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’ve asked leading North American herbalists to answer the question: “How did you establish a career in Herbal Medicine?”Always the pioneer, Rosemary Gladstar is the first to respond with this gracious, wise, and insightful tale of how she became an herbalist. It is truly a pleasure to share the secrets of success of this formidable woman.
I can’t say that I knew I was going to be an herbalist when I was younger. It actually wasn’t a career option back then! I’ve never said: “Oh, I’m going to be an herbalist.” It’s kind of what I always did. I knew that somehow I would be intrinsically called into the service of the green. They began to talk to me when I was very young, and fortunately nobody told me I was crazy for listening!
I actually have very little business sense. I have an astrological grand trine in earth signs, and I think that’s my saving grace. When I opened the herb store [Rosemary’s Garden] in 1972 I didn’t even know how to open a bank account. I didn’t know how to write a check. I have run successful things so I don’t want to belittle myself, but it is silly to think of me as an entrepreneur. I have developed business savvy over the years, and I do have good fortune when I start things – they seem to really take off even after I’m gone; they continue to thrive and that is the greatest reward. And I’m a very hard worker—I love my work, and I can work for hours endlessly doing what I do.
There has been luck and timing too. When it came to the tea company [Traditional Medicinals], there were no others. Celestial Seasonings was just being formed about the same time, so there was no competition. If someone tried to start a medicinal tea company now, they would need to be a millionaire because there’s a lot of competition out there in the world. Luck, timing, and being at the forefront—I think that really made a difference.
I had the great foresight, again in my 20s, to start an herb school [The California School of Herbal Studies]. All of my contemporaries – people who are now my age, but who were then 20 and 30 – came to the herb school as speakers. I learned so much from them as well; people like Cascade Anderson, Michael and Lesley Tierra, James Green, and Jeanne Rose. That list is incredibly expanded. I learned little tidbits sometimes, maybe just a recipe or other times just a little bit about life, and sometimes I learned a whole lot from these people.
I love this big-hearted ever-growing circle of herbalists and plant lovers. I’ve never met an herbalist that I didn’t like, or love, or admire. They are all such outrageous characters. I also love the younger herbalists that I see moving into the circle… so passionate and filled with zest – they bring new life and blood to the circles. I feel a bit sorry for them at times however; there’s so much information out there now, so many books, so much politics, so many classes, and so many conferences! How does one make sense of it all? Where does one start? I always try to lead them back to the gardens and the wild heart of nature where the plants abide in such abundance. Listen to the plants! They are your greatest teachers! And listen to your own heart as it guides your way.
It’s amazing to me that I have never been bored, or questioned what I’m doing. I keep thinking there’s got to be something wrong with me. But I just love what I do, and it’s because it’s always changing. It’s cyclic and natural. You’re gardening and you’re making medicine and working with people and traveling. American Herbalism, as indefinable as it is, is a terrific vital force pulsating with life.
The Four Cornerstones of Establishing a Career in Herbal Medicine
Get out of your mind and into your heart
We are all here because of plants. We wouldn’t even be alive without them. We need them for the air we breathe. Using herbs isn’t about medicine or healing. It’s about breath – about faith and belief. Plants live together in community. They give out more than they take in. Being in the garden teaches the process. You plant, tend, you get a harvest. You also get a wellness of spirit that’s unrelated to health and that’s difficult to obtain separate from the earth. You never see a grumpy gardener–they are in communion, in a relationship with their plants.
Keep your heart open. Have love and compassion. Listen with your heart. Love what you are hearing. I think that is really the most important thing. Every day, spend time directly with the plants and above all, listen to them. They will teach you more than any book and even the best herbal teacher. We all learn at the humble roots of the plants…all the way back to the beginning of time. Let’s not forget how to listen, how to hear, and their language. It is not a lost language, or languages as they speak in many tongues, but a forgotten language that is heard with the heart.
Don’t get lost in books and classrooms
Herbal medicine is not a career at all; it’s a lifestyle. Plants are a way of life. I get a little concerned that people are not connecting with the plants. They will be good healers in the sense that they will know how to use the medicines, but herbalism comes from the plants, and, ultimately, you can’t get it from books alone. The healing messages, the medicine comes from the plants. Grow the plants, sit with them, and make medicines with them. Learn to speak to them and listen to the plants—practice the shamanic work. It is so wonderful that we have the opportunity to have books on this, but some of the greatest herbalists evolved without any of that. Go on retreats. Go on vision quests. I do believe in studying, but students need to get their feet wet and experience it.
I use herbs every day in some way. I cook with them, drink them as tea, commune with them, sleep with them and bathe with them. My favorite daily tonics include; nettle, comfrey, rosemary, oats, lemon balm, hawthorn, dandelion and burdock. And those tasty wild greens that grow outside one’s doorsteps; chickweed, plantain, dock. And lots of cooking herbs. Of course, I never follow the cook books that say ‘1/4 tsp’ of this or that herb! Unless its cayenne! I love the taste of our `culinaries’ and season everything liberally; forget the pinch and dab! I use a teaspoon or more so that the subtle becomes sublime. And many of the culinaries make fabulous teas ~ basil, sage, thyme, rosemary.
Study from many different teachers
Never have just one teacher, otherwise we become little clone heads. Better to study with many, and to let each one inspire your own vision, to clear your eyesight to see better the world around you. My grandmother was my greatest influence and my first teacher. My other great teacher, who I’ve been friends with since my early 20’s, is Juliette de Bairacli Levy. She has had a profound influence on my life as well as thousands of other people’s lives. I think the early influence of my grandmother particularly, but also growing up very close to nature guided me on the path I was meant to go on. I really see so much of this in people, in my students and people when I speak to them, so many people have that ‘green seed’ or ‘green blood’ in them genetically. It’s part of our tradition as humans.
Follow your bliss
If you have a dream, and you believe in that dream with all your heart – that’s number one. Second of all, you must be willing to work your entire butt off. Forever! You have to have a huge reserve of energy – you must love to work. I’d love to think we’re heading towards the Community Herbalist model; an herbalist in every community. Herbalists as part of the accepted health care of the community is a living organic model that has taken root and is growing so beautifully in this country ~ spreading like under ground mycelia, a vast network interlinked, living, thriving together. Herbalists can be the medicine makers, the practitioners, offer classes to their communities. They can set up free clinics and work at the local hospitals to offer adjunct or primary care.
Medicinal plant conservation and preservation is probably my greatest passion at this time; helping to reestablish our wild gardens, to help ensure in whatever small way I can that these plants will be here for future generations – and more importantly, for the earth itself. This is one way I can change the world. And who knows what it may result in – a plant that lives for another day? A medicine that can change the face of the world? We never know. But we are called to service and if we follow that calling, then we are always where we are suppose to be at the perfect moment.
I think if we continue to nurture and grow the model that we have, one that’s creative and multifaceted, then we’ll continue to set a model for self-sustainability and creativity. That’s one of the things I love so much about American herbalism – the creativity. And the diversity. And the many communities. And the wild free spirit that’s at its core – its connection to land; to plants and their spirits; to the ecological concerns and preservation.
Rosemary Gladstar lives and works from her home Sage Mountain Herbal Retreat Center a 500 acre botanical preserve in central Vermont. She is the director of the International Herb Symposium and The New England Women’s Herbal Conference, and the author of numerous herb books including the best seller Herbal Healing for Women, Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health, and the Science and Art of Herbalism, an extensive home study course. Her greatest passion has been the work of United Plant Savers, a non profit organization that she founded in 1994 and is currently serving as `Founding President’.