Outside there is still a layer of snow and ice on the land. The kind that forms only late in the winter, when the sun is just warm enough to melt the top layer and the nights are just cold enough to freeze it solid again. In the bare patches between pockets of snow, I can see the young leaves of motherwort, frilled groups of garlic mustard, the oil-painting perfection of new wood avens growth.
The sight of these things wakes something up in my mind, something very old and true. Soon the plants will return, life will return, everything begins again. It will be time to make medicine, to harvest fresh greens from the earth, to nourish the body and shake off the dust of winter. This is the energy of spring.
For years I've lived my life this way, trying as best I can to realign myself with the earth, to notice things, to tune my body and mind back to the natural cycles of the meadows, the birds, the clouds. Maybe all my life I'd tried, but never hard enough. The world is a distracting place, and it likes to tell us stories about what is and isn't important. For too long I listened to the wrong stories. I got distracted.
Herbalism and foraging were my way home, so I want to talk about how they helped me find myself again, why I practice them, and why I think anyone who wants to live a more authentic life, who wants to find roots, connection, belonging and truth should look first at their relationship with the things growing right around them. I'm going to share some of my story, too, because I think a lot of people might relate to it.
Finding Something Lost
Some of my earliest memories are of the wild mint that grows along the edges of the lakes where I live. I loved everything about it; the scent, the symmetry of the purple flowers, the crinkly leaves, and most of all, that something so fun grew right within my reach. I can remember the spark of joy I felt whenever I found a new patch, like I had stumbled on something precious. I still feel the same when I'm out hiking and see a familiar herb I particularly love, or when I meet a new plant I've only ever read about.
I think this feeling is something universal to humans, even if they don't remember it or give it enough attention to thrive. If you think back, I'll bet there was a plant you loved as a child. Maybe a tree, or a bush, that you felt a relationship with.
That feeling faded for me, too, as I got older. I stopped listening to my own voice and started listening to all the loud, insistent voices outside of me. My love for the natural world, for the tiny flowers in the grass and the smooth gray bark of the beech trees, became something secondary in my life. I always had this feeling that there was something just outside of my sight. Like there was magic and connection out there in the dusk under the trees. I knew the thing I was missing was behind a veil, and if I could just pull it back, everything would be returned to me.
The first time I started to remember who I was, I was driving through a long winding road in the forest. I was on a break from college, where I spent long nights in the observatory and in the lab, looking for stars that died at the beginning of the universe. That sounds romantic, but it wasn't - my world had become concrete walls, computer screens, spreadsheets, and not enough sleep.
On that road in the forest, I came across a grove of ferns. I can still see them, moving in the breeze, the slanted afternoon sun filtering through the canopy of oaks. The motes and tiny insects drifting in the air above them. The ferns and sun and summer air entered my being like a shard of light piercing through a darkness I didn't even know I was in. It was a long time before my life changed, but I remember that moment as the one when I began to search for my way back.
Years ago, when I found the old herbals my great aunt had passed down to my mother, something clicked into place. Herbalism was not as mainstream as it is now, and I had little exposure to it in my daily life. I didn't really know that herbalist was a thing you could actually be. As a child I dreamed of eating leaves, of making bark into syrup, and here in these old books were the instructions. It was like finding a spell book, or a secret door that wasn't there before, and it opened up the world.
Working with plants made me feel real again, like a had a purpose, a place to belong. Like I was part of the earth again. Humans are meant to participate in the natural world, and when we don't, I think we inevitably start to feel disconnected.
I think, even if you're not a 'plant person,' you can find a tether back to the living earth by observing even the smallest plants around you, learning their names and understanding how they can help us. When we truly wake up and start to observe the physical, tangible world around us again, it's like getting to know an old friend, or finding a long-lost relative.
To harvest a plant is to know it. If you are careful and ethical about your harvesting, you'll have observed the ecosystem it lives in; who depends on it, who grows with it, what weather it needs to thrive. Does it grow in the meadows, or deep in the forests? And why?
