Bioregional Herbalism ~ An Introduction To Ecological Relationship & Place-Based Practice

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of Plant Healer Magazine. I have learned alot since then and further deepened into the practice of bioregional herbalism and my connection to the land and my life place. This article still offers some foundational concepts and opening thoughts into the vast complexity of human relationship with the more than human world. 

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Bioregionalism is a word that was originally termed by activist Peter Berg in the early 1970’s, the height of many counterculture movements across the United States. He lived in San Francisco where a multitude of forces often gathered in various forms of protest as a reaction to a mainstream culture that was dominated by the ever-present paradigms of war and competition. Peter Berg died in July of 2011, but left a legacy and vision that lives on within many of today’s social justice and environmental movements.

The definition of ‘bioregion’ (as stated on the website dedicated to continuing Peter Berg’s work, is: “a distinct area with coherent and interconnected plant and animal communities, and natural system, often defined by a watershed. A bioregion is a whole “life-place” with unique requirements for human inhabitations so that it will not be disrupted and injured.” Bioregionalism is the concept and activity of ‘living in place’, of “occupying”, so to speak, the community that we are immersed in. It is a way of awakening to the connections between and within species that are inherent in any biosphere that we inhabit and that all animals, plants, rocks, bacteria and even all that is assumed to be not-alive ore inanimate are participants therein. It means paying attention to seasonal shifts, shopping locally, knowing your neighbors, knowing the plants that grow in your area and using them (ethical harvesting and cultivation of course). As we interact with our bioregion we too become a part of it.

Bioregionalism & The Herbalist

Herbalism is one of the most empowering bioregional activities that we can attend to and a practice that brings each of us in direct contact with all of the elements of nature that, whether we are aware of or not, influence our health and sense of well-being every day. Using the plants that grow alongside and within our human communities to prevent or treat illness, or provide vast nourishment that maintains our systems equilibrium, has been a common birthright throughout all cultures on Earth since the beginning of time. It is a way for us to reclaim a system of healthcare that can provide and re-create lost links that are necessary for healthy, balanced and sustainable human communities. Traditional plant based medicine is the antidote to the reductionist, mechanical, profit-driven perspective of mainstream allopathic medicine and, although these modern technologies have their place and life-saving value, our culture and people have surrendered nearly all fundamental freedom and connection to making our own healthcare decisions to this technology. Re-learning how to use the medicine plants that grow in our own backyards is an integral part of re-connection ourselves to who we are in relationship to the rest of nature and re-awakening ourselves to the interdependency that we all share bringing into awareness the effects of any, even small, destructive acts against this delicately balanced system.

I did not know any of this when I set out on the trail of studying herbs and herbal medicine. I know now that I stood as much in relationship to all of the web-like pattern of the living world then as I do now, but it was my work with and love of the plants that brought this truth into clear sight. I basically blundered into using herbs due to the experience that I had dealing with chronic allergies and asthma and finding minimal relief from the myriad of antihistamines that I was prescribed over many years. I also had a child with chronic ear and respiratory infections and no health insurance to cover the expense of antibiotics and surgery to put tubes in her ears. When you couple that with a chronic authority complex which constantly, and albeit sometime pathologically, compelled me(still does) to rebel against any established paradigm or system, you have a nicely prepared seed-bed for openness to alternative ways and thoughts.

It also helped to live in the wild lands of upstate New York among the foothills of the 6.1 million acre Adirondack Forest Preserve. I live in the sparsely populated Kuyahoora Valley which was all but abandoned, as were many of the hill villages, after the factories either went out of business or moved to more hospitable communities.  This has left us with very few jobs and a fair amount of economic poverty, but with land, water, flora, and fauna that is intact and fully abundant. The valley and surrounding hills with its plentiful water and rich soil has been a magnet for many homesteaders, organic farmers and herbalists whose livelihoods depend on being able to tune in to the patterns of weather, animal migration, invasive plant species, fungi, and insects.

My herbal studies began 20 years ago and I have since spent many, many years in direct and daily relationship with my local community and working with herbs in their own habitats; growing some, wildcrafting, paying attention to the weather, the moon, the changing seasons, and matching all that I gather to people, friends, family , clients and all that befalls us in our human condition. What I discovered was supported and guided by the amazing healers who were my herbal teachers and who lit the path for me with their own devotion and love for what philosopher David Abram calls “the more than human world”.




