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People Who Talk to Plants

Learning how to work with medicinal plants can be easier when you have someone to introduce you.

The first time I worked with an herbalist was at the Olympia Free Herbal Clinic. My interest in herbalism had just sprouted as I took a short break from college in early 2010. I don’t think they had a website- I don’t even remember how I made the appointment.

The clinic was in an old building in Downtown Olympia that had a stately name, something like “The Ben Adams Building.” I walked up a couple flights of stairs, having arrived a little early for my appointment. A friendly sign that invited me to enter hung on the clinic’s closed door. A desk, a bookshelf, a few chairs and a tea station fit nicely into the small reception room. When I entered, I found my friend Jorie who was working at the front desk that day. She greeted me with a smile and instructed me to fill out a brief form before I went in to see the clinician. I filled it out, describing my health history, careful to note my long history of asthma.

While it might be obvious, the appointment was technically free. This space was open to any person who could walk through the doors, whether they walked up the stairs or took advantage of the building’s elevator, and certainly regardless of what they were able to pay. Their philosophy was that herbalism is the people’s medicine. It should be accessible to all.

An Herbalist’s job is to be the bridge between people and plants. Humxns once lived in a world where we all lived close to the land- we all knew how to identify plants to harvest and prepare as food. Many people knew common remedies for common ailments, such as an antiseptic plant for a cut, or the antidote to plants that might sting or give you a rash. I imagine most people had plant allies, spiritual connections with plants that they or their family or clan knew well. And of course, there were plants that were enjoyed socially or individually for relaxation. (I can name a few we still use in this way, can you?)

Then and now there are people (like me) who are called to the plants. We “hear” them speak to us the way one might be drawn to a color or style of clothing. The more time you spend getting to know plants, the better acquainted you become with them. Through careful observation over the seasons and years, we learn to read when they are more bioavailable to be used as medicine, or eaten as food. When tasting their different parts- bark, root, berry, leaf or flower- we become attuned to their flavor. This relates to actions they take in the body. For example, a bitter root will stimulate digestion. A plant with high resin is likely to support the lungs. It is in this way of careful observation that we learn to understand their nature. Synthesizing our knowledge of the humxn body and how we fall out of balance, herbalists match plants’ gifts to people’s ailments.

The practitioner's space was quiet, with dim lighting. The practitioner sat with her back to the window and I faced her. I told her about the cold that had settled in my lungs. She asked me about my symptoms- a cough. Mucus, that I occasionally coughed up. Congestion in my sinus’. She listened closely as I answered her questions about how long I had had it, how it had changed over time, what made it better and what made it worse.

The herbalist recommended two remedies. The first was an elecampane honey to put in my morning tea. The second was a tincture of cedar to use in a bowl of boiling water as a steam twice a day. She kindly explained to me how to tent my head over the steam with a towel. The steam and aromatic plant resin helped open my lungs and sinuses. Elecampane is known as an expectorant that can loosen and effectively move mucus out of the lungs via productive coughing.

She poured and labeled my two bottles. She invited me to come back as I felt called to work on other aspects of my health, as soon as a few weeks, or as long as a few months. I thanked her for the remedies and good advice. As I exited and said goodbye to Jorie, and I offered a donation to the clinic for the time of the herbalist, the space, the receptionist, the medicine makers, the herbs, and organization of all these components into an offering I could easily receive. In hindsight, I wish I had donated more generously! As I think back to the impact this event had on my life, I recognize the magnitude of this gift!

This entire experience likely occurred in half an hour. In order for the space to be efficient the practitioners weren’t able to spend a lot of time with each client. That is ok, especially in cases like mine when the client has a relatively simple and common symptom, few preexisting conditions, and the remedies are safe and easy to use.

Unfortunately the Olympia Free Clinic was not able to keep its doors open for more than a few years. Like any volunteer project, it takes a lot of behind the scenes organizing to keep things going, and the cost of renting a space and stocking herbs was a difficult overhead to maintain. And then there is the burnout. I doubt the clinicians or front desk volunteers were getting paid any reliable amount of money, and in a world ruled by capitalism that can get very exhausting very fast.

I can’t quite remember if I paid the clinic a second visit. However, I know that my first visit there filled me with hope and curiosity. While the practitioner was there to be a bridge, I was the one preparing my medicine each day. Boiling water for my steams or morning tea. Taking the resinous bitter of elecampane and building a relationship with cedar.

In this way, herbalists are matchmakers. They recommend which plants are most complimentary to your constitution. We encourage you to form relationships with these plants who have the ability to protect you and provide relaxation, repair and remedy. We empower our clients to think of food as medicine and medicine as food. We discuss best practices for wellbeing, and over time clients become their own advocates for vitality. And when they get stuck, they may return for respectful, sage wisdom by way of the people who talk to plants.


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