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The Herb-Gatherer’s Agreements
Ann Filemyr, Ph.D.
I was trained by the late Keewaydinoquay (Kee) Peschel, a mashkikikwe (herbal medicine woman) in the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) tradition. I met her as a young woman and worked with her for 20 years. During this time, she “assimilated me,” as she liked to say, into a lifeway and worldview that she believed held the answers to many of the troubles facing modern life.
I agreed with her that the ravaging of natural resources for corporate gain in the name of “progress” was destructive. We agreed that the results of modernity were not all positive. Increased social stratification, interpersonal violence, addiction, anxiety and grief are all results of a massive cultural shift that has failed to deliver on its promise. Technological advances were supposed to grant us greater ease, happier lives and more freedom. Instead, many of us work longer hours, have less security and struggle to make ends meet. Kee helped me begin a lifelong process of decolonizing my heart, mind and soul to support another way of being.
I have kept much of my training very private, but the time has come to speak and to share. For our kind to survive, we must learn to live in profound kinship relations with the rest of life on the planet. I am ready to “come out of the closet” as a mashkikikwe and serve in this multi-generational project.
Part of my training as an oshkibewis or helper involved learning how to be in direct relationship with our other-than-human companions. We human beings are entirely dependent on air, water and soil. We depend on the sun, moon and stars. We cannot live without the pollinators and the flowering plants and the food they create. These are sacred relationships. We, too, are sacred beings in this interconnected web, but we are not inherently superior. We are part of the great hoop of all relations, but we are not the bosses.
My training as an “herb-gatherer” placed a special emphasis on the medicine plants. I had to agree to live my life in a special relationship with them. This involved Four Agreements. I would like to share my understanding and a little of my experience as a plant medicine woman with you.
I agree to use my knowledge to promote the flourishing of both people and plants.
To fulfill this agreement, the herb-gatherer must know what each specific plant needs to flourish. She understands its growing cycle (dormant, sprout, flower, fruit, seed and decay). She understands how the plant reproduces. She learns when it is best to gather the plant for its medicine. To learn these things, she must be willing to observe the plants over time in their home habitat and to learn directly from them as well as from others knowledgeable about them.
To be in good relation with these plants, the herb-gatherer must advocate for clean water, healthy soil and the protection of pollinators. She cannot gather any plant medicine alongside a road, for car exhaust is a pollutant. She cannot gather in places that have been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. She cannot gather on depleted soils or where the plants could be working to re-nourish the soils.
Additionally, knowledge of which plant medicine helps what forms of human suffering is required. What aids indigestion, sleeplessness or an open wound? What plant might help bring a person back into balance, back into health and well-being?
For both people and plants to flourish, they must be in good relationship with each other.
Ultimately, the herb-gatherer uses her knowledge to support the flourishing of all life—not one species or life-form flourishing at the expense of another but all flourishing together. This is the vision and the promise of the first agreement.
2 GRATITUDE & RECIPROCITY
I agree to give in equal measure to what I receive with gratitude to help maintain the peaceful harmony that abides in reciprocal relationships.
Gratitude is a form of reciprocity, for it acknowledges a gift received. Gratitude honors the giver and maintains right relations between the giver and the receiver.
Since we receive our life from breath, it is good to express gratitude for the air. Since we could not live without sunlight, it is good to express gratitude each morning to the rising sun. Likewise, without water, we will perish, so it is good to express gratitude to each glass of water before you drink it. I like to bow to the shower before I step into the spray of water. Human beings and plant beings share this dependence on air, water, sunlight and soil. It is good to remember.
Reciprocity is the basis for an ancient value system that emphasizes mutual benefit to maintain peaceful partnered relationships. For example, disharmony arises between partners when one feels like the other is not doing his or her fair share. Likewise, discontent happens between groups when one group perceives it is being exploited, excluded or denied equal opportunity or equal voice. Disharmony between individuals or between groups creates stress, struggle, unease, dis-ease and, ultimately, war. Warfare is the greatest cause of ecological destruction. Gratitude and reciprocity promote peace. Social and ecological stability depend on peace.
We live embedded in complex social and ecological systems. Therefore, the herb-gatherer must learn to engage in highly dynamic interactivity with deliberate grace. She expresses gratitude daily. It is the basis of her morning and evening prayers. Gratitude is spoken aloud for each mountain, cloud, plant, animal, newborn, elder, dream, challenge or lesson the night or the day has brought into her awareness.
In the act of gathering medicine plants, the first thing is to state intention and speak gratitude aloud. In a stand of plants, the medicine woman must locate the elder, the sentinel, the guardian of that grove or meadow, present the gift and seek permission to gather. She must wait until she hears the plant’s acceptance and willingness to be harvested and used for the stated purpose. If the plant says no then the herb gatherer says thank you, leaves her gift, and moves on in search of the right place to gather her medicine.