Healthy Plant Communities

I learned quickly that uncultivated plants when allowed to roam free will form natural communities with not just other plants, but trees, fungi, bacteria, insects, etc. There is a balance and sustainable reciprocity that evolves between specific species that like to live and grow together. These communities are connected to other nearby communities that are embedded in that particular biosphere, whether it be a valley, mountain, marsh, desert or forest which is itself within a larger context of temperature, humidity, rainfall, and wind.  This dynamic interdependent community includes all animals, human and non-human, who also participate and communicate with the moment to moment phenomena in a multitude of gesture, song, sound, and tongue. I have seen that no single plant, animal or individual human stands alone and that even our great cities stand in relationship with the more than human world, as do we as we walk within them.  The cycles of life are unavoidable.

In contrast to my culture that values self-sufficiency, the plants have taught me about community sufficiency and that cooperation among species is not only possible but appears to create a vital and nourishing existence that is not contrived constrained by imagined separateness or competition. As modern and ‘civilized’ human beings we have closed our eyes and all of our senses to this dialogue that sources our very existence. We have imagined ourselves to be somehow on top of the hierarchical ladder of creation and continue to believe that better science and more technology will give us even greater control of forces that we have been trying to enslave for centuries. Native American writer Vine Deloria had once sited these words spoken by Osage chief Big Soldier, “I see and admire your manner of living…In short you can do almost what you have choose. You whites possess the power of subduing almost every animal to your use. You are surrounded by slaves. Everything about you is in chains and you are slaves yourselves. I fear that if I should exchange my pursuits for yours, I too should become a slave.” This lack of sight and sense is propelling us, now at high speed it seems, towards a situation that will force us to remember how to speak and hear the deep ancient sounds of the living world.

I am not trying to bash science or technology here, I’m just suggesting that if the gifts than humans have created with our incredible minds were placed in context within the whole of nature, that perhaps the healing process could accelerate and further destruction of our beautiful Earth could cease. This where the practices of bioregionalism are great foundations for remembering how to restart the dialogue and uncover our senses to hear, see, and respond to the world we are so blessed to live within.

Through the shadow of our disconnect and the grief that many of us have survived from either witnessing or attempting to dismiss the rapid and constant destruction of our local and global environments, there have emerged some very positive movements such as farmers markets, CSA’s, permaculture practices, and Slow Foods groups that are providing local, sustainable, organic and ethically raised foods and eco-practices to and within local communities. The growing interest in Herbalism and alternative health is offering people a choice in how they decide to stand in relationship to their own health and well-being. Holistic health practices also provide an opportunity for individuals to be seen as entire beings instead of as parts and symptoms to be fixed or changed.

As a beginning Herbalist and a child of Western culture, I was focused on trying to learn which herb for what symptoms or illnesses. I wanted to identify every plant in my region and know what each and every one was used to treat. I am still a voracious plant-identifier and I am not de-valuing this approach as a stepping stone or a threshold that leads to greater intimacy, love, and wisdom of plants and their wonders. This way of learning can be the first bridge that we build between the human-centered viewpoint of society and the initial awareness that the plants we stand upon, mow down, and weed out of our modern world contain much medicine that is free, available, and easy to use. But this approach must, at some point as we mature and deepen our practice, transform into a dialogue and vision that perceives the plant world interconnected with all else including humans. I have discovered that true health can occur when we begin to see our relationship with plants as reciprocal and interconnected, not just with ourselves as humans, but with the patterns of disease and symptoms that we are attempting to alleviate and resolve.

Bioregionalism Anywhere

The precepts of living bioregionally suggest living or interacting in place and, I believe and have experienced, that this can happen anywhere even as some of us may travel or move regularly. I consider it to be a state of mind or way of being in the world where we maintain a state of receptiveness and response to each other and the environment we inhabit whether it be a city, a suburb or a rural location.  Whether we are herbalists, or doctors, or teachers, or students, or farmers, or any other profession, the natural world is always available and everywhere to guide, teach, and befriend. Anywhere we may be on Earth is in some bioregion or another and so we have ongoing opportunity to engage with these local systems.

Although at times there does seem to be much despair about the current state of all human affairs, when I can be still and quiet enough, I sense a great hope and love that resides within the human community. I know that as one small person I may not have the power to change the direction that seems to be leading us to our own demise, and that the small daily choices that I make to compost or conserve energy or walk instead of drive will not save the planet, but it will and does establish how I stand in relationship to the Earth that I love. Every time I choose to listen to the voices of the other sentient beings, to sense the pulse of the trees, the deep rhythm of the ground, to be aware of the present moment and to speak in return with respect and reverence, I make a connection that would otherwise not be there. For we are all truly a part of this amazing, mysterious, and wondrous world whether we bear leaves, fur, skin or feathers, each of us are integral and necessary in the continual creation of life.