There is a feeling you get when you’re processing freshly gathered herbs. The life in those plants is still so very present. It is the viriditas, the power of green, which Hildeguard von Bingen, the German visionary abbess and physician discussed. That life-power that is so evident when you are out in wild landscapes remains present in that herb. A careful wildcrafter works to preserve the viriditas.
Recently I was working with Galium, sifting through a freshly wild harvested bundle in preparation for drying. It was one of those moments where, even though I had gone through the motions a thousand times, something clicked. My hands wrist-deep in this bundle of Cleavers, I imagined all of the people this medicine could touch. This thought was one I had had many times throughout the years of making medicine, but this time it was different. The integration of knowledge is marked by the awareness of information on all levels; I didn’t just think it - I knew it. Experiences like these are valuable; they are formative. The alchemists believe that the Mercury, or the Spirit, is the life force that connects all living things together. The Mercurial Spirit, or Vital Force, is not bound by time or space. Neither is the imagination. Awareness of subtle imaginings and intuitions, of feelings experienced in the perceptive heart, is the oldest and most profound way of attaining wisdom and knowledge. Inspiration is the heart processing and integrating information. We have fled from intuitive practice in our modern world of reductionist and empiricist thinking, yet it was practiced by all the great historical figures that have formed our basis for modern science. The great physicians were all astrologists, the pharmacologists all botanists, the scientists all philosophers.
Modern herbalism has been subjected to commoditization and reductionism. The modern worldview sees humans as separate from nature, as something that exists outside of the ecosystem at large. It is this worldview that has led to a watering down of herbalism. When Hildegard von Bingen spoke of viriditis, she was referring not merely to the ability for plants to heal people, but of the reflection of the intrinsic ability to heal and grow present in humans and all lifeforms. Her approach to healing was simple and brilliant: treat the body as a garden. This was not a purely analogous approach- it is a very literal one that views suggests that through tending and nourishment and adjustments to the elements which you expose it to, the body is able to thrive. It acknowledges the human body as a moving part of a greater ecosystem as well as the innate intelligence that is responsible for healing, growth, and transformation. When we study nature, we study ourselves. As above, so below. As without, so within. As our relationships with plants begin to dwindle so has our connection to and understanding of the viriditas.
A true alchemist must do the physical work of medicine making as well as practicing philosophical alchemy. It is what grounds us into the materia, or the physical world. The daily interactions with plants that have been so long a part of the lives of humans have been largely lost with the industrialization of agriculture. The “armchair herbalism” trend, as Matthew Wood would call it, is enabled by industrialization. The reality for many herbalists is that they don’t know what the plants they work with even look like or where they come from. We have severed the head from the body of herbalism. Our knowledge of plants is disappearing in ways we cannot even begin to comprehend. The traditional uses of plants have been reduced to a list of conditions they have treated. After tens of thousands of years of accumulating herbal wisdom, we have backslid in a few short centuries to the near extinction of knowledge of many aspects of herbalism. The observation of nature is just as important as understanding herbal actions or clinical presentation; for the herbalist cannot see the the health of their client reflected in nature unless they observe nature. We have stopped listening to the plants.
What is the solution, then? The plants themselves are the answer. We must return to them. Their medicine is viriditas. It is in the phytochemicals that are still vital from carefully prepared medicine that hasn’t oxidized from being comminuted then left to sit in a warehouse or shipped halfway across the world. It is in the phytochemical makeup itself, the plant’s response to ecological stressors - the same ecological stressors in the local environment that we too are exposed to. It is in the health of the ecosystem that is stewarded by the wildtenders, for the health of the individual is reliant on the health of the whole. It is in Nature itself and being in green places that is potently healing. The return to bioregional and traditional practices around plants is what will restore the heart of herbalism. The return to true holism, where we acknowledge not only the wholeness of our own bodies, but of the greater body of Nature. We have a lot to learn, but we have an excellent teacher.
“As you work to heal the land, you will find that you will restore yourself.” - Mary Reynolds