An answer to the question: What is Traditional Western Herbalism?
It is sometimes suggested, and often presumed, that the present practice of herbalism in the West is a matter of matching single herbs to individual ailments, in contrast to the better-known systematized forms of traditional medicine—TCM, Unani, Ayurveda, and so on—which emphasize constitutional assessments, individualized recommendations, and complex formulae. The idea is that Western Herbalists have a “take this herb for that symptom” approach which mirrors the model of modern conventionallopathic medicine.
This idea is mistaken, and markedly. Traditional Western Herbalism as we find it today is a full, holistic system of healing with a rich history and a diversely livingrowing present. Literature, lore, experience, and experiment are its primary sources; integrative and inventive, this practice is a polyculture, but everywhere it grows from a shared ground.
We can follow threads of thought and therapy through time: from the ancient Greek and Roman physicians, who founded philosophies of human healthfulfillment; to Persia’s persistent scholarship during Europe’s Dark Ages, meticulous and methodical; to the Renaissance and its “age of discovery”, when half a world of wisdom was wounded; to seventeenth-century European medicine, star-struck and strident; to the nineteenth-century Physiomedicalists and Eclectics, far-ranging and free-thinking; to the modern Western Herbalists—vitalists, wise women, syncretists, scientists, survivors, revivers, and rebels.
These threads may not be straight and solid all the way through; they may wander, detour, fade into traces and then re-emerge; they may split and splinter, braid and criss-cross; but they are yet real, and a plucking at one such string resonates through all the rest. They weave a web, and the places where threads come together, places of crossing and concentration—those nodes are names, the names of founders and framers whose ideas have influenced the course of this tradition’s development: Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides, Avicenna, von Bingen, Culpeper, Thomson, Cook, LeSassier, Moore, Bairacli Levy.
In the scope of ages, these points are few and far between—so many names are unknown, and this is much of the reason for the disappearance and reappearance of the tradition’s threads. For the most part, what we have to work with is only the written record, not the oral, living practice that was handed down directly and was always, necessarily, broader and deeper than what could be set down by those few who wrote, in those fewer books that survived. Throughout, the bearers of that knowledge were the medicine man and the midwife, the witch and the wind-watcher, the shaman and the shaper of form. They were the ones who were driven further and further underground by the dominant forces of many eras—the Church and its persecutions echoing in the AMA and its prosecutions.
It’s only in relatively recent years that some of those oral transmissions have found their way into the wider world, adding scope and spice to what survived inscribed, and sooner still that correlations, connections, and consensus among the multivocality of language, lore, and locality could be considered, compounded, and comprehended.
All along the courses of its development, herbalism in the West has been hungry for new knowledge, and has integrated new elements—concepts, practices, and, of course, plants—from every source it has encountered and found useful. This was true in the Old World, as empires trans[p]la[n]ted medicines across trade routes long as land would lead, and it has been even more the case since the contact between continents came to define a new West.
As cultures collided and commingled, reciprocally peculiar species sprouted in old forests and freshly tilled gardens, as new plants were introduced to the materia medica of native and newcomer both. In trickles and waves from all points of the compass came Mediterranean, Celtic, African, Chinese, Indian, Arabic, and unnumbered unnamed elements, pooling and seeping into the soil here, flowing through a valley there, finding the level of the landscape, fitting into its contours, shaping it and being shaped by it in the turn of season and sun.
So were born the South’s folk medicine, California’s curanderismo, New England’s root-doctoring, and all the inbetweening blends and blossoms across the countries through the years, even up to the current enclaves of Ayurvedic reinvention and TCModernization-qua-localization.
At the same time as this tradition-trading and intuition-tracing, there were those who worked under lens and over still, in crucible and vial, with solvent and spectrum and spreadsheet, trusting test and blinded trial. Though at times antagonistic, these were relentlessly, essentially optimistic, and their operations taught the West’s weed-walkers much of worth.
Today, the web’s wound world-wide; what was once only identified in idea is now incarnated in the internet. It’s there many of our moderns learn of classes, schools, and conferences, and where those who teach and practice share their knowledge with each other—instantly, incessantly, inspiring countless new combinations and explorations, continuing the work of weaving whose wisdoms we’ve beheld beyond our previous believing.
By lengthening our view of these divergent-then-convergent paths, we’re strengthening our presence in the present while protecting what’s prov[id]ed by the past. By looking under the clothing of color and culture, we can discern what is common in the crowd of herbcraft’s crones. What molds their flesh, what builds up their bones, what brings the breath to their lives? When abstraction does its [d|r]eductive work, what certain_ties survive?
We find a foundation in food and fresh air, in nature as nurture and the cure of full care: you are what you eat, your mind needs to move, your body runs best under sun. Sleep in the dark. Seek stillness and breathe. Do all this, and your work’s nine-tenths done. Always nourish before purging; the first task is to feed. And when an ill needs stronger stuff, let herbs fill in the need.
—Forgive me; I’ve lapsed into poetry (and now, the first person) when I meant to be presenting the principles of the practice. But, truth told, I’d propose there’s no language better suited for this purpose. Poiesis is a making, a turn of matter tuned by mind, and when we heed to herbal healing this is just the kind of cor[e]relation we will find: an eye is always on the elemental energetics of the particular, the personal, the present . . . the poetic.
Each person is a poem, then—and that means they can be read. By reading the body a picture emerges: the baseline borders of this living landscape, its depressions and its surges. Call them constitutions, temperaments, humours, or states, these qualities in client and condition refine and regulate what the herbalist recommends and how the chosen herbs relate. In simple and triad, ninefolded nuance, or any number suited to the need, the formulae are formed to fit the physical and mental manifestation of the man or woman seeking aid to mend. Root and leaf and seed each take their place in well-planned blend, lending their lives’ lessons to the lessening of pain, the release into repose, the opening of doors. And while no single herb could cure everyone’s ills, there surely will be one whose medicine’s made to match yours.
That’s one of the pleasures of playing with plants: there’s such voluminous variety in the vegetal world. Every biome we make into a home has its own palette and pattern of treeline and trail-vine, mushroom and moss, rootstock and cactus and free wild flower. These are reflections of elemental powers—the urgency of earth, the weight of water, the activity of air, and the ferocity of fire. (Or we could speak of mineral-richness, aquifer length, atmosphericlimate and solar-heat strength—the meaning persists through language’s twists.)
Their specific spread across one space shapes who and where and how will grow all pieces of the puzzle—not only the plants, but the problems they address. Where it’s cold and damp, we can smoke out a cough, but those out in the desert are right if they scoff at this strategy for their dusty kind of wheezing. Even how to make “tea” is contested by quarters: cold-infused or long-decocted, which is the more pleasing? The debate’s half concocted; what matters is a medicine that works. In one place, [f]or one person, that’s boiling ruddy roots for hours on hours; in another, for another, it’s short-steeping pale flowers. But everywhere, it seems, it’s found that what we need is offered freely by the ground—settlers seasoned themselves to new lands by working with the wilderness at hand, and today we know we’ve been given a sign when “invasives” begin to abound.
We’re in the middle, always, between past and future, what’s been done and what we can do. In the West of the world, some are working to weave what they know into what we once knew, reviving what was written and expanding on experience to take our tradition ever closer to true. We share it in classroom and consult and call with all who are hunting whole health. That’s to say: at our center, we see this tradition as the people’s common wealth.
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