Herbalism, Healing and Resistance: The UK’s first Radical Herbalism Gathering 2013
Over the weekend of 15-16 June 2013, more than 150 people united for the UK’s first Radical Herbalism Gathering.
An amazing mix of medical and lay herbalists, people interested in herbal medicine and social politics, nurses, midwives, therapists, growers, community organisers, ethnobotanists, anarchists and more came together from all round the UK, and even as far as Belgium, to talk about plant medicine and health in the context of radical social change.
The gathering began with an opening meeting to frame the weekend. Organisers talked about why the weekend had been organised, and tried to begin defining as a collective what was meant by radical herbalism. The meeting, that gathered everyone at the start, looked at how connection to traditional plant medicines is part of wider change needed to support and sustain health and vitality, change that involves addressing the oppressions of profit driven capitalism, environmental destruction and pollution, racism, colonialism, class, gender inequalities and other oppressions. Dialogue was opened up about the way herbal medicine can be a vehicle for conversation about health in the broadest sense and can empower people through reclamation of knowledge back into people’s own hands. We talked about the role of community herbalism to freely share information at a grassroots level and strive to make deeper levels of knowledge gained by those with experience accessible to everyone in all ways, particularly financially.
We talked about plant medicine offering a powerful reconnection to knowing ourselves as intrinsically part of this earth, and about the need for integrated networks of community info sharing projects, community clinics, radical herbal practitioners and local, organic growing projects to supply community medicine.
We looked at the need for holistic medicine where all aspects of life are considered in relation to health (the physical, emotional, spiritual). Though, unlike much of the New Age movement which often stresses an idea of ‘individual health’ and ‘personal growth’, radical herbalism acknowledges wider issues that inform and affect health as part of a truly holistic approach and wants to be part of the work done to challenge inequality, poverty, injustice and oppression as part of reconfiguring how power operates and is experienced by us all so that everyone can be well.
The meeting also looked at the need for herbal medicine and other progressive medicine not to replicate the models, language or power dynamics that western bio-medicine is based on. There was dialogue about the reductionism in western medicine, where a huge breadth of experience relevant to a particular health condition can be disregarded and perspectives and treatments can be reduced down to single agents i.e ‘bacteria’ that are then treated with antibiotics when lots of broader health support and changes could be relevant to a situation. We talked about refusing the roles of ‘guarding expert’ and ‘passive patient’ that are a foundation in western medicine and we talked briefly about considering and reinventing the use of language around health to open up wider possibilities for healing. That, for example, the term ‘psycho-emotional’ health might be used instead of ‘mental health’ which locates a massive range of experiences of both expanse and distress in ‘the mind’ and perpetuates bio-medical narratives about ‘brain chemistry’ and personal sickness, shutting down critical understanding of the political and spiritual contexts for, and the multifaceted experiences and dimensions of consciousness.
After the opening meeting we broke into different workshops to explore some of these ideas. Charlotte Du Cann, author of 52 Flowers That Shook My World – a Radical Return to Earth, led a participatory workshop on plant communication, and the concept of ‘rewilding’, and community resilience in times of cultural shift.
Meanwhile others were talking about the privatisation of the NHS with Caroline Molloy, looking at the realities of what’s happening in the NHS with current cuts and changes and asking what this means for our healthcare and what the possibilities and complexities might be for a possible future for herbal medicine in the NHS. Click here for resources from this workshop.
After lunch cooked up by the Anarchist Teapot Collective (who made incredible food for the whole weekend), Karen Lawton and Fiona Heckels, two traditional herbalists who have formed Sensory Solutions, talked about their own experiences with plant medicine, sharing conversation around state regulation, autonomy and resistance and info sharing at community level, as well as expansive approaches to connecting deeply with the plant world.
To support skills-sharing, Amanda Rayment from the Holistic Birth Trust talked about the ancient connection between herbs and midwifery and the use of herbs in pregnancy and childbirth, while Glastonbury-based herbalist Chris Roe led a discussion session on advanced tincture making experimenting with different processes of medicine making.
