I have taken on an apprentice. This is my second apprentice. The first quibbled over why my tea bag had a string and informative bit of card attached and his didn’t. I was attempting to teach him how to make a medicinally useful cup of tea. Suffice it to say, we didn’t get past that first lesson, mainly because sixteen is a fascinating age and so is their hair. My second apprentice is a little more eager, although the attention span is also a bit shorter, and she doesn’t actually like drinking herbal tea. Maybe because she’s nine or she’s going on 30. And the second-born hasn’t been engaged to be my third apprentice yet because he’s being called by volcanoes, and dinosaurs, and the ghosts of dinosaurs that were possibly consumed by volcanoes, who also code.
I am of course, talking about my children. As part of their home-school Science/Home Economics/Physical Education and Personal Development (insert other relevant compartmentalised Edubabble here) curriculum I thought I would start incorporating more formal botany, plant identification and herbal medicine lessons into their learning plan. I also had an overwhelming urge to pass on my knowledge so our tradition isn’t lost. I mean, after all, breast milk when they were babies and herbs as they grew and an inordinate supply of hugs, are the only medicine they’ve ever known when they have needed it. It should come naturally, right? So, we’ve been using the excellent resource that is American herbalist, Kristine Brown’s Herbal Roots Zine – a monthly ‘zine subscription that focuses on a new herb each month. We have also owned the excellent Wildcraft board game since John & Kimberly from Learning Herbs first published it. And we use Jeannie Fulbright’s Exploring Creation with Botany, and Thomas J. Elpel’s Botany in a Day. And of course, we have lived in the bush, or nearby, ever since the kids were born (except that brief exile to suburbia in Melbourne, and that time we bummed around on Currumbin Beach for 8 weeks. Nevertheless, there are still medicinal weeds aplenty in these diverse places). The kids can identify most of the more common medicinals growing around us, wherever we have found ourselves.
Currently, my young Padawan is getting to know Dandelion. We’ve traipsed around our quiet little seaside community in search of it. She has learnt to identify and know the difference between lookalike species, she has harvested leaves and flowers, and dug roots, dried the leaves and sprinkled them in our dinner, picked the flowers to infuse in oil, pressed the plant and recorded interesting information about its virtues in her journal. Yet as I watch her colouring a picture of the Dandelion, I can’t help but wonder – has she heard the Dandelion’s song? You see, she knows the technical sort of details of the plant, but does she know its essence? It should come naturally right? I mean, after all, she has grown up knowing which herbs are what and what I have used them for, surely it would sort of rub off somehow, or maybe she’s inherited my passion.
But then, as is my wont, I pondered some more.
What do you do when the land climbs into your bones,
its green tendrils unfurl through your veins,
and it sings its blooms into your heart?
I was somewhat appalled recently when I discovered that a number of naturopaths using herbs have never seen the herbs they use in their original state (that is, as the whole living plant, or even a photo of it, not liquids in a brown bottle, or dried and crushed into equally non-descript pills), let alone be able to identify them if they happenchanced upon them in the wild. A profound sadness filled me. How could this be?! Actually, I felt quite traumatised by this. There is a deep wound here. A deep disconnect. And perhaps as affected as I was, not surprised because we are products of a reductionist society. But on reflection, it reminded me of a conversation I had not so long ago about the meaning of the seemingly unrelated word –Indigenous. My friend and I were discussing this term in relation to the knowledge of our own Australian Indigenous herbal – or rather Bush Medicine – tradition, and how, it is a largely oral-based tradition that is well protected and not readily shared unless deep respect is earned by the seeker (ie; to people of European descent. Understandably). My friend and I, to the eye anyway, are both of European descent. I have Dutch, Scots/Celt, Scandinavian, & Jewish blood running through my veins, and there has been some speculation that there’s also a drop or two of Indigenous Australian blood in there as well, but whatever the case may be, here I am having been born here, my parents were both born here, as far as I am aware all of my grandparents were born here, and my great-grandparents – well therein is the diversity of where the different blood travelled from. I don’t know the lineage of my friend, but she was born here, she grew up in the bush and spent much of her life feeling strongly connected to it. I felt much the same. So, we began to wonder whether indigenous might also mean something beyond the meaning that we are politically familiar with.
With all due to respect to our indigenous brothers and sisters and their history, which as a former archaeology/anthropology student and generally someone also experiencing the human condition, I deeply appreciate; this thought process isn’t about social justice or cultural appropriation. I believe herbal medicine transcends these by being the medicine of the people – whichever people you are and wherever in the world you find yourself putting down roots, and it saddens me that we’ve allowed the division from these very emotionally driven political ideas to permeate into our own solidarity as Plantfolk. This thought process is rather, about this thing called being indigenous as the Earth itself sees it – because if you go back far enough, we’ve all been sojourners coming from somewhere and going to and settling down somewhere else, and we’ve all been formed from the dust of the Earth. Some of us have just put down longer roots or sent out more entrepreneurial and aggressive runners. And this may be a bit of an esoteric idea for some, but in attempting to pass on my knowledge to my daughter, I realised that this is my calling, the plants have chosen me. It might not necessarily be hers, and I can’t make it so. Let me repeat that again; the plants have chosen me.
