My grandmother had a windowsill of filled with geraniums, pansies, ferns, and all other kinds of plants old Scandinavian women of her era liked to grow. Her geraniums were the best, bright, and vibrant, even in midwinter. I have a clear memory of her singing softly as she watered them, telling me that her secret was talking to the flowers.
Later, I learned that are people who talk to everything: to ravens, rivers, mountains, rocks, pines, plantain, carrots... I learned this because I'm one of those people. Ever since I was child (a weird, lonely child, that talked to herself ;), I've listened, and talked to everything around me. Sometimes, in fact, I find humans the hardest people to talk to.
Unlike my grandmother, I don't just talk to the plants in my care, though let's be perfectly clear: I talk to my calendula, my mullein, my crimson clover, my feverfew -friends a lot. I ask them what the matter is, how I can best help them, whether they're getting enough, or too much of something. I tell them to turn their faces to the sun, ask permission to thin shading branches, and thank them for springing up. Most of this is non-verbal, more a mantra, than a conscious conversation.
If you came to my garden, you might be shocked by the organic mishmash of the plants in it. From one angle, it's a borage forest, from another, a mullein mountain. Instead of neat rows, I have a kind of orderly chaos of plants I started, and ones that invited themselves to the party. Wherever possible, I let volunteers stay where they've come up. In fact, I often pay closer attention to them, than the plants I first planned on growing.
The volunteers, the interlopers are, in my experience, often the ones we should notice. I can't tell you how many times I've needed something, anything, to relieve a particular pain, or itch, or some other symptom of an ailment, only to discover that there was a plant in my own overgrown front-yard, that could do that just that for me.
There is no better way to explain this than: pay close attention to your "weeds", my dears.
This dry, hot summer, the few shady patches of the dead grass that qualifies for our "lawn", erupted with self-heal, quite literally, right in the shady spot by the chicken coop where like to sometimes sit and do my studying. What had I been thinking about doing, the day before? Making some flower essences. And what is a self-heal-flower-essence good for, again? To help one transition through great changes, and challenges with grace. Who is that hard for? Oh yeah, me. And is that happening in my life right now? You could say that.
That's just one simple example of how the plants we don't invite into our space, or "cultivate", will speak right back to us, if only we press our ear to the ground, and listen.
More than those plants living in the neat, frequently watered, generously sown, rectangle of my garden, I talk to the plants in the wild. As much as gardening is a refuge, a creative pursuit, and a grounding activity, wildcrafting is all that, and a thousand times more.
I can think of almost nothing I love more than wandering the woods with my basket, listening, looking, hunting, and gathering. This practice has thought me so much about my island home, about this bio-region, about the unique qualities of our micro-climate, about the plants both native and non-native to here.
To me, the map of this island, at least one of them, in my mind, is the map of all of my wildcrafting spots: where yarrow grows, where in early spring I can walk in a forest of nettles, or enough fir tips to harvest without damaging the new growth; where in late summer, I'll gather blackberry leaves, or harvest chamomile under the new moon.
One of the reasons I've always liked the terms "hedge witch", or "weed wife" (my friend and wildcrafting hero Mary's preferred nomenclature), is because unlike "herbalist", they have an unassuming ring to them. An herbalist is someone who is often presumed more formally, even clinically educated in her craft, even someone of authority to prescribe medicine. A "hedge witch" could be someone who's slightly outside of any circle, maybe someone working by themselves in the margins, maybe they taught themselves, by necessity, or choice. They might be someone learning from the land around them, patching together their knowledge from folk wisdoms, from passing teachers, through something a little like osmosis, or you know, magic. Similarly, a "weed wife", might be someone on the look out for the humble, hidden, but powerful medicines of ditches, edges, abandoned lots. Tending to the un-tended, remembering the forgotten.
I identify with these terms because I don't in fact have a lot of formal training in the herbal realm, and using these terms makes me feel like I can have a little more space to explore, discover, try things out. I'm just a person who is trying to take, not just their health in their own hands, but the responsibility for the health of their surroundings, and also the to acquire all the knowledge that comes from growing and knowing plants: environmentalism, bio-regionalism, a sense of the Earth as a living, loving organism. As a folk herbalist, I'm happy to educate others, to make medicine, and write about herbal health, but I identify more with the hedge-side of things because plants are a daily, cyclical part of my life.
