The way I see it, the rise of herbalism parallels a rise of laypeople — a budding “peasant” uprising, an evolving sovereignty on the margins of capitalism; a sort of side-ward mobility that allows us in some ways to step outside of the system and reclaim autonomy over our relationship with the land, with plants, our bodies, our medicine. In this light, can we work together to disperse our medicines through alternative economies that also sidestep the system?
It is a common trap for herbalists to fall within: the commodification of the plants with whom they work, inadvertently corrupting their practice with commercial intentions, producing “products” where the plants are simply the materials as opposed to entities in and of themselves. I fear for the future of herbalism. I fear that what began as a rebellious footpath deviating from the main road will once again converge with that road — a highway, now, creased with the potholes (and pitfalls) of capitalism. Attempting to compel change using the very system that we hope to smash can only get us so far.
Of course, the use of herbal medicine isn’t new at all — it may be new, even novel, to many who were raised on the premise that “Science” with a capital S is godliness; that only institutionally-backed “evidence” can possibly scream TRUTH; that Medicine is strictly the realm of Academia and Professionals (a mentality that is merely an extension of rigid patriarchal notions of hierarchy, of who is permitted to claim ownership and authority over Knowledge, and who is not.)
Dependency is profitable, after all.
We cannot talk about radical change in herbalism — or in society as a whole — without addressing the manner through which herbal medicine was thrown under the bus in the fist place. Read: Colonization and the rise of capitalism. Capitalism requires very specific conditions in order to operate, including manufactured helplessness (and thus dependency), hierarchical racism and gender oppression. Self-reliance, autonomy, personal confidence and community cohesiveness — these are direct threats to capitalism. In Europe, as capitalism began to rise, a government-sanctioned massacre of women ensued. Midwives. Medicine women. Independent women. Women who dared to speak against the diminishing of the commons, women who rebelled against the deterioration of their livelihoods, women who dared to question men. Ever heard of the witch trials?
That’s the problem — we’ve all “heard of them” but how many of us actually LEARNED about them in high school? How many of us understood that this was full-blown genocide — in the name of the church, in the name of the government, in the name of what would evolve into capitalism? The capacity for communities — and women — to operate with sovereignty had to be eradicated for this new version of the economy to succeed. So much herbal knowledge that had been passed down matrilineally was lost to this stunning violence on behalf of patriarchy.
Of course, this ideology followed settlers to Turtle Island, the “New” World. The traditions of the Native groups that inhabited Turtle Island were not conducive to the exploitative mentalities of the settlers who brought with them the notion of land privatization. Animism conflicted with the puritanical hubris of the settlers, to whom “wilderness” was indicative of the devil they so feared.
Nature was to be conquered and subdued, exploited and devastated. This same ridiculous self-righteousness resulted with the violent genocide, displacement and widespread erasure of indigenous people and their traditions, herbal medicine not excluded.
It is only with these historical events in mind that we can proceed to discuss real, radical change in herbal medicine and societal relationships with plants and nature.
That brings us back to questions that are crucial to answer: How can we work together to disperse our herbal medicines through alternative economies that sidestep the very system that was responsible for the eradication of folkways to begin with?
This questions came to mind prominently for me as I was in the midst of opening an online shop through which I could sell my herbal creations. My gut told me to pause — that this isn’t the right way to share my collaborations with the plants right now.
I don’t see how I can fight for universal liberation, fight for decolonization, fight to dismantle my own inherited settler-ideologies if I am also going to exchange herbal “products” for money.
I simply can’t, in my gut, feel good about slapping fancy packaging on plant essences and profiting off them — not when I work with plants that I meet on unceded Abenaki land, not when we’re supposed to be recognizing that plants are entities in and of themselves, not “products.”
How can we work with and gain the trust of our chlorophyll-friends when our ultimate goal is to claim ownership over them and sell them for our own gain? I recognize this is a complex topic and it is difficult when I am also personally stuck in a system that requires me to gain some sort of monetary income.
It is my hope to plant the seed of dialogue regarding our relationship with plants as a whole — relationships that should be reciprocal in nature, not exploitative.
I’m not pointing fingers at people who sell herbal medicine. We are all trying to find our way. I just want there to be collective caution about perverting our “relationship” with plants into just another extension of the capitalist-exploitation trap. Talk about it. Talk to other people.
Talk to plants. Sit with them. Hear them out. Our ability to move forward, together, is through dialogue and collective action — not actionless criticizing and preaching and shaming.
Let’s collaborate with each other and with our plant allies. Let’s talk about a liberated future and let’s act toward it, too.