Once when I heard the plants say no, I was very disappointed. I wanted to ignore the message. I tried to convince myself that I hadn’t heard it, but I couldn’t. I had to honor the agreement and left the area without gathering anything. Later I learned that it was the site of an old toxic dump and the groundwater was polluted. The plants told me no because they were transforming the poison in their bodies, and it could have made someone with a weakened immune system sicker. After that experience, I never questioned what I heard. I learned to trust the wisdom of the plants.
I agree to respect the need of all that lives by never taking more than I need or accumulating more than I can use in the service of healing.
Respect is key to the herb-gatherer’s life. It is based on vigorous honesty. This agreement runs counter to the dominant culture in significant ways. For example, success is often equated with the quantity and quality of the things you have, but for the plant medicine woman to have more than she can use in the service of healing is detrimental to the healthy balance of the whole. It is considered disrespectful to the Source of Life to accumulate material things you do not actually need.
Why? Because everything is made from earth, air and water. To produce and transport things, we burn oil, coal, gas or wood. Consequences of unchecked accumulation include mountains of discarded and obsolete items, islands of garbage floating in the ocean, climate change, the displacement of communities and the destruction of ecosystems. This is a horribly high price to pay just to have as much stuff as you want.
Traditionally, the give-away, or in the Northwest Coastal areas, the potlatch, would be held as a ceremonial way to redistribute the wealth. Give-away and potlatch ceremonies were made illegal by an act of Congress. Wealth redistribution as ceremony runs counter to our economic system.
Personally, I hold a Give-away Ceremony each year. I gather up all the books, jewelry, clothing, pretty scarves, artwork, musical instruments, household items and other perfectly good things I no longer use and place them on a blanket. The eldest in the circle goes first and selects whatever makes his or her heart happy. The give-away goes on until the very youngest has selected something. Then if there are more things, the eldest goes a second time. It is a simple, sweet ceremony. I have held give-aways in low-income housing centers, at moon ceremonies, or other special events and places.
To enact respect, the herb-gatherer never collects more plant material than she needs, or can process into medicine, To waste plant material is disrespectful. Of course, it can always be placed back onto the earth with prayers of gratitude. The plant medicine can be allowed to decay and return its nutrients to the soil.
The herb-gatherer is involved with others as a healer. However, the herb-gatherer is only a conduit for healing—a hollow bone, open to serving the highest good without control over the outcome. Respect means she knows she is part of a process but not in charge of it. The person seeking the healing is in the center. She respects this and honors the truth in other people’s stories. Confidentiality is practiced. The herb-gatherer listens deeply to what is said and unsaid to discern what approach might best serve the desire for health and balance.
Truth-seeking and truth-telling are fundamental to healing. Sugar-coating, side-stepping and other forms of polite deception to placate others or to avoid personally uncomfortable material is not congruent with the task of healing. Without truthfulness, respect is absent, and real healing cannot occur. However, loving compassion is necessary as the basis for all communication, for sometimes the truth is painful.
I agree to honor the mystery and love the plants and the people by listening with an open heart, speaking tenderly and truthfully with them, that I may grow in understanding how the healing of one is the healing of all.
The fourth agreement is rooted in the unifying principle of love. It is easy to forget we are connected and interdependent because we live in separate skins. We see the world through different eyes, or we have no eyes at all and “see’” through scent or other chemical signals. We are not alike. Difference may contribute to distance, but it doesn’t have to.
The plant medicine woman seeks unity in diversity. She does not deny difference but explores it with openhearted curiosity. Why does this one prefer bright sunlight, and this one thrives in deep forest shade? Why does this one talk so much and this one is so quiet? What is the history of their kind? What are the experiences of their ancestors? What disruptions and dislocations have they suffered? How have they adapted? What is the source of their resilience? How have they come to be as they are? The herb-gatherer seeks the abiding presence of Spirit in each person and plant. Everything that exists is an expression of the Creative Force, no matter how mysterious or peculiar.
In her small human form, she is limited. Her training opens her to the limitless, formless potentiality in all things. She learns to navigate the energetic streams that course through and connect people, plants, animals, earth and cosmos. When someone approaches her in the right way and asks for help, she turns to the greater ones for their aid. She seeks connection with the All-Being.
Love is the ultimate generative power. Loving ourselves, each other, the plants and animals, waterways and weather is our best hope for health and wellness. We must love powerfully, for the invitation to hate, to make enemies and to dislike ourselves is always present. To heal ourselves and the planet, potent, unifying love is a vital necessity. Even if you are not an herb-gatherer trained in an old tradition, you can practice love.
Dr. Ann Filemyr is vice president of Academic Affairs and dean at Southwestern College and director of the Certificate in Transformational EcoPsychology at the college’s New Earth Institute. She has led workshops on herbal healing for elders at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where she served as dean and chief academic officer for nine years. She is also a published poet, essayist and blogger. annfilemyr.com
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