Herbalism and Decolonization


Working with plants, their healing potential, and their influence on human health has opened me to a relationship with nature, place, and herbs that goes far beyond the simple and effective uses of plants as medicines. Plant medicine and herbalism as a tradition belongs to more than just our contemporary impulse to identify, name, label, and cure with “this herb for that”, although this is often the initial spell that so cleverly draws us into the long, lost woods where our ancestors once foraged for talking roots carrying handwoven baskets into places with mythic names and hollow trees that open to the Underworld.


The plants dazzle and enchant us

Even with hardened, colonial hearts we are inspelled.

They have not lost their magick

We follow them back to ours.


Taking on a journey such as this in our current world has not found me attuned to any sparkling, ethereal “new age” or nicely “holistic” ideal of instant cures and one-liner elixirs. It’s not that this doesn’t happen; it certainly can and does.


It’s just not where I have found my solace.  As the writer Ted Hughes once said,

basket of nettles.jpg

“I don’t just jot things down you know. If I can’t bring them out of the pit I don’t go get them.”

This is the way I walk with the plants. Into the roots, below the ground. I want to uncover the sources of wounds, not just heal over them. Like the lessons of the riddle mother who knows that true wisdom comes when we seek and unravel our own answers.

+++Oh please, please, Riddle Mother, just tell me what you know+++

BECAUSE The gift is in the wound. The gold lives right next to the rot and our pain and symptoms guide us right to where it’s hidden.

Current events within the United States as well as many other world nations have driven a stake right into the heart of oppression and injustice uncovering generations and generations of cast out, exiled, and unhealed collective wounds and ongoing traumas. Capitalism as it functions for us has continued to strive for unrestrained growth and the exploitation of resources, both human and environmental, to maintain a vertical, top-down, inequitable power structure that necessitates conquest as a means of accumulating the wealth and status that will allot access to resources and safety. This allotment includes healthcare and the ability to pay for it. Healthcare has become a privilege in our society and not a basic human right as it once was.

The transgressions of capitalism are many, but as an herbalist, my practice with the land, plants, and wild nature has brought some dominant themes into the center of my work. Author Peter Grey sums it up neatly in his book Apocalyptic Witchcraft

It is simple: Mankind has broken the covenant with nature.” 


This, to me, includes not only our relations to land and place, or what we call “the environment” and the awareness that we are not merely in the environment but are one of the forms taken by it,  but also the covenant we share with each other and all the living, sentient beings. This way of practicing herbal medicine involves comprehensive and foundational healing right down to what Traditional Western Herbalism defines as the “tissue states” within the human body. These are underlying patterns and power dynamics that exist in the cellular and intercellular realms.  When the tissue is injured, ill, or otherwise disrupted, the conditions that invite and enable disease are generated. True healing will only occur when these underlying states are supported in re-establishing optimal flow and function. Human health is influenced and facilitated by both the conditions of the the inner and outer terrain, and, if not more importantly, the liminal spaces where the worlds of both converge. These deep, cellular matrices between forms connect and embody us to the living landscape.

Plant based medicine has been a central component of these interactions for all cultures on Earth and, as many experience the ramifications of our current health care crises, herbs and herbalism is becoming a strong source of resilience, health justice, and community sustainability. The tradition of herbalism has always been the medicine of the people, and herbalists, village healers, and the like were in service to, as well as supported by, the community in such a way that everyone was provided access to health care regardless of social or economic status. These ways were cooperative, decentralized, and rhizomatic as I have written about HERE.

To me this means that as a person of the plants, a woman of the herbs, and a witness to the innate healing potential and the evolutionary power of nature with a committment to passing on a world and tradition to my descendants that is better than the one I was given, I must not ignore the deep wounds that I have encountered. This commitment bequeaths me to discovering, knowing, understanding, upholding the principles and actions of social and environmental justice that will create the conditions necessary for healthy human community to exist within and connected to, in reciprocity and mutual respect, with the mandala of the more than human world.

This is no easy path and I often have no idea how to continue forward. It is easy to feel inadequate, overwhelmed and completely bewildered. What is hard, and I believe what is called for now, is a concept I recently heard social activist and artist Rachael Rice discuss in her talk with visionary Sonali Fiske about the ongoing issue of race, systemic oppression, and unjust power structures within the realm of spiritual business-making. It’s the concept of “staying with the trouble” that comes from the book of the same name Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Experimental Futures) by Donna J. Haraway. This involves staying with our discomfort and overwhelm, and even fear, because we don’t always know what to do or say. We will make mistakes and we are imperfect, but we are still accountable to “staying with the trouble” and resisting the urge to be good and know all the answers.

