Responding to Karyn Sanders' and
Robin Rose's thoughts on wildcrafting
(jim clarifies: Karyn
wrote an article in the United Plant Savers journal
suggesting that a 7 year moratorium on wildcrafting
would do much to allow plant populations to replenish…)
This activity can be a spiritual calling, and if that is
the case, then it would be inappropriate for one person
to tell another to cease its practice. For me to stop
wildcrafting would represent a primal betrayal of my
relationship to the plants. It would destroy my ability
to offer them in healing and destroy me as a person.
I do not believe that Karyn meant to impose a moratorium
on wildcrafting in this sense, as she herself is a
deeply spiritual person. Her comments would be rightly
directed towards those for whom wildcrafting is merely a
financial activity. Anyone who feels guilty picking
plants should also not wildcraft. They should get to
know the plants first. However, it is too sweeping to
assert that everyone should not wildcraft. In my
experience, we need to wildcraft in order to preserve
something that is very important to the medicine plants
I visited Grandfather David at Hotevilla with our mutual
friend, David Milgrom, in the early 80's. Grandfather
was sitting in silence, tapping the ground with his
foot. Suddenly he said, "I had a dream last night."
David asked, "Oh? Grandfather?" "I was out walking in
the desert." Grandfather chuckled. He hadn't walked in
the desert for fifteen years – since he was in his early
80's. "I was walking in the desert and I saw the Four
Races Grass, and they were crying." He chuckled again.
"I asked, 'Why are you crying?' and they said, 'Nobody
uses us anymore, they use the white man's medicine."
That time he didn't laugh.
The first thing that all herbalists should know is that
the plants want to help us. This urge to interact with
humanity is something that the wild plants feel keenly.
The awareness they have is so intense that it would be
disturbing if they had the same chaotic, needy,
sharp-edged thoughts average humans have. Their
alertness is so focused that if you ask one plant for
help, the whole neighborhood will place its intention on
your request, rush in and give the medicine Healing
This, of course, assumes that you talked to the plant in
the first place and got a positive response. I used to
think the purpose of "asking permission" to pick a plant
was to apologize to it. Wrong. Finally I realized it was
to give them the opportunity to talk to me. They often
wanted to tell what I should use them for, and to
protect the people they were helping from poor quality
medicine. Turns out I was not asking permission, but
asking for help. The herbs will respond to our needs.
The more confidant we are in them, and in our
communication with them, the more they can respond.
I have heard them say, "Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! we want
to be the medicines!" or "No, go over there,"
or "This is a sacred spot because you picked in a
sacred way last time you were here," or "No, we
are not healthy," or "If you have to, but we are
a medicine representative," or "You're not going
to get what you think," or "That one over there
is the one with the medicine!".
Herbs in the garden are more like domesticated animals
that have lost some of their instincts. They are more
passive in our hands. Like in a sleep. They can make
powerful medicines, and they also reflect the intentions
of the gardener and the herbalist.
There are a few garden plants that are not really
domesticated. Bite into an elecampane root and you taste
wildness. Nobody will conquer this plant. With the wild
plants it is like we are in their hands.
The more you work with them, the more they require you
to change. They convey to you a dangerous, keen,
adventuresome, wild, spirited, uncontrollable something.
I don't know that they heal people any differently than
domesticated plants, but this I do know: they cause you
to have more bizarre and amazing clinical experiences.
I never had a plant say, "no, you can't pick me"
and leave no option. They always point me to another
plant. A big peach tree said, "no, I will not make
good medicine," then pointed me to a little peach in
the fencerow. It said, "pick me if you have to, but I
am only a fair representative." Today I know how
peach twig should taste to be good medicine; they made
me pay attention to quality issues that I didn't
There are plants with habitually bad attitudes.
Dandelions can be very unfriendly. Curmudgeonly, I would
call them. "We aren't gonna cooperate with you human
beings. You've nearly destroyed the planet. We'd rather
see you die of those diseases." I was shocked at
their thanklessness. "You're only here 'cause I mow the
field," I replied. "If I let it grow, you'll be all
gone." "See if we care!" Dandelion root never
fails when the tongue is geographical. I pick a few
trillium roots every few years and a wild ginseng now
and then. I find enough growing in the woods that are
being developed. Some of my best picking grounds are
under concrete now. Who is there to remember those
plants? They were my friends and they live on in the
people they helped, in my memory and heart. When my time
comes I will see them again in Paradise.
The last time I picked an American ginseng she taught me
to look beyond the stereotypes of herbal literature and
understand her in a different way. There is hardly a
plant that is more feminine. She is soft, gentle, and
juicy. It's fine to call Panax quinquefolius "yin" or a
"yin tonic" but to get caught in that limited
description is to philosophize away its spirit. That
would be like meeting Hildegard von Bingen and writing
down "yin" in your notebook.
The greatest crime I see today in Herbalism is using
herbs in a purely material fashion. Or worse yet,
according to "scientific research", "active ingredients"
and the "expert opinions" of "armchair herbalists" who
have never used herbs. I see wildcrafting, on the other
hand, as a way of being intimate with the plants. I can
tell you, rare or not, they feel the same way.
If none of this makes sense then follow Karyn's advice
and don't pick any wild plants for the next seven years.