On Western Herbalism

This article was originally published in Plant Healer Magazine in Spring of 2012. 


tradition |trəˈdi sh ən|


the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.

I had a crying fit a few years ago, while I was still in TCM school. It lasted around 9 hours, the majority of which I spent up a tree in the back garden, refusing to talk to anyone or see reason. Out of the blue, I heard the words ‘black cohosh’ start to ring in my head, repeatedly. So I disentangled myself from my branch, and snuck back into the house, to find my black cohosh tincture.

You know how sometimes the only way you find out that you were in pain is when the pain stops? Well I only knew that my liver was in a vice grip because, five seconds after taking 3 little drops of black cohosh tincture, my liver unwound. As if it were a large sponge being wrung free of water, and the hands that were wringing it had finally let go. Then, as if my body were operating of its own accord, I sat down right where I was, on the living room floor, and stopped crying.

The next day, on duty at the pharmacy at school, I went straight to the drawer labelled ‘sheng ma’ and pulled out a chunk of root and started explaining what happened to the little old Korean man who ran the lab. He explained to me in broken English that there’s no way sheng ma would do that. To illustrate, he pulled out a copy of Bensky, turned to the right page, and said ‘see, you’re wrong’. This incident highlighted to me a glaring difference between East and West. Here in the West, we are constantly seeking out new information, better, faster, more efficient ways to do things. In the East, it’s quite the opposite. I had a conversation with a lovely ayurvedic herbalist in South India who told me, while we were discussing the different herbs we use, that he’d never sell anything new even if it worked better, because people wouldn’t buy something that was non-traditional. Here in the West, it seems that things can never be exotic enough.

I was told repeatedly by colleagues at TCM school that there IS no Western herbal tradition- that if there were, we’d have books that were written a thousand years ago, and we’d not have to ‘borrow’ from TCM and ayurveda and goodness knows where else. For years I had nothing to say in response. But the more I learned about Western herbalism, the more I interacted with other herbalists and teachers and plants and books, and attended conferences based on carrying Western herbalism forwards, the more I realised that we do have a tradition. A strong and rich tradition. It’s just... non-traditional. 

What comes to mind when you think of the East? I think of things like ancestry, tradition, reverence, ancestor worship, meditation, respect for elders, and even more than that I think of unity. One-ness. All individuals being part of a greater whole.  Now think of the West. What do you think about? Progress, change, evolution, science, rational thinking. The roar of individuation as every ego wants to leave its mark. One-ness means a different thing in the West. It is the one of the solitary-- the lone wolf-- not the one of unity. Where the East has its face turned peacefully to the past, we in the West, with our brows furrowed, plough ahead into the future. Eastern herbal traditions live in reverence to their elders. There are sifus and gurus and lineages that can be traced back to men who over the years have been ascribed with almost god-like powers. Here, we have the individual. The herbal rebel. If the motto of the East is ‘I am one of the many that make the whole’ then that of the West is ‘I emerge from the many-made-whole as one’

It’s easy to see how it doesn’t look like a tradition: our lone wolves are all so different. Some of us sound like scholars, and some like new age hippies. Some of us use flower essences, and some laugh at them. Some of us love working with psycho-emotional issues and others like patching up wounds. Some use crystals, some use river rocks, some advocate running around naked under the full moon and others wouldn’t dream of such nonsense. Some people use an ayurvedic constitutional model, some use TCM, some use Western energetics, some use Western science, and some make up their own. There’s a huge spectrum of difference in what we do, how we practice, how we see a patient and the models that we use.

And of course there is! Each of us has a different background of leaning, having picked up information and inspiration from different people, books and places. It’s the Western way to build on what’s come before us, to take the tools and knowledge we’ve been handed and make it our own. Yes, I think it’s easy to look at this mish-mash of people and say ‘that’s not a tradition’, but I think that mish-mash advocates a closer look through different eyes. Eyes that see tradition not as same-ness but as a current.

Our tradition is our individuality. Our one-ness. Our rebellion. Our tradition is the roots that bind us even as we forge ahead alone. It’s the way of the Western man (and woman) to build on what’s come before, to integrate not to exclude. And that’s what we do. Constantly. Our knowledge in the Western Herbal Tradition doesn’t come from one central canon, or descend from one great master. Each one of us individuals is composite of our teachers and mentors, of the books we’ve read and the plants we’ve bonded with. Not a single one of us practices the same medicine, and nor will we in the future. We Western herbalists are like a mycelial network. The body of the teachings lies unseen spread across the surface, and then every now and then in the right conditions one of us pops up out of the soil bringing our own history with us into practice. 

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