The Meet the Masters project is a mentoring initiative geared towards inspiring and educating herbalists on innovative ways to make a living with herbal medicine. In this ongoing series we’re asking prominent herbalists to answer the question: “How did you establish a career in Herbal Medicine?” A true master of her herbal craft, the very talented and understated Mary Bove shares these beautiful words of widsom on discovering what lights up your essence, embracing your unique herbal contributions, and cultivating the power of true listening.
When I was a child I dreamt of being an archeologist who travels to Egypt to ride camels and discover a pharaoh’s tomb. When I went to college I majored in psychology, but when I graduated four years later I knew I was a “prisoner of herbs.” As a girl, my mother introduced me to the world of scents with the magical rose jar that sat on the living room shelf. The blue and white porcelain jar was filled with rose petals sprinkled with orris root, and there nestled among the pink petals were 3 tiny vials of essential oil; sandalwood, frankincense, and patchouli. I loved being the one to add a drop of oil every so often to refresh the scent. This started a spark, which ignited years later as a young woman of 20.
Envision a spark lighting up your essence, casting a light on a part of you that cannot be ignored. It fascinates and intrigues, nagging at you in a pleasant sort of way; pressing you to acknowledge it’s gestating nature as you fall under its spell becoming a “prisoner of herbs.” I remember my excitement when I read Juliette de Bairacli Levy’s book Common Herbs for Natural Health, recognizing my need to walk the herbal path. Mind you I had no idea what the herbal path might look like or where to find the start, but I did know in my heart that I was suppose to be walking on it. So I went to the plants watched them in their habitat, discovered what they looked like when they popped out of the ground in the spring, observed the shape of the leaf or color of the flower, who their neighboring plants might be, or what the dry seed pod or stem might look like in the dead of winter. By being in nature, observing her cycles, and listening to the plants, I started to “know” and found people who could teach me. The plants always found teachers for me to learn from – I just needed to be listening.
In 1977, after spending a month at an herbal gathering in Alert Bay, BC Canada with Norma Myers, I knew I was going to be an herbalist, and returned home to Portland, Maine to open an herb shop called Hippocrates Herbarium. I started reading every herb book or publication I could get my hands on, teaching classes at the community center, talking to the local garden clubs, leading herb walks in the parks, and growing herbs at a local farm. My kitchen was filled with drying herbs, little bottles, macerating potions, mortars and pestles and my notebooks full of herbal recipes. Things took off for me at this point as I was truly on the Herbal Path. One foot just kept on going in front of the other taking me on an amazing herbal learning journey; from herb shopkeeper to herb farmer, wild crafter, herbal educator, medical herbalist, naturopathic physician, midwife, author, and international lecturer. And the most wonderful thing of all is that I am still on the herbal path and loving every moment. Herbs are so attractive to me. The abundance of knowledge and information they offer; so many aspects and facets of worldly cultures, natural habitats, and subtle energies of the plant world. Herbs fascinate me – always have and probably always will. As I said I am a “prisoner of herbs” and very glad of it as they have enriched my life in so many ways.
I love to talk about plants and herbal medicine, to engage others in herbal conversation, to listen to herbal adventures, to experiment in the herbal dispensary, and to ponder herbal questions. Spreading the herbal word, seeing herbs integrate into the lives of humans, helping to introduce the world of herbs to others, aiding others to use the medicinal virtues of plants, and stewarding plants in these modern times are just a few of the things I see as my ongoing role as a herbalist.
Cornerstones of Establishing a Career in Herbal Medicine
Be open to all possibilities
Don’t limit yourself with expectations, and be open to the numerous possibilities of what an herbal career may look like. Herbalists like plants come in many different colors, sizes, shapes, and scents. Working with herbs gives an opportunity for each one of us to express our unique creativity through our work with herbs. Some of us are called to be educators and authors, others to work as researcher in the scientific world of herbs, some to farm, gather and produce medicines, foods, and other herbal products, while many are called to work as healers, doctors, and in plant spirit medicine. Often we experience many aspects of herbal work while growing our career, as we learn and experience the power and magic of the plants. I know for myself that I am the most limiting factor in the formula. I never set out to write a book on herbal medicine for children. In fact, as a dyslexic child I would have not believed that I could ever master writing, never mind a book. As it happened, an editor approached me after a lecture and the book became a reality. I quickly learned the value of a good editor, and left my childhood apprehension of writing behind.