Over the Saturday afternoon, an engaged discussion took place about Community Herbalism – what it is and what real accessibility to herbal medicine means in the UK. Participants shared their experiences of different UK and North American projects and their own projects. It was the beginning of creating a map of the UK marking a network of projects and people. Click here for resources from this workshop.
Others also gathered to talk about ecological impacts of Industrial and Herbal medicine, from pollution to antibiotic resistance, soil erosion and displacement of industrial agriculture and more, as well as the over-harvesting of wild plant populations and the challenges of growers in a capitalist system attempting to grow medicine for their communities. A small group has now formed to take this work forward in terms of raising awareness of at-risk plants and native alternatives while trying to support the creation and recognition of botanical sanctuaries. Click here for resources from this workshop.
Forager Robin Harford led a plant walk with a difference, looking at plant identification in a sensory world, using all our senses to identify medicinal and other plants in our environments and stimulating his walkers with resonant ideas about monoculture and scarcity foods in amongst the wildgathering activity.
On Saturday evening more magic happened with workshops ending and conversations beginning as we started to connect and converse about a real herbal future we imagine that addresses inequalities and reconnects us with herbal medicine as our birthright. An open mic was shared in the main tent and folk gathered round the heart of a strong fire outside.
On Sunday morning herbalist Dedj Liebbrandt led a workshop on Herbal First Aid for Everyone, skilling us up practically on how to use herbs in acute/ emergency situations.
Nathan Hughes brought to life the language of plant magic, introducing the approaches he has developed with the School of Intuitive Herbalism. He believes the strongest conceptual foundations in herbalism are fluid and born directly of our own locality, our bodies, the herbs around us and the needs of our community. In this way, herbalism is ultimately the people’s medicine.
After a break a workshop – Indigenous medicine, Indigenous land – shared information about colonial/ corporate violences to peoples around the globe. The workshop was initially scheduled to focus on the impact on land and medicine of Native American people living at the edge of the Tar sands in Canada. Sadly the speaker wasn’t able to make it. In its place several people stepped up last minute to speak about experiences of other situations around the world. Information was shared about solidarity work with women healers in Kenya who are experiencing the impact of land grabs (their forest fenced off denying them access to their plant medicine) and imported colonial schooling where children are being told their parents practises and medicines are ‘backward’. Speakers also spoke about solidarity work in Peru to support reclamation of local plant knowledge and use. Information was also shared about current over harvesting of ayahuasca in the Amazon to satisfy western/ northern consumption. An open discussion followed around related issues and other examples of violence and theft (including plant patenting etc) and about the necessity of guarding against cultural appropriation.
Herbalists Becs Griffiths and Heather Ware also created a space for discussion and sharing of experiences around the challenges and solutions for working herbalists in a capitalist culture, looking at tools such as sliding scales for accessibility, livelihoods and the effect of monetary values held in a capitalist society.
Rory Macphee gave a workshop on the medicinal uses of Seaweed, and how cultures across the planet depend on their coastlines for food and medicine, as well as how these sources of nutrition are at risk of pollution and over harvesting.
Chris Hope from Ipsophyto led a plant identification walk around the local area, bringing to life the huge diversity of form, function and spirit in the plant communities surrounding us.
Finally a closing meeting took place. Small groups formed around their regional areas. We explored the questions ‘What is our collective understanding now of radical herbalism?’, ‘What did you get out of the gathering?’ and any next steps – personal or collective. There was some honest and amazing feedback, with new regional projects and potential smaller gatherings emerging. Many felt they had new understandings of plant medicine and the intersection with politics, others that it had healed a dis-integration/ schism they had felt for years – namely that herbalism is political, that it is both a necessary part of and has a role in social change, and that there is a community out there that feels the same. A shout-out space followed for people to tell the whole gathering of projects they were organising, courses, events and more.
It was a moving and powerful weekend. People left feeling inspired and strengthened, with new skills, contacts and awareness about the injustices we’re trying to challenge. It was clear that the seeds have been sown for establishing networks and a movement that builds more conversation and action.
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