For me, as I work with herbs, health, and the Earth from where these emerge, part of staying with the trouble means that I make a home for the entire spectrum of past, present and hoped for future of my own place and the meaning of my presence here within it. This means that I cannot exile, ignore, or deny my complicity and participation in the effects generated by a nation that channels power through inequitable and unjust systems of oppression. I have found this to be a deeply painful and grief producing process as I have encountered the ugly and unconscionable truths of the pain and suffering caused by the activities of greed, exploitation, and privilege that I have benefitted from and continue to benefit from. I have made a place for this at my table, and in doing so, have also discovered that there is room for this and it doesn’t mean that my own trauma or the trauma of my own people and my ancestors losses it’s seat.  We sit together. It is not what we bring to the table that salts the wound, it is what we exclude.  It also doesn’t mean that I cease to cherish all that I am and all that is hopeful, good, and creatively possible in all of us. In fact, I have found that including the shadows of the world brightens its light.

This all requires me to practice not just confronting but honoring and making sacred these dark places. One way I do this is by what I call “setting my place”. It’s a prayer of sorts and I find myself repeating some version of it while I am gathering in the woods, before I spend time seeing my clients or even out loud when hosting a group or a class. This obviously can’t and doesn’t touch on every oppression or all sides of everything. It’s a work in progress. I know there is more that I am not aware of, not willing to see or ready to understand.

I stand here in the United States on Turtle Island with a tradition and legacy that I carry from my old people and their old country that now lives in me. I am a descendant of peoples from the nations of Ireland and Italy. It is an honor for me to have the opportunity to keep this medicine of the plants alive as well as the living threads of ancient dna that I hold within me. I do so, here on Turtle Island, within the unceded territory of the great Haudenosaunee nations that were murdered and exiled as a result of the conquest and colonization of this land. This was a great holocaust and I am able to be here because that happened. I realize that I cannot change this horrible thing that happened but I CAN not forget it. I CAN not pretend history started with the colonists. I can remind others of this too.  I can also acknowledge and remind others that these same people are still being oppressed and conquested.

Northeast Turtle Island in Mohawk from :  The Decolonial Atlas

Northeast Turtle Island in Mohawk from: The Decolonial Atlas

I stand here in the United States on Turtle Island because the “founding fathers” gained economic power, and other sources of power, that allowed them to rebel against England. This economic power was afforded them by the flesh and blood of African slaves. There were obviously other factors, but slavery and the forced labor and brutalization of others, including indentured servants from Europe and the waged slavery of immigrants,  provided for the establishment and success of America.  Although this type of slavery has ended, at least here, the structural, systemic, and institutionalized oppression that it instilled continues, more insidiously but still deadly, to obstruct, oppress, exile, and deny these same people access to resources, social acceptance, political representation, dignity, basic human rights, and safety in general.

Although we all deal with oppression in some form, some of us have what is known as privilege. This privilege falls along many lines including class, sexual orientation, religion, gender, and especially race. Having it means having unfair advantages at the expense of others even if I don’t want them. Privilege isn’t personal and is not equivalent to how many struggles I’ve endured, how difficult my life has been, or hard I’ve worked. I can’t give it back or wash it off at the end of the day no more than a person of color can remove their skin to avoid being the target of racism or racial prejudice. I don’t like this, it’s uncomfortable, and I can easily ignore it because most white people are insulated from racism and are conditioned to be blind to their privilege, but when I do so I enact this same privilege that I don't want. By being able to live disconnected from what others in my country cannot escape I cultivate racism. This is complicity and even when I don’t know what to do about my privilege I would rather stay with that 'not knowing', stay curious, and stay present with it, than deny it thereby perpetuating it.

As I work for the value of healing, for the healing of people, for the healing of the land and the Earth, and the continued tradition of herbal medicine, as a white woman with many unfair advantages, I can and will make every effort to acknowledge where and how I may be perpetuating and complicit this system. This includes acknowledging how I benefit from it every day.

This also includes the practice, study, and exploration of how I can ensure that herbal medicine can become more accessible and more sustainable remaining decentralized and in the hands of the people. All of the people.

I believe that healthcare is a basic human right and should not be profit-driven. I believe in the  human capacity for cooperation. I believe that the human capacity of competition is not the natural dominant state, but one that would be rarely needed if our capacity for cooperation were cultivated. I believe that traditional herbal medicine and plant based culture is the medicine of the people and I will continue to do everything in my power to preserve it as so. Although I believe that herbal medicine can find a place in a vertical, top-down society and that plants can be healing anywhere or way that they are introduced to any system, I believe it’s optimal potential is when it is grass roots, horizontal and folk oriented. It’s traditional, mythic, and barefoot values are a most powerful ally to the founding of new worlds and new ways. 

And finally, I believe another world is possible.



Podcast with Rachael Rice and Sonali Fiske: http://www.sonalifiske.com/free-resources.html