Learn from all your senses; Cultivate the power of observation and listening
In this modern world of information, and the craze of digital access to information, it is easy to get caught up in the “game of facts.” Learning herbs happens on so many levels that all the senses are involved along with heart and head. Accessing herbal information in all these ways allows one a very full and ripe understand of the material. Experiencing the plant’s smell, taste, lovely appearance, active constituents, scientific data, or preparations, and including the experience of the energy or vibe of the plant can trigger for many an innate understanding of a piece of knowledge about the plant. Learning through observation can be a powerful method of understanding; getting out of your head and into the heart/soul helps cultivate observational innate learning, as does spending time in nature and practicing real listening. I find the art of real listening to be most helpful as a doctor working with people on their health issues. Not only do I need to listen to what the herbal medicines tell me about their relationship with the patient, as well as the patients response to the healing power of herbs, but listening also gives me the opportunity to truly hear my patient. I find that real listening demands me to be in the moment with that person, and out of my headspace, opinions, and judgments. Listening free from too much mental chatter is when the real learning begins.
This is much the same manner as one might listen to the plants to hear their informative whispers. I remember a time in my early days as a student of herbs, and I was driving along the road one spring New England day when suddenly inside my head were the voices of a hundred wild columbines all clambering for my attention like little children. At that same moment I noticed hundreds of yellow and orange columbines growing up the cliffs next to the road. I was over taken with the site, and seconds later I found my truck sitting in the gully next to the road as I had forgotten to keep my eyes on the road. There have been many times since then when I hear the calling of a plant, such as the song of the linden trees on the first morning of their bloom with the bees accompanying, or the little voice of lobelia inflata as it calls out from its hiding place amongst the grass when you are out gathering your medicines. I am never surprised to hear the plants call, but I am always delighted that I have been listening.
Have many teachers read many books
I have been a student of herbs for over 33 years and I have had many students come to learn from me over the years; herbal students, naturopathic students, midwifery students, and many moms who want to bring the virtues of herbs to their family. One of the first points I stress to students is the importance of learning from many teachers; human teachers, animal teachers, plant teachers, nature, and ourselves. This provides us the opportunity for full perspective learning; seeing things from several points of view, and understanding how you may or may not choose to proceed when you are on your own. I have learned by working with others on their herbal paths that often their ways are not for me; the experience providing me with the opportunity to be creative in my own way with my herbal work.
As herbalists, we all have our favorite plants with whom we have strong relations, as well as our unique special ways that we prepare or apply these herbs. These differences help herbal students to see the many possibilities for using the plants. This allows them to create an expression of herbal knowledge that is unique to themselves, and to give themselves permission to try it out in their own way. I say the same about books; if you are studying a plant, then read about the plant in at least 5 different books or resources. Limiting yourself to one resource will limit your understanding of the plant. Choose a variety of different types of books; traditional, old and new, scientific, plant spirit, clinical, medicine making, and so forth. Take the information you learn and try it out for yourself – taste the herbs, make preparations, cook with the herbs, grow the plants, know them in their dry state or natural habitat, employ them in your own life in as many ways as you can. As a student in England, I was always experimenting with herbal preparations in lab class, usually not following directions, but exploring some new idea. When Mr. Z told me I had outgrown his class, and was now to make his creams in his clinic lab on Saturday mornings, I got a great experience and he got free student labor.
In more than 25 years of practicing natural medicine as a medical herbalist, midwife, and naturopathic physician, using herbal medicines has been one of my primary therapies, and I have found myself fortunate to witness the healing power of plants in many situations. I have learned much from my patients and case studies, remaining open to the constantly changing trends in medicine, but sticking to traditional ways when they have proved to be effective and reliable therapies. I have always believed that herbal medicine has a role to play in the health and wellness of modern day people. There are many ways an herbalist can be useful in a community. I was called to work as a doctor/midwife. I can also envision an herbalist working along side a doctor or midwife bring their skills as a herbalist for the practitioner to utilize and learn from.
Lastly I might add:
Walk your talk, believe in the plants, practice herbalism everyday in your life.
Dr. Mary Bove obtained her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine and Midwifery Certification from Bastyr University, Seattle, WA, and received her Diploma of Phytotherapy/Herbal Medicine at the School of Phytotherapy in Great Britain. Dr. Bove practices Naturopathic Family Medicine at the Brattleboro Naturopathic Clinic, Brattleboro, VT.
Dr. Bove is the author of the An Encyclopedia of Natural Healing for Children and Infants and has been published in many magazines, journals, and collaborative books on botanical and natural medicine. She lectures and teaches internationally on the topics of naturopathic and botanical medicine, pediatrics, natural pregnancy, traditional food medicine, and mind-body healing. In collaboration with Gaia Herbs® Dr Bove developed an herbal remedy line designed specifically for children, and recently produced an App for iPhone, Food Pharm Guide, a fun and informative guide to the use of common kitchen foods and herbs for health and first aid.