I’m so excited to share this deeply insightful and highly inspirational interview with Jesse Wolf Hardin – a true pioneer in this resurgence of American folk herbalism. I’ve gained so much insight in reading Wolf’s writings on the current state and direction of herbal medicine in North America, so I was thrilled when he agreed to participate in this interview. I promptly took this opportunity to ask Wolf some of my own pressing questions that have been nagging at me for years. I hope you enjoy reading Wolf’s insights as much as I have!
Melanie: Thank-you so much for taking the time to chat with Herb Geek. I know how busy you are with your numerous projects and commitments, so I’m very grateful that you’ve been able to carve out some the time to share your thoughts and insights with us!
You have a unique perspective on herbalism and plant medicine. Can you share a bit about your background and how it has shaped your approach to healing with medicinal plants?
Jesse Wolf Hardin: We all come to this work – to the plants – on our own path, a personal and highly individualized winding from discovery to actualization. Some first become familiar with medicinal plants as they explore ways of treating their own limiting conditions, which evolves into using herbs to help others. Others grow up with an urge to serve, help and heal, beginning with an herbal study and practice but then expanding to include the necessary healing of families, neighborhoods and ecosystems. Deeper intimacy with plants may lead to deeper intimacy with nature in general, and to a reawakened sense of the enlivenedness, connectedness and sacredness of all things. Feeling empowered to take responsibility for the health of ourselves and those we care about can result in feeling empowered to speak our truths, grow some of our own food, stand up to injustice, and live our dreams in the face of all obstacles
I came to this shared place and work from a different angle. I felt drawn to a calling or mission from the time I was a very young child. I was observant of contradictions and injustices, attracted to truth and beauty, given to questioning the assumptions of so called “authorities,” and developed insights into the workings of both nature and society. Even though I spent much of my childhood in the suburbs, I played hooky with fence lizards, kept counsel with vacant-lot weeds, and studied people from the anonymity of curbside treetops. As a young teen I put my body on the line at protests against the Vietnam War, volunteered to help the native elders of Big Mountain and the activists of Yellow Thunder Camp, used my odd and wild artwork to raise awareness of nature and spirit, and began to publish writings about the sensibilities, values and issues that I care about. In my 20s, my outlaw art gallery in Taos, New Mexico was pledged to infiltrate, affect and remedy the prevailing white-bread culture. Then I sold everything I owned including the engine out of our school bus home for the down payment on a river canyon sanctuary, awesomely inspirited but beleaguered land that needed my protection and nourishment as much as I needed its inspiration and refuge. I started learning about the animals and plants that should be here, becoming familiar with my first medicinal herbs thanks to a manual written by the inimitable Michael Moore, and initiating a process of riparian and botanical species restoration.
For over a dozen years I was a core organizer for the radical wilderness activist group Earth First!, melding music and entertainment with civil disobedience and media campaigns. In the 1980s I gave hundreds of public speeches and musical performances at rallies we called “The Deep Ecology Medicine Shows” and I worked to bring together conservationists and herbalists including by bringing Michael Moore to an Earth First! Rendezvous in the Southwest. I launched workshops and courses on spiritual ecology, that addressed the healing of our psyches along with the wounded natural world. I began to suffer symptoms from Hepatitis C in the 90s, nearly destroying my body with interferon before restoring much of my health with herbs. It had by then become clear that everything I have ever done has been in one way or another been in the name of healing: addressing the wounds of unnecessary wars and the injustices to indigenous peoples; the dissolution of natural ecocentric cultures and destruction of the Redwood and Fir forests; the extirpation of New Mexico Wolves and California White Sage; the unwholeness and stress of good people unsure of their rights, worth and abilities.
Partnering with Kiva Rose, her passion for herbs and herbalism resulted in our infusing ourselves deeper into this community, and our helping to inspire in this field some deep ecological sensibilities, a sense of vitality and purpose meant to sustain folk medicine through the many challenges ahead. We have dedicated ourselves to championing an herbalism that is accessible and empowering, individualized and personalized, diverse and wondrous… to plant, feed and water the seeds of a folk herbal resurgence, to encourage the organic growth of its aesthetic culture and earthen healing values. I brought to Plant Healer Magazine and HerbFolk gatherings my perspective as a child of nature, runaway street kid, community volunteer, wilderness dweller and ecological activist. In turn, herbalism has given me another important means for my healing… and a language and tools for me to help heal the bodies, psyches, communities and bioregions in need.
