Updated: Jan 26
Recently I had the opportunity to present my work at a Climate Change Salon hosted by Hovey Brock and Margaret Seiler. I was part of a panel discussion entitled, “Can Plants Save Us?” and chose to talk about my engagement in social practice as an Herbalist. Specifically, I talked about the wildcrafting techniques I use when harvesting plants. My thought was not so much whether plants can save us but whether we can save ourselves and the planet - if we think differently about our relationship to plants. I learned ethical harvesting while training as an Herbalist with Karen Rose of Sacred Vibes Apothecary. The techniques are grounded in the idea that every part of the planet is animate and we need to treat each part with the respect and consideration we show other beings that we love and rely on. If we want to harvest a plant, we make our desires know, ask permission, give something in return, are considerate that others might need the plant and that the plant needs to survive, so we don’t take everything. We express gratitude for the gift of their life and finally, we don't take more than we need. That's a big one in today's culture where we are constantly sold on the idea that we need more. When these techniques are used, the relationship between the two species thrives and both benefit. For instance, we benefit from the medicinal properties in plants when they are shared with us. One way we can give back is to create gardens and nurture the plants within them. An interesting discovery I learned was that harvesting plants in an ethical way can ensure the plant’s survival in the future. These ideas are explored in the book Braiding Sweetgrass, written by Robin Wall Kimmerer. A botanist and ecologist, Kimmerer teaches Environmental and Forest Biology at SUNY. She is a member of the Potawatomi Nation and her book teaches us about Native American traditions that could, in fact, save us from our current environmental crisis. One of her grad students measured the effects of harvesting vs non-harvesting on certain endangered plant species. She found that the species exhibited increased growth after harvesting and that these endangered species were almost exclusively found adjacent to indigenous lands, where the plants were harvested yearly. The idea is that plants need humans as much as we need them. Ethical harvesting of Black Ash opens gaps in the canopy bringing in sunlight so that their tree kin can flourish in otherwise dense forests. Pulling up or pinching back parts of Sweetgrass meadows creates space for it to send out new, lateral growth. Ethical harvesting is a way to ensure the plants are there for us in the future and vice versa. The idea that plants are sentient beings is a concept that has scientific backing. In addition to Kimmerers work, Michael Pollan has written extensively about research in this area. In a New Yorker article, The Intelligent Plant, he discusses how tree roots will grow towards water, and away from or around toxins. Collaborations with other species are also examined. These include fungi, which form networks amongst the roots of tree kin, allowing them to share nutrients and support offspring. Other studies showed that trees have memories, respond to pain and even emit pheromones into the air to warn kin about overgrazing animals so they can emit chemicals that will deter the interlopers. In his book, The Botany of Desire he speculates that certain plants are driving our behavior, inviting us to cultivate, hybridize and nurture them in exchange for an experience - juicy fruit, delicious potatoes or even the high of Marijuana. If this is making you rethink your relationship with plants. Good. Now extend those thoughts to animals, water, the air. It’s not a reach to think of the planet as a giant macrocosm and we humans as one functional part of a whole. There’s work to be done and this is a starting point. In another train of thought… I wanted to share my shock at finding that my oregano plant was the only one on my patio that had not turned into a mushy sludge, like those vegetables you forget in the back of your refrigerator. We already had several nights with temperatures below freezing - it was still green and upright. The trees shed their leaves and other plants had turned into yellow, brown crisps - but not the oregano. I first took a picture of the plants a week ago and just took another picture this morning when I realized that despite being covered in snow, it was still alive and kicking. Oregano is not an evergreen so I was, and remain baffled by its fortitude. It’s a perennial, meant to die back in the fall and regrow come spring. How did it manage to survive such extreme weather? This made me think of another part of the Climate Change Salon, where friend and fellow artist Alexandra Hammond talked about clusters of plants that grow up in parking lots, sidewalk cracks, etc. When I was in Italy, oregano grew everywhere - in shrubs along the road, in cracks. It is a weed in warm climates. Many of the plants I work with as an Herbalist are weeds. Think about that for a minute. The plants that contain medicinal properties are not the showy hybridized roses or flowering plants made into magnificently beautiful gardens. No, they are the persistently present plants we pull out from around the show stoppers. They’re hardy beings, capable of proliferating in the most difficult of environments. When I took a landscaping architecture class back in the ’90s, I remember weeds being referred to as plants growing in the wrong place. They’re more than that. They grow despite drought, lack of nutrients, crowding, shade, pests, micro-organisms, and extreme weather. They are Superheroes and when we consume them, their properties give us strength to do the same. That hints at our connection - why do properties from other beings work for us? Survival and thriving are two different states of being. We can survive despite colds, flu, pain and malfunctioning organs. Plants have properties that heal these conditions. With them, we can thrive. When there is an exchange both are improved in the process. The next time you see a weed growing in the tiniest of cracks, recognize them for what they are. In the end, respect, reciprocity, mutualism, interconnectedness, and awareness are the tools that will allow us to continue to exist on this planet. The plants will survive without us. We both flourish when we recognize the other as a living, sentient being and form respectful relationships.