Montana Herb Gathering reflections

I've come to realize that it's not what classes I take, but how I take them. It's not where I go, but how I experience it. It's not life that sculpts me, but rather I who sculpt my life. It's not the notes that make the music, but rather the space between the notes. The quality of relationships created between classes, rather than the amount of information accrued in classes. The inspiration from classes, rather than the information.

True, I don't get complete control of the matter. But, "how" is often more powerful than "what."

I taught an adult course at an herbal gathering for the first time, at the Montana Herb Gathering, this summer. It was a quick course, on basic flower and leaf anatomy, and how to key out a plant using a local flora. I over-prepared for class, talked as quickly as I could, breathed deeply, let go, and watched my students learn, explore, and enjoy botany. I loved it.

The gathering took place at Canyon Lake Ferry, at the Montana Learning Center: a small cluster of cabins set against a stunning backdrop of lake and sky. Most people camped, while others stayed in cabins. There was a small herb fair vendor area, between the cabins (where classes took place) and camping. I camped on the edge of a peninsula cliff, sleeping and waking to the sounds of water, birdsong, and crickets, admiring the mist creeping across the moonlit waters by night, sunlit ripples by day.

A comfortable camaraderie was cultivated at this gathering: we ate meals together, with ample time for milling around, meeting new friends, celebrating with old friends, and swapping plant and life stories of all sorts. This year's gathering was smaller and more quiet than in previous years. This being my first time here at the Montana Herb Gathering, I appreciated the coziness and intimacy of having less people. The classes ranged from scientific to energetic, and everything in between. The general participant demographic also ranged from experienced herbalists to first-timers, with a range of ages, some families, and a general peacefulness and joyousness.

I enjoyed most of the classes that I went to, but was easily distracted. Around 4 classes took place simultaneously within each 1.5 hour period. Most of them sounded interesting, so I would jump around from class to class to see different teaching styles, and get a general potpourri of all the different classes.

I start Chinese medicine studies this autumn, so was particularly interested in Miles Coleman's classes, and how he approaches western herbs with Chinese medicine philosophies. My most memorable class though, was simple yet profound, and not information packed at all. In fact, quite the opposite. Sarah Bunting is a young woman like me, and also somewhat fresh to teaching at gatherings. She led a plant meditation class, reading us a story about "Night Singing Bear" that she received from Usnea, before we went off on our solo plant meditation explorations. Sarah's Usnea-inspired story and profound yet playful approach to this work is deeply inspiring, a reminder for why and how I hope to continue walking on and exploring this plant-based path. 

Highlights of my time at the Montana Herb Gathering occur around and between classes, usually in the evenings. I went swimming everyday out to the closest island in the lake, the exhilaratingly cold water stimulating, waking, rejuvenating, and delighting my senses, the blue sky a blessing to my eyes, every breeze and splash of waters into my face and eyes a kiss from the divine. Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) grew in abundance around the water. I brought both of my classes (adults' botany class, and kids' plant-based arts class) down to the waters' edge, where we discussed, keyed out, drew, and immersed ourselves in plants. I visited the Henbane every morning and night, watching it grow, smelling it, rattling its seed heads, and sticking my face into its sticky witchy leaves and flowers. People made a bonfire in the firepit at the waters' edge, every night. I came down to the water on the first night, planning for a quiet date with Henbane, but instead surprised to find a group of people chatting around the fire. I socialized a little, then slunk out of the circle, down to the water. I drifted into a Henbane haze, a waking dream that wove my understanding of my place in all this, even deeper into the fabric of my being. Evening song circles by the firelight, Henbane, and water filled me with joy.

At dinner one night, I interviewed organizer Jim Nymeyer about his work with herbs, people, and Chinese medicine. Two other Chinese medicine people came and joined in the discussion, which became a miniature class. I ended the evening learning a taiji practice for cultivating my inner awareness, balancing my organ systems, and grounding my energy before and after working with clients.

The final evening of the gathering, the kids put on a hilarious and adorable play about how the fairies saved the plants and pollinators from GMO's and Round-Up, which basically meant that they put on colorful elaborate costumes, and chased each other around and around the tree of life (a ribbon-bedecked tree in the center of our circle). I couldn't stop laughing, especially at the "queen of the demons," who was a little boy who attended my kids' class, who kept hinting, "Wait 'til you see my dress," all through my class. He howled louder than all of the other demons, and opened his eyes and mouth so wide that I thought they might pop out. Then, we had a "botanical fashion show," (more light-hearted laughter and celebration). This cultivation of relationship with people and plants is truly a celebration.

The Montana Herb Gathering is currently looking for more people to join their Board of Directors, which recently went through major changes. If you are an herbalist living in that region, then consider joining a group of dedicated herbalists promoting plant-based awareness and education in the state of Montana, and beyond.