Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Before consumtion

Comes understanding. The more I learn about plants, the more I realize I don't know. The world of plants and their intricacies is so vast and layered. Understanding plants on a simple and spiritual level is deeply satisfying, but in order to pass on the knowledge to the next generation I am finding that concrete understanding is most essential.

Take for instance, the simple twig. Or an herbaceous plant. Or second year growth.

As an herbalist these words get taken for granted; tossed around in the books with the assumption that us lay herbalists actually know what they mean. I know they assume because they aren't explained in the glossary or given any special attention. It wasn't until recently that I finally read how to identify the "second year growth" of Mullein. The first year is the basal rosette and the second year is when it sends up the stalk. (hmm, what happens in the third year?) With the rise of global warming, we are paying attention. I for one thought that the tree was confused... with her little buds already on the twig tips in December. Upon more studies.... I now understand these buds as the terminal buds, which hold the genetic information for spring's renewal and supply food for wildlife in the winter. An herbaceous plant actually has a useful definition.... it's not just a random term for low growing nifty plants that aren't trees.

"The inner bark was used to treat stomach disorders"

This is a common type of explanation we might find in an enthobotanical text or a modern herbal. For historical purposes this is very nice to know.

But I am left hanging by a thread. HOW on Earth do I get the inner bark? WHEN do I harvest it? Do I just take my pocket knife and start hacking away? WHAT part of the tree to I take from- the trunk? The twigs? How do I peel back the outer bark? What preparation do I make and what is the safety level? Not to mention that we don't even know what kind of stomach disorder we are dealing with. So many herbals are just infuriatingly uninstructional. They are theoretical.
I realize that the flip side of this can be books and studies that are entirely too dense and overwhelming to feel grounded.

I need to know more. I need to know more variety and how all this harvesting will impact my environment if I teach others to harvest it too. What if we all go harvest the Nettles? The birch bark for fires? The cattail for food and tinder?

The more I study, the more questions I have. And I am not sure I know where to go to get untangled. I'm certainly not going to "Herbal School". I have a family and a job. And I am very bad at following rules and orderly instructions.

I suppose the best thing to do is continue to apply myself to the experience of nature, take extremely good notes, (my latest obsession being leaf rubbings) and follow up with some of the actually good books. I'm finding the herbals less and less appealing, and the nature education books increasingly satisfying. Since I avoid buying herbs and prefer harvesting them myself, identification is essential. Which means botanical detail is essential too... and I'm on my own for learning it.

In case you are another baffled herbalist.... here are my latest favorite books you might find refreshing:

Hands on Nature by Lingelbach and Parcell / Vermont Institute of Nature Studies

Keepers of Life by Joseph Bruchac

The Tree Identification Book by George W.D. Symonds

Mountain Medicine by Tommie Bass

Although not released yet, I have high hopes for Kiva Rose's Medicine Woman Herbal :)
(no pressure!)

And, while not technically a book, the indispensable www.herbmentor.com


Anonymous said...

i really identify with what you've written here. when i read herbal books, i'm happy to have gained the knowledge of what the plant can be used for but so often there is no mention of how or when. since i too harvest all that i use, i need to know how i should be harvesting and when. it makes me feel like i must be too dense to get it or something:) thats why i love how sharing everyone is here online. nobody tells me that my questions are stupid:)

i'm really interested in mountain medicine by tommie bass. plantainpatch had good things to say about it too, but i can't seem to find a listing of which plants are covered. i'm not sure if it would be useful for where i live.

i'm really excited for kiva rose's book as well!!
and the leaf rubbings are very pretty, i haven't done those for a while- its sunny today, i'll have to get out there and do some. thanks for the idea!

~plantain~ said...

Great post Ananda! I feel like I need to know more also. Then I think as I delve deeper into the plants I will continue to need to know more. The journey is beautiful.

I do love Mountain Medicine. Tommie really resonates with me. I will have to see if I can get the others through my library. Thank you for the recommendations!

Rosalee shows how she harvests(and when) the inner bark of choke cherry on her Herb Mentor video. I was glad to know that I wasn't way off base since like you said there isn't a ton of info about the how's out there.

I am looking forward to Kiva's book as well. :)

I try to follow Juliette Levy's harvesting methods. Her books are so awesome. I won't be without them.

Mullein is a biennial so after the second year it reseeds it self to start again.

Your leaf rubbings are beautiful!

Sarah Head said...

I can understand your frustration, Ananda, but I have found that once I start making or collecting, the terms I might not understand at first gradually make sense.

I agree with you about the worries of sustainability - if everyone gathered as we do, but I've come to the conclusion that the majority of people don't want to pick or grow their own. Their first question to me when I'm talking about a particular herb is "where can I buy it". I have been known to reply - "it grows on a tree, go for a walk and you'll find it" but it's not what they want to hear.

My first herbal was David Hoffman's illustrated Herbal. It was one of the first modern herbals written and you really can't go wrong with it. He gives details of when to pick and what to pick for all of his plants. It's not much fun to read, like the more narrative herbals, but I keep going back to it when I want to check something.

Anonymous said...

You have a beautiful blog.

greenlee said...

Hello my Green Woman. I came here today for the balm that is your world. I have not been disappointed. I love your leaf rubbings!

You know, what you do is important. It is you that will pass on this knowledge you have gained from your own hands and observations. It is you that will give this knowledge it's proper due, unlike the short clips that are herbal books. It is woman's work.

I miss you!

Ananda said...

Wow, thanks everyone for your thoughtful and empathetic responses. It's nice to know that I'm not the only one on this journey for the long haul... with all the up's and downs of a real relationship. It was serendipitous that herbmentor went over a few of these same ideas right when I was writing about them! Funny how that happens.... although I had already figured out the answers to them, there are a lot of these kinds of questions that come up often.
Miss you too Greenlee! Thank you for your affirmations.

treesa said...

Talk about serendipity! I've been looking for a list of books that are better for identification rather than herbals, and here I am! My family has a huge garden, but no one remembers what's planted in it anymore, and you can't really do much until you know which plant is which :) Thanks for the great post! I really enjoy your blog and it looks like others do too. Keep writing!

Happy autumn!


Anonymous said...

"I'm certainly not going to "Herbal School". I have a family and a job. And I am very bad at following rules and orderly instructions."