Whatever else I feel, I am dedicated and determined, grateful and appreciated… and fully excited about the possibilities of each purposeful healing day.
Melanie: Wow, that’s beautiful. I got chills reading that. It’s so true that we all come to this work on our own path, and that we all bring a diverse and unique background to the work. It’s wonderful that you’ve been able to follow the thread of healing from addressing social injustices to restoring ecological health to championing a new paradigm for herbalism. It’s quite a powerful trajectory!
In your book The Herbalists Path, you describe herbalists as being “marginalized by their interests and practices” and “a minority among all the health approaches and professions.” This comes across as an astute but surprising observation since plant medicine is an important and valued component of countless cultural traditions. Can you elaborate on why this is the case?
Jesse Wolf Hardin: Regional systems of plant medicine were not only traditional but also essential for most if not all human societies from the very beginning. Our furry primate ancestors already self medicated, selecting and eating plants that they’d discovered helped to remedy their indigestion, infection, infestations, and other dangerous or uncomfortable conditions. When our kind migrated from the jungles of Africa into those iconic caves of Eurasia, they most certainly made it a mission to distinguish medicinal herbs from among the thousands of species they encountered, spreading them to dry just as folk herbalists might do today. Autopsies of some bodies found in ancient burial grounds revealed the presence of plant matter in their bellies, noses, and/or spread upon their chest… plant matter that when analyzed turned out to be from species with proven medicinal application.
Over the course of thousands of years, human fashions and customs changed relentlessly. People migrated from their old haunts, built cities where there were forests and farms, and exchanged their bows and arrows for firearms, and yet throughout it all plant remedies remained the most common and often the only viable treatments for what ails. The women of every household took responsibility for the basic health care needs of their families. The most adept women and men were sought out by others in need, becoming the de facto if usually unofficial community health care provider, assuming the mantle of healer by any name – Herbera, Medicine Man or Woman, Herbwyfe, Hedgewitch, Curandero, Wortcunner, Root Doctor. Professional doctors were rightly feared and distrusted, thanks to dangerous practices like bleeding the patient, and their early toxic pharmaceuticals containing Mercury and other poisons, making even the least effective folk herbalists seem like a better proposition in comparison. Herbalism until this point could truly be considered “mainstream.”
By the 18th and 19th centuries, however, all this had begun to change. Doctors began organizing first as a profession, and then collectively as professional organizations that sought to not only qualify practitioners but also to ensure a monopoly for their vetted members. At the same time, big drug manufacturing companies were planning to run the competition – the small “mom and pop” makers of herbal remedies – out of business. The doctor and pharmaceutical organizations openly funded public relations campaigns against what they called “patent medicines,” and lobbied for prohibitive legislation under the guise of guarding “public safety.” The worst of the many popular plant-based decoctions were far less dangerous than the plethora of “modern” drugs that followed, of course, and yet by the early 20th century they were able to push through the legislation they desired, and in less than fifty years convinced the majority of the American public that community practitioners could no longer be trusted with their basic health care needs, that drugs are the best and only reasonable treatment for many problems while plants are either inconsequential or harmful.
Throughout, herbalism has continued to be developed and furthered, first by the likes of King, Beach, Culbreth, Scudder and Thomson, and again starting in the 1960s with folks like Jethro Kloos, John Christopher, David Hoffman, Michael Tierra, Rosemary Gladstar and Susun Weed revitalizing interest in plant medicine for the masses. Interest in herbal “supplements” has continued to increase in the last fifty years, and yet the vast majority of the population continues to associate the use of herbs with either ignorant country hicks or what they consider “New Age nonsense.” There is a subset of licensed nurses struggling to recommend herbal alternatives without violating their professional codes and corporate regulations, but there are only a relative very few nurses and doctors who give herbal therapy a thought. This is the reality today, and we face further estrangement, regulation and possibly even official prohibition in the future.
