Emergent Herbalism;

plants, people, and culture

“Folk medicine is defined as a system of medicinal beliefs, knowledge, and practices associated with a particular culture or ethnic group.”

— Phyllis D. Light

Folk herbalism is a traditional and ancestral healing practice that has many origins around the world, as plants and people have naturally converged with local cultural norms and beliefs, bioregional and seasonal patterns, community necessities, and health concerns. Plants, people, and ecological cycles continue to co-evolve, as humans still depend on plants as food and medicine for their survival and as catalysts of ritual and spiritual practice. Most, if not all, original peoples lived in plant-based cultures and many still do. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), traditional medicine (including herbs) is the primary source of health care for many developing countries. Indeed, it is estimated that plant-based medicine serves up to 80% of the population worldwide. Traditional medicine is defined by the WHO as:”the sum total of the knowledge, skill, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.” [1]

The cross-cultural use of herbs and herbal medicine has experienced a significant resurgence in the past several decades. It has become a popular method of alternative medicine as well as a profitable commercial industry. Many people in Western societies are including herbal preparations such as teas, tinctures, and capsules in their health care routines. Whole plant medicinals have become increasingly common complementary treatments to conventional protocols. Additionally, herbal preparations and healing systems constitute potent preventative medicine and, in many cases, effective independent treatments for both acute and chronic conditions. This herbal renaissance has fostered an unprecedented encounter between herbalism as a deep historical tradition, a healing art, and a scientifically legitimate health care modality amid the modern conglomerate of centralized, global capitalism — and, in the United States, a serious health care crisis.

Herbalism is rooted in social paradigms that differ from most contemporary contexts and were place-based, relatively isolated, and self-regulated. Herbalism flourished among communities that were far more autonomous than the complex international social network that now intersects us all with swiftly changing and precarious ecological, economic, and political circumstances. This presents several challenges that cannot be addressed by holding on to the dogma of old practices taken out of temporal context. Neither can these challenges be overcome by acquiescing to dominant cultural imperatives that would likely deconstruct the reparative and human-centered character of traditional herbal medicine.

The folk components of herbal medicine offer invaluable and indispensable life-saving resources to a world in desperate need of accessible, sustainable, and compassionate systems of adaptation and resilience. Folk herbalism is fundamentally bioregional, innovative, and grassroots in a way that empowers individuals and communities to withstand life fluctuations of all kinds. Our current uncertain political, social, and environmental climate requires us to forge relevant solutions from the cumulative canon of human healing traditions. The folk conditions of our ancestors no longer exist or are minimally integrated into the demands of our daily lives. There is no denying that we live within capitalist and patriarchal dominion; thus, if we aim to preserve the decentralized, humanistic qualities of the herbalist tradition intact, our intentions must somehow converge with our daily realities.

I have been addressing some of these elements of concern in my writings and teachings over the past several years. I also observed consistent patterns and ideas emerging from the ongoing development of a class I teach called “Bioregional Herbalism.” Moreover, Adrienne Maree Brown’s work and book on Emergent Strategy, my current enrollment and studies in The Permaculture Women’s Guild Permaculture Design Course (Permaculture Women’s Guild), and Looby Macnamara’s teachings on cultural emergence have influenced the evolution of my thoughts on “Emergent Herbalism.” My insights on these concepts are strongly shaped as well by my work as a folk herbalist with my local community, the work of other Western herbalists, my direct relationship with plants and wild places, and my ongoing study and practice of permaculture principles.

Folk herbalism involves simple, place-based, relational, and direct interactions such as how we might envision the archetype of the village healer or community wise woman to be. In the past, this type of practice was decentralized and local. Many of the conditions from within which it emerged have ceased to predominate in our global society. For folk herbalism to endure as a deeply nourishing and essential component of regenerative living that aligns and co-creates with natural systems, the landscape, other humans, and the more-than-human world, it must adapt to a vast and intricate set of circumstances. The principles of emergence and emergent design are founded on such conditions whereby evolutionary and adaptive changes and systems occur as a result of simple interactions that are synergistic and lead to greater, more complex, and emergent forms and patterns.

