My love of plants was born out of wildcrafting- that’s my paradigm. I suppose I should clarify. Being out in the field, observing and identifying, taking notes, snapping photos and spending hours with local field guides- that’s how my love of plants began. When it became evident that many of the plants that caught my eye were either edible or medicinal plants, well that was just magical to me!
My wildcrafting has always been with an eye to ethics and stewardship. With a desire to understand the landscape that these plants form a part of, not only because that is interesting to no end, but because it is my view that you can’t responsibly wildcraft without that understanding- the implications of harvesting a plant can be catastrophic for plant populations without that background.
And here’s the other thing- my relationship with the plants and the land around me has deepened my relationships to all that is good and true in my life. My relationship to myself, to Spirit, with the values I hope to instill in my young daughter.
And I decided at some point that I would teach others about these plants as well. This came about partly because it didn’t feel right to hoard this information, and partly from pressure from other people. They wanted to learn, and I was able to teach and so I began. Even when I didn’t feel ready, I began.
I knew that any foraging or wildcrafting activity that I taught needed to have ample information on ethics and sustainability integrated but I didn’t really know how to teach it in a way that felt like I was giving it it’s fair due without sounding discouraging. I even had some feedback that learning about plants was hard enough and here I was adding another layer of complication on top.
Here’s the thing- I live in an area where awareness of these issues is still incredibly low. It takes a lot of work to convince the public that they should be interested in wild plants, edible or otherwise. There isn’t the same level of competition in the same way that there would be in larger markets with a much higher level of awareness. What I mean by that is that at present, I do not see much evidence of other humans collecting when I am out scouting, hiking and spending time with plants. That isn’t to say that no one does, because of course they do! I just haven’t had many experiences with seeing the devastation that we can do to wild plant populations at this time in my area.
But I also see how quickly it could happen, and I worry that my actions might in some way promote that.
It is something that I have been thinking about for a long time now, and wondering how to navigate the minefield of social media and beyond. I have been wildcrafting for over a decade now AND have had instruction from a number of amazing mentors- from many different perspectives. I have definitely made mistakes and harvested when it was not appropriate, or not processed what I did harvest quickly enough and ruined the plants I took. I have opened my mouth about locations in the spirit of solidarity and wound up heartbroken and angry. It’s happened, and I am not a beginner!
So, when I see memes and posts about how as herbalists, we should never ever be wild harvesting, it strikes a nerve with me. On many levels, I agree. I agree for all the reasons stated above and more. I struggle with the reality that even on my tiny scale, I am profiting from lands that are not mine to profit from. I am benefiting from an environment that in many ways is stressed far beyond what I can conceive.
And I don’t know the answer. It is easy to say- well fine, then I will grow the plants that I need. And grow plants, I do. I have begun to grow many of the native medicinals I rely on- bee balm, passionflower, horsetail and mountainmint to name a few. I allow the more invasive weeds that I use to flourish around me- the goldenrod, plantain, cleavers, purslane, vervain and more. I spread seeds when I harvest and I replant when I can. I live in an urban permaculture project right now, and developing the skills to be self sufficient in both my food and medicine production is important to me. This is all important, and yet, it is still not enough.
I have struggled with the idea that I need to change the entire concept of Red Earth Wildcrafted, in order to prevent glorifying the wild harvesting of plants and to not contribute to the problem.
We live in a call-out culture right now, and in many ways that is a wonderful thing- to feel empowered to verbalize it directly and immediately when we see injustice or privilege being misused- whatever it is. But there seems to be a new strain of it bubbling through the herbalist contingent on social media- calling out other herbalists on social media for not doing things “right”, and I have seen much lately about the unethical reality of wild harvesting and how as herbalists it is our job to protect the ecosystem, not possess the plants themselves. Like with anything, nuance and context is of the utmost importance and absolutely cannot be taken into account in a simple Facebook meme.
And I can’t help it- I do take offense to the reality that someone who has never met me, or spent any time with me at all – ever- would think it is okay to judge me or my herbalism as unethical.
Ultimately, I teach people about plants with the sincerest wish that they develop a love of the land, a love of this beautiful earth and a sense of connection to the wonder of it all THROUGH the plants. The plants themselves aren’t even the end goal for me. They are the vehicle by which I hope to inspire people to live lives of connection and purpose.
So for now at least, I am continuing to do what I do. Wild harvesting my medicines with ceremony and deep gratitude. Pruning dead branches and weeds from around the plants I harvest from. Harvesting in a way that creates new growth, not destroying stands of plants at a time. Creating self-care and seasonal wellness products with those plants in a way that feels authentic to me. Keeping always open the possibility of change and the necessity of growth. Letting things evolve as they need but ultimately trusting myself over what the internet says I should be doing every day.