This should tell us two things at least. First, that we need to consider the degree to which we hope to market to or influence the values of the dominant culture, and take into consideration how our attitude, image, language, education, level of competency, accreditation or non-professionalized folk approach effect our goals. Secondly, it should tell us that no amount of accreditation or professionalization would earn herbalism the support of the corporatized, pharmaceutical-centric medical system, that we need not feel inadequate or freakish for practicing “archaic” plant medicine. There is no work more important than the healing of bodies, psyches, spirits, and the land… and no greater role we could play today than embodying a holistic alternative to the separative mainstream paradigm of distraction and destruction, corporate greed and drug dependency.
Herbalism does not need mainstream acceptance to be valid or viable. As we discuss in the book The Plant Healer’s Path, herbalism is an alternative stream, divergent, un-dammed, serpentine, free flowing continuous throughout the times of acceptance or nonacceptance, popularity or obscurity. It is incredibly empowering to look to one’s own intuition, studies, research, and especially personal experience and results… for reassurance of the value of healing plants and the importance of this work. When we understand and accept the relative rarity and alternative nature of herbalism, we come to see how embodying the role of herbalist today is an act of liberation from a system and its lies, and recognize the natural world as place of reconnection as we take on the responsibility for our own health and the health of the people and even ecosystems around us.
Trends and even cultures will come and go, but there will always be a need for self-care, community health care, and plant medicines… and at least an impassioned and dedicated minority giving their lifetimes to the day-to-day furtherance of herbalism. I’m excited that this living thread – this story – is ours to live and tell.
Melanie: So the oppression of herbalists by modernized medical organizations and large pharmaceutical companies resulted in plant-based healers becoming marginalized and essentially criminalized for practicing these traditional forms of medicine. Yet as you explain, herbalism has persevered regardless of the social climate, and is not dependent upon popular opinion to endorse its validity or viability as effective medicine.
I really appreciated your interview with Paul Bergner in your book 21st Century Herbalists: Root Doctors, Radicals, and Rock Stars, where he describes the term herbalist as being somewhat contrived in the sense that there is no historical reference to an actual herbalist, whereas titles such as healers, midwives, and shamans, are more historically relevant. Paul Bergner describes herbalism as being a community rather than a profession, and in The Plant Healer’s Path, you describe an herbalist as a role that one chooses or feels called towards. It seems that herbalism is the nexus point where plant healers of all backgrounds intersect, regardless of their career trajectory, profession, or level of interest. Would it be fair, then, to say that the term herbalist is more aptly an adjective than a noun?
Jesse Wolf Hardin: Yes, the plants are a point of intersection, and so too is the overwhelming intention to contribute to the needed healing. Beyond this common ground are myriad individual expressions, methods and means, providing the specialization and diversification that helps make the field and community balanced and healthy. One can be an herbalist clinician, herbalist teacher, herbalist cultivator, herbalist shaman, herbalist activist, an herbalist parent or herbalist artist to name a but a few, and in this sense “herbalist” functions as an adjective, an adjunct skill and view that bolsters and deepens all other activities from mothering to restoring watersheds, from remaking our society to growing and exploring spiritually.
You could just as easily say that the word “herbalist” is a verb, however, since it only describes what we are if it is what we do. A practicing herbalist needs to know many things in order to be effective, but knowing about herbs doesn’t make one an herbalist. Grateful clients seldom say about an herbalist that “she knows so much,” but rather, that “she really knows what she is doing.”
“Herbalist” nonetheless serves us well as a noun when worn as a job description, a title emblematic of one’s acceptance, ownership, embodiment and fulfillment of a recognizable purpose, mission and role. Once a person gets past their self doubt and self consciousness and says out loud for the first time “I am an herbalist,” they and openly committing to doing their best to help meet a need that the population has for readily available, accessible, affordable holistic treatment and natural plant medicines.
Melanie: Thank-you. I believe that will clarify the term for many people who feel ambiguity around “what constitutes an herbalist” as well as how and when to employ the word as a title or adjective.
I love your vision of future medicine people proudly and boldly claiming their title, and integrating themselves in all aspects of community and place. I also appreciate that medicine is so often equated with an ingestible substance as opposed to a broader scope of practice that includes other modalities such as story, counsel, empathy, and healing touch to name a few. As Asclepias of Thessaly wrote, “first the word, then the herb, then the knife.” Since you are so apt with semantics and etymology, would you mind sharing the way you personally define medicine?