Largely based on indigenous practices, permaculture design methods yield relevant systems of meeting local needs while accounting for outside influences from the greater society. Defining the word “local” is another challenge of modern times. Local may have once referred to precise, and likely isolated, geographical places with unique cultural elements. This continues to be a part of the understanding of “local,” but because all communities on Earth, at least to some degree, are now bound to global demands (either as the targets or the beneficiaries of extractive economies) worldwide issues and iterations impact all of us. Local, in this sense, includes an international significance. According to Local Futures, an international organization that promotes educational programs and resources to inspire relocalization movments, working locally corresponds to “community renewal and resistance to corporate power.”

Beyond the practical implementation of local systems that resist the implacable scale of global advance, localization includes the activity of being present with not only ourselves, but the places and people with whom we are directly and creatively engaged. Relocalization makes us aware of the current conditions for which we live, or what has been called the “thickness of now” or “the time of thick now.”[2] As the executive director and coordinating curator for The Emergence Network, Bayo Akomolafe, affirms: “we glamorize the foreign and revel in the ‘quality’ of imported goods, treating the local as inferior; we exoticize the mystical, and create utopias where we can safely ‘arrive’; we ache for feelings of expandedness — irritated by the gravity of our present shadows and the mundaneness of ‘life-as-it-is’; and, for many who seek to ‘change the world’, a good place to start is seldom their neighbourhoods but a strange land on the other side of the globe.” [3]

Bayo calls this the “Banishment of Immediacy.” This style of localization or relocalization is about being immersed in the conditions, conversations, and actions at hand. In this manner, it is a sense of embodied presence where we inhabit and interact with our neighborhoods, our families, the projects we pursue, and our circles of connection wherever and however they arise. Our local circles can even include internet forums and worldwide network of activists with whom we we engage.

Emergent herbalism integrates the relationships we have with our bioregional location (even while traveling), the local culture at hand, natural systems, and ecological concerns with the matrix of “techno-commercial economics.”[4] Local, in this sense, is working with a scale that is flexible and gradient, as well as refractive. This releases and supports the capacity for ecologically based cultural emergence to shape, design, and command the economic and political systems with which they interact. Hence, we keep the necessary local, self-organized aspects of herbalism intact while meeting the requirements of a global debacle where our communities, neighborhoods, and families must contend with the impact of large scale political, economic, and environmental instability and ongoing crises.

Emergent herbalism engages bioregional plants and plant medicine as a medium for place-making, transformative justice, and health freedom with tools for action, personal practice, and community organizing and networking. In the true vein of emergent strategy and cultural emergence, my idea of emergent herbalism is in development and eager for further exploration and contribution. It is a resurgent practice that is evolving and fed by the direct implementation and synergy as well as ideological and cultural work of modern herbalists.

Emergence is defined as a process of evolution that creates new properties and it is the result of synergy. This is when two autonomous agents, beings, or forces cooperate, and converge in mutual interchange and the consequence is an emergent or new property. This is new property that supersedes either component. It is also generative and more complex: rather than expend the energy of the separate components, it enhances them. It makes more for all involved, is self-organized, self-regulated, evolutionary, and creative.

Nick Obolensky, author of Complex Adaptive Leadership, defines emergence as: “the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.”[5] Emergence occurs as a process of simple interactions; hence it does not require complicated or difficult skills, tools, or knowledge (although skills, tools, and knowledge are in fact generated). An example of a simple interaction that results in emergence is when two people exchange ideas and, in the information gained from what the other has shared, a new insight is achieved.

I have observed the occurrence of emergence in my own practice when I’ve introduced my students to the uses of the herb plantain (Plantago major). Using plantain (Plantago majoror other species) is almost always successful in relieving the inflammation, pain, and itch of any type of insect bite. The successful results of its use have often led people to share Plantain’s effects with someone else. The benefits are then twofold: more people are relieved from the inflammation of a bug bite and more people appreciate plantain as well. The emergent result of this is greater awareness that everyday backyard plants have significant medicinal value and it is incumbent upon us to explore their potential. I have students who, once acquiring basic knowledge about a plant, have embarked on lifelong herbal studies and practice benefiting innumerable others in their lives and communities. Neither the plantain nor the person with the bug bite in the original scenario could have forged these properties separately. It required their synergy/interaction as well as their willingness to share their experience further.

