Photo by Albert Bridge, GDFL via Wikimedia Commons
The path of an herbalist is certainly not straight. It can take you on numerous twists and turns; bring you deep into unchartered territory; and leave you feeling like you’ve ventured so far off course that you might not be able to find your way back.
I’ve always had a preconceived notion of what my herbal career should look like. I would graduate from herb school, build a gigantic herbal apothecary, apply to job postings seeking professional herbalists, and then live my days making medicine, seeing clients, and enjoying the abundant paycheck that I would receive from my “job” as an herbalist. Well, needless to say there are very few (if any) employable jobs as an herbalist, and frankly, the word herbalist might as well be synonymous with entrepreneur because in order to truly make your living as one, you have to forge your own path and create your own work.
One of my most influential teachers, the late Michael Moore, summarized this most effectively: ”At present, herbs have no clear position within the healing arts, and there is no clear job description for “Herbalist.” … Those of us wishing to work in this field must create our own position, with our own sense of self worth and competence. … This self sufficiency and autonomy can only happen when you possess a variety of tools and knowledge. … A good herbalist is a generalist.”
This has never been more true than today. As our medical establishment enters a paradigm shift towards an integrative model of medicine, I can’t help but notice how herbs are still left out of the equation. The alternative modalities that are most readily accepted seem to be those that are considered complementary at best and inert at worst. Treatments such as acupuncture, massage, homeopathy, and energy healing are all easily integrated into the current allopathic model without needing to change much (if anything) about the current treatment protocols. However, herbs – which form the basis of modern medicine as we know it – are certainly not inert at worst. In fact, if used improperly, they have the potential to cause serious harm to the patient (albeit less harm than from improperly used pharmaceuticals). Therefore, the integration of herbs into the allopathic system calls for a transformation of the way in which the medical profession functions – doctors must become educated in herb/drug interactions, patients must be given more time to heal (and not expect a magic bullet solution), and plants must find a home within the pharmaceutical industry. However, I digress…
As an herbalist entrepreneur, you must forge your own path through the maze of medical bureaucracy, the sea of alternative practitioners, and the plethora of corporate herbal products. If you are a clinician, then you must learn how to build and maintain a clientele which requires not only a solid business sense, but also various diagnostic tools and an understanding of anatomy and physiology that extends beyond what is commonly taught in herb school. If you are a medicine-maker, then you need to understand formulation, market research, branding, and dare I say it – financials. If you are a teacher, then you must learn how to leverage your skills and expertise through writing books and articles, and essentially market yourself as an expert. Whichever path you choose, it requires skills and expertise that go well beyond knowing which herb to use for which ailment; skills which may seem out of the scope of an herbalist, and which most certainly will take you down many a side path on your journey.
I began studying herbal medicine at the age of 16, when I enrolled in my very first course on herbal medicine – Hygeia College – with the late Jeanine Parvati Baker. During one of our correspondences, I told Jeanine Parvati Baker how much I admired her for staying true to her path and not wavering. In truth, I had no idea what Jeanine Parvati’s trajectory as an herbalist looked like. I only knew that, as an herbalist, she had a clear voice and a strong point of vue. Always the wordsmith, Jeanine’s response was simple and eloquent: “Thank-you for seeing me as staying true to my path. How does one do this anyway? Wherever you go the path is beneath your feet.”
Throughout the years, I’ve always carried Jeanine Parvati’s message with me, and I still use it as encouragement whenever I feel that I’ve ventured off course. The path of an herbalist may certainly not be clear and simple. It may take you down many a winding side road. But not to worry; wherever you go, the path is always beneath your feet – just follow it and find your way home.