Jesse Wolf Hardin: I would agree with Asclepias if by “first the word” he meant we first address the condition with inquiry and intake, verbal comforting or re-envisioning, discussion, counsel and advice. The addition of medicinal plants and foods, massage, realignments, acupuncture, massage and other noninvasive treatments can follow as appropriate, supporting the changes in attitude, perspective, diet and lifestyle that words explored and inspired.
The English word “medicine” derives originally from the Latin “medicus”, “the physician,” and commonly refers to ingested or injected agents of healing. We also hear, of course, that “laughter is the best medicine,” that time is medicine for the grieving heart, and that love is medicine for the spirit or soul. In historic cultural terms, the word for “medicine” was usually synonymous with “power” – not as in power over somebody or something, but as in the power to act and affect. Ancient “hunting medicine” usually involved rituals of supplication and intent, but their purpose was to awaken the power to find and collect animals to eat. The medicine of the Seer was the power to see into the truth of things, to see the patterns in the movement of energies and progression of events. “Wolf medicine” might be the powers of discernment and courageous action.
To my reckoning, “medicine” is power, but more specifically the power to heal. This is certainly about more than the healing of illness and wounds, but also emotional, spiritual, social, cultural, and ecological healing, utilizing whatever medicine that each of us is born with, learns or develops, in order to contribute to health and wholeness. The word “heal” originally meant to “restore to soundness,” and I would say medicine is anything that contributes to the regaining of soundness, wholeness, and animate vitality.
Medicine is more than tinctures and teas; it includes such things as empathy and concern, tending and touch, ritual or prayer, visualization and positive attitude. There is the medicine of nature and place, which my upcoming book The Healing Terrain will explore. There can be medicine in art and music, medicine in beauty; in reconciliation or resolution; in giving, and receiving. There is medicine in love, and medicine in a hug. There is even medicine in disruption, whenever habit and structure have proven unhealthy. It is for us to find our personal medicine: our individual mix of born gifts, special abilities and learned skills, our original innate power to affect other people and the world in meaningful, helpful and healthful ways. And then to identify, mobilize and utilize the many medicines around us and available to us – including but not limited to medicinal herbs – for the essential purpose of healing.
Melanie: Beautiful – and very well articulated.
I’ve often found that there’s a sense of elitism within herbal circles in regards to whether an herbalist has an active clinical practice or not, with the prevailing notion that being a clinician not only makes you more credible, but also more respectable and worthy of the title “herbalist”. Certainly clinical work is one way of generating and growing your knowledge, however it seems no less worthy for an herbalist to be in their apothecary or kitchen spending hours perfecting an herbal recipe – or in the field for days keying out plants and learning their growing patterns. I love how in The Plant Healer’s Path you emphasize the validity of “clinical” work that occurs outside a formal clinical setting. Can you elaborate on why this kind of work is not only valuable, but also important?
Jesse Wolf Hardin: First of all, no one can tell you if you are worthy of being called an herbalist, not a professional organization, or a federal agency, or even our peers with more experience than us. We are made worthy simply by the strength of our intent and focus, and the degree of our efforts. Levels of competency are another issue, but are only proven by our results and effects over time. We alone can make the determination whether our knowledge, commitment and daily practice makes us an herbalist or not. And whether others call us an herbalist or not, will hinge on the good we do in working with plants.
I have three things to say in regard to “clinical.” First, there are many different forms of – and means and venues for – clinical work. Second, not all important work with plant medicines is clinical. And third, even entirely non-clinical work with plants greatly benefits by a clinical-level commitment to increasing knowledge, maintaining accuracy, increasing efficacy, and adhering to ethical codes.
For our purposes here, “clinical” means directly working with people, personal interaction with the intent of helping them regain their health. This can certainly happen outside of a clinical setting, such as in client’s homes, or even on the sidewalk with “street herbalists” like Chuck Garcia handing out shotgun remedies to the homeless, and herbal medics volunteering at the sites of natural and human-made disasters. Making herbal tinctures in one’s kitchen can be done strictly by following a recipe, but the best formulas are created in response to observations and experiences, whether our own responses to herbs or the responses of the people we are trying to help. My partner plant-hearted Kiva Rose is primarily a creatrix, culture shifter, teacher and writer, with no time to take on new clients… but the power or “medicine” of her work comes in part from her solid up-to-date knowledge, and her clinical observations of and personal experiences helping people.
