Folk Herbalism ~ The Roots Revial

This is one of my favorite essays by plant healer and co-founder of Herbal Resurgence Rendezvous (formerly Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference), Kiva Rose, writing of the  grassroots revolution that’s quietly, root by root, shoot by green sprouting shoot, gaining ground in this country.  I love how she describes us as...“ a wild and weedy bunch, with a penchant for sidewalk-cracking garden escapees and feral flowers.”

The Reevaluation, Reclamation and Resurgence of Folk Herbalism

“To ignore the experience of people trained in the science of their day, or simply expert in the practical application of folk medicine, is both culturally bigoted and unscientific. We cannot presume that conventional modern science knows everything. Folk tradition includes many more layers of nuanced experience, including information drawn from the imagination, intuition, observation of animals, bedside experience, taste and smell, that the inherently limited boundaries of modern science cannot include. These layers of knowledge enrich, rather than deduct from scientific endeavor.”
–Matthew Wood (Traditional Western Herbalist)

“We were created out of the earth there. Well, we’re part of the earth, and that’s what we’ve got to go back to the earth to get something to keep this body a-ticking. Just like the tree, of course, and the herbs here, they’ve got sap in em, and we’ve got blood.”
–Tommie Bass (Appalachian Folk Herbalist)

With the current economic hardships, there’s been a revived interest in all sorts of folk arts as well as an upsurge in enthusiasm for the do-it-yourself mentality. And rightly so, as our culture finally awakens to the need for increased sustainability and self-sufficiency. Once relegated to the impoverished or for decorative purposes only, gardening has seen an incredible upsurge as we once again take an interest in where and how our food is grown. Likewise, many folk arts, from artisan breads to hand woven fibers have become increasingly popular and valued in recent years. Handmade has become something to value rather than scorn in favor of their store boughten counterparts. Locally crafted goods are esteemed over exotic imports as being not only more economical, but also more meaningful and desirable as they connect us to our own bioregions and facilitate an intimacy with place.

In the context of herbalism, however, it seems that the term “folk” is still frequently accompanied by disdainful sentiments, and for the more open minded, a sense of the quaint and cute and old fashioned. Yep, go ahead and look up folk herbalism or folk medicine. Count how many times the terms “rustic&rduo;, “primitive” and “non-scientific” come up. Stedman’s Medical Dictionary is kinder, defining  folk medicine as the “treatment of ailments outside clinical medicine by remedies and simple measures based on experience and knowledge handed down from generation to generation.”

Technically, the term folk in this context applies strictly to non-professional or lay people using local or handed down knowledge to treat illness. More realistically, folk herbalism is simply whatever herbal practitioners (professional or not) and practices not currently recognized as valid, acceptable or popular by conventional medicine and mainstream culture. In the U.S., that seems to be just about damn near all of us. Yeah, sure, some of us have managed to fit in a little better, but among plant-loving people there’s still likely to be sage leaves clinging to our lab coats and chokecherry twigs tangled in our hair no matter how many hospitals or integrated clinics we’ve worked in.

I personally see the term folk as an underlying commonality for all grassroots practitioners, all those herbalists who get out in the forests and meadows and gardens and harvest their own medicines and who can recognize their favorite remedies while still growing in the ground and not just from a label on a fancy bottle. After all, folk are just the people. Usually the common people, the non-elite who need sustainable, cheap remedies that actually work without worrying about academic theories or even government endorsement. Implied by the term is a lack of exclusivity, embracing rather than shunning and encouraging a sense of sharing what we know without hoarding or copywriting our experiences. At its root, folk arts of any kind tend to be unpretentious while still beautiful and useful, a testament to the efficiency and aesthetics of an earlier era with increasing relevance for our current challenging times.

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