Emergent herbalism is based on relationships. As artist Rachael Rice has defined her understanding of an indigenous concept “the smallest unit of community is not the individual, but it’s the relationship.”[6] For plants and plant-based community these are primarily the relationships between people, plants, the environment, and the planet at large.

These sentiments are reiterated by Jennifer English Morgan in her article on emergent design:“Emergent behavior does not depend on its parts, but their relationships to one another.” [7]

Therefore, when we understand that emergence results from simple, local exchange as a form of collective interaction, we can begin to imagine an emergent design system for plant-based culture and the practice of herbal medicine by observing, identifying, and understanding the range of relationships involved. To create a sustainable form of folk herbalism within a capitalist context we must build a microcosm and cultivate a community where there are herbal networks or centers of information distribution and skills sharing. The community I envision can include local place-based and bioregional folks as well as outside and even worldwide circles and other communities with similar goals and objectives.

Below I have outlined several initial principles and practices, some of which are already happening in many communities and herbal education centers. Many are practices that I have implemented in my own community. Others are possible practices inspired by emergent and permaculture design principles as well as folk and grassroots ethics.

Stay Small

The idea of staying small is antithetical to a capitalist economy based on unrestrained growth and expansion. Any high school economics or business course teaches that successful business is continually growing; otherwise, it is failing. Amid the reality of a capitalist system, staying small often requires scaling down in many ways, including prioritizing lifestyle choices and reconfiguring economic needs if possible. A livelihood that provides a fair exchange of labor and services and meets real life financial obligations can be a great challenge. This is one of the places where collective and collaborative efforts can be effective and tie in with the design of alternative economic models.

Decentralize

Our dominant cultural architecture and political system are designed around large central institutions with top-down mass distribution of values, regulations, and resources. Decentralizing redistributes wealth and scales it down locally, allowing for a more adaptable and flexible interchange. Small-scale systems are more sensitive, coherent, and efficient in response to local community needs. There is also more room for direct accountability and transparency, which are two primary elements necessary for ethical folk practices. Creating non-hierarchical, accessible healthcare committed to community wellness challenges systemic health disparities and the traditional patient/practitioner power differential. In essence, it provides affordable, accessible, and compassionate herbal services to those in need.

Decolonize

No generative, just, or creative movement during our times would be legitimate without a strategy for decolonization or, what some have called, unsettling. Any system that is founded in social justice and human rights must actively confront and dismantle our historical and ongoing pattern of racism, cultural appropriation, and all other forms of systemic oppression. All of our dominant cultural systems in Western society perpetuate various forms of oppression and racism. The work of decolonizing herbalism involves confronting whiteness and white supremacy within the herbal community by becoming aware of power dynamics and privilege, creating inclusive spaces, and elevating the work of marginalized communities, among other things.

Forge Connections and Networks

The permaculture principles that come to mind here are “integrate rather than segregate” and “create synergy.” As mentioned previously, synergy leads to emergence, which in turn forms the relationships that create community strength and resilience. Forming community groups or collaborative networks and projects nurtures connections with others and practical exchanges of resources and information. I started a monthly herbal study group in my community that embraced people who were new to herbal medicine and some of them have since become herbalists themselves. Others have benefitted from the addition of herbs both as food and medicine in their daily lives. Other ways to network, connect, and share knowledge and resources are to offer local herb walks, teach community classes on herbal preparations, start and herbal CSH (community supported agriculture for herbs), and connect with local food systems initiatives such as a local Slow Foods chapter or a food CSA.