Melanie: So rather than emphasizing “clinical” skills, perhaps the emphasis should more aptly be placed on being effective intermediaries between plants and people in whatever capacity we choose, as well as ensuring that there is always a feedback loop that occurs; an external response to what we’re doing that allows us to continually grow and improve our skills and efficacy as herbalists. Essentially, practicing herbalism in a vacuum without having these kinds of meaningful interactions would be the true pitfall for herbalists.
Michael Moore has famously said that “a good herbalist is a generalist, and I train generalists.” While I appreciate and respect this sentiment, I’m also very motivated by the idea of herbalists following what inspires them, and creating a niche for themselves doing what they absolutely love to do. There’s certainly a reasonable amount of general knowledge that is required in order to understand herbal vernacular and communicate effectively with plants, people, and herbalists. However, I love the idea of “purpose-based herbalism” where people pursue an herbal vocation that responds to their innate strengths and life’s purpose. This feels so much more fulfilling than trying to conform to the common rhetoric of what an herbalist should be. I’d love to know your thoughts on this.
Jesse Wolf Hardin: Michael was right in that a broadly effective community herbalist needs to be versed in treating all the bodily systems from compromised organs to damaged psyches, with experience in adapting protocols to each of the constitutional types, age groups and so on. And there is probably the widest spread need for generalist community herbalists supporting the people of every neighborhood including the most remote, impoverished or developed. That said, it is just as important that there be plant healers called to studying and recounting the history, storytellers passing on the folklore of plants and healing, plant artists describing and creatively evoking the shape and spirit of medicinal herbs, medicine makers focused on bitters or skin care or treatment of certain diseases. And not even the most deliberate generalist needs to follow a template for how to be or do. There are no two herbalists alike, anymore than there are two snowflakes or fingerprints the same, and we are most effective as well as most fulfilled when we maximize our personal interests and delve deep into the specifics of what we are most passionate about. This is the way of to excel, in this matter of healing where excellence truly matters. And it is the way to fulfillment, in an age and society where few ever know what it’s like to feel fulfilled.
Melanie: Yes, absolutely – so few of us ever have the luxury of experiencing fulfillment in our work and vocations, and yet this seems like the most basic and fundamental of all life’s experiences – to live our life’s purpose and do the work we feel most inspired to do. What I’m hearing you say is that becoming a purpose-based generalist in herbal medicine is really the way to go, and that while there is a general scope of knowledge that is invaluable for herbalists, there really is no template to follow for how to become an herbalist.
Rather than prioritizing the implementation of regulations and standards, as some within the field are doing, you emphasize the importance of sharing our own story – of collectively writing our own narrative. This portion of your book is a definite “call for action” where you present a very compelling case for why this is important, followed by clear guidelines for how we can each begin to effectively share our own story. In your opinion, what would be the ideal outcome from herbalists stepping forward and claiming their voice through story?
Jesse Wolf Hardin: All of life is a story, either composed by our selves as we create, form and direct our own lives, or largely written and directed by others – by controlling parents, critical teachers and peers, corporate driven media and advertising, fashion fascists, dogmatic religious leaders, political leaders and elected officials regulating every aspect of our existence. Our personal story, and our collective story as a community of healers, will only avoid being shaped by others if we take responsibility for shaping it ourselves. This is true in a very practical, not just metaphoric way. Herbalists, like any conscious group of well meaning people, can easily be misrepresented if we don’t show ourselves, if we don’t tell them and demonstrate to them who we are and what we are about. We can be controlled and even crushed if we do not assert ourselves and make sure the story turns out different. We can fall into traps of uninteresting conformity and unquestioning obedience into the system’s ready-made script for us, with a prearranged progression, a shortage of dramatic depth, and a meaningless end.
Our personal fates, the fates of human kind and other life forms, all depend on the reclamation of meaningful purpose, on a radical rewriting of our stories so real and empowering that fiction pales… the remaking and healing and manifesting of our lives, and the glad telling of our tales.
Melanie: So essentially, our sense of power comes through owning and sharing our own personal stories, through being the primary writers of this script. If we want herbalism continue to evolve as a powerful vocation, then we need to own and share our personal stories as healers, artists, activists, scientists, and generalists. We need to define the story for ourselves rather than allow external forces to define it for us.