The Australian Indigenous people do believe that it is the Land that chooses the people, not the other way around. Our descendants may have colonised it, pillaged it, raped it, but they did not own it. We use it for resources, but it only speaks to some of us. To the rest, it is a dead thing, and in my experience, when you treat things that are living as dead, as without soul or sentience, then it will only yield its gifts to you in kind. It’s the quick fix mindset, the extraction of isolated constituents all over again to produce pharmaceuticals that manipulate the body and produce uncomfortable and sometimes deadly side-effects. When there is no respect, you get none in return. You’ll also be seen as devoid of life. Devoid of heart. Which is what we have essentially become.
“For the intense longing of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the children of Elohim. For the creation was subjected to futility, not from choice, but because of Him who subjected it, in anticipation, that the creation itself shall be delivered from the bondage to corruption into the esteemed freedom of the children of Elohim. For we know that all creation groans together and suffers the pains as of childbirth until now.” (The Scriptures. Romans 8:19-22)
I know this will be difficult for some people to comprehend, that the Land has chosen people. It is akin to the created becoming a god, is it not? But perhaps, think on it this way; In the beginning we had one job. To tend, to care for this extraordinary garden we call Earth. One job.
“We have a remarkable ability for forgetfulness, ingenuous methods for not being present, a delicious capacity for oblivion. It is not difficult for us to forget the shocks of childhood, our nature, our destiny, the divine, and all those tasks for which our soul came into this world. As Antonio Machado once asked: What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?” (Robert Bly/Marion Woodman as quoted by Stephen Harrod Buhner. Becoming Vegetalista.)
We haven’t done the job. In fact, we forgot all about it. But the Earth knows what its purpose is, it hasn’t forgotten. The plants remind us of who we are and where we have come from, and where we are going, and this is why their medicine can touch us so deeply and profoundly. But in our busy lives of material distraction, we don’t see or feel or hear – except for some of us who were born with eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart that feels and so we hear the silver song and we follow the notes that lilt with the breeze, and we see the golden bark at the bottom of the Grandfather Tree and we feel it’s shimmer and know within our heart of hearts that faeries live here. We become indigenous, we become native, we remember – a kinnection between the earth and man, we speak for them that have no voice that humans might hear. And with our green tendrils we reach into the hearts of those who want to know the way home, and we plant a little seed. And so, the humans only have to tend that one little seed in the garden of their own soul. One job. It isn’t that difficult. But it might be a little painful…at first, because some of us need first to wake up and smell the roses.
We are chosen, and the plants are our teachers. One day I will write a book on all of these that have taught me. And every year, when the time is right, my feet itch and the Land calls and my heart scouts the edges of the road less travelled, listening for the teacher. My own apprenticeship continues until the day I’m liberated into Light or my bones have returned to the Land and the seeds that have been scattered lovingly throughout my shroud sprout into a meadow of wildflowers.
“Nonetheless, the ecstatic journey has been part of human life for as long as humans have been. And the Earth really is intelligent and alive and aware and communicating with us every second of every day. And there really is a sacredness that flows through everything that, sometimes – usually when we least expect it – touches the soul of us and urges us to begin a journey that, as Mirabai once said, ecstatic human beings have taken for centuries. And for some of us the particular path we are called to take is the path of the vegetalista.
For those of us who take that path, the plants themselves become our teachers. They initiate us into (and surround us every day with) veriditas – a meaning-filled word created oddly enough by Hildegard of Bingen who was okay for a Christian I guess. She cleverly combined two Latin words: veritas and verde – truth and green. It’s a word that means -allatthesametime – the living intelligence of the green world and the sacredness that can be found there.” (Stephen Harrod Buhner. Becoming Vegetalista. )
And the sacredness is this; it is not the created that we worship, it is the created that reminds us, that seeks to work with us. It is the Creator who breathes Life into all, including Earth, a Divine signature; and each plant, each tree, each rock, each crystal, each body of water, each creature, speaks to that glory. Because Yahuah speaks the mysteries in the idiom of tangibles. He speaks in Golden Threads and Green Tongue, and He speaks in pomegranate and almond blossom, in olive, in oak, in cedar, and one day I might tell you the mystery of how the Blue Water Lily healed my root and navel.
“For since the creation of the world, His invisible qualities have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, both His everlasting power and Mightiness…”. (The Scriptures. Romans 1:20)
Have you ever seen a forest in worship? Each tree, each plant raising its limbs toward the heavens in joy-filled praise?
And sometimes, when the Pine has had enough of the zombies, it gives everyone the bird. I don’t really blame it. Sometimes, brick walls are easier to talk to than people (because even the bricks remember that once they were earth).
So, I’m not entirely sure just yet if my daughter has felt this Veriditas entwine itself into her soul, if the earth has called her, or if in this green language, to her Yahuah will speak.
I plant the seed nonetheless, knowing that at least she can tell the difference between a dandelion and a cat’s ear, and that dandelions make a much nicer medicinally useful cup of tea.