Glechoma hederacae: ground ivy; gill-over-the-ground; creeping charlie, ailhoof, catsfoot. Just finding out the old names of this little mint summons an ancestral memory. Our great grandmothers named this little plant, added it to their soups and used it in their apothecaries. One of the first green plants of the year, the bitter taste of the leaves wakes up our digestion in the spring, helps us to cleanse the old stagnation of winter, primes our body for the months of energy and activity ahead. It grows most often in backyards - it likes to be near humans.
When you pick some of this unassuming little plant and toss it on a salad, you are accepting a gift directly from the earth and engaging in something so old and profound that it can't be described. Reclaiming a lineage. You are, literally, reconnecting with the earth and engaging in a direct relationship.
The more you observe the plants, harvest them in their time, and work with them, the more you will understand about the natural world and how connected to it we are. You'll see why dandelion roots are bitter in the spring and sweet and nourishing in the fall; they give our bodies exactly what they need in the season when we need it. We co-evolved, our rhythms match. You'll understand how much the rain matters, notice the subtle shift in the light at the solstice and feel exactly where you are in the cycle of the year.
To understand these things is to be fully awake, to be fully human, to understand our place on the earth. When everything else is in question, you can return to the solidity and basic truth of these patterns. You can feed yourself and keep yourself well with the things that grow freely around you. This is a support system that you will always have.
While the spiritual component of wildcrafting is perhaps the most important and healing to me, there are practical reasons why I do it, too.
I like knowing that no matter how intense the world gets (and uh, lately....), I can rely on myself and the land around me for food and medicine. The systems we have in our human society are not perfect, but I understand them and am grateful for many of them (science, laws, etc.). And yet, I like knowing that if I choose to or have to, I can function outside of them.
When I started foraging and using plant medicines, it felt like I had given myself a degree of freedom I'd never had before but always sought. Getting to know the earth again was like finding a mother/father/friend who would always be there for me when I needed it. As a person who has always had anxiety and difficulty feeling truly safe, this was life-changing for me.
The sad fact is that many of the foods available to us in the grocery store are mere shadows of what they once were. The conventional farming methods used today deplete the soil of nutrients and leave our food severely lacking (there's a lot more information about this here, if you're curious).
On the other hand, wild foods are often growing in full, intact, diverse ecosystems where the essential minerals and other nutrients in the soil have not been disturbed. Nettles harvested from the edge of a pristine pond in the forest are going to have a much richer spectrum of necessary nutrients than salad that was picked weeks ago from poor soil.
The same goes for medicinal herbs. While there are a few growers who produce gorgeous, medicine rich herbs, I think that some plants are more potent when harvested from the wild. For example, yarrow that grew freely in a meadow, facing storms and heat, reaching its roots deep into the soil for nutrients and thriving despite it all, will have more character and medicine than yarrow grown safely in a covered greenhouse with ideal soil. But, of course, that's just an opinion and a feeling I have, and one major caveat is endangered herbs; if a herb you need is endangered, purchasing it from a responsible grower is the ethical thing to do.
How do you get started?
If what I've shared above resonates with you and you feel called to enter into relationship with the land around you, the first step is to make sure you understand the concept of reciprocity and ethical harvesting. If you aren't respectful of the ecosystems around you, if you don't do what you can to ensure that you are giving back to them, then you won't truly be living in right relationship with the land. You'll be missing out on so much of what wildcrafting is (and, possibly, harming the land...which we don't need any more of).
I humbly suggest reading this article I wrote a while ago about how to get started with wildcrafting and how to do it ethically. I also have a few other articles about seasonal wildcrafting if you'd like to check those out, too, for ideas on what to look for at different times of the year.
A great book to consider if you want to understand reciprocity with the land is Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Even if you choose not to wildcraft, reading this wonderful book will open your eyes to all the ways in which we humans are a part of the earth.