The work that I do with plants and herbal medicines has many layers of expression. On the surface, it’s about plant ID and physical illness and finding remedies. This is good, much needed, and can be quite magickal, but beneath this lies a life’s journey of relationship, growth, learning, listening, and devotion, a dharma some would say, that seems perpetually awe-inspiring, creative, and beautifully humbling. This work has challenged me on every possible repercussion of my self/Self, like the concentric circles that ripple out on the water when you throw in a stone. These challenges have caused me to not only reach and grow, but to also de-evolve, disintegrate, break down(literally and figuratively), and be reborn over and over and over in a constant and infinite matrix of being. At times it has been painful and I’ve gotten lost, both literally, lost in the woods whilst hiking or gathering, and figuratively, lost and confused. And I expect to continue to do so for the rest of my life.
I have come to think of my training and practice with plants, the land, and the wild in nature as an apprenticeship to the un-known or to not knowing. Wildness and plants as they emerge, tamed or cultivated, are not predictable because they are alive and animate. Their changes occur in synergistic communication with the place for which they inhabit. Plants and plant medicine persists and resists the world of knowing that might categorize, bottle, and box a thing so that it could be standardized, reproduced, and produce the expected results when administered. This kind of knowing is fixed and deadly. Once something is contained and captured it can no longer respond and express itself as a result of it's own agency, therefore it becomes no longer itself. The wild unknowing that I have experienced with the plants and the land has been most profound and healing when I have found myself amidst the living movement and beingness of the world where the rational, striving, pushing 'me' subsided, usually just briefly, enough to allow the wildness within me to echo with the tongues of the land.
The way that I have come to this great art and tradition was only partly of my own volition as a result of struggles with my own chronic health issues and discouragement with the, albeit life-saving but limited and incomplete, offerings of conventional modern medicine. The rest I came to as if it was an imperative of nature, like how the branches of the Fir must yield to the rush of the wind. I have often joked, when asked how I became an herbalist, that I was kidnapped by the plants. And I did go kicking and screaming because, well, I had gone to college and wanted a legitimate career with benefits. Plus, it was unknown territory especially in the early 1990’s when herbal medicine was just emerging from the dark ages of germ theory and pharmaceutical hegemony. I really don’t yet have, and likely never will, a complete and repeatable narrative on how I fell to the soils of the forest floor and the rich beds beneath the gardens, but the little I do know is about instinct. My working definition of instinct is that it is a sense that is triggered and responds to an external event, pattern, or phenomena that matches or corresponds to an already implicit, inner receptor. This is simultaneous as the external and internal environments that embody us meet and react.
This all started for me that day when I was four years old and hiking in the Adirondack mountains with my grandfather. He took me along on his daily rounds up the mountain trails above his the cabin where he and my grandma lived, and where he was always tracking the daily activities of the white-tailed deer and collecting his favorite edible mushrooms. We were walking along as usual and I looked off the trail to the slanted rock faces, the smoothed over glacial crevices, the carved ancient grade with brief landings where trees gripped the edges and lifted their branches upwards toward the next turn of rock face toward the zenith.
Can we go that way?
I don’t know why I asked that and don’t remember if there were any thoughts that led up to it. The yet unconditioned, or only partially conditioned, mind of my child self, similar to all children, hadn’t fully learned to gate non-rational sensory inputs. It was just an unmediated expression of how I felt in exactly that moment with no credence afforded the virtues of staying on the trail. Perhaps no more than a simple urge to change direction and go that way like the way your eyelids automatically close when you try to look straight at the sun. Some would call it a felt sense. It was instinctual and fearless and my grandpa, probably due to his conditioning as an Italian immigrant who had depended on keen instinct and stealth to survive deep poverty in his homeland and the dangers and struggles of adapting to the New World, was a fearless adventurer himself.
Although he passed two years ago, my relationship with him continues to deepen as his imprint upon my character continues to animate my soul.
So, up the mountain. We went "that way". Then and always after that.
I believe that to have been an initiatory experience where a trusted elder not only confirmed my inner and individual propensity for something “off of the trail” but also guided me and walked(climbed) beside me showing me how to tune my own footfalls to the steep and unpathed courses of wild places. I wonder how or if I would’ve become someone different if he had said “No, it’s better to stay on the trail.” Those hikes with my grandfather were some of my only memories of ever feeling truly safe in this world. The woods, forests, and uncultivated fields of nature still, to this day, are a refuge for my heart, soul, and senses.plants and my work as an herbalist continues lead me back, and back again, to that impulse, or instinct to fall beneath the surface, to climb the mountain from the side, or find a way through the unpathed woods.