Consider the analogy of herb schools teaching students as being similar to fertile plants producing lots of seeds. In order for these seeds to be capable of sprouting and maturing themselves, then they have to be equipped for the elements through proper nourishment and hydration. One of the reasons I love your book The Plant Healer’s Path is that it provides nourishment to those parched seeds – the herb students who graduated without a clear understanding for what to expect in the real world. Do you think herb schools have an ethical responsibility to teach this kind of information in order to ensure that their students are properly equipped for the current climate towards herbalism and challenges they’ll face along their paths?
Jesse Wolf Hardin: Teachers have a responsibility to equip students in as many crucial ways as possible, and an honest description of the field and clear delineation of choices would be a necessary part of that.
I feel strongly that every student of plant medicine or healing should be aware of the educational and role options, as well as of the nuanced variables and useful criteria for each person to make their own best choices. This hasn’t been widely presented in a cohesive way, and that is the reason I gave so much time to the creation of The Plant Healer’s Path.
Melanie: Do you feel like there’s a conflict of interest for herb schools to teach the information that you present in your book? Most herb students have paid quite a bit of amount money to attend herb school, yet teaching this kind of information essentially exposes the numerous pitfalls, challenges, and conundrums facing herbalists. Do you think there is pressure for herb schools to withhold this information and maintain the illusion that being an herbalist is an easy career choice with a clear revenue stream?
Jesse Wolf Hardin: I imagine a few highly commercialized herbal schools get more students when their advertising implies graduates can expect to fill paid positions. The schools I most respect, however, know they are appealing to men and women determined to further their understanding of plant medicine even with parents sometimes being unsupportive, even though neither job nor income are ensured. They are feeding people’s passions and sense of purpose as well as equipping them with usable information that can inform their self-care and family-care, connect to the natural world and connect them nature, strengthen their confidence and belief in themselves, trigger what you could call a spiritual awakening or connection, and spur them to go for their goal and live and enjoy their life’s dreams.
I can only hope that schools will make use of The Plant Healer’s Path to help inspire and bolster their students on what is truly an uncertain but wondrous path of learning, being and doing… the very definition, by the way, of an adventure.
Melanie: Simon Sinek wrote a great book called Start With Why where he makes a very compelling case that any business, vocation, or movement is only as powerful and successful as its ability to understand and communicate the “why” in what they’re doing. I really appreciate The Plant Healer’s Path for precisely this reason – it calls the reader to explore and evaluate the deeper reasons of why they are using medicinal herbs, and to formulate their own answers to the numerous non-tangible “why” questions in the field of plant medicine. How important is it for herbalists to address these difficult and nuanced questions?
Jesse Wolf Hardin: I’ve worked hard to develop not just books but our Plant Healer Magazine and the annual HerbFolk gatherings, to serve those who question and seek, to inspire critical thinking, self belief and fervent action… knowing how essential it is that we all explore and address the many questions of our field and our time, and that we then act on our discoveries, conclusions and choices.
There are so many people, groups and agencies trying to tell us what to do, that the most urgent questions for us become “if?” and “why?” It is these questions that help us select and recognize and cleave to our genuine personal path of being and healing. Once moving purposefully on our path, we can daily make decisions as to the “when” and the “how.”
And when it comes to important questions for you empowered plant healers on your own paths – listening with your hearts, listening to the land, resisting the naysayers, and daring to heed the call to meaning and mission – we must also loudly ask: “Why the hell not?”
Melanie: Brilliant! So, first answer “why,” and then the “how” and “when” can easily be applied with a true sense of purposeful direction. Thank-you Jesse for your invaluable and thoughtful insights on some of the most compelling questions facing herbal medicine today. You are truly an agent of change and powerful culture shifter for the field of herbalism.
To read Hardin’s latest writings as they come out, subscribe to the 250 pages long quarterly magazine Plant Healer at www.PlantHealerMagazine.com, and sign up for the free Plant Healer Newsletter at www.PlantHealer.org.
Hardin joins Kiva in presenting the ever-evolving HerbFolk Gathering & Celebration every September in the forests of northern Arizona, an event like none other. Click on the Events Page button at: www.PlantHealer.org
All photos copyright of Plant Healer Magazine.