot, then gave us the formula to fill. Apprentices filled formulas silently and efficiently while 7song continued with the consultation. After the consult, clients went home with their formula, and clear directions for taking it, and when to return. Initial consultations are one hour long, while subsequent consultations are half an hour long. The free clinic is an inspiring model. It’s completely free, with a diversity of healthcare practitioners operating together under the same roof: an herbalist, an MD, two nurses, two massage therapists, an acupuncturist, and a psychologist. One of the directors often brought in delicious food from her restaurant. In between clients and after work, we would crowd around the little table in the back room feasting, and exchanging jokes, stories, and knowledge. If anyone received a client who needed something that someone else could better provide, or if they had questions, then they would refer them to someone else, in the same building. I felt honored to witness, and be part of, an integrative holistic healthcare practice that is effective, accessible, and a generous gift to the community.

Besides the Rainbow Gathering, there are two other field trips during the school year. Apprentices help prepare for these trips, managing some logistics, clean up, student care, and other duties during the trip. Field trips felt like a respite from our usual long hours in the apothecary, and working before and after classes. We visited beautiful areas to learn more about the plants of different ecosystems, meet other herbalists, wildcraft, botanize, and create medicines in the field. Field trips were often luxurious days spent in nature, roaming around with fellow plant aficionados, and late nights around a campfire processing plants, telling stories, laughing, and living with delight. But, there were also long hours of driving around searching for a good area to wildcraft, some days of inclement weather, and the accompanying fatigue. We learned about the realities of wildcrafting, through this process.

Apprentices manage their own room and board, but attend all Community Herbal Intensive classes without an additional fee. Some people wonder if this is just a worktrade arrangement. It’s not. There’s no time to work another job, so apprentices need to have enough financial savings to provide for themselves, for the year. And, apprentices work a lot. Apprentices are an integral working part of 7song’s life. I had some monetary savings that I used, lived frugally, and still created space in my life for personal and social needs, though I didn’t get to know my fellow students as much as I would have liked. After working full mornings, I just felt like taking space during class breaks, instead of socializing. Regardless of how busy we were, almost every week, 7song took us apprentices on a little trip. Sometimes, it was partnered with a gathering expedition. But usually, it was just a walk in the woods where we’d talk, look at plants, and just relax, and enjoy each other’s company, in a non-work atmosphere.

The hands-on aspect of being an apprentice is invaluable experience. I witnessed the ups and downs of being a full-time herbal teacher, clinician, school director, wildcrafter, medicine maker, writer, and more. I observed a skilled clinician in practice with about 500 cases, learned a bit about selling products, filling orders, preparing for classes and events, and more. I learned a lot about myself, healthcare, herbalism, and the natural world.

There’s a certain degree of personal agency that is surrendered during the apprenticeship. After studying for three years in Asia, I was used to the respect that students afford their teachers. Sometimes, teachers have their students do years of mundane labor, before sharing any “real information.” There’s certainly a fair share of mundane labor, as well as more formal training, in this apprenticeship. 7song’s a strong character, and can be difficult to get along with, with clear personal preferences, rules, and needs. But, he’s a clear communicator, and cares. One of his first questions that he asked me, during our initial interview, was, “What do you think you will hate most about me?” Some teachers can be overly idealistic, glazing over the darker, yet real, parts of life. 7song is honest about all of these things, and about himself as well. That can be uncomfortable for some. He directly warned hat he can be difficult to get along with during our interview, and asked some potentially uncomfortable questions about race, gender, and other touchy subjects. So, I entered the apprenticeship prepared to work hard and learn a lot with a tough guy. His classes tend to attract punks and other “fringe” folks, as he is open to the counter culture, and carries a bit of a bad-ass reputation, himself. All three of us apprentices agreed that 7song’s hardcore, but not as tough or difficult to get along with as he made himself sound, in the interview. But, for a person who doesn’t fit 7song’s somewhat specific temperament, I can see how it would be really difficult for both parties concerned.

I lived close to 7song and didn’t have a car (a big no no, for future considering apprentices), so we often carpooled, especially during clinic days. We live slightly out of town, whereas the clinic is in the town of Ithaca. I treasured driving home after a full clinic work day with 7song. “I’ve been talking with people about their health all day,” 7song would say, “let’s talk about something else.” So we got to joke around, and discuss everything from pointless trivia to childhood stories, and more. 7song has the eyes of a skilled wildcrafter and naturalist, one who knows the land, notices small details, and is always looking, and seeing. Even while driving quickly, he noticed animals and plants that I didn’t notice. We would sometimes take detours to his favorite spots to search for peregrines here, scout for certain plants there, etc. He found a fox den down the road from his home. In the spring, he drove there everyday to watch the fox kits grow up, and play. “Grab what you need; let’s go,” he would sometimes announce out of the blue. The first time we visited the foxes was one of those days, where we had just finished our morning meeting, was preparing to kick our day into gear, then got called out for a surprise trip. We sat in the car on the side of the road, ogling the fox kits, while 7song made photo after photo, with his camera that’s always around his neck.

I really appreciate getting to know 7song beyond a teacher, more fully as a person, and dear friend. In some ways, I feel like the apprenticeship isn’t over. With all of the seeds planted during the apprenticeship, I feel both a responsibility and deep desire to continue nourishing those seeds within myself, while sharing that information and inspiration with my community, and further. We still keep in touch. I write down lists of questions, and we go through them, every few weeks. I consider 7song one of the rocks in my life, someone that I could actually go to for anything from personal to professional support. I sometimes feel like he sees something in me that I can’t see clearly yet, and is a cheerleader who dresses all in black and will never actually cheer, but will always be there, answer questions with more questions, and make sarcastic jokes that make me laugh and laugh, and think for myself.

On the last day of class, 7song said to us, “Yesterday, you were my students. Today, you are now my peers. One day, I hope you will be my teachers.”