Bioregional Herbalism - The Medicine of Place

 

I'm not sure when exactly it happened, but at some point our attention shifted. We stopped looking closely and really knowing the communities of plants and animals we share space with. Our thoughts and goals shifted away into more abstract ideas of what it means to be successful, to live a truly good life. We started outsourcing all our food and medicine, and now it appears on grocery store shelves like magic, in a process we are completely disconnected from. 

We have systematically tried to remove ourselves from what we call "nature" and place ourselves above it, as if we were dropped here on earth one day and didn't co-evolve over eons with the rest of life on this planet.

But there was a time when we all knew the name of every bird and what plants to seek help from when we were sick. And I think there is a path back to that way of living.

For most of my life I felt a sort of disconnect, like there was a big piece of the world I'd forgotten, glimmering at the edges of my sight but never taking on enough shape for me to recognize it.

Really, it felt like a lack of belonging, like missing something and not knowing what.

I'd wager that most of us have felt something like this at one time or another. A nagging feeling or a voice in the back of your mind, tugging on you to remember something.

I know so many herbalists who can recall gathering leaves and twigs and mud and flowers and mixing up "potions" when they were little, something I think is actually an expression of our deepest instincts to interact in a direct, tangible way with the green world. 

At our core we all feel the pull toward connection with the living earth. 

When I started studying herbalism years ago, I felt like I'd found the piece that I was missing. As I looked through my great aunt Jean's herbals and learned to identify the plants growing outside my door, it was like a spell was lifted and I really saw the world for the first time. And it was full of so much more life and magic and delight than I ever knew.

I started building relationships with the plants in my backyard, in the forest, in parks, even in the cracks of sidewalks. I watched them grow and witnessed their lifecycles, harvested them, made medicine with them. I wanted to know them as the unique individuals they are, and I wanted to understand how they fit into the larger community of the ecosystem.

It blew my mind that the world was so full of medicine, and that I could find it all around me. For free. That kind of unconditional generosity felt astounding. I began to understand that the earth was here to fully support us. All we have to do is pay attention and take care of it in return.

I didn't know there was a name for it at the time, but what I was practicing was bioregional herbalism

Bioregional herbalism, also sometimes called eco-herbalism, is, in essence, the art of working with the plants local to you. Of observing the ecosystem where you live and how each plant fits into the wider web of things.

It's learning the life of a meadow.

The full moon in May is when the hawthorns bloom. The next full moon, in June, is the perfect time to gather linden flowers. St. Johns wort opens her sun-yellow flowers at Midsummer, and the fields are full of dusk-purple Sweet Leaf in early July.

Living this way and making medicine in a seasonal way makes me feel like I fit into the world, like I'm part of the big ebb and flow of life on this planet.

Now, I want to take a minute to be clear that there is absolutely nothing wrong with buying your herbs. I still order them when needed, and I have a few great local shops where I can find much of what I wasn't able to harvest. For many herbalists, this is the best and only option - not everyone has the privilege of living somewhere they can easily observe and harvest plants safely. 

But, if you do have that privilege, here are a few of the advantages to taking a bioregional approach:

Lower environmental impactBy harvesting much of what you need from nearby, you avoid putting more things on trucks and planes and using more (often plastic) packaging, reducing the impact of your practice.

Self-reliance - Do you remember how, in 2020, supply chains and manufacturing slowed to a crawl? There was a definite impact on the availability of herbs, with many being unavailable or taking weeks to arrive. By harvesting as much of your own supply as you can, you reduce your reliance on a third party and the risk of suddenly not having access to the herbs you need.

A unique apothecary - Learning the plants growing near you gives you access to a wider range of herbs than you might find commercially. Some of the wonderful medicine plants we can find in the wild are not easy to find on the market - there are many that have fallen out of popular use simply because of a lack of knowledge and therefore demand.

Reciprocity - This, to me, is the most valuable part of practicing bioregional herbalism. When you get to know the land around you, you create a relationship with it, and that is medicine in itself. You start to notice the health of the rivers and the air and the animals and the insects. You begin to care more about the place where you live and see its inherent value. You'll understand how to harvest medicine and work with the plants in a way that benefits the ecosystem instead of harming it. In essence, you become a good steward of the earth.

When you really see a place and love it, you fight to protect it. And we certainly need as many people as possible to fight for our green spaces.

So, where do you start if you want to practice bioregional herbalism?

The first step is simple: look. Observe the plants around you. Go outside with a good field guide and learn their names. Take pictures of them, or draw them. Breathe in the sent of their flowers, touch their leaves. Are they rare or endangered and in need of protection? Or very common? Watch their lifecycles unfold. Read what other herbalists have learned about their medicine. 

Soon you'll see the patterns of your ecosystem unfolding. What insects rely on which plants? How about the animals? The Red Admiral butterfly needs the nettle. Deer love to sleep in the soft mats of cleavers and bedstraw. 

The next step is to work directly with a plant. When you feel you know it, carefully and ethically harvest it when it is in season and make medicine with it. (For more on ethical harvesting take a look at this.) Observe how the medicine feels in your body. Listen to what it tells you. Doing this will help you get to know each plant on the deepest level possible.

Remember to take your time. There is no rush to know everything. Actually, it's impossible to know everything. But it is possible to know a few things very well.

Building a relationship with the land and with the plants is something you can't rush, just like you can't rush a friendship. I promise the time and effort is worth it.

 P.S.

If you'd like to learn with others in a hands-on way, I lead workshops, programs and plant walks throughout the year that focus on a bioregional approach. You can check out my calendar here and sign up to my newsletter to keep up with where I'll be. If you are local to northern New Jersey or the Hudson Valley, I'd love to have you join me.

 

Be well,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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