Design Alternative Economic Models

We have acknowledged that we live within a capitalist economic system and that part of emergent herbalism is envisioning, designing, and implementing solutions within current conditions. There are already alternative economic models in practice that can and do work within our dominant system and many that we have yet to imagine. Our Western economic model is a competitive system where wealth is gained and distributed unfairly. Disrupting and redirecting this pattern or, even better, implementing a new pattern on a large scale would require a major evolutionary movement. On a small scale, however, it is quite possible to implement equitable methods of currency exchange, such as barter/trade systems, solidarity economies, and transition economics.

Practice Permaculture

The ethics and principles of permaculture can be applied to every aspect of folk herbalism, but especially in the conservation and ethical growing and harvesting of medicinal plants. Several principles apply here, including: Use and Value Diversity, Apply Self-Regulation, Catch and Store Energy, and Use and Value Edges and the Marginal. Our medicinal plants are becoming increasingly exploited and endangered due to habitat loss, overharvesting, monoculture farming, and a global commercial herb industry. Efforts to ensure ethics and conservation are a part of herbal education programs and sustainable growing systems are imperative. There are organizations doing work on this already such as United Plant Savers and The Sustainable Herbs Project. In my local community we have Spring Farm Cares Nature Sanctuary that grows medicinal and endangered plants, saves and distributes seeds, and provides educational services to the community.

Use Systems Thinking

Systems thinking considers how individual components or aspects interact in connected processes. When we become aware of how the systems we hope to impact, change, or recreate are functioning or not, we can notice where their natural strengths and healing potential resides along with where the limitations to such are occurring and why. We can apply systems thinking to identify and advance the innate healing and evolutionary potential of nature. We may accomplish this by either intervening to remove or mitigate limitations or merely protecting the self-healing and self-stabilizing propensity of natural processes. In People & Permaculture, Looby Macnamara’s book on cultural emergence, she argues,

“We need to allow systems to grow in the direction they want to, and follow the course that is natural to them, rather than imposing this from the outside….We can monitor what is needed for growth and productivity and what might be limiting them. When something is limiting, we may need to wait for balance and a natural solution to occur, and let nature take its course. Or it may be appropriate to intervene. The system needs to be allowed to respond to feedback: intervening too early can inhibit the system’s inherent ability to self-organise” [8].

The question that arises for me is not whether it is possible to create systems that sustain folk practices that are fair and accessible, but what do we already know about how these systems work and how can we cultivate and imagine their further emergence.

Ultimately, herbal medicine is a healing tradition that has been an innate component of healthy human community throughout history. Although the conditions of modern life are quite different from those of our ancestors, the healing propensity of plants has not changed. Nor has the need for human healing. What has changed are our societal systems of distributing services and resources on a level that appropriately and justly attends to the unique needs of local communities. When an ancient art or indigenous cultural system emerges in our current techno-industrial mega society, it is a challenge to keep the heart and soul of it alive while allowing for adaptation and necessary change. Identifying the human centered and ecologically sustainable principles within these traditions enables us to envision innovative means of resurgence that value connection, justice, and basic rights for all beings.


[1]The World Health Organization. WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy: 2014–23. 2013. 6 August 2018. http://apps.who.int/medicinedocs/en/m/abstract/Js21201en/

[2]Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble. Duke University Press, 2016.

[3]Akomolafe, Bayo. The Banishment of Immediacy, 15 August 2015. http://bayoakomolafe.net/the-banishment-of-immediacy/

[4]Norberg-Hodge, Helena. Localization: essential steps to an economics of happiness, 2016. https://www.localfutures.org/wp-content/uploads/Localization-Booklet-download.pdf

[5]Brown, Adrienne Maree. Emergent Strategy. AK Press, 2017.

[6]Rice, Rachael. We Have To Talk About This. Racism, #MeToo & Toxic Maculinity with Rachael Rice, 12 June 2018. Morgan Lynzi. http://podcast.welldamnlifestyle.com/we-have-to-talk-about-this-racism-metoo-toxic-masculinity-with-rachael-rice

[7]Morgan, Jennifer English. Emergent Design~Finding the White Tiger. 13 February 2018. https://medium.com/permaculturewomen/emergent-design-finding-the-white-tiger-eaa311a0aa4e

[8]McNamara, Looby. People and Permaculture. Permanent Publications, 2016.