Much of my practice is figuring out a what I can find, grow, and glean for the health of my family, without needing either allopathic medicine, nor fancy foreign herbs (Don't get me wrong, though, both have their place in our 21st century lives). This practice, like so much else we aspire to (and often fail at too), is about independence, interdependence, about a sense of self, and place. It's about resilience and resourcefulness, two things I value immensely. It's also about re-wilding, and reclaiming my herbalist ancestry, the knowledge of my people, of all our people who came before us. (And definitely before Rite-Aid and health insurance. ;)
I take equal pride in being able to grow something, as I do in being able to find something else, using that old hunter-gatherer instinct, getting the same jolt of joy my ancestors surely did from finding a particularly useful plant.
An example: as much as I'd love it, I've not been able to find, nor grow, a sufficient quality of medicinal St. John's (Joan's)Wort, in my immediate vicinity. Plenty for the occasional cup of tea, but not for a body oil. Two years ago however, I did find a patch of the ornamental variety, in someone else's front-yard. So, ever the herbal optimist, I looked into it, and lo-and-behold, it does hold a much diluted quantity of the same medicinal properties as its wild cousin. Not enough, for a tincture perhaps, but certainly, in quantity, for oil.
Now, some sunny afternoon in early July, or thanks to Global Climate Change, late June, I ride my back stealthily to this patch, and clip some strategic blooms, to immerse them in oil.
This, a friend on instagram informed me, is called "scrumping" in England; the practice of gleaning from other people's yards, using what is not being used, the commons taken back where they need to be enforced.
If you happen to see me on the side of a dirt road, my bike leaning on its stand, my head stuck into the thicket whispering something, fear not: I've not gone mad, I'm just following my calling. Or rather the call of the wild, secret, the small voice calling out for attention.
If any of you are thinking of pursuing a similar path, here are some of my core principles:
1. Learn your flora, fauna, your neck of the woods, your watershed, your bioregion. Take time to discover the different landscapes you inhabit, the other beings that live there. Find out what's native, and what's more recent. Sit under the trees, run your hands over the boulders. It's not simply about wild foods, or medicines, it's about the lay of the land you live on. The land itself, is the most potent medicine sometimes.
2.Respect the plants before you use them. Make sure you know what you're doing.Take time to really get to know your plant friends. The best way to begin, in my opinion, is to get to know one plant very well. Pick something abundant and easy to recognize and learn all you can about that particular plant ally. Spend time with them. Notice their surroundings. Prepare them in many ways. Help them guide you to other plants. Also, do keep in mind that many edible, medicinal plants have decoys, and doppegangers that can fool a beginner, or even a seasoned witch.
3. Harvest responsibly. I can't stress this enough. Don't just pick willy-nilly, because you found a patch of something. Think about whether the spot could handle another picker, or an animal, coming in and culling more after you. To me, having an abundance mentality in wildcrafting, is about cultivating and nurturing the abundance, and sometimes that means just experiencing a plant, not taking any. I also have to say that I love trying to cultivate and proliferate wild friends, either in their natural habitat, or sometimes even in my own garden.
4. Learn the actions of the plants. Learn about adrenals, adaptogens, nervines. Learn what works for you personally, in your own constitution. Learn about the plants working together, and interact with allopathic drugs, with foods you eat, with your constitution. Respect the power of these medicines by taking good care of yourself and consuming them responsibly.
5. Learn to make medicine in a variety of forms. Some medicines are better taken in one form than another. Many abundant medicinal plants are also food. Eating your medicine can be the simplest, most magical way to consume it. Whether taking them in as teas, infusions, or vinegars, cooking wild foods, or just foraging greens and berries for a snack, is a powerful way to connect with their medicine. Take the time to learn to make tinctures, salves, decoctions, essences, syrups, and whatever form your herb books and teachers tell you medicine can take. That way, when you encounter a new plant, you're ready for her.
6. Be with the land, be attentive to the plants. Listen. Fall in love. Simple as that...
Any other witches out there in the hedges?